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Monday, 30 December 2013

Lifehacker recommends The Fussy Librarian

The website Lifehacker has lots of useful tips on everything from how to make better small talk to eating asparagus as a hangover cure. I was particularly interested in this article about The Fussy Librarian, a great idea I've featured here earlier in an interview with its creator, Jeffrey Brunner. If you'd like to know more (or want to improve your small talk in time for New Year's Eve) go to

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Meet the multi-talented Beth Webb


I’m delighted to welcome Beth Webb, to my blog. Among other things, Beth is the critically acclaimed author of many books for children, teens and adults. Beth, do tell readers something about yourself and what decided you to be a writer. 

My Dad always wanted to be a writer and he used to make up stories for me when I was little. He taught me that stories came out of heads as well as books. Before I went to school I used to scribble on bits of paper and sew them between cardboard covers to make books, I guess the urge to be an author was with me even then! 

My first published piece was in a pop magazine when I was about 15. I met a brilliant blues group and wrote about them and was paid three guineas (about £25 in todays money). 
I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school – there was no advice on ‘how to be a writer’ in those days and my English teacher put me off being a journalist, so I read sociology and psychology. After uni I travelled around Europe, and lived with a hippie commune in a houseboat in Amsterdam and a mediaeval Bavarian castle, I also stayed for a while in an ex-leprosy hospital, then an attic in Rotterdam. I earned money cooking, cleaning, teaching English and selling paintings. I still love the Dutch language and people.  

When I was about 27 I thought I ought to grow up and come home, so I worked for an independent radio station, then a national newspaper where I met my husband. I started writing stories for my four kids as Dad had done for me, and in 1993 I published my first children’s novel.

In 2000 I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, then I became a tutor for the Open College of the Arts. I designed and wrote their course on writing for children. In about 2003 I became a tutor for the University of Lancaster and the British Council’s ‘Crossing Borders’ programme, mentoring emerging African writers.
In 2005 I had a BIG break, and signed a major four book contract with Macmillan Children’s books for Star Dancer, my quartet for teens and adults about the end of the Iron Age and the Roman Invasion. When the recession hit, Macmillan cancelled my contract (along with quite a few others). Since then I’ve been caring for my elderly parents and illustrating books for adults with learning disabilities ( At the same time, a small independent publisher finished the Star Dancer series (  

I’m now working on several new titles for both teens and children. 


Whew! That’s quite a biography. Tell me, how do you find inspiration for your writing? 

Usually things people say get me thinking. For example, with Star Dancer, I met a lady at a picnic who wanted to be a minister, but her church didn’t approve or women priests. I began to think about all the people who can’t be who they are meant to be because of colour, creed, sex or disability – and Star Dancer began to grow.

When I get an idea I write it down, then from time to time I flip back through my notebooks. I’m often amazed at some of the ideas I’ve come up with. They aren’t bad.   

Who are the authors who have most influenced you?

Where do I begin? Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper, Terry Pratchett, Philip Reeve, David Almond, Philip Gross. I couldn’t have written my historical work without the inimitable Prof Ron Hutton and every collector of fairy stories and folk tales.  

Do you base any of your characters on real people?
I use character types, or snippets of the things people say or the way they laugh rather than ‘whole’ people. However, there was a bully who I painted a fairly good portrait of in my ‘Dragons of Kilve’ book. I was a bit worried because in my contract I had to sign a declaration that I hadn’t used any real people in the stories (who might later sue). On the grounds that this guy was unlikely to ever read my books – and I had turned him into a rather unpleasant slug creature – I signed!

How do you develop your ideas into books?
I daydream a lot, I write down loads and loads of notes in spiral notebooks, I go for long walks and think, I talk to myself and probably most important of all, I tell the stories to long-suffering friends so I can ‘hear’ how the idea is shaping up – and they can tell me whether it works or not.

How do you write? Do you have routines and rituals you like to stick to? 

I’m at my computer every day from 8 or 9 am, usually with tea and breakfast next to the mouse, and I work until about 4, when my brain seizes up, then I go for a long walk to think through what I’m going to do next.

The Star Dancer quartet, set in the Iron Age, was originally written for teenagers but it crossed over into the adult market. Did that surprise you?
Yes, it did. Initially I wrote for older teens (14-18 years), but then I started getting fan mail from adults. I was hugely chuffed. But I think adults probably liked the fact I’d done lots of research and really tried to make the stories work in the historical setting. I think adults also like the fact that the fantasy element has a strong psychological underpinning. Demons and magic all have firm, thought-through roots within my books, I don’t just throw them in for fun.

