Tuesday 30 October 2012

Middle-aged men in Lycra

At 9 every Saturday morning a posse of cyclists speed down the street, clad in sleek (and very chic) black and white biking gear.

They’re all part of the local cycling club, heading for the steepest hills in the district. When he’s home, my teenage son is out with the peloton like a shot – and now my husband’s caught the cycling bug and signed up too. He’s had his 20-year-old bike overhauled (“where on earth did this come from?” said the man at the bike shop, marvelling at its retro yellow and pink paintwork), bought a ton of Lycra and begun stockpiling energy bars and flapjacks.

The first weekend he returned four hours (and 80 kilometres) later, ashen-faced and stunned by how tough the ride had been. He hadn’t taken any food, got caught in a downpour with no wet weather gear and suffered a puncture. But his fellow cyclists were kindness personified. They shared their food, lent him a jacket and patiently waited for him to sort his tyre out.  

My husband’s clearly not the only one to have turned into a cycling fanatic. Fired up by Bradley Wiggins’s triumphs, middle-aged men all over the country seem to be getting on their bikes. In the FT’s Life & Arts section at the weekend, editor Lionel Barber wrote about his gruelling weekend bike trip across the Pyrenees – wittily titled “Blood, sweat and gears.” And thanks to his article, I have now discovered I’m married to a “MAMIL” – a “middle-aged man in Lycra.”

But friends down under have coined a different term for middle-aged cycling enthusiasts. My friend Virginia emailed from Brisbane to tell me: “We call them VOMITS - very old men in tights!”

Friday 26 October 2012

Two films for half term - Madagascar 3 and Private Peaceful

For the first time in 18 years I haven’t got a clue when half term actually is. It might be this week but then again it could be next. In the past I’d be rushing out to get Halloween pumpkins and planning what to do on Bonfire Night – but now my son and daughter are at university I don’t have to do any of it (sob).

But ironically I was invited to two film previews recently – both for new children’s movies being released in time for half term. Actually, when I pitched up for the screening of Madagascar 3 - Europe's Most Wanted at the Empire in London's Leicester Square I nearly made my excuses and left. The vast auditorium was filled with harassed looking parents and small children clutching balloons, Chupa Chip lollies (they were being handed out for free) and geeky 3D glasses. I felt a bit like a spare part.

But I stayed – and I’m so glad I did. With its stunning animation and madcap characters, Madagascar 3 is 80 minutes well spent. Children will love the crazy tale of New York zoo escapees Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), while adults will chuckle at the in-jokes and witty script.

The plot is silly to say the least, but it doesn’t matter a jot. I hadn’t seen the two earlier Madagascar films but the latest instalment takes up where the previous ones left off. The four animals are living in Africa but they’re bored stiff with their natural habitat and are desperate to head home to the hustle and bustle of New York. So that’s what they do, except along the way there’s a manic car chase through Monte Carlo, a train ride across Europe (where they join a travelling circus) and a dazzling circus performance in London. Best of all, it’s got the best movie villain I’ve seen in a long time –  the utterly terrifying Chantel Du Bois (voiced by Frances McDormand), a French cop who looks like Cruella de Vil and sounds like something out of  ‘Allo, ‘Allo.

But if your children are older and you’re after a more serious movie, then Private Peaceful is just the thing.

Private Peaceful is apparently Michael Morpurgo’s favourite of all the books he has written. It's a shame that the film adaptation has been released so soon after War Horse because it covers – with far less fanfare - much of the same First World War territory. In many ways it reminded me of the Sunday afternoon dramas I used to watch on TV as a child. The story of two brothers who fall in love with the same girl and then both sign up, a decision that ultimately leads to tragedy, it’s moving, thought-provoking and beautifully done. Oh, and any film that stars the brilliant Maxine Peake (as the boys' mum) is fine by me.

Madagascar 3, certificate PG, and Private Peaceful, certificate 12A, are showing in UK cinemas now.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

My Next Big Thing

I’ve been a fan of Karen Wheeler’s books about her life in France for ages so it was a pleasure to meet her on Twitter. I loved her latest book, Tout Soul, and I’m an avid reader of her blog, Tout Sweet, too. Her stories of how she hung up her fashion editor’s high heels and left chic west London to start a new life in rural France make me want to abandon grey, wet Oxford and cross the Channel right this minute.

