Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Review of Dear Mr M by Herman Koch in the TLS

I've reviewed a Dutch thriller, called Dear Mr M by Herman Koch, in this week's Times Literary Supplement.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Christmas Children's Round up in Literary Review

Here's my twice yearly round up of the best children's books for that excellent rag, Literary Review. Read it here. It features:

Beck by Mal Peet & Meg Rosoff
The Call by Peadar O'Guilin
The Speed of Darkness by Catherine Fisher
The Song from Somewhere Else by A F Harrold
There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday
The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange
The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
The Royal Rabbits of London by Simon Sebag Montefiore and Santa Montefiore

The Book Activist Advent Calendar

Read this very jolly interview on The Book Activist.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea

I was commissioned to review this novel by a newspaper at the start of the year: but they haven't yet used it, so I'm posting it here.

Salt to the Sea
By Ruta Sepetys
(Penguin, 391pp, £7.99)

Ruta Sepetys’ third novel, Salt to the Sea, takes a little known Second World War humanitarian disaster, and makes out of it an intelligent, uncompromising novel for young adults, with a narrative that grips so fiercely it’s nigh on impossible to stop reading.

It’s 1945, and the Soviets have invaded East Prussia. Everyone is fleeing to the port of Gotenhafen, in Poland – Lithuanian “volk”, whom Hitler settled in the disputed province; Poles (firmly on the list of enemies of the fatherland); and Germans themselves, from the fur-clad officers’ wives to the lowest deserter.

The rush of people brings a small group of refugees together, and in their composition they mimick the families they’ve lost: an old shoemaker, a little boy, a giant woman; and three teenagers, whose compelling voices form the backbone of the book. Sepetys uses the now-common YA technique of following several characters in the first person. Here it is entirely suited to the breathless, terrifying feat of survival that her young protagonists must endure. There is Florian, a handsome Prussian boy, disillusioned with his masters and carrying a priceless treasure; Johana, a  Lithuanian nurse still in her teens, capable and tender; and most poignant, Emilia, a Pole, raped by Russians, and pregnant with the child of one of her attackers. She sees Florian as “the Prussian Knight” – a character in a fairy tale. She herself is like a child from legend; her innocence cruelly crushed. Each short section ends on a cliff-hanger. They are constantly endangered, and always reliant upon their wit and their common humanity to survive. The teen protagonists highlight the vulnerability of the refugees, whilst allowing any reader to fully immerse themselves in their experience. 

Interleaved with their urgent tales are the thoughts of Alfred, a junior, near-sociopathic Nazi, who is preparing the ships for the refugees. Obsessed with the purity of the Aryan “race”, he walks around singing a list of the enemies of the Reich. He composes letters to his sweetheart which he never sends – the disjunction between the grandiosity of what he says, and the sickening reality around him, is almost too much to bear.

One of the major themes of Salt to the Sea is deception. Florian was trained to be an art forger to help the Nazis steal art; horrified, on realising his role, he decides to betray the Reich using those very skills. “Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?” he wonders. Just how far do people have to go in order to save themselves, and others? What price morality when everything is bent out of meaning?

The refugees’ desperation is shown unsparingly. “I couldn’t remember not being fearful and hungry,” says Emilia. They tramp for miles, terrified, haunted, each carrying a secret, each longing for safety. There are many vivid, horrible deaths, of named and unnamed characters. When they reach Gotenhafen, the crisis there is another tragedy whose black outlines lurk inescapably in the future. Tens of thousands of human souls clamour for succour: women, left on shore, hurl their babies to sailors; the babies fall into the sea, and the women jump in after them. Self-sacrifice and pity abound, but in all the wrong places.

What happens next will be known to keen students of the period, but to most of us it will be new. Sepetys has done a great service to the memory of those involved in the disaster in bringing this horrifying story to light, and investing it with such passion and energy in such a carefully crafted piece of fiction. 

There is respite, shown in an epilogue, which demonstrates that humanity heals, and does not forget. But yet what terrible shadows we cast behind us, and how far they reach.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Booktrust Art of Reading Show at Waterstones Gower Street

Portrait by Elizabeth Shields, on show at Waterstones Gower Street.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Win a Signed Copy of THE DOUBLE AXE

Have a look at Alma's website here for more details. The competition will be up soon - for the moment, check out their Twitter feed.

Philip Womack's Mythical Bytes: No 4. Pegasus' Brother

How was Pegasus, the winged horse, born? When Perseus slew the Gorgon Medusa, the white winged stallion sprang from the drops of her blood.

