Friday, 22 November 2013

Catching Fire - a review

Ever since I downloaded the free sample chapters on my Kindle, I’ve been a fan of the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The sample grabbed me by the throat, so even though I am about 35 years older than the target readership I ordered all three paperbacks and read them back to back. I saw the first Hunger Games film last year shortly after reading the book, and while I enjoyed it, I remember a bit of a flat feeling afterwards because the book (of course) is better than the film almost every time... or maybe I just remembered the plot too well so there were no surprises?

Now, a year later, I’ve just seen the second film Catching Fire – and I'm happy to say yes, it delivers! Obviously having a year between reading the book and watching the film helps, because although I had a vague memory of the plot, it was not enough to mean I spent my two and a half hours in the cinema comparing the screen version with the book. Also, I think the second story is more powerful.

Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the Hunger Games, has become a symbol to the hungry people who live in the outlying Districts that service the Capitol… for which read people living and working in the small towns of any large Western economy whose capital sucks the resources out of the entire country. (OK so maybe we are not quite in Hunger Games territory yet, but the parallels in these books are obvious, and I am sure it is no accident that the set pieces complete with their horse-drawn chariots are reminiscent of Rome at the height of its Empire, i.e. just before its fall.) Katniss has also learned to act. Some of the emotional scenes are quite harrowing, and the mind-games the Capitol plays with its victors makes Katniss’ terror of the Arena disturbing to watch particularly in the early part of the film.

On their Victory Tour (which is a carefully-orchestrated public relations exercise - reminding me a bit of an author's tour on publication of a new book!), Katniss and Peeta are pampered and costumed so they can do their job of distracting people from their real hardships. But despite their best efforts to do this, the Tour deteriorates into flare-ups of rebellion in the Districts that result in executions and floggings, including a graphic scene where Katniss’ hometown love Gale is dragged into the market place and whipped half to death for trying to stop a stormtrooper from beating an old woman. (I'm calling the so-called peace keepers that, since in their white armour they reminded me of the Empire’s storm-troopers in "Star Wars” - another rebellion story.)

Increasingly terrified of revolution, President Snow orders a special Hunger Games – a “Quarter Quell” – where the tributes are to be drawn from the victors of previous Games. This means Katniss, as the only surviving female victor from District 12, must return to the Arena - a place that gives her nightmares. The male tribute accompanying her will either be her fellow victor and screen-love Peeta, or their drunken mentor Haymitch. Of course it turns out to be Peeta, who volunteers when Haymitch’s name is picked so that he can protect Katniss in the Arena.

So far so Hunger Games. But things are different now. This Game is not just for the entertainment of the masses (if any game where teenagers are expected to kill one another for sport can be considered entertainment – see my post over at the History Girls.) The Quarter Quell Games are still deadly serious in the Arena, where President Snow and his minions try their hardest to discredit Katniss as well as killing her in as nasty a way as possible – but it is even more serious outside of it, where Katniss’ and Peeta’s families are held to ransom in a final effort to squash the brewing rebellion before it can get out of hand.

I won’t spoil the story for those who have not read the book, but the film ends on a cliff hanger just like the book… with the result that Catching Fire did not feel properly finished to me. The first Hunger Games film had a satisfactory ending, but in this case I found myself wanting to watch the third film right afterwards – which is probably the whole idea, but cruel to unicorns! Though, of course, if you are really fired up at the end, you can always re-read the third book Mockingjay while you're waiting.

Katniss enters the Arena for the second time.

In Catching Fire, “May the odds be always in your favour.” is replaced by “The odds are NEVER in our favour.” That is dangerous stuff for anyone’s subconscious to chew over, so I just hope the third film is not too long in coming!

Have you seen this film yet? What did you think?

(Images copyright: fair use for purpose of review.)

Monday, 11 November 2013

MUSE MONDAY - Ann Turnbull's bird-on-the-head

Today the unicorn welcomes author Ann Turnbull to tell you about her wonderful muse!

Ann Turnbull

Who (or what) is your muse?

Ann: My muse is a small ceramic figure of a woman with a bird on her head. She was made in Cornwall by Shelagh Spear. As soon as I saw this figure I knew she was a goddess and would be my muse. You can see her in the photo, surrounded by the clutter on my desk (she doesn’t really have quite such a short lower body – that’s the camera angle). Unfortunately she is rather easily knocked over and her bird has lost its beak. I hope this doesn’t affect her powers.

The bird on the head of Ann's muse (No beak = less tweeting, more writing?)

When did you first meet?
Ann: A few years ago. My sister gave her to me as a birthday present.

Does your muse appear in any of your books and/or artwork?
Ann: I think she may be one of the many goddesses and nymphs who appear in my Greek Myths. And she could well have a role in a new YA novel I’m thinking about at the moment – but that’s a secret!

