Author Archives: bookwitch

Save our libraries

In this case, Liverpool’s libraries. If I’ve got it right, then the Mayor of Liverpool got himself elected saying how much he was in favour of supporting libraries. And now he wants to close 11 of 18 in the city.

In fairness (?) the government has taken away a lot of the money the council needs, for everything. But 11 libraries is a lot. It’s probably the future of Liverpool, and if you were to take this to more places, it might be the future of the country.

Alan Gibbons and Cathy Cassidy have thrown themselves into the fight to save their home city’s libraries. There is a facebook page for the planned action on November 8th. And I don’t know, but someone (who may be well informed, or a malicious lier) posted this the other day: ‘Despite Joe ‘Bonaparte’ Anderson’s claims that Liverpool City Council is teetering on bankruptcy due to cuts in funding of over £150,000,000 from central government, he still managed to find £173,249 to pay the council’s bill with ‘The Pickled Walnut’ – a luxury caterer.’

Save Liverpool's Libraries

Well, anyway, lots of authors have joined in and have written to Mayor Anderson, pleading for him to change his mind. If Liverpool was the only place under threat, I’d say this was good and perhaps the protest stands a good(ish) chance of succeeding. But Liverpool isn’t alone.

I was struck, too, by how many of the names are those of children’s authors. Could it be they are more aware than their ‘adult’ peers? Is it that their readers are more likely to need libraries to read at all? We are many who are ‘poor’ but children have less say in how to use whatever meagre sum of money which might be at people’s disposal. Or maybe children’s authors are yet again proving they are the best.

On a lighter note, librarians can also be angry. Sometimes literally. I used to read a blog written by one; Arga Bibliotekstanten (The Angry Librarian Lady). She shut up shop a while back and moved to facebook, where she took the persona Arga Bibliotekstanten. The other day facebook closed her account because no one can be called Arga. So she had to become Anna in order to continue entertaining us with her librarianly woes. How can anyone decide what is a name, and what isn’t? Some people have weird parents. Others simply have weird names.

And they had no problem with Bibliotekstanten. Apparently Library Lady must be a regular surname. Somewhere…

Collins English Dictionary

For once I find myself speechless on this blog. And considering it’s while we’re on the subject of a dictionary, this ought not to happen. Let me just say that the Resident IT Consultant has some – mostly – wise things to say about the dictionary I have permitted him to play with for a few days. Over to the man who can think to look up words like chi-squared:

“Who needs a dictionary in these days of instant access to infinite amounts of information? HarperCollins obviously believe somebody does, because it has just published a 12th edition of its Collins English Dictionary – CED – which now becomes the largest single-volume English dictionary in print with 722,000 ‘words, meanings and phrases’, including 50,000 new ones, spread over 2,300 pages.

Collins English Dictionary 12th edition

Despite its size CED is surprisingly easy to use. It’s slightly smaller than previous editions and weighs less (2.6kg). It’s attractively bound in black cloth, with no dust jacket to get torn. There’s a ‘virtual thumb index’ printed down the outermost edge of pages which makes it easy to navigate to the right section. And the typeface has been specially customised for the dictionary making the pages remarkably easy to read given the tremendous amount of information that has been crowded onto them.

But back to my question. What’s the point of a dictionary today? If you need to find the meaning of a word, why not simply look it up on the Internet, in one of the many crowd-sourced dictionaries such as Wiktionary, or in a commercially provided Internet dictionary (Collins, Oxford and Chambers all do one)? Alternatively you can simply Google the word and discover for yourself how it is used.

One answer is authority. If you need a quick and reliable answer to a question a dictionary may be best. For example, if I’m reading C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures and I quickly want to know what the second law of thermodynamics is, I can find an impressively clear and succinct definition in CED (so long as I know to look under ‘law’), written in only 32 words and understandable to a layman. I could get this information from the Internet, but it would take more effort, even if I went straight to Wikipedia.

