Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Why I trust my trusted readers, even when they don’t agree - Lari Don

Over the years, I've been incredibly lucky to find a small team of readers whose opinions I trust and respect, so when deadlines allow, I ask them to look at nearly finished manuscripts. I think some writers call this group their ‘beta readers’ but I’ve always called them my trusted readers.

Sending out half a dozen copies of a manuscript is easy. Reading the notes when they come back is not so easy. I spent last week reading through all the notes from all my trusted readers on the second book in my Spellchasers trilogy (rather an odd thing to do while also promoting the first book, which is launched next week, but authors often have to write one book and talk about another book at the same time.)

My trusted reader team are all friends or family: my husband, my mum, my best friend, but also a university friend who is now also writing kids’ books, a storyteller, a poet. And I have young trusted readers too: one of my daughters, one of my nephews.

And what do they do?

They tell me what they think. They point out typos, factual errors, sloppy punctuation (particularly my mum and my daughter.) They comment on my use of language (that’s my mum again, and the incredibly perceptive poet.)

They make very specific comments and suggestions, from the reader’s perspective. In the first Spellchasers book, I used the word ‘tattie’ a lot (tattie field, tattie digging, tattie howking - it’s set on a witch’s farm) and two of my trusted readers pointed out that’s all very well for readers who speak Scots, but potentially confusing for anyone else. So they both suggested that I use the word ‘potato’ early on, to introduce the vegetable. I did.

And some readers get very attached to particular characters and can be very good at analysing the story from that specific point of view. (Someone got very upset at the team's unfair treatment of the sphinx in this current manuscript, so I'm considering going back in to sort that out.)

They tell me what lines and scenes they like or think work particularly well. And they tell me what paragraphs or scenes they think are unnecessary, incomprehensible, too long...

The only problem is: they don’t always agree. They very often contradict each other. My trusted readers’ opinions are often 180 degrees opposed to each other. This time I had one reader absolutely adamant that a line of dialogue was appalling, he hated it and it had to go. (They don’t mince their words, my trusted readers!) And another reader said it was one of her favourite bits of the book.

So, what do I do?

I have to make up my own mind. It’s my story. I know what happens, I can see it happening in my head. The manuscript is me trying to find my way towards the right words to share that story. I am unbelievably grateful for other people’s thoughts because they often enable me to find much stronger and more vivid ways to tell the story. But in the end it is my story.

So if two readers disagree, I am the referee and I decide.

Though I don’t always do what my trusted readers suggest, even if a couple of them agree. If for example four readers don’t comment on a scene, and two readers say they don’t like it and why, I will consider those comments, then I might change the scene, though possibly not in the way they suggested, or I might decide to stick with what I had.

Other peoples’ comments, whether I agree with them and follow their suggestions or not, force me to question my story, my writing style, my word choice. That questioning is always good for me and for my story, but it might not result in a change. I might agree that this line is shocking and dark, but realise that I want to shock the reader there, so I’ll keep it. I might agree this line of dialogue is a bit cheesy, but decide that it reflects how the character is feeling at that point, so I’ll keep it.

My trusted readers improve my books, one line at a time. But they are also improving me as a writer, by challenging me to consider why I make the writing decisions I do, and why I stick by them even when I’m questioned or criticised.

Books need writers. But they need readers too!

Reading these notes is draining and exhausting. Not quite as viciously painful as reading my editor’s notes, because these trusted readers, love them through I do, have no actual power over the final printed words. Reading the notes is tough, because I’ve asked them to be honest, I trust them to be honest, and honesty is not always easy to read. So when I spend a week reading a different trusted reader’s notes each day, by the end of the week, I feel like my story and I have been sliced up and stitched back together several times.

But afterwards the story is stronger and I am more certain of it. And that's why I trust my trusted readers.


 Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers. 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Children’s jokes

A blog post on a 'genre' (is it a genre?) of children's 'text' (is it a text?) little talked about: the joke...

Recently I’ve been thinking about cultural/national differences in children’s jokes. Sometimes kids’ jokes are transnational: like their UK and US friends, French children tell stories about inexplicably elusive fridge elephants and chickens eager to cross roads. But knock-knock jokes, for instance, don’t exist in France. The closest equivalent is the hugely popular ‘Mr and Mrs’ joke. That (intractably heteronormative) riddle always follows the same format:

Monsieur et Madame X ont un fils/ une fille - comment s’appelle-t-il/elle?
Mr and Mrs X have a son/ daughter - what’s his/ her name?

