Monthly Archives: February 2009

Adèle’s out and about

Adèle Geras is being kept busy. She has been overseeing the mailing of proofs of Dido, which is out in May. I will read my copy as soon as it’s out of the hands of the Resident IT Consultant. Theft is rife in these parts.

As Dido isn’t out yet, that’s not what Adèle talked about in the local bookshop the other night. From what she herself tells me (your trusted bookwitch being so non grata, you can’t believe it) she read from Lily and talked about adult literacy. She seems to have a following, having been followed by fans from a recent synagogue event…

Adèle appeared with daughter Sophie Hannah, who read from her latest, The Other Half Lives. I have yet to read it, and I’m a little scared, as Sophie’s crime novels are just that bit scary. Shouldn’t be so wimpy, perhaps.

Tomorrow Adèle will be appearing in London at the Jewish Book Week in the company of Lynne Reid Banks (I so want to be there!), chatting to Geraldine Brennan. Then there is a writing workshop, which unfortunately is now fully booked. Not unfortunate for Adèle, but for anyone hoping to join. Tell them how to write, Adèle!


Dad swap

We have a Dad like the one in Neil Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. He sits and reads the newspaper and pays very little attention to things. We have yet to swap him for goldfish or anything else, but Daughter is trying to come up with a plan.

It’s another of the brilliant but simple plots that Neil is good at coming up with, or more accurately, that he’s good at recognising when he finds it. In this case it was his son who was annoyed with him and wanted a swap. Well, Mike, we’ll take your Dad and you can have something from us. Our Dad. Newspaper included.

The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish

The book is pretty much what it says on the box, except that once you’ve swapped Dad, you have to be prepared for further swaps, and getting him back can be tricky. It’s a nice simple story, made really interesting by Dave McKean’s illustrations. I was so intent on admiring the pictures I almost missed the story.

For such dizzy individuals the solution is to listen to the accompanying CD where Neil reads his story, and all you have to do is look at the pictures. Slight risk of falling asleep, as Neil’s reading is so soft and relaxed that you could drift off……………….


How do you know what you don’t know? Tricky, isn’t it?

My friend Pippi spent a year as an au pair in Aberdeen many years ago, and later a few months studying in Brighton, where we met. And like the witch she visited this country many, many times. But she doesn’t like filmjölk (sour milk), and that’s probably why Pippi didn’t know you don’t get it in Britain. Access to filmjölk would improve my life a lot, so I’m fully aware that you can’t get it here. But Pippi assumed you could, because to her it was clear that countries may be different, but they are mostly the same.

That would also be the likely explanation for the annoying column in the Guardian before Christmas. (See what a long memory I have when it suits me?) It was written by Father Christmas. Hah. If it had been, he’d have got it right. The G2 elves responsible don’t know anything, and didn’t think to think first. They assumed that wherever FC goes, he gets mince pies to eat. Do they really think the rest of the world eat mince pies? Think again!

So when writing fiction set in another time or place than your own, what do you do? Research? Or just use common sense? Or ignore idiots like me who get worked up about details?

Adèle Geras writes many books set in places she can’t possibly know about, but Adèle is canny enough to use her ‘kitchens and bedrooms’ theory a lot. They don’t vary much, if you keep it vague.

I recently came across a book set in Norway, today. It featured English children who went to live there, and what really got me was that they behaved as if they hadn’t left England. Your Norwegian neighbour won’t be addressed as Mrs (or even fru) Larsen. You’ll call her Mette (if that’s her name). If you need to make apologies for the informal Norwegian way of life, you could have your character remark on it. But only if you, the writer, know about it.

Katherine Langrish’s Troll books, also set in Norway, are in effect quite English, but I mind that less, because I don’t think many of us know quite how the Vikings addressed each other. That makes it fantasy, and so can’t be authentic.

A recent read was set in Berlin in 1941, in a posh flat, with ‘very proper’ people. I can’t visualise them with a kitchen notice board with newspaper clippings displayed. I could well be wrong, but it feels more like an English kitchen of today. And would the young girl really have played hockey? I’m willing to be convinced, but hockey is so English/British/Commonwealth/whatever. Most of us say hockey and mean ice hockey.

The ‘charitable’ theory, according to the person I grumbled to, is that things need to be slightly ‘translated’ to fit in with the modern reader. That’s fine as regards strict but normal Victorian fathers, but in many cases you can either find out, or leave it out.