I sometimes do a bit of proofreading and often find myself referring to a dictionary to check my understanding of correct UK English. Should it be ‘Internet’ or ‘internet’? ‘Inquire’ or ‘enquire’? ‘Sulphur’ or ‘sulfur’? If I were willing to place my trust totally in one dictionary, or to declare that this was what I was going to do, then CED would enable me to answer these questions quickly. Sometimes though, the answer is more complicated and I still need to research the reasons behind the differences on the Internet. And of course I could still look up the CED entries for these words on the online site, which is free (and seems to have the same content as this printed dictionary plus some extras such as more usage examples and usage trends).

I was impressed by CED’s coverage of scientific terms which clearly reflects its extensive list of specialist consultants. The entries for Bayesian, eigenvector, continuous, Taylor Series, Coriolis Force and chi-squared test were all models of clarity and succinctness. Scottish terms are reasonably covered. I can find bridie, bannock, clootie dumpling, neeps, tattie and tablet. Auld Reekie is there, but not the Granite City; the Mearns, but not the East Neuk. Wee Frees, but not the Highland Line.

I went hunting for words that I felt should be in the dictionary but weren’t, and the strongest contender I could find was descope; to change the scope of a project in response to an expected failure to meet budgetary or timescale constraints. Personally I’ve used this word since the late 1990s and you can find instances of its use from the BBC, the Guardian and Hansard from around 2000.

But I think the real strength of the physical dictionary over its electronic equivalents lies in the experience of using it to browse. There is something about the feel of the book and the ability to scan two pages of content at one glance that cannot be matched with a screen. For example, on looking up shellac (because I am currently painting something with shellac primer) I find, on the same pair of pages: 1) that while the word shemozzle comes from Yiddish, the origin of shenanigans is unknown (I had always assumed somehow that it was Irish); 2) an account of the differences between the role of a sheriff in the USA, England and Wales, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand and 3) a surprisingly concise and comprehensible definition of an electron shell.”

I just have to say this; I like the number 722 (with or without thousands). Not so sure about eigenvector… And it is a rather elegant looking volume.

Jellybaby corpses and other gruesome stuff

Last time I went to Waterstones Argyle Street (Glasgow, for those of you who don’t know) was to talk to John Barrowman. That was nice. Two and a half years later I returned to launch Kirkland Ciccone’s second novel Endless Empress, only to find that in the corner where John’s fans had queued, someone had built a café. Very nice (but where will they queue next time?). And toilets (where the interview happened…). Also very nice, not to mention convenient.

Endless Empress

Where was I? Oh, yes, launching Ciccone’s book. (I might have told you already how disappointed I was when I found out that’s not his real name. Well, last night I discovered he doesn’t know how to pronounce it, either.* Or, his publisher and editor – Keith Charters – doesn’t. Might be a Cumbernauld thing, I suppose.)

So, there we were, about to launch. He has lots of friends, that Kirkland, and many of them were there. It was probably the most uniformly aged audience I’ve come across, outside schools.

Kirkland Ciccone

He wore dead leopard. Fake dead leopard, I hope (it looked a bit cheap, so it probably was), and it made him unbearably warm, which is why Kirkland had to take it off as soon as he’d stopped his crazy talk.

Keith Charters

Kirkland was introduced by Keith, who reckons his author is the funniest thing since sliced bread. When editing the book, there was always something new to discover on every read-through.

Endless Empress had a few provisional titles before it became EE; Dead Teenagers, Enkadar, Bombers, The X39 Is Late Again, and finally Endless Empress. Kirkland doesn’t want to write normal YA books (I can well believe it) and is hoping to prove himself to his old school. Or was it teacher? He’s a ‘pop culture sponge’ who listens to what people say in queues.

He cried when he had to read Women In Love at school (Cumbernauld, again). We were entertained by tales of his crazy, chainsaw wielding neighbour, as well as talking bushes (a flasher who mistook Kirkland for a girl), and women crying by the ice cream van. Kirkland doesn’t like Thomas the Tank Engine.

Kirkland Ciccone

At one point in the pre-publication days he worried that the book might be too realistic. He felt that the high school massacre he wrote about almost came true. And his Elvis impersonator killer did too.

Kirkland wanted a really cool and edgy cover. Keith got him art student Ida Henrich, who has made a pretty spectacular cover, despite the fire at the Glasgow School of Art.

