Monthly Archives: November 2009

Eating Things on Sticks

Clare at Random snuck this Anne Fine book in with some others I had asked for. She thought it was worth a try. It was. It took a while, but I always intended to read Eating Things on Sticks. It travelled to Edinburgh with me, and Anne very kindly signed it for me after the debate with Melvin Burgess, which had been about rather more daring subjects than destroying houses on remote islands. By mistake.

Glerhus dill sotblug. Still don’t know what it means, but I can tell you it’s bad. It’s how the people on this island speak, and it affects the leaveability of the island. You can’t. And some people want to, but are stuck. (Philip Ardagh would love it there.)

So, Harry burns down his family’s kitchen, and then engineers a holiday with his Uncle Tristram, who quite frankly shouldn’t be allowed near cats or nephews. He’s in love with Morning Glory, who is very flaky indeed. She lives on the island with the sotblug lot.

This is a funny book. Read it.

I think I have read one other Anne Fine book, but am not sure. About time, wasn’t it? I was a wee bit scared of her, but I believe that even Melvin may be back on Anne’s Christmas card list. Or close. And I don’t aspire that high.


Salem Brownstone – All Along the Watchtowers

No longer a big comic reader, I still twitch a little when I spy something nice looking. And this is nice.

Do you remember the case of Nikhil Singh who is so ‘un-educated’ that British immigration can not let him return to this country? Well, this book which he illustrated, is very attractive. When I saw what it looked like on the website, I simply knew I needed to look a little closer.

And this will be so unfair, but I was less interested in the story, which is all about young Salem Brownstone who inherits his unknown father’s house. And some of Daddy’s little problems, like creepy characters and weird stones. At least I think it may have been a stone. I was so mesmerised by the pictures, I almost missed what John Harris Dunning has written.

The cover. Let’s start with the cover. Beautiful, in purple and black (I trust that wasn’t a groan I heard?), all swirly, and with a black menacing looking title square. Well, rectangle, to be precise. Inside, page after page of very black, and still swirly, cartoons. Sometimes it can be hard to tell what you are looking at, except that it’s art. Very dark.

Salem Brownstone - All along the watchtowers

I think it ends well. For Salem Brownstone, unless they think up a sequel where he has to chase round and save the world again.

I hope it will become better for Nikhil, too.

(Not) in a jiffy

I’m totally out-jiffied here. I thought I was going to clean the house. Instead I have spent some time in the basement. We needed to find our tools, and we couldn’t, for all the jiffy-bags. Such is the professional hazard of a book blogger. I suffer for my art. (OK, and I quite enjoy myself, too.)

So by the expedient moving of several million jiffy-bags from tool room to laundry room (logical, I know) we could get at the tools. And in order to put some more washing on, the jiffies needed sorting pronto. Hence the lack of a clean house and a de-jiffied basement.

I was brought up to be frugal and not throwing away jiffy-bags is a virtue hard to give up on. You never know when they’ll come in handy. Never, by the looks of those tottering piles. Oh, I send the odd thing in the post, and the pleasure I get from not having to buy a padded envelope is great, but they kept piling up. As fast as the books one floor up, actually. Maybe the two are related, somehow.

Three sacks, I threw out. It had to be the day after the rubbish collection. But at least it’s now piling up outside the house.

And bubble wrap. I didn’t know I had so much! And tissue paper and brown paper for parcels. Plastic carrier bags. Loads.

Hah. All neat and tidy now, and I am not allowed to put any more of those by. Son had also saved the LP sized boxes my Roger Whittaker collection off eBay arrived in. In case we were ever selling them again… As if.

Oh, yes, and a 750g bottle of salt. Full.

Can’t explain that.

2009 Stockport Schools’ Book Award

We all know what a disgrace I am, and I’m sure if I’d had the patience to wait until late Thursday morning, I’d have been furnished with the full results for my local book awards. But I didn’t, so that’s why a Wednesday evening event gets reported on Friday morning.

What I knew before the event, was that Mary Hooper won her category with Newes From the Dead and that Sally Nicholls would be in town, presumably to receive her prize for Ways to Live Forever. That was as far as my detective work got me, and I spent some time even getting that far.

Stockport Town Hall

I double checked the website on Wednesday night in the hopes that the results would miraculously have appeared. All I found was the information that it was a quarter to seven arrival for a quarter past five start. Yes, I know. I’m being picky, again. But some awards not only have press releases, but proof read their stuff before publishing.

Tried to do some clever guessing, and decided that Frank Cottrell Boyce was very likely to win with Cosmic, which he did. Good choice! Beware of the Frog by William Bee won the second youngest category, and I’m blushing as I admit to having no knowledge of either the book or the author. Luckily I have heard of Nick Sharratt, whose The Foggy Foggy Forest won the youngest age group prize, with what sounds a very FFFine book.