You also write for young children with your entertaining series about Fleabag the cat.
I’ve written six books for younger children. Sadly some of them are out of print now, but I’m best known for a kiddies’ picture book (Junk Yard Dragon), the Dragons of Kilve (short stories for KS2 children), and the three Fleabag books. The Dragons of Kilve is now in it’s fourth edition – soon to be an audio book and Fleabag is now coming out as a new series with illustrations (by me!)

How would you describe the different challenges presented by the teenage and children’s fields of writing?

(Beth takes a deep breath…) I could go on far ages about this. How long have you got? In short, children like to be entertained and to explore emotions and the difficulties of life from a safe place they can return to when they close the book. 

YA readers like to be thrown in the deep end with all the rolling, terrifying dangers of high action writing with fantasy creatures like dragons and vampires, danger, death and sex (sex is a sticky question for another day).

Teen readers know the world is a deadly place, they are longing to find a path through – however risky. Watch them play computer games and you’ll see what I mean. Teens don’t like being protected.    

Apart from writing, you work with schoolchildren on a variety of projects. Can you tell me more about that? 

I run workshops and courses for young writers at schools up and down the country, and especially at a place called Kilve Court near Minehead in Somerset I’m also a professional storyteller and run storytelling workshops and events. I used to tell regularly at Glastonbury Festival, but gave up because of the mud! 

So what’s next? Will there be new stories for Fleabag and Tegen? 

Fleabag is getting a BIG makeover  - Fleabag and the Fire cat is being revamped this winter for publication next year. I’m also planning a prequel. As for Tegen? I’ve been asked if I’ll write what happens to her daughter Gilda, growing up in ancient Ireland, and others have asked for the stories of Sabrina and Owein – and how their ancestors become – well, it’d be a spoiler if I told you who. But I’m not sure. I’ll see what my publisher says when I’ve finished everything else I have in hand at the moment. 

Beth, thank you so much for coming, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

Find out more about Beth at her website, It includes her top tips on writing as well as a ‘contact me’ button if anyone has more questions. She’s also on Twitter as @bethwebbauthor and

Below: one of Beth's illustrations for Fleabag and the Ring of Fire.




Saturday, 7 December 2013

In Love with Laos

In November I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Laos. It’s a fascinating country and hard not to fall for with its beautiful temples, miles and miles of the spectacular Mekong River and fabulous mountain scenery, mostly clad in deep jungle green. The population is young – 41% are under 14 and everyone we met was warm and friendly. Tragically, the country’s strategic importance in Indochina has caused it great suffering in recent history – at one time it had the terrible distinction of being one of the most bombed countries on Earth. Inevitably, recovery takes time.

Little Girl in Traditional Hmong Costume 

Consumerism hasn’t really caught up on Laos yet which makes it attractive in many ways. Most shopping is still done in local markets on a daily basis. The colours and smells of these markets are amazing with lots of exotic fruits and vegetables on offer as well as those more familiar to us. There's also a lot of tempting street food made from very fresh and tasty ingredients.

 Buddhist monks in their striking orange robes are part of the everyday scene. At dawn each day they stream through the streets collecting the traditional alms of rice.

The situation is less good where literacy is concerned; the rate has much improved in the last decade or so but it’s still only around 60%. It’s hard to find books anyway outside the capital, Vientiane, so Etranger Books and Tea in World Heritage city, Luang Prabang, is an oasis for book lovers. Founded by a French woman, it sells mainly second-hand books in a plethora of language as well as great cakes!

If you’d like to know more about what’s being done to promote literacy in Laos, why not take a look at They also have a wish list on         

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Meet The Fussy Librarian

Have you heard about The Fussy Librarian yet? She's making waves, so read on - but shhhh, don't talk, just listen while I ask her accomplice, Jeffrey Bruner, a few questions.

What's different about The Fussy Librarian? How does it work?

It's a matchmaking service for book lovers. The Fussy Librarian believes that the most important part of any book-recommendation website is "the match" -- are you going to receive tips about books in your daily email that you'll like?

So we set out to create a better match than anyone else. We offer the most genre choices (30 and growing) and we're the only website that gives you content preferences regarding language, violence and sexual situations. If you like your novels without profanity, for example, all of your recommended books will be free of fowl language. We also have "I read everything" buttons and some choices in the middle.

We'll keep adding categories and content options in the future. One thing we discovered in our first month is that even though we already offer five different romance categories, we need more to handle the volume of book submissions we're receiving.

