Category Archives: Blogging

‘Reading Russia’ while researching The Rasputin Dagger by Theresa Breslin

In 2012, when I was just beginning to have vague thoughts that I might write an historical novel set in Russia during the Revolution, an email appeared in my Inbox. Edinburgh International Book Festival was celebrating 50 years and, supported by the British Council, invited 50 writers to do a cultural exchange with different locations world-wide. So, while other writers ended up shopping in New York or sunning themselves in the Caribbean I was one of a group who were asked to speak at a Cultural Fair in… Siberia!

A stop-off in Moscow provided the opportunity to speak with librarians, teachers and students of English literature and see some of Russia’s literary treasures. In addition to their pre-printing press beautifully illuminated manuscripts, there were originals manuscripts of famous Russian writers, such as Dostoevsky and, thrillingly, the handwritten title page of Mikhail Bulgakov’s original manuscript for The Master and Margarita.

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Moscow Original MS ‘The Master and Margarita’: ©Scarpa

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Moscow Original MS ‘The Master and Margarita’: ©Scarpa

We discussed the transformative power of good fiction and in the evening attended an ‘open mike’ literature session in a night club. Seriously. In a night club. During the music breaks anyone could come up and talk about reading. And they did. Amazing! Young people spoke about the influence of Gogol and quoted favourite bits of Turgenev. And I learned so much about modern Russian writers. We were challenged to name a ‘hero for our times’ I chose Katniss Everdeen – who else?

Russia has enormously influential writers, with Alexander Pushkin rated as the funder of modern Russian literature. In Eugene Onegin Pushkin speaks on writing saying: “… weave together emotion, thought, and magic sound; I write, …”

Pushkin supported the 1825 uprising and his writings were considered so dangerous by the Tsar that he was banished from St Petersburg and barred from any government post. When he died he was buried without ceremony in case the occasion of his funeral would cause unrest. I’m intrigued by Pushkin for he used language in a new way, melding traditional tongues with the words of the common people. He proved a big inspiration for the character of Nina’s father, Ivan, the Storyteller, in The Rasputin Dagger.

Then on to Siberia. I was soooooo excited. It was late October / early November and they said “Oh, it’s not that cold, yet…” Really? I was glad I’d packed my grey-goose down-filled parka with the fur-lined hood. I have to say that Melvin Burgess looked fetching in his dark green wool overcoat and was a particular draw for our teen audiences.

As I’m a former Young People’s Services librarian the organisers were keen that I speak on the subject of Youth Library Services. Despite the remote venue the session was full and I was proud to share examples of British ‘best practice’. Like ravenous wolves the librarians fell upon the material I’d brought with me.

 Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Librarians Event: ©Scarpa

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Librarians Event: ©Scarpa

Then Melvin and I had events with articulate and engaging young teenagers, organised and moderated by the pupils themselves.

 Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Teen Event: ©Scarpa

Photo: Theresa Breslin Books – Siberia Teen Event: ©Scarpa

It was an absolute joy to talk to these young Russians. Although desperately keen for modern teen fiction from the West, their own reading included Tolstoy and Chekhov, and a wide range of classic Russian books.

And a final interesting fact – schools in Siberia only close if the temperature drops below 26 degrees centigrade!

©Theresa Breslin 2017
Twitter: @TheresaBreslin1

Rook, and the sense of place by Anthony McGowan

I like to think that if the world were destroyed in some apocalypse, and a future race – perhaps descended from ants or koala bears or mung beans – tried to rebuild our world from literary sources, my books Brock, Pike, and Rook would enable a pretty accurate recreation of the Yorkshire village of Sherburn in Elmet.

Although, in writing for young adults, I’ve invested most of my energies into characterisation and narrative, I’ve always known exactly where my books were set. It’s almost always been a version of my old school – Corpus Christi, in Leeds. The stained concrete and glass of the building, the polluted beck running past it, the tussocky field beyond where travellers would come and go in mysterious patterns, the surrounding Halton Moor council estate – these were where my characters worked through the dangers and joys of teenage life.

Although I went to school in Leeds, I was actually brought up ten miles outside, in Sherburn. It’s an odd sort of place – once split between farming and mining – with the old village centre topped and tailed by large council estates, but now swollen with private housing, serving commuters to Leeds and York. As kids, it was glorious. The countryside was a short bike-ride away, and the building sites for the new estates were the perfect playground, in those pre-health and safety days. We built elaborate dens and fought huge wars against rival gangs of urchins. We played football all Winter, and cricket all Summer.

