young adult Posts

An interview with the fabulous YA writer Supriya Kelkar on her debut novel, “Ahimsa”

I interviewed Supriya Kelkar for Scroll on her debut novel Ahimsa published locally by Scholastic India — “How Supriya Kelkar wrote a novel about Indian independence that children around the world relate to“. It was published on 2 September 2018. I am c&p the interview here too. The link for the book on Amazon India is embedded in the book cover given below.

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Supriya Kelkar’s debut YA novel Ahimsa is about 10-year-old Anjali who is unexpectedly pulled into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter. A brisk pace and an alignment with current social sentiments makes the book particularly apt for our times. It highlights communal tensions, riots, lynchings, prison conditions, the Quit India movement, Gandhi, and the beginnings of Indian nationalist fervour. In the process, it also steps into the vacuum that is literature on the freedom struggle for children.

Supriya Kelkar was born and grew up in the USA, learning Hindi by watching Bollywood films. After college she got a job as a screenwriter for Hindi films. Ahimsa is inspired by her great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale’s role in the Indian freedom movement. Kelkar spoke to Scroll.in about her book and her writing in general. Excerpts from an email interview:

Why did you choose to write an activist-oriented novel from the perspective of ten-year-old Anjali?
I actually first had the idea to write this story as a biopic screenplay of my great-grandmother’s story about fifteen years ago. I tried and the script just wasn’t working and then decided to try it as a fictional story. I realised the more interesting point of view in the story wasn’t that of someone who already believed in the cause. It was of someone who was privileged and not yet ready to confront that privilege.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose mother joins the freedom movement. I’m really happy with the choice. It allowed Anjali to grow and change so much over the course of the story from a young girl who is happy with the status quo, who loves her fancy clothes, and who doesn’t really understand fully her relationship with her colonisers, to one who is ready to make personal sacrifices, be an ally, and stand up for what is right, strong and confident that her voice can make a difference. It’s a pretty big arc and big awakening for Anjali.

The title, Ahimsa, is synonymous with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. Yet it resonates decades later with the younger generations. What made you think of it
The title was one of the first things that came to me when writing this story as a novel, and is one of the few things that has remained from the first draft I wrote back in 2003. Since it was one of the themes of the book, it was an easy choice as a title. But my hope is that the true meaning behind the word really resonates with young readers today, as they realise how powerful their voice is, and how they can make a difference through words and peaceful action and not violence.

What changes did you make in the book over these years?
I think other than the very first moment and the last paragraph, everything in the story has changed over the fourteen year-long journey to publication. It took me a long time to be able to figure out what the crux of the plot should be. And that’s the beauty of revision. Once I was able to become detached from my words and hit the backspace key with abandon, I was able to throw out large chunks of the story that weren’t working and figure out what was. I think my characters and their arcs became stronger with each draft, and they definitely became more realistic, as I worked hard to make sure Anjali was flawed and had a chance to grow, and Captain Brent was able to grow and change too. I write on the computer, but will initially brainstorm on paper by hand. But all my outlining and writing is done on the computer.

Navigating historical landscapes at the best of times is tricky and yet you do it with such deftness. How many revisions did this manuscript require?
I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. It was terrible and I was ready to give up, so I set it aside and went back to working on screenplays. But every year, between screenplays and other novels I was writing, I would remember Ahimsa exists and go back to it, throwing subplots and characters and scenes out and adding new things in. This went on until 2016, when it got a publishing contract. And after those thirteen drafts, I did four more revisions with my editor, so there were seventeen drafts in total.

In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after India achieved independence. “A short, chubby dark boy…had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: ‘Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?’” Do you think this question remains valid even today for Dalits?
That is a really powerful quote. While I cannot speak for the Dalit community, I can speak from my experiences growing up and living in America. Here, although equality is a right and on paper everyone should be equal, it is very clear things are not the same for everyone. Systemic racism exists. Discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin or sexual orientation or religion or zip code exists. Hate crimes exist. I think the same can be said in India and in many countries.

Privileged people have to work to confront their privilege and be allies to others. Young readers and older readers alike should be aware that not everyone has the same start in life because of centuries of oppression and discrimination be it based on their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, last name, etc. When that basic premise is accepted, people can work to address and correct inequality and injustice.