If you won the lottery and had complete artistic freedom, what would you write/create?

Ann: Probably much the same as now, but I’d take longer over it and do more thinking and research. Whether that would make it better is anyone’s guess.

Before you go, does your muse have a message for the Unicorn?

Be wary of prowling cats and clumsy authors or you might lose the tip of your horn.

Oh yes, I have tripped over the cat a few times already! And once she fell asleep on the stairs, and I trod on her and we both fell down them... though fortunately my horn didn't break, so I still feed her.

DEEP WATER by Ann Turnbull

Jon should never have skipped school with his friend Ryan - never have taken that boat. Now Ryan is in danger - and only Jon can save him. But Jon is scared. The police are knocking on his door. They know he's lying. Is it too late to tell the truth?

A short, fast-paced thriller for children aged around 9-14.

This new edition of Deep Water was published in October 2013 by SilverWood Books and is available in paperback from Amazon and selected bookstores.

Find out more about Ann and her books at

Friday, 8 November 2013

World Fantasy Convention 2013

Normally at Halloween I turn off the lights, hide behind the sofa, and keep a bowl of exploding chocolate eyeballs beside the front door in case my house gets mobbed by gangs of trick-or-treaters. But this year, I got to party myself... in Brighton with several other fantasy/horror genre authors, all of us attending the World Fantasy Convention (the first time it has graced British shores in 16 years, so how could an author with a unicorn muse possibly miss such a great event?).

Teresa Flavin, C J Busby, and me
The weekend kicked off on Thursday night with a children's fringe event at the Book Nook in Hove, organised by my publisher Templar, where three of us who write for younger readers dressed up ready for a spooky evening in the shop. Here I am at my 'magical station' ready to show prospective young knights of the Round Table how to decorate their shields with heraldic symbols:

Arthurian shield-making
CJ Busby hosted some spell making, which obviously had an effect on the weather, since it was a wild and stormy night with rain and wind rattling the window of my fourth-floor room in one of Brighton's regency guest houses.

But we survived until Friday morning, when we ventured into the huge Hilton Metropole hotel to brave all the dragons plus several hundred authors, artists, editors and agents who work in the fantasy genre.

dealers' room at the World Fantasy Convention 2013
There were books galore, an art show with fabulous fantasy paintings on display, and a feast of panels and interviews with guests of honour such as Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper, Joanne Harris, Tanith Lee, and many other heroes and heroines of the fantasy genre. Yes, I know I promised you a fangirl photo...

Neil Gaiman (interviewed by editor Jo Fletcher)

... I forgot to say it was dark and I didn't get a seat in the front row!

There were three streams of programming over the weekend, so it wasn't possible to go to everything, but a few panels I enjoyed were Cover Art in the Digital Age, A Book by any Other Name (ebooks), and Are Agents Redundant? (no). There was also a panel called Broads with Swords, which I wish I'd been part of since obviously Rhianna Pendragon would have had something to say about that. But I came away with two agent names for possible approach to replace my agent Maggie Noach, sadly no longer with us, who was also a great fan of the fantasy/sf genre. (I especially liked the agent who, when asked "is 57 too old?", replied with an emphatic "no!" ... that gives me a few years breathing space, then.)

Many panellists mentioned ebooks, with either enthusiasm or regret, and Amazon hosted one of the evening parties in the bar with a chance to quiz the team in "we love authors" T-shirts about self-publishing via. their kdp and Createspace. Seems I'm already doing most of this, but they did suggest considering some print-on-demand paperbacks of my books, which I might do once all the secondhand copies at 1p each have vanished from Amazon's Marketplace.

I caught up with Sarah Ash, author of one of my favourite fantasy titles Moths to a Flame (of which I own an original paperback signed edition).
some of Sarah Ash's beautiful fantasy books
I also bumped into New York Times bestseller Tim Lebbon (we once collaborated on a horror novella - bet you didn't know that), seen here with his friend Gavin Williams, who is now involved with independent films.

Gavin Williams and Tim Lebbon (hope that's just cola, Tim!)

On Friday evening, there was a mass signing event where you could get your favourite authors to sign copies of books and/or autograph your programme. I collected several friendly signatures from the Fantasy for Children table...

...while everybody else queued for two hours to get Neil Gaiman's.

CJ Busby, Linda Strachan, Gillian Philip (Neil Gaiman's signing queue in the background)

On Sunday, I enjoyed reading in the atmospheric 'reading cafe', where the prologue of Sword of Light formed part of a Fantasy for Children showcase with nine other authors who write for YA and younger.

The reading cafe with throne

We just had time for a quick farewell lunch in the local chippy, complete with amazing mirrors, before heading back home.