The point, of course, is that when put together, the first name and the family name make up a puntastically funny combination. Some of those riddles are very simple:

M. et Mme Némar ont un fils - comment s’appelle-t-il?
Mr and Mrs Némar have a son - what’s his name?
Answer: Jean (which is a boy’s name in French)
Explanation: Jean Némar = j’en ai marre = I’m fed up.

That’s the funniest thing in the world when you’re 4 years old. For the joke to work, the first names must be real, legitimate first names that exist; however, the family name can be entirely imaginary - in fact, that’s all the better, as it makes the joke funnier. E.g.:

Monsieur et Madame Lacouverturmegratte (Theblanketscratchesme) ont une fille, comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Sandra (= Sans draps, without sheets)
Sandra Lacouverturmegratte = Without sheets, the blanket scratches me.

My sister’s name Agathe (pronounced Agatt) can generate a whole bunch of Monsieur et Madame jokes with an Anglophone twist and some singing required, because Monsieur and Madame De Power, De Blues, or You-undermyskin have all decided to name their daughter thus.

Like knock-knock jokes, Monsieur-Madame jokes can quickly get very sophisticated. Instead of one son or daughter, you might end up with a whole bunch of siblings, some of them twins if necessary, forming increasingly complex sentences:

Monsieur et Madame Versaire ont quatre filles. Comment s’appellent-elles, et que font-elles aujourd’hui?
Mr and Mrs Versaire have four daughters. What are their names, and what are they doing today?
Answer: Elsa, Rose, Laure et Annie.
Elsa, Rose, Laure, Annie Versaire (= elles arrosent leur aniversaire = they’re celebrating their birthday.)

Another thing in France is Toto jokes, which I’m told have an equivalent in the US, Little Johnny. Toto is a cultural character of some importance to French children, being the hero of countless kids’ jokes, all pretty awful. Toto’s central characteristics are that he’s a dunce (un cancre), naive, and a bit sly. E.g.:

Toto says, ‘Miss, Miss, can you get punished for something you didn’t do?’
‘Absolutely not,’ the teacher answers. ‘That would be very unfair.’
‘Phew! I’m glad to hear that, because I didn’t do my homework.’

Or:

‘Toto, share your sleigh with your little sister.’
‘I am sharing it! I have it on the way down, she’s allowed it on the way up.’

Maximum hilarity, I know. Toto’s other important characteristic is, of course, that his jokes can be extremely rude, which fills children with endless mirth. So there’s two categories of Toto jokes: those that you can tell your parents, and those you can’t. The latter should only be shared in the playground with friends, giving everyone the delicious frisson of transgression:

Toto’s mum asks him to go out to buy chocolate. He bumps into his friend Myfinger. Together, they walk around their village - they live in the village of Myarse - and Toto forgets to buy the chocolate. He comes home to his very disgruntled mother, who asks, ‘Where have you been?’
‘Sorry,’ says Toto, ‘but I circled Myarse with Myfinger and I didn’t find any chocolate!’

In case you’re wondering: yes, in French too, it would be completely implausible for a friend to be called Myfinger (Mondoigt) - though surprisingly, there is indeed a village called Montcuq (Myarse) somewhere.

There’s also less scatological ones that play to the anti-authority streak in all children:

Auntie Lucie asks Toto, ‘Aren’t you sad that I’m leaving tomorrow?’
‘Yes I am! I’d rather you were leaving today!’

Or:

The teacher asks Toto: ‘What does the sheep give us?’
‘Wool!’
‘What does the hen give us?’
‘Eggs!’
‘What does the cow give us?’
‘Homework!’

Researching this blog post (serious work, I know), I was stunned by the huge amount of Toto jokes that revolve around homework - a very accurate reflection of the national tradition of imposing frankly stupid amounts of homework to children from a very young age. 

Of course, religion and sex are everywhere in Toto jokes:

A priest, walking in the street, bumps into Toto smoking.
‘Toto! You’re smoking? How old are you?!’
‘Six years old, Father.’
‘That’s much too young to smoke! When did you start smoking?’
‘Just after I had sex for the first time!’
‘What?! And when was that?’
‘I can’t remember, I was drunk.’

