Category Archives: Crime

Who loves Sara Paretsky?

I was about to say it’s the good people of Cheadle Hulme.

Let me tell you why. Back when the Bookwitch clan actually bought each other Christmas presents, and we’d settled on only buying from charity shops, I soon learned what you could expect to find in different shops in different parts of town.

It was during my I-must-collect-all-Sara-Paretsky’s-novels days, and you don’t find them just anywhere, you know. But Oxfam in Cheadle Hulme seemed to be a reliable supplier of V I Warshawski’s adventures. During one visit I found some books there, and then discovered that if I went back again later, I’d be reasonably likely to find another one. Or two. (Because, obviously, I forgot all about buying for other people when I saw them. I just bought for me. Me, me, me.)

So I reasoned that the people nearby must be Paretsky fans. (But if they are, why on earth were they giving the books away?) Maybe, the fans are actually to be found in my neighbourhood, say, because our local charity shops never have any Warshawski.

They do have a lot of Carl Hiaasen novels, however. I used to think that I was surrounded by lovers of Carl’s books, but now I’m thinking that this is also incorrect. If they love him, surely they would keep him? And not let me buy almost a complete collection.

Well, no one is going to get my Sara Paretsky books! Especially not the family, seeing as how we’ve turned so Scrooge-like that we have said there’ll be no presents at all in 2013.

We just haven’t quite worked out how to fill that time-gap on Christmas Eve. Eat some more, perhaps?

The Book Week in Fife

I have nothing against child labour. I have made Offspring do all sorts of things for me, but mostly they have to be the long arm of Bookwitch when I find myself geographically challenged. Like with this Book Week Scotland thing I mentioned earlier.

On Thursday night I made that arm reach Fife – while I was ensconced in Oldham – by telling, I mean asking, Daughter to pop along to her local library on her way home from the cinema. Small town, so they are almost next to each other.

St Andrews library had a Scottish Crime Evening with local sheep farmer James Oswald and the rather scarier Allan Guthrie, and Daughter only missed half of it. Not liking turning up late, she was more than relieved to find that James, who is very much a gentleman, had left a ticket at the door for her to make (her) life easier.

Apparently James had read the same piece he read in Stirling in September, so I didn’t miss much. (I mean, I know what he read, rather than it is no good.)

In the Q&A there was a writer of ebooks who wanted to share with James, who himself was a writer of ebooks before being discovered. (Doing what, I don’t know.)

The idea was that with my photographer in place, I’d get photos. Allan seems to have escaped by running for it. A train, supposedly, but you never know. But here is James next to a Swedish coloured poster for books. (And she only brought her mobile, so none of the paparazza shots. She went, which is what matters.)

James Oswald

Daughter’s opinion is that next time they organise a book event in town, they should tell every department in the university, because she is sure she knows people who would have been interested.

So there you are! Posters for uni noticeboards.

Book Week Scotland

With my usual impeccable timing I am leaving Scotland on the day Book Week Scotland starts. Well done, Witch.

‘Nationwide celebration of reading’ and ‘seven exciting days’ are phrases I find hard to ignore. I feel I’m missing out. And I obviously am. This seems to be for every nook and cranny of Scotland; no excuse if you live in some remote spot, like Orkney. You will get books. Authors, even.

Those crazy people who run Bloody Scotland are going to tour the nation (by which I – and they – mean Scotland) in a bus they don’t have and can’t afford petrol for. (Probably means they’ll drive. A car. Or go by train. Boat, to Orkney.)

There is little point in me listing authors. I think they’re all in it together.

Same with places. Stirling will have events. St Andrews will be getting the professional killers for St Andrews Day. Which probably means I will blackmail my photographer to pop along, even if she’s kicking and screaming.

In short, I’d like to be here next week. Or do I mean there?

Now could be a good time to move.

Critical Mass

Oh wow! Sara Paretsky always gets to me, but in Critical Mass she has got closer than ever. We at Bookwitch Towers might not rub shoulders with Chicago’s worst, but in all other respects this latest V I Warshawski novel touches on all sorts of things.

