Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Books that Made Daisy and Hazel

As some of you may know, I finished the latest draft of Murder Most Unladylike yesterday. This means that we're one stage closer to turning my brain's random firings into an actual, physical book.

In a few months, Daisy and Hazel aren't just going to be mine any more. They're going to belong to you, to every single person who reads about them, and some of you are not going to like them. It's a surprisingly scary thought.

Anyway, to stop myself worrying about that, I've come up with a list of books that I was thinking about when I wrote Murder Most Unladylike, a handy guide to what's in Daisy and Hazel's literary DNA. This is where the Wells and Wong Detective Society started . . . 

1. The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Of course this one was going to be in here! My father gave me a copy of A Study in Scarlet when I was eight (an interesting choice of childhood reading material, and one which may have been intended to make a passive-agressive point about the nuttiness of my mother's Mormon family members), and I've loved Holmes and Watson ever since.

There's a lot of the Great Detective in Daisy. He's a detective who's 's successful largely because of all the localised know-how he has. Take him out of London, or ask him to solve a crime that doesn't involve any of his specialised areas of knowledge and he's just not quite as brilliant. Daisy, likewise, is able to solve the murder because she's made an obsessive study of all the goings-on at Deepdean school. But she's also a bit anti-Holmes: when I was making up my detectives I wondered what would happen if someone as smart as Sherlock was actually interested in human emotions as well as footprints, and Daisy was the result.

Hazel, meanwhile, is a bit of a mixture. She's a tribute to Watson - not the dopey TV version, but Conan Doyle's smarter, cooler original who actually helped Holmes solve his cases - but she's also got Sherlock's three-pipe armchair brilliance. And that's very helpful, because all Daisy wants to do is shout, "THE GAME'S AFOOT!" and wrestle the murderer to the ground in triumph, but she couldn't get there without Hazel.

2. The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

When I was researching Murder Most Unladylike I realised with total horror that I couldn't have any of my characters actually reading an Enid Blyton book. The first Famous Five was published in 1942, eight years after the events in my book (process this, if you can: in the 1930s they had linoleum but no Enid Blyton). But of course, Daisy and Hazel wouldn't exist without Blyton's stories about Mallory Towers, St Clare's and the Famous Five.

The Famous Five are really the Famous Two and Three Complete Idiots. Timmy the Dog contributes more to any one mystery than Anne does to the entire series. In fact, all Anne does is cook and cry, and all Julian does is look after Anne, and all Dick does is chase after Julian looking adoring. They're rubbish. It's up to George, ably assisted by Timmy, to single-handedly protect the Cornish coast from smugglers, and I've always very much respected her as a detective heroine. Like George, Daisy and Hazel are extremely determined to solve their case, and they're also just as willing to take on grown-ups who they think are Up To No Good. Also, they like to eat cake and drink ginger beer while they do it. I hope Enid would approve.

3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

This might seem a bit weird at first, but the Harry Potter series made me want to write detective novels. I remember reading Philosopher's Stone for the first time when I was eleven and realising with total excitement that J.K. Rowling had written a whodunit.

Think about it. In each of the Harry Potter books you have to work out who the bad guy is. Most of them actually feature a murder in some way or another. In fact, the whole series begins with the murders of Harry's parents, and it's largely about Harry's quest to bring their killer to justice. And then there's Hermione, superstar girl detective, who always solves the case. See what I mean? Harry Potter is just a mystery series with wizards. There's definitely a bit of Hogwarts in Deepdean, and a lot of Harry, Ron and Hermione's friendship in Daisy and Hazel's.

 4. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

I doubt you'll be surprised that I've got some Agatha Christie in this list. It's probably equally unsurprising that I've chosen her school spy story to feature here. Normally, Christie doesn't really write about children, and that's possibly because she's so awful at it. Her under-16s are basically just lumpy, pupal pre-adults, and when I first read her books (aged twelve) this really bothered me. I wanted to read a murder mystery with characters like me, and there just weren't any in Christie. Even the older teenage characters just ended up getting married, which was not a life path I could relate to. I think I wrote Murder Most Unladylike so that my twelve-year-old self could finally read about kids solving a Christie murder.

Anyway, Cat Among the Pigeons is an exception to Christie's general no-children rule, and I think it's quite great. It's got an exciting jewel heist, midnight shenanigans in the sports pavilion, lots of hockey and tennis and even more teacherly intrigue.

It also features a non-white pupil, Princess Shaista. I admit, said princess is an utterly rubbish stock character, but the fact that she's there is really interesting. It made me want to write a non-white, non-English character who was actually a human being, and thinking that was one step on the way to creating Hazel. 

5. Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

Another Agatha Christie! Everyone knows about Poirot and Miss Marple, but she also wrote other detectives, and my favourite of those are Tommy and Tuppence. They are adorably immature adults (weirdly enough, I think Christie wrote her best child characters when she wrote about grown-ups), and they solve crime by pretending to be their favourite fictional detectives.

