Blueberries

There I was, in my hotel room, stuffing myself with blueberries, feeling rather like Putte i Blåbärsskogen. (That’s a literary ‘thing’ which makes my breakfast a valid Bookwitch blog post…)

Putte is a small boy, who will forever be connected with bilberry woods to most Swedes. (And yes, there are bilberries and there are blueberries. It’s the elk versus moose conundrum of forest fruit.) It was most likely bilberries Putte was eating. They are smaller than the enormous blueberries we have got used to from America. Big, like everything American.

But I decided not to worry about my Putte-like status, as I was feeling ‘calm like a Greek yoghurt.’ I mean, I ate the berries with Greek [style] yoghurt.

And no, I’m not a ‘little on the cinnamon.’ At all.

Which statement leads me almost seamlessly to this link here. It’s all about the pride Swedes take in their weird ways of saying things. Yes, it is rather funny translating idiomatic phrases. By their very nature they just can’t come out well in another language.*

But Swedish isn’t the only language with odd sayings. I suspect most languages have strange offerings to, well, offer. I can’t say I feel that having egg on one’s face makes it into Swedish – or any other language – with terrific ease either. Let me see; ‘Jag har ägg i ansiketet…’

No, that will definitely make me appear to be a little on the cinnamon. And me a non-drinker and all.

Have a couple of blueberries!

(*My apologies for the translations being slightly wanting. It’s what happens to us foreigners. We think we know it all, and then it turns out we don’t.)

Launching Jonathan

It’s a long way to Chelsea, even if you don’t begin your journey in Scotland. The last mile or so was the worst, but when a witch is going to a Meg Rosoff book launch, then she is. And what more interesting place to launch than on a houseboat on the Thames? I was slightly worried the boat would sink once I hopped on board, but was comforted by Anthony McGowan promising to rescue me in return for a book review. (Deal! Can’t remember if it had to be a favourable one or not.)

Jonathan Unleashed launch

Hopping. Well, not so much. It was dark, and there were gangway things over bits of water and stuff. Once on board Meg sent me down some bannister-free stairs to ‘poke around.’ (Not her boat, by the way.) Was impressed by the row of plates nonchalantly leaning against the wall. And there were books everywhere.

Jonathan Unleashed launch

Jonathan Unleashed

So, Jonathan. There were piles of copies of Jonathan Unleashed (I was under strict orders to get one for Daughter), and there was food and drink. Very nice canapés. Especially the little cheese toastie ones. Some of the salmon ones slipped onto the floor, but the only one who slipped [a little] on the salmon was Meg. So that’s ‘all right.’ She was wearing unsuitable shoes, anyway.

There was a nice mixture of people. Some I knew, others I didn’t. But I was able to chat to most of the ones I do know, and I grilled ‘Miss Rosoff’ on her university experience, the way old people tend to do, and gave ‘Mr Rosoff’ a brief lesson in Scottish geography.

Jonathan Unleashed launch

Spoke to Elspeth Graham, Mal Peet’s other half, who remembered meeting me before. Which was nice. Chatted briefly to Francesca Simon, and to Steven Butler, and winner of Bookwitch best book of 2015, Sally Gardner.

Jonathan Unleashed launch

Met the new – to me – people at adult Bloomsbury, and their Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Pringle made a nicely brief speech, mentioning that she wrote Meg a fan letter after the publication of How I Live Now, which Meg doesn’t remember. She’d better remember me doing the same thing! Though I wasn’t able to offer a publishing deal for any future books.

Meg Rosoff

As I said goodbye, Meg recalled our ‘interesting’ car journey when we first met, almost exactly ten years ago. This time I got a taxi, and the driver only had a minor brainslip and made two wrong turns before getting it right. (I got quite excited when it looked like he might drive straight through a barrier. You know, like they do in films.)

The water had disappeared by the time I left. I don’t know if that was reassuring or not. And I apologise for the very poor quality of some of the photos. I was travelling light, so used my mobile phone, which I suspect I will never get the hang of.

There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!

You can do a lot with a Mini-Dragon. But even if it turns up in your dinner, it’s best not to take a bite out of it.

I enjoyed Tom Nicoll’s book debut very much. There’s a Dragon in my Dinner! is probably most suited for seven or eight-year-olds, but it worked really well for me too. It’s not every day you find a nice, easy to read, book for young (dare I say it?) boys, that is truly entertaining for the adult reader as well, while being both intelligently written and fun.

Tom Nicoll and Sarah Horne, There's a Dragon in my Dinner!

The Mini-Dragon turns up in the beansprouts, when the Crisp (yeah, I know) family orders a Chinese for dinner. Young Eric finds he doesn’t like beansprouts, which may be why he didn’t order any. But he quite likes Pan, the Mini-Dragon, although not to the extent that he eats him. (His little sister tries that…)

It can be fun to have a new friend who is only the size of a spring roll, one who has a lot of conversation and is good at all sorts of things. Pan sleeps in Eric’s sock drawer (by sheer coincidence I’d thought a lot about sock drawers just before reading this book), and when he doesn’t eat mountain goats, he eats school uniform.

