Author Interview: Sarah Matthias

A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is definitely one of my favourite reads so far this year so I’m delighted to welcome Sarah to the blog today! The story is rich in historical detail and features characters who are so believable you can hear their voices. Read on to find out Sarah’s inspiration for writing the book, the creative process behind it and some truly wonderful insight into the work of an author writing historical fiction.

berlin-love-song_3A Berlin Love Song has romance and love at its heart; was this what you always intended when you started writing the book? When I first started researching the Porrajmos, as the Romanies call the genocide of their people during WW2, The Great Devouring, I had no preconceived idea about what sort of novel I was going to write. I knew I wanted to shine a light on this ‘forgotten holocaust’ but the idea of a romance between a Romani trapeze artist and a member of the Hitler Youth came to me gradually as I went about my research. I always read widely around a subject before I begin to write. As my knowledge of the period and the people caught up in the events of WW2 grew, ideas for a plot started to form in my mind. Other writers might disagree, but for me, I can’t have an idea for a historical novel and then try to squeeze my plot into the historical events. The real events form the skeleton, and any plot must fit into this reality. I believe that this approach means that my plot will be more likely to feel realistic. As I researched the historical background to the period I began to imagine a situation where two very different cultures could feasibly collide and it was then that the idea of a romance was born!  So by the time I started writing the book, A Berlin Love Song was definitely going to be a love story – although I didn’t know at the beginning how it would end!

The story you have created is so real as are the characters you portray.  How did the idea for Max and Lili come about?   Were they based on real people?  Max: I have always been interested in the Hitler Youth movement. When I was a child my father had a German Pastor friend, Pastor Knott. He’d been a Chaplain to the German prisoners of war in a northern town during the war and he and my father were involved together in a reconciliation project after the war was over. Pastor Knott was a frequent visitor to our home. He’d been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He came from a devout Lutheran family of anti-Nazis in Darmstadt, Germany. His parents had been opposed to him joining the movement but he had been forced into it in 1939 when membership finally became compulsory. Consequently, I had heard a great deal about what it was like to be a member of HY and the way in which many German children had been troubled about where their loyalties should lie. He told me stories of being bullied by National Socialist teachers at school for not conforming and joining the movement. When creating Max, I was able to think back to those conversations with Pastor Knott about how it really felt to grow up in Nazi Germany with all those conflicting pressures. In addition to this, I listened to hours of recordings of ex members of Hitler Youth from archive material I discovered in the Imperial War Museum – old men looking back and explaining what it was like to be a member of Hitler Youth and how they’d been attracted and repelled at the same time. They also talked about how they felt after the war when they discovered the consequences of what they had believed in so fervently. I think this background research helped me to create the character of Max with an authentic voice.

Lili: I first had the idea for the character of Lili when I visited Auschwitz. There is a very moving museum on the site of the main Auschwitz camp, Auschwitz I, where you can see lots of photographs and artefacts from the time – the piles of hair, shoes, suitcases etc. confiscated by the SS guards from the prisoners on their arrival at the concentration camp; the uniforms that were worn etc. It was here that I first saw the portrait of a Romani girl in a blue headscarf who came in my mind to be Lili Petalo. There were a series of paintings on display in this museum by a Czech artist who was a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. She’d been an art student in Prague before being sent to the Terezin ghetto and thence to Auschwitz, and when the infamous Dr Mengele found out that she could paint, he employed her to paint portraits of the Roma in Auschwitz for a book he was writing on genetic research. I bought a book about this called Roma in Auschwitz on the day that I visited the museum. I read all about the artist and her Lilli petaloencounters with Romani prisoners and in particular her encounter with the girl in the blue headscarf.  I learned from this book that many of the prisoners in the Gypsy Family Camp in Auschwitz had been entertainers and musicians and that there was always music in the camp. It was this discovery that led me to research the Romanies as entertainers and to create the whole Petalo family and their circus. There is no record of the name of the unknown girl in the blue headscarf – but for me, her name was Lili.

