Monthly Archives: July 2009

Bye, Frank

I didn’t know why Bookwitch got all those hits for Ellen McCourt early on Monday morning. Thought it might be a fluke.

Frank McCourt in Stockport

Now I know why, of course. Frank died on Sunday, and he’ll be missed by many. Offspring and I met him twice, and he was great both times. Very funny, but slightly impatient with his moderator in Gothenburg three years ago. Frank sort of took over and did her job as well, and I’m not sure she noticed. She was so flustered at sitting next to the famous Frank McCourt.

Then it was Frank and Ellen in Stockport in November 2007, with tales of crispy chicken and ticks. Very friendly and really lovely. It felt like they were personal friends instead of visiting stars.

It’s not always Daughter pays attention when I report having seen in the news that someone has died. She did this time. It’s the personal connection which makes all the difference.

Frank McCourt in Gothenburg

Here is Daughter, being pushed ahead of all those chancing autograph collectors who couldn’t even be bothered to buy a book. Little did they know that her book hadn’t been purchased there, either. But anything for queue jumping.

Frank, we’ll remember your way of spinning a funny tale around what someone was having for dinner. Crispy chicken!

Dark Angels

I wonder if there’s going to be more? Katherine Langrish’s Dark Angels could end where it does, or it could be the start of something bigger, just like her Troll trilogy. She’s good at the ‘young boy and young girl, with small domestic “creature”, and dark secret places’ kind of plot.

Dark Angels is Wales, rather than Norway, but both settings have that interesting mystical feel to them. Wolf has escaped a cruel master in the monastery where his father sent him as a small child, and Lady Agnes, or Nest, is soon to be married to someone she doesn’t know. Both want something different from life than what they’ve been given.

Then a small creature, who might be an elf, is found, and Agnes’s father thinks it/she may be the answer to his troubles. Wolf and Agnes and even the small elf have to learn who to trust, and who is the enemy.

The story is set soon after the Crusades, and Wolf is full of the romance of fighting for God. The crusaders, however, have a different view of what they had to do.

I didn’t quite understand if there really was something supernatural in Dark Angels, or not. Elves, a white lady, hobs and the devil himself, maybe. Or perhaps all of them could be explained away, somehow. Katherine’s strength is that she makes the fantasy elements seem perfectly normal. Of course you have a hob in a corner, telling you what you need to know. Don’t you?

Stop children reading, now

Well done to the powers that be, for finding another few nails to put in the coffin of how to make children readers. This new ‘pedophile’ thing, requiring children’s authors to part with £64 to register that they aren’t all a bunch of child molesters, before they visit a school, is an interesting one.

Some, like Philip Pullman, who doesn’t need to visit schools for a living, can just stop visiting. The rest will have to pay up. And if you don’t, for whatever reason, does that mean that there might just be some truth in the suggestion? It can be hard for former alcoholics to say no to a drink by explaining they are former alcoholics, but you can’t very well go round telling schools you’re not coming because you actually enjoy molesting children.

Seven years ago when I volunteered to help in the school library, I was never allowed to be alone with the children. Not because I think I was suspected of anything, but it made sense. Whether I could have had myself vetted, I don’t know. But I think vetted means that you’ve never been caught doing whatever it is; not that you’re definitely not into that kind of thing.

I met many authors at that school. And they would have been hard pushed to be alone a with a child or a group of children. What does the government think? That the author arrives in school, and is put in a classroom with the children and left? Some schools seem to think that authors can be used that way. ‘Free’ babysitting. But then you might want to worry about the school, not the poor visitor.

It was always very hard getting authors to come and visit. It will become a much rarer thing now. But it goes quite well with abolishing school libraries, doesn’t it? Soon nobody will have to do anything to do with books. Those computers schools swear by, that are taking over the LRCs, they don’t ever lead children into danger or into contact with child molesters, do they?


Craig Simpson signing

‘Are you Dogfight?’, is an unusual way of addressing someone, but it’s how the authors at the Lancashire Book Awards identified each other. By their books. And Dogfight is Craig Simpson’s book. It’s pure Heroes from Telemark crossed with Alistair MacLean. In other words, perfect for old and weird witches, not to mention young readers.

When the Resident IT Consultant joined us on holiday this week, I put him to wash the house. The outside walls, you understand. I suffered a small pang of guilt, wondering if I was being unreasonable. But when I found that he still had time to steal my Dogfight, I came to the conclusion he needs more to do, not less.

Luckily he is sufficiently scared of me to let me have my book back when I demand it, so I finished it first. We both agreed it’s a very good book. We have also worked out what the publishers need to do to encourage female readers. They should do a Harry Potter cover thing, but with one cover for boys and one more appealing to girls. In Preston the girls were expressing gratitude for having ‘had’ to read some books, because otherwise prejudice would have prevented them from boyish covers like Dogfight.

The book is set in northern Norway during World War II, shortly after the German occupation. The hero Finn and his friend Loki almost accidentally turn resistance fighters, and very capable they are, too.

