Monthly Archives: January 2008


Check out Spinebreakers again. With the paperback of Sara’s Face by Melvin Burgess coming out next week, they have recorded some video logs based on the book’s vlogs. Very tense stuff. And they are supposed to change several times over the next week.

There’s also a competition to make your own vlog. So get going.


I remember my first. It was a few years ago, over Christmas. Son was still at secondary school and an active library helper. So was his best friend. The latest Alex Rider was just out and the library had one copy. They couldn’t agree who should go first, so the librarian decided. The friend got the Horowitz.

To ward off the inevitable explosion she handed Son a proof provided by the local bookshop, who needed a book review. It was Hoot by Carl Hiaasen. Needless to say the whole family read it and couldn’t quite get over the excitement of reading a proof. We had never heard of Hiaasen either, so that was an eye opener. Thoroughly enjoyed Hoot, and these days I like to return to Hiaasen and his mad world from time to time.

Some time later when the Resident IT Consultant was in the bookshop (strange place to find him…) he was sent home with a pile of proofs that they didn’t know what to do with.

And now we see so many of them that we have lost that first feeling of excitement. Or not, in a way. Because it’s still very special to have a new book, and particularly so if we expect it to be good. It’s just not the first time.

What authors say

Just as I expect Francesca Simon’s guests on Thursday evening could manage to be both happy for her success and envious that their own sales aren’t quite as good, it’s interesting to observe authors and see and hear what they say, or don’t say.

Some only talk about their own work, and don’t even seem to be too modest to say how good they believe they are. Thankfully not many are like this. And there’s Henning Mankell, who as I pointed out the other day, doesn’t even recognise his own work when he sees it.

Many authors go out of their way to suggest other writers and books that they think I’d like. Sometimes they are wrong, but often they are quite right and I’m grateful for ideas. Linda Newbery has been known to send emails with suggestions.

Tim Bowler spent ages during a school talk some years ago “selling” Melvin Burgess’ book Doing It. I think Tim almost forgot his own books while explaining quite how hilariously funny and worthwhile this controversial book of Melvin’s is.

Adele Geras is also very helpful and recommends books she likes in her website newsletter. Meg Rosoff is forever pointing me in the direction of her friends’ books. Do you people think I have unlimited time for reading?

Then we have Son’s “party trick” of asking every author he meets what they think of Philip Pullman. He even has me do it for him if he’s not there. Whether the authors he asks are always honest I don’t know, but they tend to have good manners, so will usually say something positive. And I’d say that most of the time it sounds as if they mean it.

When Lionel Shriver got the Pullman question, her answer was of the more unusual variety. She said “Who?”

One million Roman Mysteries

Another Orion author has also done exceedingly well. Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries have now sold one million copies in Britain. I’m not surprised, because they are very addictive. The bookwitch household is counting the days until number fifteen turns up. Please let it be soon!

1,000,000 Roman Mysteries

Francesca’s big night

I see on Francesca Simon’s website, that when her son was born in 1989 she started writing books. Why didn’t I think of that? My son was also born in 1989, and all I did was wipe projectile vomit off everything. Just think – I, too, could have sold ten million books by now! Or maybe I couldn’t. I suspect it takes something special to come up with someone like Horrid Henry, or the world would be full of multi-millionaire authors. More than now, I mean.

On Thursday night Francesca had a big party, to celebrate ten million books. I only have a very short list of some who were there. Meg Rosoff reports having chatted to Sally Gardner, Graham Marks, Eleanor Updale, Joanna Briscoe and Susy Boyt. And I understand Meg and Nicolette Jones discussed that excellent bookwitch blog.

I expect a few of those who were there would have liked to be in Francesca’s shoes (I wonder if the shoes were nice?), but authors being so lovely, I think they also felt her success is well deserved. It was probably only Meg who offered to trade her Carnegie for five million sales.

Would you? If you had a Carnegie to trade, that is.

