Category Archives: Adele Geras

The onion fryers

I’m reading a real onion fryer kind of book right now. I almost got impatient with the Resident IT Consultant for coming back from his walk, because I was reading so comfortably and there he was and I had to make conversation instead. Who am I kidding? I did get impatient, but only quietly. It was just the right kind of day for reading; chilly and dark, and it was so inviting, there in my holey armchair. (Don’t worry, I’ve covered the holes with a blanket for the moment. Tartan. Because we’re in Scotland.)

Despair had been creeping in, because I’d had a few books I wasn’t rushing to get back to. They don’t have to be real onion fryers (that’s my name for them, borrowed from Adèle Geras, who has described the can’t-let-go-of books as ones she reads while stirring the onions she’s frying for dinner), but I like to feel a certain longing when I think of returning to my reading chair. Coming up with other things to do instead is not a recommendation.

What I find so amazing is that my current onion fryer was offered by a writer so diffident, but who truly belongs to the very greatest of children’s authors, that I’d have snatched it out of their hands, had we been in the same room.

I have a few onion books sitting around at the moment. One of them was also of the hard to come by kind, as I only found out about it by chance and then had to ask for it. Now, is it wrong to be so desperate for onion style sequels by – I would think – one of the more reliably bestselling authors of today? Should I leave an excellent book by someone who is less in need of another review, in favour of a needier book? In fact, is that why I had to ask for it? Did the publisher feel it needed less TLC?

For about a year I’ve carried a book round with me on trips, expecting to ‘read it next’ and when I finally got to it the other week, I was rather underwhelmed. I didn’t mind it, but neither was I making excuses to go and sit down with it. All I wanted to do was to grab one of my onion fryers instead.

I think my reasoning here is along the lines of that intelligent Dave Allen sketch about bread. You have fresh bread, warm from the oven. But you have a bit of yesterday’s stale bread, and you must eat it first. Which means that today’s lovely fresh bread will be tomorrow’s stale offering, which you have to eat before… And so on. Whereas I reckon I can just as well toast yesterday’s bread tomorrow as today, so will eat the new bread first.

The same goes for books. I’m all set to read every one – or most – of the onion books now. And maybe when I’m done, there will be more of them waiting. Just not sure what to do about the ‘toast.’ Because I do like toast.

My teacher, Mrs Christie

When Sophie Hannah was talking at Bloody Scotland about growing up with Agatha Christie, it was like hearing myself speak. Or it would have been if I could sound as intelligent and articulate as Sophie. And I wished I’d known this ‘sister’ back when I was twelve, except at the time her mother Adèle Geras was barely out of university herself, so Sophie and I were never destined to be the same age at the same time.

Also, we wouldn’t have had a language in common. It was more our behaviour and reading patterns that seem to have coincided. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to school with children who read Agatha Christie at twelve. If I had I might not have felt like a freak.

And if there was a likeminded child at school, I’m reasonably certain they didn’t read Agatha in English. (This peculiar habit of reading in a foreign language really only took off with Harry Potter.) Mrs Christie was my English mentor/teacher. If not for her, I wouldn’t have tried. And I suppose I wouldn’t have attempted it if first I’d had to go to the library to check out their foreign langauges section. It helped that Mother-of-witch had a few Christies in the original; leftovers of her own attempts at educational improvement. So I could test drive them to see if it would work, and it did. Reasonably.

Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit

I was going to ask the rhetorical question of whether I’d be blogging right now, were it not for Agatha Christie. But my question has to go deeper than that. Not to be blogging wouldn’t be the end of the world (I mean, if I’d not started, I’d not know what I was missing). But would I have come to Britain to live? There would in all likelihood not have been a Resident IT Consultant. Or Offspring.

Perhaps Agatha wasn’t so much my English teacher, as my life designer. Not that she knew, but still.

It’s extraordinary what an early exposure to niblicks will do to a little girl.

Sophie Hannah on Poirot

Sunday morning at Bloody Scotland just had to mean Sophie Hannah on writing the new Poirot. As Alex Gray who talked to Sophie said, it’s the kind of thing that will make you very excited. There had been a lot of serendipity involved in her getting the job, which involved Sophie’s crazy maverick of an agent (a man with hints of Sophie’s mother, Adèle Geras), a HarperCollins editor, Agatha Christie Ltd, and the fact that Sophie already had an idea for a plot that she simply couldn’t make fit into her own novels.

A life-long Agatha Christie fan, Sophie knew the books very well (and hearing her talk about them made me want to rush home and start re-reading), and like Poirot she is rather OCD (in her case about the tassels on her Persian rug). She reckons that David Suchet is Poirot, but she didn’t write with him in mind. There is a strong film interest in her book, The Monogram Mysteries, but as she pointed out, David Suchet has said he won’t do more Poirot.

