Author Q & A: Zillah Bethell

Zillah Bethell’s second novel for children, ‘The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare’ is an absolute triumph with superlative writing – terrifically engaging, vibrant, life-affirming even. The official blurb on Zillah goes something like this… “She was born in Papua New Guinea, spent her childhood playing in the jungle, and didn’t own a pair of shoes until she came to the UK when she was eight. She was educated at Oxford University and now lives in Wales with her family.”

That free childhood in Papua New Guinea, she says, impacted on the Auden storyline, both in terms of the use of Artificial Intelligence and the effects of a global water shortage. “We didn’t have any technology in Papua New Guinea and I am both fascinated and appalled with it. Instinctively I don’t like it – I don’t even own a microwave – but rationally I see its enormous potential. I think I wrestle with this in my work – sometimes outlining the dangers of it, sometimes showing the wonders of it.” In The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, Paragon the robot becomes a robot you can love, a robot with personality, even humanity. A machine with a conscience?

“Having grown up in Papua New Guinea I am acutely aware of the challenges third world countries face. Particularly water shortages. Wars over water are fought around the globe – civil war in Yemen was sparked by a water crisis – and water scarcity is now the number 1 global risk factor according to the World Economic Forum. It was a bold move to bring drought to the UK – higher latitudes are more likely to see an alternating pattern of flood and drought according to climate experts – but it seemed like the right move. It was fun thinking up details such as ornamental cacti replacing cut flowers and raising meat prices to ridiculous heights (dairy and meat production being very heavy on water). And, of course, a governing body headed by General Woolf with his Aquarian Protection Cross!”

Before the amazing Auden Dare, Zillah’s ‘Whisper of Horses’ was published in August 2016 which The Bookseller said ‘has the feel of a lyrical fable’. Prior to that 3 novels for adults were published by Honno and Seren Books.

We are delighted that Zillah has answered our questions, so without further ado…

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently re-reading If This is a Man by Primo Levi, a memoir of his time in Auschwitz. I also found a series of books in a second hand book shop called Jinny at Finmory by Patricia Leitch ostensibly for my eight year old daughter. They were written in the seventies and are beautiful books about a girl called Jinny and an Arab horse called Shantih (which means peace).

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

After studying French and English literature at university I decided I wanted to stop studying books and start writing them. I imagined myself in a leaky bedsit, drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes. I did live in a leaky bedsit but whenever I tried strong coffee or a cigarette I almost choked or passed out. I spent weekends labouring over words and internal rhymes when I should have been clubbing. You could say I had a wasted youth!

Where and when do you write?

Well I don’t have a writing shed at the bottom of the garden or space for a writing room of any sort. I have my head, a file and an old Dictaphone I keep for superstitious reasons. I scribble down notes in my file and record thoughts on the Dictaphone but unfortunately I can rarely decipher my own handwriting and my children find it amusing to fiddle with the speed on my Dictaphone so that when I listen back I either sound like a demented Bugs Bunny or an octogenarian who’s misplaced their teeth.

What inspired the book Auden Dare?

For a while I had the idea of a boy whose father is away fighting. I initially imagined it set in Silicon Valley in the 1970s – during Vietnam – but my editor wanted an alternate reality UK setting so I brought the story to Cambridge, England. I’m interested in Artificial Intelligence and I wanted to pose questions like what makes us human, and explore issues around identity and belonging.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I love names – their sounds and their meanings. Usually I think of a character and then a name kind of seems to suit them. Occasionally a name comes first. I once wrote a short story around the name Stuffy; and the tail end of a dream where I think my brain was saying ‘me fancy holiday’ became a character Myfanwy Halliday! Migishoo the parrot in The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare came from buying the Big Issue in Cardiff a few years ago from a guy who had a cold! I think I agree with Louis MacNeice who said he preferred sound over sense. There is a wonderful bit in Ulysees, I think, where a character is confessing to a priest. ‘I sch sch sch sch’ (says the character) ‘And did you cha cha cha cha’ (says the priest). Brilliant how sound conveys the sense of the words.

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Racine, Enid Blyton, Kazuo Ishiguro (I wish I’d written Never Let Me Go).

How important is a sense of place to your writing? In particular, has living in Wales any influence on your writing?