Why should authors consider submitting to the website?
The Fussy Librarian is set up in a way that is very author friendly.

While we do offer lots of free and 99 cent books, we don't force authors to discount their books. If they want to sell at $2.99 or $3.99 -- which I think is completely reasonable -- they can do that.

Our book submissions are currently free until we grow larger. I don't feel it's fair charging authors during our start-up period. Even when we do charge a fee, we're going to keep it reasonable.
What types of books are you looking for?
In fiction, we accept pretty much everything that's an ebook. Our most popular genres are contemporary romance, mystery, thriller, fantasy, young adult and women's fiction. But we also accept books in smaller genres like religious fiction, horror, literary fiction and historical fiction.

Unlike some places, we also accept short stories and novellas. We include a note in the blurb so readers are aware it's not a full-length novel.

If you write nonfiction, I can pretty much guarantee we can find you a spot within 10 days after your book is submitted.

Who is this Fussy Librarian woman anyway? She's unlike any librarian I've ever heard of.
That was the idea. We wanted to take the stereotype of the prim, fussy librarian with the hair bun and turn it on its head. So she may look like your Aunt Bee, but it turns out she's a master mechanic, an expert on French cooking, and she practices the ancient martial art of Bokator. You do not want to meet her in a dark alley, trust me.

I could go on and one about her, but it's easier to just come to the website and read her biography ... and then subscribe to her daily ebook recommendations!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Interview with Joanne Harris

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting bestselling author Joanne Harris when she judged finalists in the BBC's competition, End of Story. The idea was that a well-known author would begin a story which entrants would finish. Joanne's story was called Dryad and it is published with my ending in my collection Dancing and Other Stories. More details of that in My Books in the October archive, but most importantly, Joanne has very kindly accepted my invitation to visit my blog.

Joanne Harris



Joanne, welcome: it's a great pleasure to have you with us.



It's lovely to be here.



HS You grew up in Yorkshire in the 60's and 70's with a French mother and an English father. I imagine that made you rather unusual for the times. Did you ever find it difficult? How, if at all, did it shape your life?


JH In those days, Barnsley wasn't an especially cosmopolitan environment. There weren't very many foreigners, and I felt very different from other people. Some of our neighbours were very welcoming, but others were downright hostile - my mother still remembers the other mothers at the primary school gate moving away from us when they heard us speaking French together. At school there was both curiosity and some mockery - lots of requests for me to "talk foreign", as if it were a party trick, plus lots of comments about French food, garlic, French history, bidets (which at the time were considered weird and disgusting), frogs' legs, the War, etc. which I didn't really understand. At secondary school, most of that stopped, but I was still considered different and a little peculiar. Perhaps I was. In any case, I think being a foreigner gave me a certain kind of perspective regarding social groups and their interactions, which later crept into my writing.


HS Have you written from an early age?


JH I've always written; first copying the writers I most admired, then slowly finding my own style. It started to emerge when I was in my twenties, although it wasn't until several years later that I felt confident enough to take the plunge and try to make a living from writing books. I liked my job teaching French in a boys' grammar school and I wrote in my spare time but with the success of Chocolat, the demands being made on me to promote the book in England and abroad took up more time than I could spare from full-time teaching. With some regret (and a lot of anxiety) I chose writing and I'm glad I did; but it was a tough decision.


HS Where does your inspiration come from?


JH Everywhere; from items in the newspapers, from T.V., from watching people on the trains, from talking to people on my travels. I find that I can't generate ideas if I stay cooped up at home. I need regular changes of scene to maintain my creative output. I have to read a lot, too, to make sure my windows on the world stay open. I don't often use people I know although my daughter Anouchka has made a few appearances in my books, as have some members of my family - and even a few ex-colleagues! Most of the time, however, I don't even try to show an accurate portrait. I use little details and mannerisms I might have noticed. I wouldn't feel comfortable describing real-life people in detail.


HS Vampire stories are hugely popular these days. Your first novels - The Evil Seed and Sleep, Pale Sister, published in the early 90's - were Gothic chillers. Is it a genre you'd like to revisit?


JH Not right now, certainly, or at least not in that particular form. There are so many vampire stories around at the moment, and besides, I think the vampire genre is best suited to younger writers. Under the Gothic surface, the vampire tale is basically a story of adolescence, of coming-of-age, alienation, self-discovery and forbidden sex, which is why the young-adult audience understands it and relates to it so well - but I've reached the stage where I feel the need to explore different territories. On the other hand, fear never goes out of style, and it's never far from my writing. It simply takes different aspects, as do the elements of folklore, myth and fairytale that tend to inhabit my novels.



