Monthly Archives: September 2009

Marmite is truly horrid

We have a cellar full of Marmite. Luckily it’s fully contained in those nice jars that Marmite comes in. It’s only unlucky, because we don’t really need to buy any more Marmite for the foreseeable future.

I don’t like Marmite. Neither does Horrid Henry, which rather surprised me. Silly of me, as I’ve already mentioned what a sensible boy he is. Why should he fall for that ridiculous notion that Marmite really is much nicer than its smell would lead you to believe? That’s for his silly brother to do. Perfect Peter does like that foul-smelling, dark brown substance.

By now the people at Marmite and at Orion will be up in arms, and probably Philip Ardagh, too, although he has nothing to do with Henry. But I will admit that Marmite and Orion have come up with a good idea. You buy Marmite – if you must – and then you can download a total of five free Horrid Henry audiobooks. If you buy five jars, that is, which sounds a little OTT.

Horrid Henry's annual

There has been no end to Horrid Henry in these parts. As if the story collection I mentioned the other day wasn’t enough, Marmite-hater Henry has an annual, too. Naturally.

Horrid Henry’s Annual 2010, illustrated by Tony Ross as usual, has a lot in it. I’d say that any Henry fan would enjoy the tricks, jokes, quizzes and whatnot. Even an old witch feels all twitchy when eyeing the wordsearches and the things to make.

V I is back

V.I. is back

This great t-shirt has been specially thought up by Sara Paretsky to mark the return of V I Warshawski. V I has been away for a while, and rumour has it she went to Italy. Today sees the publication of Hardball, although only in America. UK readers have to wait until February, I think.

Hardball t-shirt

As a special treat for particularly bothersome bloggers, Sara sent out a few t-shirts a couple of weeks ago, which was really kind of her. You’d think that having books to write, book tours to go on and video recorders to set to record NCIS as it starts this evening, would be more than enough.

It’s not just her books we love.

Nominations for the 2010 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

The ALMA people have a long longlist of 168 nominations for next year’s award, and I won’t write them all down here. I had a little look for individual authors that you may know and be interested in:

David Almond, Quentin Blake, Aidan Chambers, Morris Gleitzman, Margaret Mahy, Michael Morpurgo, Walter Dean Myers, Axel Scheffler, Kate Thompson, Tomi Ungerer, Jacqueline Wilson and Diana Wynne Jones.

There are absolutely masses of Scandinavian writers, as well as others from countries we rarely pay attention to in the English speaking world. And then there are the organisations. Boring as it may seem to vote for a group that brings books and reading to many children, I wonder whether that is what they should do after all.

The above writers are all good and worthy, and as Sonya Hartnett found last year, five million kronor will do a lot for a person. But the good the money will do through an organisation is very different.

I also wonder why these particular authors are on the list. Presumably because they have someone who campaigns for them and who are allowed to nominate. I need to find out who does get to nominate. I can see myself nominating, you know.

Do teachers read?

I know it’s an inappropriate thought to have, but thank goodness our school hall burned down! When the witch was a 12-year-old witchlet, the new assembly hall at her school burned down. Looking back, I can see how lucky we were. It decided to burst into flames on a sports day when we were all somewhere else. And because it was ‘just’ the hall, the rest of the school could continue operating and we weren’t messed about with.

What it meant was that we couldn’t have full school assemblies every morning, so instead we had class assemblies in the classroom we were in for the first period of the day, with our teacher for that lesson. So a whole host of teachers suddenly had to come up with worthy ways of ‘entertaining’ us every morning.

My all time favourite teacher, Mr Nyström, read to us. First he read The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. He was excellent at doing voices and must have been an actor at heart. He then went on to give us Three Men in a Boat, and I still can’t read it without hearing his voice.

I don’t remember how long the hall was out of circulation, so there may have been more books, or maybe Magister Nyström moved on to other entertainment. The point is that he gave us books that we would never have thought, or known, to read ourselves.

My Swedish teacher at the same school spent one lesson a week reading to us. Again, this bunch of 13-somethings would never have considered reading John Steinbeck, but we all enjoyed The Pearl. The trick here was that both teachers chose adult books, but easy ones. We had barely grown out of traditional children’s books, but were ready to discover other things, even if we didn’t know it.

So Alan Gibbons’ most recent newsletter for The Campaign for the Book which deals with all the teachers who don’t read, came as a timely reminder of what’s important. It shouldn’t be necessary to have something called ‘In defence of reading for pleasure’. He lists the results of a survey:

‘Teachers “never read a whole book”. One in eight teachers has never read a book to their class, research has revealed. Almost 600,000 children could be missing out on great stories and failing to develop a love of reading because of the use of book “extracts” in the classroom, it suggests.