Sofia’s story

Henning Mankell’s trilogy about Sofia in Mozambique is a mixture of fiction and biography. As he says in his foreword to the third book Eldens Vrede (The Wrath of the Fire), most of the things in the books have happened, but not necessarily exactly as he tells it.

Secrets in the Fire from 1995 tells the story of Sofia and her sister Maria, and what happened when Sofia stepped on a landmine. It killed Maria, and Sofia lost both her legs. Henning writes about Sofia’s long struggle back to life, and how she learns to sew, thus becoming able to make a living.

Playing With Fire from 2001 takes place a few years later. The story is mainly about Sofia’s older sister Rosa, a pretty girl who gets Hiv and Aids. But there’s also some romance for Sofia, who meets her Moonboy.

Finally, Eldens Vrede 2007, and Sofia is an adult, with an adult’s problems. The language continues to be very simple and the tale will still be interesting for the child who has read the earlier books. Sofia gives birth to her third child, and she has marital problems. She is virtually the head of the family, as her mother Lydia is getting old and frail. Sofia needs to work out how to solve her difficult situation.

It’s a hard life for Sofia, but what’s so heartening, is to see how much good she manages to find in life. The books also provide an excellent lesson for us northerners on things like landmines and Aids. The fates of Maria, Rosa and Sofia show the reader so much more than any news reports would ever do.

I’m hoping the last book will eventually be translated. At any rate – read the first two, and cry and laugh with Sofia. By buying the books you will also assist Sofia with money.

Henning Mankell

This isn’t exactly by public demand, but more a request from Meg Rosoff. If I’d written this six months ago it would have been a different story, because that was before Henning made me cry. Meg’s reaction to that tale was that it made her a little in love with him, and maybe I can join her in that sentiment.

I’ll say one thing for Henning – he has provided by far the most unusual reply to a request for a signature that I have ever come across. Son and I waited, and waited, and waited, outside the seminar room in Gothenburg 2005 for the great man to emerge with his entourage. He didn’t look as if he had either the time or the inclination to sign books, so I kicked Son into plan B, which was to address him in English while trying to look very young. Son brandished a copy of A Bridge to the Stars (fitting title where Son is concerned), which is the first in a series for children. “What’s this? I didn’t write this book! I’ve never seen it before!” And so on. At this point I stepped in, we reverted to Swedish, and the entourage assisted. It took several minutes persuading Henning it was his book. A signature followed, and I hastily shoved my copy of Return of the Dancing Master under his nose while he was still in shock. Then Henning and his courtiers marched off, and Son and I mopped our brows.

I first heard of Henning Mankell in the early 1990s from other Swedes in exile, keener on Swedish books than I am. I assumed he was a small star in a small country. Was given Return of the Dancing Master by a friend who had a duplicate. I enjoyed it because it actually had the policeman living across the road from where I used to live. In exile little things like that are special; having fictional detectives moving about on your home turf.

By that fateful book signing day, I’d realised that Henning isn’t a small star. He is huge. Though not too huge to allow himself to be rolled out as the star attraction for every Gothenburg book fair. By 2006 he was there to partner Giuliana Sgrena, the kidnapped Italian reporter in Iraq, whose rescuer was killed. In effect, they’ll put Henning into any, worthy, context.

Meg Rosoff reported rubbing shoulders with Henning in Mantua that summer, but we could better that by Son standing next to Henning in the gents’ toilet at the Gothenburg fair.

Henning writes many different kinds of books. There are the regular crime novels, with or without Wallander, that are now widely translated and filmed. They’re even popular in Britain, which is no small thing. I believe he is involved with drama, at least in Mozambique. Then there’s the children’s books; the series about the boy Joel set in the far north of Sweden, and the series about landmine victim Sofia in Mozambique.

With his scheme in the mid 1990s to give his first Sofia book to a whole year of Swedish school children (age 11), he also got more political. It’s an interesting and very effective way to literally “brainwash” a large group of young people on such a difficult subject.