Emma Barnes, Frances Hardinge (plus hat) and CJ Busby

And if you're tempted to try a fantasy convention, there is a British one next year in York run by the British Fantasy Society... see you there?

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Dragon Riding and Singing in Spanish

My author spirited me away for the Halloween weekend, partying in Brighton at the World Fantasy Convention - a great place for a unicorn, as you can imagine (although there were rather a lot of dragons to avoid, too). Here are some of the goodies I carried home for her in my unicorn panniers...

World Fantasy Convention 2013 goodies.

She's ordered me to write a couple of blog posts about the convention and what we got up to at Halloween, but first I should explain the title... it seems the moment I turn my back on my computer, a whole rash of guest posts go up which Katherine had conveniently forgotten to tell me about.

Singing in Spanish
First of all, at Halloween while we were busy partying with witches at the Book Nook in Hove, Katherine's virtual self visited Authors Electric to do some Singing in Spanish. This post tells how she came to publish a dual language ebook version (English /Spanish) of the short story that became the seed of her Branford Boase Award winning novel "Song Quest", demonstrating how writers' careers can take unexpected twists and turns... which is sort of what Neil Gaiman said in his interview at the Fantasy Convention (and if you're a swooning fangirl at this stage, I promise you a picture later).

Dragon Riding
Then on Sunday, while we were in the Reading Cafe of the Metropole Hotel taking part in a group 'Fantasy for Children' showcase, Katherine's virtual self indulged in some dragon riding with Anne McCaffrey as part of  Sci-Fi month over at Rinn Reads (though since dragons usually prefer to eat unicorns than let us ride on their backs, I'm rather glad I was in Brighton!)

This obviously proves unicorns have magic, since I can make my author appear in three places at the same time. And while you're busy checking out the two links above, I'll get on with writing my post about what we got up to in Brighton...

Remains of the West Pier in Brighton... not guilty!

Two more places to find Katherine this week (I like to keep her busy!)

The History Girls

Nicola Morgan's Heartsong blog

Monday, 4 November 2013

MUSE MONDAY - Savita Kalhan and her trees.

This week the unicorn welcomes Savita Kalhan, who would like to introduce you to a muse that changes with the seasons.

Savita Kalhan

Who or what is your muse?
Savita: My muse is that most ancient of beings: the mighty tree.

When did you first meet?

Savita: I don’t recall when we first met, possibly in India when my grandfather used to carry me in his arms in the mango tree orchard – the only way to quell my crying. My first readings of The Faraway Tree and the other books in The Enchanted Forest series I remember so clearly. I literally lived in the children’s library, surrounded by the most amazing stories and worlds, but myths and folklore were a favourite and devoured very quickly. The humble tree figured in many.

Does your muse appear in any of your books and/or artwork?

Savita: My book, The Long Weekend, is set in a mansion surrounded by woods, with much of the action taking place in the woods. The woods provided both a sanctuary and a hiding place. The tree that was Sam’s hiding place in the book, is based on a tree that I see most days from the room in which I wrote the book. Here are a couple of photographs of it through the seasons.



The manuscript I’m working on at the moment is called Hell Wood, so trees are the setting. Don’t be mistaken – it’s not the trees that are hellish... Walking in the woods where the book is set, I found a tree that appeared to have been hit by lightning. In the book it’s called the twisted tree because it seems to have been split in two and twisted together. Trees provide the backdrop of the book and the mood. A beautiful paradise or a hellish nightmare.

paradise or nightmare?

On holiday in Mallorca in August, I spotted this amazing tree:

I’ve no idea why it’s so warped, why it has such amazing roots, or even what kind of tree it is, but I’m hoping it’ll find its way in somewhere, if not in this book, then in another...

If you won the lottery and had complete artistic freedom, what would you write/create?

Savita: There are thousands of things I would do if I won the lottery, depending on how much I had won! But I’m guessing you don’t mean a £10 win! I plant a tree a year, but that doesn’t seem enough, so I’d like to plant huge swathes of forest the world over, concentrating on areas of the world where over-felling has taken place. One of the most neglected subjects at school is learning about nature and the environment. I would put interactive programmes in place where every child had access to the forest, learnt about every tree, its name and the myths and legends associated with them. I’d still make time to write... and finally explore the epic fantasy trilogy locked away in a drawer.

Before you go, does your muse have a message for the Unicorn?

My muse would give the Unicorn a key to the many forests of the world.

Thank you, Savita, that is a very special gift for a unicorn!

The Long Weekend is a thriller for teens and young adults, published by Andersen Press.

This book is available from all good bookshops and also online as a paperback or ebook.

Find out more about Savita on her website


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