Kirkland Ciccone and Ida Henrich

We got the Spanish holiday story again. His mum took him to Spain on holiday when he was a child. When he was invited to the Tidelines book festival in Saltcoats last year, he discovered that Saltcoats had a lot in common with Spain. In fact, it was Spain. Like many good mums his mum pretended a Spanish holiday.

This camp – not manly – author is of the YA generation. He was terribly excited to have been invited to lunch with Julia Donaldson and Theresa Breslin (except it seems he was incapable of going to the right restaurant). Kirkland finished by saying he hoped people would like Endless Empress as much as he loves it himself (quite) and that £7.99 might seem much, but it’s the price of two coffees and a muffin. Apparently.

Waterstones Cafe

Then there was Irn-Bru and wine and jellybabies (which look like corpses, or some such thing). I’d been promised Coke. What I got was Waterstones water with Waterstones ice.

What happened to my Coke?

*Mr Ciccone has since pointed out to me that he does know how to pronounce his own name, although of course it isn’t his name. He simply borrowed it off some woman.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

It was touch and go with the glacé cherries. But four hours before I learned that every house has a packet somewhere, we re-acquired a tub of cherries. Phew.

Terry Pratchett’s youthful short stories, as collected in Dragons at Crumbling Castle, just prove that he has always been what he is. Only he was younger once, but then that is an affliction we have all suffered from.

Terry Pratchett, Dragons at Crumbling Castle

I admit, I was worried that someone, somewhere was scraping the barrel, and that I’d not like this book so much. I’m sorry, I occasionally get very crazy notions. Won’t happen again.

There are Carpet People stories, and abominable snowmen and tortoises, boring knights and people who dance funny and a bus that jumps through time. And those dragons.

This is a lovely collection of stories. The illustrations by Mark Beech are quite crazy, in a Quentin Blake-ish sort of style, and I must warn you that on page 169 there is a picture of individuals wearing feather head-dresses. But then I suppose Terry isn’t running for diversity.

These stories are far too good for children. Oops, I mean for children not to share with older people. But you knew that.

To be more right than others

Honestly, I prepared last Wednesday’s blog post because I liked the list of books and its ethos, but basically I was being lazy. I imagined the list would pass silently by most of you.

But oh no. When you least expect it, trouble brews. And it brewed pretty stormily, too. Because two of the books celebrating diversity were ‘only spouting stereotyping.’ In this case of Native Americans (and I don’t know if this is the acceptable term, but it was used by my attackers), and no one could have been more surprised than I was.

The authors, on the other hand, were not. They have been the target for this kind of thing before.

As I said, I have not read Apache, so will leave it out for the moment. I have read and enjoyed Amazing Grace. My understanding of the diversity aspect of Grace is that it’s because she is a black girl in England. The fact that she spends a moment pretending to be a Native American is beside the point. There are many of us who have done so.

Now, you could (as an author or a publisher) consult specialists, to make sure you don’t go upsetting anyone. I understand this happens more often than you think. But experts can be ‘wrong,’ too, or not of quite the same persuasion as those who later complain or harass.

What’s more, the comments last week felt as if they were aimed at me. I didn’t compile the list and I didn’t write the books, although I wish I had. I am white, but that doesn’t automatically make me one of the people who have mistreated Native Americans. There are many white people who have also been – and still are – unfairly treated and discriminated against.

When you feel really strongly about something, there is a tendency to forget others. It’s ‘me, me, me’ all the way. It’s also easy to use a tone of voice that will generally not get you far. Even for serious matters, a sense of humour and a portion of intelligent conversation will get you more followers and better results.

Most children like pretending. It’s part of normal childhood. There is nothing wrong with that, unless you use violence or have access to an adult’s weapons (as is far too common in some places). As a dear friend of mine put it: ‘I don’t think little girls wearing head-dresses and sitting cross-legged is the cause of the tremendously awful situation of Indians, or if all these illustrations were wiped off the face of the earth, anything would change.’

When the young Witch played at being an Indian, it was from the perspective of admiring the people she saw in Westerns on television. They seemed exciting and they looked beautiful. To be told now that I was stereotyping, and effectively colluding in the awful treatment of these people in real life is upsetting, and also very useless. No one saw me. If they had, I’d have looked pitiful. It was on the inside of my mind that great things were taking place. I didn’t use books or obtain views of the world from the – apparently – bad British media. I only had Hollywood films.

