Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Voices Behind the Wall

Today’s post is a spoooooky short story by Gareth P. Jones. You’ll want to keep the lights on for this one. Or maybe you won’t (if you dare!).

It is only footsteps at first. Then come the voices. There are two of them. A man and a woman. Who are they? What do they want? What are they doing there behind the wall?

The voices come and go, as though they are walking in and out of a room.

A room behind the wall.

‘It’s so cold in here,’ says the woman. ‘So very cold.’

‘Don’t, Kate,’ says the man. ‘I can’t bear it in here.’

The creak of a door and they are gone again.

I like her voice. In my mind she looks like my mother. But the man sounds angry like my father. And yet these are not my parents. They are just voices.

I want to tell someone about them but who can I tell? There is no one.

‘We have to do something about it,’ she says.

‘What can we do?’ he snaps.

I am scared he might hurt her. There is fear in her voice. And fear is something I know about. I want to help her but how can you help a voice?

‘It’s such a waste,’ she says.

‘What do you suggest? We can’t turn it into a nursery knowing what we know,’ he replies.

They sound close today.

‘It’s probably just a draft or something,’ says the woman.

‘There’s no draft. This isn’t something you can sort out with insulation. I should never have let you persuade me to buy this house.’

‘But it was such a bargain.’

‘Because of that poor girl bricked up in that wall.’ His voice is loud and clear. He sounds even more angry than before. ‘Killed by her own father,’ he says. ‘The police said if he had been a better builder she might still be in there, decomposing.’

‘Yes, but he wasn’t and she’s not,’ she says. ‘The body is gone so why can’t we use this room?’

‘You know why,’ he replies. ‘It’s cold because a part of her soul lingers on. We can’t make it into a room for our child when Mary’s ghost is still here behind that wall.’

Mary, I think.

That’s my name.

Illustration by Jan Bielecki

This Soup Tastes Funny: An Ancient Ghost Story

This week, to celebrate Halloween, we will be posting a few scary stories from our authors. Today’s post comes to us from Katherine Marsh, who is the author of the forthcoming novel, JEPP WHO DEFIED THE STARS.

In 1576, King Frederick of Denmark gave a talented young astronomer and nobleman named Tycho Brahe the island of Hven in the Oresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden. Brahe would build a futuristic observatory called Uraniborg or the “Castle of the Stars” on the island—one with state-of-the-art astronomical equipment, a collection of moving statues or automata, and even running water. But while Uraniborg became a destination for scientists and scholars from across Europe, Hven remained an otherwise primitive place—populated by peasants who resented Brahe and had their own violent legends about the island.

One of these legends was the story of Lady Grimmel who, long ago, ruled the island from her four castles. Fearing any threat to her power, she invited her own two brothers to a feast and murdered them. But her lady-in-waiting, Maid Hvenild, was already pregnant with her brother’s son. When this child, Ranke, grew up, he avenged his father’s death by locking Lady Grimmel in her own dungeon, where she starved to death.

Brahe enjoyed listening to such dark tales during his own feasts. Surrounded by his erudite companions, in a bastion of modern science, they likely seemed a relic of a more brutal age. But four years after he left Hven, Brahe became gravely ill after attending just such a feast in Prague.

For a long time, the story was that he had to urinate but, out of politeness, held it for hours until his bladder ruptured. But in the 1990s, researchers analyzing Brahe’s hair discovered elevated mercury levels, suggesting that, like Lady Grimmel’s brothers, he may have been murdered. One theory is that his assistant, the German mathematician Johannes Kepler, poisoned Brahe in order to steal his observational data, which Tycho had been withholding.

Best Way to Sell Books

This weekend, I went on a little jolly to Bath. We stayed in an amazing flat on the Royal Crescent and were incredbly lucky to have lovely sunny weather on the Saturday. (Yup, that is my photo!)

This, of course, encouraged wandering and I got sucked into TWO bookshops in Bath. Bath Old Books was the first, just around the corner. It seems they don’t have a website, but they are the best second hand bookstore I’ve ever been in. Every edition in there is a beautiful, special, lust-inducing edition. First editions, box sets, leather-bound… I left unable to resist a first edition of:

So, Best Way #1 to sell books is: to have beautiful books.

