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a somewhat polemical princess

I was surprised to discover this week, via the Guardian Books Blog, that Hodder plan to publish a sequel Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 children’s classic A Little Princess, this September.

A Little Princess is one of my all-time favourite children’s books, with a fabulous riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches narrative arc. Sara Crewe, “the odd little girl with the big solemn eyes” is the wealthy but unspoilt heroine with a lively imagination, who travels from her home in India to London to attend Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies where her good manners and intelligence lead her to quickly become the “show pupil”. But when her beloved father’s sudden death leaves Sara unexpectedly penniless, the unpleasant Miss Minchin (surely one of the best ever children’s book baddies) forces her into drudgery, revealing a much nastier side of Victorian London life. However, with the help of a little courage and fortitude – not to mention a few loyal friends – just when things are at their very worst, magical things begin to happen. A Little Princess has a fantastic ending, and regardless of whether you’ve warmed to Sara, or found the whole thing a bit on the twee side, it is impossible to read it without melting into a happy, warm and sentimental Victorian mush.

The planned sequel will be entitled Wishing for Tomorrow (which I am afraid really is twee) and has been written by Hilary McKay, the author of a number of bestselling children’s books including Saffy’s Angel. The new story will not follow Sara herself, but some of the other characters we meet at Miss Minchin’s establishment, in particular Sara’s friend Ermengarde – the “monumental dunce of the school”, “a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever.”

Now I have to admit, A Little Princess is certainly a book that leaves the reader wanting more – but the prospect of Wishing Tomorrow fills me with dread. Partly that’s because of McKay’s decision to reject the style of the original, which she felt would not appeal to contemporary readers, to “make the children more childish” and to include “a few more jokes.” All of this seems to me to be based on a total misunderstanding of what makes the original book so charming and distinctive: after all, Sara is a brilliant heroine precisely because she isn’t childish or cutesy, but solemn, thoughtful and a little bit quirky – a young person to be reckoned with. And A Little Princess is far from being without humour, but it is a humour which is always subtle and rather arch – I can’t imagine why anyone would think chucking in a few “jokes” to liven things up would be a fitting tribute. Mostly, I think I just generally resent the notion that the book’s style needs “improving” for today’s audience – as if it isn’t bad enough that we’re already subjected to dire re-visionings of beloved childhood books in the form of Hollywood movies (see Northern Lights; The Secret of Moonacre; and also the grim new film of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, featuring Ian McShane – yes, that’s Lovejoy – as Merriman Lyon) we now find writers, who might be expected to know better, imaginatively “polishing up” our favourite childhood fictions into glossy, bland 21st century shadows of their former selves.

What is more, much as I love A Little Princess, I can’t help feeling that there’s something a little bit disappointing about the very notion that writing a sequel to a book published over 100 years ago is the best one of our leading children’s writers can come up with. I can absolutely see the appeal of the project, but wouldn’t it be better if we could see contemporary children’s writers creating fictional worlds as exciting, compelling and delightful as Burnett’s, but for our own times? Alternatively, rather than just continuing the story, wouldn’t it be more interesting to do something a little more challenging and different with A Little Princess as source material – perhaps as Eva Ibbotson does in the excellent Journey to the River Sea which is undoubtedly in part a tribute to Burnett.

However, ultimately the fundamental problem I have with Wishing for Tomorrow is simply this: I am really not a fan of sequels. On the whole, they are just a Bad Idea. As I am sure anyone who has read Emma Tennant’s Pemberley (or any of the other dire Pride & Prejudice sequels – though strangely, the new “zombie” version looks quite appealing) will attest, there are times when (unless you are Jean Rhys) it’s best to leave well alone. Admittedly, Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter, which follows on from Rebecca was slightly less painful, but I’d much rather have just left the story where it was – with a question mark. More often than not, a little bit of mystery is so much more appealing than tidy resolution.

