Just back from a weekend in Sussex attending the annual conference of the Children's Book Group Federation. Two authors stood out for me this year. Ali Sparke was only given a seminar slot, albeit repeated, and I had never been drawn to her Shapeshifter books or Frozen in Time, even though it won the Blue Peter Award. However, she is now producing series of books at a tremendous rate. And she is a marvellous speaker - incredibly entertaining. Apparently she used to be a tv comedy writer, and she certainly has a sense of humour, a love of playing with words and an attention to detail.
In the session I attended, Ali was talking about her new series for young children called SWITCH. These stories are based around twin boys who can adopt the powers of different insects. She stood in front of us dressed in purple with a black waistcoat embroidered with cobwebs and multifaceted purple earrings and ring (to replicate the fly's eyes!). Sounds a bit querky? Well, I wouldn't draw attention to her dress sense if it wasn't for the fact that later in the day I saw her in a completely different outfit. She'd been talking about a completely different series of books in her later seminar, so had dressed appropriately for that one too. Dedication? Branding? Passion for her product?! Whichever, she certainly got my vote for being plain good fun!
The other author who struck me this year, was quite different. Phil Earle has written a book called Being Billy (see my recommended reads). I doubt I would ever have picked this up (run-of-the-mill cover and nondescript title) if it wasn't for hearing him speak. He looked quite bashful and ill at ease sitting on the panel waiting to speak, but as soon as he had the opportunity to talk about his subject, he was off. And I felt I could have listened to him for hours. He used to be a care worker so has written the book from personal experience. The way he talked about the difficulties of working with these children - in what they did to him, but also in what had happened to them -was quite harrowing. But he had developed such compassion for these young people, and such a conviction that their lives could be turned around for the better, that he was truly inspiring.
I never thought my heart would sink at receiving a bundle of free books. Oh, in truth, it doesn't - there is always a thrill in opening a box or envelope, not knowing what's inside, and taking in the look and feel of an untouched new book. It's just that I know there aren't enough hours in the day for me to catch up with all my reading.
This latest parcel held six books all about the Bible which I need to review for an article for a book trade magazine. Six may seem plenty, but I have to add these to the two dozen already piled next to my desk.
The majority of them look attractive and readable texts, but they're not easy reading and with the deadline looming scarily close, it might be time to get serious about working through them. I'll let you know how I get on, but I think the Easter weekend might be my reading weekend!
I've just had an extraordinary evening - one of those occasions when you start a book and can't do anything until you've finished because it's so enjoyable and compelling.
The book was 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson and I had picked up because I am hosting a visit by the author to Browsers Bookshop, Woodbridge at the beginning of May.
As a large format, preview copy, with a striking front cover image, it was exciting to receive, but I was thrilled to discover very quickly that it was a great read.
It's set in Ipswich and tells the story of a Polish couple and their young son who are trying to make a home and a life for themselves after being separated during the Second World War. Trying to deny the horrors they have individually experienced in the past few years, the couple have a fragile existence and little by little their secrets are exposed to a devastating effect.
It is a remarkable book. I found that I was completely convinced by all the characters, and despite flashbacks and locations switching from Ipswich to Poland, I was never wrong-footed, and no one part of the book seemed stronger than another. What's more, despite the tragic backdrop and the struggles being described, it still felt an uplifting and enriching experience learning about the lives of these very real characters.
It's lovely to discover such a book, but it's difficult to know what to pick up next!
The shortlist for the Orange Prize has been announced and, unfortunately, I haven't yet read any of the six titles. This is not something that usually causes me any particular concern, but this year I've launched a competition and an event tied into the prize, so I need to get reading.
One of the judges is Liz Calder who lives in Suffolk, and when I found out she was involved, I invited her to lead an event speaking about her experience. She says that working through the reading list and evaluating the contenders, to date, has been much like being in a reading group. I wonder if she'll have a different perspective when the winner is announced. We'll find out more on Thursday 16 June, at Browsers Bookshop, Woodbridge.