Physics, autism, Caltech, Europe, WWII, the King of Sweden. All that.

Critical Mass is about Austrian physicist Martina Saginor, whose daughter Käthe was a childhood ‘friend’ of Lotty Herschel’s. (And incidentally, Sara has skated beautifully around the age problem. In reality Lotty would be a bit older and a bit more retired, but by stretching a little here and a little there, it is all completely believable and right.)

Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass

V I finds a very dead body out in the countryside, as well as another dog (I kept wondering how that was going to work out), and this leads to Lotty’s old friend, and Käthe’s daughter Judy and grandson Martin, who has just disappeared. ‘Something didn’t add up.’

As always Sara has written a story which is more than a crime novel with a puzzle. Critical Mass is also a – very severe – comment on all that’s wrong in the world today. It might be Homeland Security in this instance, but every country has something a bit like it. And we don’t like it, much.

You can’t keep under their radar, unless you are very clever and at least two steps ahead of HS at all times. In fiction I tend not to be too scared of the baddies, unless they are the ones with almost every right to misbehave, like these federal agents.

In her normal fashion V I ends up far deeper than she ever intended, but she needs to find Martin who, like his great grandmother Martina, is a physics genius. There is an old mystery behind all that happens, but it’s not quite clear what. Between the nazis in the war and the wealthy businessmen of today there is much that is wrong.

We don’t see a lot of Martina, who of necessity has to be dead. But what we see has to be admired, despite her lack of social skills. And V I should always have our admiration, along with Sara who entertains while making a statement.

The #5 profile – Mårten Sandén

Today is Mårten’s day. Swedes (might) celebrate by eating goose. So I sort of felt that it’d be appropriate to ask the only Mårten I know to be my profile for the day. He is Mårten Sandén, and the first of his books to be translated into English was published in the summer, House Without Mirrors.

Mårten Sandén

A real Anglophile, Mårten has treated my silly profile questions like the pro he is, being the kind of author who translates his book into English himself, just so he has something that he can cart round to show possible foreign publishers. There could be more books one day…

Over to Mårten:

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

Just one finished (but rather longish) novel, which was mysteriously turned down by every major publishing house (and quite a few minor ones) in Sweden. Something we should all be thankful for, I assure you.

Best place for inspiration?

Standing by the open window of a moving train has always seemed to work for me. Too bad so few train windows open at all these days.

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

I have considered it, but so far always decided against it. The main reason for using a pseudonym would probably be not to confuse readers, since I write for so many age groups, in so many genres. But so far everything has been published under my real name.

What would you never write about?

Bottomless, senseless despair, I think. No matter how dark the protagonist’s situation becomes, there must be hope, or at least a sense of meaning.

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

Through my songwriting I had the pleasure of briefly meeting rockabilly legend Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes) in Nashville, just months before he passed away. Visiting Swedish-speaking schools on remote islands in the archipelago of southern Finland, in winter, was very strange and wonderful.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

There are quite a few, but feisty heroine Jannike Faltin in an Urban Fantasy trilogy I wrote a few years back would be nice. Jannike is bright, has psychic powers, can travel through time and parallel realities, and is in excellent physical shape. The bad news is she’s a teenager, and I wouldn’t want to be that again.

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

A good thing, certainly, if the script was good, the actors and director brilliant and the budget not too tight. I love movies and have learned a lot about writing novels from watching them and from reading books about screenwriting.

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

Since I usually speak before middle-graders, most questions I’m asked tend to be slightly odd. “Why aren’t you taller?” is one I like to ponder.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

Um, I’m really good at untying knots … Does that count? I can also whip up a rather decent George Formby-style version of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” on the ukulele.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

As a boy I would have said both, but as a boring adult I probably prefer Narnia.

Who is your most favourite Stopfordian?

Fred Perry! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him play, even on TV, but I grew up in his tennis shirts and trainers. A Mod icon!

