Writers Read and Top Ten Castles

I love discovering what other writers are reading, so I was pleased when my attention was drawn to Writers Read, a blog that asks authors to discuss what they’ve been reading recently. After only a few minutes of looking through this blog, I’d added three titles to my ‘List of Books That I Must Track Down Because They Sound Really Interesting’. As if I don’t already have enough books awaiting my reading attention. (Disclaimer: I may possibly be one of the authors featured on the blog this month.)

Also, as I can never get enough of castles, I was happy to find this list of the Ten Best Castles in Literature, and in particular, to see Udolpho mentioned. The Mysteries of Udolpho remains the only book that has ever made me miss my train station due to paying too much attention to the story and not enough to the scene outside the train window. This list also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series for years. Perhaps I’ll get around to it once I’ve finished this book I’m trying to write (which, by a remarkable coincidence, also contains a castle . . . or at least, a fortified house).

Anne Tyler And Her Novels

Thanks to John le Carré, I’m now aware that there is a Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years to a writer for a body of work, rather than for a single novel. The finalists for the 2011 award were announced last month in Sydney, and I’m very pleased that Anne Tyler is among them. She is one of my favourite novelists ever and I hope she wins.

For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she’s written eighteen novels:

If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
The Tin Can Tree (1965)
A Slipping-Down Life (1970)
The Clock Winder (1972)
Celestial Navigation (1974)
Searching for Caleb (1975)
Earthly Possessions (1977)
Morgan’s Passing (1980)
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Breathing Lessons (1988)
Saint Maybe (1991)
Ladder of Years (1995)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass (2009)

With such a large body of work, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Luckily for you, I’ve produced this handy guide, which you can print out and take to your nearest library or bookshop:

For those who enjoy Southern Gothic:

'If Morning Ever Comes' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler is reported to “hate” her first two novels, but I think they’re both interesting books, even if they don’t quite work. If Morning Ever Comes is about a boy who abandons his studies in New York to rush home to North Carolina after his runaway sister shows up. There’s some very fine descriptive writing and the characters are fascinating, if a little too self-consciously quirky. Nothing very much happens, but it’s an enjoyable read.

The Tin Can Tree contains even more Southern eccentricity, but with slightly more narrative. It’s about an extended family that falls apart after their youngest child is killed. What I really like about this novel is the vividness of the setting – one “long, crowded” house inhabited by three families, surrounded by tobacco farms and dust. It’s hard to like these characters, but then, they are people weighed down with grief.

Earthly Possessions could possibly fall into this category, too, although it’s more of a Southern road trip novel than anything else. It’s about an unhappy housewife, who’s taken hostage by a young bank robber. They then head for Florida in a stolen car. Apparently, this was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, but I haven’t seen it.

For those who like Young Adult novels:

A Slipping-Down Life is probably the closest to a YA novel that Anne Tyler has written. A lonely high school girl, obsessed with a local rock singer, decides to carve his name into her forehead, and the attention she receives alters her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined. This is a coming-of-age tale with a satisfying conclusion, set in a Southern town so insular and isolated that you can understand why all the teenagers are desperate to escape.

Saint Maybe is absolutely wonderful, but doesn’t fit quite as easily into the YA category. It’s about Ian, a teenage boy who becomes convinced he’s responsible for his brother’s suicide and goes searching for a way to atone, ending up a member of the very odd ‘Church of the Second Chance’. Much of the story is told from Ian’s perspective, but there are also contributions from Agatha, Thomas and Daphne, his brother’s children, as they grow up. It’s a funny, thoughtful novel about guilt, forgiveness and the consolations of religion. I highly recommend it.

For those who like reading about really annoying men:

'Celestial Navigation' by Anne TylerCelestial Navigation is about Jeremy, “a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who never did leave home”. Although the words ‘Asperger’s’, ‘autism’ and ‘agoraphobia’ are never used, they could all apply to him, so I was fascinated to read in a New York Times article that he’s “the closest Anne Tyler has come to writing about herself”. When Jeremy’s devoted mother dies, it’s difficult to see how he’ll manage, but he takes in lodgers and works on his art, and eventually falls for Mary, who’s just walked out on her husband. I loathed both these characters for their extreme self-centredness, but it’s a beautifully written novel, and the minor characters are very endearing.