It’s a place I can still see clearly, whenever I close my eyes. The high street with its four pubs, ranging from rough to dead rough. The Spa. The Co-op. Two fish and chip shops. There’s a joke about a Jewish man who washes up on a desert island. The first thing he does is to build two synagogues – the one he goes to and the one he wouldn’t be seen dead in. It was like that with the fish and chip shops. We went to Kirkgate, but wouldn’t dream of getting our chips from Huggan’s. The beautiful old church on the hill. The Methodist chapel down in the village. The old cinema converted into a Catholic church, where I served as an altar boy all through my childhood. Then, just out of the village, the Bacon factory – a huge meat processing plant. And next to it, the Bacon pond, where monstrous pike lurked, fattened, we were told, on rotten meat from the factory.

I populated this remembered microverse with kids I knew or half knew. Nicky and Kenny live up on the Highfields council estate. At the beginning of the series, their world was falling apart, their family split, money short, hope all but gone. What saves them is love: the love of Nicky for his older but simpler brother, Kenny. Kenny’s own wide-beam love, which encompasses not only his family, but anything helpless and vulnerable they encounter. And so, over the first two books, things get better. Their dad begins to sort out his life. They move on.

In Rook, the last (I think …) in the series, their problems change. Rather than survival, the issues are more typical teenage ones. Kenny has made new friends – one of who appears to be Doctor Who – and Nicky no longer feels quite so needed, quite so central to his brother’s being. And he’s fallen for a pretty girl at school, with the horrible complication that her brother is a vicious bully. There are twists, which follow, I trust, the organic patterns of life, rather than the artificial needs of plot. In the end things work out … OK.

But I hope that I’ve been true both to my characters, and to that place – that particular small town in North Yorkshire, typical, and yet unique, seemingly ordinary, and yet overflowing with stories, with eccentrics, with danger and joy, with life.

BrockPike and Rook are published by Barrington-Stoke and are available now

Get Ahead as an Author – Get a Dog

Dogs make the very best muses. I know because I wrote a book about a boy and a dog, with two of my own fur babies constantly by my side. Goodnight, Boy is written to and about a dog, and it explores how, even in the very worst circumstances, a dog will keep you going. Any authors reading this will know that I’m only exaggerating slightly when I say that the badlands of 20,000 words into a first draft is a pretty bad place to find yourself. As is sitting down to the smell of freshly-sent editorial notes.

So here is a rundown of why, if you want to get ahead in publishing, you should most definitely get a dog.

  1. Basics

The only indispensable rule I know for writing is that you must have your bum on a seat, and your fingers on the keyboard to produce anything. So, if, as a dog owner, you’re forced to spend more time at home, this is a good start. If you also have a dog keeping your toes warm (as Edith Wharton put it, ‘a heartbeat at my feet’), it really does discourage you from wandering off and doing housework.

  1. Distractions

Talking of housework, once you’re a dog owner, I can guarantee you’ll spend less time on housework, redecorating and the general maintenance of what is normally seen as an acceptable standard of hygiene because keeping up with the mess dogs create is pretty much futile. One of my dogs sheds like a dandelion clock mid blow, 24 hours a day. This may sound like a negative, but actually time spent not hoovering can be diverted into words, paragraphs, chapters, and head stroking.

 

  1. Hobbies

Forget hobbies. Writing takes time; for thinking, drafting, editing, and Twitter stalking writers more successful than yourself. So the last thing you need is an interesting pastime, such as badminton or medieval battle enactment. It won’t matter though, because, as a writer you get to experience any number of strange locations and events in your head. And, if you’re ever asked at a publishing party what else you do, just say you have a dog because a dog is a hobby, and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees.

 

  1. Health and fitness

There’s a syndrome, coined by the incomparable author Pip Jones, known as SAAD: Spreading Author Arse Disorder. Sedentary hours make SAAD pretty much inevitable, so you’re going to have to get some exercise in somehow. Dogs like walks even though they don’t have Fitbit buddies to impress. The longer and more frequent the better, and in absolutely any weather (unless they’re like one of mine, who is half cat, and won’t go out if showers are forecast). On walkies your dog will meet up with their mates and you’ll make friends with their owners too (think, park scene in 101 Dalmations, but, in my experience, less romantic). If you’re lucky, these humans will be the sort who don’t mind you bouncing book ideas off them or moaning about writing. Even if they do, they’re a lot more polite about it than your family are. And when you’re not exploiting the personal generosity of strangers, you get to spend time walking alone listening to music and audio books (consuming other people’s books is part of the job) or just walking in silence, which sometimes allows you hear those really shy, difficult voices that lurk at the back of your brain.