There are double agents, naturally, and lots of excitement and plenty of courage. And there are planes and daring flying stunts. Skiing, as befits a Telemark scenario, and underground newsletters and people-smuggling. Even the Shetland Bus gets a mention. Good work.

I won’t to give too much of the plot away, because you will want to read this. There are more books, and I know I will want to read them. I could really have done with these books when I was fourteen.

We’re not so sure about the intercom for Mrs Andersson’s flat, and not sure about so many Swedish surnames, but we are nitpicking nerds. But don’t worry, Craig Simpssen, you’re a nice man, and I can get lost in Preston with you anytime. Sorry, Simpson.

Millennium millions

Men who hate women. That’s the ‘real’ title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and last night I found people that fit the description quite well. Swedish television had a documentary on, about Stieg Larsson and his money and the feud over who inherits.

On the one hand are Stieg’s father and brother, and on the other his partner Eva, who he was with for over thirty years. When asked, the Larsson gentlemen didn’t seem to know when they had last seen their beloved Stieg. The year he died, or maybe the year before. Hard to say. Oh yes, his parents had farmed Stieg out to live with his grandparents for nine years when he was a small boy. So between sending him away and having him back and him leaving home as an adult, there was precious little time for them to get to know him.

But clearly they know him better, and love him better than the woman Stieg lived with. They didn’t think much of Eva. Painted her as mentally unstable, because there are standards to live up to, even when you’ve been bereaved. They both knew this, having lost wives themselves. Larsson junior even suggested that Larsson senior should marry his brother’s partner, to keep ‘things’ in the family. Well that sounds sane.

Eva and Stieg didn’t marry because he was the target of Nazis, and it was easier for him to remain alive and safe by Eva being the owner of the small flat they lived in. And as long as they weren’t married he couldn’t be traced this way. Funny then that the Larsson gents inherited half the flat and offered to turn Eva out of her home unless she handed over the laptop with book four in the Millennium series on.

That laptop, which by now is over five years old, was also avidly sought by Stieg’s former colleague on the magazine he wrote for. They felt they could do with another computer. This despite the Larssons giving them one million kronor of Stieg’s money. That’s one million out of an estimated eighty million.

At this point the television people, who had until then seemed very much on Eva’s side, demanded to see the laptop. She just looked at them and refused.

The brother and the father struck me as anything but literate. But they feel they are the best placed people to look after Stieg’s writing. The spineless publisher agrees.

It almost makes you think that boycotting the books would be the best thing. How could such an intelligent and caring man come from a family like that?

What price books?

Shops must make money. Shops are allowed to compete with each other by having offers on books. By being different from the next chain, a shop will gain a customer, who might have gone elsewhere. But I have some difficulty with the same chain charging differently depending on which shop you are in.

OK, so WH Smith at the airport has a very captive customer base, and shouldn’t be despised, too much, for relieving travellers of the full price for books. But why should two WH Smith shops in central Manchester charge differently from each other, on the same day?

Daughter came to the conclusion that she had better read the Twilight books, or face being the only one in the whole world who hasn’t read Stephenie Meyer’s vampire books. She shopped around. WH Smith in the Arndale had some offer for the books, but Waterstone’s had a three for two, which worked out cheaper, so that’s who she handed her money to. Then we hung around outside WH Smith at Piccadilly Station while waiting for the train home. I didn’t even have to enter the shop to notice their offer of the three first books for less than either of the other shops.

I have never compared prices between an ‘ordinary’ Sainsbury’s and one somewhere like Piccadilly, but I could understand that the sheer convenience of grabbing some food while running for a train could be an excuse for (well, almost) sandwiches costing more in the station. On that basis the books could also cost more, for the last minute desperate reader about to jump on a train. Rather like the plane passengers at the airport. So, how could we have guessed they’d be cheaper nearer the train?

It’s not as if the Meyer books are even new. Shame on WH Smith for pricing them like this.


Some time ago I contacted Marcus Sedgwick out of the blue, as I sometimes do, and asked him why he is learning Swedish. I felt I had the right to know, having been tipped off as to his educational interests. Marcus very kindly told me about his studying; most likely feeling it was safer to be polite to strange, mad witches, than not.

His new book Revolver has a strong Swedish flavour to it. The main character Sig Anderson is clearly Swedish, as is his immediate family. The 15-year-old sits with his father’s frozen corpse in a very cold cabin, somewhere that may or may not be Sweden, north of the Arctic Circle. It’s 1910, and most of the story is set at this time, with some flashbacks to 1899.

The revolver is a Colt, but I couldn’t help thinking of the film Winchester ’73, as so much seemed to have to do with Sig’s father’s weapon. To remain in the film world, the story also reminded me of High Noon. Probably because it happens over a brief period of  just over a day.

It’s very, very tense. You have the shock of sudden death and harsh surroundings and poverty, and then you add the frightening looking stranger who knocks on the door. Sig has to grow up overnight, and he has to think about what his father, and his dead mother, would want him to do.