I’m aware all this is not particularly fair or objective: after all, the poor woman hasn’t even published her book yet, and I’ve already decided it isn’t worth reading. For all I know, it might be brilliant. But right now, I have to say that I definitely won’t be rushing down the shops to get my hands on McKay’s Little Princess continuation when it comes out in September. Instead I might just happily re-read my old Puffin copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original, complete with evocative and nostalgic illustrations by Margery Gill:

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father …

a kind of intimacy (or how jenn ashworth tried to make me late for work. twice.)

On Tuesday, I went over to the Deaf Institute for March’s No Point reading night, which was also the launch for Jenn Ashworth’s novel, A Kind of Intimacy. I was flagging slightly after a long and weary day, and had to go home to my bed before the end, but I did get to hear Jenn’s excellent reading, and even more importantly, to buy a copy of the book which Jenn signed with her special fountain pen in her special rose-scented book-signing ink.

I started reading A Kind of Intimacy on the bus home, and continued reading it on Wednesday morning when I woke up. An hour later, I realised it was half past eight, I was still in bed, and I was now in serious danger of being very late to work. I went to the theatre on Wednesday (Macbeth at The Royal Exchange, well worth going to see if you get the chance) but when I got home, I found myself reading again. And Thursday morning was pretty much an exact repeat of Wednesday, except this time I did manage to avoid the temptation to read in bed, but ended up picking up the book half way through putting my make-up on, and thus was late leaving the house for the second day in a row – also with slightly weird mascara.

Now, I’ll admit I am very easily distracted when it comes to books – but even for me, that’s impressive stuff. The thing is that A Kind of Intimacy is just very, very difficult to put down. Stevie Davies, writing in today’s Guardian, describes it as “compulsively readable” and I would certainly concur with that.

A Kind of Intimacy is the story of overweight Annie – lonely but determinedly optimistic – who moves to a new home, seeking to leave her troubled past behind her and build a new life for herself. In an attempt to ingratiate herself with the local community, she arms herself with a selection of hilariously-titled self-help manuals and romance novels borrowed from the local library in order to gain new social “skills” that she diligently misapplies to every social situation she finds herself in – from a truly horrific house warming party to cringe-inducing dinners with the neighbours. At first it’s difficult not to feel pity for Annie’s clumsy and ill-fated attempts to build relationships with those around her, but increasingly it becomes clear that in gaining our sympathy, Annie has been duping us just as adeptly as she dupes and deludes herself. Far from the wholesome, decorous image she seeks to project, she reveals herself to be scheming, malicious and disturbed: instead of befriending her neighbours she spies on them, works up a series of imagined grudges and then enacts a series of bizarre and increasingly grisly acts of revenge.

As events unfold, it soon becomes clear that Annie is an out and out monster with gruesome secrets to hide; yet she remains far from a cartoon stereotype. Her chatty, mundane, cliche-ridden narrative voice is weirdly compelling: every now and then, you almost can’t help sniggering along with one of her malicious observations, thinking that perhaps yes, next-door neighbour Lucy really is a little bit smug and annoying. Of course, as Annie’s behaviour spirals out of control, she becomes far from sympathetic, but she is a tragic as well as a monstrous and grotesque figure, both in her fantasy of achieving “a certain kind of intimacy” with kindly neighbour Neil, and through the history which is gradually revealed to us – a murky past characterised by violence, secrets, self-delusions and bizarrely comic sexual mishaps, from which ultimately, she cannot escape.

As the narrative moves resolutely towards its gruesome climax, the comedy becomes blacker, yet somehow Ashworth’s writing always feels surprisingly light and sprightly. Jenny Diski has described the book as “an intense and intriguing novel that never quite lets the reader get comfortable” and on the whole I’d agree with that, but what really strikes me is the bouncy good humour of this book. With its hints to violence, sexual abuse and infanticide, the novel could risk being just too dark and too disturbed, but in fact, reading it is an enormously enjoyable experience – both in its outrageous comedy moments, and as a result of the very evident pleasure that Ashworth takes in unravelling her monstrous creation in all her surreal glory before our eyes.