 

  1. Mental health

Being a writer can be wonderful but, contrary to popular belief, it’s probably not the way to

everlasting happiness. Granted, writing can be cathartic at times, but once you’ve catharted you have to live with the fact that other people, thousands of them, will be reading, judging, maybe even hurling across the room in disgust, the product of said catharsis. Fortunately, dogs probably can’t read – though, as the first draft of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was eaten by his dog, Max, you have to wonder. Generally speaking, however, your dog will not mind how bad your first draft is. They equally won’t care about reviews, prizes, foreign rights sales, or if you’re even any good or hopelessly derivative and commercially out of kilter. Dogs are all about here and now. And, as writers, if we can try to be more dog, and concentrate on the process rather than the product, I have a feeling that we’d not only be a lot happier, but better writers too.

 

  1. Love

People worry about being lonely if they work from home, but I never feel alone. I work with fantastic colleagues who can’t talk to me. This means they can’t discuss the project they’re working on, ask what’s for dinner, or chat about school. They never disagree with me, or storm off to their bedroom, and they don’t judge me when I get in a strop because Scrivener is stupid. (It is – fact). Dogs take tolerance and unconditional love to saintly levels, and like nothing better than to soothe the furrowed brow of the needy writer with a lick, a well-placed head on the lap, or a paw in the hand. They’re philosophers, therapists, personal trainers, and friends. And that’s why authors need dogs.

 

One last historical note; George Eliot’s publisher sent her a pug as part payment for one of her novels. A practice that, I hope my publisher will agree, should definitely be revived for 2017.

 

 

Mother and daughter Labradoodles, Tinker (left) and Coco

 

Nikki and Tinker


Coco and Tinker playing with their friend, Snowy, at Brighton Beach

The Inspiration Behind When Dimple Met Rishi By Sandhya Menon


I firmly believe that marginalised teens need more books where they’re allowed to be happy, to make friends, to fall in love, to chase their dreams, and to have that perfect ending. When the opportunity to write When Dimple Met Rishi, a light YA rom-com, presented itself, I couldn’t believe my luck!

I’ve always been a huge fan of writers like Sophie Kinsella and Jenny Han, and although I’d never written a light YA before, I knew that that reading experience would help immensely. While I wanted to show that Indian-American teens have many of the same hopes and fears as the rest of the population—and to make people laugh and swoon, of course!—I also wanted to give the culture the space and respect it deserved on the page. That’s why I put in nuances and experiences that would (hopefully!) ring true for other teens living in the diaspora.

But above all, I wanted When Dimple Met Rishi to resonate with teens who’ve ever felt like they don’t belong or that their families simply don’t get them. That’s a very universal experience, I think, and you don’t have to be Indian-American to experience it!

My Concerns with Book Lender

I saw a tweet by Barbara Band last night that got my hackles up:

I started mentally composing this post then fell asleep as it was rather late and woke up this morning still annoyed. I feel (as do many of my colleagues) that this service is not necessarily a bad thing for areas that do not have Schools Library Services or possibly for schools that lack professional input into their library but the way they are going about belittling the work of librarians and teachers is really beyond the pale, I know of no professionals that would put out-of-date materials into a collection just to have something, we are better than that

Upon closer inspection, Book Lender is currently aimed at Primary Schools – this is a smart business move as Primary School Libraries are often run without a professional librarian and sometimes with limited teacher input.

Once this service has become established it is only a matter of time until it is extended to secondary schools which may put even more librarian jobs at risk, as with school budgets becoming ever tighter and the offer of targeted stock to fit in with lesson plans, head teachers may well decide that a professional librarian is a luxury that can be done away with.

It also appears that BookLender is a business run by Carillion, a company that is making inroads into running public library services for a number of local authorities. In the past Carillion has been criticised for running a blacklist against unionised workers, and colleagues who have worked in libraries taken over by this company have mentioned less than satisfactory working conditions.

Carillion were also in the running to take over my local authority’s library service but last I heard they had pulled out.

The privatisation of public library services has long been a major concern of mine and now corporate tentacles winding their way into school library services is widening my concern.