But what of Pegasus' brother? Spare a thought for Chrysaor, who entered the world at the very same time as his sibling. But did he get wings and a horse's body? Did he become an inspiration for the muses? Did he become the subject for endless suspect fantasy art?

Did he hell. Chrysaor was born a man - and his main claim to eternal fame is that he was the father of a three-headed giant. You can only imagine the family reunions.

Café M at Manns of Cranleigh

Cafe M at Manns of Cranleigh has been featured on Dizeen, the design blog. Designed by vPPR architects. Have a look here.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Seven Tips for Being a Children's Author


On the 8th February 2006, I received a letter - an actual, physical letter, hand-delivered, as it happens, to my office - from Bloomsbury Children’s Books. It was complimentary about the book I’d sent in. Faster than I could have ever imagined, a contract and an agent appeared: and my first novel, The Other Book, was due to appear in early 2008. 

I will never forget that feeling of elation. I carried around the letter with me for months. It became so creased up that it almost fell apart. I might even have framed it*.

*probably did

It seems customary these days to reflect upon one’s time in the children’s book world and to offer advice for those wishing to enter it. So I’ve gathered together my ten years of, ahem, wisdom, and, ten years, six novels, countless proofs, dozens of echoing school halls, and hundreds of hay bales in flapping tents later, here are my tips.

1. Become Roald Dahl

To do this you will need to eat a regular supply of Roald Dahl’s novels. I suggest a page at a time, taken once before meals, and washed down with a nice glass of rosé in the summer, and a pint of Guinness at winter.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the obvious choice; Henry Sugar has its merits too. You will soon find that, hey presto! you have morphed into the world’s favourite children’s author, and will not be able to move for the queues round your front door. 
If you're feeling daring you can season with a dash of Jacqueline Wilson. I've not yet dared try David Walliams.

2. Grow an extra hand.

You will find this immensely useful: firstly, so that whilst labouring over proofs, you can make yourself one of the three thousand coffees that you’ll find yourself needing per day. Secondly, so that at school book signings, you can double your rate and therefore sell more than twelve copies. An implant taken from a stem cell should do the trick: but I warn you, three lots of pins and needles is not a happy feeling.

3. Research Themarket.

Themarket is a lovely, huge, mysterious town located in the middle of Nobody’s Sure and Last Year. The most important thing you can do as a new writer is to embark on some serious research of this wonderful place, whose citizens know exactly what books they want to read and when and why. This also has the seriously useful benefit of being tax efficient - you can claim your expenses for your stay in Themarket and set them against your advance, rendering it negative - so the taxman has to pay you!

4. Have a Thing.

Many writers these days find themselves floundering for lack of a Thing. How are you meant to do interviews and so on if you don’t have a Thing? Rest assured, that now we are exploring the galaxy, it’s much easier to find and care for an extraterrestrial parasite that imitates other people. You can also have fun with all the paranoia it generates when your sales rocket and all the other authors cower in terror!

5. Network.

I find that by laying down some railway tracks every day - it doesn’t matter where - people can move about more easily, and thus have more time and space to go and buy books, preferably your own. You can build up many different kinds of networks - some like to sit by the beach, weaving fishing nets that they then unpick at night. I’ve known some authors even develop a special silk gland so that they can garland their publishers’ offices with thick, sticky webs. Most useful when you need to talk to your editor!

6. Have a cover story.

Ten, fifteen, twenty years into your career, probably at your own funeral, you will still be having this conversation:

Cheery Guest: [finishes telling you about his job] So what do you do then?

Author: [calculates frantically. Settles on:] I’m a writer.

Cheery G: Oh what, are you published?

Author: Er… yes.

Cheery G: Anything I’d have heard of?

Author: [thinks: well, how am I meant to know the answer to that?]

It is at this point that you can let your imagination run wild. I love telling people that I write manuals for a particular kind of gadget that helps tractors improve their efficiency. It’s always a knockout! Follow this advice, and you’ll be the belle (or beau) of the ball!

7. Don’t forget to write.

Finally, my most pertinent piece of advice is this: don’t forget that you are actually a writer, and do enjoy putting weird symbols together in the right order to make some kind of sense.

Make sure, then, that you allocate a time of day to write - preferably one that’s the most inconvenient to your family and friends. I find that dishwasher-unloading time is a great moment to rush off a do a chapter or so, whilst the chinks of china being put away sound merrily in the far distance. Good, thick earplugs work well for this too - and, recently, I've found a pair of old-fashioned horse blinkers, so that even if people are gesturing at you, you can't see them! Within a mere fortnight or so you'll have a good solid draft, and a brilliant added benefit - nobody will want to talk to you either!