In August 2007 Henning made the daily news in Sweden, after the death of Ingmar Bergman, as the family’s spokesman. Henning Mankell isn’t just a world famous crime writer, but Bergman’s son-in-law. Hence I suppose the strong feeling of “establishment” about him, which is vaguely un-Swedish.

By September both Henning and I were back in Gothenburg. Before the crying episode, I heard him talk about reading for children, with the ALMA prize winners and others. He is a good speaker, particularly in English, and he was the one who made the most sense there. I’d planned on waylaying him for more signatures, when I saw him dash off with a beautiful woman. However, Henning has learned his lesson, so gracefully paused to sign.

The way he comes across, to me, is like some posh freedom fighter, a bit grand but one of the people, too. He often seems abrupt and too aware of his position in life, but after the crying incident I can accept this. He does some great work, and not only in international crime. If he had written nothing but those books about Sofia, it would be enough.


Hmm, this is turning out to be slightly less quick and easy than I had imagined. The favourite authors for normblog, I mean. It will be a struggle, or I will simply have to throw my towel in some sort of direction. The only thing I’m sure about is that I’ll not count someone where I have only read one book. Even if it’s very good. But do I go for authors I read today, only? Or do I go back in time to old favourites.? The kind where as a young un-encumbered reader I could read a book again and again. Agatha Christie is probably all right. But Alistair MacLean? Snobbery v wisdom? Taste?

I’ll go get that towel.

Some good news in the email bag this morning, from Nick Green. The Cat Kin has been shortlisted for the Bolton children’s book award. Lots of fingers crossed.

Invite in a Jiffy

Bag, that is. It’s different – I’ll give Puffin that. I thought it might be a very thin book, when in actual fact the nice ladies at Puffin wanted to include the witch in their media book presentation for 2008. So, it being too wet to broom, I got my favourite morning train to London, which isn’t too full, and where the price of the ticket doesn’t force you to re-mortgage your house.

On arrival I shared a lift up with an author. Only I didn’t know it then, as picture book authors are not my strength. It was Jeanne Willis, and even I have had a book of hers read to me (though I do know how to read) before.

It was like Christmas come early, or maybe late, considering it’s mid January. Tables groaning under the weight of books, where you help yourself until you feel ashamed, or thereabouts. Puffin also did party bags, but seemed not to have cottoned on to the fact that you use them to get rid of people at the end. Never mind.

Very important people presented the new books for the year ahead. So I won’t tell you about those now.

Lots of people there. I didn’t quite have the nerve to introduce myself to Nicholas Tucker. Maybe I should have? I consider his voice an old friend. Talked to nice people from radio’s Go4It, and to equally nice people from book magazine Carousel.

Threw myself at Nicolette Jones to talk about her Pancakes for Findus review, and introduced myself to Julia Eccleshare, to apologise for all my “anonymous” emails. She took it well. Jellyellie from Spinebreakers was there, and not only is she one of these clever teen editors, but she’s writing a book. I sat next to someone from the Guardian, who had actually heard of me! (Fame must be round the corner.)

Ed Vere does picture books and he can talk and draw at the same time. Nearly. Something about piano playing gorillas.

Charlie Higson had been forcibly dragged to the presentation. He has a book to finish, but now we know who to blame that delay on. I’d started reading his Hurricane Gold on the train, which didn’t make me much of an expert. But he favours avoiding too much kissing for the young James Bond by having immediate and nearby explosions. And something to do with the Royal family that he couldn’t possibly talk about.

Meg Rosoff also has a book that wants finishing, but she did a good job going round kissing and hugging people, and tucking into the tasty food, and making dates for interviews and radio programmes and anything else.

To prevent myself from being the last person there, I took my leave and departed at an almost decent time. Could have done with help in the lift, though, as the buttons were totally un-intelligible. I’ve since worked out that E stands for Embankment and ST for Strand. And I only went wrong once. Bit of a challenge for a “country” witch.


While waiting for the witch to get her bearings after yesterday, why don’t you sink your teeth into this? Adele Geras sent it on behalf of Norm. Vote away.