Author Archives: bookwitch

Finding Critical Mass

It must have been towards the end of our holiday, shortly before the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was going over in my head the things I needed to do and remember before getting to Charlotte Square. Especially knowing I’d have less time once I returned to the new house.

And there’s the crux, dear readers. New house. What do new houses have? Or more accurately, not have?

Precisely. No well-ordered rows of books on shelves. And one of my ‘must remembers’ was that I wanted to take Sara Paretsky’s Critical Mass to have her sign it. I’ve got a lot more relaxed about this, and can actually contemplate seeing people in the flesh without arriving equipped with scores of books to have signed.

But this was Sara and it was Critical Mass. And where was the book? Packed in a box, along with the other 80 or so metres of books. Where was this box? On the floor in the living room piled against the wall with no more than another forty boxes. (The other boxes are/were in other rooms.)

That was enough to make me not get back to sleep. OK, I could buy another copy. But this was the one I wanted signed.

I waited until the Resident IT Consultant seemed to be in a relaxed mood and asked him how likely he thought it would be that the book could be found, in the week we had available. Without either of us going crazy.

Once he realised what I was saying, and could get his head round my description of where the book used to be and how the box was likely to be labelled, he reckoned it was doable.

And it was. It only took him about five ‘wrong’ boxes (plus a lot of heavy lifting), and there it was!

Phew.

Sick reading

I’ve been feeling off-colour with my specially imported Glaswegian lurgy this week. So I’ve read more than average, because when you feel weak and achey sometimes reading is all you can do.

As I was grasping my current book – in the middle of the night – I suddenly remembered other books read while feeling under the weather. And it made me wonder why books read during times of incapacitation remain more memorable. Not better, necessarily, but I suppose illness reinforces the memory. Somehow.

(I could tell you what I read Easter 2007, for instance.)

The other thing I’ve mused about (all this thinking can’t be healthy) is why it’s so hard to find enough time to read, when it makes me feel much better. Even without the lurgy.

Kirkland Ciccone at his celebration party

The drawback this week was having to cancel going to Kirkland Ciccone’s celebration in Kilsyth. ‘Where?’ I hear you ask. Somewhere fairly near Bookwitch Towers, although even my native Resident IT Consultant wasn’t totally sure exactly where.

Kirkland Ciccone celebration party

It was (would have been) an opportunity to celebrate Kirkland winning the Catalyst Award for Conjuring the Infinite. I understand there was – almost – unlimited Monster Munch. And a red carpet. They know how to party in Kilsyth.

Kirkland Ciccone celebration party

To prove how mentally challenged I’ve been, I went as far as addressing this noble award winner as Kirkie… I’m so very sorry. It won’t happen again.

Welcome to the Family

There are more than one kind of family, as most of us who are not politicians know. And knowing isn’t always enough. You want books about your own family type. In Welcome to the Family you get so much variation that surely just about every type of family has been covered?

Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, Welcome to the Family

Families can have one or more adults. Any number, really. Any combination of the sexes. There can be one child, or lots of them. As for colour, any combination is possible.

Welcome to the Family shows the child how they might have arrived with their parents. It can be anything from ordinary homemade babies, to fostering and test tube babies. There are gay parents and single parents. Mixed colour families and same colour families.

This is not a story book, but more a way of telling a child that they are normal, whatever their own reality. It shouldn’t be necessary to have books like this, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go before some kinds of family are seen as so natural that there is no need to mention them.

The usual wonderful illustrations you expect from Ros Asquith accompany Mary Hoffman’s text.

I’d happily belong to any of these families, but of course, I have my own. Both the one I was born into and the one I helped make. Both different, and both good.

Brush twice a day

I do tact so very well. (Like the foreigners I am surrounded by, I cling to my own country’s excellence. Sometimes.) Years ago I dragged Son from one British dentist to another, looking for one that would meet with my approval. (How Son didn’t end up with a dental phobia, I don’t know.) For the last dentist we saw (before I gave up and travelled across the water for treatment for all the family) I had decided in advance what I would say. It would be measured and fair and polite. But what actually fell out of my mouth were the words: ‘I am Swedish and I think Swedish dentists are the best.’

He smiled at me sweetly (he did have a lovely smile) and said that he was Scottish and he reckoned Scottish dentists were also pretty good. Offspring remained with him for several years, until they outgrew his remit.

We did dental holidays from then on. When I happened to mention the annual dental trip to Sweden to Tim Bowler once, his retort was that my dentist must be one hell of a dentist. (I was a little taken aback at his use of hell. Tim is always very proper.)

Anyway, Son eventually found a dentist in the UK that he liked. I went there once as an emergency, and he was fine (ish), but with a solid mistrust of foreign dentists (which is rich for someone who hails from outside Britain).

But most good things have to come to an end and my trusty Swedish dentist retired. And I moved. And I had another emergency, because I am old and so are my teeth. I felt so willing to try new things that I went to see Aunt Scarborough’s dentist. I liked him. He seemed very competent, for a foreigner. And with as sweet a smile as his polite fellow countryman from that other occasion.

I have actually made the jump now, for real. He has an admiration for Swedish dentists, which does him credit. He sells books, too. In the waiting room there are shelves of used bestseller paperbacks, sold in aid of a charity. It’s a clever idea. Instead of sitting there reading a magazine you couldn’t care less about, you can start on a book. (Me, I bring my own, but we have already concluded I am abnormal.) And once begun, you will want to finish, so you pay 50p and the book is yours.

