Author Archives: hotkeyolivia

Top Ten Tuesday – Reading Resolutions

Hello and a very happy New Year from all of us at Hot Key!

And yes, it is January, so yes, you are getting the inevitable blog post about New Year’s Resolutions. I’m the type that sets grand, hugely-idealistic resolutions and breaks them all by the 3rd January, but this year the clean slate that January offers is really appealing to me – especially when it comes to my reading habits because they are a MESS. I’ve always thought of myself as a systematic reader – knowing what I want to read, giving equal weight to children and adult fiction, only having one book on the go at a time etc… But over the Christmas break I realised I had been LYING TO MYSELF. Yes, I used to be like that as a reader but in the past year-and-a-half or so I’ve fallen to pieces. I’m useless. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying everyone has to be systematic or organised in their reading habits, but for me loosing that habit has meant that I’ve read LESS books, discovered LESS authors, basically branched out LESS. And I want to change that.

bookcase 1 the main one

 

So here are my 4 New Year’s Reading Resolutions

1. To read more non-fiction. The lovely Sanne gave me a copy of Selena Hasting’s biography of Nancy Mitford for Secret Santa (the.best.Secret.Santa.ever) and I have loved diving back into non-fiction. I’m also a relentless Google-r – when something interests me I’ll automatically go to Google to find out more, but next time something peaks my interest I’m going to buoy a book about it. Hopefully this will also help with resolution no. 2 …

2. To spend more of my free time reading. At the moment I mainly read on my commute, or on train journeys I’m taking for work. It was only over the Christmas break when I sat down with a book for a good three hours that I realised it had been months since I’d done that – though only a few days since I had binge-watched a series on Netflix. And as a result I’m reading much less. So bye-bye internet (especially before bed!) and words on a (paper) page.

3.. To read one book at a time. I was never a multi-books-on-the-go girl but working at a publishing company means a submission might come in that we need to read quickly, or that the final manuscript of a book I’ve been desperately waiting for is finally ready for me to read. This has completely messed up my monogamous book relationship, and I’m done playing the field. (Of course I’ll still read the submissions though!)

4.. To keep track of what I have read. Simple enough really – I’ve never done it and I think it will spur me on to stick to the three above.

And what about the rest of HKB? Well …

5. To read more hardback books. Got one over Xmas and am reading THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH and they feel so wonderful to hold, and also smell so pleasant. They are worth the extra price – BRENDA

6. For the first ever Christmas in living memory I did not get given a SINGLE book! So I found something on my shelf that had been hidden, half-read-  Daphne du Maurier’s biography, by Margaret Forster. A fascinating biography of a fascinating woman, beautifully and compellingly written. Now I need more biographies. Recommendations, anybody? – EMMA

7. I want to read at least 5 Dutch books that have also been translated into English. I don’t read nearly enough in my native language and I’m also really interested in translation, so this should be an opportunity to learn more about both. – SANNE

8. I’m going to read more physical books – hopefully some of the stack of dust-gathering hardbacks by my bed that’s getting ridiculous – when I’m at home, and save the ebooks for the commute. I’ve just had the realisation that my children don’t ever really see me “read” as a leisure activity – when it’s all on a screen it could be work, it could be browsing the internet, it all looks the same to them when it’s hidden on a screen. So more actual books of my own choosing in my hands, not just bedtime stories! – DEBBIE

9. My reading resolution is to read more and to choose reading over wasting my life away scrolling through Instagram and Twitter. I’m also going to try to keep track of the books I read as I’m so terrible at forgetting! – JEN

10. I’m going to go through the rather large pile of unread books on my shelves that’s getting a little out of hand. I’ve even banned myself from getting new books (yes that’s how serious I am – let’s see how long this last…) till I’ve read at least half of those. I also really want to re-read some of my favourite books and maybe get into e-books and get some use out of my Kindle. – ASMAA

And what about you lot? What are your reading resolutions? Let us know in the comments of on Twitter!

