Longstanding readers will know that I generally sign off a year’s blogging on Christmas Eve and resume around January 2nd. They’ll be wondering what’s happened, given this is my first post of 2017. Well, I simply haven’t known what to say.
Charlatans and crooks have got hold of the reins of power in the UK and the US. Our alleged leaders have been lurching from one glibly aspirational sound-bite to the next, with no clear plan for anything and even less understanding of the complex issues they’re facing. Insulated by wealthy and privilege, they’re going to make narrow-minded, dogmatic decisions which will have a devastating impact on ordinary people’s lives. All of which is sufficiently apparent in the mass media without this particular blog adding to the chorus of despair.
Doing book promo stuff instead? That’s been feeling like saying ‘well, yes, I know the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, but while you’re waiting for the sky to fall in, how about an enjoyable read?’ Just for me, please note. I’ve been seeing other people’s book stuff and thinking, ‘how nice, something positive for a change’. Logic does not necessarily apply in these circumstances.
So what’s changed? The Women’s March. All the women’s marches, all around the world, from Antarctica to Alaska and everywhere in between. Reading all those placards; witty, funny, furious, uncompromising. Seeing so much support for all women, of all ages, regardless of race, religion, disability, cis and transgender alike. So much support from men, gay, straight, whatever. So much collective determination to defend human rights for all.
Seeing SF&Fantasy so evident in the images and quotes on display, from Princess Leia to Xena, Warrior Princess to Wonder Woman. Not to mention Doctor Who/Peter Capaldi and Gandalf/Sir Ian McKellen marching in London (carrying a poster of Jon Luc Picard/Patrick Stewart).
Within 24 hours though, I was also reading attempts to undermine that millions-strong opposition to selfishness, bigotry and greed. Possibly the most ludicrous tweet was that bloke claiming this wasn’t a spontaneous movement because ‘no one could have manufactured and distributed so many pink hats so quickly’. Er, there speaks a man who has no clue how quickly an experienced knitter can work with some spare yarn and a simple pattern freely available on the Net. But there have been more serious attempts. I’m highly suspicious of some of those trying to turn what are vital conversations on understanding intersectionality into blazing rows between one group and another. The selfish, bigoted and greedy have had so much success with ‘divide and rule’ of late.
Why wasn’t I marching myself? Because I have a stinking cold and the worst earache I’ve had since I was a kid. So I’ve been on the sofa, re-reading some Terry Pratchett – specifically Going Postal and Making Money. Both of those are books castigating selfishness, bigotry and greed. So much of Pratchett’s writing challenges us with the cold, hard truth that all that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing.
Meantime, my friend Catie is reading my Lescari Revolution books. She’s had a couple of questions that had me checking the text to make sure I was giving her the right answers. That’s reminded me I wrote a whole damn trilogy about ordinary people deciding they’re mad as hell about being trampled by the selfish and greedy and getting organised to oppose them. Okay, that’s fiction, but I researched enough real revolutions and popular uprisings throughout history before I wrote those books to know it can be done.
So it’s time to get writing again. Fiction. Non-fiction. Letters and emails to my elected representatives.
And let’s support all those writing the investigative and analytical journalism that will be crucial to exposing our so-called leaders’ lies and restoring democratic accountability.
Around this time of December, I usually do a sort of round-up and conclusions from the past twelve months post, before signing off until the New Year.
This year? I really don’t know what to say. The future, politically at least, looks so uncomfortably uncertain, here in the UK, in so many parts of Europe and in the USA. The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election still beggar belief, for me at least. So what do we do about all that? I wish I knew.
And that’s by no means all the ugliness in the world, as the news from Aleppo and the Yemen show, just to mention a couple of horrors.
What about the work stuff? The vagaries of the book trade continue to challenge me – and not in a good way – along with so many other writers. Can I come up with a realistic way forward for 2017?
