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2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults: Interview with Desna Wallace


Desna Wallace-smlDesna Wallace lived through the Canterbury Earthquakes, and it is no surprise that children from all over NZ voted her book Canterbury Quake, as one of their finalists in the Children’s Choice list. The book is part of Scholastic NZ’s ‘My New Zealand Story’ list, a series of fiction titles featuring notable NZ events. Desna Wallace is a school librarian in Christchurch who is passionate about children’s books. She has had a number of stories published in the School Journal, but Canterbury Quake is her first published novel. We wanted to know how it all came about.

  • As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book in particular?

A friend kept telling me that I needed to write about Christchurch’s devastating earthquakes. At first I kept saying no but eventually one day while driving home from work, the character of Maddy popped into my head and by the time I got home, her whole family were in there too. It was a bit crowded in there so I just began writing and kept on writing. I felt that Maddy’s story would be best told in diary format so that readers could experience the daily life of a family living through a national disaster.  Even though I lived through the earthquakes and life inside a broken city, I still had to do a heap of research to make sure everything was accurate. It needed to be exactly right as it is the story of one of New Zealand’s worst ever disasters. And I agree that it was a story that needed to be told and I feel so privileged that my Maddy, was the one to do the telling. I am so glad my friend had faith in me to give it a go.

  • Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?

I was incredibly lucky with my book being published. I had written stories, poems and plays for the School Journal and even had a Ready-to-Read book published but in terms of writing a novel I was completely inexperienced.  I knew how it felt to be in the quakes, what it felt like to be scared and because I worked with children, I knew how they felt too so I guess my story was very real. I think this is why it was accepted; I was writing from true experience.

When it was accepted, everything happened very quickly which was a bit scary as I didn’t really know what I should be doing. I had deadlines to keep to and I was working my day jobs too, so there was a bit of pressure to do everything. I had kept my writing a secret until I knew it was going to be published, so that was a bit hard too. Then when it was accepted, I wanted to tell the whole world!


  1. How did you tailor this book to the age-group it reaches?

This was the easiest thing to do. I knew I wanted a diary format and as I worked very closely with a group of ten and 11 year olds, I knew this was the group I wanted to write for. It was the age group of children I felt would understand Maddy best. Maddy was very real to me and I hoped that she would be real to children in this age group. Scholastic’s My New Zealand story format is very clear so I just followed their advice.

  1. Who have you dedicated this book to, and why?

I dedicated the book to my son, Calvin. After a divorce I raised him on my own from just a baby so it has always been just the two of us. He is my best friend and the most important person in my life, and I felt so proud to dedicate my book to him.

  1. Can you recommend any books for children/young adults who love this book?

I would read any of the ‘My New Zealand Story’ books. There are so many important events in New Zealand’s history and reading the diaries is such a cool way to get to know about our past.

  1. What is your favourite thing to do when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?

I love scrapbooking, and gardening. Both of these hobbies are relaxing and rewarding. I love the finished page with photos and embellishments.  However, I really don’t like mowing my lawns. In fact I hate it! But I do like the way the lawns look after a cut and I love the smell of the grass after the lawn has been mowed. I have two cats and I love spending time with them in the garden. One of my cats (who is actually Dusty in my novel) loves climbing all over my keyboard when I type and in fact is doing it right now which makes typing very hard. It is a wonder I get anything finished.



Desna was the Christchurch Library Kids’ blogs star author in February 2014: https://christchurchkids.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/february-star-author-desna-wallace/ Scholastic NZ’s feature about Desna: http://www.scholastic.co.nz/publishing/author/pdfs/tileD.pdf

For a review of My New Zealand Story: Canterbury Quake, check out the Booksellers NZ blog here: https://booksellersnz.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/book-review-my-story-canterbury-quake-by-desna-wallace/

Friday’s feature was 1914: Riding into War, by Susan Brocker, both of whom were featured on Booknotes Unbound, www.booknotes-unbound.co.nz  Tomorrow’s feature will be another junior fiction title, The Island of Lost Horses, by Stacy Gregg,  which will be on Booksellers NZ’s blog here: https://booksellersnz.wordpress.com/.


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Interview with Thalia Kalkipsakis, author of Lifespan of Starlight

Thalia Kalkipsakis’ latest book, Lifespan of Starlight is one of my recent favourite young adult books.  It’s an incredibly exciting, fresh and unique story about time travel.  You can read my review here on the blog.

I had a few questions about Lifespan of Starlight, Thalia’s vision of time travel.  Thalia very kindly answered my questions and you can read my interview with her below.

  • What inspired you to write Lifespan of Starlight?

I love the idea of a hidden skill or ability that all humans possess – exploring how it might be discovered and what it could be. But for me the ‘ability’ is really just a metaphor for human ambition and the way imagination can lead to creation. I’m also fascinated by time – and the variety of ways we experience time – so it was easy to work out what the hidden ability would be: conscious control over where we move in time.

At the moment, human beings are facing huge challenges – both in terms of how technology impacts on our lives and also how our lives impact on the environment – but I still look to the future with a sense of hope. So the ability to time travel in the story is also a metaphor for our future inventions and resilience. I believe that we might even surprise ourselves.

And the main character? Strangely it was our cat who inspired Scout’s character. The cat was from an animal rescue shelter and the runt of the litter. She seemed so powerless, but she is actually quite cunning and resourceful once you get to know her. I wanted to write a character that has no power, no rights, but uses creativity and courage to survive.

  •  Is your vision of time travel based on real scientific principles? Is there such a thing as Relative Time Theory?

I chose the name Relative Time Theory as a nod to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but I also took a huge amount of fictional licence in order to make the story work. The idea that we can control our experience of time is entirely my own leap of fun. But once you make that leap I like the way it relates to the true concept of spacetime – once you completely stop your progress through time, you also cease to exist physically in space. At least, that’s how it works in the story.

  • Your vision of time travel in Lifespan of Starlight is not a stereotypical idea of time travel.  What are your rules of time travel in your story?