There is so much wonderful detail about the Romani people and the time period in general. Tell us about the research process for a novel like this. It must be lengthy! It took me several years to research the book. There were so many aspects to look at. Firstly I decided that the novel should span the entire war so I had to make sure that I had a sound knowledge of the progress of the war for the 6 years, almost, that it lasted. I’m really pernickety about my research as I am aware that a novel about a historical period might be the only thing someone will ever read. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone likes reading history books but it makes me feel that I have a responsibility to be as accurate as I can, always bearing in mind of course that history books are never entirely objective! After that I had to embark on detailed research in a number of areas – the Hitler Youth movement, air raids, clothes and food rationing, tank warfare, propaganda and films, the circus in Germany and Romani involvement in it, and of course the Romani community itself. There are a number of scholarly works written about the Romani Holocaust so I read all of those I could get my hands on. It was harder to find first-hand accounts written by Romanies about their wartime experiences and their suffering in the death camps. There is so much written from the Jewish perspective, largely because the Jews are such a literate and literary culture. The Romanies are less organised as a community, and theirs is not a written linguistic tradition. Their culture is hugely rich in oral tradition, music and folklore but not much is committed to writing. However, I did find a handful of first-hand accounts written by Romanies and those I found I read avidly, drinking in the atmosphere and the language they used to express their suffering. I wanted the novel to celebrate the Romani culture and to shine a light on the culture of a people who are still one of the most disliked and vilified minorities in Europe. I read collections of Romani folk tales and listened with delight and a certain obsession to their wonderful music. The Romani people are often celebrated for their musical heritage, which has influenced jazz, bolero and flamenco music as well as classical composers including Franz Liszt. I tried to incorporate as much Romani language, traditions and folklore in the novel as the plot would carry.

I can’t imagine some of the accounts you must have had to read in order to illustrate what the characters in the book went through in the prison camps. This must have been very difficult – how did you cope with this? It was very difficult. Sometimes I felt so sickened by what I read that I felt I couldn’t carry on with the research, especially when I came to the detailed research about Auschwitz. My research certainly kept me awake at night. I suppose the way I coped with it was always to try to find the good people amidst the despair and horror of it all – the Jewish prisoner doctors who worked tirelessly to help their fellow prisoners and the few SS who tried to help people get on the transports out of the camp. Alongside the many accounts of inhumanity and degradation that I read, there were so many stories of bravery and selflessness to counterbalance the despair that I sometimes felt. I tried to concentrate on the uplifting and nourishing stories of people who risked their lives to protect others. Many, many people collaborated with the Nazis, but there were also many in Germany who actively assisted victims by purchasing food for households to whom shops were closed, providing false identity papers for those at risk of arrest, and sheltering those who evaded capture. I hope that A Berlin Love Song ends with a message of hope.

The fate of the Romani people in WW2 has been called the ‘forgotten holocaust’. Why do you think it’s important that we don’t forget what happened to them? Many people have little or no knowledge that the Roma were targeted by the Nazi regime. The genocide of the Romani people is an under-taught and under-recognised topic. Despite Helmut Schmidt’s belated recognition in 1982 of the racial nature of the persecution of the Roma and Sinti, and the welcome opening of the beautiful memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten by Angela Merkel in 2012, today the Romani community remains one of the most disliked and least tolerated minorities in Europe. And alarmingly, anti-Romani hostility is on the increase, aggravated by growing far-right extremism. The Roma are still scapegoats, frequently victims of prejudice and racially motivated attacks, hate speech and hate crime, and facing marginalization and discrimination in nearly every country where they live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Roma avoid assimilation into the society of the host nation, a legacy, perhaps, of centuries of persecution. And yet because of their isolation, many Roma children don’t attend school. Families often lack access to stable jobs, affordable housing, social services and health care. As a result, poverty, disease, substance abuse and crime afflict many Roma communities.

I believe that now more than ever we must stand up against prejudice and hatred when we see them in our own communities. The Holocaust all happened a long time ago, and yet millions of men, women and children have been murdered since in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. In today’s world, racial abuse and hate crime is still very much in the news so it is more important than ever, as the people who witnessed the Holocaust during WW2 are growing older and dying, to keep the memory alive of what can happen when prejudice and hatred are left unchallenged.