Morgan in Morgan’s Passing is “a man who had gone to pieces, or maybe he’d always been in pieces; maybe he’d arrived unassembled”. He spends most of his time collecting costumes, practising accents and acting out roles – a street priest, a refugee without any English skills, and then, disastrously, a doctor. This leads to him delivering Emily’s first baby in the back of his car. He then wheedles his way into the calm, organised lives of Emily and her husband Leon. Morgan hopes they’ll help him untangle his own life, but all he does is spread the chaos around. I detested Morgan, but liked Emily and was fascinated by her Quaker upbringing. Apparently, Anne Tyler’s “early childhood was spent in a succession of Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina.

For those interested in an analysis of a marriage from the perspectives of both wife and husband:

'Breathing Lessons' by Anne TylerBreathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize, follows a day in the life of a seemingly incompatible middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira. As the summary in my copy of the book explains, “Maggie has an inexhaustible passion for sorting out other people’s problems: where happiness does not exist she must create it”. Her capacity for self-deception is extremely irritating, but Ira isn’t quite as perfect as he thinks, either. What I really loved about this book was how the author used a single day of their life to illuminate everything that both tears them apart and holds them together.

The Amateur Marriage is about another mismatched couple, Michael and Pauline, but this story begins at their fateful meeting during World War Two. They spend the following decades in vicious conflict, their children reduced to unhappy bystanders. I’m not fond of this novel because I dislike both Michael and Pauline, and the structure of this book didn’t quite work for me (or for this reviewer). However, some readers love this book.

For those interested in reading about an unhappy wife:

'Ladder of Years' by Anne TylerIn Ladder of Years, Cordelia is on a summer holiday with her unappreciative family when she decides to walk off down the beach and not come back. I was fascinated by the notion of a woman leaving her husband, without any preparation or even conscious thought on the matter, and then setting up a completely new life in a new town. Could she truly abandon everything from her past? Would she simply end up repeating the old patterns of her life? I must admit, I was disappointed with the conclusion to this novel, but I enjoyed the journey.

Back When We Were Grownups is my least favourite Anne Tyler novel – in fact, I gave away my copy of this book, because it irritated me so much that I didn’t want it sitting next to my proper Anne Tyler novels. However, I include it here for the sake of completeness. There’s a good review here, if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in reading about complex, dysfunctional families:

Searching for Caleb is a rich, rewarding family saga stretching from the 1870s to the 1970s. Justine Peck elopes with her rebellious cousin Duncan, hoping to escape the dull, dry “Peckness” of her family. However, it isn’t as easy as she or Duncan predict, because they’re soon joined by their grandfather Justin, who’s been searching for his runaway brother Caleb for decades. This novel is utterly engrossing and has a wonderful ending. I loved it.

'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' by Anne TylerDinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those rare, absolutely perfect novels. Anne Tyler thinks it’s her best, too (she also said it was “her hardest novel to write” ). Pearl is abandoned by her husband, left to bring up three children in her own angry, bitter fashion. Then the children grow up to wreak havoc upon their own spouses and children. I realise this does not sound like a very enjoyable read, but it’s so funny, moving and wise. I can’t recommend it too highly.

The Clock Winder probably fits into this category, too, but I don’t think it’s one of her best books. Here’s a thoughtful review if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in unsentimental portraits of old age:

'A Patchwork Planet' by Anne TylerA Patchwork Planet could probably fit into the ‘dysfunctional families’ category, but one of the many delights of this novel is thirty-year-old Barnaby’s job at Rent-A-Back (or Roll-A-Bat, as his socialite mother scornfully calls it). Barnaby and his friend Martine do chores for the elderly, ranging from decorating their Christmas trees to taking out their trash cans and disposing of their late husbands’ law books. I admit that Barnaby’s voice isn’t always plausible for a young man, but his cluelessness is hilarious. This is another deceptively light-hearted story with a powerful ending.