The issues of untouchability, social exclusion and women empowerment are as relevant now as they were in 1942. How did writing historical fiction help you discuss modern instances of these?
It really wasn’t until about a decade into revisions that I realised just how relevant historical fiction can be. I was stunned when things I was writing about in 1942 India were being mirrored in 2016 in America. It made me realise we have come a long way and yet we haven’t.

Women are still not considered true equals everywhere, be it in the way girls and women are sometimes treated in India or how women still do not get paid the same amount as men for doing the same job in America. People are still writing narratives for their countries, be it India, America, or anywhere else, and deciding who is included and who is excluded in their nationalism, and who is being centered. And people are still being treated as less-than all over the world. For me, writing historical fiction helps bring light to all these issues, and it is really incredible to see young readers making these connections as they read Ahimsa and see how the story can be applied to their world.

How much research did Ahimsa require?
A whole lot! I read many books and went to academic websites for the timeline and historical facts. I used my great-grandmother’s biography, Anasuyabai Ani Me, to help me fill in the gaps for the way some people thought and how they acted at the time. I consulted professors. I spoke to older family members who lived through the time period. And I relied a lot on my parents to help me fill in cultural details. I actually have several of the pictures of the real-life people, places, and things that inspired parts of Ahimsa on my website for educators and readers.

Historical fiction as a genre requires a ton of research. You have to ensure your book works on a narrative level but you also have to make sure the clothing, the food, and the facts are right. And since India is so diverse, what may be true in one part of India for one family may not be true for their relatives in a different part of India. It was part of what made the editing process so challenging. I felt like we were constantly catching mistakes, which is good, because then they could be corrected. The fact-checking was a combination of my own research, my parents and other beta readers pointing things out, and my editor’s questions that helped navigate the fact-checking.

For instance, I had based Anjali’s house on my dad’s childhood house, because much of it was like it had been in the 1940s. But because my memories of that house were from my childhood visits in the 1980s and 1990s, there were mistakes. I had always described people standing to cook in that kitchen in the book. But my dad caught that mistake and told me although the stove was on a counter when I saw the house, back in the 1940s, the cooking was all done on the floor. So I went back and rewrote the kitchen scenes to reflect that.

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Writing historical fiction in the age of the internet and fake news can also be challenging because you have to make sure the online sources you use are real. It wasn’t until one of the last edits before publication, when I was double and triple checking everything, that I realised that the Gandhi quote I used in the book, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was incorrect. There was no proof that he ever said that, but thanks to pop culture, the saying can be found all over America on T-shirts and mugs and written on school walls, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I had to research a lot to find a quote that there actually was a record of that could still work in the book.

It is well-documented that atrocities against Dalits persist in India. Ahimsa is not strident, however, leaving it to the judgement of the reader to form an opinion about Dalits. How critical do you think it is as a writer to exercise one’s artistic expression in making stories available that are of utmost social concern to sensitise young readers?
I think authors of children’s book authors have a great responsibility in presenting real world issues in an age-appropriate way. As parents, we often want to shield our children from the bad parts of life. But when they are old enough to handle the information, if we continue to shelter them from reality, I think we are doing a disservice to their generation.

In America, there was (and is) a prevailing way of thinking when I was growing up, called being “colour-blind.” We were taught in school that there is no difference between people based on their skin colour and it isn’t polite to talk about race because we shouldn’t see race.

Although that may seem like a really wonderful way to think about the world, studies have shown that teaching kids to be “colour-blind” leads to children who cannot accept that there is systemic racism, or that someone with a different skin colour than them would have a different life experience than them, be treated by the police differently, or be treated by society differently.

I have experienced that first hand, where so many of my classmates walked the same hallways in school as I did but were utterly unaware of racist incidents happening every day in school. And I witnessed those same kids being unable to accept that people who weren’t white got treated differently in America. So it’s actually doing children a disservice to not talk about race and how the colour of your skin in America does affect how you are treated and the opportunities you have.

