Category Archives: Christmas

The #10 profile – Janet Quin-Harkin

Janet Quin-Harkin is a woman who impressed me so much when she moderated an event at CrimeFest back in 2008, that I have remained a silent fan ever since. So I was pretty pleased to find she has a past as a writer for teens, and now her 1989 HeartBreak Café novel No Experience Required is being republished. Which I think is good news.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out more about Janet, so here she is:

Janet Quin-Harkin

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

Not many. I think I sold on my first or second try, but then I had a long dry period before I sold again.

Best place for inspiration?

Driving around in the car or doing laundry.

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

I wrote my children’s and YA books under my married name. I use a pseudonym for my mystery novels so that I was not judged as a children’s book writer.

What would you never write about?

Anything too horrible; torture, hurting children or animals, demonic possession.

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

The most unexpected person I’ve met in my books? Probably Houdini. And the most unexpected place I’ve ended up – a freak show on Coney Island.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

I’d like to be my current heroine, Lady Georgie. In spite of having no money, she does seem to lead a fun life – and she has the gorgeous Darcy O’Mara pursuing her.

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

It’s happening right now. A movie’s being made by Matador Pictures of Her Royal Spyness. I’ll have to wait until I see it before I decide if it’s a good or bad thing. It might be nice to have the Heartbreak Café books made into a series or film.

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

Are writer Victoria Thompson and I really the same person? ( We both write historical novels set in New York.)

Do you have any unexpected skills?

Many – I can open champagne bottles, play the harp, sing opera, tell jokes.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Oh Narnia, definitely, although I grew up on the Famous Five.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Abba, all of them.

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

I’m not that organized. One lot of shelves for my work reference. Several for fiction. One for good looking, leather bound books.

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

Harry Potter. He’d be hooked for life.

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

Writing. I can’t live without it.

This time you had to read the Q&As before I could let on about Janet’s pseudonym. But she is – of course – Rhys Bowen. And she has very sensible advice for eight-year-old boys. I must admit I’m looking forward to the Her Royal Spyness film. It should be really good. (As would a film about Molly Murphy, I reckon.) In the meantime you could do worse than read Janet/Rhys’s books. Enjoy!

Bookwitch bites #117

Oh, what a long time since I have ‘bitten!’

It’s also rather a while since it was relevant to mention Christmas trees, but I was intrigued to read about Adrian McKinty stealing one. He knows it’s wrong, though. The interview by Declan Burke is very good. Almost as good as…

Adrian’s been busy. He and Stuart Neville have been working on Belfast Noir, which is another short story collection I am looking forward to. It’s obviously got a Northern Ireland angle, so I’m not sure how they will explain away Lee Child. But anyway.

While we’re over there, I might as well mention Colin Bateman’s plans to reissue Titanic 2020 with the assistance of one of those fundraising ventures. I hope to assist by finally reading it, having long suffered pangs of guilt for not getting to it last time round.

The Costa happened this week, and it seems we have to wait a bit longer for the next overall winner to be a children’s book. But it will happen.

There are more awards in the sea, however, and I’m pleased for Teri Terry who won the Falkirk RED award on Wednesday. If you ever see photos from that event, you’ll realise quite how red it all is.

Shortlists and longlists precede awards events and the Branford Boase longlist was very long. It was also embarrassingly short on books I’ve actually read. But the thing is that it can be harder to know you want to read a first novel, purely because you may not come across a new writer the way you do old-timers.

The Edgar lists have appeared, and while pretty American, it was good to see they appreciate Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood, as well as Caroline Lawrence’s Pinkerton and Far Far Away by Tom McNeal. (I know. Two of them are Americans.)

Finally, for the Oxford Literary Festival in March, one of the organisers has pointed out that they have a lot of fantastic panel events. They do. And that it might be easy to miss them, if you search for author name to find something you want to buy tickets for. So it might be wise to search even more carefully, and that way you’ll find all kinds of events you simply must go to.

One day I will learn not to read ‘chaired by’ as meaning that XX hits selected people with a chair. That it’s not a chair version of ‘floored by.’

OK, I’ll go and rest now. I’m not myself.

Girl Defective

They’re refreshingly different in Australia. Simmone Howell’s third teen novel Girl Defective is quite possibly her best. So far. (Although that’s got nothing to do with its Aussie-ness.) At times I almost had to restrain myself from wanting a glossary, but not understanding some words adds a certain sense of exoticism.

So does permitting stuff that we rarely – if ever – get in British YA novels. They are freer with sex and booze, and that’s pretty refreshing.

Simmone Howell, Girl Defective

Girl Defective is actually a Christmas book, too, as long as you can get your head round hot summers and Christmas holidays. It is also a rather wonderful aspie novel, with 10-year-old Gully who wears a pig-snout at all times and who goes round acting as if he is a detective. His sister Sky and their father Bill, who is a bit of a dinosaur running a struggling shop selling second hand vinyl records and drinking too much beer, both work hard at keeping Gully calm and away from trouble.