This week Karen (@mimipompom1) invited me to take part in a web event called My Next Big Thing, where authors answer a series of questions about their latest project.

So I took a deep breath and here are my answers:

What is the working title of your book?
I am completely hopeless at titles but the working title is Three in the Morning.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
That’s such a hard question! My second novel, Moving On, was inspired by a newspaper cutting about two sisters who took over their family business. But for this one I had loads of ideas floating through my head, all of which became intertwined – family, bereavement, Fleet Street, Pendle Hill in Lancashire, teenagers, teachers… I’ve somehow blended all of them into the first full-length novel I've written since Taking Sides.

What genre does your book fall under?
Contemporary drama. It covers a multitude of sins but that’s the genre, I reckon.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
The main characters are three sisters. So my choice would be Vanessa Kirby (she was Estella in BBC One’s recent adaptation of Great Expectations) for Jess, the youngest sister. Helen McCrory could play the eldest sister, Flo, and Claire Danes for the middle sister, Finn. They'd make a very starry line-up...

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The three Barker sisters never spend any time in the same country, let alone the same house – so how do they cope when a family crisis flings them together for the first time in years?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Three years – in between novellas and journalistic work!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I love Marian Keyes’s books because they combine heart and humour. I only wish I could write like her…

What else about your blog post might pique the reader’s interest?
My first three books, Hard Copy, Moving On and Taking Sides, were published in quick succession. They’ve never been available electronically before but Piatkus is publishing them as ebooks in January, February and March next year (2013), which I’m thrilled about. Also, Endeavour Press has just published my second romantic novella, School Ties

And now I’m going to nominate four fantastic writers to tell us about their next big thing:

Kate Lace (@LaceKate) has written 15 novels, including The Chalet Girl and Moonlightingand two non-fiction books. Cox, her latest novel, is the unputdownable tale of two rival hotshot rowers and has been dubbed “Jilly Cooper in a boat.”

Liz Harris (@lizharrisauthor) is the author of The Road Back. Her debut novel is a love story set in a remote region north of the Himalayas. Liz writes contemporary and historical fiction and her blog is called Welcome to My World.

Jenny Smith (@jennysmithbooks) writes humorous fiction for children and teenagers. I adore Jenny’s titles. Her first book is Diary of a Parent Trainer and her latest is the hilarious My Big Fat Teen Crisis, both out now.

Kate Morris (@KateMorris1) is the author of three novels, The Single Girl's Diary, The Seven Year Itch and Seven Days One Summer. I love Kate's description of a writer's life on her blog - "I sit at my desk all day," she says, "trying not to get distracted by emails, Facebook, Twitter and what's going on outside my study window." Y

Friday 19 October 2012

Friday book review - The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

I do love Marian Keyes’s books. Her latest, The Mystery of Mercy Close, proves yet again that Keyes is in a league of her own. Even when she’s writing about hard-hitting subjects like depression and bankruptcy, as she is here, she’s perceptive and funny, moving and wise.

The novel’s heroine is Helen Walsh, the youngest and stroppiest of Mammy Walsh’s five daughters. Older sisters Claire, Rachel, Maggie and Anna have all starred in earlier Keyes novels, so this time round it’s Helen’s turn in the spotlight.

After spells as a make-up artist and the “world’s worst waitress,” Helen has now trained as a private investigator and set up her own business. But with the credit crunch at its height, her work has dried up, her flat has been repossessed and she’s had to move back in with her parents. Most worrying of all, she’s sinking into the depression that has plagued her on and off throughout her life.

Helen explains her situation in her own inimitable way: “…when the crash hit, I was one of the first things to go,” she says. “Private investigators are luxury items and the It bags and I came out of things very badly.”

But out of the blue her conman ex-boyfriend asks her to track down a missing musician. Wayne Diffney, the “wacky one” from boyband Laddz, has gone missing just five days before the group’s sell-out comeback show.

Helen isn’t keen on getting involved with her shady ex-lover a second time, especially as she’s got charismatic copper Artie Devlin in her life, but she reluctantly agrees.