How to introduce your friends and family to a Mini-Dragon though? It’s hard. And the dreadful boy next door? Even worse.

But all in all, just as well Pan didn’t end up in Mexico the way his parents had planned.

(Illustrated by Sarah Horne, who obviously has some experience of beansprout dragons.)

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen

‘Sometimes I wish Jesse was alive again, just so I could kill him.’ Henry is 13 and his brother Jesse is dead. That much we can work out from the beginning of Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen. We just don’t know quite what the IT he refers to might have been, except that IT was bad and he’d like to kill the two years older Jesse for IT.

Susin Nielsen, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen

Life is tough for the three family members who are left. Henry’s mother is in hospital, and he and his dad have moved somewhere new. He feels like a loser, and when the obvious other loser in his new school insists on befriending him, he resists. For a while. And just as there was a bully in his old school, so there is in this one.

Their new and nosy neighbours also annoy him, but not as much as Cecil, the not very expensive psychologist he has to see every Friday, what with the man’s holey socks, greasy hair and writing-a-journal idea.

But slowly life goes on, and not necessarily the way he wanted or expected it to. We find out what happened to Jesse, and we grow to care about Henry’s new friends, ‘hopeless’ though they may seem. His grieving parents also have to move on, a little bit.

All this sounds very hard and very sad, and it is. The novel, however, is life affirming in every respect, and I hope other children and their families in similar circumstances will find some help in The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen. There is plenty of humour alongside the sadness. And it’s worth keeping in mind that previously annoying people have an annoying habit of growing on you.

Opening doors

For a short while – well, more like at least five minutes – I lost a French philosopher. I reckoned I could cope, as I had a government minister instead, and I could make up the philosophy bit, but then I found him again, where he should be, in the trolley.

I’d read about the Östersund football team, and how they dance, read, visit schools, behaving in a generally very cultural way. Apparently it has improved the soccer as well. They have a culture coach, whose favourite French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s thoughts are helping the team advance. (I don’t even have a philosopher, let alone French or favourite or anything.)

So, these young men act and perform and read, and I believe one of them even wrote a book. Judging by their names many are of non-Swedish origin. Many also seemed to think this culture stuff was stupid, until they discovered the benefits, like intelligence, and a better game.

Bourdieu’s thoughts on cultural capital go along the lines that education will open doors that money can’t. About how we often inherit this capital from our parents. This is both so obvious and so simple, and living in a country where people pay for ‘better’ education (without necessarily getting it) for their children, it’s encouraging to think it’s not necessary.

I mean, I knew that anyway, but sometimes you worry. (The fact that more privately educated children come to the Resident IT Consultant for extra maths lessons to help them pass their exams, could be because their parents are already used to paying [though they ought to be furious at having to pay twice], but it also proves that private schools aren’t the best.)

And then to top the philosopher, schools minister Nick Gibb last week said that ‘reading for pleasure is more important than a family’s socio-economic status in determining a child’s success at school.’ It’s very nice to hear that, but at the same time I wish his government would make this reading much more possible than it is at the moment.

We could be allowed to keep our libraries, and teachers could be given permission to spend more time on pushing reading for pleasure. But I suppose it’s going to be up to the parents to foster this love of reading, in which case they need to have this ‘capital’ to pass on, in the first place, and they need to have enough time and energy to support and engage with their children.

But at least it’s nice for someone to spout a sensible opinion, instead of the usual rubbish.

As for me, I don’t think that money would have taken me to the places and the people that books have, or that the English lessons at school helped achieve. Offspring would probably have done all right at any of the local schools. We picked ours for the rugby, and discovered by accident that it was also rare for offering two foreign languages. But no money passed hands, and the letters for private tutoring that the school was obliged to send home, went straight in the bin.

Jonathan Unleashed

Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan reminds me a lot of God. That’s God as in There Is No Dog. Or Justin from Just in Case. Young and adorable and a little useless.

Meg Rosoff, Jonathan Unleashed

Here, in Meg’s new novel Jonathan Unleashed, There Are Two Dogs, and thank goodness for that! Don’t know where Jonathan, or the reader, would be without them. Persevering with that dreadful funeral in celadon, most likely. Sorry, I meant wedding. A real-real wedding – of colour – to Jonathan’s long term girlfriend Julie, who is so wrong for him that it’s hard to know where to start.

And here’s the thing. You know when your favourite author changes genre? To the kind that you like the least. To me adult novels are full of angsty and weird ‘adults’ who worry about their relationship[s] throughout a whole book, with a bit of careers and sex thrown in. (When there could be ficticious wars and under-age sex between cousins. The odd wizard, maybe.)

