Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Pavee and the Buffer

Where Siobhan Dowd is concerned, I will grasp at straws, and her short story The Pavee and the Buffer, is a pretty marvellous straw. Just wish there was a whole field.

Siobhan Dowd

I’m glad that Tony Bradman told the tale behind Siobhan’s participation in his short story collection on racism, Skin Deep, at the launch of The Siobhan Dowd Trust back in the spring, or I would most likely never have come to read it. This was a few years ago, before Siobhan started producing the most wonderful novels at breakneck speed. The Pavee and the Buffer is listed as her first published fiction.

Tony was putting together this collection of stories, and wanted one about Travellers, and in his own words: “I did encounter Siobhan because I was looking for someone to write a story about Travellers, and I was sent to her because she had edited a couple of anthologies of Roma poems and songs, I think. Siobhan initially said she would find me someone, then asked if she could have a go herself. I said of course… she sent me a sample and an outline which I thought were great, and then she wrote a story so good it didn’t need any
editing, and I sent her to Hilary (Delamere). And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Skin Deep is well worth a read, but you could easily buy the book for the 25 pages that are Siobhan’s. Her story tells what it’s like to be a Traveller in Ireland, and most likely everywhere else, as well. It’s about Jim and his cousins, who have to go to school, although they can’t read or write, and they are not exactly welcomed by some of the other pupils. It’s a really touching story, with some lovely relationships, both within Jim’s community, and the friendship he develops with a girl, who is also a bit of an outsider.

And then it all comes to an end, as it must do far too often, and too suddenly, for Travellers, and they have to move on. And Jim has to leave his new friend behind.

A very poignant detail is when Jim’s mother carefully asks if he has learnt to read yet, because if he has, she would quite like him to teach her, too. That really gets to you.

Håkan Nesser

It was very much a “shall I, shan’t I?” kind of debate, until I had this odd dream on Tuesday morning about Håkan Nesser being annoyed with me, and me scrabbling round my handbag to find my business card to hand over. Then I knew I had to go. Håkan did a signing in one of the Halmstad bookshops yesterday, and as his name is on the rise in (English) translation, I felt it might be a good idea to attend.

Unlike the rest of the world, I have not read any of Håkan’s numerous crime novels. We do have a copy in German somewhere, but that’s not much use to us. Adèle Geras recently read a couple of his books, so I sent her two Nesser DVDs. The detective, van Weeteren, is played by Sven Wollter, who’s been described as the most handsome man in Sweden. Adèle reckoned he looked like Jimmy Carter, so that’s that.

Håkan Nesser

(Photo of Håkan Nesser by H Giles)

Since my youth the Halmstad bookshops have renamed themselves, so I’m never sure which is which. To me they’ll always be Larsson’s or Meijel’s. The witch once had a holiday job in Meijel’s shop. The signing, however, was over at Larsson’s, where I understand the business is run by the third generation of Larssons, whereas I still think of the second generation as the “young Larsson”, since he’s a former pupil of Mother-of-witch. Time flies.

Anyway, they did coffee for Håkan, and he chatted very nicely with his fans, and did not get angry with me, and my card was duly handed over. Now that he’s left New York after a couple of years, and has moved to London, I might run into him again.

I now own two novels from Håkan’s new series of books. There was some confusion in the shop as to whether I wanted hardbacks or paperbacks, so we were back at the perennial snobbery of paperbacks not being proper books. I got one of each, but when will I find the time to read them?

Och, Hej Håkan, om du läser det här.

Royals and design, disturbing cat news, and a horse incident

The witch has used a toothbrush mug of royal design for most of her life. Prince Sigvard Bernadotte designed a good many attractive household things during his life. I still covet one of his kitchen mixing bowls. We went to an exhibition of his designs yesterday, at the royal summer palace Sofiero. Nice gardens, too, and lovely café, if a little expensive.

Then it was on to the annual trip to the vets’, but for us it’s a social thing. We don’t need their care, just yet. Miss Vet soon disappeared off with the new copy of the Rolling Stone we’d brought (American boy band). Mrs Vet was unusually relaxed and had time to chat. We discussed her ideas for a vets and pets book, which I thought sounded just the thing. As long as her vetting activities leave her time for making books.

Mr Vet was very busy. At one time wearing a Prince Sigvard mixing bowl as he went for fresh tomatoes, he dashed between removing a cat’s eye on the operating table and making quiche for us, and then back to deciding on the future of another cat. The after dinner coffee was very rudely interrupted by the need to separate aggressive horse from timid horse out in the field.