Since the initial seed of the idea was an ability that exists in us all, it was important to me that it didn’t come easily – so no flux capacitors or sonic screwdrivers here J. It is simply a matter of meditating to a point where your ‘flow through time’ reaches a standstill, then (within limits) you choose your return point. Human beings are capable of amazing things but we also have to overcome our weaknesses and flaws, so things like confidence and fear impact on how well a character can time skip. And as with every skill you might try to master, your ability to time skip also improves with practise. In book 1 and even more in book 2, the characters also struggle to hit their chosen time for return.

The idea that you can only travel in one direction also relates to our experience of time – we always experience time progressing forwards, we never see the world unravelling around us. So even though the characters begin to believe that it’s impossible to go back, in my mind and within the rules of that world, I do imagine that going backwards is possible, but it’s our difficulty comprehending ‘backwards’ that renders it almost impossible to achieve. Although, that’s an issue for book 2…

  • If you could time jump, how far ahead would you want to go?

I don’t think I would jump very far ahead at all. Once I began spending time in that world, it didn’t take me long to realise the impact of jumping ahead in terms of leaving behind the people you love. This issue looms large in book 2 but I think it’s also true to how life would be if time skipping were real. Since I could only go forwards, I’d only want to time jump if everyone I care about could come with me. But if I knew I could easily come back to ‘now’? In that case, my answer’s completely different. Let’s start with 2084 and I’d get to see how closely the world in the Lifespan of Starlight matches reality.

  • What is your favourite book and movie about time travel?

Aw, only one book and movie? It’s difficult to choose, but I can say that my favourites all link time travel with a sense of genuine human experience.

For adults, it’s hard to go past The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger: it’s both a book and a movie. The way time travel impacts on the character’s daily lives rings so true that you end up believing that it’s real.

For kids, I’d have to choose Cicada Summer by Kate Constable. I don’t want to give anything away, but one of the main twists always gives me a lump in the throat. It’s not a movie, but it should be.

  • If you could choose a song to be the theme song for Lifespan of Starlight what would it be?

Gosh, what a great question. Pity I don’t have a decent answer. I know this is cheating but it’s hard to go past the soundtrack to the movie Run Lola Run. I love the lyrics: “I wish I was a writer, who sees what’s yet unseen”.

So, just cos they’re awesome, here are links to the trailer for the movie and the title song:

  • You leave readers on a cliff-hanger ending.  How long do we have to wait for book two and do you know the title?

It wasn’t so much about leaving readers hanging, but I did want to give readers that sense of jumping into the unknown – reaching the end of the story and not knowing where the next story would begin.

Book two has a couple of twists and surprises – it’s due for release in April 2016 and the working title is ‘Split Infinity’.

  • Have you planned the trilogy or do you have to see where Scout takes you?

The short answer is ‘yes to both’. I did have a sense of the overall structure very early on, but it was only when I recognised three distinct sections that I began to think it might work as a trilogy. The identity of the woman in the cave, for example, I’ve always known would be revealed in book 3. But I’ve also left enough room for the characters to breathe – to let them lead the story rather than the other way around. I’ve already found in book 2 that Scout is brave enough to take on more than I had planned.

Grab a copy of Lifespan of Starlight from your library or bookshop now.  Stay tuned for the chance to win a signed copy of Lifespan of Starlight next week.

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2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults: Interview with Donovan Bixley

Donovan Bixley’s book Little Red Riding Hood … Not Quite, written by Yvonne Morrison, has been voted for by kids all over New Zealand as a finalist in the Children’s Choice Picture Book  category. Little Red is also on the judge’s finalist list. Donovan and Yvonne collaborated last year, on the Children’s Choice award-winning The Three Bears (Sort Of), and here is the interview that Booksellers NZ had with him last year. https://booksellersnz.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/finalist-interview-the-illustration-of-the-three-bears-sort-of-by-donovan-bixley/

This is just one of three titles that Donovan has had recognised in the 2015 Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and two of these – this and Dragon Knight: Fire! are also in the children’s choice category. For that reason, this interview covered both books.

  •  What was your approach to illustrating Little Red Riding Hood…Not Quite – was it any easier than with The Three Bears?

Three Bears was a real head spinner, simply trying to figure out how on earth to illustrate the manuscript. I worried that it was all going to be a big mess of different styles and not hold together visually. Well, with last year’s award, obviously it seemed to have worked – so Red Riding Hood was much easier in that regard. However, it’s a tricky business doing a sequel. I figure a sequel should be more of the same, but different. So that’s what I tried to do.

  • What are the challenges and advantages of working on illustrations for authors who you have worked with prior?

I can usually see the finished book clearly in my head, and I forget that others aren’t telepathic. One of the best things about working with authors again and again is that I can just do a messy scribble, and they know what I mean because they’ve seen previously the process of how I can turn that little scribble into a finished painting. It saves lots of time and explaining.

  • Does how you illustrate junior fiction differ from how you illustrate a picture book? How do you target children in each age bracket with illustration?

For any book I try to expand and reinforce what the words are saying. But then I always like to stick in lots of little additions to discover. Some for adults and some for kids – as long as they don’t overwhelm the story that needs to be told on that page. For example, in Dragon Knight you might see Foole in the background (who strikes a remarkable resemblance to the idiotic Shlok from Dinosaur Rescue), although he’s not actually a character in the story. Similarly, Red Riding Hood contains dozens of hidden surprises – ‘hidden’ because I don’t want them to overshadow the flow of the story.

The main difference, is that in a picture book, the words are often reduced down to elegant and evocative sentences, meaning that the pictures carry a lot of the practical storytelling (the who, where, when, how). On the other hand, in a chapter book, the words are doing a lot more practical storytelling, which allows the pictures to do things which aren’t pure storytelling. So in Dragon Knight I can create all sorts of funny asides that expand upon the world of the actual story, like: ‘Dragon Illnesses’; or ‘Common Knight School Injuries’. On top of that, a chapter book has a lot of pages to fill. The text generally takes up about a quarter of the 96 pages. With all that space, I have a lot more freedom to control how the story flows, with dynamic reveals and page-turning surprises.

Of course I also try to do that in a picture book, but you have limited options with only 32 pages.

  • Can you recommend any books for children who love your style of illustration?