Okay, what about the personal stuff? Well, the family is all well, and settled in our various studies and occupations, so let’s be thankful for that. Older relatives continue hale and hearty overall, so let’s be thankful for that. The siblings and their children are ticking over fine, so that’s good. Friends are mostly okay, and where they’re facing challenges with infirm, elderly parents or similar, we’re offering what support we can.
So I suppose that’s the thing, isn’t it? We do what we can.
So I’ll continue to donate to the local foodbank, and to those charities at home and abroad which are working to help those whose lives are being so wantonly destroyed by the selfishness and violence of others.
I’ll use my vote and voice where and whenever I can, against the intolerance and deceit that’s corrupting our media and public discourse.
I’ll keep writing, and I’ll keep working with the many good and generous people I know, as we share the things we continue to learn about the ever-changing environment for authors.
Here’s to a better 2017 for us all.
Not a bit of it. Throughout 2016, whenever we’ve been told ‘there should be some news by such-and-such-a-month’ we’ve noted that in our diaries, and followed up accordingly. No one has been left in any doubt that we’re not going to let this drop, in the nicest possible way.
We’ve stayed in touch with our contacts in Whitehall and Brussels, and with the MEPs and their teams who’ve been working with us – most notably Catherine Bearder (Lib Dem), Anneliese Dodds (Lab) and Vicky Ford (Con). This has continued to be a cross-party/non-partisan effort, and we are tremendously grateful to them all.
Now we have real and definite progress to report! The proposed threshold & simplifications for EU VAT have been announced. This is a solid proposal backed by the key decision makers in the EU.
In summary – businesses exporting below €10k of digital sales into the EU (excluding their home country sales) will apply their home country VAT rules, not digital VAT. Those above that but with sales below €100k will be eligible for a ‘soft landing’ of just one piece of data, to prove the customer’s location.
This will help many thousands of micro businesses to continue – or resume – trading, without having to move to 3rd party platforms (costing them 30% or more in commission) or hampering their prospects with geo-blocking.
So are we done? No, not quite yet. This is a proposal and now needs to become law. There are also some issues in the fine detail that need addressing, as well as questions about what happens in the interim. You may rest assured that we’re tackling those.
For now? We celebrate! Bear in mind that two years ago, those self-employed women and solo entrepreneurs who were worst affected by this, who’d never even been consulted, were told categorically by a government minister and senior officials from HMRC, HM Treasury, and the European Commission, that the VATMOSS rules were now set in stone and there was no possibility of changing them because they had been agreed across the EU, as implemented on 1st January 2015. Business organisations and pundits told us the same.
We refused to accept this. We got busy. You all got busy. Every single person who wrote a letter to their MP, their MEPs, their Treasury or Finance Ministry, who signed online petitions, wrote blogposts and joined in the Twitter-storms contributed to this success. Everyone who contributed to the crowdfunding which enabled us to send representatives to Brussels, to Dublin and to lobby key officials. All those with expert knowledge of tax, finance and political campaigning who shared their advice and insights with us. We couldn’t have done this without you.
So keep your eyes open for opportunities to help us next year, so we can get this done and dusted once and for all, as swiftly as possible!
We all get used to the idea of little white lies; of resorting to minor dishonesty to smooth over social difficulties. Saying ‘I’m so sorry we can’t come to the party, I’m coming down with some sort of cold and I wouldn’t want to spread it around’. When actually, it’s just been an exhausting week at work and we’d much rather spend Saturday night on our own sofa with a movie on Netflix. Okay, it’s fudging the truth but surely that’s better than causing needless offence?
But where do we draw the line? How far will we go, insisting that the ends will justify the means? I first recall this debate during the ‘Operation Countryman’ investigations into the UK’s Metropolitan Police in the late 1970s. Among the allegations made was the police fabricating evidence, justifying this on the grounds that the crook in question might not be guilty of this particular charge but he had got away with so many other crimes that fitting him up for this one was serving justice regardless. Or that these people were so obviously guilty, even if no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, that the police just gave the prosecution a helping hand by burying something that undermined their case. Wrongdoing for the greater good is excusable, surely? It’s even got a special name now; ‘noble cause corruption’. Just try that phrase on for size a few times. Noble cause corruption. Isn’t it seductive? We all want to think we’re doing something noble. Except, as so many cases have shown, the consequences can be appalling miscarriages of justice. Who’s left feeling so noble once those truths come out?