Books at the dentist's

Last week as we were whiling away the time between injection and action, he asked if I had noticed his multi language wall posters. I had. He asked if I would do one in Swedish for him. It has to say something like ‘for healthy teeth, brush twice a day.’

So as the drill went to work, I lay there pondering how best to phrase it. I wanted my translation to be as good as Swedish dentistry.

Bookwitch bites #126

If you didn’t read Hilary McKay’s Binny for Short when it came out last year (and why didn’t you?), I can tell you it has just been issued in paperback, and it is still as good. The singing ought to bring out the goosepimples on any but the hardest of my readers.

Cathy Cassidy

In the exciting run-up to whether or not Scotland will drift off into the North Sea next week, I have two book festivals on home ground to look forward to. First it’s Stirling Book Festival Off The Page. It has all sorts of events in libraries and schools and theatres. For fans of children’s lit there is the dystopian Teri Terry, the amusing Chae Strathie, sweet Cathy Cassidy, illustrator Kate Leiper, and the magical Linda Chapman.

Off The Page runs seamlessly into Bloody Scotland, where much murderous stuff will happen. They are even putting forensics into Stirling Castle, to find out who killed the Earl of Douglas back in the 1400s. Good luck to them.

And if you too want to be able to write like the authors who are coming here to talk about their books, then you could do worse than to have a go at the Connell Guides essay prize. If you are lucky, Philip Pullman might read what you wrote. You do need to be of an age to attend sixth form, but we are all young at heart here. You can submit from September 15th until January 15th.

Good luck!

And read Binny.

The Boundless

The Boundless truly is a train journey, in more ways than one. Kenneth Oppel has invented an outlandishly long train made up of 987 carriages travelling across Canada, and we follow Will as he joins the train on its first journey, back in the good old days of colonising this enormous country.

Kenneth Oppel, The Boundless

It’s not just travelling by train. That is exciting enough for us railbuffs, especially in the early days of trains. First class, where Will starts his journey, is wonderfully luxurious; a real dream come true.

But he also ends up travelling from one end of this monster train to the other. Or at least, he tries to. Almost left behind at one stop, Will has to join the ‘wrong’ end of the train, hoping to walk up its length. That is when he learns that it’s not all that easy a thing to do.

Will gets to meet all of Canada as he moves from the back of the train towards the front. He meets the people who work on the train, and those who travel, starting with those below Third class. Then there is the circus, then Third, then Second and finally First.

Except, it’s not easy in any sense (have you any idea how long it would take, even without obstacles?), and witnessing a murder and being hunted by the murderer, makes Will’s interior train journey very dangerous.

The adventure is marvellously exciting, but it is actually the social aspects that are the most fascinating. You meet the people who colonised Canada, and how badly treated they were, and how people cheated them whenever possible. Racism is rife, as is poverty and illness.

Having begun life poor, Will finds it hard to work out where he belongs, but he does know that what is happening to the immigrants is wrong. He meets a girl, of course, and his courage is tested. He thinks of himself as useless, but he has good skills and a good heart, not to mention a sasquatch tooth (and urine…) and a pencil to draw with.

The Boundless is the perfect book for those who love trains (me!) and/or adventure (me, again!).

The #12 profile – Kenneth Oppel

I think I might fall in love with Kenneth Oppel. He likes trains. So do I. On the other hand, he was obviously one of those annoying child prodigies, getting published far too early. I’ll think about it.

He’s got a new book out, The Boundless. It’s about a train. And because of that Kenneth is here to tell us a few things about himself that we didn’t know before:

Kenneth Oppel

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

Well, after seeing Star Wars when I was eleven, I started a sci-fi epic called Starship (then retitled Rebellion!), and wrote several chapters in a school exercise book. Lots of laser guns and spaceships exploding. It was a complete rip off of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and I never finished it.

After that I wrote a book over two summer holidays when I was 14 and 15, and with the help of Roald Dahl, got it published just as I was leaving school. It was a very lucky break, and a very early start as a published writer.

Best place for inspiration?

A moving train.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

Never. Writing’s hard work. I want all the credit.

What would you never write about?

Nothing.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

It was winter and my car slipped off the road and I was quite badly hurt. Luckily a nurse saw and came to my aid. It turned out she was my Number One fan, a lovely person, but quite insane. She was unhappy with the ending of one of my books. She kept me prisoner in her house until I rewrote the ending.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

Matt Cruse.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

Only Good. You get money; you sell books. If the movie’s well done, or gets a big release, you sell loads of the book. Even if the movie’s a stinker, it’s still a plus, because your book remains the same book, and everyone will eventually forget about the rotten movie — and maybe someday another filmmaker will do it right.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

‘What kind of hair product do you use?’

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I can play tunes on my teeth. I’m best at Jingle Bells.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Narnia, but only for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. After that, it’s Enid Blyton all the way.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Tough one. Someone from Abba, but it seems mean to pick one randomly.

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

I used to have a Billy, and arranged things by size and colour for maximum aesthetic effect. Now I have too many books, and go alphabetically.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

Silverwing. Because I wrote it.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

Did a human being write this question?

In my defense I have to say I stole the question from a lovely Irishman. He is pretty human, I reckon.

Number One fans should always be treated with caution, unless they are me. I am harmless, although the hostage idea has its merits. I’ll think about it.

And if I could make a request? Pachelbel’s Canon would be lovely. Thank you.