I love stories that have a lot to discover. A reason to go back again and again. Sometimes I look at favourite books I had as a kid and discover a joke that makes sense now I’m all growed up. Asterix, and Graham Oakley’s Church Mice series are examples of superb storytelling with pictures. They are jam-packed with funny references to things which you may not understand for years. Harder to find is anything by Mordillo, like his Crazy Crazy Jungle Life. Mordillo was a master of the wordless book. Another of my favourites is Bill Peet, if you can track down his marvelous books like How Droofus the Dragon Lost his Head, Wump World, or Burford the Little Bighorn. Bill Peet was one of the original founders of Disney and he worked on Dumbo before having a fall-out with Walt Disney and starting a second career in children’s books.

  • What advice would you give any would-be illustrator?

Absorb what other illustrators do. Figure out what you like and don’t like (and why) then develop your own ideas – that’s what makes you a unique artist. A picture book illustrator is different from other types of artist – you don’t need to be the best drawer or painter, instead you need to be a great storyteller.

  • What do you find yourself drawing when you aren’t working, perhaps when you are just thinking something through

If I’m mindlessly doodling tend to draw little swirling lines, usually with pointy arrow heads for some reason. It takes about a year before the pad on my drawing desk ends up completely covered with these squiggles and gets thrown away. It’s not the type of thing I normally keep.

I don’t really do any drawings are not ‘work’. I’m not the type of artist who secretly longs to paint landscapes or abstract art. I love the art form of the picture book, it’s my artistic obsession, so that’s what I do for fun. When I’m not working on ‘work’, all my spare time is devoted to scribbling research pictures, reference compositions and doodles for projects that I hope will be published one day. Usually these books start as something that I want to draw pictures of – I wrote Monkey Boy so I could draw pictures of 19th century warships, battles and ghastly ghouls. The only thing I draw outside of picture books are my family. I have quite a collection of drawings and paintings of my three daughters.


If you want to know more about Donovan, check out his website here: http://www.donovanbixley.com/

For reviews of Little Red Riding Hood (Not Quite), check out the Booksellers NZ review here: http://booksellersnz.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/book-review-little-red-riding-hood-not-quite-by-yvonne-morrison-illustrated-by-donovan-bixley/

And my review here on the blog.

This is day seven of the blog tour featuring each of the finalists in the Children’s Choice category of the awards. Later today, I will post Yvonne Morrison’s answers to the author’s interview for  this title.  Yesterday’s feature was I am not a Worm, by Scott Tulloch, whose interview can be found here: http://thriftygifty.blogspot.co.nz/2015/07/nz-book-awards-for-children-and-young_2.html.  Monday’s feature will be our third picture book, Doggy Ditties from A to Z, by Jo van Dam and Myles Lawford will be covered back on Thrifty Gifty http://thriftygifty.blogspot.co.nz/.

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Interview with Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager is the author of some of the best Young Adult books in New Zealand, including the action-packed The Nature of Ash (shortlisted for the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards).  Mandy’s latest YA novel is Dear Vincent, one of the most powerful and emotionally-charged books I’ve ever read (you can read my review here).  I had a few questions for Mandy after reading Dear Vincent and she very kindly answered them for me.  You can also enter to win a copy of Dear Vincent and read an extract from chapter one at the bottom of this post.  Thanks to Mandy and the wonderful people at Random House New Zealand.

  • What inspired you to write Dear Vincent?

It’s always hard to look back and focus on the starting idea, but I’ve been thinking about the issue of suicide for a while now, through my work with youth at risk, and wanted to send a book out into the world that showed the long term pain suicide brings to those left behind, and to explore the seduction of the idea, and how it is possible to resist, given the right support. The problem with the current ‘don’t talk’ policy around suicide is that kids only get to see the outer manifestations of grief when someone they know kills themselves – the memorial pages on facebook, the highly emotional services – it runs the risk of making suicide seem ‘sexy’ to young people – a kind of ‘you’ll all be sorry and celebrate me like this when I’m gone’ mentality. It also denies those who have contemplated or attempted suicide a voice to say how relieved they are that they didn’t go through with it – and to share the things that helped stay their hands. And I wanted to show that suicide leaves the surviving family with such terrible guilt and grief – for kids to understand the full impact of a suicide on those left behind. I wanted to de-glamourise it – so that it underlines the finality of such a decision – that ‘dead’ means ‘dead’ – no going back, no second thoughts.

I also love Vincent Van Gogh – so it was a perfect opportunity to explore his life and paintings more fully.

  • You tackle some tough issues in the book, including suicide and physical and emotional abuse.  Was it a story you felt you had to tell?

Yes, it’s been in the back of my mind for a long time now.

  • What research did you have to do for the book? What was the most interesting thing you discovered about Vincent Van Gogh?

Van Gogh’s letters are now available online – over 900 of them, so I worked my way through them and also some biographies and documentaries (plus, I had studied him for art history at school many hundreds of years ago!) The first thing that surprised me was just how elegant and literate he was – he’s often made out to be this crazy, rough, boorish man, when nothing could be further from the truth. His letters are beautiful, vivid and incredibly sad. The other really surprising thing was the discovery, through the most recent biography of him by Steven Naifeh and Gegory White Smith, that it is highly likely Van Gogh did not kill himself, but was shot by local boys – though, once shot, he then kept quiet about this act and died in his brother Theo’s arms (in other words, not instigating the act, but not fighting it either.) So it was suicide by omission to fight his injuries or reveal their source. The biography’s evidence for this case is very convincing. Plus, it illuminates more about what was going on in Vincent’s head – for a long time it was thought he was bi-polar, now it seems more likely it was a kind of temporal lobe epilepsy that would descend upon him.

  • One of the things I like the most about your books is that your characters are authentic and they feel real.  Have you ever been challenged by the ‘gatekeepers’ of young adult fiction because of your characters actions or language?

I haven’t been challenged on this in person, but I am sure there are some people who find the language and issues difficult. All I try to do is be faithful to the character and reflect how I believe they would truly talk, feel and respond.

  • There are some very raw emotions in the story and Tara goes to some quite dark places in her head.  Did you need to get into the right head space each time you sat down to write or was Tara always with you?