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

I have Billys untold in our apartment, and a basement stash with almost as many. The ultimate goal is to have all the books sorted alphabetically and by subject (Fiction, History, Travel, etc.). I actually achieved this lofty ambition once, very briefly. But then we moved again …

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

That depends on the boy, but I would probably go for something classic and adventurous. Jules Verne, or Stevenson’s Treasure Island, in a young reader’s edition, perhaps.

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

That’s one choice I hope I’m never forced to make … If I was, I would probably try to worm my way out of the situation by using some version of the old Woody Allen joke: “The money or your life!” “Well, you’d better take my life then, because I need the money.”

In the end it would be writing, because I can’t see myself spending my days without it, but I would certainly miss reading.

You can see how very dapper and ‘English gentleman’ Mårten is by his terribly elegant three piece suit. I bet this is a man who never writes in his pyjamas. Although, if forced to choose between not writing and doing it in PJs, I reckon I can guess what his decision would be.

The Book of Souls

I will usually leave a longer gap between books by the same author, even when I’ve really enjoyed what I read. It could seem unfair to concentrate that much on just the one writer. But my new find from Bloody Scotland, James Oswald – who only occasionally rearranges parts of Edinburgh – is quite addictive.

James Oswald, The Book of Souls

Quite liking to read about where I am, I brought James’s second (published) novel The Book of Souls with me to Scotland last week. It was probably just as well Son had moved away from Newington by then. That Inspector McLean has bad luck in his life, both at work and privately. Although, I dare say he brings some of it on himself. He’s not the easiest of men.

This time it’s the murder of his girlfriend Kirsty which surfaces after ten years, when her murderer dies in prison. But if he’s dead, who is murdering more women in exactly the same way? Kirsty’s murderer ‘only’ killed once a year, at Christmas. This copycat killer keeps at it and the police need to find him before more women die. Or could it be that he didn’t really die? If so, whose burial did McLean attend?

And who or what is causing the fires all over Edinburgh?

While the sleep-deprived detective tries his hardest, I barked up a number of wrong trees. And it had been so obvious, really.

This was another enjoyable – if bloody – trip round the Scottish capital. I’m looking forward to more.

Skulduggery Pleasant – Last Stand of Dead Men

Not all characters die quite as much as others. Being dead is not necessarily a permanent position, nor is being reduced to existing as merely a head. Though not all dead characters return to life, unfortunately.

And I had no idea that Darquesse had a sense of humour!

I can’t believe I missed the arrival of Skulduggery Pleasant’s penultimate outing in Last Stand of Dead Men. Somehow this time of year comes round far too quickly on occasion. A witch shouldn’t have to stand in a bookshop and think ‘Funny, I don’t recognise that Skulduggery cover. Or the title…’

Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant Last Stand of Dead Men

This is war, and it is very bloody indeed. And don’t believe what you see on the cover.

In fact, don’t believe what you thought as the last book ended. It’s not going to be quite like that. That’s how Derek Landy keeps his Minions on their toes. Besides, I know of no other books where the characters change sides so often you don’t even remember what side they’ve just changed from. Or how many times.

Someone you like will die. Not everyone, though, because there will be one more book, and it will want a few people in it.

I am not twelve and I don’t look like Valkyrie, but that doesn’t prevent me from loving these books. They are exciting and they are funny. I’d like to quote a bit, but there are too many potential quotes for it to be possible to pick just the one.

Valkyrie – or perhaps I mean Stephanie – has just left school with excellent results. She needs to decide what to do. Valkyrie wants to continue doing what she does with Skulduggery. The reflection wants to live Valkyrie’s perfect life at home.

And then a lot of hells break lose all over the place.

As for the surprise traitor, I had been expecting it, because there was such a heavy hint (more than a hint, actually) a few books ago that it didn’t seem like a surprise.

Did I mention that Darquesse has a sense of humour? Who’d have thought?

Dublin Express

I suppose authors know best. They probably go round thinking that there are certain shorter pieces they have written, which really could do with being published. And sometimes the world, or publishers, don’t agree. So you do it yourself.

