Monthly Archives: August 2007

Another castle for Hamlet

We suspect that maybe Shakespeare got it slightly wrong. It could well be that Kronborg in Elsinore isn’t the place at all.

If so, it’s quite likely that what Hamlet called home was really Varbergs Fästning; currently in Sweden, but formerly part of Denmark.

Varberg is very nice, and the castle particularly so. When you’re done with the beach just south of the castle, where you don’t wear swimsuits, you can relax at the castle’s terrace café. The view is wonderful and any waffles or prawn sandwiches you manage to eat before the seagulls get them, tend to be very good too.

Varbergs Fästning


This morning saw the witch watching teenage girls riding other things than broomsticks. A young friend was taking part in a dressage competition, which was an entirely new experience for the bookwitch family. We stood around in beautiful fields watching girls and horses, all of whom had far better hair than I do.

The event made me relive some of those horsey books I used to read, when anything more real than a fictional horse would have made me quite nervous. I seem to recall a young riding heroine called Jill, whose name struck me as very exotic at the time. I was never quite sure about jodhpurs, which was an even more exotic word. Also seem to recall a pony adventure book written by a sixteen-year-old. At the time she seemed fairly old to me, so it must have been a while ago.

This spring Katherine Roberts had a new book out called I Am the Great Horse. It’s about Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great. The horse is actually the narrator of the book. Mary Hoffman sang its praises in a review, and the Resident IT Consultant sat down with the book and enjoyed it. I have to admit it’s still on my to-read pile, though this morning’s event has made me more determined.

And to spare Daughter’s blushes I will refrain from writing here about my childhood attempts at riding. But they are fairly amusing, and it’s my cheeks that should turn red, not hers.

Checkout crime

One reason crime is so rampant in Sweden might be that ordinary foodshops sell the books; often displayed next to the checkout. You know when you’re bored and impatient standing with your trolley; you might as well buy a book as pick up a bar of chocolate or the Sainsbury magazine.

Yesterday at Willy’s (yes, really) I found both Indridason, Nesser and Läckberg among the six or so paperbacks right next to the queue.

At my local holiday Spar a couple of years ago I found Stephen Booth next to my most favourite bread. Good place for him. I even wrote and told Stephen, and he was nice enough not to run kicking and screaming away from a mad email.

Maybe more foodshops should put books where they do the most good. My English Spar only offers Warburton’s sliced bread where I queue and it gets boring after a while.

If the queue is really slow you could always start reading.

The house of Hamlet

Well, we sort of waved to Hamlet today as we came past. Or would have done had he been real and not too long ago and all that. We went over to Denmark today, but not for very literary reasons. The Resident IT Consultant felt it was time he and Daughter visited Louisiana. The art gallery, not the state.

Louisiana is a great place. Good art, good food, beautiful park, interesting building. Expensive. The drive along the sea between Elsinore and Copenhagen is lined with the most wonderful houses, so the witch started dreaming again. Daughter pointed out she has no intention of learning Danish. Well, she didn’t put it as politely as that.

We admired the view of Elsinore castle all the way across on the ferry. Though with five ferries every hour in each direction, there is barely space for anything to be seen apart from boats. The ferry brought back memories for the witch, who entertained Daughter with seemingly not previously told stories of her life at sea. Hah, she even thought I made it up. And who would have thought that someone prone to seasickness would pick a job at sea?

And the castle at Elsinore wasn’t really where Hamlet lived. Shakespeare got it wrong. These things happen.

Irish crime

I’ve just read Declan Burke’s The Big O. It’s rather like The Commitments, hardboiled. Having called in regularly to check out Declan’s blog crimealwayspays, which is very witty as well as informative, I was hoping his own fiction would be as funny. It is.

This is Declan’s second crime novel, and I must get my hands on the first one, very soon. The Big O is about an interesting group of people, who are all more or less into crime of some sort. It’s not so much black and white, as various shades of grey. But they are very likeable, even though they use the f-word most of the time. The bookwitch is just being oldfashioned here.

I’m not going to give away the plot, which centres on kidnapping, but I can tell you it all builds up to a hilarious ending. I wonder what goes on inside Declan’s head?

Until now my only experience of Irish crime has been Artemis Fowl and Skulduggery Pleasant. I get the impression from Declan’s blog that there is a great deal more, and I think it would be a mistake to treat Irish crime writing as not much different from English crime. It’s worth looking west.

And if you’re thinking of buying The Big O, get it via Declan’s blog, to support small business. I even managed to beg an individually (very individually!) signed copy this way.