Altogether, A Kind of Intimacy is a beguiling debut, skilfully mixing up the recognisably ordinary, mundane aspects of suburban life with the dark, abnormal and downright bizarre. What is more, unlike so many first novelists, Ashworth manages to avoid pretension, self-conscious literary language or purple prose: I love her carefully-poised descriptions and observations. Max Dunbar provides a perfect summing up of the novel, describing it as “tightly plotted, exquisitely paced, every word on trial for its life… a story of provincial unhappiness, bad company in small rooms, the awful consequences of not being loved.”

I can’t wait to read whatever Jenn has got up her sleeve next. Only this time, I think I’d really better save reading it for the weekend.

(Just in case you’re interested, in spite of Jenn’s best efforts, by some minor miracle, I wasn‘t actually late to work on either Wednesday or Thursday, but managed to squeak in the door with about a minute to spare. A point to ponder: perhaps the Magic Bus truly does have magical powers after all?)

a visit from fiona robyn

Throughout March, writer Fiona Robyn has been travelling from blog to blog to celebrate the publication of her first novel, The Letters, in her very own blog tour.

The Letters is the story of Violet Ackerman, who has “drifted through a career, four children and a divorce without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. After moving to the coast, she starts receiving a series of mysterious letters sent from a mother and baby home in 1959, written by a pregnant twenty-year-old Elizabeth to her best friend. Who is sending Violet these letters, and why?”

It also features a cat called Blue, an unexpected twist in the tale, and (according to Aliya at Veggie Box at least) an impressive number of references to vegetables. What’s more it has already won praise from everyone from Scott Pack at Me and My Big Mouth who described it as ‘an accomplished and promising début novel‘ to Vulpes Libres who admired Fiona’s ‘wonderfully descriptive writing‘ to Caroline Smailes who described how she ‘devoured [The Letters] within a couple of days‘.

Fiona has already visited 16 other blogs as part of the tour (you can read the full list here, including where she is going next). As it’s now Day 22 I reckon she’s probably getting a little weary, so I suggested she put her feet up and then asked her a few questions:

Firstly… it’s Day 22 of your blog tour, and you’ve already visited 16 other blogs. Are you getting at all tired of answering questions about yourself and The Letters yet?

You’d think I would be, but nobody is asking the same questions! It’s really interesting how different people have approached the book in different ways, and are interested in different things…

Do you have a favourite question you’ve been asked on the tour so far?

‘Tell us what you grow in your veggie patch’ by Aliya at the Veggie Box and Lane asked me lots of good questions about cats. Caroline also asked me some good questions, one involving Mr. Men. You can see that I like to take things very seriously…..

You’ve already been asked a lot of questions about The Letters: the idea for the novel, the characters, and how it came to be written. To make a change I thought I’d ask you a few questions about the three blogs you write as well as your novels: a small stone; a handful of stones and your personal blog, planting words. How do your blogs fit in as part of your overall writing practice?

I try not to let them interfere with my novel-writing – if I’m writing, then I’ll always do that before I do anything else (including checking Facebook). a small stone usually only takes a few minutes a day, and a handful of stones maybe takes half an hour a couple of times a week. I only write Planting Words when I feel the urge, and again this can take a few minutes or up to half an hour. I do sometimes wonder if three is a bit excessive, but it’s been ok so far!

What first got you started writing blogs?

I started writing a blog called Creating Living when I was working as a coach, as a way of promoting my services. It was a little bit like Planting Words, and resulted in my book A Year of Questions: How to slow down and fall in love with life. a small stone came next.

What gave you the idea for your blog project a small stone?

The phrase literally arose in my mind one day when I was driving back from the sea. I was thinking about starting another blog for my poetry at the time, but I didn’t even know what it meant, and it felt a bit boring as a blog title. It was persistant, and then I happened upon the idea of picking a small stone up and carrying it home from a long walk – something little that you could save from every day.

Which other blogs do you read regularly?

I’ve always been a big fan of whisky river and have recently found lassie and timmy, both of which have a strong zen flavour. Sarah is always finding good stuff.