A Whisper of Horses is my homage to Wales, I suppose. A beautiful landscape with mountains and sea, not unlike the terrain of Papua New Guinea though not quite as hot. I get most of my ideas walking over the mountains near Llangynwyd. I think my books are more mindscapes but certainly a particular setting gives rise to a certain story and vice versa. 

We really enjoyed the narration in Auden Dare. How did you manage to find the voice of an 11-year-old boy?

I grew up with two older brothers and I have a twelve year old son. Need I say more?

There’s quite a bit of poetry in the book – who are your favourite poets?

Where to start and where to end? I like Yeats and Eliot. Sylvia Plath. Some of the thirties poets like Auden and MacNeice. And of course Dylan Thomas. I visited his house in Laugharne and the room where he wrote Under Milk Wood. Every now and again a recording played his voice reciting some of his poems. A schoolkid had written in the visitors’ book ‘very horrible, very creepy!’

Both of your books for children have been very powerful, dealing with social and environmental themes – is it important to you that your books carry a message?

My favourite part of writing is the ideas bit at the start. I love grappling with ideas. As a writer I would find just writing a story a little dull though, as a reader, I am perfectly happy reading a story without any message. Maybe I need to think about that a little…!

Tell us a bit about your rescue animals.

Someone once told me that it was my destiny to rescue animals and it does seem to be the case that if there’s a sick or injured animal around then it finds me or vice versa. Over the years I’ve saved a cuscus, a guillemot, a wild rabbit, several cats and a couple of dogs. Our current rescue pets are Domino the collie we found abandoned on the way to Tenby, Coco the terrier who turned up on our doorstep, Presto a black cat with two tabby kittens Mango and Beano; and a pony given to us by a lady who could no longer care for her. Cameo (the pony) is strawberry roan and she likes polo mints and pears. They all (apart from the horse of course) seem to spend their time on the sofa in the sitting room which only leaves the piano stool, a pouf and two hard chairs for the humans!

We know that you’re a big music fan. Do you have music on when you write? What’s the best music to accompany The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare?

I have to have silence when I write but my car CD currently includes Everything Everything’s Can’t Do, The National’s Walk It Back and Arcade Fire’s Everything Now. Music to accompany Auden Dare would have to be Purple Rain by Prince, She Comes in Colours by World of Twist, Yellow by Coldplay, Love is Full of Wonderful Colours by The Icicle Works, 99 Red Balloons by Nena, Blue Velvet by Bobby Vinton, Where Are We Now by David Bowie (for the lines ‘As long as there’s sun, As long as there’s rain’) and The National’s England (for the lines ‘You must be somewhere in London, You must be loving your life in the rain’).

What’s next for Zillah Bethell?

Well, I’ve had a bit of a break from writing and have recently been encouraged to start up again. My agent wants me to write ‘the Papua New Guinea story’ so I’m going to try and do that. I have a twelve-year-old girl in my head called Blue Wing and she is a shark caller (shark calling being a practice unique to that part of the world). Working title Book of the Long Now. I tried it out on my daughter the other night and she said ‘what does that even mean? Just call it Blue Wing!’ So I guess we’ll see where that ends up…

 

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare is published by Piccadilly Press and is available online or in your local bookshop.

If you’d like to explore Zillah’s books for adults then please visit Seren Books and Honno.

We were inspired by a Q&A published on Typewritered and the quote at the top about water shortages came from a great Bethell-penned piece at the reading zone. There are also author blog posts worth checking out at Powered by Reading and Nayu’s Reading Corner

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

Zillah Bethell

Piccadilly Press

Zillah Bethell’s first book for children, A Whisper of Horses, was one of the Telegraph’s ‘Books of 2016’ and received high praise. Her writing is often described as evocative, vibrant and inventive so when The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare popped through my letterbox, I couldn’t wait to get started.

Extraordinary, is most definitely, the word. Although Roget would also suggest wonderful, remarkable and exceptional.

For me, the thrill of the book was in the not knowing. The plot is intriguing and unpredictable, so I am keen not to impart too many details. What I can tell you, is that 11-year-old Auden Dare’s perspective on life is influenced by the fact that he cannot see in colour. It’s a rare condition and it adds to the sense that Auden Dare is the underdog – useless at football, a weirdo in school, a target for bullies. Set in the future, there is also a war raging across the world due to water shortages – it doesn’t rain, everyone is filthy; water is very expensive and is rationed and controlled by the Water Authority Board.