So, Jonathan Unleashed is about an angsty young man, who is rather weird (his girlfriend points out, ‘you used to be less weird’), and who worries about this proposed funeral – pardon, wedding – to Julie, and about his job, and the dogs, with a bit of sex thrown in.

And you know what? It’s simply wonderful! I could read it again, and again. It’s only marginally more adult than the fairly adult YA novels Meg has written so far. It’s still as crazy, very New York, very Meg Rosoff, lots of dogs. How could you not love it?

Poor Jonathan works in marketing, writing the most soul-destroying lines to sell useless stuff. He lives in a flat that seems to be too good to be true (there is a reason for that) and then his brother moves abroad, leaving his two dogs Dante and Sissy with Jonathan.

He worries about them. That they might not be happy. Perhaps they are depressed? A bit of canine weltschmerz? He takes them to the vet, Dr Clare, to discuss the likelihood of this and whether they might one day rip a small child’s face off.

Now, that is as far from their minds as these dogs go. They have an agenda. They can tell Jonathan needs help, and they are prepared to provide it. They are not hypochondriacs. They know what they are doing. When professional wedding planner Julie suggests this funeral – sorry, wedding – for her and Jonathan, those dogs need to take action.

There is a French coffeeshop woman who is very lovely, there is Dr Clare, and there is Greeley, the uncertainly sexed new PA at work. Who’s it going to be, and can anything be done before Jonathan goes crazier still? I mean, you can’t have a hero going round speaking funny (even if it is stress-induced).

Limpopo gleam.

When you feel stupidly neurotic, it’s refreshing and reassuring to meet someone who’s got it worse.

Blimp. Pork toff.

Bookwitch bites #134

Kathryn Evans’s launch earlier in the week went very well, as I might have mentioned. Books selling out and bookshops being tightly packed and all that. Here is a photo I may have stolen from Candy Gourlay, which shows how happy Kathryn was and how they couldn’t possibly have fitted me in.

Kathryn Evans

On the same day the list of authors taking part in the 2016 Yay! YA+ in Cumbernauld was announced, after organiser Kirkland Ciccone had had me on tenterhooks for a long time. Some I know, some I don’t.

And the programme for Glasgow’s Aye Write! has now been made public, and you can get your tickets very very soon. Please do! They always have so many people coming that I want to go and see, that I have to give myself a stern talking to and remind me that I don’t have the stamina for traipsing to Glasgow all the time. But there is one event I must go to. Have a look through the programme and see if you can work out which one.

It was National Libraries Day yesterday, and the Guardian published love letters to libraries by people such as Meg Rosoff and Ann Cleeves.

The Branford Boase longlist was announced this week, and I have read precisely one of the books on it. I don’t know what’s wrong with me… And the odd thing is that even though it’s for first novels, I could swear some of those authors have been around for years. It’s probably just me again, isn’t it? To the list:

Othergirl by Nicole Burstein, edited by Charlie Sheppard (Andersen Press)
Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare, edited by Penny Thomas (Firefly)
The Bolds by Julian Clary, edited by Charlie Sheppard (Andersen Press). Illustrations by David Roberts
The Baby by Lisa Drakeford, edited by Rachel Leyshon (Chicken House)
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, edited by Jane Griffiths (Simon & Schuster)
Captive by A J Grainger, edited by Elv Moody and Christian Trimmer (Simon & Schuster)
Seed by Lisa Heathfield, edited by Ali Dougal (Egmont)
Deep Water by Lu Hersey, edited by Sarah Stewart (Usborne)
Stone Rider by David Hofmeyr, edited by Ben Horslen (Penguin Random House)
13 Days of Midnight by Leo Hunt, edited by Jessica Tarrant (Hachette)
The Next Together by Lauren James, edited by Annalie Grainger (Walker)
The Unlikely Mabel Jones by Will Mabbitt, edited by Ben Horslen (Penguin Random House). Illustrated by Ross Collins.
Me and Mr J by Rachel McIntyre, edited by Stella Paskins (Egmont)
The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin, edited by Clare Whitson (Oxford). Illustrated by the author.
Girl on a Plane by Miriam Moss, edited by Charlie Sheppard (Andersen Press)
The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, edited by Genevieve Herr (Scholastic)
My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons, edited Kirsty Stansfield (Nosy Crow)
Birdy by Jess Vallance, edited by Emma Matthewson (Hot Key Books)
Hamish and the Worldstoppers by Danny Wallace, edited by Jane Griffiths (Simon & Schuster). Illustrated by Jamie Littler
One of Us by Jeannie Waudby, edited by Rachel Leyshon (Chicken House)
Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford edited by Nicholas Lake (HarperCollins)
The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, edited by Bella Pearson (David Fickling Books)
The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine, edited by Alison Dougal and Hannah Sandford (Egmont)