And adultery, that other French obsession:

Toto’s mum tells him, ‘Toto, give Auntie Lucie a kiss.’
‘No!’
‘Be a good boy and give her a kiss!’
‘I don’t want to!’
‘Toto! Where are your manners?! Do what I say!’
‘NO NO NO NO!’
‘But why not, for goodness’ sake?!’
‘I’m not risking getting punched in the face like Dad when he tried yesterday!’

Etc. Toto jokes are generally unfunny and boring to adults, but I have some tenderness for them as I remember my belly actually hurting from trying not to laugh in class when I suddenly remembered this or that hilarious adventure of our favourite anti-hero.

Toto also lends his name to - I don’t even know what to call it - a joke? A rebus? A riddle? - I’m not sure - let’s say to a kind of doodle that you draw by putting two zeros together, then an ‘equal’ sign, and then a circle around it, saying, as you draw it:

Zero plus zero equals Toto’s head (zéro plus zéro égale la tête à  Toto)

You end up with the following drawing:


Image result for la tete a toto

I have no idea why we do this. It’s not funny (even as a child), it makes no sense, it doesn’t get you anywhere, it doesn’t tell a story, there’s absolutely no point to it - yet weirdly enough, when you find yourself in the vicinity of a child and happen to have a bit of paper and a pen, you’re taken by the irrepressible desire to draw that thing, saying ‘zéro plus zéro égale la tête à  Toto’. I have no explanation to offer.

French children find their jokes and riddles, among other places, in various items of confectionery, the most famous of which is the Carambar. In its classic form, the Carambar is a stick of caramel, though it exists in many other flavours. "Une blague Carambar" (a Carambar joke) is a cultural by-word for a bad joke, a kid’s joke, a silly joke.

Image result for carambar

The tricky thing about Carambar jokes is that, unless you can postpone the Carambar-eating (you can’t, because Carambar is delicious), your teeth get entirely stuck by caramel while you’re trying to tell the joke. Millions of milk teeth and braces are lost each year to Carambars, most of them by children too eager to unlock their jaws in order to tell the joke. 

I’d be VERY curious to hear about other cultures’ or nations’ specific children’s jokes - pray tell! And also, British people, what would you say are the most prominent types of kids’ jokes here? (Knock-knock, etc.) I’d like to do a mirror blog post to this one in French.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Seed Time and Harvest - Lynn Huggins-Cooper


As the tradition goes, 'to everything, there is a season' - and I find that is also true for my writing. Sometimes, ideas come to me and I write the story straight away, from start to finish. However, other ideas come to me in wisps; hard to grab hold of as they skitter past. I have to coax these, immersing myself in their world by visiting places and handling artifacts to draw them out.

Sometimes the ideas need composting time. I write them in fits and bursts, writing furiously for several weeks and then petering out. Although the physical writing stops, the composting time does not. I find myself thinking about the story, and rolling ideas about under my tongue, testing the texture and looking for the sweetness.

Some stories just take time to come to fruit. I have just entered the second draft stage for a story like that. At first I wrote furiously. Then I spent composting time and the story changed radically. It was no longer the story I had planned - but it was stronger for that.

Now, despite the blazing days of sunshine we are enjoying, I am watching the leaves start to turn and finishing my story. I'm harvesting apples from the garden and my story at the same time. Themes are strengthening; characters are being honed and sub plots woven. 

As the days grow colder and we head into autumn, this story's season has arrived.

Friday, 26 August 2016

To PhD or not to PhD? - Eloise Williams


That is the question.

But what is the answer?

I am one of those people who more or less, averagely, failed at school.

I hung out with mates worrying about developing spots, the way my calves wobbled when Erin Jackson kicked my foot, the size of my – everything, what I should wear, what I shouldn’t wear, what I didn’t have that I positively needed to wear, why all the boys I fancied wanted to go out with all my friends, why all my friends were snogging all the boys I fancied, why I was invisible, why I wasn’t invisible, whether the trend for leggings with dots was a good look for me,  whether anything that came out of my mouth didn’t make me sound like a total loser, why I wasn’t Molly Ringwald.
 