The study, commissioned by educational published Heinemann to mark the launch of reading programme Literacy Evolve, highlights teachers and parents fears that a lack of whole book reading is affecting pupils academic performance. It found 12% of teachers say they have never read a whole book to their class, while the same proportion say they read just one book a year.

Almost eight in 10 teachers (78%) say the use of “bite-size” extracts reduces the thrill of reading, with half saying that they know of an occasion where a pupil lost the thread of a story because they were not read the full book. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, by CS Lewis, Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Good Night Mr Tom, by Michelle Magorian, and a number of Roald Dahl books were cited as novels in which children failed to grasp the story.

Former Children’s Laureate Michal Rosen said book extracts deny pupils “the meat of the story.” He said: “The idea that children can’t manage whole stories or whole books is a nonsense. No extract in the world has the power of books.” ‘

Alan goes on to comment  ‘This report makes disturbing reading. Our education system has been moving ever more rapidly towards a functional approach. There is even an Orwellian strand called ‘functional English’ as if that has any meaning. Language is fundamental to human society. We do not interact in any sphere of life in a purely functional way. A good shop assistant swaps anecdotes with his or her customers. A good teacher engages his or her pupils with anecdotes. The best business people are as creative as a novelist, poet or journalist. To be successful in the modern world you have to be flexible, creative and literate. Interestingly a high proportion of truly original movers and shakers have got where they were without going to university or even having much of a formal education. Almost all of them developed a love of reading for pleasure. Schools don’t have to be test factories. They can become places of enquiry and broad cultural development. What better way to achieve this than by being immersed from a young age in great oral stories, poems and books?

Tragically, the world has been taken over by the latter day Bounderbys and Gradgrinds. Many children come into school with a significant literacy deficit. No amount of booster classes or remedial groups will address this without making the project of reading and writing fun. Every child should be read to at home and at school every single day. Anything less is a betrayal of a generation.’

There are teachers who manage to read, despite the dreaded National Curriculum hanging over their heads. So more teachers could do it.

The teacher at Daughter’s secondary school who started up a lunch break reading club quickly forgot it was extracurricular fun, unfortunately. So in the end it was more of a turn-off than enjoyable. I know there are many ‘horrible’ school children, but how about forgetting to tell pupils off some of the time?

To blog or not to blog

This space had been reserved for a short blog on what I did on Friday night. But it didn’t amount to very much, so I’m having to decide whether to blog about nothing or pick one of my Blue Peter style ‘one I prepared earlier’ posts. I’ll see how I do writing about nothing, and please don’t tell me it’s something I do far too often as it is. I know.

I had been invited to a book launch. This happens occasionally, and it’s a fun way of getting out and meeting people, even for socially inept witches. It can be expensive travelling to London, where everything happens, so as this launch was in Manchester it seemed like a very good thing. Hopefully it turned out to be good for those who felt they belonged.

Despite the open style invite, I’d say the intention was to gather friends and family to celebrate a new book, and I’m not friends and family. We departed as quickly as we could, which was after about ten minutes. It’s rare that I give up that easily, especially once there has been some investment of time and train fares. But a gate crasher is a gate crasher.

So I can’t tell you whose launch it was or what the book is. ☹

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest

There is something worse than finding that the book you’ve just finished reading has a sequel which you need to wait for. It could be that the author is dead, so is unable to write that sequel. Stieg Larsson is no longer alive, and I kept worrying as I raced through Luftslottet som sprängdes, that it would be too much in need of a sequel for me to be happy. Strictly speaking it doesn’t have to be continued, but you are left feeling that there is a continuation, which there is, as we know. Part of one, at least, and the question is how much of it exists.

Not that I’m sure it would satisfy to have half a book, or a short Stieg Larsson. And considering the mess his estate’s in, I doubt it can happen anytime soon. The more I read of book three, the more I was reminded of Stieg’s family. I’ll leave it to you to work out which characters reminded me of them.

Luftslottet som sprängdes

The titles have had me thinking, too. Before reading Luftslottet som sprängdes I thought I knew what it meant. The same goes for the concept of kicking a hornets’ nest, but in both cases I’d say the meaning is almost the opposite of what I’d had in mind.

Where book two set Lisbeth Salander up with a worse mess than she’d been in before, the ‘concluding’ book sorts things out more than you are made to expect at first. It looks very, very grim to begin with. For me it was difficult to keep fact from fiction, as there is so much that belongs in real life, and I couldn’t quite draw a line anywhere. The prime minister is in there, and so is a named predecessor of his. Real life scandals and names are mixed with fiction.