That’s why I think it is really important for children’s book authors to not gloss over real-life issues. Young readers are smart and shaping their world view at the middle-grade reader level, so it is absolutely critical that we don’t talk down to them or ignore issues of social justice, and other important issues, in books for them.

What has the response of students been like? Have the reactions varied depending upon the audience? For instance, do Americans have a different response to that of Indians or the Indian diaspora? Or do all young readers respond to the book in similar ways?
I’ve actually found that readers in America, both from the diaspora and not, and readers in India have all been able to deeply connect to the story. Not only that, so many of them have been able to apply the themes of social justice in the book to the real world, regardless of where they live. I’ve had young readers in America tell me they have been inspired to speak up because of Anjali, that they have decided to get more involved in a cause they believe in because of her, and that the story has opened their eyes to injustice around them. And I have had young readers in India tell me they know they can use their voice to change the world because of Ahimsa.

One reader in Delhi told me that she had never really paid attention to how privileged she was until she read Ahimsa. She was chauffeured to school and often tuned out any suffering she saw outside her car window because she was so used to seeing it her whole life. She told me that, thanks to the book, she will no longer ignore others’ suffering and wants to make a difference and knows she will. So although the issues children in different parts of the world (or often the same country) can relate back to Ahimsa may be different, I have found they can all find a way to connect to the story.

Ahimsa moves at a crisp pace while being packed with details, many of which are noticed on a second reading. How did you develop a love for storytelling? Who are the storytellers who have influenced you?
Thank you very much. I developed a love for storytelling thanks to the hundreds of books I read as a child, and thanks to Hindi movies. With each book I read and movie I watched, I was learning about plot and pacing and what works in a story and what doesn’t. Being surrounded by books and movies as a child, I couldn’t think of doing anything else in life but telling stories.

There were several authors whose stories I loved and learned from, like Holly Keller and Beverly Cleary. But the first storyteller who influenced me in person was my dad. He is an engineer but also wrote a lot on the side and was always introducing me to the power of words through the plays he acted in and directed for the Indian-American community we lived in. When I was growing up I saw him writing a script weekly for his Indian radio programme which airs in America and now thanks to the internet worldwide. He also wrote stories and even wrote a couple of screenplays for Hindi movies decades ago.

The other storytellers who have influenced me are people I consider myself so lucky to have got the chance to learn from. I had the great fortune of being taught screenwriting at the University of Michigan by Jim Burnstein. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and incredible teacher who taught me everything I know about structure and outlining and making sure there is logic in your writing.

I had the privilege of working for Vinod Chopra Films right out of college. Vidhu Vinod Chopra taught me so much about making sure your stories are entertaining while saying something. It was through working with him that I learned to really be ruthless in revisions, and go from an impatient novice to a writer who knows the value of revising, even if it takes years to get things right. Abhijat Joshi taught me how to shape a story, and how to really dig deep to get to the crux of a scene and make sure it hits emotionally. And I learned from Rajkumar Hirani how to fill my writing with heart and do justice to each character’s arc, while always keeping the theme in mind.

Did writing for Bollywood films inform the very visual narrative of Ahimsa, or do writing styles vary? Do you find writing for young readers is vastly different to writing scripts for movies?
I actually had to unlearn some of my screenwriting training to write novels. In screenwriting you don’t waste time describing the way someone dresses or the way a room looks or the physical way a character responds unless it is absolutely vital to the plot. That’s because the screenplay isn’t the final product.

A costume designer will decide what clothes characters wear, a set designer will decide how rooms should look, and a director and the actor will decide how they physically react to moments. Because of this, through many drafts of the book, I did not describe how my characters interact with their world to show their emotions other than in basic ways like their shoulders slumping or their smile turning down. It was only in the later edits, when my editor pointed this out, that I was able to momentarily let go of the screenwriter in me and really describe what a character was doing physically.

Other than that, I don’t find writing children’s books that different from writing screenplays. I still use a three-act screenwriting structure in all my novels, and find that the basics of plot and character are really the same in both forms of writing.