Sky isn’t your average – almost – 16-year-old, either. She has only one friend, the older and rather promiscuous Nancy. Stuff is happening in St Kilda, where they live. A girl has been found dead, and there is a spate of minor crime which affects them, and that Gully tries to solve.

This is a book about finding yourself, about finding love and making friends. Real friends. People you can trust.

There is something about the way Simmone writes. You feel that you’re in good hands. You’re safe, while she is doing ‘a Nancy,’ introducing you to new and worrying concepts in order to find out who you really are.

It’s a fantastic book, and I would like to see it published in more places. Now. I wish every English language novel could just go anywhere once it’s out. After all, I think I worked out what an op shop is, and I don’t absolutely have to understand all the Aussie-isms. They add local colour.

The Book of Dead Days

This has been the perfect in-between-days read. 270 pages of ‘dead stuff’ spread out over the five days leading up to New Year’s Eve. I managed to fit in my daily quota just as it was intended, which rather added to my feeling of satisfaction.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Book of Dead Days

I say ‘dead stuff’ and by that I mean suitably cosy horror; nothing too gruesome. Set in a nicely atmospheric fictional city somewhere in Europe – probably at the end of a fictional 19th century during those dead days after Christmas – there is snow and there are orphans and weird scientists. In short, everything you need during those days that are neither one thing nor the other.

Boy (that’s his name) is assistant to Valerian who works in the theatre. That’s where he meets Willow, who assists the fat lady who sings. Valerian grows rather strange in the dead days, by which we have to understand stranger than usual. He seems haunted, and he leads Boy and Willow on a hunt for something. Something that might save him. He’s got until midnight on New Year’s Eve.

It is cold, and it is dark, and Boy is hungry as usual. Valerian veers between his normal cruel behaviour and being almost kind and normal.

This is such a nice and easy and effortless read, while not being simple or intended for younger readers. Very, very enjoyable.

The New Year’s Gift

We went nearly every year, on the 31st December. Mother-of-witch liked getting together with her ‘girlfriends’ whenever she visited her home town, and usually there was a New Year’s Eve party. I always came too.

I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew three of these friends would have a gift for me. I was very mercenary, so I liked going. The particular New Year’s Eve I’m thinking of must have been when I was four or maybe five. I can remember approximately how tall I was (not very), which is how I know.

These friends – let’s call them Izzy, Kerry and Annie – always did things together. Always. Izzy was the boss, and so it was she who addressed me, holding the coveted parcel. ‘This present is from Annie’ she said. I recall quickly processing this weird piece of information in my mind. If it was from Annie, why on earth was Izzy giving it to me? Did she mean that it was from all three of them – as expected – but that she was saying it wrong? But if it was from Annie (and she said it was), it was Annie who should be thanked. What a conundrum. (I didn’t know that word back then, but I felt it.)

However awkward it was having a gift from one person handed over by another, thanking the right woman was paramount. Quick as a flash I turned round 180 degrees and curtseyed to Annie. (It’s what polite little girls did.)

And then the assembled ladies did what adults have always done. They laughed at the sheer humour of this small person who was getting it wrong. And right. Perhaps they laughed at Izzy, the childless spinster who didn’t know what was necessary and what wasn’t.

So I had to turn round again and curtsey to Izzy and Kerry as well, because the gift was, as always, from all three. I reckon Izzy was thinking I wouldn’t know Annie was in on it if her name wasn’t mentioned.

They must have thought I was stupid because I was only four. Or maybe five. But I wasn’t.

Whenever I consider the reasoning capacity of young children these days, I remember the young Bookwitch. If she could process these conflicting thoughts in a split second, while also noticing how absurd Izzy was being, I believe most children could, and that their brains are much further advanced than we give them credit for.

The in-between-days book

The English language might have lots more words than Swedish does, but occasionally those Swedes have some useful words. Like ‘mellandagar’ which stands for in-between-days – i.e. between Christmas and New Year – but would seem mostly meaningless if I started to refer to them as such. At least I believe so.

I promised you some news on this ‘mellandags-book’ I was going to read once my Christmas anthology was finished. I find it really very civilised that someone – in this case Marcus Sedgwick – has seen the need for this kind of product. Pardon, book.

It’s The Book of Dead Days, and it’s ten years old, but was reissued a few years ago. You are meant to read a little every day, starting on December 27th and finishing on New Year’s Eve. So, I began reading yesterday and it’s fantastic!

The title The Book of Dead Days does sound pretty grim, but so far I’ve felt nice and comfortable. (I’ll regret saying that, won’t I?) There’s a picture of a graveyard on the cover.

As I was saying, I’m liking it. It’s quite different from Marcus’s other books. (Although I’m not suggesting they needed improving on.)