We are all the same, but oh so different.

I hasten to add that I don’t know anything. Except for filmjölk. And Swedes don’t feed FC at all. There will be porridge by the back doorstep for the house elf. That’s all.

Pure Dead…

If I had had more time I would have read every single Pure Dead book by Debi Gliori. I have lost count of how many she has written, but think it’s about seven. (If I could only find a website, Debi, to check…) The Pure Dead something or other books are exactly the sort of thing I was going on about yesterday. Funny. 

What’s more, Debi has not killed off lots of parents to let the children gallivant through literature on their own. This is proof that you don’t have to have dead adults to make it a child friendly story. Child characters can go off and do stupid things with parents all over the place. It helps if they are as unconventional as the Strega-Borgias. A bit Addams family, but more Strega-Borgia. 

They live in Scotland, which is always nice. Scope for kilts, monsters in the water, chilly castles and things. Lovely nanny for the three little Strega-Borgias, and a charming butler for everyone. To have a cook called Marie Bain is funny, and suggests the books aren’t only aimed at young readers. There’s a cryogenically preserved great-lots-of-times granny. She wakes up from time to time.

I especially like their pet Ffup.

They also have pet rats and pet spiders, and the reader becomes quite fond of them all. And like anyone more conventionally normal they have problems with roofs and other house related issues. Even when the house is a castle. Perhaps particularly when the house is a castle.

Extended family is another safe problem area. Here they can be a bit Italian. The littlest Strega-Borgia is called Damp. Something to do with nappies. The mother is a witch, which I approve of wholeheartedly.

I should really have kept up with buying all the books, in hardback. The first one, which I do own, is purple velvet, and anything more perfect would be hard to find.

Make me laugh

Searched the house for some humour this morning. As you can tell I’ve lost it, slightly. But why is it that books aren’t as funny as I think they used to be? Not every book I read has to be funny, but it’d be nice if more of them were. Some books these days are really very earnest. It’s important to be earnest, too, but, you know, I want to have fun. Sometimes I want to laugh out loud, but often it’d be enough to smile a little over an amusing plot or clever use of language.

People like to think JKR is boring, but that’s not the case. The bit where the Weasleys break through the Dursleys’ electric fire is very funny. The scene in the PM’s office is pretty good. And take Philip Pullman. He’s funny. When the silly old Scarecrow says he’s so stupid he will have to be an officer when he joins the army. That’s what I call humour.

And I can’t remember where and when I said this, but Michelle Magorian’s dance with the GIs in A Little Love Song, with oranges flying all over the place is hilarious. Better not return to the Vicar Of Nibbleswicke. Dahl wasn’t always as funny as people say, a lot of the time, but the toilet humour in Nibbleswicke is great fun.

So, am I childish in wanting more laughs, while still reading ‘good’ books? Am I wanting to laugh too frequently?

More early manuscripts

Daughter is a little like Lucy Coats. She doesn’t trust her mother.

According to Lucy’s comment on FLF the other day, her mother reads her books and praises them, which immediately disqualifies her from being taken seriously. I believe it’s the same with Adèle Geras and her daughter Sophie Hannah. They read each other’s books and Sophie offers constructive criticism, whereas Adèle tells Sophie how good her book is. As mothers do.

So why Daughter should ask my opinion on anything is beyond my comprehension. Her school is running a story writing competition, and she spent the half term writing her entry. I said it was good, but why should she believe me? (And however good it may be, has no bearing on how well she might do in the eyes of the judges.)

She wanted proper opinions, and she knows I know proper people. I counted to one hundred and plunged in with my emails, asking for people’s professional opinions. I now know how it might feel to have a whole proper real book that you want someone to read and say nice things about.

Thank you lovely readers for taking the time to read and comment.

Gone and forgotten

It seems to be an accepted fact that for each generation the behaviour of the young gets worse. We were all better than our children. People have been saying this for generations.

So when Andrew Motion complained of the literary equivalent in the Guardian this week, I wondered if it’s any different, really. We can’t all know exactly what the generation before us thought of as the norm. Things change, and the young know many things the older ones don’t.

Andrew thinks children need to read the Bible more. I don’t think he’s wrong, and his reasoning is sound. But it’s not the children’s fault they aren’t given the same Bible background that we had. And I suspect we don’t have what people had 50 years before us. We’ve survived.