Was it challenging to find a publisher, or was it an easier process with the “We Need More Diverse Books” movement?
It was challenging. I had tried for over a decade to get an agent in the publishing world for Ahimsa and other books but I just kept getting rejection after rejection, despite my screenwriting credits. Growing up never seeing myself in a book, I never really thought a children’s book set in India could get published in America. Other than Ahimsa, for almost fifteen years, I only wrote stories featuring white families because I thought that was all that could sell.

As an adult, I saw a couple of children’s books set in India being published and it gave me hope. I’m so grateful to We Need Diverse Books and everyone involved in speaking out for the importance of diverse stories. I was lucky Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in America. And I’m lucky it’s been published in India by Scholastic. But there is still much work to be done to make sure every child gets to see their story reflected in a book.

How did the striking cover design come about? Unusually, both the American and Indian editions have used the same design. Did you have a say in it?
Yes! I love the gorgeous cover so much. It is by a UK-based artist named Kate Forrester. I love the way she uses intricate design and symbolism and hand-lettering in her book covers. I believe I mentioned that peacock feathers would be nice in the design because of their symbolism in the book and I just adore the way Kate worked them in. I also love Baba’s clenched fist, Ma holding the flag, the spinning wheel, and the plants and the reference to the garden and growth throughout the cover.

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 308 Rs 295 

3 September 2018 

Elizabeth Laird’s “Welcome to Nowhere”

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere has been justifiably longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie 2018. It is about  twelve-year-old Omar who has to flee Syria soon after the war breaks out. Born and brought up in Dosra, Omar has four siblings including an older brother, Musa, who despite having cerebral palsy is very sharp. At times when he gets agitated no one can understand what he says except for Omar. The youngest sibling is a two-year-old girl Nadia. Their father works for the Syrian government and is most distressed when civil strife breaks out. He insists on referring to the citizens fighting against the government as “terrorists”. As the war intensifies the family has to cross the international border with Jordan and enter a refugee camp. It is a horrific experience for the family who have to make do in a makeshift shelter, live on the kits distributed by the United Nations and the food is rationed, unless one can afford to buy what is offered in the black market. To realise it is survival of the fittest at the camp, Omar takes the lead to do his best by the family, particularly after his father decides to return to Dosra.

There are descriptions in the book that seem authentic. They ring true. Apparently Elizabeth Laird researched this book thoroughly before writing it. Years ago she had lived in Lebanon during their shattering civil war. She says in the letter by the author that “I saw at first hand how lives were disrupted and families lived in fear”.  Later she was invited to Jordan to run writing workshops with teachers and youth trainers in two Syrian refugee camps, Zaatari and Azraq. It was while talking to the refugees that Omar’s story crystallised in her mind.

Welcome to Nowhere is a book that will remain relevant as long as conflict zones exist not just in Syria. This story is meant to be read by young adults and adults alike.

Elizabeth Laird Welcome to Nowhere Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 

11 March 2018 

From Paro Anand’s “Like Smoke”


Award-winning children and young adult writer, Paro Anand, is out with a new collection of short stories called Like Smoke. It has been published by Penguin Books India. This is a revised edition of her previous and very popular coming-of-age collection of short stories called Wild Child and Other Stories. It was a book I had commissioned and worked upon while at Puffin. I have just received a copy of Like Smoke and was pleasantly surprised to see Paro’s generous acknowledgement of my contribution in her preliminary comments. ButParo Anand I am happier to see that she expanded on the collection as she had always wanted to.

Thank you, Paro.

Here is the passage:

Ever since I wrote Wild Child and Other Stories, I knew there was something stirring within me. I knew that, as a writer, as  a human being, I had more to give this book. Jaya Bhattacharji, the editor on Wild Child and a close friend, pushed me hard as she could. She knew I needed pushing, but, she also knew that I was going through some stuff and if she pushed too hard, she could break me. So she gave me tough love, but was gentle, as I needed her to be. 

And so, out of Wild Child comes Like Smoke

( p. ix – x)

Paro Anand Like Smoke Penguin Books India, Gurgaon, 2015. Pb. pp. 220 Rs 250 

Chhimi Tenduf-La, “Panther”

Chhimi Tenduf-LaSri Lanka is such a beautiful country. We have it all; the beaches, the history, the hills, the heritage, the food, the smiling faces, the hospitality — and now the peace. I am getting used to this. I think I can move on. …I call up some old friends; Gish and Gayan ( Sinhalese Buddhists), Khuzi (Muslim), Gajen ( Tamil Hindu), and Shoban ( mixed-race Christian). All different, but all very similar. All just young guys, enjoying life, enjoying peace. 