The story also reflects on what happened to normal German families at the time and the difficulties they faced. Was it important to include this perspective? Since A Berlin Love Song is set entirely in Germany and about Germans, I felt it was essential to make sure that the story was told exclusively from the German point of view. I was very careful not to read anything about the home front in England to make sure that my characters had an authentic German feel. There is so much written about the home front in England that it would have been very easy for me to rely on those sorts of books for things like how it felt to be bombed or how to manage with rationing, but I was very careful not to be tempted. It wasn’t too difficult as there are lots of diaries and memoirs written by Germans who lived through the war years and many of them are published in translation. I read every diary and memoir written by Germans living in Berlin that I could find and in that way I began to see that war through the eyes of ordinary Germans caught up in events – how they were bombarded with propaganda and how they were afraid to speak their minds for fear of being denounced and betrayed to the Gestapo, even by their own family. I have schoolgirl German but I was very relieved I could read them in English. I did have to tangle with a couple of books in German that I couldn’t find in translation and it was very time consuming! One of these books was the only book I could find, in the world it seems, about the Romani circus. I just had to read it or I couldn’t have found out what I needed to know. The dictionary was on fire!

A Berlin Love Song is full of colourful characters. When you were creating the wider cast of characters did this come naturally or were you quite specific in terms of who you included? I don’t really find it difficult to create characters. I’m a nosey ‘people-watcher’ by nature and I store up characters in my head and on paper for future use. My husband and I recently went on a small cruise around the Isle of Mull on a fishing vessel that could only accommodate 12. We were stuck on a boat for 6 days in terrible weather with ten people we had never met before – a rich source of characters!  I kept running back to my cabin to write things down – snatches of conversation and things people did. They probably thought I was pretty eccentric too! One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens. He’s brilliant at characterisation and I never tire of reading his novels. Maybe a tiny bit of his skill has rubbed off on me since I’ve read everything he has written. I have certainly learned a great deal from studying his writing, thinking about how he has created such a wealth of sparkling characters in just a few lines of prose. One of the things I do in my spare time is help run a community choir in Islington where I live.  I’m the Membership Secretary. Our choir chairman suggested that I should write a novel about our choir as it’s full of ‘interesting’ characters – but I told her that I didn’t want to end up in court!

You’ve written several historical novels – what would your advice be for anyone embarking on writing a historical novel? Gosh – that’s a hard one. I think the most important thing is to try to know your subject inside out. I think you can never know too much about a historical period when you’re writing. The more you know the more confident your narrative will seem. However, the drawback of doing the amount of historical research I did is that when you come to writing you are overwhelmed with the amount of material you’ve gathered. What to include and what to leave out? I have a pet hate which is historical novelists whose writing feels like they’ve ‘swallowed a history book’ and are determined to tell you everything they know about a subject. This can be very boring and destroy the flow of the story. But I fully understand the temptation. It’s so tempting to include everything you know, especially if the research has taken a long time and been very painstaking.  You have to ‘kill your darlings’ as they say and leave lots out. It’s as much about what you don’t include as what you do. The bottom line is that I see myself as primarily a storyteller, not a history teacher. So, although I am meticulous in my research, even down to the weather on a particular day of a particular year, I nonetheless feel that the historical research must be secondary to the story.

So my advice would be to read as much as you can about the era you are writing about, especially original sources and accounts of the past written by people who were actually there and try to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the time. Try to take your 21st century spectacles off and immerse yourself in what it would have been like to have been alive then. But beware of using all the details you know just because you know them. Only use what you need to tell your story and create the atmosphere.  Less is always more!

Thank you SO much for sharing such wonderful, personal insight and detail about your amazing novel.  Some incredible advice and inspiration for anyone writing a novel especially those involved in historical research. 

Read my review of A Berlin Love Song here. For more information about Sarah and her work visit www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

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New review: Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

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Nikki Sheehan has written fantastic books for middle grade children including Swan Boy recently nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.  Her new novel, Goodnight, Boy, is her first for Young Adults and written in both prose and verse and is published by Rock the Boat.

Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

The kennel has been JC’s home ever since his new adoptive father locked him inside. For hours on end, JC sits and tells his dog Boy how he came to this country: his family, the orphanage and the Haitian earthquake that swept everything away.

When his adoptive mother Melanie rescues him, life starts to feel normal again. Until JC does something bad, something that upset his new father so much that he and Boy are banished to the kennel. But as his new father gets sicker, JC realizes they have to find a way out. And so begins a stunning story of a boy, a dog and their journey to freedom.

Told in a mixture of verse and prose, Goodnight, Boy describes a life that no child should ever have to live.  Rescued from the streets of Haiti by a Haitian-American Doctor, Melanie, and taken back to the US to start a new life, JC finds himself yet again being dealt the hand of injustice with no idea when he will escape.  Stuck in the kennel with his dog Boy, it is through ‘conversation’ with Boy that JC shares his life story and we hear of the traumas he has experienced. Stolen from his family at a young age, thrown in an orphanage to be sold, enduring disease and totally unwanted; it is more than most could ever survive.  How unfair that JC now finds himself stuck in a nightmare again and with his new ‘mother’ Melanie seemingly disappeared.  Kept a prisoner by his ‘adoptive’ father, it’s impossible to know how or when he’ll escape.  But his relationship with Boy, who provides companionship, keeps JC from being completely alone.

Goodnight, Boy is quite an incredible, poignant story. The strength of the writing is demonstrated by the empathy you feel whilst reading; it’s achingly real. With pacing that gives time for moments of reflection and to draw breath, and with the mix of verse and prose Goodnight, Boy is like nothing you’ve ever read before.  There are moments of humour and the relationship between JC and Boy is utterly endearing.  You can’t help but feel JC’s sharing is actually a kind of emotional healing for him – even if he is stuck in a dog kennel.  As he talks, he works his way through the horrors of his life but also reflects on those moments of hope that have given him courage.  JC’s stream-of-consciousness show the complex nature of love, family life and remind us of the turmoil of natural disasters and the extreme poverty many people live in. His resilience is a lesson to us all. How does one boy survive such terrible times?  If you come from nothing, then there’s everything to hope for. And with a little bit of hope, perhaps anything is possible. A fantastic YA novel.

For more information visit www.nikkisheehan.co.uk/

New review: A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Sometimes you read a book and when you reach the final page, you realise the story has found its way into your soul.  Heart-wrenching, beautiful and so well written A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is undoubtedly one of those stories and stays with you long after the final page.

It is the fourth book written by Sarah; a YA novel published by Troika Books. Her first job after leaving Oxford university was with the BBC where she was involved in a documentary called The Nazi Hunter, based on the life and work of Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who spent much of his life tracking down war criminals. A Berlin exhibition, Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime, further inspired her to research the wartime persecution of the Romani people, and to write A Berlin Love Song.

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A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Max is a German schoolboy, when he first meets Lili, a trapeze artist from a travelling circus that performs every year in Berlin.  Lili is a Romani and her life and customs are very different from those of Max and his family. Their friendship turns into love, but love between a German and a Romani is definitely forbidden. As Max is conscripted into the SS and war tears them apart, can their love survive?

The story starts in present day, where Max, now an old man, is finally writing down his precious memories from long ago.  We are drawn into a narrative telling the tale of how he, an ordinary German boy, and Lili, a beautiful Romani girl, fall in love.  Theirs is a love that is a meeting of souls; a love that cannot be ignored; “a kind of madness”.  Alongside this, we are shown the impending doom of the rise of the Nazis; the impact the looming war has on everyday life and ultimately how families are ripped apart. Max’s father refuses to conform to the Hitler regime; Lili’s father won’t acknowledge the threat posed by the Nazis to the Roma.  But with the persecution of many groups identified as “gypsy scum” along with the Jews, and with the terrible punishment for those Germans refusing to respond to Hitler’s call, both Max and Lili’s families have no choice but to face the unavoidable.  It is clear that Max and Lili will be unable to choose which ‘side’ they are on; their paths are inevitable.