The Power of the School Librarian

I would dress like a high school librarian if he had his way. He’s old-fashioned in that way.
~ Cate Blanchett on her husband playwright Andrew Upton’s fashion likes

An interesting article in the latest Pople Magazine Style Section titled Cate Blanchett Says Her Husband Likes Her to ‘Dress Like a High School Librarian’ made me think about the lasting influence school librarians can give their students.

51 year old playwright and director Andrew Upton’s school education would have ended over 30 years ago and over the years his subconscious has changed the obviously strong influence his high school librarian has had on him into a desire for his wife to resemble her, at least in regard to her clothing style.

He is a writer of plays and film scripts – this career may have developed out of his love for writing and literature which would have been nurtured in his school library, possibly by a librarian that favoured wearing the combination of a cardigan, a tweed skirt and a pair of spectacles?

Splitting the Atom Carnegie

Please note this post is a flight of fancy possibly brought on by the rather strong medication my GP gave me yesterday, or just a stray thought that hung around in my brain…

Scientific history note: The atom was first split in 1919 by Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester

The Carnegie Medal has been awarded to the most outstanding Children’s Book almost every year since 1936 (except in 1943, 1945 & 1966 as no titles were considered suitable).

In recent years the Medal has been awarded to books aimed at an older readership, this has prompted a number of comments over the years from observers that perhaps it is time for the Medal to be split into an older and younger award.

In 2015, then Chair of the CKG Judges panel Agnes Guyon penned a wonderful post on why splitting the Medal is not an option, you can read this here: https://www.cilip.org.uk/blog/cilip-carnegie-kate-greenaway-award-message-2015-chair-judges

Currently all books published under the umbrella of “Children’s Books” are eligible to be nominated for the Carnegie Medal, but until the publishing world starts differentiating between Children’s Books, Middle Grade, Teen Fiction and Young Adult Fiction it will not be possible for CILIP to even consider dividing up titles into Children’s & MG for a Carnegie Junior and Teen & YA fiction for a Carnegie Senior.

Let us say for the purpose of this post that publishers and authors did agree to start adding these sub-headings into Children’s Fiction, then it is conceivable that the Carnegie could be split.

Once all eligible titles had been nominated for a particular year, the first year judges could read towards a long-list for the Carnegie Junior Medal and second year Judges could read for long-listing the Senior Medal.

Once both long-lists had been announced the short-listing process could involve the entire Judging panel or perhaps it would be best to wait until the short-lists have been announced for the combined panel to choose the most outstanding books.

With the ever-expanding list of nominated titles this is a way that the lists could be kept manageable.

Anyway as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is just a stray thought that I considered as an intellectual exercise, I am a supporter of a single medal for all Children’s Books! At least until a workable alternative can be developed

This Beats Perfect blog tour

Working as a Music TV Producer for Rockfeedback was easily the most fun, exciting and exhausting job I ever had in television. What could be better than traipsing the world filming your heroes and being occasionally paid for it?

I spent countless hours backstage at festivals running around arranging interviews and live filming for bands and one of the things that never ceases to surprise is how dreary backstage areas can be.

The image of wild, all night parties is not generally the reality (although these do definitely exist!) Firstly, bands are often on gruelling tour schedules and they are often tired and jet-lagged. They’re also wary of strangers and especially film crews, so you have to be respectful of their space and grateful for their time.

And a lot of artists don’t drink at all these days –since touring became the bread and butter for a lot of artists, they simply can’t afford to put on a bad show. It’s not unusual to see them hunched round their tablets and phones, updating social media and catching a bit of shuteye before the show.

And you might not see the bigger artists AT ALL, as they stay with their dressing rooms firmly shut and only come out to perform, but there is always some group who are on the up and super excited to be there and to play and party.

The best ‘backstage’ area I ever went to was at Fuij Rock Festival in Japan. You can see the hotel we stayed in overlooking the campsite (perks of the job). It was partially shut since the resort is mostly used for skiing, and at night we ran round all the cordoned off areas –sneaking into ballrooms and huge empty restaurant areas. It was super creepy.

Backstage, the atmosphere was really friendly and upbeat – and just look at that 2007 line up!

Red Hot Chili Peppers , The Strokes , Franz Ferdinand , Jet , The Raconteurs , Sonic Youth , Wolfmother , Snow Patrol , The Hives , Dirty Pretty Things , KT Tunstall , Jason Mraz , The Cooper Temple Clause , Madness , Mogwai , Scissor Sisters , Yeah Yeah Yeahs , Super Furry Animals , Gnarls Barkley , The Zutons , Ore ska band- and many others.