I always sit and centre myself before I write each day, calling the character into my mind. However, there always reaches a point where the character is there all the time until you finish writing – consequently this was a particularly exhausting and grueling book to write. Being inside Tara’s head was an intense experience.

  • I love the character of the Professor (Max). How did he come to you?

Max is, in many ways, my father. He, too, was born in Vienna. He, too, was forced to leave with his parents to escape the Nazis. He introduced us to art, music and literature (as did my mother), and was a charming, cultured and kind man.

  • Like Tara, does ‘art in all its forms’ have you in its grip?

It most certainly does!

  • Do you have a ‘teen test’ for your books during or after you’ve written them?

My first reader, chapter by chapter, is my daughter Rose. She is incredibly good at spotting anything that jars or doesn’t have an authentic ring. I also send the finished draft out to my niece as well (along with several other adult readers) – their feedback is always most welcome and useful.

  • Why do you write books for teenagers? What is it about YA that appeals to you?

I think what I like most about YA fiction is that it focuses on strong story and authentic characters. It also appeals to me in terms of who I am writing for – as I tend to write about the things that trouble me, and this primarily is around issues that will affect the up-and-coming generations, it gives me the opportunity to start a discussion with young people about the different ways to look at the world and the challenges they are/will be presented with. So much media these days is controlled by corporate interests I feel it’s important to get alternative thoughts and ideas out there. I strongly believe that only through honest discussion of issues can we ever hope to move forward in a positive way.

Read on for an extract from Dear Vincent.


Whenever I tell Father anything, it goes in one ear and out the other, and that certainly applies no less to Mother. Similarly I find Father and Mother’s sermons and ideas about God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense.

— Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, Etten, c. 21 December 1881

My father slouches in his wheelchair, a dough ball of resentment. Only the fierce penetration of his eyes registers life behind his rigid face. If he moves at all it is involuntary. The twitch of a finger. The jerk of a leg. But for all his immobility, his presence still looms over us. The gargoyle in the corner. The silent judge.

There is a gritty meanness in his eyes sometimes. Or worse, bottomless sadness — the kind that rakes your soul. Though more often than not these days, anger flares: embers trapped within an iceberg. He is living the inflexibility he’s practised all my life.

Even as I finish hanging out the washing and tilt my face up to the morning sun, I know he will be waiting for me to feed him, wash his face, brush his teeth — all before I have the luxury of heading off to school. Luxury? It’s funny how perspective shifts.

Buttered light filters through my eyelids and I hold my breath, waiting, waiting, waiting, with a sense there’s something I should know. It teases at my memory. Tickles at my nose. I crack one eye open and there’s the clue: a butterfly, chalky white, its tiny dome eyes staring straight back into mine. Of course! How could I forget?

It’s Van’s birthday. The 11th of June. She would be twenty-two today. So old. It’s hard to picture how she’d look. Beautiful? Without a doubt. Respectable? Not for a second. Not my Van. The odds that she’d have turned into a merchant banker, IT nerd or anything, in fact, where she’d have to toe the line are about two billion to one.

Meanwhile, my own life’s reduced to a different numbers game. Nearly six years since Dad’s first stroke. Just under five since we were woken by that gutting midnight call. Three since Mum was forced to take on night shifts at the hospital to pay the mortgage on this shitty hole. One since I began to work half-time to help. And the amount of time I get to lead a normal life? No whole number’s small enough.

‘Tara?’ Mum’s shout repels the butterfly. It flutters off, a ghost adrift. ‘Don’t forget to take the shopping list. I’ll pick you up outside Countdown at ten to nine.’

Does she remember it’s Van’s birthday? Surely she must. But Mum’s declared everything about my sister a no-go zone — as if by refusing to speak of her the past can somehow be erased. If only it was so easy.

Inside, I shoo Mum off to bed before I start on Dad. Her shifts play havoc with her sleep patterns — and her moods. She’s turned into one of those wizened peasants Vincent loved to paint: a small grey shadow, sour and disconnected, all joy in life sucked out of her.

While I’m waiting for Dad’s porridge to cook I eat the last of the bread, sandwiching a scummy wedge of budget cheese. Our cupboards will stay bare until I’m paid later today and do the shop. When we were small, the only time Mum used to make a fuss was over birthday breakfasts: an Ulster fry with bacon, eggs and sausages, and golden crisp potato farl. Now the only fuss she makes is the kind I hate — the kind Van called Mad Cow Disease to wind her up.

I mince Dad’s morning medication into dust and smother it with yoghurt. Pop it in his drooping mouth, scraping the teaspoon across his lips to catch the overflow before I stuff the dregs back in. He shudders as he swallows, his eyes saying it’s my fault that it tastes like shit. I help him drink a sip of water, then cool his porridge with milk and coax it in, one spoonful at a time. I know I should be chatting to him, helping pass the time, but, really, what is there to say? Do you know what day it is? Does the thought of Van thump you in the guts like it does me? Even if he could answer, he’d only throw it back at me. Wind yer neck in, girl. You’ve got a face on like a Lurgan spade.

By the time I’ve finished everything with Dad I’ve less than half an hour to get to school. Who’d have thought I’d ever want to spend more time there, but with my rest home shift starting at two it pretty much wipes out the afternoon.

All I really want to do is paint — hide out in the art room and let the colours wash through me in a heady rush. Vincent says to attack a painting the way a lion devours meat, to call on the grain of madness that is the best of art. Imagine trying to explain all this to Mum and Dad. They view creative madness as a sin on par with striking a priest.

I park Dad in front of the TV and head off on my bike. Our street is full of tacky mansions, but ours is the doozy that drags the others’ values down. Good old leaky home syndrome. The day Mum finally admitted we had no money to fix it or to chase the builders through the courts I cried — I’d had a gutsful of our neighbours’ snide remarks.

‘You think your life is difficult?’ she’d said. ‘Try walking to school in Belfast when the Proddies are on the march.’ She talks about the Troubles the way the old boys in the rest home remember El Alamein.