(Me - definitely not being Molly Ringwald)
 
With all these thoughts crowding my brain and my planned marriage to Ralph Macchio AKA The Karate Kid (the old / real version) in the pipeline, I had little time for revision and even less faith in my ability to be able to do anything well.
 
 
And this is something I’ve carried right through my life. A deep sense of disbelief that I can ‘do’ anything.

My release from my particular neurosis comes through my writing. It’s an escape, a release, a place where I know I can lose my real self. It’s no secret that I was an actress for a long time before I started writing and this was just another way to hide who I am and how challenged I am in MANY, MANY ways.

(My glittering acting career)

I’ve done a Diploma (Pass), a Degree (a Desmond), a Masters (Distinction – they clearly got the results mixed up)… but a PhD? A PhD??????

Surely not me.

Me, whose ears have been the same big size since I was born? Me, with the wonky teeth and the inability to string a sentence together coherently unless it’s written – and then still questionable at times. Me, with the …. I could go on.
 
 
                                                                (Ears....)

Instead I’ve decided to be brave.
 
 
Now, I am never going to be a Maya Angelou or a Toni Morrison. I may never win the next Orange Prize for Fiction (although I’ve planned my eighties style outfit for the occasion) and I may never be a Nobel Peace Prize winner (I’ve not even planned an outfit for that… I mean one has to be realistic) but I do have some things to say. Surely.

Surely EVERYONE has something to say by the time they get to their mid-forties?

*Quakes at the thought of trying to speak in intelligent manner*

I don’t know. Really. I don’t. But I’m going to find out.  

 As (the Goddess) J.K. Rowling said

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.”

 

She is, of course, right. So I’m starting with a hope of producing a brilliant YA / Adult crossover novel and I’m concentrating on giving it everything I have.

I’m going to need a lot of luck and an ounce of self-confidence if anyone has one to spare?

Wish me the best of.... I’m going in!

 

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Other People's Events by Tamsyn Murray

I don't know about you but I love going to author events. Apart from hearing about the fabulous books they've written, I get to spend an hour or so among an audience of (usually) like-minded peoplease.  Bookish people.

Often, the author is a friend and I want to be supportive. Very occasionally, they are a literary hero of mine (see Susan Cooper) and I sit like a gibbering, awestruck heap while they talk. And always, I learn something. That's one of the reasons I go, actually: to see what other authors do and to be inspired into improving my own events.

Last weekend, I went to Just So Festival. In amongst the fantastic programme of circus skills and storytelling and drama, there was an amazing array of author talent. I was disappointed to be thwarted by traffic on Friday, so I missed Curtis Jobling and Phil Earle, but I did manage to attend events by author/illustrator Nadine Kaadan, Paul Stickland, Jo Cotterill and John Dougherty, plus a musical storytelling session that had me crying with laughter.


Nadine had her young audience wrapped around her little finger as she showed them how to draw scenes from her book, The Jasmine Sneeze, making me wish I could draw too. Paul taught us how to make a pop-up dinosaur (memo to me: write dinosaur book so you can use this). Jo explained how electricity worked using some very independently minded audience members; she also acted out a scene from Electrigirl complete with sound effects supplied by the audience.


John had his guitar and sang some hilarious songs; his Stinkbomb and Ketchupface readings were a masterclass in comic timing.


And the musical storytelling session (I didn't catch the performer's name as it wasn't in the programme and I didn't know him) impressed me so much that I wanted him to repeat the performance immediately so that I could take notes (I was far too busy cackling to do this the first time around).

The key thing about all these inspiring events was audience participation. I do love getting kids (and sometimes adults) involved in the story. All the events I attended at the weekend were memorable, not just for the skill of the author in engaging their audience but because we all felt part of the story. And that's what reading a brilliant story does - puts us right in the middle of it. So I'll be borrowing some tips and tricks I learned this weekend (memo to self: buy guitar. Yes, another guitar. Learn to play guitar this time) to enhance my own events, because three days later I am still smiling about the authors I saw. And that's the kind of feeling I want my audience to have too.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

It's that time of the book again - Liz Kessler

Dear Fretting Liz

Oh look, here you are again. Finding it all a bit hard and wondering if you’ve lost your writing ability and it’s all over. Let me guess…half way through writing a new book? Yup, thought so.