My batting technique is still strong, so the boys encourage me to take up cricket professionally. I am not too old, I know it, but do I have the heart? Is it my calling? Can I use my experience to make a difference, like one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Kumar Sangakkara? He said, ‘I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.’

Chhimi Tenduf-La’s second novel, Panther, is a cross between young adult fiction and a war novel. It is not necessarily because of the story plot and it being set in Sri Lanka, but it is also the style of writing. It has the gritty, bold experimentation in narrative, character sketches and issues often seen contemporary young adult fiction. At the same time it has the urgency and inexplicable situations often seen in war novels, surprisingly always taken in one’s stride since bizarreness is a way of life in war torn areas. So the explosively weird beginning to the novel where Prabu’s family is scattered, after which he is admitted to a posh private school given his wonderful cricketing skills is surreal, yet plausible — after all it is a society being reconstructed after civil strife.

As is common with a lot of contemporary South Asian literature there are intense conversations about identity. But it is not just about the conversations, it is the literary landscapes explored in novels like Panther  making it very clear that despite extreme fundamentalist forces in South Asia preferring to identifying a nation with a particular socio-religious entity, they are simply unable to make sufficient fissures in the community.  Panther has plenty of frank, honest and open conversations about religion, identities, attitudes — a characteristic trait of young adult fiction. It is perfect that the novel revolves around cricket, the national pastime game in many South Asian countries. Another aspect that sets this novel apart from contemporary Sri Lankan literature is the boldness with which it makes no qualms about identifying communities and mixed-races of the individuals. It plots places and people on a very real landscape unveiling the rich complexity of the nation rather than leaving it vaguely as a story about war-torn Sri Lankan, predominantly a conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese with some Buddhists too.

Chhimi Tenduf-La is half-English and half-Tibetan who grew up in Hong Kong, London, New Delhi and Colombo. He now lives in Colombo with his family.

Read Panther.

Chhimi Tenduf-La Panther Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, NOIDA, India. Pb.pp. 270 Rs 299

18 September 2015 

Literati: “Catch them young”

Literati: “Catch them young”

From this month  I begin a new column in the Hindu Literary Review called “Literati”. It will be about the world of books, publishing and writers from around the world. Here is the url to the first column. http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/catch-them-young/article5969576.ece It was published online on 3 May 2014 and will be in the print edition on 4 May 2014. I am c&p the text below. 

Ghost BrideA friend called this morning expressing her delight that her 11-year-old son had finished the pile of books I had lent him. Now he was back to reading Calvin and Hobbes. A father worried about his tennis- and cricket-mad 10-year-old son says the kid only wants to buy sports almanacs.

The parents’ bewilderment is incomprehensible given the explosion of children and young adult literature. The focus is so intense that it has generated a lively intense debate along gendered lines. Should books meant for girls have pink covers? Dame Jacqueline Wilson says it is ‘pigeonholing’ and it is putting boys off reading. Of late, there have been articles wondering whether boys are not reading because they are simply unable to discover books that appeal to them.

An international imprint I have become quite fond of is Hot Keys, established by Sarah Odedin, formerly J.K. Rowling’s editor. Hot Keys is synonymous with variety, fresh and sensitively told stories and is not afraid of experimenting nor can it be accused of gender biases in content and design. Sally Gardner’s award-winning Maggot Moon, Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride and Tom Easton’s hilariousBoys Don’t Knit belong to this list.

Other recently released YA titles available in India are Andaleeb Wajid’s No Time for Goodbyes, which uses the time travel formula to contrast contemporary life with that of the previous generation; Ranjit Lal’s blog Tall Stories, a collection of 100 stories about 10-year-old Sudha and 12 1/2-year-old Lalit, being uploaded weekly; and Joy Bhattacharjya’s delightful Junior Premier League ( co-authored with his son, Vivek) about a bunch of 12-year-olds eager to join the Delhi team of the first ever Junior Premier League tournament.