Since then I’ve built a force field that shouts ‘fuck off’. You have to in a school like mine, where the fact I used to go to the best private Catholic school is all the ammunition the gangs need. In my first week they bullied me out of my iPod and mobile phone and stripped the Nike jacket off my wimpy back. Admittedly I’m safer now. Three years on and we’re dirt poor — I don’t even have an internet connection at home, let alone a replacement phone. There’s nothing left to nick.

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Q & A with Lorraine Orman about her new book Touchstone

  • You recently published your tenth book, Touchstone, as a YA e-book. What was the background to this venture into e-publishing?

I was a casualty when Longacre Press merged into Random House NZ. Longacre had published my two previous YA novels, but Random said no thanks to this one. My agent, Frances Plumpton, tried hard to find a home for Touchstone but fantasy and futuristic series were in vogue. After a couple of years I thought, “I can’t bear to stuff it into the metaphorical bottom drawer. Why not make it an e-book?”

  • How have you found the e-publishing process?

I could write a book about it! The general impression one gains from online articles is that it’s easy. It’s not. You have to come out of your cosy author’s corner and become editor, proofreader, formatter, cover designer, publisher, decision-maker, legal expert, distributor and promoter. I’m lucky enough to have a network of supportive colleagues – thank you to the Facebook crowd!

  • Tell us about the e-book.

TouchstoneCoverSmallVersionLike Cross Tides and Hideout, Touchstone is a blend of genres – family problems, adventure and suspense, environmental issues, and a good dollop of New Zealand history. It’s set in a
ghost town on the Buller Coal plateau. The 16-year-old heroine gets involved with a group of eco-warriors trying to prevent a new coalmine being established. Much of the environmental
theme is based on fact.

There’s a free PDF Teachers’ Resource Kit (prepared by a secondary teacher) available on my website at www.story-go-round.net.nz. Any royalties I make are being donated to the Animal Sanctuary at Matakana, near my home. In addition, the book links to Forest and Bird’s campaign to save the Denniston Plateau from more coalmines.

  • Where can people buy Touchstone?

It’s available for around $4.99 (US) from major online bookstores such as Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo Bookshop, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, etc. It’s also available on Wheelers E-Platform, which should be convenient for New Zealand schools and libraries. I’m working on getting it to more NZ suppliers.

  • Do you plan to publish another e-book?

Cross Tides is also available as an e-book, thanks to Random House NZ. But doing it all over again with another manuscript – who knows? I have to recover from this journey first!

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Interview with Anna Mackenzie

Today I have the pleasure of being joined by New Zealand author, Anna Mackenzie.  Anna is the author of the award-winning The Sea-wreck Stranger, and her latest book, Cattra’s Legacy tells of the journey of Risha, not only across the wild land in which she lives, but from timid young girl to fierce and powerful young woman. I love Cattra’s Legacy and I asked Anna a few questions about her fantastic new story and the life of a writer.

  • What inspired you to write Cattra’s Legacy?

The novel began with a single idea, a visual image initially, of a girl alone at a graveside. That idea could have gone many different ways, but my daughter had just begun to read fantasy novels, so I decided I would write one for her, from that starting point. That gave me the direction, and the story soon took over.

  • How did you build the world of the story? Did you know what it looked like and what the history of the world was before you started writing?

Elgard opened out before me just as it does for Risha. I was sometimes a step ahead, but a small one, and every now and then we would both be surprised. About six or seven chapters in I sketched a rough map which I added to as I wrote. The map on page 7 is a tidy version of that, created using computer software rather than a pen so that it’s more legible for readers. In terms of the history of Elgard, I had a broad sense of it as soon as I knew Pelon had been a scholar – about the time Risha began to read his manuscript – but some of the regional details became clear to me only after reaching LeMarc.

  • Did you get to do any fun or interesting research before you wrote the story, like weapons training or horse riding?

I rode farm horses when I was growing up, but it wasn’t really my thing. That said, my earliest memories include the creak of saddle leather and the smell of horse and hot summer: my father used to sit me in front of him on the saddle as he rode around the farm – I guess between the ages of 2 and 4.

As for weapons training, I’ve learned both martial arts and archery in the past. All knowledge is useful in writing!

  • The story is ultimately about the legacy that a mother leaves for her daughter.  What legacy would you like to leave for your daughter?

 My aim as a parent is to instil in my kids a confidence in themselves, the knowledge that they are loved and valued for who they are, and the bravery to fight for what they believe in.

  • Which of your own personality traits have you given Risha?

Determination. I don’t tend to give up (even when I probably should!). It’s an essential skill for a writer, and for many other things. Some people call it stubbornness.

  • Risha is a strong female character that teenage girls can look up to.  Do you feel that New Zealand young adult literature is lacking in these strong female characters?

No. Given the size of our market there is a fairly small crop of YA books published each year. Some years there will be more of one type of book than another, but feisty female characters are a feature of New Zealand’s YA literary landscape – and certainly of my work.

  • The advice that a lot of writer’s give is ‘write the sort of books that you would like to read.’  Is this the case with Cattra’s Legacy?  If so, what other books can you recommend to those who love Cattra’s Legacy?

I read very widely and this is a story I loved discovering as I wrote it. For readers who are looking for similar adventure fantasy, try Cynthia Voight’s Elske, Celine Kiernan’s Moorehawke trilogy, The Merlin Conspiracy and Dalemark quartet by Diana Wynne-Jones and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy.

  • What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a writer?

The best thing is getting to live dozens of different lives through the experiences of my characters – writing a new story is just like that feeling when you are completely wrapped up in reading and have to be dragged reluctantly away.
The worst thing is far too much time spent sitting at a desk: it’s seriously bad for you, but sometimes I have to be dragged away from there too!

Check out my review of Cattra’s Legacy here on the blog and enter to win a copy.

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Interview with Life in Outer Space author Melissa Keil

If you’ve read my review of Life in Outer Space you’ll know how much I loved it.  Life in Outer Space is Melissa Keil’s debut YA novel and Melissa was lucky enough to have it published as part of the Ampersand Project.  I’m incredibly thankful to the Ampersand Project and Hardie Grant Egmont for publishing Melissa’s wonderful story, as I still can’t get it out of my head.  Melissa kindly answered some of my questions about Life in Outer Space.