HS Your young-adult/crossover novels, Runemark, Runelight and more recently The Gospel of Loki, which you publish under the name Joanne M Harris, are set in the world of Norse mythology. I believe you've even studied Old Icelandic to understand that world more fully. Many people think they have a clear idea of what to expect from your novels and these mythological ones seem very different to that expectation. Did you feel a need to break the mould?


JH Not really. All my novels have aspects of folklore, fairytale and myth, which appear more or less strongly depending on the subject matter. In these books, however, the fantasy and folklore is much more in the forefront of the story, and I’ve enjoyed the process of constructing and developing this complex fantasy world very much. I am aware, however, that my readers don’t all feel comfortable reading outright fantasy, which is why I’ve started to use my middle initial on the books set in that world. I don’t see it as a departure, merely a marker to indicate that, here may be serpents…


HS In Who’s Who, you list mooching and lounging among your favourite pursuits, but with thirteen novels, two cookbooks and numerous short stories to your name as well as many other projects completed or in hand, it’s hard to believe you do much mooching or lounging. Isn’t there really a fiercely disciplined regime behind your success?


JH I don’t see it as discipline. Discipline implies the setting of rules, and I don’t find rules conducive to creativity. I don’t work because I have discipline; I work because otherwise, I would probably stop functioning.


HS I’m sure you’re often asked about the importance of food and drink in your novels. For example it’s been used as a theme in Chocolat and Blackberry Wine and you use it elsewhere to evoke atmosphere and give insights into your characters. Of course good food is one of the pleasures of life; something that brings people together and cheers them up on bad days. What would you say is your ultimate comfort food?


JH For me, food has strong nostalgic and emotional connotations, so probably the food that I associate with being happiest. Thus: the Mexican food I make when my daughter and I watch films together; the fish and chips I used to eat out of newspaper on Friday night with my husband-to-be when I was sixteen; the pancakes my great-grandmother used to make to celebrate birthdays and family get-togethers.


HS Many aspiring writers begin by writing short stories, thinking they will be easier than novels. Would you agree? What do you think makes a good short story?


JH There’s nothing easy about writing short stories. A good short story demands a more precise structure than a novel, so that if anything goes wrong, it will be immediately apparent. Novels are generally much more forgiving than short fiction, and allow for much greater leeway in terms of experimenting with structure, subplots and character. In a short story, the reader must be engaged from the start, the development must be perfectly paced and the payoff satisfactory, otherwise the story will fail. Trying to start off with short fiction is like a painter beginning with miniatures rather than life-size portraits – it’s a very demanding task that requires a great deal of skill and practice.


HS You’re always generous with your time, travelling all over the world talking about your books and generally interacting with your fans. Are you happiest in the company of others or, deep down, do you prefer to be alone (with your characters, of course)?


JH Much as I enjoy being with others, there are times when I need to be alone. My loved ones understand this…
Joanne's shed where she finds peace to create her novels.


HS Do you find the first or the last line of your novels hardest to write?


JH Neither. It’s the stuff in between that can be tricky…


HS The world has become a much smaller place in our lifetime with advances in travel and communications. From your own experience, have you noticed the way of life in the French and English halves of your family becoming more similar, or are there still fundamental differences?


JH  No. I still see differences, although ease of communication has given us a whole new set of ways to misunderstand each other…


HS Briefly, what would be your advice to aspiring writers?


JH Drop the word “aspiring.” Just write.



Friday, 18 October 2013

Margaret Mountford on Life after The Apprentice.

I'm delighted to welcome Margaret Mountford. Most people know her from the TV as Alan Sugar's formidable right-hand woman in the UK version of The Apprentice but today we'll be talking more about other things, in particular her interest in ancient history and the study of papyri. 
Margaret, thank you so much for accepting my invitation.
MM - Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

HS - You had a very successful career as a high-flying corporate lawyer. What decided you to give it up and return to academic study? 

MM - I decided to give up the law because I felt I’d done it for long enough (25 years!) and didn’t want or need to go on for another fifteen years or so. The buzz had decreased and the hours weren’t getting any shorter. I knew I wanted to do something different and for a while I considered going into business in some way but then I decided that what I’d really like would be to go back to being a student. I studied Classics, ultimately completing a PhD in the study of papyri.

HS - Like many people, I associate papyri with ancient Egypt, but I believe the ones you chose to study are rather different?