The sharp-tongued Helen, with her “shovel list” of things she hates - dogs, doctors’ receptionists and the smell of fried eggs (I’m with her there) - and her love of Scandinavian box sets and cheese and coleslaw sandwiches, is one of Keyes’s most memorable creations. I hope she gets to star in another novel. And soon…

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph, £18.99)

Thursday 18 October 2012

The Tour de Trigs is back

My husband’s face went pale when I told him the news. Stunned at the revelation, he hurriedly started making plans to be “otherwise engaged” over the weekend of December 1 and 2.

The cause of his horror? After a gap of two years, the Tour de Trigs is back. And back in 44 days time. In fact one of the Tour de Trigs organisers helpfully left a comment at House With No Name, asking me to spread the word.

For anyone who hasn’t come across it, the Tour de Trigs challenge is a gruelling 24-hour orienteering hike through the wilds of the Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire countryside. Competitors (lots of them walk for charity) are given a set of map references and have to be checked off at each one.

If that wasn’t tough enough, the event is always held in December – when the days are short, the temperatures are freezing and the fields are clogged in mud. Worst of all, at least half the trek is done in the dark.

I’ve never done it (and never intend to) but my husband has. A crazy five times – and usually in lashing rain. Each time he says he’s never going to do it again but then his doctor friend Tim rings and he always ends up saying “great idea - count me in.”

The walkers compete in teams of three and have to carry rucksacks equipped with everything from blister plasters, maps and sleeping bags to head torches and reflective armbands. My husband takes a flask of strong black coffee, flapjacks and hot cheese and tomato rolls (wrapped in tin foil to keep them warm). A couple of hours in, he can’t face any of it and has to force himself to eat.

They set off on Saturday morning and the rot always sets in as dusk falls. One year my husband felt so sick he had to quit halfway. The next, one of his team-mates fell ill. Another time he trudged on through wind and rain, unable to speak or map-read, and fainted on the kitchen floor when he got home.

So, the big question in our house is – will he sign up or will he flee the country? Somehow I suspect the latter…

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Who will win the Man Booker Prize 2012?

One thing struck me as I watched the 2012 Man Booker Prize readings at the wonderful Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford last night.

If the prize was judged on the best reading alone, then gravelly-voiced Will Self would win hands down for his shortlisted book, Umbrella. And I reckon he’d be closely followed by Indian performance poet Jeet Thayil.

The readings took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall but were also beamed live to 36 cinemas across the country – and I’d snapped up a ticket the moment they went on sale.

The evening, chaired by the redoubtable James Naughtie, was a treat. The six contenders on the 2012 shortlist sat patiently in sleek, black leather armchairs, awaiting their turn to read short extracts from their novels and then be quizzed by Naughtie.

Like most book reviewers, my track record at choosing winners of literary prizes is patchy to say the least.

After reading the six novels, my favourite is definitely Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. No question. The sequel to Wolf Hall (winner of the Man Booker in 2009), it continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, in the heady months leading up to Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536. As I wrote in my Daily Express review last week, it’s an “outstanding” novel – a book that really will stand the test of time.

I loved Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse too – and they must stand an outside chance. Tan Twan Eng’s novel is the story of the sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and her determination to create a garden in memory of her dead sister while Moore relates how a newly-separated man sets out on a solo walking holiday in Germany.

The other books battling it out for the prize are Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.

But back to Will Self. Umbrella is his ninth novel and has completely divided critics. A 400-page book without chapters and barely any paragraph breaks at all, it spans nearly a century and tells the story of a young munitions worker wrongly admitted to a mental hospital after the First World War. It’s the most difficult book on the shortlist and even the judges have called it “moving, but draining.”

I much prefer Mantel’s novel (and loved her description of writing as “you sit down every morning and don’t know where your craft will carry you by the end of that day”) but hearing Will Self read the first pages of Umbrella last night was a revelation. A gaunt figure in a bright pink shirt, tweed jacket and jeans, he told the audience that “everything is too easy in this society” and that when he finished writing Umbrella he thought he had “really blown it this time.” He said that it’s important to him as a writer to be “sonorous” and that being read aloud to as a child was “tremendously important to me.” It shows. Read aloud, Umbrella was utterly brilliant.