  • Sam’s voice is so authentic that I’m sure you have a teenage guy trapped inside you.  Did Sam’s voice come to you easily?

Thanks – that is very flattering (in an odd way!) Sam’s voice was really the catalyst for the novel – one of those weird writing moments where one second he wasn’t there, and then he just was. In the back of my mind I was always aware that I was writing the experience of a person who I had never been, but I chose early on not to let it hamper me. I did make some conscious decisions about certain ‘boy’ things – the way he would interact with his friends, for instance (and writing conversations between teenage boys was lots of fun!) But Sam always felt like a real person to me, and his voice was the driving force behind the story.

  • Which of your characters are you most like?

I guess there are little parts of me in all of these people; Sam’s befuddlement about the world around him was quite familiar to me in high school! I never had Camilla’s confidence or self possession, but perhaps a little of her optimism. I guess in a weird way I even relate to Adrian social awkwardness – but to me they were always people in their own right.

  • Do you have a hidden talent, like Sam’s screen writing or Camilla’s song writing?

I definitely have no musical abilities (I have mastered a few chords on guitar, but that’s about it). I do have a talent for storing useless trivia. I suppose writing was my ‘hidden’ talent for a long time; I was with my writing group for almost a year before I worked up the courage to actually bring some writing to workshop. It took quite a bit of prodding to send Life in Outer Space out to a publisher! If it wasn’t for my writing group, I think my ‘hidden’ talent would have remained hidden for quite a while longer.

  • If a movie were made of your book and you had an unlimited budget who would you want to play Camilla?

Wow, that is a very cool thing to be thinking about. One of the things I love doing when I’m writing is creating ‘mood boards’ for my characters – I have pages and pages of images of the clothes that they wear and the minutia of their bedrooms, right down to their jewellery and books – but in all my research, I’ve never found a real-life person who I think is right for either Sam or Camilla. I have her voice and face so clearly in my mind that it’s hard to equate her with anyone in the real world – I guess she would have to be an unknown! With, you know, musical ability, and great hair.

  • Sam says that everything useful he knows about real life he has learnt from the movies.  What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learnt from the movies?

Never ignore the quiet, bespectacled person in the corner; they’ll always turn out to be the most fascinating (and gorgeous) person in the room. Or they’ll turn out to be an insane serial killer. But most often, the first one.

  • Like the best movies Life in Outer Space is full of great, witty dialogue.  Did you find your characters having conversations in your head even when you weren’t writing?

Absolutely. I spent a lot of time ‘researching’ (read: procrastinating) by hanging out at the places they visited in the book and just imagining them chatting. It really did feel like they were with me all the time – I was that vague-looking person standing in the middle of the Astor Theatre or Minotaur just staring into space, usually with a note book in hand.

  • Camilla has an obsession with 80s movies.  What’s your favourite movie era and why?

As a film buff with wide and weird tastes, that is a very hard call. My favourite movies come from pretty much every era; I love those great Film Noir movies of the 40s and 50s, and I am a little obsessed with contemporary superhero movies. And I love Star Wars, though the first film was made before I was born. Even though I was a teenager in the 90s, I do have a soft spot for the teen movies of the 80s (The Breakfast Club gets a periodic re-watch every few months). There is something in the tone of 80s teen movies that I really wanted to capture; I love that the good ones can take what are, on the surface, stock characters, and imbue them with personality and warmth and heart.

  • Were there any scenes in the first drafts that didn’t make the final cut that would make your blooper reel?

Or directors cut? There were a few! One of the bits I had to lose was the scene where Sam asks Allison to the dance. In the first draft, right before he asks her, he mentions that he sometimes tries to frame uncomfortable conversations as pieces of a screenplay – I had a lot of fun writing that ‘screenplay’ dialogue between them, but it really was superfluous to the plot so didn’t make the final draft. And because these characters were always nattering in my head, I have lots of half-finished scenes which were only ever intended to be for me, for the purposes of character building and fleshing out the time between chapters – for instance, at some point in the book, Sam mentions in passing that he spent a few hours on the phone with Camilla talking about the screenplay of Alien – I may have this conversation between them somewhere in my notes as well.



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This is Not a Drill Blog Tour – Interview with Beck McDowell

Today on My Best Friends Are Books I have Beck McDowell, author of the fantastic new book, This is Not a Drill, joining me on her blog tour to celebrate the release of her book.  The story revolves around a hostage situation in a school in America, with a father who has recently returned from the war in Afghanistan.  It’s a very powerful story and you can read my review here on the blog.  I got the chance to ask Beck a few questions about the story and her characters.

  • Why did you decide to tell the story from Jake and Emery’s point of view?

At first I wanted the alternating viewpoints because part of the conflict was the recent break-up of the two main characters, and I wanted readers to hear both sides of that story. Also, I knew that they’d each bring a different perspective to the problem and a different take on possible solutions.

  • Mrs Campbell stays very calm and does her best to keep things normal for her students.  Is the character of Mrs Campbell based on a teacher you know?

Mrs. Campbell is based on MANY teachers I’ve known. It’s rather amazing – given the lack of resources, the huge overload of work, and the gigantic (and growing) class sizes teachers face that they’re able to stay calm and tune in to students’ needs in every situation that arises. But I’ve seen hundreds of them in my career step up in difficult circumstance and put kids first day after day.

  • You were a middle and high school teacher for many years.  In all your years as a teacher, what was the most important lesson that your students taught you?

Wow! What a good question – and a hard one! I can’t narrow it down to one lesson, but I can give you a few: not to underestimate anyone, that there’s hardly ever one right answer, that secrets can cause big problems when they’re locked inside, that brave teens are quietly dealing with huge life issues most people don’t know about, that many students just need someone to talk things over with, that things will get better if you just hang on through the tough times, and that the best way of healing yourself is reaching out to others. A lot of these lessons are incorporated into THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Honestly, I get really emotional when I think about how much my students meant to me through the years. They enriched my life beyond my ability to describe.

  • Mr Stutts is a soldier recently back from Iraq.  Did you talk to soldiers about their experiences before you wrote the story?

Absolutely. Through the years I talked with many students who were home from military duty. And then several were kind enough to give me more detail about military life and to answer my questions while writing the book.