And then, I revisted the site of F. R. Hitchcock’s SHRUNK! launch party, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. How can you NOT go in to a store with that name? And the wonderful staff there know exactly how to not let you leave without parting with a fair chunk of your money.

Best Way #2 is to talk about books.

I was browsing in the children’s section when the lovely Ed came over to help a teenage girl find a book. She happened to have The Silver Blade by Sally Gardner book in her hand, and Ed immedately pointed out Sally’s new book Maggot Moon. I bit my lip and listened in. He was passionate and ethusiastic and the girl left with five books in her hand – two of them hardcovers.

Of course, I would not be so susceptible. After all, I’m in the profession. I can’t be swayed so easily. Ha! After about half an hour chatting with Ed, I bought:

The Bear That Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin – about a bear who wakes up from hibernation and is told repeatedly that he isn’t a bear, and who eventually gives in, against his instincts and becomes a factory worker.

Tan Tawn Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists. I had read his first novel, A Gift of Rain, and loved it — despite it being a book for grown ups.

Just for touch factor, I bought the new Lemony Snickett. It has a rubbery kind of cover that I wanted to chew on… Can’t wait to chew through the story!

And the book that I bought that I am most desperate to read is The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Fransisco Stork. I literally sntached it out of my friend’s hands so that I could buy it. (She ended up buying SIX books, so I was really doing her a favour.)

So many thanks, Ed, for helping me empty my bank account on the best thing ever… books!


A different kind of festival

Today’s blog is by Lennie Varvarides, the director of DYSPLA, a festival which celebrates artists with dyslexia.

In 2007 I had this crazy idea that London needed yet another new writing festival. I had recently graduated from Central School of Speech and Drama where I finished with an MA in writing for performance and was full of this stuff called, optimism.  An opportunity came up for a cheap hire at Barons Court Theater and with the help of my friend Rachel Barnett, we set up DYSTHELEXI, the first festival to exclusively produced the work of dyslexic storymakers.  It has been optimism, luckily, that has got me through the last five years.

This year marks five years of pushing and persuading. Five years of recruiting poets and performers and playwrights, five years of displaying what dyslexic creativity is and looks like. In a way, each festival is a research project and represents a live account of where the creative dyslexic community is and who our dyslexic contemporaries are.

The festival has proven to be a powerful network of shared energy; all involved are eager to raise awareness and celebrate art.  This art, this literature  this theater, this poetry, this music all made by dyslexic artists, dyslexic writers, dyslexic theater makers, dyslexic poets and dyslexic musicians.

There is a vibrant dyslexic community in London and every year this community attracts new and old dyslexics, who are eager to either come out of the closet, or are able to enjoy bathing in this new attitude of acceptance, bought about through all of our efforts to raise awareness.

This shift in attitudes means that people are not as embarrassed to speak about their dyslexia as they were 10 years ago.  I would like to believe that in the last five years the DYSPLA FESTIVAL has contributed to not only raising the awareness of dyslexia, but that the festival has also contributed to the positive aspects of this learning difference.

On a social level I want the festival to inspire those with dyslexia to consider their new-found acceptance as a new lease on life. A new approach to learning and living and sharing.  I believe art can change people, it can inspire and it can rebuild confidence in an individual and a community.

Every year we come up with  new ways to involve more people, this year we have two catagories that are open to everyone who is dyslexic:



We welcome letters all through the festival and encourage any dyslexic playwrights to send in their scripts now, for 2013.

The real landmark for DYSPLA FESTIVAL this year, is attracting the attention and time of Sally Gardner, who will be our main guest speaker on the 6th Nov, as a part of the DYSPLA FESTIVAL GALA NIGHT & FUNDRAISER. For more information on our Guest Speakers, please follow this link:

The Ebook lending debate…(and Commons pen to win!)

Yesterday, Sara O’Connor and I were lucky enough to be invited to attend an eBooks Summit at the House of Commons, organized by CILIP and hosted by the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group, to hear the debates and discussions around ebook lending in libraries.

Here was our view on the way in, not your average view when going to a meeting!