~ Rebecca Denton

My Top Five Fictional Librarians by Andy Robb

In writing The True and Untold Story of the Outlaw Tam Barker, I replaced the stereotype of the bespectacled, cardigan-wearing librarian with a crack-team of highly-trained, gun-toting, stogie-chomping misfits. These librarians operate outside law, tracking down books that have been banned by the government. Think bullet, blood and books.

Whenever I write a book, I tend to think that I’m the first person on Earth to have that particular idea. And then remember I’m not. The idea of librarians kicking butt, slinging guns and being as far away from the ones down your local library isn’t a new one and a few have come onto my radar before I wrote this particular tale – and some after. Here, in no particular order are my top five fictional librarians.

romneyRomney Wordsworth
I was a big fan of The Twilight Zone as a kid and, after wracking my brain for this post, I realised that I remembered this one really well; this one and the William Shatner one. In fact, now I think of it, I wonder if this one, The Obsolete Man, had more influence on the book that I thought. Romney Wordsworth is a librarian, who’s on trial for obsolescence. The powers-that-be have banned all books and being found guilty of being a librarian is a capital offence. However, Romney is allowed to choose the method of his death, and he goes for an assassin to kill him in a particular way. Being The Twilight Zone, Romney manages to turn the tables on the State and sort of wins in the end. The True and Untold Story of the Outlaw Tam Barker was written around about the time our government was starting its first major swathe of library closures, was making noises about banning certain texts from the National Curriculum and preventing prisoners from accessing books. Not good. With all that going on and The Obsolete Man living somewhere in the back of my head, I think Romney Wordsworth had more than a little to do with the story.

barbara-gordonBarbara Gordon
Yes, I’m a comic-head. While I love Marvel, DC was my introduction to comics, through the world of Batman. I got into Batman in the early 70s around about the time they started rerunning the Adam West series. Suddenly I could get double-Batman: in the comics and on the telly! The Caped Crusader was always my favourite, but who could forget Batgirl? Librarian by day and super-hero, by night! As a young boy, back in the Stone Age, heroes and heroines tended to be aimed at their respective genders: boys liked the male heroes and girls liked the female ones. But Batgirl is one of the first female heroes I remember that cheerfully walked the line between the two, probably paving the way for future characters, like She-Hulk and Spider Woman. I wanted to write a female character that was the female answer to Clint Eastwood, to the point that her gender became unimportant. Tam is a product of her environment and her thoughts, words and deeds belong to both heroes and heroines.

gilesRupert Giles
I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was first broadcast, in the 90s. Personally, I didn’t get on with it. There were a few things that narked me – but possibly because I’m a bit stuffy about certain things. I didn’t like the way the vampires were reduced to being stupid creatures that hung around in groups. I like my vampires uber-intelligent and solitary. I also wasn’t a fan of the continual wise-cracking between Buffy and her buddies; for me it reduced the peril and the threat. However, I watched it and, amidst my narks, I found a character I really did like: Rupert Giles, the high-school librarian. Rupert was the stereotypical librarian: bookish, shy and impeccably-mannered. For me, he was a welcome antidote to the smart-mouth attitudes of the other characters and it was a genuine surprise when you saw him going toe-to-toe with a supernatural being or two. As an aside, I worked with Anthony Head years later and can confirm that he is as nice as you think he is.

pratchett-librarianThe Librarian
An orangutan who protects the world’s knowledge and can travel through L-Space. What’s not to like? I’ve got to be honest, I’ve only read two of Pratchett’s books: The Hogfather and The Colour of Magic and I read these because I was cast in the TV adaptations (check out Kring, the Magic Sword – that’s me!). However, the idea of an ape as a librarian is so good, I had to give it a mention!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

rex-librisRex Libris
If you haven’t read the Rex Libris comics, get out there and get some. These are new to my radar; I discovered them after writing the Tam Barker book – and I’m glad it happened in that order. Rex is the librarian at Middleton Public Library and a typical day for him involves dealing with zombies blocking up the building, chasing aliens who haven’t returned their books on time across the universe and defending the Dewey Decimal System. These comics are brilliant and have played on the stereotyped librarian superbly; his super-thick, jam-jar specs are useful tools in his unwavering hunt for lost books. Alongside his fists of steel and formidable arsenal of weapons.
 