  • Emery tells Jake ‘I know he’s become a monster…but he’s also a wounded soldier, and I can’t forget that.’ Was it difficult to to get the right mix of monster and wounded soldier in the character of Mr Stutts?

SO difficult!  He’s in the middle of this truly horrific act – holding a first grade classroom hostage – and yet he’s suffering real psychological wounds from a war he fought for his country. And if you get right down to it, he’s as scared as the kids are – scared of losing his wife, his child, his career, his reputation – he’s losing everything. So I think it’s okay for the reader to condemn his actions but have sympathy for him as a person.

  • The events of the story are emotionally draining for both the characters and the reader.  Did you find it quite emotionally draining to write?

Yes, especially – of course – the ending. But sometimes a story is too important to walk away from because you know it will be hard to write. It’s one reason for the funny bits with the first graders – comic relief. I think readers will agree with me that life is a big old mixed up jumble of emotions. Even on the saddest days there can be funny moments, and happy events can be tinged with undercurrents of sadness – maybe for the people we’ve lost who aren’t with us to enjoy them.

  • After our earthquakes, parents and teachers of children in Christchurch are very aware of how trauma affects children.  How did you make sure the effects of trauma on the students in the story were authentic?

First, I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through there. The news stories and pictures were so sad, and the ones with kids always tug at my heart the most. I did a lot of research on stress and grief and on first graders in general, but most of that knowledge comes from personal experience with kids. Since we live in an area prone to tornadoes, I’ve taught students who’ve lost homes, parents, siblings, and everything they own. Many have come to school still in shock the next day after entire neighborhoods were wiped out – as was the case in 1989. The kids in my story were younger than the ones I’ve taught, but I think the fall-out from traumatic events affect us in similar ways, no matter how old we are.

  • Relationships are an important factor in the story, whether it’s between Emery and Jake, Mrs Campbell and her students, or most importantly, Mr Stutts and Patrick.  What advice can you give to aspiring writers about creating realistic relationships in stories?

You really walk a fine line as a writer between giving relationship backstory  and keeping the plot moving forward. There will be readers who feel the backstory of Jake and Emery interrupts the flow of the action, but – to me – the details about their past were necessary to give depth to them and their relationship – and also to give the reader a break from the tension of the story. As you said, it’s very emotional throughout, and I felt those passages gave the reader a chance to slow down and regroup just a little bit. I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics of relationships of all kinds, so they’ll always be a big part of anything I write. In the end life is all about human connections. The relationships we have with others ultimately trump any worldly accomplishments or professional success we achieve. As I’m sure you’ll agree in the aftermath of the earthquakes there, family and friends are what life’s all about.

Beck McDowell’s new book, This is Not a Drill is out now in Australia and New Zealand from Hardie Grant Egmont.  You can enter to win a copy here on the blog. You can check out the other stops on Beck’s blog tour here:

Thursday, Oct. 25           CYNTHIA LEITICH SMITH    http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/

Friday, Oct. 26                A LIFE BOUND BY BOOKS http://alifeboundbybooks.blogspot.com/

Monday, Oct. 29            THE STORY SIREN  http://www.thestorysiren.com/

Tuesday, Oct. 30            YA BLISS  http://www.yabliss.com/

Wednesday, Oct. 31       BUZZ WORDS BOOKS    http://www.buzzwordsmagazine.blogspot.com.au/

Thursday, Nov. 1            YA LOVE BLOG http://yaloveblog.com/

Friday, Nov. 2                 ICEY BOOKS    http://www.iceybooks.com/

Monday, Nov. 5              NERDY BOOK CLUB     http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, Nov. 6             THE NAUGHTY BOOK KITTIES http://naughtybookkitties.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, Nov. 7       THE COMPULSIVE READER http://www.thecompulsivereader.com/

Thursday, Nov. 8          TEACH MENTOR TEXTS   http://www.teachmentortexts.com/

Friday, Nov. 9               CONFESSIONS OF A BOOKAHOLIC http://www.totalbookaholic.com/

Monday, Nov. 12          KATIE’S BOOK BLOG http://www.katiesbookblog.com/

Tuesday, Nov. 13          ALLURING READS http://www.alluringreads.com/

Wednesday, Nov. 14    PAGE TURNERS BLOG http://www.pageturnersblog.com/

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Interview with Gareth P. Jones + giveaway of Constable & Toop

Garth P. Jones is the author of the creepy, gruesome and funny new book, Constable & Toop (you can read my review here).  After finishing Constable & Toop I wanted to find out what else he had written and I discovered that we had his Dragon Detective Agency series and The Thornthwaite Inheritance sitting on our library shelves.  I love his writing style and I now want to go and read all of his other books.  Gareth very kindly answered my questions about his writing and his fantastic new book.

  • What inspired you to write Constable and Toop?
I was sitting in a coffee shop in Honor Oak (which is not far from my flat). The coffee shop is opposite an undertakers called Constable & Toop. At the time I was trying to come up with a new idea. I wrote down the name of the undertakers, which I found especially evocative. By the time I had finished my coffee the bare bones of the idea were down on paper.
  • Are any of the ghosts in Constable and Toop based on real ghosts?
As a non-believer, I am amused by the idea of real ghosts, but yes – some are. The Man in Grey is the best example. A tour guide by the name of David Kendell-Kerby (also an actor and writer himself) told me about several ghosts who haunt Drury Lane (apparently the most haunted theatre in the world). I liked the story of the Man in Grey best. The stuff about him being bricked up in the wall and possibly killed for discovering accounting irregularities is all ‘true’ although his name was unknown so I borrowed David’s. The part about him whispering to lines to actors is ‘true’ as well – a kind of spiritual teleprompter.
  • In your story there are different types of ghosts, including Enforcers, Prowlers and Rogues. What sort of ghost would you be?
Well, I have certainly worked for large organisations like the Bureau where you can hide the fact you’re not doing much behind all the processes and procedures so maybe I would be a clerk – although a far less conscientious one than Lapsewood .