The judges of the 2012 Man Booker – chair Peter Stothard, historian Amanda Foreman, Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens and critics Dinah Birch and Bharat Tandon – met this afternoon to decide the winner. All will be revealed at a dinner at London’s Guildhall tonight...

Friday 12 October 2012

On the Road - Kristen Stewart is mesmerising

The movie of Jack Kerouac’s classic Fifties beatnik novel On the Road is out this week – and it’s well worth seeing.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview and LOVED it. Kerouac was an alcoholic recluse when he died in 1969 at the age of 47, having failed to interest Marlon Brando in a screen adaptation of his novel, and for years the book was thought to be unfilmable.

But now director Walter Salles has brought it to life on the screen and although it’s received mixed reviews I reckon it works. Kate Muir, film critic of The Times, wittily described it as “a long-playing Abercrombie advertisement for beautiful young things” and she’s right. The movie is gorgeous to look at, no question, but it’s much more than that.

If you’ve ever thought of doing a road trip across America this stunningly-shot film will persuade you to hire a car (preferably a 1950s Cadillac) straight away, while Sam Riley as aspiring writer Sal Moriarty, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty and the mesmerising Kristen Stewart as Marylou, Dean’s wife, give stand-out performances.

So yes, the movie is rambling and hazy, but that’s how it should be. If you like jazz, writing, America and great cinematography, then don’t miss it.

On the Road, certificate 15, is showing in UK cinemas now.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Download School Ties for free today

Will Hughes slammed his pen down in frustration. It was ten fifteen on a rainy September night and he’d been marking Hamlet essays for more than an hour. And what a bloody shambles they were too. Admittedly he was teaching the bottom set, but he was stunned by the quality of the teenagers’ work. Some could barely string a sentence together, let alone use an apostrophe properly. Only one had produced work that showed any understanding of Shakespeare’s most famous play. 

Trying hard to stay awake, he took a gulp of cold instant coffee. He was less than halfway through the pile of scripts and at this rate he’d be hard-pressed to finish them by midnight. Worse still, he’d promised to take the first fifteen rugby squad on a training run at dawn.

For the umpteenth time, Will wondered why he had returned to teaching. He’d left his last school a year ago to join an up-and-coming Shoreditch advertising agency. Yet now he’d had another change of heart and given up his skinny lattes and generous expense account to return to the chalkface.

Not that Downthorpe Hall was a tough place to work. It wasn’t. Compared to the early years of Will’s career, when he’d been a young English teacher at a tough inner-city comprehensive, Downthorpe was the cushiest number imaginable. A private school dating back two hundred years, it was housed in an elegant Cotswold mansion, complete with castellated turrets, a winding two-mile drive and acres of playing fields. It had once been an all-boys school, but had gone co-ed twenty years ago. The decision was deplored by the old guard but had succeeded in giving the school’s academic results a much-needed shot in the arm.

Will stretched his arms out wide to keep himself awake, then stopped. He could have sworn he heard a loud whirring noise outside the window. It sounded like a helicopter. But that was impossible. Not at this time of night. And not so close to the school.

These are the opening paragraphs of my latest ebook, School Ties. If you’d like to read more, you can download the novella for free on Amazon today. Let me know what you think!

Tuesday 9 October 2012

JK Rowling at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

There can’t be many writers capable of filling the cavern-like auditorium at Cheltenham Racecourse – but JK Rowling is one of them.

All 2,000 seats for the Cheltenham Literature Festival event at the weekend had been snapped up in a trice, with people travelling from all over the world to hear their heroine speak. When interviewer James Runcie threw the session open to questions at the end several tearful young fans stood up and said “I love you,” while one woman told her: “I hope you know how many lives you have touched.” “Don’t make me cry,” said Rowling, clearly moved by her words.

Rowling was ostensibly there to promote The Casual Vacancy, her  first novel for adults, but she proved generous with her time and her willingness to answer questions about everything from her favourite The Casual Vacancy character (Fats) to her favourite overall character (Dumbledore).

A tiny, blonde figure in a chic, black jacket, matching trousers and high heels, she rushed to the side of the stage to accept a letter from one awestruck young girl, crouched down to talk to her for a couple of minutes and gave her a hug.