Personally I find mellandagar a much friendlier term than dead days. I mean, honestly! If I’m still here in five days’ time, I’ll let you know how I got on. Any unforeseen silence will tell it’s own tale…

Image

Home and away

Poinsettia with card

We’re on track

More or less, anyway. The morning will be spent sorting out desserts (because they matter) and putting vegetables in the oven. The rest was done days ago.

Our other main day for Christmas was yesterday, and it went well, despite – or possibly because of – lack of presents. The Resident IT Consultant went into town to pick up a pair of Cats, free of charge, which rather trumped Son’s 20% off his Clarks. So they count as almost presents. He also treated himself to a remaindered Historical Atlas, and has happily browsed through history.

Daughter went along to watch over the Cats, and managed to find a Quiz book to buy. Because we just didn’t have VERY MANY books in the house before!!

Anyway, her quiz book provided us with our Christmas Eve entertainment as we competed against each other to see who knew the least about whichever topic came up.

To keep us company over the evening grazing, Son found us an Ealing comedy about trains. And then he wanted to watch Due South, and with all of us at different points in its viewing history, we needed a ‘used’ episode. I can thoroughly recommend All the Queen’s Horses, and not just because it’s the craziest episode. It felt pretty Christmassy, what with the snow and the trains and those red Mountie uniforms. The horses. And the singing! ‘Gonna riiiiide, foreeever..!’

The Resident IT Consultant helped to finish the evening in style, as he’d missed last week’s Christmas episode of NCIS, and Son had been too busy to watch, which meant I got to watch it again. It was Santa who did it.

Gibbs

At last!

I’m doing it! I’m actually, finally reading it! ‘It’ being An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories from 1986, edited by Dennis Pepper.

Dennis Pepper, An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories

Having bought the book well used from the school library ‘some’ years back, I always meant to read it over the immediate Christmas period. The one about ten years ago… The book emerged every December and waited hopefully by my side and then it retreated after yet another busy busy Christmas, where I got round to reading one book instead of the half dozen I’d fondly imagined I’d be relaxing with.

There are about 30 short stories, written by everybody from Dickens to Geraldine McCaughrean. (You have to remember the collection is 27 years old. Some authors hadn’t even been invented back then.)

I understand some stories were commissioned, while others have been chosen for their Christmassy theme from classics and elsewhere. Some authors I’d never heard of, while the story by Jacqueline Wilson is like no JW story you’ve ever read.

Jesus is there, from the school nativity to actual Bethlehem, but mostly you get a tremendous amount of carol singing, with a few ghosts and the odd vampire. More vicars and snowy landscapes than you can shake a stick at, so really very traditional. It’s nice. The stories are mostly no more than five pages each, so they make for quick nostalgic dips in between whatever else you need to do at this time of year.

I was especially happy to get re-acquainted with David Henry Wilson’s Jeremy James, who Son and I used to like a lot. Among the other names that I do know are Jan Mark, Sue Townsend, James Riordan, Laurie Lee and Robert Swindells. But as with so many anthologies you don’t need to know the writers. You simply discover new-old authors as you read along.

In a way it’s quite good I waited, because I’m enjoying myself. I’ve still got a few stories to go, but I’ve also got a few more days until I ‘must’ read a ‘mellandags’ book. I shall explain that one later.

Postboxes and puddings, or the 39 cards

My sincere apologies, but I’m back with Christmas cards. So far we’ve received 39. Nowhere near as many as in non-internet days, but I don’t send a lot of paper cards, so have probably had more than I sent. 39 is a nice number, because I have enough mantelpiece and top-of-the-bookcase space to display them.

Some have to go in another room, where I can display single cards without them falling down a gap at the back. Swedes send single cards, because it’s more economical, and as no one lines them up to be admired, they don’t need to be able to stand.

Nearly all the Swedish cards (not many yet, since Swedes also believe in hitting a day as near to Christmas as is humanly possible) are snowy landscapes with little Tomtenissar (the porridge eaters). One is of Tomtenissar in a stable with horses (presumably doing my grooming for me).

Surprisingly, some Swedes send Robins. Well, no they don’t. They send Bullfinches, because that’s the kind of red bird Swedes associate with Christmas. But anyway, I have a long, neat row of redbreasted birds, plus an owl and a dove.

Only two Three Wise Men so far, but plenty of Nativity scenes, including one where baby Jesus is a toilet roll dressed in fabric. Four Christmas trees, one mistletoe and a steam train.

Churches, houses, Christmas presents and a postbox. The latter are lovely and red in Britain, and thereby very Christmassy. One angel, some Dutch skating, a pudding, a squirrel and two picture book illustrations.

There is an abstract something (red) and a photo from Pippi’s Scottish holiday.

And if all that doesn’t add up to 39, it’s not my fault.