Some imprints that publish books for children and young adults in India are Puffin, Red Turtle, Duckbill, Pratham, Walker Books, Macmillan and Hachette.

Creating cultural wealth for children ensures there is little or no loss of cultural confidence, and creates a reading community in the long term. Pratham Books in partnership with Ignus ERG with funding support from Bernard van Leer Foundation is launching a new imprint called Adhikani. These books for young children will be published in four tribal languages of Odisha-Munda, Saura, Kui and Juang.

The idea is to make literature in print available in an otherwise oral culture whose stories are not normally visible in “mainstream” publications. They have already brought out 10 books and four song cards with Saura mural art based illustrations. Bi-lingual editions are also being considered in English with Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Urdu and Tamil.

The Pratham-IGNUS ERG experiment is not uncommon. The Good Books Guide: How to Select a Good Book for Children (published by NBT and PAG-E) cites other examples and introduces 800 titles from English, in translation and available in other Indian languages.

Today there are so many choices/distractions and readers are increasingly used to personalising their environment to their tastes and interests. Increasingly it is being done in classrooms, so why not in trade literature as well?

Readers versus writers?

Eighty per cent of readers ‘discover’ a book through word of mouth and 20 per cent through social media. The Malayalam edition of Benyamin’s award-winning novel Aadujeevitham (Goat Days) has gone into the 75th edition (it was first published in 2008) and Anurag Mathur’s Inscrutable Americans has gone into the 50th edition (first published in 1991).

Internationally, India is a dream destination for publishers. The overall market in physical books was up 11 per cent by volume and 23 per cent by value in 2013 over 2012 (Nielsen, London Book Fair, 2014). Production of books is increasing, but is there a corresponding increase in readers too?

Rahul Saini — whose Paperback Dreams is a tongue-in-cheek fictional account of publishing in India — discovered to his dismay that an author friend wanted the synopsis told. Apparently he did not have the time to go through the whole book.Rahul Saini

Saini says, “Everyone wants to write but no one wants to read. I think this is a dangerous phenomenon. If we don’t want to read then is it really fair to write and expect others to read our books?” Writing takes time and effort and for it to be recognised it has to be of high calibre.

Translation award

The inaugural V. Abdulla Award for translation from Malayalam into English will be given on May 10, 2014 in Kozhikode by writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair. V. Abdulla was the first translator of Basheer.

@JBhattacharji

jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

3 May 2014 

 

Sally Green, “Half Bad”

Sally Green, “Half Bad”

Half Bad, Sally Green“The great thing about hate is that it takes away everything else so that nothing else matters.” 
( p.196 Half Bad)

Sally Green’s debut novel, Half Bad is the first of a trilogy about a half-Black and half-White witch, Nathan Byrn, son of “you-know-who”. He has the surname of his mother’s husband, but his father is Marcus, the most feared black witch of all time.Half Bad is set in modern-day Great Britain where the witches co-exist with the people or Fains. They seem to live a normal life. As with most supernatural beings there is a rite of passage. For witches it is the Giving, at the age of seventeen they are given three gifts by an ancestor. They also have to drink the blood.

This is a young adult fantasy novel that is based on the premise that the world may be divided in to black and white, as in the case of witches, but in fact there are many grey areas. Even the White Witches are not as goody-goody and innocent as they have been made out to be over the centuries. The sinister and consistent persecution of Nathan by the Council of White Witches and the Hunters, leaves no doubt that white witches can also be cruel and vindictive.

This is a novel that surprisingly lives up to much of the pre-publicity hype. This story has to be consumed in one fell swoop. A debut novelist has to work hard for their manuscript to be accepted. In this case the story has been scripted sharply, it is pacy, there is violence ( even cannibalism) with horrific details but not for a moment does Sally Green lose her grasp of the storytelling. It is so clearly etched, almost cinematic. Film rights have already been sold to Fox 2000 with Karen Rosenfelt (Twilight, Percy Jackson, The Book Thief) producing it. The translation rights have been sold in 42 languages. The successful translation rights sales can be explained by the well-written story. It builds beautifully upon the fantastic landscape that is already set in the minds of young readers of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  The trailer for Half Bad is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIcpalOypmo

Penguin Books has been proclaiming this to be the biggest debut of YA fiction for 2014. It probably is. Buying this book wont be a disappointment.