The savage truth about cannibalism

Though dietary habits are not a usual focus on this blog, we felt it an appropriate topic as we celebrate the publication of the wonderful Matt Whyman’s new book, THE SAVAGES . It follows the lives of the Savage family, their strange family tradition and, shall we say, interesting taste in people. For more about the novel, check out Matt’s intro video below and explore more content on the web site.

For me, the question was what started this bizarre family tradition? I found the answer in the novel, and a particularly horrific and devastating time in history…

The siege of Leningrad began in June 1941, when Stalin and the Soviet Union were attacked by their supposed ally, Nazi Germany. By the end of August the German forces has reached Leningrad (St Petersburg). By 8th September 1941, every road and rail line was cut with devastating air raids starting the next day and continuing for 17 months. The citizens of Leningrad were totally isolated – no one could enter or leave, let alone bring in basic supplies like food.

At the start of the siege  it was estimated that the city had enough flour for 35 days, cereals for 30 days, meat for 22 days and sugar for 60 days. The siege however, lasted until 27th January 1944 – that’s 827 days.

Ration cards were distributed, but these were dependent on status with the lowest category of dependent receiving only 125g of bread a day (3 thin slices); bread that contained a high proportion of nutritionless fillers like cottonseed. Queues lined the streets, while the weather dropped to -30 degrees, and people who managed to get their rations lived off 300 calories a day.

Desperately in need of food, the citizens of Leningrad did what they could. At first animals from the city zoo were eaten, followed by household pets (with reports that families swapped their pets with neighbours so they didn’t have to eat their own), and then wild rats and birds. Wallpaper paste was made from potatoes and so people scraped it off their walls. Grass and weeds were cooked, leather was boiled to produce a kind of edible jelly, and sheep’s intestines were boiled down with oil of clove to be used instead of milk. There are reports of men drinking oil from oil cans, eating grease from machines and joiner’s glue in their desperation.

One diarist noted ‘Hunger has changed almost everyone’, and perhaps it is unsurprising that these desperate, isolated citizens resorted to cannibalism. Police records from the time show that 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism, while 586 of them were executed for murdering their victims, although the actual number could in fact be much higher. The Leningrad police formed a special division to combat cannibalism as these cases became more regular. Sadly, the majority of people arrested were women, as mothers resorted to desperate measures to feed their children.

When the siege finally ended it was estimated that over 750,00 people had died from starvation – between a quarter and a third of the original population.

I can remember a surprisingly substantial amount of the World War II history we learned for GCSE, but the siege of Leningrad was just another date stuffed in amongst the Beer Hall Putsch and Home Front propaganda posters – and I think that’s wrong. The dark, horrific history of the siege, and perhaps in particular the lengths people went to to get food, reveal so much about human nature and human need. Not only how far we will go when we’re desperate, but also what we will do to provide for and protect those we love.

There are some parts of history that are so dark and so terrible, it’s hard to comprehend how society could have permitted such terrifying human behavior. And oftentimes, the only way we can truly explore the reality of the people who experienced these terrible things is through fiction. Fiction allows us to ask questions and experience empathy in a way that non-fiction sometimes does not permit.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea, THE SAVAGES is not a dark exploration of World War II Russia. Instead, Matt delicately uses this horrible historical event as an anchor for the family’s behavior. It makes the family real. They don’t just have some strange desire for blood. They are a regular family with an unusual family tradition. A tradition that has been passed onto them, so they can appreciate all they have around them and never forget the past.

THE SAVAGES

The beautiful or the cursed?

In THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE CURSED by Page Morgan, gargoyles are far more than deliberately ugly stone statues attached to the side of churches, cathedrals and abbeys. Yes, some are troubled and have stone forms (some of the time) but they also act as the guardians of the buildings they decorate.

(And decorate they do – they’re also beautiful. As in, bizarre creature hot-beautiful. As in I may have a tiny bit of a book boy crush on a gargoyle. Never thought I’d write that).