A Berlin Love Song is a beautiful love story and a brilliant but terrible reflection of the ‘forgotten holocaust’ – the persecution of the Roma and Sinti people during World War 2. The thread of love that runs through the narrative keeps hope alive and whilst the inevitability of the war unfolds, we see that even the most physically broken of people survive in spirit. The stark realities of war are portrayed through the eyes of Max and Lili and through the very different experiences of their families.  It never ceases to fill me with horror the atrocities that took place in World War 2 and the characters are so real in this story, it feels like a true to life account.

Thankfully there are moments throughout that restore your faith in humanity.  The Roma people are beautifully brought to life – the colour, the freedom, the music and above all the spirit of the people leap off the page.  Added to this the wonderful descriptions of Lili’s home and livelihood, Circus Petalo, it is no wonder Max falls for her.  Set alongside the stifling household of his own family, Lili is a breath of fresh air.  Max’s household have very different opinions about Hitler and the Nazis; the claustrophobia and the fear of this situation are palpable and there is a sense Max finds an escape through his love for Lili. Meanwhile, the threats to Lili’s family grow ever closer and the sense of foreboding increases in intensity with every page.

A Berlin Love Song is well-paced and the juxtaposition of the romance alongside the complexities of war keep the reader captivated throughout.  Whilst desperately sad in places, the story holds the joy of love and the strength found in family at its heart. A very appropriate metaphor for our time.

Find out more at www.troikabooks.com or www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

Thanks to Troika Books for sending me this book to review.

 

 

 

 

New Review: Show Stopper by Hayley Barker

Show Stopper

Hayley Barker’s debut YA novel Show Stopper will be published by Scholastic on 1st June 2017.  An English teacher and huge YA fiction fan, Hayley says being published is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her! She was inspired to write Show Stopper by her fears about the growing wave of crime and animosity against minority groups in England.

Show Stopper by Hayley Barker

A dazzling, high-octane read filled with death-defying acrobatics, circus crowds with an appetite for disaster, and two forbidden teenage lovers trying to escape the shackles of their very different lives. Set in a near-future England where the poorest people in the land must watch their children be taken by a travelling circus – to perform at the mercy of hungry lions, sabotaged high wires and a demonic ringmaster. The ruling class visit the circus as an escape from their structured, high-achieving lives – pure entertainment with a bloodthirsty edge. Ben, the teenage son of a draconian government minister, visits the circus for the first time and falls instantly in love with Hoshiko, a young performer. They come from harshly different worlds – but must join together to escape the circus and put an end to its brutal sport.

Living in a dystopian future set in the UK, Ben is a Pure and the son of one the most powerful families in the ruling class; his mother being the Dreg Control Minister. The Dregs are outcasts – immigrants who over the last 100 years have now become so reviled they are like slaves.  Controlled by the Pures, it is the Dregs and their children who provide a never ending, and often needed, supply of performers for the deadly circus.  Ben is not like his mother or the rest of his family and hates having to ‘keep up appearances’. Through his relationship with the family housekeeper who herself is a Dreg, Ben begins to see the pain and anguish they suffer.  When he finally gets to see the deadly circus with his own eyes, he realises the full extent of the horror before him and cannot stop himself from trying to save Hoshiko and escape from a life of almost totalitarian control.

A story with much to admire, Show Stopper is a roller-coaster ride told from the points of view of the two central characters, who both have to draw on all their bravery and strength to succeed.  Ben’s mother is horrible and you do feel great sympathy for him. It is no surprise he falls for the beautiful but fierce Hoshiko, who herself lacks security of her real family, with only her fellow performers to rely on.  There are parallels between Ben and Hoshiko’s very different lives; they both crave the love of their families, suffer at the hands of bullies and have to ‘perform’ for various audiences.  Although the penalty for Hoshiko is far more severe if she fails…. Show Stopper makes knife-throwing in an ordinary circus look like a walk in the park and with the positively evil Ringmaster in charge, there are plenty edge-of-your-seat moments!