I wouldn’t be a vet. Not even a grandmother Vet, as she has been known to drive around with dead dogs in her car. I suppose at some point it all becomes normal. Teaching Prince Sigvard’s great nephew Prince Carl Philip how to hide the dog’s medicine inside a prince sausage (standard Swedish kind of sausage) is another instance of the absurd life at a countryside clinic.

Small-Minded Giants

I took Eoin Colfer’s advice and bought a copy of Oisín McGann’s Small-Minded Giants, after we’d discussed Irish writers for young readers. It then took me close to two years to get round to reading the book, until last week when I decided to surprise myself. Good idea, that.

The novel is set in Ash Harbour, a futuristic city, slightly reminiscent of Julie Bertagna’s Glasgow, except this is in the South Pacific, and it’s very, very cold. Small-Minded Giants is bleaker than Exodus. I think. Ash Harbour is a world much more geared to simply survive, whereas Julie’s new Glasgow has some semblance of a life enjoyed, for those on the inside, at least.

Things are seriously wrong in Ash Harbour, and they quickly get a lot worse. Sol’s father disappears, and he finds himself wanted by the police. He is helped by a murderous friend of his father’s, and Sol teams up with his classmate Cleo, and their teacher Ana, to try and work out what’s going on.

The cover of Small-Minded Giants says this is a book for older readers, and there may be some truth in this. It’s a violent story, in a way, and the future looks bleak. Oisín has written a thriller with lots of action, and none of the clever gadgets or the backup that Alex Rider enjoys. Sol is on his own.

This is a well written thriller, combined with a good look at what may be in store for the world if we don’t do something soon. Living in Ash Harbour is not something to aspire to, except that the alternative – of being left on the outside – isn’t very attractive either.

I’ll have to read some more of Oisín’s books. And I’m practising getting his name right.

Last Kiss of the Butterfly

This book begins with a funeral cortège. At least it will warn you not to get your hopes up. And I would have hoped, without it. As it is, Jill Hucklesby’s Last Kiss of the Butterfly is a packet of Kleenex affair.

I’ve said a lot recently on children and teenagers dying in books. Well, I’ve decided that dying mothers are worse. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how I feel.

13-year-old Jaz spends the summer holidays marooned in a countryside cottage with her Mum, who’s recuperating from a cancer operation. The cottage is her Mum’s childhood home, so comes with memories for both of them. If it wasn’t for the illness, this would be a very idyllic trip down memory lane, with peace and quiet, away from it all.

Jill has written a really good story here; one that should provide useful support to girls in a similar situation. Jaz has good friends, a wonderful Dad, and there is an extremely fanciable young man, who knows about leeches and butterflies and dead swans.

If you can cope with sad books, then this is for you. Personally, I like a happy ending, but I’m trying to be mature about it this time.

Too many female detectives?

Jan Guillou is one of the big names in Swedish books. He first surfaced when I was a teenager, and I have always considered him to be someone with sensible ideas, and although I have yet to read any of his many books, I’ve assumed I’d like them if I did.

Jan has just published a new novel about his hero Hamilton, which is to be his last in the thriller genre. It appears that the Crime Queens I mentioned the other day have swamped the market, and he now finds there are too many female detectives/heroines out there.

Most of the overcrowding must have been done by men. I’ve never even dreamed of counting, but I’m sure there are more male main characters than female ones in crime and thriller fiction. And to think that Jan Guillou now feels threatened by a minority of women. I’m impressed.

Do cats have Asperger Syndrome?

I don’t know. With a few exceptions, the witch doesn’t know many cats. I know I ought to have one on my broom, but I don’t. But cats may well have Aspergers.

My last cat post caused two books to arrive in the mail, and here is the first of them; All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, by Kathy Hoopmann. I’ve mentioned Kathy here before, and she’s good with Asperger related subjects. And as I’ve said before, there is a great need for Asperger books.

All cats have Asperger Syndrome

We are many who have tried to explain Asperger Syndrome to others. Usually you don’t get far, because people don’t want to know. I believe Kathy’s book can do a much better job of it, with the use of cute cat pictures and short to-the-point descriptions. I’d say that the use of photos like these means that the doubters may stand a chance of believing. Because there are countless doubters, when it comes to Aspergers. “It’s all in the mind” is the accusation, and it is. Mostly in the mind, anyway, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

One quote in this book is “Sometimes his relatives think they could bring him up better than his parents can”, and how true that can be. Others always know best.