I recently wrote a post about how much writers enjoy the actual process of writing, which provoked a bit of discussion. Is the process of writing itself something you find pleasurable?

I find parts of it pleasurable – and parts of it horrid. It’s hard to sit down and get started, especially with first drafts. I’m sometimes struck by terrible doubts. But I love reading back a sentence and thinking ‘ah, that’s a good sentence’, or finding something new out about my character. Intensely satisfying. Really, nobody is holding a gun to my head – I’m a writer because it’s supremely important to me – and things that are important aren’t necessarily fun all the time.

What inspires you? Where do you go to find inspiration when you need it?

Being outside in my garden is good for me – whatever the weather – but I do prefer sunshine! I’ve been lucky enough to wait for inspiration to find me so far, rather than going out and looking.

Tell us a little bit about what you’ve got coming up next…

The Blue Handbag is out in paperback in August, and then Thaw in February next year, both with Snowbooks. I’m currently working on a novel about a young boy that goes to stay with his aunt in Amsterdam – I’m off for a research trip this summer. What a life, eh?

And finally (just because I had to ask) do you own any red shoes?

I’m afraid I’m not much of a shoe person – black trainers is pretty much it… I do think they look nice on other people though – I’m sure yours are lovely!

Perhaps you’re just more of a handbag person, since your next book is called The Blue Handbag? Anyway, thanks very much, Fiona (for visiting and for complimenting me on my shoes!) and enjoy the rest of the tour!

can independent publishers beat the recession?

I was interested to read Hirsh Sawnhey’s piece on The Guardian blog this week, How Independents will save literature from the recession. Writing from New York, Sawney reports that the city’s commercial publishing scene is already beginning to feel the effects of the “credit crunch” (“sales are flagging… some predict 2009 will be the worst year the industry has seen in decades”) and increasingly look likely to be shifting resources away from riskier, innovative titles from new writers towards “safe investments” like the ghost-written celebrity novels and autobiographies that are already so ubiquitous on the shelves of high-street bookshops.

The extent to which the same will be true here in the UK is currently hard to say. We can only hope there won’t be quite such a dramatic effect: according to this post on Litfest’s blog, Tim Waterstone has recently been speaking about how, historically at least, UK book sales actually increase in times of recession. That does make some sense to me: after all, a £7.99 paperback looks like a pretty good investment compared to a couple of pints, especially if you’re like me and you can easily read a single book three, four five (ten…twenty…two hundred) times. And if you’re in the mood for a treat, a book feels like a relatively reasonable and sensible impulse-buy compared with splurging on, for example, a pair of frivolous shoes (not that I would be at all inclined to do that, of course… hmmm… anyway…) So perhaps the credit crunch will see us all spending more evenings curled up with a good book and a cup of cocoa? It certainly looks likely to herald happy days for local libraries, second hand bookshops and the like.

However, even if the picture for the big commercial publishers does look a little bleak, it may be that literary culture will not be significantly affected. Sawnhey suggests that it will in fact be safeguarded “through the dark economic days ahead” by a core of small independent publishers, who are uniquely placed to weather the financial crisis, and I think he might just be right. After all, there’s no doubt that smaller, more flexible independents are all ready well used to continually innovating and adapting their businesses, working with narrow profit margins, delivering a lot from only limited resources, and coping without expensive businesses lunches, glossy marketing staff and hefty PR budgets. And all this whilst building strong personal relationships with their writers, prioritising artistic experimentation and innovation and playing an important role as ‘talent scouts’ identifying and developing the most exciting new writers.

Given all this, perhaps Sawhney is right to suggest that the current climate will provide an opportunity for small independents to thrive in comparison to their market-driven corporate cousins. Let’s hope so – because as Sawnhey himself rightly points out, “good things come in small, independently-owned packages!”

playing with the grown-ups

I’ve just finished reading Sophie Dahl’s first novel, Playing with the Grown-ups, which left me with an itch to pinpoint exactly what it was I found so peculiar about reading it.