The circus is a great setting for a story and the narrative brilliantly captures the atmosphere and excitement – as well the danger and fear. The cast of circus characters are well imagined and you feel great empathy for all of them having to perform in such frightening circumstances.  The scenario of the Pures letting their hair down, transforming into a baying mob and watching the ‘dregs’ of society perform to the death is sadly quite believable, even if somewhat extreme. With some gruesome scenes bringing a definite flavour of horror to this novel, it’s not for the faint-hearted. However, the author succeeds in highlighting the potential ramifications if the increasing hate and prejudice that is embedded in some parts of our society is not addressed. I’d recommend Show Stopper for YA readers who enjoy a thrilling, dark, romance. Watch out for evil Ringmaster!

Follow Hayley on Twitter @HayleyABarkerFind out more at www.scholastic.co.uk. Read my interview with Hayley here. With thanks to Scholastic for sending me this book to review.

New review: Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Danielle Younge-Ullman a novelist, playwright and freelance writer who has always had a passion for books, language and storytelling. Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined is published by Scholastic and is Danielle’s second YA novel.

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Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Ingrid doesn’t belong on a hard-core wilderness trek with a bunch of ‘at risk youth’. She only agreed to come so that her mother would let her attend her dream school.  But as the group journeys further into the wilderness, the past becomes impossible to avoid. Maybe she does belong here after all.

Ingrid has always been her singing sensation mother’s number one fan.  Margot-Sophia Lalonde was an opera singer on the brink of superstardom, when her career was halted abruptly and their lives fell apart.  Ingrid has been picking up the pieces ever since; but maybe now it’s her turn to shine.  With the realisation of her dreams on the horizon, Ingrid’s mother only agrees to let Ingrid complete her senior year in a school of her choice IF she goes on a trek through the wilderness.  Ingrid finds herself in the middle of nowhere and very quickly realises it’s not what she expected. Instead of a beautiful tree-lined campsite, Ingrid finds herself wading knee deep in mud, trekking through waves of mosquitos and trying to avoid the searching questions of the camp counsellors. What was her mother thinking? How could she make her spend even one day in the company of such delinquents? She’s not the one with the problem…is she?

Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined is a great title, for an equally great story. With a bittersweet humour running throughout, it explores the experiences of a teenage girl who has had to face more than her fair share of troubles.  The story is told through journal entry letters written from Ingrid to her mother, alongside a narrative focusing on the events that brought Ingrid to this point in her life. Ingrid’s experiences of adjusting from a nomadic upbringing and the consequent fallout resulting in her mother’s depression, have given her more determination than perhaps even she realises.  Ingrid’s dry wit and resolve shines through, even when she’s right at the end of her rope. We follow Ingrid’s emotional journey of self-discovery, meeting those individuals who have had significant impact on her past; the repercussions of which she still feels.  We also meet her fellow campmates all of whom have a story to share that will help Ingrid better understand herself. A huge amount of research must have gone into this book to make each character so believable.

Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined is truly well-observed and I particularly enjoyed Ingrid’s often humorous descriptions of the daily nightmare of the trek. I had nothing but sympathy for her having to hike in soaking wet clothes, being bitten to death and deal with the ‘circle’ sessions around the campfire.  This extended to huge empathy when you discover what she has been dealing with. I found her mother at times infuriating, but also felt desperately sad for her and could completely relate to her desire to protect her child.  Many will relate to Ingrid’s relationships with her school friends, her first love and her responses to the dilemmas she faces. But perhaps most poignant was how the story demonstrated that we all create facades around ourselves for self-preservation; to try and control life. If we admit to ourselves and others that everything is not ‘fine’, we can then face our past and our biggest fears and in doing so, we can move forward.  A great read for all young people.

Find out more at www.danielleyoungeullman.com and follow Danielle on Twitter . With thanks to Scholastic for my copy of Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined.  You can read my interview with Danielle here.

New Review: Ink by Alice Broadway

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A fantastic debut YA novel from author Alice Broadway, Ink is a brilliant story creating a world that at it’s heart is perhaps not so different from our own.