I would like to think that this book could be an eye opener when it comes to describing Aspergers to the neurotypicals, and if so, the use of animals to achieve it is good. Around these parts, one Aspie thought it was a suspiciously cute book, and another one loved it. And the witch loved it. It’s the kind of book I could see myself buying and carting around whenever a bunch of flowers is called for. If you know what I mean.

Hallandsposten crime

Luckily we had our first copy of holiday newspaper Hallandsposten waiting with the spiders in the letterbox when we arrived. I almost forgot to order it, but a very late email to the paper sorted our supply for the next few weeks. It’s small and local and mentions more lawnmower thefts than international wars, but it’s the very local-ness of the paper I like. I always find something relevant, and I always hope it won’t be in the obituaries.

Hallandsposten crime page

Anyway, the first morning’s paper offered a double page spread of crime. There’s a piece on Dennis Lehane, and something on Robert Ludlum. I’ve almost been tempted to try Jacqueline Winspear, and I’ve just found out Jo Nesbø is a man. Oops. I’d taken for granted Jo was a woman…

Crime Queens are female, however, and there is a piece on the Agatha Christie of Sweden, Maria Lang. As the reporter says, you only have to have published a couple of crime novels and people will call you queen of crime. But I quite agree that Maria Lang is the one and only Crime Queen around here. I used to love her books, about handsome policeman Christer Wijk, set in fictional Skoga. Maria Lang wrote a novel a year, for about forty years, until her death in 1991.

Maria Lang used to ask people’s permission before murdering anyone in their house, and she felt that one murder was enough, two was acceptable, and three would be one too many. Nicely old-fashioned. I’ll have to see if I can manage to re-read some of them.

The case of the vanishing tomatoes

The best thing about having workmen in the house is that you can’t possibly clean it. So that’s one thing less to be doing. And depending on where they work, you can’t get at a number of your normal pastimes, either. Even less to do. I have been constrained to reading books and blogging for a couple of weeks, now. Shouldn’t complain. The result appears to be a shower room that looks like a public convenience, according to the Resident IT Consultant, and for once he is actually right.

Being an awkward old witch I started by telling my bunch of plumbers I wasn’t going to make them tea all the time. Told them they could make their own. So Junior has just about lived in my kitchen making teas, when he’s not outside, smoking. The second morning I had to suffer the unusual situation of Senior plumber, who’s very polite, offering to make me tea… Aargh.

They are literally everywhere, on account of our ancient boiler needing a pension, and that necessitates new radiators. Everywhere. I move my mug of tea and my book round to where I can sit. And I count tomatoes. I’d just bought some, and felt I hadn’t used that many. But the bowl looked emptyish. But maybe I had only five left? Later that day I had three left. I can only suppose Junior likes a tomato when brewing up. Should have supplied biscuits, is my guess. Will know next time I need a room for ablutions that resembles a London tube station.

PS We have now just decamped on holiday and left the tube station on its own. They very nearly finished the job in time, and the last night they very nearly finished off the witch, too. I have never, ever felt quite as bad as I did trying to pack while they (nearly) finished.

The Robber Baron’s Daughter

I loved Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin, even though there was much that was evil in the story. The Robber Baron’s Daughter is the next of Jamila’s books for older children. Can’t quite decide what age it’s for, though, as the “fairy tale princess” part is more childish, and the “illegal people trafficking” part of necessity is older.

The Robber Baron's Daughter

Nettie is twelve and lives a life of unimaginable luxury with her parents in London. Slowly, very slowly, she begins to understand that all is not well in her family and in their home. I’d like to say that she makes friends with Benny, the boy from the other side (not a ghost; just a servant’s child), except I don’t feel she really does. Nettie loves the ballet, and learns to dance from her great aunt, a former ballerina. Benny, on the other hand, does all the legwork trying to find Nettie’s tutor Miss Kovachev, who has vanished without a trace.

Jamila does a good, if shocking, job of showing how illegal immigrants turn up here, and why. There is an uneasy difference between the wealth of Nettie’s family, and the lives of Miss Kovachev, Benny and Nettie’s friend from school, Raisa. It’s almost too much to take in; the fairy tale and the awful reality.