Noah’s Compass is Tyler’s most recent novel. It’s about Liam, a solitary, introspective man who’s been retrenched from his teaching job. He settles down in a resigned fashion to contemplate the last years of his life. However, on the first day of this new life, he’s attacked by a burglar and he wakes up a few days later with no memory of this event. His attempts to discover those lost moments throw him into a relationship with a younger woman, who seems as though she might revitalise him . . . or perhaps not. This is certainly not an optimistic book, but this reviewer admired it, and so did this one.

For those interested in a multicultural view of the United States, post 9-11:

'Digging to America' by Anne TylerI love Digging to America, which tells the story of two very different Baltimore families, who each adopt a baby girl from Korea. The description of the rigidly politically-correct Dickinson-Donaldson family verges a little too close to caricature, but I adored the Yazdans, originally from Iran. Maryam, the grandmother of the adopted baby, is a wonderfully astringent observer of American customs, and her independence and intelligence make her one of my favourite Anne Tyler characters. This reviewer agreed.

Finally:

'The Accidental Tourist' by Anne TylerI can’t quite categorise The Accidental Tourist, but I couldn’t possibly leave it out. Only Anne Tyler could turn the story of a man destroyed by the murder of his child and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage into a story so incredibly moving, hilarious and hopeful. I love this book, and I also enjoyed the film version, which starred William Hurt, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner and some very clever corgis.

Anne Tyler is famously reclusive, but she has given one interview about her writing process (unfortunately, you now need an account with The New York Times to read this), one about The Amateur Marriage, and one about Digging to America. The Observer has also done an interesting profile of her.

Extra note: The book cover images I’ve used are all from the Readings website, which is selling a collection of Anne Tyler novels with snazzy new jackets, published by Vintage. Inexplicably, Saint Maybe is not included. This is very sad, especially as Readings doesn’t even have an old edition of the book in stock.

Spot the Difference

Look at this beautiful cover for the new UK paperback edition of Consequences of the Heart by Peter Cunningham. There’s something strangely familiar about it . . .

'Consequences of the Heart' by Peter Cunningham
'Consequences of the Heart' by Peter Cunningham, UK paperback, released in May, 2011

But it’s just one of those odd coincidences of publishing, that two book designers on opposite sides of the world would decide to use the same obscure 1930s photograph. It seems to happen fairly often. The Peter Cunningham book comes out next month, and sounds really interesting.

I must admit, though, that I prefer The FitzOsbornes in Exile cover, because it cuts out the dorky guy with the moustache, crouching on the floor. Also, that poor girl looks most uncomfortable, perched on the end of that sofa. In ‘my’ cover, she simply looked enigmatic.

Thank you to Daisy, whose comment at The Story Siren initially prompted me to investigate this. And by ‘investigate’, I mean, ‘spend sixty seconds on Google’. Or possibly slightly more than sixty seconds. How distracting is that adorable Earth Day Google Doodle, with the ticklish pandas and the koala climbing the tree and the bear eating the salmon? Very, very distracting!

In other news, The FitzOsbornes in Exile has received a starred review from Kirkus. Vicky Smith from Kirkus then asked me some thoughtful questions about the book and I did my best to answer them. The Australian edition has also been shortlisted for the 2011 Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature and was named a Notable Book for Older Readers in the 2011 Children’s Book Council of Australia awards. Congratulations to all the Australian authors whose books were shortlisted or named as notable books in these awards! You’re all awesome!

I promise my next blog post will not mention the words ‘FitzOsbornes’ or ‘Exile’.

The FitzOsbornes in Exile

The FitzOsbornes in ExileHooray! The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the second book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, has just been released in North America! Hundreds of copies of hardcovers, e-books and audiobooks are sneaking their way into bookshops and libraries as you read this . . .