Ink by Alice Broadway

There are no secrets in Saintstone……Every action, every deed, every significant moment is tattooed on your skin for ever. When Leora’s father dies, she is determined to see her father remembered forever. She knows he deserves to have all his tattoos removed and made into a Skin Book to stand as a record of his good life. But when she discovers that his ink has been edited and his book is incomplete, she wonders whether she ever knew him at all.

In Saintstone, everyone carries a record of their lives on their skin.  That is, except for the Blanks, who choose not to have their skin marked and are therefore outcast. As is tradition in Saintstone, Leora’s father’s skin bearing the marks of his life in tattoos, will be bound into a book.  The soul weighing ceremony will then decide whether his life has been worthy enough for the book to be given back to the family and kept as a permanent memory.  Those found to be unworthy are forever destroyed; the ultimate shame and sorrow for any family.  It is whilst waiting for the date of the ceremony that Leora’s life and indeed her beliefs start to unravel.  Having lost the anchor that was her father, she now discovers that his life was not as blameless as she thought. Leora begins to question everything she thought she knew. She has the unusual gift of being able to ‘read’ others’ lives through their tattoos – sometimes revealing more than she wants to know about them. What lies has she been told? Are the beliefs as portrayed in the fables she has always held so dear really the truth?  If not, then perhaps even the foundations of society are corrupt.  Leora’s life becomes ever more unsettled, as she tries to decide where her future lies.

I loved this book.  Ink is a brilliant story; the kind of book that makes me love being a reader.  I picked it up and didn’t put it down until I’d finished it. Leora is a wonderful character whose voice comes through loud and clear enabling you to connect with her instantly through her thoughts, her actions and her relationships with others.  Leora’s relationship with her mother, her best friend Verity and even her employer Obel demonstrate the complexity of the many relationships we have in life and were brilliantly described. Life-changing events beyond Leora’s control cause her to reconsider everything – something I am sure we can all relate to.

The author creates a create a vivid picture of Saintstone and it’s customs. It was interesting to imagine how a society might look with everyone covered in tattoos. At first the idea of a ‘skin book’ made me feel queasy, but as you understand the significance of them as memories, you feel totally differently about the idea. They are a connection; a physical memory that can be ‘read’ again and again, and oddly this became quite beautiful.  It also raises interesting questions about the true impact of our life choices even from beyond the grave.  If we all had a visible record of our lives and choices, how would we ‘measure’ up? Can we ever really know the truth of a person’s soul? Who should decide if our lives have been ‘good’ enough? And of course, should those who choose not to live this way be punished?

“For the first time in my life, I’m doubting my faith, and it terrifies me. For the first time, I want to change the rules. For the first time I wonder: does it matter what it says on your skin, when what’s at stake is your soul?”  Leora, Ink.

Ink was full of moral choices and could spark many a debate about religion, prejudice and the fear of being ‘different’.  It describes a society in flux, with traditions and principles based on old fables or fairy tales and how we cling to these in difficult times.  But also how these can become a prison for so many. The extremes that some will go to protect and preserve tradition and use fear to control society are reflected on and create some stark choices for Leora.  For me what set this book apart was the huge depth the fables written into the story gave to the culture and the people in it. The importance of stories in the story is brilliant – as is the importance of art and creativity, which is beautifully brought to life throughout.  With some brilliant plot twists and nerve-racking moments, Ink is totally absorbing and I literally cannot wait for the next book.

Find out more at www.alice-broadway.com or on Twitter @alicecrumbs. You can read my interview with Alice here.  Thank you to Scholastic  for sending me a copy of Ink to review.

Author Interview: Hayley Barker

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Hayley Barker’s debut novel Show Stopper will be published by Scholastic on 1st June 2017.  Described by her editor, Lauren Fortune, as “dazzling and dark, heartbreaking and heart-racing” Show Stopper is a YA novel set in a dark and not so death defying circus.  I’m very excited to welcome Hayley to the blog today to tell us all about her new novel and the inspiration behind it.  Thank you for joining us today Hayley!

Show Stopper sounds thrilling – I’m looking forward to reading it! Tell us about your inspiration for the book. Thank you so much! When I was younger, I loved reading circus stories. The circus always seemed to be an almost magical place, one which operated outside of the normal rules of society, and the life the circus folk lead was so exciting -free and wild and wonderful. Because of that, I had been thinking for a while that I would really like to write my own story set in the circus.