However, when all’s said and done, librarians are real and they are heroes, guiding us to the right portals through which we can escape the real world or learn something mind-bending. Real-life librarians don’t need guns or fists or costumes, but the odds they face are just as stacked as the ones you’ll find in books, movies or on your TV screen. If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.

Andy Robb is an actor and author, his latest book The True and Untold Story of the Outlaw Tam Barker is available now!

tam-jpeg-218x300

Blog Tour: Runemarks by Joanne M Harris

joanne-harris-blog-tour

runemarks-bookIt’s been five hundred years since the end of the world and society has rebuilt itself anew. The old Norse gods are no longer revered. Their tales have been banned. Magic is outlawed, and a new religion – the Order – has taken its place.

In a remote valley in the north, fourteen-year-old Maddy Smith is shunned for the ruinmark on her hand – a sign associated with the Bad Old Days. But what the villagers don’t know is that Maddy has skills. According to One-Eye, the secretive Outlander who is Maddy’s only real friend, her ruinmark – or runemark, as he calls it – is a sign of Chaos blood, magical powers and gods know what else…

Now, as the Order moves further north, threatening all the Worlds with conquest and Cleansing, Maddy must finally learn the truth to some unanswered questions about herself, her parentage, and her powers.

Read the previous excerpt from Runemarks over at http://anarmchairbythesea.blogspot.co.uk/

Maddy was startled. She had made no sound; and as far as she could tell, he had not once looked in her direction. She stood up, feeling rather foolish, and stared at him defiantly. ‘I’m not afraid of you,’ she said.
‘No?’ said the stranger. ‘Perhaps you should be.’

Maddy decided she could outrun him if need be. She sat down again, just out of reach on the springy grass. His book, she now saw, was a collection of scraps, bound together with strips of leather, the pages hedged with thorny script. Maddy, of course, could not read – few villagers could, except for the parson and his prentices, who read the Good Book, and nothing else.

‘Are you a priest?’ she said at last.
The stranger laughed, not pleasantly.
‘A soldier, then?’
The man said nothing.
‘A pirate? A mercenary?’
Again, nothing. The stranger continued to make marks in his little book, pausing occasionally to study the Horse.
But Maddy’s curiosity had been fired. ‘What happened to your face?’ she said. ‘How were you wounded? Was it a war?’ Now the stranger looked at her with a trace of impatience. ‘This happened,’ he said, and took off his patch.

For a moment Maddy stared at him. But it was not the scarred ruin of his eye that held her thus. It was the bluish mark that began just above his brow and extended right down onto his left cheekbone.
runemark1
It was not the same shape as her own ruinmark, but it was recognizably of the same substance; and it was certainly the first time that Maddy had ever seen such a thing on someone other than herself.
‘Satisfied?’ said the stranger.
But a great excitement had seized hold of Maddy. ‘What’s that?’ she said. ‘How did you get it? Is it woad? Is it a tattoo? Were you born with it? Do all Outlanders have them?’
He gave her a small and chilly smile. ‘Didn’t your mamma ever tell you that curiosity killed the kitty-cat?’
‘My mamma died when I was born.’
‘I see. What’s your name?’
‘Maddy. What’s yours?’
‘You can call me One-Eye’, he said. ‘And what makes you think I’m an Outlander?’
And then Maddy uncurled her fist, still grubby from her climb up the big beech tree, and showed him the ruinmark on her hand.
runemark2
For a moment the stranger’s good eye widened beneath the brim of his hat. On Maddy’s palm, the ruinmark stood out sharper than usual, still rust-coloured but now flaring bright orange at the edges, and Maddy could feel the burn of it – a tingling sensation, not unpleasant, but definitely there, as if she had grasped something hot a few minutes before.
He looked at it for a long time. ‘D’you know what you’ve got there, girl?’
‘Witch’s Ruin,’ said Maddy promptly. ‘My sister thinks I should wear mittens.’
One-Eye spat. ‘Witch rhymes with bitch. A dirty word for dirty-minded folk. Besides, it was never a Witch’s Ruin,’ he said, ‘but a Witch’s Rune: the runemark of the Fiery.’
‘Don’t you mean the Faërie?’ said Maddy, intrigued.
‘Faërie, Fiery, it’s all the same. This rune’ – he looked at it closely – ‘this mark of yours . . . do you know what it is?’
‘Nat Parson says it’s the devil’s mark.’
‘Nat Parson’s a gobshite,’ One-Eye said.
Maddy was torn between a natural feeling of sacrilege and a deep admiration of anyone who dared call a parson gobshite.
‘Listen to me, girlie,’ he said. ‘Your man Nat Parson has every reason to fear that mark. Aye, and envy it too.’ Once more he studied the design on Maddy’s palm, with interest and – Maddy thought – some wistfulness. ‘A curious thing,’ he said at last. ‘I never thought to see it here.’
‘But what is it?’ said Maddy. ‘If the Book isn’t true—’
‘Oh, there’s truth in the book,’ said One-Eye, and shrugged.
‘But it’s buried deep under legends and lies. The End of the World, for instance . . .’
‘Tribulation,’ said Maddy helpfully.