There has been some discussion over whether The FitzOsbornes in Exile is a stand-alone “companion” (as it’s described on the inside jacket) to A Brief History of Montmaray, or a sequel (implied on the front cover, which says “The Montmaray Journals, Book II”). Of course, readers can read The FitzOsbornes in Exile by itself, but I think it makes more sense if you’ve read the first book in the series. There are quite a lot of characters, and it helps to know something about their histories and relationships. However, at least one reviewer enjoyed the second book without having read the first. On the other hand, she read the Australian edition, which includes a two-page summary of the first book (the American edition has only a one-sentence summary of the first book). I’m hardly a good person to ask about this. Are there any readers with any advice on this?

Contest Winners!

Thank you to everyone who entered the Montmaray contest, and provided such thoughtful, creative and entertaining suggestions for casting the (imaginary) film version of the book. Congratulations to Gwenyth, Chelsea and Divya, who’ve won copies of A Brief History of Montmaray. To everyone who entered and didn’t win this time, don’t despair! I’ll give away some more books this year. If you’re quick, you may also be able to enter the latest Adventures in Children’s Publishing give-away, which includes copies of both A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile.

Fifty Books A Year

Books

The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that school children should be reading fifty books a year. Leaving aside the irony of this coming from a politician whose government is slashing funding to libraries, the proposal raises a number of questions. Does forcing reluctant or poor readers to read a book each week really make them more enthusiastic about reading? What does Mr Gove mean by ‘book’? I’m guessing (and I could be wrong) that he isn’t counting graphic novels, comics or picture books towards the total. And why fifty books, and not thirty, or a hundred? Is quantity more important than quality? Do they have to be fifty different books? If so, does that mean a child who chooses to read and re-read a beloved book isn’t getting any benefit from the experience? And how many books has Mr Gove read this year?

Of course, as a reader and a writer, I’d love more children to be exposed to the wonderful world of books. However, this proposal seems designed to suck all the joy out of reading by reducing it to quotas and ‘learning experiences’. If reading some arbitrary number of books is essential for a well-balanced life, then all adults should be doing it, too. I decided to examine my reading from the first twelve weeks of this year and determine what I’d learned from the experience.

Total Books Read: Sixteen. This doesn’t include the two books I started, and didn’t finish. One of those was a book I’d read before and decided to re-read to find out if it was really as bad as I’d thought (it was). The other was a contemporary YA romance that I hated so much, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. I made two further attempts at it, then decided life was too short to waste any more of my time on it.

Number of Novels Read: Ten.

Number of ‘Memoirs’ Read: Three. (I’ve included in this category any book written by someone about their own life, even though one of the books probably wouldn’t be labelled a ‘memoir’.)

Number of Other Non-Fiction Books Read: Two.

Number of Anthologies Read: One.

Number of Books Read That I’d Previously Read: Five. (For various reasons, I didn’t feel up to tackling any new books during the first few weeks of the year, so I re-read some old favourites.)

Number of Books Written By People Who Are Dead (But Were Alive When They Wrote Their Books): Four.

Number of Books Written By Australian Authors: Five.

Number of Books Written By British Authors: Nine, if I include the editor of the anthology. (What? I’m writing a book set in England, okay?)

Number of Books Written By American Authors: One. (I revere you, Susan Faludi.)

Number of Books Translated from Swedish: One.

Number of e-Books: One. It was a free download because it was out of copyright, and I read it on my computer, because I don’t own any e-readers. I’d rather have read it as a paper book, but then I’d have had to pay serious money for it because it’s out of print in Australia – and frankly, it wasn’t that good.

Five Things I’ve Learned As A Result of Reading Approximately 1.3 Books Per Week This Year:

1. Vampire novels don’t have to be sparkly and anti-feminist. Sometimes, they can be scathing critiques of modern Scandinavian society that manage to combine extreme horror with a poignant portrayal of friendship between outsiders (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist, for which I have not included a link because I couldn’t find one without plot spoilers).

2. I really like novels that combine information about an unfamiliar aspect of history with clever plotting and endearing, plausible characters (Small Island by Andrea Levy).

