Monthly Archives: November 2009

Prizes, television, travels and other news

Philip Ardagh

Philip Ardagh is officially funny, having been awarded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2009 on Tuesday. I understand Philip is fairly pleased with the outcome, and he will be on BBC Breakfast this morning, if anyone’s up early enough to catch him. I will have to put my trust to iPlayer or Facebook friends.

I had assumed that Philip would have a cupboard full of prizes by now, but it seems not. So here’s a particularly big, witchy ‘Well Done, Mr Ardagh!’ from all of us at Bookwitch. Champagne receptions! I don’t know what the publishing world is coming to.

This is slightly late, I’m afraid, but I hope people are watching the television series Jinx? It’s based on Fiona Dunbar’s books about Lulu Baker, which I haven’t read (sorry, Fiona!). I enjoyed he first two episodes which were on CBBC at Halloween. The next two have been recorded for when this witch has a spare moment. I think there are 13 episodes in all, broadcast Saturdays and Sundays at 10.30.

Fiona Dunbar and Jinx cast

Liz Kessler with US mermaid

Liz Kessler has been blogging about her US tour, at long last. The happy snippets of information that had reached me earlier weren’t enough, so this very long tale of what it was like, swanning around America as the successful author she is, makes up for it. I think I really must try and write some best-selling books so that I, too, can have an experience like hers.

Though I have a dreadful suspicion that I was invited to the National Book Festival in Washington, as well. I just remember thinking that someone was mistaken if they thought I could just hop over to Washington like that. I think maybe I should have hopped. It sounds good. Please invite me again!

Some witchy developments last. A witch can never have too many blogs, so on Saturday night my third witchy blog saw the light of day, except it was well past midnight, and only the kitchen lamp shone, but never mind tiny details. I had come to the rather sudden conclusion that an all-Swedish book blog from moi would be a good thing, and then I went looking for a name. You wouldn’t believe how many combinations of witch and book and reading there are out there. So I’m simply Bookwitch på svenska.

And then, you know how easily a witch gets carried away. Monday morning I set up a fourth blog. Quite quick that time, since I’d not had the opportunity to forget what I did 36 hours earlier. This one is not mine, however. It’s for the church which is still being threatened with closure. As Son said on Skype, what is there not to understand in ‘you are not allowed to sell this building?’.

(Photos; hmm, the one of Philip is by H Giles. Fiona supplied hers, of her own free will, and Liz’s I stole. Sorry!)

New-ish Puffins

Thank goodness Helen Grant had hair! Nice hair, too, in a French plait. The other three didn’t. At all. I’m not being alopecia-ist, I hope. It’s fashionable to be bald.

Anyway, the witch made it to the Strand offices of Puffin on Monday, to meet New Talent. They had a line-up of four, comprising Jason Bradbury, Alex Scarrow, David Yelland and Helen Grant with the hair. The Resident IT Consultant wondered why I was going, but relaxed when he heard I would be meeting the author of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. ‘That’s a very good book’ he said. (Just imagine – the man remembered it!)

Don’t know Jason Bradbury, though I gather he’s on television. I can believe that. He bounced through his presentation for the new book Atomic Swarm, out early next year. It’s a sequel in his Dot Robot series. He went on about hover boards and tele presence, in a fairly bubbly and crazy sort of way. (Does television make people like this, or do people like this make it to television?) But I don’t want him to operate on me, in any form. Nice cap and Converses, though, not to mention the white spectacle frames.

Alex Scarrow time travels. He also plays with computer games and things. He had played and made an impressive trailer for his first children’s book, TimeRiders. (It’s all beyond me, but what do I know?) He recruits people on the verge of dying, so it’s ‘come and work for us or die’ kind of thing. Alex believes in the ‘what if?’ idea, but I must say that a king called Henry the Ape is too much ‘if’ for me. He’s written for adults, apparently, but it seems that writing a children’s book was more fun. At least I think that’s what he said.