Monday, 12 September 2016

Philip Womack's Mythical Bytes No 3: Anteros (and Nerites)

What's the statue that stands looking down over Piccadilly Circus called? Every Londoner knows - it's Eros. Even at Piccadilly Station, a helpful sign points you in the direction of EROS. I have long resisted the temptation to correct it.

The statue, though, is actually a representation of Anteros - Eros' brother, the god of reciprocal love.  There are two myths that give rise to his origin. In the first, he is the son of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In the second, he arises as the result of the mutual love between Poseidon, god of the sea, and Nerites, a beautiful boy sea nymph. The sun god, who also loved the boy, became jealous, and turned him into a shellfish. Something to think about next time you are presented with a plate of prawns.

Read The Double Axe by Philip Womack for more monsters and mythical excitement.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Interview on THE LAB BBC Scotland

I was interviewed by some brilliant schoolchildren at the Edinburgh Festival. Listen here, on THE LAB, BBC Scotland.

Review of The Double Axe on Reading Matters

Here's a lovely review of THE DOUBLE AXE on the Reading Matters website.

Buy THE DOUBLE AXE from Waterstones here.

Philip Womack's Mythical Bytes: No 2: Orthrus

You know what it's like having an older sibling who takes all the glory? Well that's exactly how Orthrus felt. His brother was Cerberus, the famed three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades. You can imagine what it was like for Orthrus - not only did he only have two heads, but he was slain by Hercules when guarding the cattle of Geryon. Still, at least he had a snake's tail, which is more than can be said for Cerberus.

Read The Double Axe by Philip Womack for more monsters and mythical excitement.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Philip Womack's Mythical Bytes No 1: The Ichthyocentaur

Beginning a new series of weird and savoury snippets from Greek and Roman myth.

We've all heard of centaurs, the half-man, half-horse. Never invite a centaur to a party is one of my best tips. (Although, if you do, you'd better not give them any wine - they might start a war.) But how about the ichthyocentaur?
This  beast is half-man, part-horse, and part-fish. Complicated? Still further, they often are shown with lobster claws, which they must have found very helpful in lifting Aphrodite's cockle shell out of the waves when the goddess was born from sea-foam. 

Read The Double Axe by Philip Womack for more monsters and mythical excitement.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Once Again Assembled Here by Sean O'Brien: Review in Times Literary Supplement

I've reviewed Sean O'Brien's Once Again Assembled Here, a novel about the terror of the past in a provincial boarding school, for The Times Literary Supplement. You can read it in the August 19th Double Issue, or online (behind paywall) here.

Summer Reading

Summer reading - beloved of newspapers - seems to me only an extension of normal reading. It's only the place that changes, not you, or the type of book. This year I took, somewhat over-ambitiously, about a dozen volumes. I managed 4.

1. Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

I've only lately begun to read Graham Greene properly, having dabbled with Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair as a teenager. There's something so bittersweetly human about this novel, with its improbable yet entirely believable anecdotes, its global range, and its gradual entropic movement.  Beautifully controlled, yet with a strong strain of anarchic glee. Its main character, Henry Pulling, is pulled out of suburbia into the dangerous, apparently far distant world of his aunt - only to discover that there is more about her, and about what she does, that is close to him than he would ever believe.

2. The Monk by Matthew Lewis

What struck me as I read this bonkers early Gothic novel is the youth of its writer, and of many similar writers. Mary Shelley, William Beckford, and Matthew Lewis were in or barely out of their teens when they wrote these disordered masterpieces. The Monk is set in Spain, where I was staying, and concerns the prideful Ambrosio who, once succumbing to temptation, falls swiftly into lust, black magic, rape and torture. It also contains a homoerotic fallen angel with diamond bangles, a daring escape plot featuring a ghostly nun, and various visions, chasms, brigands and poisons. It challenges the status quo whilst, quite literally, freezing the blood; and there are some characters who speak in a sort of proto-Jane Austen idiom, which adds another level of enjoyment to the whole.

3. The Blue Flower by Penelope FitzGerald

This is a mysterious, light-filled novel about the life of the poet Novalis. Born an aristocrat, he must follow his father's wishes and become a salt mine inspector; yet he falls in love with a (very) young girl "of the middle classes." Everything is thrown into question: what must prevail, love or duty?
Elusive, allusive; the technique of the novel is to present short scenes, vivid and imbued with a quiet urgency. Very few novels have caused me to weep on the last page: this one did, and with only three lines of bare information. Did people in the past live their lives more fully, knowing they would not live that long? Discuss.