I’m sure I am far more prejudiced than I would like to think. I don’t always have all the facts, or the totally correct, most recent facts. But I mean well, and any political correctness comes from my heart, not through clichés. It’s human to make mistakes. I’d like to think that any persecution of authors of children’s books are just that; human mistakes.

I make plenty of mistakes, all the time. And I’d prefer not be criticised for it, but I’d rather someone tells me off for the bad things I do, than for an author who has written a rather lovely book about a nice little girl who likes to play and use her imagination. Neither I, or the author or Grace have had anything to do with what mostly white Americans have done to the people who lived there first.

Nor do I believe that removing a couple of books from a list will make life better for Native Americans.

Night Runner

Tim Bowler’s latest book, Night Runner, is absolutely normal, by which I mean it’s got none of the supernatural that he is so well known for. It was almost a relief. Sometimes I’d rather be scared by ordinary decent mean-ness than by the inexplicable.

And you certainly are in this book. Tim has come up with some really nasty characters in Night Runner.

Tim Bowler, Night Runner

Zinny knows his parents are involved – probably separately – in some funny business. He just doesn’t know quite what. His mum seems to be having an affair, and his dad is never at home, and when he is, he is violent. Not popular at school, Zinny has no one to turn to when things go even more wrong.

Not that he would, anyway. And I think that’s what this thriller is about; the fact that teenagers don’t necessarily share the bad stuff that happens to them with anyone, even if they have a sympathetic headteacher. Instead they attempt to sort things out on their own, and end up in a worse pickle than before.

This happens to Zinny. The wrong people tell him to do things, or else.

In the end you almost agree with poor Zinny; things are so bad that it won’t matter if the worst happens. Almost.

Very, very exciting, and without a ghost of a ghost.

Kalmar and me

Meet Kalmar, Ivar’s second cousin. Actually, I’m not sure it is Kalmar. That might have been the Habitat cousin once removed. But a witch has to call her shelves by name, so they will be be Kalmar. They came from the Coop in Sweden, and travelled here in that fateful VW van I’ve mentioned before. The one so full of wardrobes  – and shelves – that we thought it’d never make it.

Ivar is the current IKEA ‘equivalent,’ which used to be called Ingo. It’s hard to keep up with these booky boys, who can’t all be Billy. I preferred Kalmar because he was taller. I wanted tall, because that way I’d have room for more books.

The first house the Resident IT Consultant and I lived in had a small livingroom. It had small everything, really, but the livingroom was where the shelves had to go. By the end we had five bookcases in that room. Could have done with more.

Then we moved Kalmar and ourselves to a much larger house, where Kalmar moved from room to room, wherever he was needed. When Offspring wanted space, I reluctantly put Kalmar up for sale in Loot. Luckily, only half the parts were sold, and in the end I decided the remaining two bookcases were just right for Offspring. One in each room. Offspring. Kalmar.

Then the shelves shifted round again, and Daughter got both Kalmars and Son had some new Ivars. When Daughter went to university I appropriated Kalmar for my own needs. And in this latest move, I’m afraid to say I thought Kalmar might go and live in the garage. We do need lots of shelves, but Kalmar is deep, and could theoretically be replaced by someone half as deep, thereby leaving more room for us. (Did I mention this house is smaller? Although not as small as the first house.)

But I am nothing if not dithery, so I have decreed that Kalmar will live in Son’s room (=guest room), but will need to be white. 32 years as pine is more than enough, and white is the new, erm, new, whatever.

So, I am painting. I need to out-paint the Resident IT Consultant, who’s been attached to a paintbrush for far too long. I am the painter here. (For anything of a size that I can reach up to, or bend down to.)

The shelves before

Here stand all 16 Kalmar shelves, awaiting their very first meeting with undercoat. They are in a room which is itself awaiting all manner of things, and is therefore available, and one must make the most of an empty room, now that the Resident IT Consultant has killed and buried its wallful of fitted wardrobes.

The shelves before

I am going to give the undersides of the shelves one coat (undercoat; geddit?), just in case someone sees the pine shine if they lie down on the floor and look up the underneath of Kalmar. Which will have to pay for being too deep by doubling everything. One in front, one in the back.