I’ll admit that I did approach the book with a certain degree of initial trepidation. After all, the cover is very pink, with butterflies and curly-wurly writing; and what is more, no one could say that the notion of a “somewhat autobiographical” first novel from a world-famous supermodel exactly inspires an instant vote of confidence. However, I was also genuinely prepared to enjoy this book: for one thing, I do actually quite like butterflies and pink things, and for another, in spite of the apparent “double jinx” effect of being simultaneously both an extremely beautiful celebrity, and the grand-daughter of one of Britain’s best-loved writers, Dahl does strike one as someone not short of a brain cell or two. Her previous novella, The Man with the Dancing Eyes (2003) was very enjoyable (in spite of taking the concept of “whimsy” to whole new levels) and she has since written some interesting pieces for Vogue and The Guardian. More tellingly, however, Playing with the Grown Ups has also received some very favourable reviews in the press, being compared by a number of critics to not just one but two of my all-time-favourite-ever books: Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. As far as I am concerned there isn’t really higher praise than that. For extra reassurance, the book’s cover is laced with lavish recommendations from everyone from Time Out (“a lush and rhapsodic coming-of-age novel”) to ELLE (“lyrical, knowing and stylish”). The only potential warning sign is a thumbs-up from Cecilia Aherne, who I have to admit is not a favourite of mine – I did manage to survive PS., I Love You, but only barely.

Anyway, Aherne aside, I was feeling pretty good about settling down to read Playing with the Grown-ups, which was shaping up to be everything I like best in an easy-going, escapist, Saturday-afternoon kind of read. But 100 or so pages later, I was feeling confused, even a little cheated. The book I was reading didn’t seem to bear any real connection to most of the reviews on the cover. Was I even reading the same book?

Now, before we go any further, I have to point out here that this isn’t going to be a hatchet job on Dahl’s novel. Frankly, I think she has enough to contend with as a famous-supermodel-cum-author-cum-girlfriend-of-Jamie-Cullum without getting into that sort of unhelpful sniping. It is, after all, a first novel – and besides, I think it really does have quite lot going for it: there are some very sharp, sensitive observational moments; it is often genuinely funny; and I enjoyed the touches of early-90s nostalgia. Broadly speaking, the story follows Kitty, a young girl growing up at the idyllic Hay House, where she lives with her “eccentric” English family: grandparents, teenage aunts, half-siblings and her glamorous but temperamental young mother, Marina, an artist and “spectacular beauty” whose whims pull Kitty away from her familiar childhood home and whisk her through a string of new and strange locations – from a slightly grim boarding school to a ritzy New York apartment to an ashram. The narrative is framed by sections which focus on Kitty in the present day – now grown up and pregnant by her rather sickeningly perfect husband – returning from New York to the UK following her mother’s overdose. Though she doesn’t always quite convince, the character of Kitty is thoughtfully drawn, and certainly a lot more subtle than some of the overworked “eccentric” figures who are amusing but not always very believable – even Marina herself always remains something of a try-hard bohemian stereotype, although interestingly Dahl has acknowledged that her character is largely based upon her own mother, Tessa Dahl. But where the novel really falls down for me is when it tries to be Deep or possibly Serious, and thus slides into cringe (or giggle)-inducing psychobabble and melodrama – at times, there is just the tiniest hint of Dawson’s Creek. The occasionally rather overwrought and self-conscious prose style doesn’t help matters: I could have done without the references to “spectacular” beauty and “silver eyes” though as Katy Guest, writing in The Independent points out “any writer who uses the line, ‘She was in bed wearing a silk peignoir’ with a straight face deserves a prize.”