18 March 2014

David Baldacci, “The Finisher”

David Baldacci, “The Finisher”

Baldacci, The Finisher

It was released on 4 March 2014. Apparently it is part of a series.

The story is revolves around a fourteen-seasons-old girl called Vega Jane. She has a younger brother called John Jane living in Wormwood. She had a family but her parents are in Care, only to disappear in a swirl of fire, called an Event. She had grandparents but they too have passed on. Her grandfather, former member of the Council, had an Event too. As with all fantasy novels this too has a strong social structure. At times I get the feeling that these novels would not work if it were not for the inherent social system, akin to our caste system.

Wormwood was founded by Alvis Alcumus, five hundred sessions ago. There is the Council with a capital “C’, which fortunately has one “female” member — Morrigone. ( No one is referred to as men or women, but as male and female. ) Otherwise there are men, with a strict pecking order. The society consists of people or Wugs. Vega Jane works as a “finisher” at the Stacks, putting finishing touches to pretty little objects for people to use while her brother goes to Learning. She seems to be the only girl in employment at Stacks. She has a good friend, Daniel Delphia or “Delph”, who is a couple of seasons older to her, later he trains her for the duelum too. Delph’s father, Dus Delphia is a beast trainer.

There are fantastic elements in it like the beasts, playing with the notion of time, ( “neither can you intervene in any way in the events that you witness, no matter what happens. That is the law of time and it cannot be circumvented.”) and the Hall of Truth, a library, where a book once opened comes to life.

The story is fairly simple. Vega Jane, fending for herself, while her parents have been transfered to Care. Then her brother gets whisked away by Morigonne given his exceptional brains, he is chosen to help the Council in building a wall ( The Wall) to keep Outliers from the Quag. In a sense everyone from Wormwood is instructed to help in the construction. Vega Jane is inquisitive, energetic, independent and tough. Soon Vega Jane finds herself in trouble with the Council, once it is discovered that she has in her possession a map of the Quag, with a detailed description of the creatures it contains. A document she came to own after the disappearance of her colleague and mentor, Quentin Hermis. The Council does not take kindly to this discovery but an inevitable death sentence is commuted if she is participates in the duelum that has been announced. Usually it is only reserved for the young healthy male wugs, but for the first time the competition has been opened to females. As an incentive it has been announced if a female wins she will be given double the prize money — one thousand coins.

The story takes off in the second half. It moves quickly and it is fairly evident that Baldacci is finally comfortable telling this story. A professional storyteller like him should have no challenges in telling a story. But there are moments when you are left wondering if he really should be wading into fantasy genre. If he wants to tap into the every growing young adult market surely he can do so by telling a good thriller or a mystery story? The characters are created well but they are not completely in step with contemporary fantasy fiction. In that sense they seem to be cardboard cutouts. There are moments in the story that you get the impression Baldacci is also not too sure about his target audience. Is he writing for his existing and loyal readership that will buy the book regardless of the genre or is he actually making inroads into a new market? Is he doing the reverse of what J K Rowling did — she went from young adult to adult trade? Is he following in the footsteps of Philip Pullman. I cannot tell.

The Finisher  is an absorbing novel to read, irrespective of the discomfort at it not being a smooth reading from the word go. Baldacci is an experienced storyteller. So he makes things happen. He knows how to move the plot along. He knows how to balance the information provided to the reader and how much to immerse the characters in. Before you know it, the 500-odd pages are zipping along. By the time I finished reading the book, I realised I did want to know what happened next. And how soon will it be before the sequel is published.

So I am not at all surprised to hear that the Hollywood film rights have been optioned by the same person who directed the Spiderman movies. This novel lends itself to some good visual effects and if it is a big budget film, it will be fun to watch on a big screen. It will happen in 2016.

David Baldacci The Finisher PanMacmillan India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 512 Rs. 350

11 March 2014