  • The story is set in Victorian England and you really feel immersed in the period as you read. While researching and writing your story what was the most interesting thing that you learnt about this period?
I think mostly I was struck by how similar it was. I was interested in the South-East London suburbs where I live and where most of the action is based and, although there has been a lot of development, it’s not that different in terms of how connected to London you feel. One of the formative moments in writing was standing at the top of the hill between Honor Oak and Peckham Rye and looking down at London and I realised that the view probably wouldn’t have been dramatically different – give or take a few buildings here and there. There were lots of moments while wandering around London when I felt very connected with the city’s history.

  • One of the things I like the most about Constable and Toop is the mix of the creepy and gruesome with the lighter moments and witty banter between your characters. Was this how you originally planned the story or did you set out to write a more traditional ghost story?
I had a very tight deadline with this book and how no real time to stop and consider what I was doing. Happily the story flowed very quickly from my pen. Gruesome and creepy were necessities of the story and I always intended it to be funny. My editor had told me that she didn’t think my previous book (The Considine Curse) was very funny so I was determined to make sure this one was.
  • What exciting stories can we look forward to from you?

Hm, I’m not sure I’m ready to tell anyone yet. It looks like it will have a Victorian setting again though – at least in part. And It will probably have elements of supernatural and humour – but not ghosts again. I’ll save ghosts for when I do a sequel to Constable & Toop… if I ever do that is.

Win a copy of Constable & Toop!

I have 2 copies of Constable & Toop to give away.  To get in the draw just enter your name and email address in the form below.  Competition closes Wednesday 21 November (NZ only).

Thanks to everyone who entered.  This competition is now closed.


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Interview with Annabel Pitcher

Annabel Pitcher is one of my favourite authors.  Her first two books, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece and Ketchup Clouds are absolutely brilliant and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.  Annabel very kindly answered some of my burning questions about Ketchup Clouds and her writing style.

  • What was your inspiration for Ketchup Clouds?

The plot took a long time to figure out. The only thing I knew from the very beginning was that I wanted to write about a girl, Zoe, who kills someone and completely gets away with it. I imagined a dramatic scene occurring at sunset, which is where I got the title, Ketchup Clouds (i.e. red clouds). Apart from that, I had no idea what the story would involve. Slowly, over a few months of planning, thinking and generally just daydreaming and calling it work, I decided to make it a love story.  However, I desperately didn’t want it to be one of those cheesy high school tales, so I tried to think of an unusual way to tell Zoe’s story, a quirky way to explore the well-worn theme of first love. I experimented with all sorts but eventually came to realise that the best way to tell Zoe’s tale was through a series of anonymous letters. Zoe has this terrible secret that she can’t reveal to anyone she knows, so it makes sense for her to try and confess to a stranger. That’s when the whole book really took off and became something exciting! I could just imagine this distraught, teenage girl, wracked with guilt, tiptoeing out in the middle of the night after a bad dream to hide away in the garden shed and write a secret letter. The question was, to whom? I thought of celebrities, The Pope, even Santa Claus (!) but nothing felt quite right. Then one night when I was driving home from my parents’ house, I suddenly remembered that I’d written to an inmate on Death Row in America when I was a teenager. I’d got involved in a ‘pen pal’ scheme through Amnesty International, and the strange thing about writing to someone you’ve never met, someone who has done something wrong, is that you become far more open about your own life and flaws than you would to a friend. Because you’ll never meet them, you can tell them anything. That’s when I knew that Zoe had to write to a criminal on Death Row. So, in answer to your question, there was no real direct inspiration for the novel. I worked hard to come up with an unusual story, but once I had the pieces in place, it was relatively easy to write.

  • I love the way that you portray the parents in your stories.  They aren’t always the best parents but deep down they love their children.  Why do parents play such an important role in your stories?
I think it’s because I like to write coming-of-age stories. Though Zoe in ‘Ketchup Clouds’ is a lot older than Jamie in ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’, they are both coming-of-age tales: both characters grow up in the novels, they both learn something, and they both mature. Inevitably, when talking about a child or teenager growing up, you have to explore their relationship with their parents and how this changes. One of the things most people come to understand as they get older is that their parents aren’t perfect. Depending on the situation, this is either a positive or negative moment of awakening, but it happens to most of us at some point in our childhood or teens, so it seems a natural thing to focus on that in a YA book.
  • Ketchup Clouds is a story driven by relationships.  How do you create realistic relationships between your characters?
The honest answer is, I do a huge amount of talking out loud! The neighbours probably think I’m crazy! Getting dialogue right is so important if you are to construct a realistic relationship, so I write a bit then act it out to see if it sounds authentic. If anything jars, I delete it straight away. I listen very closely to the way that people talk. Conversations are full of false starts, pauses, repetition, hesitation and so forth, so I try hard to capture that in my dialogue. I think it also helps that I am fascinated by people. I study humans – the way we interact, our psychology, why we do the things we do and how we screw up – and I use all of my research in my books to try and construct three dimensional characters who are neither good nor bad, but somewhere in between. Then it’s just a matter of putting a few characters together and trying to guess what they would say to each other!
  • Both Ketchup Clouds and My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece are told in first person.  Is this a style that you prefer or did it just seem right for the stories you were writing?
I do prefer it, both as a reader and a writer. I love the intimacy – the ability to get inside a character’s head so completely. As a reader, I was drawn to novels with a strong narrative voice (How I Live Now, Broken Soup, The Catcher in the Rye, Perks of Being A Wallflower) so, when I set out to write my own book, I wanted to try it in the first person. It is so much fun trying to capture a character’s unique voice. You have to really listen to them inside your head, hear their dialect, and then try to work out how to represent that on paper so it seems as if they’re really talking. Should they pause here?  Stop completely there?  Elaborate that point further? I love making those decisions! Saying that, I do think I need a break from writing in the first person. In ‘Ketchup Clouds’, I was keen to make Zoe sound totally different from Jamie in ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’, but I don’t know if I come up with a third completely contrasting narrative voice just yet. I need a break – so I’ve started writing my third novel in the third person. It’s going okay so far and it’s a nice change.
Ketchup Clouds is released in NZ today so grab a copy from your library or bookshop.  You can also enter my competition to win a copy of Ketchup Clouds.

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