OK, the great thing is that because I am in fact you, I know how you tick. I understand totally how you’re feeling, and I know the kinds of tricks that usually help you recover your mojo. So how about you stand back from being you for a minute, imagine you are a writing buddy in trouble, and see if you can give them the kind of advice that you would like to hear yourself?

Ah, forget that. I’ll do it for you. Here goes. Ten of my (and your) best getting-back-in-the-zone tips and tricks…

1. Re-read that blog you wrote years ago about the Seasons of Writing, and remember, sometimes you think that the spring has started and a few wintry days come along and take you by surprise. That’s nothing to worry about. It’s nature, and it will pass.

2. Take a few days off. Don’t argue. You can afford to. In fact, you can’t afford not to. Go on an Artist Date. Your well is depleted and needs restocking. Get out there and fill it up with some lovely creative energy.

3. Rewrite your writing schedule so that you can see in black and white (or red and blue and green) that you can afford the time to play out for a bit and still meet your deadline.


4. Get out in the fresh air. Go for lovely windy coastal walks. Surf, sail, kayak. Blow those cobwebs away.

5. Ask your wife to read what you’ve written, then go out in your van together and spend the afternoon talking about how you can fix it.

6. Make collages, draw pictures of the plot, flick through magazines for pictures of your characters, do some writing exercises. Y’know, the stuff you advise others to do when they tell you they're stuck.


7. Try to avoid calling your agent and telling her that you can’t do this writing lark any more. She will remind you that you’ve been here before and will suggest you see how the next week goes and that if you still feel this way in a week’s time, you can talk more. So cut out the middle man and save her a conversation. See how the next week goes, and if you still feel this way in a week’s time, you can talk to her then.

8. Tidy your office. You know you can’t expect your mind to feel clear and clean when your office looks like a particularly messy burglar has ransacked the place.

9. Meditate. Don’t say you haven’t got time. Just do it.

10. Write a blog about how you’re feeling, so that others can a) hopefully make use of some of your tips and b) possibly contribute some of their own.

OK, I think that should do it. Now, go have some fun. And when you’re done, get back to work. Trust me, your characters will be just as happy as you to have had some time off. When they see how chilled and happy and raring to go the new you is, they will welcome you back with enthusiasm and open up to you a lot more than they have been doing.

Good luck!

Wise Liz
(The part of you that knows you know all this anyway, but also knows you need reminding from time to time.)

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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

A Whole Childhood World of Adventure Part Two by Steve Gladwin



Part Two- Battle of the Giants.

Previously on A Whole Childhood World Of Adventure.

I decided to revisit an old childhood favourite, the Hal and Roger Hunt adventures by Willard Price. I wanted to see how they stood up against more modern issues about zoos and conservation. I also decided to read, (finally!) Gerald Durrell's 'My Family And Other Animals', to see how the Hunt boys compared with 10 year old Gerry's very individual approach to the same subject, and for good measure to include modern day adventurer, conservationist and naturalist Steve Backshall's more modern take in his Falcon Chronicles Series.   

There is an old joke about a man going into a pet shop and requesting an unusual pet. Eventually he settles on an octopus, having promised the pet shop owner that he will not let it out of the tank and – should he disobey and can’t get it back in its tank - he promises to phone him for help.
Well of course the inevitable happens and – having soon got bored with a pet that can’t go anywhere, he lets the octopus out of its tank whereupon it flollops off in such a slithery manner that he can’t catch it. Worse still, every time he manages to grab a tentacle to push it back into the tank, another two slither back out. Eventually he has no alternative but to ring the pet shop owner, who turns up very quickly armed with a mallet. What on earth does he intend to do with that? The man soon finds out the answer when the pet shop owner lures the octopus with its favourite food, before whacking it smartly on the head with the mallet. The man then watches in astonishment as the poor octopus, yelling the octopus equivalent of ‘owch’, puts all its tentacles on his head, whereupon  the man from the pet shop sticks it back in the tank.


Giant Cuttlefish from Wikipedia. Roger Hunt lassoed it in Arctic Adventure  (which was probably cheating).


I’ve always loved this joke and was bizarrely reminded of it not just once but twice in Arctic Adventure, the last of Willard Price’s Hal and Roger Hunt series. In the first instance Hal and Roger capture a giant cuttlefish by cornering it in the depths of the icy ocean and Roger casts a lasso over it’s head, tightening it so the tentacles cannot move. Later on Roger also manages to capture a huge sea lion by bopping it on the head with a club every time it comes up for air, thus depriving it of its vital surfacing dives for breath so that it eventually blacks out!