What has this got to do with storytelling? Well, as the writing cliché goes, conflict is the essence of drama. Writing epic fantasy across four series of novels, I’ve set up my heroes and heroines with all manner of conflicts; murderous sneak-thieves, brutal invaders, arrogant nobles waging war to serve selfish ambitions, and renegade wizards threatening everyone’s peace. In all these stories, a broad array of characters are all serving the greater good with courage, guile and their quick wits. Granted, there’s deception and misdirection involved but that’s understandable and excusable. Noble, even.
Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin
But what if we take this one step further? What if the truth about something is so dangerous, if the consequences of it being revealed are so horribly dangerous, that bare-faced lies must be told to conceal it? Where’s the heroism in deliberately upholding something you know to be calculatedly false? What if those who discover this truth must be silenced by whatever means prove necessary? Where’s the heroism in using violence and threats to coerce innocent bystanders who’ve accidentally stumbled onto a secret? How does someone convince themselves that this sort of behaviour is in any sense noble? If they can’t, but they still have no choice but to act this way, what will that crisis of conscience mean for them? How corrosive will those lies be for their soul? This is the tension that underpins the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom.
Not that I consciously realised this, when I started writing these stories back in 2008. But that’s the thing about fantasy fiction. It has an uncanny knack of reflecting the world we live in right back at us.
We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where the celebrity-obsessed rolling-news media are so seduced by ideas of ‘narrative’ that they persist in fitting ‘breaking news’ events into a pre-existing framework before even half the facts are known. When inconvenient facts emerge later, proving something significantly different happened, the truth will struggle to catch the lies which have already gone round the world.
We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where ‘reality’ TV no longer means documentaries bringing harsh truths into the light but ‘scripted’ and ‘constructed’ entertainments masquerading as real life. Somehow all this has become normalised, even acceptable, even as it colours attitudes and reinforces dangerous prejudices about religion, unemployment, poverty and black and minority ethnic issues.
We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where massively significant political victories are currently being won by people who tell deliberate and calculated lies. People who just shrug and carry on lying when the truth is waved in their face. Why are they doing this? Because those liars are getting their reward when those desperate and disadvantaged people who desperately want to believe those lies are voting for the lies not the truth. Because, to take just one example currently applicable to the UK and US, the lie of ‘vote for me/my plan and I’ll bring those old jobs back’ is quicker to tell and easier to swallow than a detailed explanation of decades of economic and industrial change which means those jobs are gone beyond recall and creating alternatives requires focused investment, hard work and new thinking.
What’s our excuse for letting such lies go unchallenged? We’re not trying to keep out the monsters from a shadow realm. In our world, allowing these lies to take over means the monsters get a hold over us all.
Right, we’ve hit the halfway mark on the Desert Island Books (and music) list, so this looks like a good time to put those on pause. I’m off to Moniack Mhor on Monday, and that’s going to be a full-on week of teaching and mentoring – which I am really looking forward to – so I don’t expect to be blogging or doing much, if any, social media, until I get back.
I do have one more piece to post, which will follow this. Retrospective posts are all well and good but I’ve also been reflecting on the current state of play in politics and culture. We need to start thinking more seriously about what’s going on at the toxic intersection of fact and fiction at the moment. If you’re going to tell lies, what’s your justification?