What's delightful is how silly Tommy and Tuppence are about really serious things, and how much fun they have with the detection process. That's the kind of detective novel I like to read. I love books that turn the crime into a puzzle to be solved, something that's awful but essentially fixible. And I love making jokes about serious things. Agatha Christie is the queen of all of that.

6. Trent's Last Case by E.C. Bentley

The cool thing about Sherlock Holmes is that he's always right. When you read a Holmes story you almost don't have to bother working things out for yourself (not that you even can, most of the time, unless you know 800 types of tobacco or the precise footprint tread depth left by a man carrying a body) because he's on the case. But it's also pretty cool to realise that sometimes, even detectives can be wrong.

Trent's Last Case introduced me to the concept of the fallible detective. Trent gets called in to solve a murder and completely screws his investigation up. He accuses the wrong person and awful things happen as a result. To me this was a total revelation. I suddenly realised that the reader could be allowed to be a better detective than the one the author's written. You could beat the professionals!

Daisy and Hazel may think they're pro detectives, but in true Trent style they go horribly wrong in the course of the investigation. They get there in the end (otherwise it wouldn't be much of a detective novel, would it?), but . . . well, all I'm going to say is that they get there in the end.

7. Raffles the Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung

I like my detectives to be a bit bad. Even Miss Marple, for all her kittenish old lady-ness, has a naughty side. A good detective needs to be able to break the rules (and to quite enjoy doing it), and so I think that this series, about a gentleman thief called Raffles and his adoring and spectacularly stupid sidekick Bunny, is pretty wonderful. The author, Hornung, was actually related to Conan Doyle (he was his brother in law), and these books were essentially fanfiction - Hornung wanted to write a version of Holmes where he was against the law rather than on its side.

So Raffles and Bunny go on daring night-time jewel heists, and steal priceless paintings from the Queen's collection, and it's all completely amazing and totally ridiculous. But the important thing about Raffles is that, even though he spends his evenings robbing people, by day he is the quintessential English cricket-playing gentleman. That's very similar to what's going on with Daisy. She seems like the perfect English young lady, but secretly she's a super-cool super-smart detective who will stop at nothing to solve a case. And she, like Raffles, is not above breaking the law - although when she does steal things she always makes sure to give them back afterwards.

8. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

This is it. This is the one. I have read a lot of detective novels in my life, but if I had to pick just one to take to a desert island it would be Miss Pym Disposes. It's a murder mystery set in a girls' boarding school, in which someone is found dead in the Gym - basically, Murder Most Unladylike is an adoring tribute to this book. Miss Pym is a fantastically fallible detective (she gets it horribly wrong on numerous occasions), there's a non-white pupil (although she's another stereotype, sadly), and there's a twist at the end so twistingly twisty that your brain will melt with the horrible amazement of it.

Can you tell that I love this book? Tey is a really fabulous writer, and a very clever plotter, and she really deserves to be known much more widely than she is. Don't worry, the person whodunit in Miss Pym Disposes isn't at all the person whodunit in Murder Most Unladylike, so one will not spoil you for the other, but there is a lot of Ley's Physical Training College in Deepdean, and a lot of Miss Pym in Daisy and Hazel.

And that's your lot! Of course, there's an awful lot more where that came from. I'm a bit of a detective novel fan. Let's just hope that Nat likes what I've done to Murder Most Unladylike . . . and that, in eight months or so, you like it too.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Best of the books: May and June

I've been a bit busy lately, for which I apologise. (Wait, no, what am I saying? I don't apologise. I'm becoming too British.)

Anyway, I've been editing and reading and working and so on, and I haven't had any time to blog about it. So, while I've got a brief free weekend (there are only ten other things I should be doing, it's fine), here's a round up of my best-of-the-best recent reads.

The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson

I have a lot of favourite authors. Eva Ibbotson is one of them. But I don't think any other authors have affected the way I live my life more than she has. Ibbotson's main characters are not just good, they're nice, on a really micro level. They move worms off hot pavements, forgive the foibles of unsuitable family members and are kind to weird old people even though they smell a bit funny, and as a child I decided (god help me) that this was how I wanted to lead my life.

Of course, being an Eva Ibbotson heroine is impossible, because it involves essentially becoming Eco-Jesus, but I tried, and to a large extent I'm still trying. I rescue snails from the paths of cars. I chase after people who have dropped small items of baggage. And it's all because of Eva Ibbotson's books.

So I put off reading The Abominables for quite a while, because finishing it meant that I would have read the final words of my guru. And then I finally did read it, and I cried a little bit because it was so lovely.

It's all about a family of Himalayan Yetis who are discovered by a determined Edwardian lady. She teaches them to be kind and polite to all things (they are vegetarians, but still carefully say "sorry," to their food before they eat it), and that's fine for a while - until they're forced to go out into the modern world and seek their fortunes. The rest of the plot is all just classic Eva Ibbotson, with some especially lovely asides about death and how important enjoying life is even though you know it's finite. As a swan song, it's perfect - and as a story it's pretty great as well. Bless her.