Auden’s mother inherits a small bungalow in Cambridge from her brother who passes away suddenly and mysteriously. When they move to the new town, Auden begins to investigate the circumstances of Uncle Jonah’s death and meets a genuine friend in Vivi Rookmini. When they discover that Professor Jonah Bloom may have been working on a cure for Auden’s condition, the adventure begins. When they unearth a secret in Uncle Jonah’s garden shed, things really kick off!

Told in the first person, Auden’s 11 year old persona is entirely convincing – witty, self-deprecating and relaxed. He’s also rather fragile; he brushes most things off easily but is hurt when people show a lack of understanding of his condition.  On top of that, when a malicious rumour about his father spreads, it tips him to breaking point. But he has a friend and the relationship between Auden and Vivi is beautifully written – full of vibrancy and understanding.

Zillah Bethell’s writing is terrifically engaging, confident and highly entertaining. I found it nigh-on impossible to guess the ending which was met with tears of joy. A thoroughly enjoyable read, I was totally involved throughout – in turn laughing out loud, and biting my nails; wincing with every threat and grinning inside with every glimmer of hope.

As I approached the end of the novel, I was reminded of something the Dalai Lama has said in an address to the world’s youth. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Whilst children should be happy and have fun in the here and now, they must not lose sight of their place in the world. Afterall, our individual interests ultimately depend on the global situation.”

If someone shows their true colours, then they reveal their real self. The true colours of Auden Dare are that of a young man with determined self-confidence and warm-heartedness; a boy of compassion and truth – the epitome of humanity – and there’s something quite extraordinary about that.

 

 

Thanks to Piccadilly Press for sending me a review copy of The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare (it’s available in the shops now).

You can buy The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare from Hive or better still, from your local bookshop.

You can follow Zillah Bethell on Twitter, as well as Matt Saunders who designed the cover.

Sky Dancer

Sky Dancer

Gill Lewis

Oxford University Press

So here’s the thing…

I read Sky Dancer over the summer holiday and absolutely loved it. In fact, I loved it so much I’ve been worrying about doing it justice in a review. So let’s make it clear – Sky Dancer is a fabulous read – an emotionally gripping, totally uplifting, captivating story with an important environmental theme.

The novel deals with the pressing issue of decreasing numbers of hen harriers. This is largely due to the ‘management’ of estates and moors to preserve the numbers of grouse for the shooting season. Lewis deals with the issue fairly, without preaching, and both sides of the argument have convincing vehicles in the believable characters of the village of Hartstone. Having said this, you’re left in no doubt as to the author’s own opinion on the matter.

Whilst this issue is important and a very powerful aspect of the book’s appeal, the real joy of the novel is in the characters that dwell within the 270 pages. Joe loves the moors and the wildlife, and is happy spending his days wandering the heathers and rocks. However, since the death of his father he has wrestled both with his conscience and his elder brother as he struggles to stand up for what he believes. He has to come to terms with his own ideology which often conflicts with that of his family and his heritage. To add to the entanglement, his best friend is the daughter of the landowner, his teacher was responsible for sending his father to jail and his mother is struggling to support her fractured family. These relationships are so engrossing and entirely credible – a real affirmation of the prowess of Lewis as an author.

The real strength of Sky Dancer is in the confident and convincing storytelling, and the gritty and authentic characters with whom we can easily empathise. The writing has a classic feel, like Morpurgo or Ransome; yet this is clearly a modern-day adventure and Lewis’ prose is inspiriting and heartening. Here is a story about finding yourself, finding your voice and having the courage to speak out.

I absolutely loved it. Get yourself a copy.

 

Thanks to OUP for sending me a review copy of Sky Dancer (it’s available in the shops from October 5th 2017).

You can buy Sky Dancer from Hive or better still, from your local bookshop.

Do check out the reviews by Zoe Toft, and Dara McAnulty for further opinion.

Follow Gill Lewis on Twitter and why not follow RSPB Sky Dancer too?

Eyes of Me

Through The Eyes of Me

Jon Roberts

Illustrations: Hannah Rounding

Graffeg

Through The Eyes of Me is an adorable, heartwarming celebration of a child with autism. Written by Jon Roberts and inspired by his daughter, we learn of the everyday pleasures and quirks of four year old Kya. Broader than this, it is a celebration of the individual and what makes us who we are.