Fame and, possibly, money

What do they live off? I imagine it’s hard enough for British authors to make a (decent) living off book sales. But at least Britain has a few prospective book buyers, and the English language should also make a book somewhat easier to sell elsewhere.

But a small language like Swedish? There are plenty of authors here. And the Swedes are big book buyers, but how many authors can they support?

Thirty years ago I was at university with someone who had just had a novel published. Let’s call him SG. He was good looking and very full of himself. Whenever I think of him, I also think of KÖ, another good looking novelist of the same age. Both are still writing. KÖ is very successful, and I assume can live off his trade. But I do wonder about SG. I’ve seen his (remaindered) books grace the shelves at IKEA.

Even if book prices in Sweden are a lot higher than in the UK, much smaller sales must mean much less pay. I should have checked my facts before writing, but I believe the government pays some sort of “artistic” money to authors, to keep language and culture going. I don’t know how much, but it makes sense.

Astrid Lindgren probably didn’t have to worry about sales. But a few decades ago she made the headlines over taxes. Swedes do pay an awful lot of tax, but when Astrid ended up paying (I think) 102%, she thought it was too much, and she kicked up a fuss.

Maybe it’s those 102% that now helps keep other authors going?

A small cottage in the woods

It was very Hansel and Gretel. Daughter had read about this sweetshop in the middle of nowhere, and was desperate to go. They supposedly had a stock of 300 different kinds of pick ‘n’ mix, which of course is absolutely irresistible.

The small sign pointed us down a very narrow road. It took us along for a few miles, twisting back on itself, turning this way and that. Every now and then another sign promising we were getting closer.

And there it was; a small cottage in the woods. Slightly surreal, with picnic tables and parasols next to eerily tall pine trees. We charged in, and found row upon row of neatly organised pick ‘n’ mix sweets, sorted according to shape, flavour, colour, and so on.

We bought too much, but at least they let us out again. We can get fatter elsewhere. We even found our way back without resorting to breadcrumbs.


PS for Pullman pilgrimage

Those photos Son and bookwitch took in Oxford for Laurie Frost to enjoy, have reached further than imagined. Laurie tells me her new publisher wants to use some of them in the new edition of The Elements of His Dark Materials. Or whatever the book will be called when it comes out again. It’s very flattering. But strangely enough, not one of the pictures of the ring road was chosen. Hmmm…

Hornbeam, Sunderland Avenue

Will’s window, Sunderland Avenue

Bilberries and modesty

“It’s a good year for bilberries”, said the Retired Children’s Librarian on the phone. So, I took the lawnmower to the knee high grass up in the woods (its battery lasts up to ten minutes on a good day, before conking out) to clear the path to the bilberries. I got ten. Twelve if you count two overripe ones. That’s less than the number of midgebites, but more than the tickbites. We now have deer using our half deserted “garden” as a regular path, hence a rising number of ticks.

This modest harvest of mine made me consider the modesty of authors. Should authors, even very good and successful ones, be as modest as the ones I meet are? My holiday daily paper has a lot on books, for a smallish paper. I’ve already read a couple of author interviews, and they are not modest. This is odd in a country where everyone has it drummed into them from an early age that you should never think “you are anything”. But young and new authors have no lack of belief in themselves, and don’t mind saying so publicly. The Retired Children’s Librarian reckoned it was all right. “They can’t spell either, and are not good on grammar”, was her verdict.

Adele Geras, whose 96th (!) book was published yesterday, is so modest she had to thank me by email for my short blog on her new book, rather than post a comment here. I, in turn, thanked her, as the bookwitch got a mention and a link on Normblog (Mr Geras, for those who don’t know) that produced a welcome increase in hits. Adele insisted it was she who had to offer thanks, so before we got embroiled in Japanese style bowing, I decided to leave the thanks.

I hope some of my favourite authors out there, who really are good, somehow know this, deep down. Do modesty to the world, but please recognise that you’re good and are spreading happiness with your books. Yes, I mean you!

And I don’t think that’s a bad conclusion for something started with ten bilberries. A few of them were quite small, too.

A Hidden Life

It could be that I always like the latest of Adele Geras’ adult books the best. Otherwise I’d have to say that I think I liked A Hidden Life more. It could be because it’s about books. Because it’s set in Brighton and Sussex. I don’t know.

As usual this is about several generations in a family and their secrets and hopes. The particular secret behind it all is the life of Lou’s grandfather John and the books he wrote.

These days I read very little “women’s fiction”, but an Adele a year is just right for me. So please keep them coming.