4 stars.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Of course this one was going to be in here. I went to see his RSL lecture on it (oh yes, Warwick English professors who refused to supervise my dissertation on Gaiman because he wrote 'comix'. My proposed subject got a gig at the RSL being interviewed by Claire Armitstead. And A. S. Byatt reviewed his book. I hope you feel really bad now), and one of the best things he said as part of the talk (although there were a lot of them) was that the only real difference between adults' and children's fiction is that in adult fiction you get to leave in the boring bits.

Unfortunately, that doesn't really apply here, because there are no boring bits in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It's certainly an adult book rather than one for kids in that it's about how adults remember childhood, but what Gaiman does is pick you up and slam you back into his seven-year-old protagonist's mind.

Ocean is full of the joy of small things, like the way food tastes and the way it feels to run through a a secret overgrown path at the bottom of the garden. But there's also a lot of the everyday nastiness that is so much a part of childhood. Ocean describes how it feels to be small, to be ignored, to be punished unjustly and to be powerless to right that wrong. And then, of course, because this is a Gaiman novel, it's also full of the most amazing flights of imagination - an evil nanny from another dimension, a field that grows kittens, an ocean that can fit into a bucket. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautiful and terrifying and incredibly poignant because of how fundamentally real it is, and it's the kind of book that adults should be glad that they're being sold.

5 stars.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

So, this is just one of the best books ever. A reimagining of the Snow White and Rose Red fairytale (and a lot more besides, I spotted Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Rumpelstiltskin and Red Riding Hood and I'm guessing there are more), it does things that I've never seen before in the genre and it's written so well that even her descriptions of furniture sent shivers down my spine.

This book isn't just about fairy tales. It reminds you of why people need fairy tales in the first place - as shield, as consolation, to make sense out of a senseless universe. It's full of magic, but magic used in a way that perfectly expresses some seriously deep truths about human emotions. It's also not afraid to deal with some of the darkest parts of human nature with the kind of rough black humour that's both astonishingly daring and oddly beautiful. Its brand of justice is shockingly, juicily, dreadfully well done (there is a scene at the end of the book so vivid that I read the whole thing with my mouth quite literally hanging open in shock) - ferocious enough to make you cheer, and nasty enough for your higher brain to be horrified at how you're reacting.

Like all the best fantasies, every part of this book is real, and I just can't praise it enough.

5 stars.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this isn't really a book for teenagers. It's a book about being a teenager. That's not to say that teenagers wouldn't love it. They would! But Eleanor & Park is a quirky love story very much about remembering what it's like to be in your teens. It's about falling in love for the first time, and about all the sweetness and confusion and total insecurity you feel when that happens to you.

Eleanor and Park themselves are two wonderfully off-beat and realistic protagonists who subtly play with the conventions of male and female romantic leads, and it's important to appreciate how rare this is. There are so many impossible, Ayn Rand-style people in literature at the moment, especially in YA - heroines who can't manage to eat a whole lettuce leaf and but then manage to roundhouse kick five fully grown men while wearing a ball gown, for example - but Eleanor and Park, characters who in most novels would be 'too' fat and 'too' thin and 'too' weird and 'too' crazily dressed,  manage here to find very true love in each other. It's the most delicious antidote to all the romance novel nonsense that's out there. And did I mention that Eleanor and Park fall in love through the medium of comic books? Brilliant.

4.5 stars

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls has basically become my case-in-point when I go off on one of my love-rants about the power of children's fiction to address serious issues in ways that adult fiction sometimes can't manage. It's a heartbreaking discussion about the way it feels to lose a parent ... but it's equally, and just as literally, about the way it feels to have an actual, real monster turn up in your garden.

There are no metaphors in this book. Conor's mother is dying of cancer. A monster comes to his window every night to tell him stories. And both of these parts of his life are portrayed as equally real.

The kids' version is terrifyingly illustrated by Jim Kay - no matter your age, you must not make the mistake of buying the version of this book without pictures - and all in all it's one of the most frightening and heartbreaking things that I've ever read.

5 stars.

Skellig by David Almond

I never read this as a child. I was always afraid of it for some reason. I think I thought Skellig sounded creepy. I was totally right, he is creepy - but wonderfully creepy, and I know my childhood self would have loved this book. Oops.

The plot is exceedingly strange. A little boy called Michael finds a man called Skellig living in his garage. Although it's never directly explained, Skellig pretty obviously a fallen angel who's just given up on life. What he's done is never mentioned, and it doesn't really matter - the point is that he's a bit dirty, a bit tainted, but (although he doesn't realise it) still very much worth loving.

Michael is having a very difficult time himself. He's got a baby sister who was born prematurely, parents who are totally focused on her, and a new house that's basically an overgrown dump. Michael is lonely and confused, but when he discovers Skellig he's suddenly given a purpose. Then he meets strange, lovely Mina, who's homeschooled and who believes in the wonderfulness of the world, and she shows him what he needs to do to save Skellig. That all sounds kind of hokey, doesn't it? Believe me, it's not - instead it's beautifully presented, perfectly paced and totally unsentimental.

4.5 stars