3. Novels about Victorian clergymen don’t have to be dull and worthy. Sometimes they can be witty, hilarious and unputdownable (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).

4. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or perceptive as the hype suggests, and its publishers should have spent some of its advertising budget on more thorough copy-editing and proofreading. It was okay, though, and at least now, I can say I’ve finally read it.

5. I should read more anthologies, because they’re a good way to sample a range of writers. Also, I should now read everything Patrick Ness has ever written, because Different for Boys is the best short story I’ve read in years. Four vibrant teenage characters, a school that feels completely real, great dialogue, droll jokes, a boy with a crush on an Irish golfer, frantic sex, a devastating fight, a heartbreaking kiss and some snarky references to YA book censorship, all in only forty-four pages (in the YA anthology, Losing It, edited by Keith Gray. The other stories in this collection were fine, by the way, but they just didn’t hit me the way Different for Boys did.)

One Other Thing: If politicians want children to read more, they should provide adequate funding for libraries, teachers and learning disability support in schools, and remove taxes on sales of books.

One Further Thing: The Montmaray give-away is still on, till the 5th of April. If you win a book, you could count it towards your fifty books for the year.

That is all.

Dogs and Books

If I were asked to list my favourite things in the universe, dogs and books would be near the top of the list, so I’ve been pleased to see lots of both of them about lately.

Firstly, Inside a Dog, the website for the Centre for Youth Literature, was relaunched last week, with a new blog and loads of useful, interesting features. Go and have a look at the gorgeous photos of dogs reading books! I also liked the article about a greyhound who helps children learn to read. Children love reading aloud to Danny, because he

“does not criticise or correct their pronunciation. He just nods and pricks up an ear, although sometimes he closes his eyes and appears not to be listening . . . Some children even show Danny the pictures as they read.”

It reminded me of a learning disorders clinic where I used to work. My boss would bring in her good-natured poodle, who would sit on the verandah, looking adorable. I soon discovered that my students became highly motivated to finish their work if I promised they could pat the dog at the end of our session.

I’ve also been reading about Bamse, the St. Bernard who was the mascot of Free Norwegian forces during the Second World War. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant, by pushing the villain into the sea. The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, eight hundred school children lined the streets to watch his flag-draped coffin being carried through the town of Montrose, where he was buried. Of course, I cannot resist squashing Bamse into Montmaray Book Three, even though his story doesn’t have much to do with mine.

I’ve also been thinking about beloved dogs in books, and came up with my favourite five:

1. Roger in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals
'My Family and Other Animals' - 2005 BBC production
When ten-year-old Gerald and his eccentric family move to Corfu in the 1930s, they are accompanied by Roger, a woolly black dog of indeterminate breed, who causes a canine riot within minutes of their arrival. In a book full of endearing animals, Roger is one of the most lovable. As Gerald points out:

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”

(Roger was also portrayed beautifully by a very clever canine actor in the recent film version of My Family and Other Animals.)

2. Heloise in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

Heloise is the family bull-terrier, described at one point by Cassandra as

“gazing at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour – how can she express so much just with two rather small slanting eyes?”

Heloise is a loyal companion to Cassandra during her wanderings around the countryside, and even manages to get Cassandra into, then out of, an awkward situation with Simon by barking out the barn window at exactly the right time.

3. Miró in Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

Miró is a standard poodle who “seems to think he is human” and watches “the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension”. His Manhattan family talk to Miró more than they talk to one another, but teenage James admits he’s often mean to the dog:

“I say things to him like ‘You’re just a dog. You don’t even have a passport or a Social Security number. You can’t even open doors. You’re totally at my mercy.’ Or ‘Get a haircut. Put on some shoes.'”

Needless to say, Miró is not bothered by these insults. He’s way too cool.