4. Devil's Blood by Prentice and Weil

I had been very much looking forward to this sequel to Black Arts, in which our hero, Jack, is still
troubled by his devil sight, and also must learn how to use the key given to him by the god Lud. The Elizabethan setting is as lively and bustling as ever, and is given the added frisson of time travel as Jack is sent hurtling into a deadly plot. The book is dark, pacy and very enjoyable.

Ongoing: I'm still moving slowly through Pepys, taking my time, savouring it like a few morsels of a delicious pie every now and again. I'm also taking a great deal of pleasure in Robert Tombs' The English and their History, having made it now to the Industrial Revolution (though that's only about half way through.) And finally, Norman Davies' Vanished Kingdoms is a dazzling account of how brief and beautiful a political entity can be: I've just finished the entry on Burgundy, a clear and intriguing piece of scholarship if ever there was one.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Fun Kids Radio Interview

I've been interviewed on Fun Kids Radio. Hear the podcast here.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Interview on Amazing Authors

A happy summer to you all: I've been interviewed on Amazing Authors. Read it here.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Competition in Primary Times for THE KING'S REVENGE

Primary Times are running a competition to win a copy of THE KING'S REVENGE. I'd enter, if I hadn't written it... Find the competition here.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson by Selma Lagerlof: review

Morning, my review of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson by Selma Lagerlof was in The Guardian on Saturday. Read it here.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Friday, 8 July 2016

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Patron of Reading at the John Roan School

I'm delighted to announce that as of today I've been appointed Patron of Reading at the John Roan School, Maze Hill. I very much look forward to developing workshops and ideas with the librarian and students.

Here's a link to the Patron of Reading website.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Greek Myth in Children's Fiction Part 10

I've rarely seen a book raise so much laughter in the young
as my final choice for Greek Myth in Children's Fiction: The Pig Scrolls, by Paul Shipton. Gryllus was a member of Odysseus' crew, transformed into a pig by the witch Circe. (The name is taken from a little jeu d'esprit of Plutarch's, in which Odysseus and Circe talk with a pig.) He must now save the world, thanks to a somewhat surprising prophecy.

All the familiar names are there, and the book is a rollicking and deliciously irreverent romp. 

Greek myth, as we have seen, manifests itself in children's fiction in many ways: from the stately to the silly. I'm sure that these heroes, heroines, gods and beasts will populate our imaginations for many centuries to come, and I look forward to the many new and exciting interpretations that are bound to follow. 

Gryllus brings my series to an end. Watch out for my own reimagining of Greek myth: The Double Axe, in which the story of Theseus and the minotaur gets a surprising twist.


Monday, 27 June 2016

Blog review of THE KING'S REVENGE

Here's a lovely blog review on Fly Girl's Cabinet of Curiosities, of THE KING'S REVENGE.

Greek Myth in Children's Fiction: Part 9

Time and time again, when I meet older children, they tell me that their favourite book when they were little was Lucy Coats' Atticus the Storyteller. Covering a huge range of Greek myth, from the beginnings of the cosmos right up until Odysseus returns home to Penelope, the book cleverly uses the idea of a storytelling competition at Troy to link the stories together. Lively, and beautifully written, it should be anyone's starting point when thinking about Greek myth for the young. 

Lucy Coats has also recently produced a series, "Beasts of Olympus", about a young demi-god, Pandemonium, who is transported up to Olympus to look after the animals - the books are both funny and exciting, and twist the myths on their heads as Hercules, who's always trying to kill them, becomes the villain.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Greek Myth in Children's Fiction: Part 8

The plasticity and power of myth is taken to imaginative and brilliant levels in Alan Gibbons' Shadow of the Minotaur, in which a young boy starts playing a computer game. He takes on the characters first of Theseus battling the minotaur, and then Perseus fighting the Gorgon. The only problem is - he's not in a computer game, but in a different layer of reality. Gripping and clever. (And also I have a fondness for the minotaur, as the myth provided the basis for my own The Double Axe.)

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Greek Myth in Children's Fiction: Part 7

From the mother and daughter team that brought you Lionboy comes Halo, an enormously involving story in which a young girl is castaway on an island full of centaurs. She must dress as a boy to survive, and ends up in the centre of Athenian politics. It's a wonderfully original take on ancient myth, and Halo is a lively and intelligent heroine battling to find out about herself within the context of greater turmoil.

(The cover, by the way, shouldn't have been in Greek letters - the title reads EDLTH. Confusing for a book that has the Greek alphabet in the back.)