 MM -  Yes, if by ancient Egypt you mean Pharaohs and tombs. The papyri happen to have been preserved in Egypt because of the dry climate but they’re actually Roman and Byzantine and written in Greek. They date from between the first and the sixth centuries AD and reflect life in Egypt when it was part of the Roman Empire in the East. The Romans took Egypt over from the Greek Ptolemy dynasty after Augustus defeated Queen Cleopatra. When the Roman Empire in the West failed, Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire.

HS - Do the papyri you research deal with any particular aspect of Egyptian life at the time? What was the attraction to that?

MM - I’m not really interested in ancient literature, so the papyri I study are what we call documentary, and are largely the legal and administrative ones, including court documents, contracts and documents recording transactions involving land, but also include anything else which was written down, like private letters and accounts, even laundry lists and lost donkey notices.. There were many wealthy estates in Egypt by the fifth and sixth centuries, all generating an enormous number of business letters, orders, invoices and property documents. I find it fascinating to build up a picture of everyday life from them. There are also theological documents which are important for the study of early Christianity.
HS - How were these papyri found?

MM - Papyri have been found in all sorts of places including rubbish tips. Old, unneeded papyri were often pulped up to make the papier maché known as cartonage which was used to make mummy cases – a rather grim example of recycling! Most of the ones I’ve studied were dug up at the beginning of the twentieth century by two Oxford scholars working on ancient rubbish tips around what was then a sleepy little village on the banks of the Bahr Yusuf River. It was once a prosperous city called Oxyrhynchus, ‘City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish’.
HS - Is your work done in libraries or have there been times when you’ve got your hands dirty?

MM - The papyri that I study are kept in the Sackler Library in Oxford. I do need to look at the originals, but they’re mostly scanned and digitised to make sure they aren’t put at risk, so no, I don’t get my hands dirty (and I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to touch the papyri if I did!). I have been on one archaeological surface survey, spending 3 weeks in the Fayum (the area where the famous mummy portraits were found). It was intriguing to see how these once flourishing towns had been abandoned when the canals silted up and then been buried by the desert. There’s not a great deal left as most of the houses were built of mud brick, sometimes coated with lime, and all of that has been carted away over the centuries, mainly to use on fields. I don’t think I have the patience to be an archaeologist.


HS - As well as doing demanding academic work, you’ve forged a career on TV and become a household name in the UK version of The Apprentice. Has it been hard at times to combine the two?

MM - There is a time limit for completing a PhD and I don’t think I would have been able to comply with it if I’d continued with the show. Filming was full time for the couple of months or so every year it took to make a series

 HS - Subsequent to leaving the show after five series, you’ve appeared in various other programmes with sociological or historical themes. Is TV an avenue you’d like to continue to pursue?

MM - Not particularly, but if I was offered something really interesting I’d seriously consider it.

 HS - Do you have plans to write? If so, would it be fact or fiction?

 MM - I enjoyed the writing I had to do for my PhD but otherwise my years as a lawyer drafting corporate documents have cured me of writing.

HS - When you have time to read for pleasure, what kind of books do you choose?

MM - Whatever catches my eye in the bookshop – novels mainly and I’m partial to a bit of fantasy. I really enjoyed Game of Thrones. The TV version was fun. It was filmed in Northern Ireland where I grew up and on Gozo where I have a holiday home so it was nice to recognise familiar places, but the books are much better.

 HS - What kind of music do you listen to and who are your favourite composers?

MM - Opera, piano music and lieder – my favourite composers are Verdi, Wagner, Schubert and Liszt.

 HS - Finally, a loaded question – Strictly Come Dancing – could you be persuaded to put the go in the tango?

 MM - Certainly not. I was asked a long time ago but the training looks far too much like hard work.





Sunday, 13 October 2013

Frocks and Rocks

 The wonderful exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in London showing portraits from the Royal Collection highlighted courtly fashion in Tudor and Stuart times. They were eras when privileged men as well as women wore sumptuous clothes that often cost more than lesser mortals could hope to earn in a lifetime. Royalty and the nobility decked themselves out with lavish fabrics, frequently exquisitely embroidered as well as fabulous jewels.

Detail from a portrait of Elizabeth I as a young girl.
Detail from a portrait of Edward VI
But woe betide anyone who dressed above their station. Sumptuary laws, introduced as far back as Ancient Roman times to discourage extravagance but more importantly to preserve the distinctions of rank were still enforced in Elizabethan days. Cloth of gold or silver was strictly for the Queen and the highest nobility, as was the fur of sables. The Statutes set out in exhaustive detail what was acceptable for the different strata of society and penalties for infringing the rules were severe.