4. Edward in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist

There aren’t many dogs in Anne Tyler’s novels (I have a sneaking suspicion she prefers cats), but Edward, a Welsh corgi, rules this book. Edward is responsible for Macon’s broken leg, which forces Macon to move back to the family home. Then Edward’s unruly behaviour leads Macon to hire Muriel, the crazy dog trainer, which results in scenes that any dog owner will recognise:

“During the course of the evening he chewed a pencil to splinters, stole a pork-chop bone from the garbage bin, and threw up on the sun porch rug; but now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.”

In between attacking Macon’s boss and terrorising innocent cyclists and pedestrians, Edward brightens the life of Muriel’s son and manages to throw Macon and Muriel into a very unlikely but satisfying romance.

5. King in Anne Holm’s I Am David

Oh, King! The most loving, loyal sheepdog in the world, who sacrifices himself to save David! I can’t type out a quote about King, because it will make me cry. Just go and read it (with a big box of tissues).

Hmm, I didn’t plan to end on such a sad note. Look, here’s a hilarious comic about a dog with . . . um, intellectual challenges and another one about the same dog having difficulties adjusting to a new house.

Also – don’t forget that the Montmaray give-away is open till April 5th, if you’d like to win a book.

Happy Birthday, Jules Verne!

'20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' by Jules VerneHappy birthday to Jules Verne, the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (or Twenty Thousand Legs Under the Sea, as one of my friends used to call it). To celebrate, go and have a look at the best Google Doodle yet! A little submarine that you can manoeuvre up and down and across the sea! Check out the treasure chest on the sea bed, and the shark, and the divers! So cool.

(If you missed it on the 8th of February, you can still read about it at The Guardian.)

Look At This Cover!

The people who design my book covers have consistently come up with thoughtful, attractive designs, but I think this one is the most gorgeous yet:

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover
'The FitzOsbornes in Exile', North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

It’s so glamorous! It’s such a great depiction of the mood of the book! And isn’t that model the perfect Sophie? She’s doing the Queen Matilda chin tilt! And her facial expression! Is she sad, or bored, or calm, or curious, or defiant, or all of those things at once? She’s even wearing the pearl drop earrings Aunt Charlotte gives her for her seventeenth birthday. At first, I thought the dress looked more 1950s than 1930s, but it’s an actual photo from a 1930s edition of Vogue. (The dress is probably more daring and fashionable than Sophie would wear, though – and she must have just had her hair done by Monsieur Raymond, the hair artiste.)

Sitting next to Sophie is Toby. It can’t be Simon, because the figure has fair hair, and it can’t be Rupert, because he seems to be smoking a cigarette. In the background is Veronica, dressed in mourning and dancing with . . . someone. He’s probably not Daniel, not at a Society ball. I guess it could be Simon – in which case, they’re stomping on each other’s feet, out of range of the camera.

I love the colours of this cover, too. I don’t know if the designer planned it, but it brings to my mind the red, white and black of the Nazi flag – a chilling hint of what’s in store for these characters.

Then there’s the beautiful title, written in a lovely 1930s Art Deco font.

Oh, it’s all so very pretty . . . and if you live in the United States or Canada, you can buy your very own copy in two months time! (Actually, I guess you could buy a copy wherever you live in the world, as long as you don’t mind paying a large postage bill.)

I should also mention that the paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is out next month in North America. The cover looks like this:

'A Brief History of Montmaray' - North American paperback
'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American paperback, released on March 8th, 2011

It’s quite different from the North American hardcover, which featured a photo of a castle perched on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. That hardcover design seemed to polarise readers – some thought it was really striking and interesting, others felt it made the book look boring. Which just goes to show you can’t please everyone. This paperback cover does look a bit more ‘fairy-tale princess’, which could be a good or bad thing. I mean, FitzOsborne princesses don’t tend to hang around on tower balconies waiting for a prince to rescue them, but on the other hand, it is a very nice photo of a castle on a moonlit night. (And is that a full moon, hidden by clouds? Watch out for werechickens!)

North American readers can buy this paperback next month – or they can buy the lovely hardcover edition right now. Or they can buy both!

To Respond Or Not To Respond (To Reviews)

That is the question.