‘Aye, if you like, or Ragnarók. Remember, it’s the winners write the history books, and the losers get the leavings. If the Æsir had won—’
‘The Æsir?’
‘Seer-folk, I dare say you’d call ’em here. Well, if they’d won that war – and it was close, mind you – then the Elder Age would not have ended, and your Good Book would have turned out very different, or maybe never been written at all.’
Maddy’s ears pricked up at once. ‘The Elder Age? You mean before Tribulation?’
One-Eye laughed. ‘Aye. If you like. Before that, Order reigned. The Æsir kept it, believe it or not, though there were no Seers among them in those days, and it was the Vanir, from the borders of Chaos – the Faërie, your folk’d call ’em – that were the keepers of the Fire.’
‘The Fire?’ said Maddy, thinking of her father’s smithy.
‘Glam. Glám-sýni, they called it. Rune-caster’s glam. Shapechanger’s magic. The Vanir had it, and the children of Chaos. The Æsir only got it later.’
‘How?’ said Maddy.
‘Trickery – and theft, of course. They stole it, and remade the Worlds. And such was the power of the runes that even after the Winter War, the fire lay sleeping underground, as fire may sleep for weeks, months – years. And sometimes even now it rekindles itself – in a living creature, even a child—’
‘Me?’ said Maddy.
‘Much joy may it bring you.’ He turned away and, frowning, seemed once more absorbed in his book.
But Maddy had been listening with too much interest to allow One-Eye to stop now. Until then she had heard only fragments of tales – and the scrambled versions from the Book of Tribulation, in which the Seer-folk were mentioned only in warnings against their demonic powers or in an attempt to ridicule those long-dead impostors who called themselves gods.
‘So – how do you know these stories?’ she said.

The Outlander smiled. ‘You might say I’m a collector.’ Maddy’s heart beat faster at the thought of a man who might
collect tales in the way another might collect penknives, or butterflies, or stones. ‘Tell me more,’ she said eagerly. ‘Tell me about the Æsir.’
‘I said a collector, not a storyteller.’
But Maddy was not to be put off . ‘What happened to them?’ she said. ‘Did they all die? Did the Nameless One hurl them into the Black Fortress of Netherworld, with the snakes and demons?’
‘Is that what they say?’
‘Nat Parson does.’
He made a sharp sound of contempt. ‘Some died; some vanished; some fell; some were lost. New gods emerged to suit a new age, and the old ones were forgotten. Maybe that proves they weren’t gods at all.’
‘Then what were they?’
‘They were the Æsir. What else do you need?’
Once again he turned away, but this time Maddy caught at him. ‘Tell me more about the Æsir.’
‘There is no more,’ One-Eye said. ‘There’s me. There’s you. And there’s our cousins under the Hill. The dregs, girlie, that’s what we are. The wine’s long gone.’
‘Cousins,’ said Maddy wistfully. ‘Then you and I must be cousins too.’ It was a strangely attractive thought. That Maddy and One-Eye might both belong to the same secret tribe of travelling folk, both of them marked with Faërie fire . . .
‘Oh, teach me how to use it,’ she begged, holding out her palm. ‘I know I can do it. I want to learn—’
But One-Eye had lost patience at last. He snapped his book shut and stood up, shaking the grass stems from his cloak ‘I’m no teacher, little girl. Go play with your friends and leave me alone.’
‘I have no friends, Outlander,’ she said. ‘Teach me.’

The final excerpt of this phenomenal story will be up tomorrow at http://www.bookaholicbabe.co.uk/

RUNEMARKS by Joanne M Harris is out now in hardback from Gollancz buy a copy here: http://bit.ly/RunemarksJoanneMHarris
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