Right, now I have workshops to prepare, student submissions to critique, and the fun and exciting game of working out how much warm clothing I can pack in a suitcase that meets Flybe’s size and weight requirements for hold luggage. It’s a nine to ten hour journey on the train from Oxford to Inverness, so I am taking a train to Birmingham airport and flying from there instead. In a plane where I suspect goggles and a long white scarf will be issued on check-in. Mind you, the Highlands are currently warmer than the Cotswolds, according the BBC Weather website.
Flipping the Desert Island Discs format for Novacon still meant including some music, by way of equivalent to the Castaway’s choice of books. My first selection is the 1981 album ‘Time’ by the Electric Light Orchestra. And honestly the Birmingham connection is entirely fortuitous. I’ve been a fan of ELO and Jeff Lynne’s work for decades. Anyway, we couldn’t play the whole thing that Friday evening so I picked ‘Here is the News’ as the track epitomising this album’s appeal for me.
For those of you not familiar with the song, here’s the official video. Which does look as if it was made for a tenner in about half an hour one Friday afternoon. So, please, just listen to those lyrics and try not to be too distracted by the cutting edge 1980s technology, not to mention the hair and makeup.
The words are the thing for me. Because I listen to lyrics above all else. I always knew that, sort of, but in recent years long car journeys with just the Music Student Son has really driven that home for me. Whether we’ve been heading for a SF convention, a University open day, or latterly, trekking up and down the M1 to Huddersfield where he’s studying, we alternate choice of CDs. When whoever’s not driving is swapping the music over, we’ve exchanged a few thoughts on the other’s choice. My observations are always about the words – “did you see what they did there with those references?” While his responses are always about the intricacies (or not) of the sound – “but they used a standard drum track!” Or alternatively from me – “it was a good tune but the lyrics barely avoided rhyming June with Spoon” versus him “but didn’t you catch what they did with the bass line?” Er… no…
Which is one reason why I cannot listen to music while I’m writing. Certainly not music with lyrics. At worst, I get horribly distracted. At best, the words end up in whatever I’m writing. This is the reason there’s a brothel in one of my books called ‘The Rising Sun’.
And which explains why I love this album so much. The whole thing’s a story, and one that prompts as many questions as it offers answers. Is the narrator dreaming? Is this a real time travel experience? What do these songs have to say about how we live now, about the future, about humanity, about relationships? While offering everything from fast-paced rock to heart-breaking ballads. Where do writers get their ideas from? If you’re like me, it’s from things like this.
As a single track, ‘Here is the News’ has intriguing questions in just about every line. Why ‘good old’ rocket lag? What does a cure for that mean anyway? Someone left their life behind in a plastic bag? How does that happen? Someone’s escaped from Satellite Two? So what happens there that means everyone must now ‘look very carefully, it might be you’? The Justice Computer… let’s think about that one for a while… And so on and so forth. I reckon I could get back from this Desert Island with an anthology of stories based on this one song alone, never mind the entire album.
As a student, I discovered Larry Niven’s writing in the extensive and eclectic paperback library maintained by the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Society – OUSFG. Which had been forbidden, on its foundation by CS Lewis and Brian Aldiss, to call itself a Science Fiction society, lest any unwary undergraduates were deceived into thinking it had anything to do with actual, proper and respectable science. Whatever.
Niven’s writing showed me still more facets of science fiction. Far more challenging aspects than I than I had encountered thus far, reading the likes of John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes or the more cerebral musings of Arthur C Clarke. Niven’s books were full of hard edges, often sardonic, even sarcastic. His stories turned on sharp injustices or implacable forces of nature where, sorry, nobody cares. He relished drawing out ideas to logical yet appalling conclusions such as transplant technology leading to organ legging. Along with feeding my appetite for that sensawunda that underpins the best SF – transfer booths, stage trees, Mount Lookitthat, the Bandersnatchi, the Ringworld. Plus his work featured a whole lot of the stuff I already loved; psi powers in the Gil Hamilton stories, solar system adventures with the Belters, so on and so forth. And whatever the Oxford University Proctors might think, I actually picked up a fair bit of science, even if that was in a fairly haphazard fashion, from books like The Integral Trees.