A grey London morning…

The main entrance!

The summit was chaired by Justin Tomlinson, MP and Chair of the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) who hosted a panel of names within the publishing and library industry. They were:

This summit was held alongside and to, hopefully, feed into the ebook lending review and task force announced by Ed Vaizey earlier this year and the packed house featured publishers and industry professionals all there to discuss the issues around e-lending.

You don’t need me to tell you that it is a very complicated debate, with pluses and minuses on both sides. There are many, many libraries in the UK who are already offering ebook lending via their websites, some for free, some paid for, and many more that are planning to. It seems the US are way ahead of us though – I was interested to hear that New York Public Libraries have been offering downloadable ebooks since 2004!

However to give you an idea of the depth of the discussions going on currently, here is a snapshot of some of the questions asked and concerns surrounding e-lending currently:

  • One main worry is if ebooks can be borrowed for free via libraries websites, how do we keep and use the physical library space, and continue to make it an active part of the community?
  • Should there be a small charge for loaning ebooks from your local library? For instance, if you knew that money was going back to the author and also helping the library to pay for the infrastructure of the digital service, would you pay? (See next point)
  • Currently, there is no PLR on ebooks for authors (PLR is ‘Public Lending Right’ which is a small payment paid by the government to authors based on how many people borrow the book), so at the moment authors only get remunerated for physical loans.
  • Should frontlist ebooks be only available to borrow 6 months after they go on sale (like DVDs)?
  • Should there be a national scheme for ebook lending, so each local authority doesn’t have to make individual decisions on which software and model to offer, and pay for its set up?
  • How are we going about training our librarians on the library floor to know and use new technologies, and feel confident with them? (this was my question!)
  • Should the device manufacturers be more involved with helping libraries train their staff and display their devices?
  • And mostly – who will pay for all this new infrastructure?

So, a lot of questions and concerns as you can see and there was much debate, and varying opinions surrounding them all. But there were lots of positive things too!

I was really interested to hear from New York Public Library who argued strongly that enabling ebook lending has been a huge discovery tool to introduce new readers to the library. Many people who hadn’t used their library in years, or were never members, joined up to borrow ebooks. They have huge website traffic (over 30m users a year!) and many people use the site really just to browse. They see their online home as a real alternative to online retailers, as they also offer an option to buy the book if you don’t want to loan it.

Overdrive were very clear on the fact that their system only ever offers one ebook loan, per person, per time, authenticated by a valid library card – just the same as the physical lending system – so a library still has to buy multiple copies of an ebook if they want to lend it to multiple people at the same time.

One person in the audience mentioned how much of a lifeline ebooks have been for partially sighted members of society, and how free lending of ebook will make a huge difference to them, and give them more access to more titles. There was a plea to make sure the text-to-speech function is always enabled by publishers, so the book can be read aloud.

Apparently academic libraries are already far ahead of public libraries in terms of digital – should there be more skill sharing between those institutions?

Libraries also have a HUGE amount of data about reading habits, and digital reading makes this even easier to track. How far people have got through a book, how long it’s taken them to read – all this information is available to publishers if you sign up for e-lending.

Anyway – the session was really animated and fascinating for all of us in the audience, and I hope the discussions get carried forward to the parliamentary eBook review. Obviously it’s an issue that needs more thought and guidance – and all involved agreed that there is a strong need for UK-based research on the issues – but in the meantime I’d be interested to know your thoughts on it – does your local library offer ebooks to loan? Would you / do you use them? What do you think about paying for that service? Would you only ever loan physical books from a library? Answers on a postcard. (Or, actually, in the comments below).

OH, and thanks to Rebecca Jenkins (@RebekahBooks) we legally obtained (i.e. bought) a House of Commons pen (in lovely green bag), which we’re happy to give away to one lucky commenter! Just have your say below to win this lovely thing:

Free for one winner!

I’m listening…

Hello, my name is Amy, and I am addicted to podcasts. On average, I listen to approximately 7 hours of podcasts per week. I simply can’t get enough. My 40 minute walk to and from work seems more like five when I’m into a good podcast. Back when I was sitting on the LA freeway in rush hour traffic, I could split my time between podcasts and phone calls, so I only relied on a few brief hours of podcasts to get me through. But now that my new time zone has relegated US phone calls to weekends only, my weekly podcast consumption has skyrocketed.