As I said, I know Sally and Mary both intended to travel to Stockport. Would have liked to know if the others were here to receive their awards. Frank doesn’t have far to come. All winners tend to get carted round to a school, or two, so I suppose that’s where they are as I’m writing this. It’s a cold and dismal day, but warmed by a book award it might feel better, and Stockport may even look half lovely.

Costa Children’s Award Shortlist 2009

Siobhan Dowd, Solace of the Road

Mary Hoffman, Troubadour

Patrick Ness, The Ask and the Answer

Anna Perera, Guantanamo Boy

Three and a bit isn’t bad for this year’s Costa shortlist. So I may not have read every word on the shortlist, but I feel fully informed and know what I know and what I think. At least I think so.

Let’s see; who’s going to win this year? I’ll do my own shortlist, which has two books on it. And I’m not telling.

Mortal Ghost

So what did I say about friendship and reviewing the other day?

I’ll come clean here and say that Mortal Ghost by L. Lee Lowe is not just a book written by someone I know and like, but it’s a self published novel, so didn’t come my way via a publisher. In fact, when we first met on the Internet, Lee had already got some of Mortal Ghost to read online, but although I read the first couple of chapters, I really didn’t want to read on screen.

It was also available to download, but again, I didn’t want to print a whole book. (Good thing, perhaps, as it’s really quite long.) Then one day a Lulu printed copy plopped through the letterbox, courtesy of Lee herself, which was very kind.

Lee has some strong opinions on the publishing world, and wants to do things on her own terms, which is why she is happy to let people download her books for free, rather than worrying about making money. I can understand her yearning for independence, apart possibly for the money aspect.

Mortal Ghost is a novel with a supernatural element to it, rather in the vein of a Tim Bowler story. It’s about the teenager Jesse, who sleeps rough and is found by Sarah in the park. She brings him home with her. Her family is anything but conventional, so this works well. Then many, many inexplicable things happen, and it’s as hard for the reader to know what’s going on, as it is for Sarah and her family and for Jesse himself.

Jesse has a violent past, and odd pieces of violence keep cropping up wherever he goes. It took me a while to understand that I could never work out where this story was going. Knowing Lee’s background as an American living in Germany, I still found it hard to place where the book is set. It could be Britain, or it could be intentionally non-specific. I feel there is a mix of all three countries.

I was beset by doubts through a lot of the book, but in the end the plot works. Whether a conventional publisher would have allowed it is another question.

As for its self published status, you can tell that it would have been different had an editor been involved. I struggled a little with the fast changing points of view. They work in this story, but could have been clearer. Similarly there were other details that would be obvious to Lee, because it was all in her head, but which would have benefitted from an outsider’s perspective.

But all in all I have to admire Lee for all her work, done without all the usual publishing support. It takes someone strong to do that. Someone unusual. The slightly flaky mother in the story reminded me of someone…

Here is a link to a recent interview with Lee, which will tell you more about her and her writing. (I went looking for a photo of Lee, and I found one eventually, but decided not to in the end.)

Doesn’t add up

For a while there I lost my entire teen years. I read the interview with Maj Sjöwall in the Observer at breakfast, and after my first incredulous thought that ‘It can’t have been that long ago!’ I threw myself over Wikipedia to check my facts. And theirs.

I was right. It was a relief to find I hadn’t imagined Per Wahlöö alive – if not well – when I was a teenager. I remembered him dying, and the nine-year-old me wouldn’t have. So the Observer writer making him out to have died 44 years ago was wrong.

Typo, I thought charitably. Well, fairly charitably. I’m a mean old witch, although not as old as they tried to make me. No, I don’t think it was a typo, because the number 44 is repeated in the text, and elsewhere the writer states it’s over forty years since Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote together. Make that over thirty years, please. And 34 since he died.

I was looking at the photo of them, with their children, in typical 1970s clothes and hairstyles. Is it the case that not only is it a little hard to deduct 1975 from 2009 and end up with the correct answer, but that if you’re young enough you can’t tell the difference between 1960s ‘fashion’ and ten years later?

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

It was in ‘sixth form’ that I heard of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, during those radical years in the mid seventies, taking for granted the hopes and the ideals, which we now wonder where on earth they went. When Per died I was a callous teenager who felt that dying was what old people did, and he seemed old to me.

Wikipedia at breakfast is unusual in these parts, so it’s sign of how worked up I became at the thought that all this happened in the mid sixties. Illogical that it should have, as the ten years of writing about Beck would have had to have started in the 1950s to make this possible.