Why this particular collection, of all Niven’s books? It has some of my favourite stories in it, such as Eye of an Octopus for a start. It’s also an interesting collection for a writer since it charts the evolution of his Known Space writing and includes a timeline as well as some author’s notes reflecting on the haphazard creation of a milieu through a varied body of work, written over many years. Unsurprisingly, this is of particular interest to me, as I continue exploring the River Kingdom world which I’m developing. I also want to take a new and closer look at Niven’s skills and techniques, in the peace and quiet that I hope to find on this notional Desert Island. The advent of ebooks is seeing a resurgence in shorter form fiction and I reckon we can all learn a lot from looking back to the previous heyday of SF as published in weekly and monthly magazines.
What? I’m calling for a return to the past? Advocating a reactionary, old-fashioned view of SF? Not at all. Don’t be daft. I’m talking about craft, not content here. Mind you, if you want to argue with the content, you’ll need to come prepared. Niven is an eloquent and persuasive advocate for his particular world view. Do I always agree with him? No. But that’s something else I’ve always valued about reading science fiction: getting insights into attitudes that might challenge me to justify my own. All the more so in our current world, now that it’s fatally easy to end up in our own personal echo chambers, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Reading stories from people who in operate in different spheres can definitely broaden our perspective.
And this series of posts is a personal retrospective on my lifetime of reading SF and fantasy. I wouldn’t hand my own student son my dog-eared copy of Tales of Known Space and expect it to have anything like the same impact on him, or the same resonance. Context is everything, in reading as in writing. Thirty-odd years ago, my SF universe was underpinned by Star Trek, Star Wars, Asimov et al. He’s grown up with Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), Firefly, the Halo games, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Martian and so much, much more.
As far as I am concerned, this is the fatal flaw in insisting that today’s newcomers to SF&F must go back and start their reading with the classics of the genre which meant so much to the likes of me, in the way back when. Some may take to these stories as readily as I did and that’s great, but I really wouldn’t necessarily expect it. That was then and this is now. I’m far more inclined to offer the newly curious current work that’s been written in the same context as their own lives and experiences. After all, there’s no shortage of excellent writing available at the moment, from doorstop novels to short stories. There’s time enough for those readers who become dedicated fans, or who decide to turn their own hand to writing, to go on to explore the origins and antecedents of the genre. Where I’d hope they’d find reading Larry Niven as much fun as I always have.
I started reading Robert A Heinlein when I found his ‘juveniles’ in our local branch library’s Junior section. Farmer in the Sky, Tunnel in the Sky, Red Planet and so on. There were also a couple of books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke in there, ideal reading now that my appetite for SF had been whetted by Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO and other 70s television offerings. But there weren’t that many of them. In fact, about a year before I went to secondary school, it was apparent to me and the nice lady librarians that I’d read pretty much everything in the Junior section, many of the books multiple times. This posed a problem because I wouldn’t be issued tickets for the Adult section until I went to secondary school, according to the rules.
A good librarian knows when a rule is more of a guideline. We came to a gentlewoman’s agreement that I would be allowed into the Adult section to read SF. After all, if books by Heinlein et al were in the Juniors, that would be perfectly safe, wouldn’t it? Clearly none of them had ever read I Will Fear No Evil… Well, I certainly found that an eye-opening introduction to just how different the world could look from inside someone else’s head.
But of all the Heinlein I read, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the book that’s stayed with me. It was my first introduction to a writer using historical events as a basis for a science fiction novel. I soon spotted the parallels with the American Revolution/War of Independence and the Russian Revolution. The mentions of a radically different political situation on Earth fascinated me. I liked the depth and substance added by the digressions and discussions about self-determination, passive resistance and how to organise a subversive network in secure cells. All of which took place in a world where everything has be to paid for; air, water, food. Where people dig their homes out of the moonrock and live in all manner of family structures which weren’t happening in Dorset in the 70s. Or at least, if they were, I didn’t know about it. A dangerous world and not just because vacuum and radiation can kill you. It’s a world where blinkered thinking and selfish greed driving those in unearned authority prompts brutal opposition that leaves no room for compromise. Even the language this story was told in had its intriguing peculiarities. So much of what I’ve loved about recent SF reads, from Ian McDonald’s Luna, to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden books, can be traced back to this story.