When I started writing Show Stopper, there were lots of reports in the media about the growing wave of hostility towards ethnic minorities and immigrants in England. Groups with extreme right wing views were gaining momentum, not just in England, but across Europe, and the right wing press was becoming more and more vocal in its suggestions that the faults of the country all lay at the hands of immigrants. It made me feel worried about where we were heading and I wanted to try address this concern in some way in my writing. The two ideas merged in my mind and the concept of a truly terrible circus, which is far from magical, was formed.

You’ve chosen a unique setting for the novel. What research did you do to inform creating the setting of a circus? It must have been fascinating! I read a few books about the traditional circuses of the past and researched anything else I needed to know about as I was writing. If anyone was to look at my internet search history, there would be some bizarre and slightly disturbing results on there! Subjects I’ve researched include, medieval torture methods, how Tasers work, ways in which the Nazis used the body parts of people they had exterminated in the concentration camps, and traditional and extreme circus acts. In the book, Hoshiko balances a stool on the high wire and then stands on it. Believe it or not, this is not only possible but has been done before – you can watch someone do the very same thing on Ukraine’s Got Talent on YouTube!

Tell us about Show Stoppers’ protagonists – Ben and Hoshiko, who have very different backgrounds.  Ben is a Pure, one of the leading elite in the country. His mother is a really important political figure with leadership aspirations, and he is surrounded by people who hate the Dregs– the suppressed underclass of Immigrants and ethnic minorities. He befriends a Dreg servant, Priya, and begins to question everything has been told about the Dregs being inferior. When he goes to the Cirque and sees Hoshiko, he is captivated by her and determines to rescue her from her terrible fate.

Hoshiko is the star of the show, a brilliant high wire and trapeze artiste. She has been witness to the torture and murder of many of the people she cared about and she herself experiences horror on a nightly basis. She is fiercely loyal to her friends in the circus and feels trapped and embittered about the life they are forced to lead, and angry and resentful towards the Pures. When Ben tries to befriend, and then rescue her, she is far from grateful, but slowly comes to see that not all Pures are prejudiced and cruel.

Did you always intend on including a romance or did that evolve? I did always want the story to have a romance at its heart. I felt like a lot of YA fiction included love triangles or one-sided relationships. I wanted a Romeo and Juliet style love story, one about love at first sight which becomes deeper, a love which redeems and heals. The overall message of the novel is that love is stronger than hate, and that we can always change things if we are determined enough. I think that message, while certainly not a new one, is important and true.

You’ve been a secondary school teacher for 18 years. How has this helped you in terms of your insight into writing for a YA audience?  I think any good teacher needs to be able to relate to and understand the people they teach. Young adults don’t deserve to be patronised, they have real concerns and worries and they think deeply at the world they live in. They don’t want to be lectured to and like stories which have a dark and sinister edge. They want page-turners– books which keep them hooked from the start. That was what I tried to achieve when I was writing Show Stopper.

As a debut author, what are your three top tips for anyone starting out on the road to trying to get a book published? My first tip is to believe in yourself: believe you can do it and try, try, try. I think the difference between a pipe dream and an ambition is simply the action you take to fulfil it. The minute you commit to a plan, and do everything you can to achieve it, your dream becomes an ambition – one which is possible and achievable.

My second tip links to the first and it is to keep going in the face of rejection. Writing is a skill like any other–one which you get better and better the more you do. If your first attempt doesn’t quite make it, try again.

My third tip is to go to the Winchester Writers’ festival, or another similar event. I went when I had completed the first draft of Show Stopper and booked four incredibly useful 1-1 appointments with literary agents. Not only did it ensure that that they had all looked carefully at my writing, but I also got lots of illuminating and useful feedback. All four agents were positive about my writing and wanted to see more, which was a real boost and I also got some excellent tips for further improvement.

Thank you Hayley for these fantastic tips and sharing your writing experience with us.

Follow Hayley on Twitter @HayleyABarker.

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