Along the way she revealed that the next book she publishes will be for children, that Lucy Shepherd, the teacher who taught her A level English, was in the audience that night and that taking part in the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was the “proudest moment” of her life.

“I was terrified, absolutely terrified,” she said. “Walking out on to the hillock at the Olympic ceremony was extraordinary. I think I will see it on my deathbed. It was breathtaking and I felt extraordinarily proud to be in it.

“When the huge Voldemort grew up out of the middle of the stage my entire body went cold and I thought ‘how the hell did this happen?’”

Asked about books she read as a teenager she mentioned Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, while she revealed that the character from children’s literature she most adored was Jo March from Little Women. One book she’d read recently and loved was the Orange prizewinning The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Asked which of her own books was her favourite she confessed to a three-way split. “I love The Casual Vacancy – it’s what I wanted it to be.” Her favourite Harry Potter title is Deathly Hallows and “then for obvious reasons, Philosopher’s Stone – which changed my life.”

She said she made up stories for her own children but “they are very much tailored to my children. I don’t think they will be appearing in book form.”

At one point she also spoke about her own battle with depression. James Runcie, who described The Casual Vacancy as “Hardy with heroin,” asked her if she would ever write a comedy.

“I think this book is comic in places but the humour gets a little dark,” she replied. “I do have a tendency to walk on the dark side sometimes. I have suffered from depression. I know how that feels and I probably have an innate inclination that way. Writing is necessary to me and does help with that.”

At the end of the evening the queue for JK Rowling to sign copies of The Casual Vacancy stretched down the stairs and right round the building. She’d agreed to sign one book per ticket holder and people stood patiently, clutching their copies of the book and waiting their turn. Goodness knows what time they all got home.

Monday 8 October 2012

Interview with Liz Harris - author of The Road Back

If you’re looking for a compelling story set in Ladakh, a remote region north of the Himalayas, then Liz Harris’s debut novel is just the book. The Road Back is the story of Patricia, who accompanies her father to Ladakh in the early Sixties. There she meets Kalden, a man destined to be a monk - but how can their forbidden love survive?
Dynamic ex-teacher Liz is a great friend of mine and agreed to be interviewed about the path to publication. Liz will also be giving a talk at Thame Library in Thame, Oxfordshire, on Friday October 12 at 1pm. Find out more here.
Did you write as a child and did you always want to write novels?

Liz: I don’t know that I wanted to write novels, but I loved writing essays, letters, anything I was given to write. I think it was some time before I connected the books that I adored reading with the process of writing. As a child, I rather assumed that books just happened. If only!

You were a teacher before becoming a novelist. What did you teach and did your years in schools help your writing in any way?

Liz: I taught secondary school English and French. If you approach me speaking fluent French next time we meet though, I should warn you that I feel a lengthy bout of laryngitis coming on. I think those teaching years did help me.  Apart from studying texts in the way that you have to do when teaching A level English, which gives a great awareness of what can be done with language and of the importance of the relationship between character to plot, a school is a microcosm of the larger world. It is a hotbed of seething emotions - although perhaps not quite as seething as Waterloo Road

Your first novel, The Road Back, is just out. Can you tell me about the road to publication and how you got a publishing deal?

Liz: For the seven years prior to being accepted for publication, I kept on writing. I’d send a novel out, feel bereft and instantly start on another. I’d also send my novels for a critique. I believe that every novel needs independent eyes to help the author to see clearly what needs work. A published author has an agent/editor to be those independent eyes; not so an unpublished author, as I then was. I love writing, and I never thought of giving up for so much as one moment.

What gave you the idea for The Road Back?

Liz: Three years ago, my cousin, who now lives in Australia, appealed for help in finding a home for an album of notes and photos compiled by my late uncle after a trip he’d made to Ladakh in the 1940s, when stationed with the army in North India. No one in Australia was interested. The ink was fading fast and she was anxious to see it preserved. The album is now in the Indian Room of the British Library. It was brought to England by friends of my cousin. When I collected it from them, I held on to it for two weeks, read it and instantly fell in love with Ladakh. I knew that I had to set a novel there and I began to research its tradition, culture and geography.

How did you go about researching the novel? Did you visit Ladakh, the area where it is set?

Liz: Visiting the place where a novel is set is the ideal, and that’s what I’ve been able to do with my next novel.  I went to Wyoming, where it’s set, in August.