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Greek Myth in Children's Fiction: Part 6

Rosemary Sutcliff is perhaps best known for her novels set in Roman times. She did, however cover a wide range of other subjects - coming, towards the end of her life, to the Greek myths. She did write a version of The Iliad, called Black Ships before Troy; but I'm going to mention her version of the Odyssey, The Wanderings of Odysseus. Dramatic and beautifully written, and full of lovely phrases: ("The Greeks were woolly-witted with so much eating and drinking"), it makes a fine introduction to the travails of myth's cleverest hero.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Greek Myth in Children's Fiction: Part 5

One of the other great dynasties of Greek myth is that of Oedipus and his family at Thebes. Sophocles' play Antigone is part of this cycle, and Ali Smith, in her version The Story of Antigone (written for Pushkin Press as part of their "Save the Story" cycle) is imaginative and wise. A crow forms the framing device, and all the great themes of love, honour and duty are dealt with sensitively and sympathetically, and also faithfully. A must for anyone building a library of classics for the young.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Alma: Discount on THE DOUBLE AXE

Alma are giving a 25 % discount on THE DOUBLE AXE for a short time only. Simply email info@almabooks.com with your order and the code AXE25JULY.

Greek Myth in Children's Books Part 4

Whenever you delve into Greek myth, you come up against the tale of Troy. As much as anything it is about consequences and causes. If Peleus hadn't fallen in love with Thetis, they would not have had a wedding; Eris would not have been ignored, and she would not have thrown down the golden apple; the mighty goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite would never have quarreled, and Paris would have been simply a glamorous, dancing prince, not the slayer of Achilles. The tendrils of the cycle reach from the beginnings of myth right down to the end, with Iphigenia being found alive at Tauris. 

Adèle Geras's Troy sees the story from the point of view of two sisters, living inside the besieged city, who fall in love with the same man. One can see gods; one can't. It's rich, detailed and imaginative, and proves just how vital those mythic battles are.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Greek Myth in Children's Books: Part 3 of 10

About 9 years ago a book came onto my desk which stood out for its wit and original take on Greek mythology: Snakehead by Ann Halam. It now appears to be out of print, sadly. It is brilliantly fresh  - the mythic landscape hums with gods; yet gap year kids haunt the tavernas. Mystical and full of humour, it deserved more attention than it got. When Perseus eventually sees Medusa, he thinks:

‘Oh Great All, it was Athini herself – It was Athini herself, looking out from inside of me – I was Athini. I was the monster. I had to kill the monster, so I could be Athini.’ 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Greek Myths in Children's Fiction: Part 2 of 10

I have written extensively about my next choice: David Almond's superb recent novel, A Song for Ella Grey. It takes the haunting myth of Orpheus  and his love for Eurydice, and transports it to the modern day North of England. Full of boldness and beauty, almost a poem in its sparse concentration of meaning, it demonstrates how the power of myth can be found in everyday teen life. There are many thrilling scenes, too, such as a descent to the underworld; and lots of nods to details in the original story. Surely Orpheus does walk among us, again and again, taking on different guises: a bard for all time.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Review of THE DOUBLE AXE in Australia

I was delighted to see that THE DOUBLE AXE has reached the shores of Australia - with this lovely reader review. See it here.

King's Revenge Launch at Daunts in Bookbrunch

Greek Myths in Children's Fiction: Part 1 of 10

There's nothing so potent as a myth. In response to a question on Twitter, I will be posting for ten days ten excellent books for children that either use Greek myth or retell it in some way.

1. The Luck of Troy by Roger Lancelyn Green

Not as well known as Lancelyn Green's Tales of the Greek Heroes, this is perhaps a more engaging and thrilling retelling. Nico is Helen's son, kidnapped by Paris of Troy as a child with his mother. After ten years of war, it looks like there's no hope: but Nico knows about the "luck" of Troy. Beautifully written, and very closely based on literary sources, it manages to tell the canonical story with grace, beauty and intelligence. There is Paris with his panther skins; Cassandra the prophetess; and all the great panoply of heroes and heroines - and Nico is a fine and determined guide.

Here's a beautiful cover posted by @gjteevan on Twitter. I wonder who the illustrator was? Very striking - blood, action, danger.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Summer Children's Book Round Up for Literary Review


I've done my Summer Children's Book Round up for Literary Review, which features:

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
Queen of the Silver Arrow by Caroline Lawrence
The Otherlife by Julia Gray
Chosen by Lucy Coats
Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley
The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman
Erica's Elephant by Sylvia Bishop
Louie Lets Loose! by Rachel Hamilton
The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight by Elli Woodward and Benji Davies.

You can read the whole piece here.