Alas it is certain that there are several less than humane moments in the Hunt boys adventures and I have to say that I have real issues with the finding and feeding of live prey to the bigger animals, even though I can accept that its necessary. I got a really uncomfortable feeling in Amazon Adventure when Hal fed a live manatee to an ananconda, but worse still perhaps are the platitudes about animals being happier in captivity than in the wild. The most outrageous example of this I've read so far is in Arctic Adventure where the captured killer whale should – according to Hal – be positively looking forward to its new life performing tricks to the general public!



I will always love the books for the excitement they gave me in childhood and for Willard Price’s honest attempt to educate children not just about wildlife but humanity and the different ways it can exist together. By far the most interesting sections, (because Willard Price is never gripping) are those which involve the customs of the Inuit, who were called Eskimos in those days, (1980 when the last of the books was written). But the problem with the books – and I’d be interested in whether young people nowadays would pick up on this as much – is that Willard Price seems incapable of building tension. It’s almost as if he – like the Hunt boys – has a shopping list of animals and encounters to get through and therefore can’t spend long on anything. Price was a journalist and foreign correspondent so perhaps he was too accustomed to writing copy to make the transition to novel writing successfully. His villains too are cardboard in the main and you really can’t believe in any peril the boys are in because they’ll either brush it away or – if the peril involves animals – Roger will end up doing his Doctor Doolittle act, rendering it as gentle as a lamb.

No if you want genuine peril with a conservation message then Steve Backshall’s Falcon Chronicles surely fit the bill better. Steve has had a reputation for a number of years as a he-man adventurer chasing some of the world’s most deadly species in – often – some of its least inviting environments. But Steve is far more than a muscle man who wrests slimy or bitey things to the ground while showing off his pecs. One of the things I really like about Steve is that he doesn’t mind saying just how he feels. In Lost Land of the Volcano for example, he goes off with a caving group in a completely new cave system in New Guinea and half way through is struck down with fever. He has no qualms here or at other times, sharing his feelings, telling us he’s scared or in pain or needs to go and change his trousers. He's recently once again gone against his he man reputation with his unashamed blubbing when his fiancee Helen Glover and her rowing partner won Olympic gold.

In a Guardian interview Steve Backshall told us that his favourite childhood reads were Gerald Durrell’s My Family And Other Animals, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and Willard Prices Hunt boy adventures. In the first of the Falcon Chronicles, 'Tiger Wars', Steve goes a long way towards proving himself one of the natural inheritors of Willard Price’s crown. Here there is the same emphasis on culture and wildlife lore and the same message about the industrially sized evil of poaching as Price explored in Safari Adventure, (and which therefore made it such an exciting entry in the series. And crucially Steve provides us with both boy and girl teenage characters to root for who are thrown together by accident and have to survive untold perils. Saker the boy is a member of a mysterious group of teenage boys who have been trained in secret in the forests of Eastern Europe and forgotten their past, performing what almost amount to black opps for an unforgiving master called The Prophet. All of the boys are named after animals, such as Polecat, Bear, Wolf and Margay  (a small wild cat) and Saker’s own handle comes from the Saker hawk. He himself has gone AWOL after an attack of conscience following his shooting of a female tiger before discovering she has orphaned cubs. Sinter’s story is much less complex but in its own way just as deadly. Brought up as a strict Brahmin, she discovers one day to her horror that her father has promised her in an arranged marriage to a tubby doctor in his forties. The crushing disappointment and sense of betrayal makes her question everything that has happened in her life since her mother died and sets her up perfectly for being accidentally kidnapped by a desperate Saker when she runs into him fleeing other members of the gang.

Apart from the sort of wide ranging knowledge and perceptive and humane attitude that you’d expect from someone as well traveled, Steve Backshall does know how to build up tension and although one peril follows another very much in the same frying pan into fire manner of Willard Price’s books, he is thankfully not so much in a hurry to get to the next item on the shopping list. Instead we are given chance to care about the main characters because they are believable and – crucially – we also get to hear the perspective and grey area motivations of the other members of the gang who are chasing them. I'd be happy to read both of the books that follow in The Falcon Chronicles.