When my first novel was published, I decided I would not respond to on-line reviews, ever. I believed bloggers should be free to say whatever they wanted about a book, and I thought they might feel inhibited if they knew the author was reading their review. Obviously, if a review of my book was negative, I would never, ever argue about it with the reviewer. That would be pathetic and rude. But if the review was positive, wouldn’t it be sycophantic and stalker-ish for me to leave gushing thanks in the comments?

This policy was easy to follow for my first book, because a) there weren’t that many book bloggers around then, and b) hardly anyone read my first book, let alone reviewed it. (Poor Rage of Sheep. She’s like the plain, nerdy girl who gets ignored in favour of her younger, prettier and more charming sister.)

Guercino - La Sibilla Persica
The author wonders whether or not she should respond to that one-star review on Goodreads
Anyway, things are a bit different now. The YA blogosphere is enormous, and growing every day, so lots more reviewers are on-line. I’m now published outside Australia, which means I have more readers and more reviewers. I’ve actually met some bloggers who’ve reviewed my books (and of course, they all turn out to be super-nice people, as well as having excellent taste in books), and personal connections always complicate matters. I have my own blog, too, and sometimes (okay, not that often) I comment on strangers’ blogs about other topics – so if they subsequently mention one of my books, they’ll probably suspect that I will read their opinion at some stage. Occasionally, mutual friends also draw my attention to a blogger’s post featuring one of my books. And it’s not only reviews – sometimes, one of my books gets mentioned in a ‘favourite books of the year’ post, and I feel even more guilty about not saying a huge thank you to the blogger.

So, what should I do? It would be polite to say, “Thank you very much; I am so pleased you enjoyed the book” whenever anyone posts a positive review and I get to hear about it. But if I did that, I’d have to comment on EVERY blog post that mentions my book, otherwise people would say, “How rude! She commented on X’s blog, but completely ignored my post!” And, of course, sometimes I don’t see reviews until weeks after they’ve been posted; sometimes I don’t ever find out about them.

See how it would be easier to stick with my original policy? But then, sometimes bloggers post such wonderfully insightful and/or hilarious comments about my books that I can’t help wanting to contact them, simply because they sound like the sort of people I’d like to get to know. For example, this librarian, who recently blogged about A Brief History of Montmaray:

“OMG MICHELLE COOPER HIJACKED MY TEENAGED BRAIN! A castle! Nazis! Ghosts! Crazy people! British nobility! NON-British nobility! NOT true love! Diary format! The only thing she left out was sym– wait, she DID include sympathetic socialists. THERE WERE EVEN SYMPATHETIC SOCIALISTS! Who IS this Michelle Cooper person, and HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?!”

Actually, I was laughing too much to comment in any coherent way on that particular post. And it was published last year, and I only read it today, so, kind of weird to comment now, anyway.

I know some bloggers love having authors visit their blogs. But I’m sure just as many bloggers hate the idea of an author butting in on their frank book conversations with friends. (Yes, I know if it’s on the internet, it’s out there for public scrutiny. But I still regard blogs as someone’s personal space.)

So, for the moment, I am sticking with my original policy of not responding to on-line reviews. (Of course, if people e-mail me with their thoughts on my books, I always reply, usually with gushing thanks. And the same thing goes if I meet readers in Real Life.) In the meantime, I’d like to say an enormous THANK YOU to any blogger who’s ever posted a nice comment about one of my books. It really is very encouraging and flattering and all-round awesome for an author to read that sort of thing. And to bloggers who didn’t like one of my books: I respect your right to your own opinion, thanks for giving the book a try, and sorry it didn’t turn out to be your cup of tea. (I make an exception to this for the homophobic librarian who was disgusted by A Brief History of Montmaray because it contained non-heterosexual characters. I don’t respect her opinion. Although, of course, I defend her right to publish her thoughts on her own blog, just as I defend my right to pull faces at her behind her back.)

Authors Seanan McGuire and Sarah Rees Brennan have posted sensibly and eloquently about this issue. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?