Sophie Hannah

The novel is set in 1929 in the gap between The Mystery of the Blue Train and Peril at End House. Poirot has gone on holiday, to temporary lodgings opposite his own flat (which seems to have been inspired by Sophie’s father, Norman Geras), in order to be free from people seeking his help. The story is told from the point of view of a young detective called Catchpool, to avoid Sophie having to try and imitate Agatha’s style of writing. Catchpool is there to offset Poirot, to be bright, but obtuse.

One of the many coincidences in her being given the task of writing the book was that long before this she had booked a family holiday staying at Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway. Another odd thing was that the week they were there, the filming of Dead Man’s Folly took place on the property. Sophie worked every evening, and by the time the holiday was over, she had the whole novel in her head. She is ‘very serious about crime fiction’ which is the best kind of fiction.

She accidentally invented a new way of writing while jotting down her ten page plan, when it became 100 pages with every detail of the book. Sophie found that this meant she could forget worrying about plotting while also trying to write nicely, as the job had already been done. (She has since written her latest novel in this way as well.)

Before Sophie was allowed to go public with the news about her book, she discovered on Twitter that feelings go very deep when it comes to people taking over writing somebody else’s work, and she was shocked but not worried. She sat down and thought about it and came to the conclusion it wasn’t morally wrong, and that real fans would want to read a new book, and others were free to not read it. Most of her Twitter followers have since come round, with the help of tea and scones, except for Troy in Minnesota.

There was no reason to list what had to be in the book; she knew instinctively what it needed. She’d be happy to write another Poirot, but does not feel she should be the one to write about Miss Marple – a shrewd old bat – but this would be better done by someone else, like Lee Child…

Her Christie favourites keep changing, but Murder on the Orient Express remains on top, along with Sleeping Murder, and more recently Lord Edgware Dies (it’s got the best murderer in it) and After the Funeral (best motive) and Appointment With Death (psychological tyrant).

People who say Agatha was not a terribly great writer are wrong. There’s a reason Agatha Christie sold more books than anyone else, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare. The books can be read by a 12-year-old ill in bed, or a middle aged professor. They are the perfect blend of simple and complex; funny but filled with darkness, suffering and torment. Sophie reckons that people who say the books are no good ‘might just be a bit stupid.’

Sophie Hannah

The last question of the morning came from ‘Troy  in Minnesota,’ or so he claimed. Probably here for his tea and scones. Sophie said she likes rules, whether for poetry, crime or Agatha Christie. And her own next book has a bit of Golden Age Mystery in it, now that her appetite for such things has been awakened.

Alex Gray spoke for all of us when she said that we would happily have stayed another hour. At least. I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t get out of bed early enough to hear Sophie talk Christie.

Stories of WWI

This is a beautiful collection of short stories featuring WWI. Edited by Tony Bradman, some of our bestest children’s authors have come up with their own interpretation of the war. It’s interesting how writers can find such diverse starting points for a story on one and the same topic. Many of them have based their story on memories of grandparents or other relatives who fought in the war, or who were among those left behind, or who had to live with the fall-out of what happened to family members.

I can’t pick a favourite. They are all special in one way or another.

As I always say about anthologies; they are the perfect way of enjoying many writers in small doses, and this collection proves again that the short story is a wonderful, handy size of fiction.

Some of the contributors have written stories about soldiers from other countries, thus highlighting the world aspect of the war. Germans are/were human beings like all the rest. They didn’t eat babies. Young men from Australia and New Zealand came to Europe to fight. And so did Indians who sometimes had no idea of what was going on, and the Irish who had issues at home, while fighting for a country that was also the enemy.

If you like war stories, this is for you.

Close Your Pretty Eyes

It pays to be careful when you hear people talking of stuff you know nothing about. In this instance I was listening to Cliff McNish ‘interrogating’ Sally Nicholls on her latest book. Which he must have read. Which in itself is nice. That authors read each other’s books, I mean. Not having read Close Your Pretty Eyes I was half wanting to shut my ears for fear of spoilers, and half wanting to hear what they said.

But, anyway. What I came away ‘knowing’ was that this was – probably – a troubled teenager, fostered, who hates people, and who kills a baby and then buries it in the garden.

Well, that didn’t make me happy. I know Sally writes the best of books, but I’m no big fan of troubled teens, and certainly not keen on the murdering of babies, even at the best of times. But I did want to read the book, seeing as it was Sally’s. And, thank god, it wasn’t like that at all. Well, a bit. But mostly not.