Bateman, Dublin Express

That’s what Colin Bateman did with his Dublin Express collection, albeit with a little help from his friends, through a kickstarter crowd funding campaign. This is the book he sold from under the table at Bloody Scotland, and I believe it went the same way as hot cakes traditionally do.

Colin read The Prize to us, and it’s everything that you want from Bateman; very witty and a little rude and offering surprises here and there. Simple, but no one wrote it before him, so…

I’d come across some of the stories, or bits of them, before. It’s good to have them collected in one volume. Still not sure what the characters mean about those uncomfortable leather trousers, but I refuse to ask. It might prove embarrassing.

And then there is National Anthem, Colin’s play for the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival 2010. It’s Irish. I understand it was a sell-out. He’s good.

‘Children have the right to read rubbish’

Malorie Blackman

The children’s laureate was in Manchester yesterday. If anyone has the right to say something like that about children’s reading, it must be Malorie Blackman. And she was only saying what Patrick Ness said the other evening. I think we can all (well, most of us, anyway) agree that reading everything can only be good.

This was another school event organised by the Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and Malorie was talking to Jackie Roy, who is a favourite chair of mine, someone who asks all the right questions. The event was at Z-arts in Hulme, which is a suitable venue for children of immigrant background in particular to find out how far you can get in life, and that it’s got nothing to do with what colour you are.

Malorie Blackman behind fans

The place was packed, and they even Livestreamed the whole thing to interested parties who were unable to attend. Until this year Malorie has also been unable to come, despite being asked by MLF every year, but as they say in Sweden, trägen vinner.

Malorie spoke about how far equality has come, but pointing out there is a long way still to go before fiction is ethnically diverse, with books featuring disabled characters without being disability books, and where people have a place regardless of sex, race, culture, and so on.

She read very little fiction at home, as her father said it wasn’t real and you ‘never learn anything from fiction.’ So Malorie practically lived at her local library from the age of seven until she was 14 and got a job and could buy her own books. She’d take a packed lunch every Saturday and spend the day, returning home with as many books as she could take, hoping they’d last until the following Saturday.

There were no black children in those books, and it might have been this which made Malorie write on, despite receiving 82 rejection letters from publishers. (She said that she almost gave up after no. 60, but vowed to carry on until the 1000th.) She wrote what she would have wanted to read as a child.

Malorie Blackman

While trying not to tell her readers what to think, Malorie presents a dilemma, and then asks questions to make her characters explore the things she herself is wondering about. It could be animal organ transplants as in Pig Heart Boy, or being a whistle blower versus allowing some things ‘for the greater good,’ like in Noble Conflict.

‘Oh my god, I thought that was an enormous spider!’ I’m not sure what she saw, but something almost made our laureate jump out of the sofa and run…

As a child – and still, actually – she loved comics, using her pocket money to buy them. Their use of cliffhangers has influenced the way she writes. Malorie describes how a teacher at school took her comic away from her and tore it to pieces, because it was ‘rubbish.’ The fact that Noughts & Crosses is about to become a graphic novel gives her great pleasure.

Her careers teacher told Malorie that blacks don’t become teachers, and that she would not pass her English A-level. She laughed as she described walking away from that advice session thinking ‘I’ll show you, you old cow!’

The young Malorie got hooked on computers instead and her first novel was Hacker, which Transworld took on, despite ‘all of it’ needing re-writing. This taught her how to plan, so she wouldn’t waste time writing, and it won her an award, which turned into a wonderful holiday to Barbados.

Malorie Blackman

‘Is that water for me, or has it been here for a long time?’ Malorie pointed to the water next to her when her throat felt dry. (It was for her…)

She’s currently writing her 61st book, and hopes to go on until at least her 100th. And if she didn’t write, she’d have some other book related job. Or maybe she’d be an English teacher. She laughed at that.

When asked if she’d be willing to become the next children’s laureate, her gut reaction was to ask if they had the right person. They were very big shoes to fill, with so many great authors who had done it before her. But she knew she wanted to do it, and it’s an honour to be able to spread her passion for books and reading.