THE BEAUTIFUL & THE CURSED

These fantastical stone beasts have fascinated Page Morgan ever since she first went to Paris and saw the famous gargoyles adorning Notre Dame:

Like this…

and this…(though he looks a bit bored)

It’s very difficult to separate gargoyles from their ecclesiastical setting (especially if you studied Theology) and so I have always thought that gargoyles were meant to symbolise the dangers of evil and sin, to act as a didactic, visual warning and deterrent to congregations. After all, isn’t there something eerily recognisable about them?  They are monstrous distortions of things we recognise: animals, emotions, our own faces even?

However, in THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE CURSED Page Morgan has created a cast of gargoyle characters who act as guardians and protectors of the buildings they adorn in their stone form, and the people who live within them. A little bit of internet procrastination later, and I’d discovered that actually, in a way, the fundamental role of a gargoyle was to protect – they’re super sophisticated-looking gutters that prevent rainwater eroding mortar and stone. They’re not screaming, but draining.  I honestly think this is one of the coolest things – just look at this example of a gargoyle from Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.

A gargoyle from Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

Moreover, many suggest that gargoyles do not act as a deterrent towards people, but towards evil itself. Just look at the images above of the Notre Dame gargoyles nestled over the city; there’s an alertness and battle-ready feeling to them. They’re up in the heavens, encircling the cathedral and the congregation therein; manning their particular look out post, almost taunting any evil forces stupid enough to come near. I look at them and think you’re strong, and strangely elegant, and I need some new gutters so you’re coming home with me to keep me safe, thanks.

Look out for THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE CURSED out this week at bookstores everywhere!

Happy International Children’s Book Day!

IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) was set up in Switzerland in 1953 with wonderful aim of bringing books and children together. They sponsor the International Children’s Book Day (or as I like to call it, One of the Best Days of the Year Day), which just so happens to be today 2nd April, Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday.

Amy asked me if I’d like to do a blog on my favourite picture books to celebrate International Children’s Book Day, as IBBY put a strong emphasis artistic excellence in books. Did she really need to ask? Picture books are where most people’s book memories begin – books that were read to me when I was a child still evoke a heady mixture of nostalgia, comfort and joy.

Today, when faced with a new picture book free from my sentimental attachments, my overwhelming emotion is often awe – the quality and sheer artistry is frequently outstanding. I feel illustration is leading the stories and as a result the books as a whole are working on more levels, becoming more sophisticated, dealing with more complex themes. It’s a wonderful thing.

To celebrate ICBD I thought I’d share some of my favourite picture books and illustrators. Let me know your favorites, and in the spirit of ICBD let’s bring books to each other!

THE STORY OF FERDINAND written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson

STRUWWELPETER by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann

DEATH, DUCK AND THE TULIP by Wolf Erlbruch

JEMMY BUTTON by Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali, words by Alix Barzelay

When adults read YA…

My mother’s book group has been going for seventeen years. Every six weeks, six lovely women meet and eat wonderful food and discuss wonderful books: the food is always wonderful; the books aren’t quite so consistent. Last Monday I joined them as they discussed Costa award-winning MAGGOT MOON, the first children’s or YA book they have ever read as a club.

I was really looking forward to an evening spent eating and discussing a book I love, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. But was it what I expected? Not quite.

MAGGOT MOONMaggotMoonAdultCover

When I first read MAGGOT MOON, I was working at a children’s bookshop; my colleagues and I, already huge fans of Sally Gardner, eagerly awaited the proof turning up on the doormat. It was passed around more quickly than cake during the 4 o’clock slump, and we were all completely wowed by it.

The book clubbers were wowed by it as well – everyone thought it was written in a beautiful, understated way and some felt Standish was one of the most unique voices they’d read in a long time. However, what they focused more on was MAGGOT MOON being a children’s book, and what that meant these days.

Between these ladies they have fifteen children ranging from 7 to 30 years old. For some it has been a long time since they read anything that could be classed as a children’s book (with the probable exception of Rowling, Pullman and/or Haddon). For others they haven’t discovered the YA genre that MAGGOT MOON is part of yet. More than this, as my mum assures me, when she was a teenager the idea of a teen or YA genre barely existed, certainly not in the densely populated and incredibly diverse way it does today.