Steve and the rest of the team from Lost Land of the Jaguar - courtesy of bbc.co.uk


Long before this, on a magical island far away, the man who so influenced  Steve Backshall, Sir David Attenborough and so many others, was a ten year old discovering many of the jewels of nature in his new back yard. Young Gerry Durrell was the youngest of the Durrell clan which also consisted of his twenty two year old novelist brother Larry, (waspish, completely self -centred and withering in the extreme), his seventeen year old sister Margo, (fey, wispy and completely unprepared for the sometimes harsh realities of life), and brooding eighteen year old brother Leslie, who shoots anything that moves and if you’re a member of his family that might even include you. In addition to the four Durrell siblings there is also their long suffering and absent minded mother Louisa – another accident waiting to happen.

Having finally read My Family and Other Animals, (and why did it take me so long because it is quite wonderful), I’m just a bit sorry that I didn’t do so before watching ITV’s recent dramatization of all three books, The Durrells, with a wonderfully alternatively dazed and frazzled Keeley Hawes as mother and – what appeared to me at least – entirely appropriate casting unless you want Larry to be blonde rather than dark and local taxi driver cum fixer Spiros – very much a Brian Blessed type character in the books - to be actually played by the great man as he was in the first TV adaptation in the 60’s, rather than more accurately by a Greek actor. There is no doubt that Simon Nye adapted his six part version in fairly broad strokes – sort of Family Behaving Badly - but most of the happenings in the book and a good few of the magical moments, were there. Perhaps the saddest and most inevitable absence – were of young Gerry’s wide eyed continuing search to find, study and often capture Corfu’s natural world in all of its infinite variety. Like Steve Backshall’s Tiger Wars, MFAOA has limited dialogue which – more often than not – involves Larry being totally unreasonable while Mother begs him not to be.
Somewhere in the middle Margo witters her various disappointments with men  and Leslie comes in and thrusts a bloodied bag of the unfortunate local wildlife on the kitchen table. The other sections of dialogue tend to involve Gerry’s on-off education and the brave men who try to teach him. The most important of these was the polite and nervous doctor Theo Stephanides, who remained a life-long friend and who is given a special dedication in the introduction.

But I promised you a Battle of the Giants and it's with that dear reader that I must finish. Some of the most hilarious bits of MFAOA come when various creatures are kept in environments which clearly don't suit them, or else create fatal rivalries with other creatures, of which the rather splendid but ultimately tragic battle between the giant gecko Geronimo - who has long been resident in Gerry's bedroom and doesn't respond well to incomers - and the latest incomer, a giant mantid christened Cecil - is a fine example.. If you're of the sort of nervous disposition that doesn't want to be acquainted with the green mantis of Corfu, (still resident) please look away now.


Giant Corfu Mantis. Thanks to arachnoboards.com

It is in too many ways an uneven contest and has an inevitable conclusion. In a freak fall both creatures end up bloodied but unbowed on Gerry's bed.

'Cicely had a wing crushed and torn and one leg bent and useless, while Geronimo had a number of scratches across his back and neck caused by Cicely's front claws.

Eventually a now tail less Geronimo munches down on Cicely's left forearm, and - now weakened - she cannot prevent her head and thorax following suit. It has indeed been - and my cursory description nowhere near does it justice. - an epic battle, and it occurs to me that it is the sort of battle that - for all the effort he might have made with his 'shopping list' style of animal capture - Willard Price was never quite able to describe. It's interesting that Gerald Durrell actually published MFAOA in 1956, barely five years after the first of the Hunt boys adventures, Amazon Adventure, was published, but reading them both now they couldn't be further apart. While one man was setting up one of the first and most important conservation projects in the world at Jersey Zoo, the other - no matter how honourable his intent - was perpetrating all too familiar myths about animals being happy in captivity after being charmed into submission by 14 year old boys. Of course it's fairer to say that Price was more a man of his time, (as were say David Attenborough, the BBC and Zoo Quest - and Gerald Durrell - as he went on to consistently prove - was way ahead of it.  

For all that there's plenty of room for both. However I'll leave the last wise words to Gerald Durrell himself, (and friends)

'But the world is as delicate and complicated as a spider's web. If you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads. We are not just touching the web, we are tearing great holes in it.'