They need the Bible to understand Tennyson and Milton and TS Eliot. Fine, but will they read much Milton? I’m sure he’s slipping, too.

The worst thing about my own dear Swedish teacher in the 6th form was that she was almost two generations older than me. She couldn’t understand why her favourite student was quite so dense. Neither did I. Then. Afterwards I worked out that she taught in a way that expected me (us) to have a background we didn’t have. Couldn’t have. If she’d known, she would most likely have been able and willing to bring us up to speed.

I don’t know my Bible all that well, and Greek mythology is Greek to me, most of the time. I couldn’t analyse poetry to save my life. Another teacher suggested a Finnish poet as a good starting point, but that just made things worse. She was a generation in-between, so her suggestion was probably geared to her own knowledge, not mine.

I think children should learn the Bible, if it’s at all possible. But these are the children we sometimes worry about reading at all. Or attending school.

So what have you forgotten, or never learnt? And is it a serious handicap, or does it feel normal?

My children don’t know what I know. I don’t know what they know. What will be their children’s shortcomings?

King’s Cross platforms

All that the Resident IT Consultant could say about Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13, was that Virgin doesn’t have anything to do with King’s Cross. That’s train nerds for you. Actually, he did say he liked it a lot, too. The Virgin connection is because the book we just rescued from Daughter’s shelves, was a freebie from Sir Richard, back when they wanted to impress families travelling by train.

At long last I’ve read the book that surely JKR must also have read. If she didn’t, it would be a real piece of proof that extremely similar ideas come floating through space at a particular time. No point listing all the similarities, because the stories aren’t the same. They are both a lot of fun, each in their own way.

I’ll begin by guessing that Eva is no fan of the country’s first female prime minister, judging by some of the more memorable characters in this book. Handbags and hairdos.

Platform 13 hides a door to an island that sounds like paradise. Like with so many trains, you can only get there very infrequently. In this case every nine years. A baby prince is kidnapped on one occasion, and needs to be found and brought back nine years later. It’s a Harry and Dudley kind of set-up, and there are many, many funny goings-on in London before things go as they should. This is a good, old-fashioned story, so you can tell from the beginning what will happen, but you don’t know how.

Good is good, and bad is bad. And I’m sure there is a reason why bad people are so often very fat. But I do have to say one thing in defence of the bad mother in this story. If you specifically ask for soup with no bits in, then a few leaves of parsley do not make it prettier or better. Think about it.


So, who do you trust? Nobody? Wife or husband or agent?

According to the Guardian the other day, Ian McEwan has a few friends looking out for ‘flickering log fires’ in his books. Not that I personally mind stuff like that. It just goes to show how blind/tolerant I am. Delete whichever suits you. But real authors don’t want common clichés, and it seems that it’s generally the person they sleep with (!) or their agent who gets to read their manuscripts first.

And why is it still a manuscript in this electronic day and age? (I’m sure that’s a FLF, btw, but I don’t care.)

Meg Rosoff has a husband, who reads and criticises. Who do the rest of you use?

Secret orphans

Robert Muchamore has a way of getting children reading. I was going to say boys, if I hadn’t known more girl fans of his, than boy fans. I read his first Cherub book some years ago, which was entertaining in an Alex Rider sort of vein, but I felt I didn’t have time to follow a series that grew very quickly. Also, have to admit to finding the description of the first boy’s mother offensive. You can kill off fictional parents if you need to, without insulting them as well.

I was more interested in Robert’s new mini series, Henderson’s Boys, which is a WW2 prequel to Cherub. Yet again, there’s a need to kill off parents. I would have liked to see the newly orphaned children a little more upset over the whole orphaning process, because I don’t think it would have made them any less heroic.

The violence is quite spectacular, in a James Bond kind of way. You just know you’ve got the right to kill indiscriminately, and it doesn’t allow for Germans being human beings, too. Setting aside any feelings of being pc, it’s a fast paced adventure that’s very easy to read. The book comes wrapped in a rather nice map which shows what happened, and when and where,  in 1940. Three children make their way through France, and eventually meet up with the help of Charles Henderson, a British spy.

Robert assures himself of loyal readers by ending with a cliff hanger, followed by the first chapter of book two. I defy any child not be desperate for the next instalment.