This increased desire for excellent auditory entertainment has led me to explore a plethora of new podcasts, and made me realize how difficult it is to produce a really good hour of radio. Of course, everyone is going to like something different, but you will not be shocked to learn that the most popular, most loved podcasts are the podcasts which tell the best stories (OK and the ones about sport, of course).

Scrolling through my long list of podcasts…

The gold standard of podcasts in the US is a show called This American Life. I’m not sure if This American Life has reached the shores of GB yet (or if it would just be too American), but it is definitely worth a listen no matter where you are. Every week, Ira Glass and his team of producers and reporters pick a theme, and then provide listeners with a few stories on that theme. Most of the time, these stories are non-fiction, and in their written form, might fall into the newish genre of literary non-fiction. Sometimes they throw in a piece from David Sedaris or David Rakoff, just to throw something different into the mix. This American Life changed the boundaries of popular radio in the states, which I would guess has something to do with the fact that they respect the basic tenants of good broadcast storytelling.

Basically, Ira says that you need a good anecdote (a compelling series of events), some questions to plant in the listener’s mind so they want to stick with the story, and some broader revelatory point to the story. You can listen to him elaborate on these points in this video:

But on the radio, sometimes it’s not enough just to tell a story. Jad Abumrad, one of the co-hosts of my absolute favourite podcast of all time, RadioLab, blends the basic tenants of storytelling together with the elements of music production and sound design. He and his brilliant co-host Robert Krulwich play with sound and storytelling to help simplify the most complex scientific concepts, which ultimately results in an irresistible work of storytelling art. I believe this ability to really make the medium work for your story is critical for podcasting, and storytelling in general.

So what podcasts are you listening to? Are there a few you simply have to listen to each week? If you’re looking for a few to add to your list, here are a few more suggestions (aside from This American Life and RadioLab of course):

1. The Moth
2. The Infinite Monkey Cage
3. NPR: Planet Money (if you are tired of not knowing what people are talking about when they mention mortgage-backed securities or credit-default swaps, this one is a must-listen)
4. True Story
5. The Memory Palace

And if you haven’t yet, check out the podcasts from Sally Gardner’s Free Word event about dyslexia.

Elements of storytelling

The Scottish Storytelling Festival is this week, and that’s got us thinking (watch out!) about all the different ways of storytelling: written liked books or poems or scrolls; oral like audio books, or live speaking or songs; and visual like movies, TV, plays, ballet, cabaret… (Complete aside: have you seen this Gary Barlow wind up? HILARIOUS!)

Obviously, my area of expertise is on the written side – though really only in fiction. It’s a shame I don’t know more about poetry… I am learning about audio (have you seen our behind-the-scenes making our first audio book?) and tomorrow’s blog will be from our resident podcast expert (Amy).

But I thought I would try to talk about the common key elements in all kinds of good storytelling. I did a fair amount of nail-chewing on the train this morning trying to find the common elements… let me know if I’m missing anything big!

Firstly, the storyteller. A story has to be told, a poem written, a song sung… there is always someone behind it, doing it for pleasure, for money, for survival, for homework. We can’t forget that in all of this story analysing that there are people behind this creative work. Especially in oral storytelling, their personality and presentation is crucial!

Secondly, character. Not every story has to have plot, but I can’t think of a story where there is no character. Preferably, this character or these characters will evoke emotional responses from the audience and be memorable. I also feel strongly that a character shuold drive the story, not have the story happen to them.

Thirdly, novelty. There should be something new, either in the way it is told or what is being told. A new combination of events, a different kind of hero, or just something that audience wouldn’t have seen or heard before.

So, I suppose what I’m saying is, if you bring YOU to the table, and tell the story in your own way… and build a brilliant character while offering something new, you’re my kind of storyteller.

(Great storytellers who I am SO excited are working together: Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran! Thanks, Sugarscape for keeping me up on the gossip and for additional “storytelling” examples!)

Thanks for the image.