What seemed to strike them was how dark some of the themes and scenes are: certainly if one expected MAGGOT MOON to be written for a nine or ten year old, you might be a bit taken aback by some of the content. However, as a YA novel it is startling, beautiful and totally original.

Unexpectedly for me, it led us to discuss ‘appropriateness’ or ‘suitability’ in books – be it language, characters, or plot.  I’m going to come clean and admit that I’m a firm believer in letting children read what they want. My parents didn’t monitor what I read when I was younger, and though that meant I read things ‘too early’ or seemed unsuitable for my age (reading Melvin Burgess’ JUNK at 10 was weird mainly because I had no idea what was going on), it also means that I’ve carried on reading things ‘too late’ all my life. I am constantly discovering more must-read books, be they for adults or children, all the time.

At school young teens study adult books – ANIMAL FARM at twelve, OF MICE AND MEN and LORD OF THE FLIES as GCSE set texts. I remember studying THE CRUCUBLE at thirteen; we may not have understood the anti-McCarthy message (even after we’d been told all about it), but at my all-girls school we certainly understood mass hysteria, groups of malicious girls and gossip. We took from it what we could understand and what was relevant to us and at the same time had our eyes opened, our minds stretched and our curiosity peaked.

It was comparing MAGGOT MOON and other YA titles to books like this that helped us arrive at something resembling a conclusion. One of them put it really well when she said that the goal posts in children’s fiction have changed. YA literature is, in my opinion, growing and producing some truly remarkable books, which are able to crossover (there I said it) into the adult market.

However, what’s really special about it these type of books for me is that they are being produced and marketed specifically for teenagers – they don’t need an adult to try and fit them to a teenager’s life by explaining them. Instead this type of YA novel tackles difficult themes that are important and relevant to teens as they begin to see the world through more mature eyes.

More than this, they communicate something beyond themselves in language that doesn’t patronise or make assumptions about their reader. It is sophisticated, rich – literary even. It is this element of MAGGOT MOON that the book club ladies found so remarkable. It is this aspect that that lead my mother to say ‘teenagers today are so lucky’. (I wonder what teens would say to that…)

So what do you think? What do you think the YA genre is doing for teen reading?

Maggot Moon: The Adult Edition

Inspired by something very exciting happening here at Hot Key HQ, I’ve been giving this whole children vs. adult edition of children’s books some thought. In reality it’s only the books with ‘crossover appeal’ that get separate children’s and adult editions. Unsurprisingly however, the covers handle these elements in very different ways depending on the target audience. Here are the covers for THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS:

Children’s Edition

Adult edition

While I really like both covers, and think each works well for the target audience the adult edition makes it patently obvious what the story and tone of the book are; you’re not going to expect to find a romance between those covers. On the other hand, the children’s one is familiar, with it’s classic look and simplicity, yet compared to the adult edition it doesn’t come close to hinting at the fact that this is a book about the holocaust. Is this a good thing? Or is it a bit too safe, even patronising towards
its young readers?

One of my favourite books, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith, has been published in both adult and children’s editions for years because of its crossover appeal: beautiful writing, fantastic character depiction, some rather highbrow references and an incredibly acute way of resonating with everyone who reads it. Although it has become known as one of the classics of children’s literature, the original cover doesn’t make it clear whether it was intended for children or adults. The adult and children’s editions I am familiar with however, present the book in different ways.

Adult edition

Children’s edition

For me the adult cover conveys the whole tone of the book almost flawlessly: it’s subtle, deceptively and effectively simple, yearning, and even a little awkward. It’s obvious when it was written and set, and that it is part of the ‘hot-water bottle’, vintage feeling type of literature. (The same can be said for the current adult edition). This children’s one on the other hand feels flat. To me all it says is ‘young girl falling in love’ – it could be the cover for any number of YA novels. Certainly, the book is a coming of age story and an illustration of the potency of first love, themes incredibly common to YA novels now, so I suppose the cover works from that perspective. However, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is so much more than a love story, not only read by teenage girls. Books like this speak to everyone in different ways and the covers should reflect that.

(On a side note to those of you who have read it, do I even need to say it?? Why have they put Rose on the cover?! It shouldn’t be Rose!) (I should add that this edition is out of print and the current children’s one is lovely).