The picture book is brimming with delightfully playful illustrations by Hannah Rounding who expertly conveys Kya’s world with charm and love. Author Jon Roberts talks more about the book in this video:

I shared the book with Nina (age 8) who empathised greatly with Kya and recognised the characteristics of autism before it was made clear. She has friends in school who are diagnosed with autism and knows individuals who share some of Kya’s dislikes – particularly loud noises and strangely textured food. She also recognised that she was like Kya in some ways and we were able to have a conversation about similarities and differences between individuals.

The book warrants endorsement by an autism charity – Jon Roberts’ text encourages empathy and understanding and the book should be available everywhere it might educate, inform and help as broad an audience as possible.

Goodly and Grave

Goodly and Grave in a Deadly Case of Murder

Justine Windsor

Harper Collins

In the first Goodly and Grave, we are introduced to the characters and learn how Lucy Goodly and Lord Grave become the unlikeliest of crime-cracking partners. It’s a fast-paced, madcap adventure full of warmth and humour (as well as plenty of weird and wonderful plot twists and more than a splash of mayhem). Oh and they have magical powers. I guess the books would appeal to children around the age of 7 to 10; and as a teacher I couldn’t wait to share this book with my Year 4 class, who lapped it up, laughed out loud and were eager to learn of a sequel.

So for the second book, we follow Lucy’s adventures as she joins Magicians Against the Abuse of Magic (MAAM), hosted by Lord Grave. Soil is being stolen from freshly-dug burial grounds and it’s up to Lucy, Bertie (Lord Grave’s son), Smell the cat and the rest of the cast of Grave Hall to piece together the mystery.

As you may suspect from the title, this second book has a darker and more sinister tone; episodes in graveyards at midnight, a disreputable inn, and the creation of powerful creatures that can be used to carry out your will. Not to mention the murders. This is all great news for the plot which zips along with plenty of momentum and a number of surprising turns. The whodunnit element will be guessed early on by the mature reader, but that doesn’t detract from the entertaining chase.

Throughout, Justine Windsor continues to add detail to the magical world she has created. Lucy is constantly learning of new powers and magical phenomenon as the book (and the series) develops. Windsor’s writing is full of verve and seems effortless; I really admire the vocabulary choices which will challenge and inspire the young reader.

 

Illustrations by Becka Moor really support the identity of the book – hilarious depictions of zombie giraffes are one of the highlights and there are plenty of other comedic episodes. Becka has done a great job in anchoring a victorian ambience to the book, particularly through the Penny Dreadfuls, picture frames, character costumes and endpapers.

This all adds up to a very amusing, slightly eccentric and thoroughly entertaining read. Recommended.

Journey to Dragon Island

The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island

Claire Fayers

Macmillan

This book is a romp! A raucous and rapturous, riotous romp. It is full of mirth, brimming with humour and has more adventure than you thought possible!

Following on from the successful first instalment, ‘The Voyage to Magical North’, Brine Seaborne and her accidental pirate crew set off on The Onion in search of dragons and to discover her true home. The crew is quite a large one, and if you haven’t read the first book, you may want to start there to ensure you’re familiar with everyone. Amongst them, you’ll meet anxious Peter, who can do magic, a special almost spiritual kind of magic, but is nervous that it will all go wrong (because it has done in the past); and you’ll meet Tom, a librarian with many wise words.

The plot moves quickly and is full of twists and turns; sometimes coming in quick succession, and always keeping you on your toes. There is a ghost; there are dragons, dinosaurs, volcanos, and at one point they fall off the end of the world. This really is life or death stuff, but it’s imbued throughout with a great deal of fun and Claire Fayers stays in total control as she steers us through quicksand, flesh-eating vines and that terrifying volcano.

The characters are extremely likeable and despite the fantastical situations, their emotions and relationships are very real. At the heart of the book there are life-affirming messages of resilience, self-belief and friendship, as the crew work together to discover Brine’s true heritage.

A brilliant comic-mystery-adventure that leaves us yearning for the final book in the trilogy.

Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds

Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds

Horatio Clare / Illustrated by Jane Matthews

Firefly Press

I love sharing books with Noah. We read together at bedtime, snuggled on beanbags in his bedroom. Last year, we read Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, Horatio Clare’s first foray into children’s stories; a deeply affecting and skillfully crafted novel with touches of fantasy and lots of heart. It instantly became a favourite book for both of us and we have been anticipating the arrival of these ladybirds for a while, and there was absolutely no way I was going to let him read it without me.

Aubrey can talk to animals, but that’s a moot point. At the start of his Easter holidays, he is shrunken to the size of a ten pence coin and is visited by a spider asking him to save the world. You see, a family of ladybirds has arrived from overseas – they are not like the domestic ladybirds and are not welcomed. What starts as a small argument between ladybirds (“They’re not from round here. They’re big and weird. Go back to where you came from!”) develops into an extremely unattractive fracas involving all the animals of Rushing Wood.

There are big themes at work here, with issues of tolerance and respect at the core. I can’t help but revel in the irony that Clare uses animals to teach lessons about humanity. Aubrey discovers that insects on the continent are being poisoned by farming methods, which in turn affects the food chain – “If you don’t help us the insects will vanish. The plants won’t grow and the animals won’t eat. And humans are animals too.” This is termed ‘The Great Hunger’ and is the reason the spider asks Aubrey to save the world.

You may be thinking that this all sounds very hardgoing, but Clare handles it all with a lightness of touch and great humour: From hapless spy Mr Ferraby the neighbour who reports back to his incredulous wife, to the inspired footnotes dotted throughout the book which support our understanding but also take the reader down surreal cul-de-sac*. The plethora of insects, birds and mammals who make up the cast of this novel are also great fun with their stereotype personas.

There is brilliant storytelling too – from the heart-stopping descriptions of Aubrey clinging to the back of Hirundo the swallow as he tries to outsmart the high speed aerial manoeuvres (and talons) of a Hobby, to the impassioned speech of French human child Pascale.

Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds is a fantastic book. Nine year old Noah “absolutely loved it” because it was full of awesome adventure and has slotted it next to Terrible Yoot in his Top Ten books. Undoubtedly, The Ladybirds will have a wider appeal than Yoot, bringing it to the attention of a bigger audience. That audience will understand that Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds is a book about the universal truths of love, compassion and kindness – to each other, to the environment and to the animals.

Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot can be purchased from your local independent bookshop, or online.

We are grateful to Firefly Press who provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

FOOTNOTE

*This is the correct plural of cul-de-sac, coming from the French, literally meaning “bottom of the bag”. Some dictionaries allow cul-de-sacs but this is madness. In this case, it is used metaphorically to express an action that is an impasse**.

**Impasse describes a situation in which progress is impossible.

Sweet Pizza

Sweet Pizza

G.R. Gemin

Nosy Crow

Sweet Pizza is Giancarlo Gemin’s second book. His first, the highly praised Cowgirl, won the Tir Na n-Og Award in 2015 and was nominated for many others. Giancarlo was born in Cardiff to Italian parents.

Sweet Pizza is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe’s mam is stuck in a rut – she’s down in the dumps, jaded by the daily grind and is beginning to accept that the café’s days are numbered. Her son Joe, however, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more.

Maybe Joe’s mum is so weary because her dad (Joe’s Nonno) is so unwell – or maybe she’s tired of seeing the jobs, investment and soul being ripped from the valley. Joe is proud of his heritage, proud of his ancestors, and proud of the valley in which he lives.

Throughout the book, we learn more and more of how Joe’s family, like many other Italians in South Wales, came to settle in the area. Joe is getting his Nonno to record the family’s history before the inevitable happens.

The novel reads like a soap opera – a good soap opera, where you get a real insight into the family’s life, getting to grips with their relationships, their fears, their motivations, their triggers, their highs and lows. The characters are very real and you feel their frustrations as well as their joys.

There’s a lot of wit and humour in the book and I adored the depictions of the generous and charismatic people of the valley. The dialogue is full of verve and oomph – the valleys lilt and Italian-Wenglish dialects add to the appeal. More than anything, this book is a warm celebration of that diverse community, coming together to celebrate fellowship, identity and heritage.

Akin to home-cooked Italian food, the narrative is charming, comforting and made with love. But there is also great skill at work here – for something to appear so life affirming and tasty.