There’s something more than language, though, that bothered me about this book – which, when Dahl relaxes and lets herself go, is actually rather gracefully written. I think the closest I can come to it is a very classic and clichéd piece of advice (which I have been given myself in the past…perhaps, dare I suggest, many of the things which disappointed me most about Dahl’s writing are the very things that frustrate me about my own?) and that is “murder your darlings”. What’s really wrong with Playing with the Grown-ups is that there’s no sting in the tale, no bite. In spite of the rather tedious roll-call of the usual ‘misery-lit’ ingredients – drugs (check), alcohol (check), sex (check), dysfunctional family life (check), hints at eating disorders (check), self-harm (check), tragic beauties (check) nothing seems to have consequences. Far from being dark, it’s actually all rather glossy and well-lit: you can imagine everyone a little bit wooden, but with perfect hair, like characters in a made-for-TV movie. In spite of all, at the end of the book, the now supposedly well-adjusted grown-up Kitty seems to have a cringingly ‘nice’ relationship with her family, whilst Marina herself is rather too neatly ‘punished’ for her insensitive ways by turning out to be a bit of a sad case. Dahl has been quoted as saying how much she hates “bitter books and bitter people” and I’m the last person to advocate for the grim and the joyless in the books I read, but it all just seems a little bit gooey – like eating a lot of cream cakes – maybe whimsical pink ones, possibly with some kind of star-shaped sprinkles on top?Now I don’t mean to imply that Dahl ought to have written a misery memoir (let’s just say I am not a fan of those), and of course, a lovely, light-as-air, enjoyable cream-cake of a book, even if it is a bit sugary at times, is not automatically a bad thing, especially when it has that extra touch of magic-wand sparkle to it. However, by the end – I’ll admit it – I was desperate for something to take the edge off all that sticky sweetness.

For me though, it is not simply the over-the-top praise the book received, but the endless comparisons to Smith, Mitford (and on occasion, Evelyn Waugh) that are the most baffling. OK, so Dahl is writing about the experience of being a teenage girl, and yes, she clearly has that whole English-rose-eccentric-aristo thing going for her, but beyond that I am slightly confused. Have any of these reviewers actually read The Pursuit of Love? I can just about countenance the idea of Kitty as a sort of parallel Fanny, though I can’t somehow quite imagine Fanny skipping school or going on a coke binge, not to mention wearing white jeans, even if she had happened to live in the 1990s. But Marina as The Bolter, frankly, is just a bit of an insult to the poor old Bolter. The Bolter would never have gone down the road of self-harm or drug overdoses. She didn’t need to find herself in an ashram. She was quite happy just being the Bolter, really. I think that was always the point.

Having said that, is it really just that Nancy Mitford just happens to be en vogue at the moment, and so is a sort of shorthand for a vaguely stylish kind of book (after all, it has been written by a supermodel) that would go well with your Christopher Kane by Burberry or maybe your Alice Temperley tea gown? I don’t know. It’s all a bit of a mystery to be honest. Still I did eventually manage to track down one review of the book that seemed more in line with my own take on it – Katy Guest’s in the Independent which gives a much more balanced reading of Playing with the Grown-ups. Even though she does go down the whole Mitford/Waugh avenue, Guest qualifies it by describing Dahl’s novel as “like Mitford and Waugh after they’ve worked through their issues with an understanding therapist.” Hmmmm. Quite.

I suppose if there’s one thing all this proves, it’s that age-old truism “don’t judge a book by its cover” – or by the strap-lines on its cover anyway. Most of all, I think what was peculiar about reading this book was the disjunction between the PR spin and the book itself – which gave me a sharp reminder of just how vitally important marketing and PR is in today’s publishing world. It left me wondering if, when so many talented writers have an uphill struggle to even get a manuscript looked at by a serious agent or commercial editor, a slightly uneven first novel would attract anywhere near this level of rhapsodic (or even hyperbolic) praise and critical attention if it wasn’t penned by a marketable celebrity – and thus, something of a guaranteed “cash cow”.

On the plus side though – and just to finish on a less cynical note – it is fantastic to see that it is still possible for new writers to get published in spite of being (shockingly) non-celebrities – or so far, at least! Can I please direct your attention to Jenn Ashworth’s first novel A Kind of Intimacy which is due out next month from Arcadia Books, and has already been selected for Waterstone’s New Voices 2009 promotion . If you go to her blog here you’ll have the chance to win a copy – if you’re very clever that is!