Forty or so years later, I realise this was where I first encountered all sorts of things that were solidly SF back then and are now part of real life. Virtual reality, as fake personalities are constructed from pixels within a computer to further the revolution and protect those really behind it. Think how close to such realism our computer games have become. Surrogacy. The notion of Wyoh, the professional host mother was astonishing to me as a teenager. Now? That would hardly raise an eyebrow, though there might be some medical concerns.
Which prompts further thoughts on Heinlein’s attitudes to women and their roles in society in this particular novel. He’s so often accused of being a reactionary, right-wing writer these days. Really? I’m not convinced there’s over-much evidence here. Yes, in many ways, it’s a book of its time, but not in the way that those who want to excuse old-fashioned misogyny use that phrase so often. This moon is also a racially integrated society, let’s not forget. Which isn’t to say that elsewhere in Heinlein’s books, his attitudes and ideas can be problematic, all the more so where his writing disappears down the rabbit hole of his personal obsessions. All of which leads me to conclude that it’s both difficult and dangerous to make sweeping statements about one author’s entire body of writing, especially when that work extends over decades. (And sees me extremely keen to read Farah Mendlesohn’s forthcoming work on Heinlein)
Then there’s Mike, the dinkum thinkum. The AI by accident. The computer who becomes self aware as more and more processing power is added on to his mainframe in haphazard fashion. Who decides what he really wants to know is what makes something funny. Who wants a friend. A benign artificial intelligence. So different from the eerie menace of HAL or the impersonal functionality of Star Trek’s computer. I loved Mike. I still long for some such discovery in a computer lab somewhere…
Originally published at Juliet E. McKenna. Comments here now enabled
As a writer, you’re often asked about your influences. As a fantasy writer, it’s generally assumed that Narnia must have been central to your childhood reading. Now, I certainly read and re-read the Narnia stories, and loved them as a kid, but thinking back to early reading that’s had a lasting influence on me as a reader and writer, I’d say E Nesbit far outweighs CS Lewis. Not least for the far wider variety of the stories she offered. There are the Bastable books, the Psammead books, the House of Arden books – and still more. All of which include so many snippets of information and history and other interesting asides which fascinated me, alongside the thrilling adventures, with or without encounters with magic.
Then there are the elements in Nesbit’s books which Narnia so conspicuously lacks – such as parents. For Nesbit’s child protagonists, parents mean complications both practical and emotional, bringing a whole added level of interest and complexity to their stories. Then there’s loss and change and these children have to cope with those things – just as children of all ages and eras have to cope with such challenges. There’s no getting away from the realities of life, even if you’ve got a magic carpet. Unlike the Pevensie children who can live entire lives as adult rulers of Narnia and still hit the reset button back to childhood by stumbling through the wardrobe the wrong way. Whose reaction to learning everyone has been killed in The Last Battle struck me as unconvincing then and now.
I was never convinced I’d have much in common with the Pevensies. The children in Nesbit’s books? Oh, yes, we’d have got on famously. Not least for their inveterate habit of playing complex imagination games spun off the stories they’d read and things they had seen. That’s how me, my brother and our friends spent our free time after all. And just like us, they had to handle unexpected bad luck, sometimes as a consequence of things they had done, sometimes coming out of the blue. They so often had to negotiate adult rules and expectations, not merely those of their parents. And to decide just how much of the truth, without actually telling lies, they could share with their parents…
Revisiting these books as an adult, I find they stand up to re-reading far better than Narnia. I can also appreciate far more fully the ways Nesbit slides in adult perspectives and preoccupations which the children in the book can only half-grasp, in the same way that I first half-grasped them as a reader. This must have made reading these books aloud far more amusing for parents; think how Pixar do the same in their movies today. Then there are the social conscience elements, reflecting Nesbit’s lifelong commitment to socialism from the 1880s onwards. In this particular book, the children’s lives include servants as a matter of course but Nesbit shows their cook has good reason to be so exasperated. When the children encounter a burglar, it’s soon apparent his descent into crime stems from social ills rather than a degenerate personality.