Sally Nicholls, Close Your Pretty Eyes

I can whole-heartedly recommend this wonderful story about Olivia in her 16th home. (She’s only 11, btw.) Olivia’s is the other side of Tracy Beaker; the bleak, realistic life of a young child, failed by most of the adults around her. Not all, but because she’s so sure she’s an unloveable witch, Olivia can’t see the good that some of the adults are trying to do.

Some things go right in her life, but most don’t. Her younger siblings have been adopted, but ‘no one’ wants her, and when you get to 11, it’s pretty unlikely that anyone ever will. But home no.16 isn’t so bad, if it weren’t for the wicked ghost that makes her scared and wants her to kill babies. Or so she thinks. Olivia hears crying babies that no one else hears. It’s a haunted house, this home no.16.

What can she do?

All the wrong things, naturally. Does that ruin her chances for future happiness?

I suggest you read Close Your Pretty Eyes. It’s not a book you can describe without saying exactly what happens. There is burying of babies. No getting away from that. But this is a book full of hope. Keep that in mind.

(I understand – hopefully correctly – that the title is from a creepy lullaby found by Adèle Geras. She’d be my go-to woman for that kind of thing, too.)

Paws and Whiskers

Who knew Philip Pullman has had dogs? Yeah, I suppose you all did, except me. He doesn’t strike me as a pet person, somehow. But he has had dogs. Three, of which two were very stupid, according to the doting Philip.

I learned all this in Paws and Whiskers, which is an anthology about cats and dogs, chosen by none other than Jacqueline Wilson. She wrote about her own cats, and they sounded so lovely I was halfway to Battersea and its Dogs & Cats* Home before I remembered I don’t want a pet.

Being my normal cynical self, I was intending to glance at this anthology, before handing it to someone who might appreciate it. Seems that person is me. I have only sampled the odd thing here and there – so far – but I can see that P&W will have to join my shelf of collections, where I can dip in and out of stories as and when I need something nice. (Will have to see about getting the shelf made longer.)

Jacqueline Wilson, Paws and Whiskers

Jacqueline has written a new story herself, and there is also her old Werepuppy. Apart from Philip Pullman, you can read about Malorie Blackman’s fondness for German shepherds, even when they are cowards. The usual suspects like Michael Morpurgo and Enid Blyton are there, as is Sharon Creech with her lovely Dog. Adèle Geras has written about a cat I didn’t know she once had, including a poem about her beloved pet, who was never left alone when they went on holiday. They took turns…

Patrick Ness is there with his much missed Manchee, along with countless expected and unexpected authors who have had pets, or who have written about them. Some pieces are excerpts from books, and other stories have been specially written for P&W.

The really good thing with this kind of selection of writing is that if you love Jacqueline (and who doesn’t?) you will discover new writers and their work, simply because if it’s good enough for your hero, it will be good enough for you.

Illustrations – as nearly always – by Nick Sharratt.

*Some of the proceeds from the sale of this book go to the home.

The Green Behind the Glass

It wasn’t lost, exactly. Nor forgotten. But it was lucky I decided to sort through The Books Behind the Door the other day. Because that’s where I discovered The Green Behind the Glass by Adèle Geras. I’d like to think that its purpose in hiding there was to give me more pleasure when I found it again.

This brief volume of eight short stories about love is a true period piece. Published in 1982, the stories are typical of what fiction for teens was like back then, and I have to say (am I showing my age?) I miss that kind of story every now and then. And Adèle is very good with short stories. She’s good with love.

Adèle Geras, The Green Behind the Glass

It’s not all straigtforward love, either. Some of the stories end badly; others end unexpectedly, perhaps leaving the character(s) with a new kind of life to look ahead to. Not happy ever after. But hope.

The first story is about – possibly – unrequited love in WWI. Plus the fact that war was rather bad for other reasons. Then there’s the girl who helps a friend to write love letters, falling in love with the recipient of them. Paris when you’re young and poor, but can sing in the streets to earn some money. Paris = love. For some.

In one story the teenage girl and her mother both fall in love with the same, useless, man. Falling in love with the wrong person is a common problem, and there is more unrequited love in Monday.

Then we have the sixth former in the 1950s, at boarding school away from his home in Borneo (very nicely done, but then Adèle knows what she’s writing about), who meets a kind of Mrs Robinson. Or the young girl who leads such a  sheltered life that it’s a miracle there can be any love story at all.

Finally, the young unmarried couple who find they are pregnant, which was less acceptable thirty years ago.

This whole book was like a gift from the past. Which – literally – it was. Thank you Adèle! I shall try and keep better control of The Books Behind the Door in future.