But Ladakh is at a very high altitude and I have very low blood pressure. I would have been susceptible to altitude sickness, and I was advised not to go there. However, since the gates of tourism were opened in 1974, Ladakh has become a mecca for trekking tourists, and thanks to the internet, YouTube and some excellent books on Ladakh, I was able to go there with them. I can close my eyes and see Kalden’s village, see the monastery suspended above the white houses below, and the distant mountains, just as well as if I’d been there.

How and where do you write? Do you shut yourself away from your family? Do you spend a certain number of hours writing or do you set yourself a daily word count?

Liz: In my pre-publication days, I’d come down, have my breakfast whilst catching up with my emails, then I’d write all day.  Whilst I can write anywhere, I prefer to be in my study. My husband, as practical as I’m impractical, would busy himself in the house until the evening. A blissful arrangement.

Post-publication, things have changed. It’s much harder now to find a concentrated period of time in which to write as there are so many other calls on one’s time. When I start work on my next book, which will be soon, I shall probably give myself a couple of days in the week when I don’t switch on the internet.

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Liz: Don’t worry about getting published: just write. Write what is crying out in you to be written, and don’t worry about anything else. In the end, it’s a matter of luck whether an author gets published. Hopefully, everyone will be as lucky as I’ve been, but giving birth to people who didn’t exist before you put finger to keyboard, people with emotions, who live and breathe in a world that didn’t exist before you created it – that is the real thrill. Getting published is only the icing on the (chocolate) cake.

What is your own favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Liz: I’m going to be so corny now – I adore Pride & Prejudice. I love all of Jane Austen’s novels, though Northanger Abbey less than some – and I re-read them most years. I particularly love the way in which she lets her characters condemn themselves. She doesn’t take on a narrative voice – she lets the characters speak, and through their words we see their foibles. This is a rare art. But who initially stimulated my imagination as a child? The answer is Enid Blyton. I loved her school stories and the adventure stories. The Famous Five were six when I read the novels, and I led the way with a torch!

I know you’re an avid theatre-goer in your spare time. I can’t resist asking you about the best drama production you have seen this year. And what are you seeing next?

Liz: I’m going to see the drama about a family, Jumpy at The Duke of York’s. I missed it the first time it was on in London as it was instantly sold out, but I was at the head of the queue when it returned this year, again with Tamsin Greig, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The best drama production I saw last year may well be something most people won’t have heard of. It was Witness, an absolutely spell-binding production of a story of great emotional intensity. 

The Road Back by Liz Harris (Choc Lit, £7.99)

Friday 5 October 2012

Friday book review - Ratburger by David Walliams

David Walliams is the fastest growing children’s author in the UK  – so children aged nine and up will be thrilled to hear that his fifth novel has hit the bookshops.

Like its predecessors, Ratburger is hilarious, sad and at times downright revolting. It isn’t for children of a nervous disposition but most young readers will laugh uproariously from start to finish – in between gasping in horror at Burt, Walliams’s evil, burger-van driving new villain.

Walliams excels at writing uproarious, laugh-out loud stories that combine humour and heart, and this one’s no exception. Zoe, his latest young heroine, has a back story that brings tears to your eyes. Her mum died when she was a baby, her dad’s lost his job at the local ice cream factory and Zoe’s got a horrible new stepmother called Sheila who eats prawn cocktail crisps all day and is so idle she asks Zoe to pick her nose for her.

The only bright spot in Zoe’s lonely life is Gingernut, her pet hamster – but that ends in tears when Zoe finds him dead in his cage. She suspects Sheila might have had something to do with Gingernut’s sudden demise but as she says, “what kind of person would want to murder a defenceless little hamster?”

But one night Zoe hears a baby rat scrabbling in the corner of her room and decides to adopt him as her new pet. Desperate to hide the rodent from the wicked Sheila, she takes him to school in her blazer pocket and calls him Armitage (after spotting the name Armitage Shanks in the girls’ toilets).

With brilliant illustrations by Tony Ross, this story is great for boys and girls alike. Walliams is a huge fan of the late, great Roald Dahl and children who enjoy Dahl's books will definitely like this.

Ratburger by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £12.99) 
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