I know, it’s uncharitable to complain, but it really distressed me to think I was ten years out in my own life.

Can’t trust anyone, then

Not only does it seem that we can’t trust reviewers not to bore us or give too much away, but they want a little extra money for their trouble. (I can tell you that my halo feels really heavy today.) From the same source as the $25 payment for reviews I gather that we can’t expect ‘staff picks’ labels in bookshops to be genuine, either.

Or maybe we can. Replies coming in suggested it works both ways. Some say that of course we can’t think that individual staff members read and recommend books in shops, and others say that in their experience it’s all genuine.

I’m rarely in the big chain shops, but had some time in a Borders not too long ago. Forget why, but I spent time waiting for whatever, by looking over the teen books section, and seeing what they recommended. Good enough selection, but disappointed by the very predictable ‘recommendations.’ So maybe they were head office recommendations. Or maybe it was just staff not reading anything terribly exciting or different.

I’m not saying they mustn’t read, like or recommend Harry Potter or Twilight, but it’s just that little bit too obvious. I’d love it if they read some more unknown titles and told shoppers about them, enticing people away from the commonest purchases.

What little experience I have from the local indie bookshop is that the shop likes to steer ‘shelf talkers,’ both as to which books should have them and what they should say and how. I used to feel this defeated the purpose of using customers, and in particular child readers, recommending something they had loved. ‘You can only love and recommend what we want.’

Do you find they assist you picking books to buy? Would you like to put up a shelf talker where you shop?

Hand over the money!

Or rather, please don’t.

Following close on yesterday’s reviewing thoughts, here is another problem I found on Rutger’s Child Lit Request the other day. The subject is book review ethics. The person who asked had been shocked to hear of a friend who’d approached someone for a review of her book and had been told that it would be ‘$25, please’. The question is whether this is OK, and how common it may be?

$25 for a review could be seen as an advertising fee, and depending on where it appears, it’s fairly cheap. But how could you ever trust a review like that? Not that the reader of the review would know that money had passed from author to reviewer, but surely the author would feel uncomfortable with it?

It was a tempting thought, for about a split second. But think of the guilt! I suffer dreadful pangs of generally being inadequate for not reading books, or not liking them, or something. Maybe I’m simple, but when the lovely publicity people at publishers push books, I find it hard to say no.

‘Luckily’ I’m so short of time that I have to say no. I can’t even read all books that I think look promising. So with $25 in my hand I’d feel guiltier still. And what would I do once I’d read the $25 book? The bribe-free witch only writes about things that appeal, or possibly about a book that is worth a blog anyway. I give up on books quickly, in order to move on to one I like. A few times recently I have persevered, and then had the problem that several days worth of reading has turned out to mean I don’t get a blog out of it.

However much I would like to make some money, I can’t see how it would happen. (Have you any idea of how often I’m asked if I can make money out of the blog? I’ll have to put up a donate button soon. That at least would be anonymous.) The bonus for me is that I don’t have to buy books very much.

And friendship can be another obstacle, as well as a bonus. I’ve met so many wonderful people, both on the internet and in real life, and usually I like both them and their books. But what if I like the person more than the books they write? Likewise, when I’ve made it quite clear on here that I really like someone, will others trust me if I say that this writer’s new book is great?

It’s always easiest if I can sneak up from behind and blog about books and people without feeling any obligation, because nobody knows I’m looking. But that’s getting increasingly difficult.

Giving it away

Reviews. How hard can they be? Quite difficult, actually, which is why I do my own version of the things, carefully avoiding a lot of intelligent musings on a variety of literary stuff. In short, I don’t know how, so I cheat. But I do know not to just list the plot, step by step, or to tell the end in detail.

I never did get round to reading the Striped Pyjamas, because I hated being told the ending in the Guardian review. Didn’t even see it coming. These days I squint carefully at a review if the book is still waiting to be read hereabouts. In fact, I was a little annoyed at being told too much about Running Wild a few weeks ago, too.

The Guardian review of Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals seemed to be only a list of what happens. Couldn’t work out if the reviewer even liked it. I wonder what people get paid for that kind of thing? I could easily summarise novels in 600 words for payment. I’ll even throw in 100 words of opinion if required.

The other question can be what to review. I was very pleased to see that the Halloween issue of the Guardian covered two of my selected Halloween books. Generally we don’t seem to attach importance to the same books.

What length? The Guardian does a crime column with about four crime novels very briefly reviewed. Barbara from Scandinavian Crime Fiction recently felt that that was just too brief. But better than not at all, I feel.

Crime and children’s books; always forgotten or ignored. Except here, naturally.