If this had been a film and if Daughter had watched it, I know exactly how she would have screamed in delight through most of it. The last two thirds, anyway. It’s fun and it’s exciting. I did spend a little time wondering how much could be allowed to go wrong, and one of my suppositions only half happened. I just feel that a stage had been set, so maybe it’s for a later book.

The plot doesn’t do much to recommend the Swedish police or government or anything much. But when things look bleak, there are individuals with integrity dotted about here and there. Mikael Blomkvist is as capable and devious as before, and Lisbeth Salander, well, she is very much herself. There is a doctor who was based on one of Stieg’s friends, and he was written into the plot under his own name. Unfortunately he upset the Larsson family sufficiently to have his name written out again. Oh well, his acts speak louder than any name.

Stieg didn’t write in any great literary style, but it’s not necessary. The plot and the general excitement means that it’d be hard to come up with anything quite like it. It’s not just Lisbeth Salander who is on the autistic spectrum, I’d say. The neat and precise way the good characters plot the path to safety, suggests a fair amount of Aspie reasoning, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. I suspect that’s why it satisfies so much.


I was going to begin by saying that you mustn’t all start writing romances after this blog, but then I thought that if you did, I’d most likely find myself reading some very good romances some time soon. (Well, not soon soon, publishing takes time. But soon.) It’s not the genre that is bad, it’s the quality of the writing. Just as I have a fondness for opera singers singing popular songs, really. It’s supposed to be really dreadful that they do, but I like popular songs, and I love them being sung by someone who really knows how to sing. Take Pavarotti singing Ti Adoro. Wonderful!

Anneli Rogeman who is editor of my favourite Swedish magazine Vi usually writes good editorials, commenting sensibly on whatever topic she has a go at. I tend to agree most of the time. I was just a little disappointed with her latest editorial, where she attacks light reading.

At least, I think she is. In the summer I blogged about what Swedes were reading, and mentioned the latest publishing phenomenon, Lars Kepler. He’s a pseudonym. Now he has been outed, and Anneli Rogeman is disappointed. Lars is in actual fact two very ‘proper’ authors, married couple Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril (yes, really!), about whom I know virtually nothing, living in exile as I do. But they are good, I understand that much. Good as in serious, and promising to reach greater greatness in future.

Or they would, had they not stooped so low as to write for the man in the street who has little interest in literature. She moans that now we will lose years of real books from them, as they’ve been contracted to write eight books. But surely, they have the right to write anything they like? This way they will provide reading material for many more people than their ‘proper’ writing would. That’s not a bad thing, I feel. I don’t know what this Lars Kepler book is like, but assume it’s a well written novel; that they have written lighter, not badly.

AA and AA stand to make a lot more money doing this. I can see that this would be attractive. But it seems this is to be sneered at. You have proper literature for the few and possible financial hardship, versus ‘rubbish’ and authors who are well off. Hm. Tricky.

Apparently there are five reasons for writing under a pseudonym, according to Anneli Rogeman. To get read at all, if you’re a woman, say. To attract curiosity and attention. To joke with the establishment. To avoid ruining your ‘proper’ writing. To simplify your own name.

Bo Balderson

The reason I got a little incensed with the editorial was that an old favourite of mine was listed under the second reason, and was rubbished by Anneli Rogeman. I now feel that my earlier fondness of and appreciation for Bo Balderson* has been ruined in my mind. His crime novels from forty years ago are only mediocre, it seems. It was just the fact that none of us knew who BB was that made people buy the books. Really? I read them because they were funny, and I enjoyed them. The mystery was fun too, but even now that BB has been found to have been a mere primary school teacher (and I expect my Vi to be less scathing on the subject of being a ‘mere’ anything), I still like him. I wished he’d turn out to be King Gustaf VI Adolf, but this is OK.

OK, so let’ move back from mere school teachers to potential Nobel prize winners; they are still allowed to write what they want. And if they do a light genre well, then that is good and will give pleasure to many. Maybe one day they will sink so low as to write for children. No, surely not…

(*Footnote – Bo Balderson wrote crime novels about a sleuth who just happened to be a government minister. He was really only an affable, wealthy man with about 14 children, but he accidentally became a minister because his galoshes were too large. He is assisted in his sleuthing by his long suffering school teacher brother-in-law; a nervous and over-sensitive man. At the time almost every public person in Sweden was suspected of being Bo Balderson. I really favoured the theory that it was the King.)