This book provides both excitement and a brief introduction to the gold rush a century ago, and reminds the reader what desperate people will do.

And it takes a ‘foreigner’ like Marcus to make me think of the food called ‘palt’ as some kind of meatballs. I suppose it might well be.

A desk job

Once, I lived without a desk for a year, when I was about twenty. It was horrible. The being without a desk, not the whole year. So as long as I live somewhere reasonably normal, a desk will be a necessity, even if it’s small. I’m no Michael Morpurgo, in more ways than one, but writing in bed will not happen any time soon. He’s welcome to it.

I think I’ve mentioned my wardrobe study in Sweden (does a wardrobe rank above a kitchen table?), with the ghosts gliding past every now and then. I moved into this small space after Mother-of-witch died, and we allowed ourselves to stay on in her house. Not only do we use all the bedrooms for sleeping in, but to be able to let other people stay here occasionally, I needed somewhere other than a public area for my desk. The wardrobe has a door and a lock, and room for a desk.

The desktop has deteriorated over the twelve years I’ve resided in my clothes cupboard, and badly needed some attention. Daughter gasped as we arrived here this time, because it has had some love and attention at long last. It’s what being alone does for you. I actually had time to tidy up.

Working wardrobe

I am writing this sitting on the chair you can’t see here. It creaks, so there is never any sneaking. It came from the college Mother-of-witch taught at, a very long time ago. When they refurbished the classrooms in the early 1960s she carried home a typewriter table and a swivel chair on the back of her bike. One at a time, I hasten to add, and with the witch walking next to the bike, holding on to things.

The desk is vintage IKEA. The various pots for pens and stuff are a collection of memories, which is why they have been spirited away like this. They clash in style and are lacking in taste, but they have meaning.The paintings are early Mother-of-witch ones, and the photos are early Offspring.

Two paperweights were collected down on the beach by me, whereas the third was given to Mother-of-witch at a conference in Edinburgh. Interestingly the Resident IT Consultant’s parents had one just like it. Same conference. Coincidence, or what? The phone, regrettably, is pink. It was the cheapest phone in the shop. We murder telephones with regularity here. Lots of thunder. Lots of dead phones afterwards.

New gift wrap in rolls on the right, and old wrapping paper and ribbons in the bag by my feet. I’m a real cheapskate, and if the wrapping on your present looks wrinkly, you’ll know why. The ribbon most likely came from the baker’s, safeguarding some wonderful cream concoction or other.

The pile of papers on the left are my ideas. I optimistically believe that one day I’ll get round to writing about ‘those things’. The smaller notes on the right are more likely blog subjects. One pile for books and one for culture. And don’t you just wish I’d get on with something useful rather than tell you more about my wardrobe?

Going online, however, is something I do elsewhere. So in a way I have two desks. Should I get seriously low on blog subjects I may tell you about my Salvation Army bargain, too.

Angel Cake

I’m glad to find someone like Cathy Cassidy writing about immigrant children in Britain, because there is far too much prejudice everywhere, and it’s time that people stop and think about what it’s like to come here. Surprisingly not every immigrant is out to fleece the British, and immigrant children are especially unlikely to have engineered their move to this country.

So don’t blame them.

Anya and her little sister move from Krakow to Liverpool, and it’s not quite the pretty little cottage with roses that she had imagined, and her school is not like Hogwarts. I think we all dream of an England like Blyton’s or like Midsomer, minus the murders.

Cathy’s latest book, Angel Cake, tells a story about dreams going wrong, but also shows how eventually things can work out, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Anya meets another of Cathy’s rather lovely young male characters, and they both have needs, and they both help each other.

And there are rats and lovely cakes and goths and Polish traditions. And hope.

Torchwood, the book

Time to break with bookwitch tradition here. I generally don’t bother blogging about books that aren’t up to scratch, and I tend to have read them myself first. Not this time.

Daughter is very keen on the Doctor Who books. I can’t wean her off them, so have decided that it’s fine for her to read those books, even to the exclusion of so much else. I don’t think they are bad. (Maybe I ought to read one?) I just think of them as being more formula books, as they are written by a number of different writers. But, one of them is Steve Cole, who is an excellent writer. So as I said, it’s not all bad.

Recently, Daughter moved on to trying the Torchwood variety of BBC books, so while waiting to catch up with the new Torchwood on television this week, she read Another Life. When we like formula books, we tend either not to notice, or at least to overlook, poor writing, because there is something there that is satisfying and good. And Daughter never ever mentions bad writing, or bad editing.

This time she did. It must have been pretty bad for her to repeatedly say how badly written the book was, and to note how the proof-reading left something to be desired.

At £6.99 it’s not cheap for young fans, and I’m sure the BBC sell quite a respectable number of these books. They have certainly never responded to my requests for review copies, which tends to be a sign that someone reckons they don’t need reviews. They have never even bothered to reply to say no. But that’s up to them.

I do wish they’d provide young readers with better quality stories, though. Daughter has often wished she could write Doctor Who books. Maybe she could. Maybe she should.