Her mother would be very upset if she didn’t say she supports Arsenal, but to tell the truth she is not a football fan. She has rarely been recognised when out, except for one stalker incident in Sainsbury’s which was ‘well creepy.’

This lovely children’s laureate got the audience to sing Happy Birthday, when a girl asked if she could wish her friend a happy birthday. Our laureate also admitted to having carried around a leotard and tights and a utility belt for a couple of years in secondary school, just in case she ever needed to turn into a super hero in a school kidnapping scenario…

Malorie Blackman

Every book is like opening a new door to somewhere. Malorie loves crime and Jane Austen and can quote most of the first Narnia book. She admires many writers, including Benjamin Zephaniah, Melvin Burgess, Anne Fine, Patrick Ness, Jacqueline Wilson and Jackies Kay and Roy.

The character she feels is mostly her is Callum, and much of what happens to him in Noughts & Crosses has happened to Malorie in real life. As a teenager she was once told to go back to where she came from, so she asked for the bus fare back to Clapham.

Spookily, the launch for Checkmate was on 7/7 seven years ago, and she was having her hair done in central London, when the whole city shut down, and Malorie felt as if she was almost inside one of her own books. She doesn’t condone terrorism, but she can see why people become terrorists. Because of the book connection, she was interviewed on television that time, and there were even people who wanted to ban her book.

Malorie Blackman and Jackie Roy

I’d say that by now Malorie has shown that ‘cow’ a thing or two. The fact that there were two black women on that sofa yesterday made me very happy. One of them is a university lecturer and the other is the children’s laureate.

As I was waiting to go in to the event (gobbling down sandwiches again, having been driven there by the Resident IT Consultant, and trying not to drown in the incredibly deep sofa we hid in) I noticed Malorie disappearing off in the company of a young lady. I was introduced to Sophie (that’s her name) a few minutes later, and she turned out to want to interview me. Yikes. First Malorie. Then me. (Good taste, I have to say.)

Malorie Blackman

And now that Malorie has finally been, she promised she’d be back if the MLF would let her have one of their t-shirts. That seems like A Very Good Deal, so please don’t forget to put one in the post!

Malorie Blackman can be our superhero in a literary T-shirt. No leotard necessary.

Natural Causes

‘Read me!’ the book called out. ‘Read me!’ (And that’s not as weird as it might seem, since there is a supernatural element in James Oswald’s debut crime novel Natural Causes.)

I will never set foot in Edinburgh again. Except, here I am in Scotland, all ready to go to that very part in that very city where James’s detective, Inspector McLean walks, and lives. I suspect the good Inspector and Son of Bookwitch have been neighbours in Newington for the last year. But only for a few hours more!

James Oswald, Natural Causes

Offered the book as a bribe to the Resident IT Consultant when I returned home from meeting James at Bloody Scotland last week. (Was it only last week?) He read it in one sitting, and no matter how hard I tried to fit in the reading of some other books first, it wouldn’t let me. It really wouldn’t.

I’m not surprised it did well in the self-published ebook world. If you find it, you will like it. At least if you don’t read the original first chapter, which Penguin have removed in the paper book, because that is truly gruesome. And can easily be spared. (It’s at the back of the book if you’re curious. I read it with my eyes closed.)

Inspector McLean is an orphan, and his Gran is about to expire after being in a coma for a long time. But then people in her neighbourhood start dying in the most spectacular ways, and she knew them. At the same time McLean ends up with an ancient corpse on his hands, and there are a lot of burglaries which appear to be unusually well planned.

As he struggles to find the time to solve these cases, ever stranger things occur. He can’t sleep, and he doesn’t get on as well with some of his superiors as he should, and like many fictional detectives he seems to be surrounded by women.

The clues are generally rather obvious, which I found quite satisfying, because it meant I was prepared, but never knew what for. And at the end James leaves some questions unanswered, which is also good. You don’t want things to be too clear. As for the supernatural, well, who knows?

I want to meet up with Tony McLean again, and that goes for most of the other characters, too. The ones who survived, I mean.