It’s worth noting that these are the particular aspects that stood out in my memory when I was trying to decide which particular book of Nesbit’s to choose for this Desert Island collection – the cook, the burglar, the phoenix’s transitory nature and the fact that carpets wear out.
Incidentally, I’ve learned far more about Nesbit’s life and political activism over the years and that’s a fascinating story in its own right. From the writerly point of view, she really does deserve far more recognition than she gets today, when people are discussing the origins of current fantasy writing.
(Next up, the American writers who expanded my understanding of SF)
Originally published at Juliet E. McKenna. Comments here now enabled.
Last weekend I was having a splendid time at Novacon, where I was most royally treated as this year’s Guest of Honour. After the opening ceremony I settled down to chat with Eve Harvey about a selection of Desert Island books. Given this is a SF convention, I decided to select books I recalled as having a particular impact on me and my love of science fiction and fantasy writing, first as a reader and latterly as an author. It was great fun and I’ve been asked to share some thoughts online for the benefit of those who weren’t there.
Naturally, I am currently madly busy with all sorts of authorly and non-authorly calls on my time… so I’ve signally failed to find any leeway this week to write them all up. So I’ve decided to do one at a time instead 🙂 Here’s my first pick.
Rosemary Harris – The Moon in the Cloud
This is the first of a trilogy set in the ancient world, when Noah has just been told by God that there’s going to be a flood. So he needs to build an ark, and to stock it with two of every kind of animal. Noah sets his ne’er-do-well son Ham the task of finding two lions and two sacred Egyptian cats for the collection. Idle and feckless Ham contracts this work out to Reuben, a poor musician and entertainer, promising him and his wife Thamar that they will have places on the ark. Reuben resolutely sets out for Egypt with his cat, his dog and his camel – who can all communicate with him. Complications ensue… Oh, and it’s also very funny.
This book – the whole trilogy – have stayed with me for decades, every since primary school. I reckon this was the first time I encountered an author taking an established story like Noah’s flood as a starting point and making something new that was wholly their own. There is real peril and genuine villainy and the pressing question: will virtue really be rewarded? All things which children should be encouraged to think through. All things which still inform my own writing.
How did I come across this book? Mrs Beauchamp, the teacher with responsibility for the school library (I think) would regularly pass me new purchases to read first and this was one of those. I really do feel it’s impossible to overstate the importance of libraries – at school and in the community – for children. Reading expands horizons and offers refuge and so much else, especially when guided by expert and experienced educators and librarians. Closing and downgrading libraries is one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism ongoing in our time.
What else did this book mean to me? I think my interest in Egypt and the ancient world generally predated my reading this series, but these books definitely helped to focus that fascination. Not least because I read and re-read this trilogy. Eventually I managed to buy my own set – which I still have – and every time I see them on the shelves I remember the Christmas money from Great Auntie Ivy which paid for them. That’s something that gave me pause, when I was choosing this selection. Remembering how precious books were back then, and how expensive they seemed. It’s worlds away from this day and age when I can pick up any paperback I might fancy (okay, within reason) or snag a bargain ebook for 99p if something interesting catches my eye.
Oh, and there’s a footnote about Jean Beauchamp, that wonderful teacher. She was long since retired when I became a published author myself, but the local teachers’ network passed word back to my Mum, also a primary teacher for many years, to say how delighted she had been to see a book written by one of the children whose love of reading she had nurtured.