I suppose it was with the whole Harry Potter phenomena that the adult edition of children’s books really took off, spurred on by reports of adults reading the brightly coloured books behind newspapers on their morning commute. The adult edition did away with the colour co-ordination that made looking at your complete set so satisfying, and the illustrations, which to me spoke of the adventure, energy and imagination each Harry Potter book contained. Instead Harry was rebranded in sleek black and white; no longer a boy wizard but a fantasy hero. Glance at an adult edition now and it could be yet another book in the GAME OF THRONES series.

Adult edtions

Children’s editions

It’s fair to say that adult editions are a reaction to the disparaging question ‘Why are you reading a children’s book?’ My initial reaction would be to hiss back through clenched teeth ‘What’s wrong with reading a children’s book?’ It makes me wonder whether people are embarrassed to be seen reading children’s literature, and how much of a shame that is because they’re missing out on a huge variety of brilliant books.

There are some books that simply resist being so easily categorized as ‘children’s’, ‘romance’ or ‘fantasy’. This may be down to the quality of writing, the themes that are focused on, or the issues that are dealt with. Whatever the reason there is something special about these books that make them transcend the ordinary, and reach into realms of the profound and universal. Adult editions are needed because they knock down the barriers of age-range or genre. They encourage a wider variety of people to pick up those books that are so wonderful, everyone can take something from them.

I’ll give the last word to our very own Sarah Odedina:  ‘We are delighted to be publishing MAGGOT MOON for an adult audience. It is a wonderful book and like many other great works for young readers will appeal to an adult audience because of its subtle sophistication and brilliant story telling. Sally Gardner has written a book that really does have utterly universal appeal.’

I’m pleased to introduce our very own adult edition cover for Maggot Moon. Let us know what you think about this new look for Maggot Moon, and we’re curious to hear your thoughts on adult editions in general.

So nearly Meg Ryan…

Livs Mead

Hi, I’m Livs or the new SPAM assistant here at Hot Key Books.

My first ambition was to be Meg Ryan. Well, her character in You’ve Got Mail anyway, so I could surround myself with the best stories and most beautiful books I could find. At twelve I didn’t really care about the internet romance bit so much. In fact I was warned against meeting strange men online. At fifteen, when all my other friends had migrated towards Heat magazine and I was still obsessed by children’s books, I begged a family friend who owns the wonderful Tales on Moon Lane children’s bookshop to let me work on Saturday mornings. Saturday mornings turned into whole weekends, which turned into seven years of surrounding myself with children’s books at the shop –reading them, recommending them, endlessly alphabetising them and always talking about them.

I went off to university to study Theology, mainly because I became strangely fascinated with the medieval papacy while doing my History A Level and certainly because I re-read His Dark Materials a lot, but worked at the bookshop every holiday. Tamara and George at Tales on Moon Lane became my unofficial professors – always recommending books and discussing them with me. More than this they helped me remember how powerfully books I read when I was younger spoke to me, influenced me and transported me; ultimately I realised that finding those books as a child has given me a life-long passion for books.

I’ve seen how just one book can set a child’s imagination on fire, move them to tears, smiles, or even anger, act as pure escapism or resonate far more deeply. It makes them come back for more. (I did really enjoy Theology though I promise; especially because I was allowed to study lots of novels for my dissertation.)

My new, more worthwhile aim (sorry Meg) is to try and foster the same passion for books and reading in children and teenagers. What better way to do this than to try and find a job in a children’s publishing house? It’s the job equivalent of loving sweets and working for Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory – you’re right at the heart of it. So, after some really interesting work experience and my time in the bookshop, I have just started my new job as Sales & Marketing Assistant for the incredible Hot Key Books (my arm is sore from pinching myself).

What I loved most about being a bookseller was reading a new book and working out what type of child would fall in love with it, why it would work for them, and what made the book itself special. I am sooo (apologies but the added o’s are necessary) excited to start and to continue with all this, telling everyone who will listen about how wonderful books – especially Hot Key Books – are.