David Yelland seemed to be into revealing new things about himself, and was talking about the three A’s; adoption, alopecia and alcoholism. His first book, The Truth About Leo, is vaguely based on his own life in various ways. It’s supposed to be a very moving read, but I was last to the book table and didn’t quite make it. (One might turn up in the post?) But I do wish he hadn’t told us how the book ends! There’s information, and then there’s information.

Not last and not least, Helen Grant. Helen has a new book out next spring, too, called The Glass Demon. It’s set in Germany, like her first novel. (And, she told me afterwards, the third book too, which she is writing now.) Helen greeted us in German, and was kind enough not to translate what she’d just said. Maybe she thought we were intelligent. She told us more about the town of Bad Münstereifel, and it really does sound idyllic. Apart from the murders, maybe. The first book is just coming out in German translation, so she’s keen to hear what her German friends will say. Perhaps. Someone called Helen the “Stieg Larsson of teen fiction’. Let’s hope so, for her bank balance, at least.

After a few canapés, the witch Cinderella-ed off to her train home. But I did get to speak to Helen.

Meeting Michelle Magorian

The importance of Goodnight Mister Tom is such that I have long had Michelle Magorian on my top level of ‘really good authors’. The kind you need to worship from afar, someone who is unquestionably great. So meeting her in person at last year’s launch for Just Henry wasn’t a case of your everyday garden variety of a book launch. Having found Michelle reassuringly kind and friendly and normal, I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be out of the question to consider interviewing her. Would it?

When by happy coincidence Michelle turned out to have an event on my home ground, I simply had to ask to meet her again. So you could say that I waited as eagerly to meet her, as I did for Just Henry after I’d read Michelle’s first five novels. I’d been so happy when I discovered her, and my assumption that readers can expect a new book, if not every year, then at least every two or three, meant that my patience wore very thin over the ten-year wait. But as you can read in this interview, it was for a good reason, and it was worth waiting for.

Witch and Michelle Magorian

I just ‘happened’ to bring along my copy of the anthology War, edited by Michael Morpurgo, which contains a story by Michelle. It seems we have a lot to be grateful to Michael for, since it was he who got Michelle writing again after her long break.

In her talk at the Imperial War Museum Michelle told us how she first wrote Goodnight Mister Tom, and after that she decided to attend a writing course, which may be an unusual way round to do it. And when she has to write horrible and upsetting scenes, she goes for calming walks in between.

There is another book on the way, but read my interview with Michelle while you wait. And then any book of hers that you have inadvertently overlooked. Perhaps between us we can have a late run on A Little Love Song?

(Photo D Giles)

More on Stieg Larsson’s millions

This week even the Guardian reported on the state of Stieg Larsson’s money. They didn’t have much to say that I haven’t already blogged about, except that Stieg’s father and brother have now offered his partner Eva some money. Of course, neither I nor the Guardian know all that much. We recycle facts and come up with clever guesses as to what’s what.

We’re all guessing, because Stieg can’t tell us a thing. So it makes a change reading this blog post, written by Annika Bryn, who is a Stockholm based crime writer, and who knew Stieg.  I met Annika over on Sara Paretsky’s blog, and she has previously left a comment on Bookwitch saying it’s true that Lisbeth Salander has Asperger Syndrome because Stieg said so.

Stieg Larsson by Britt-Marie Trensmar

This week Annika wrote about her own feelings and ideas as to how all this mess over the Millennium money happened. She says that ethically it should have been Eva who inherited the money, and that it ought to be she who’s in the position to be able to offer the Larsson men 20 million kronor, out of the 130 million total so far, instead of the reverse. Annika says that Eva wasn’t just ‘a part of Stieg’s life’, as his father and brother put it, but he always referred to Eva as his wife, and he felt they had ‘grown together’ and he could never leave her.

Stieg’s brother has said to Annika that the fact there was no will must have meant Stieg didn’t want Eva to inherit him. (But most of us don’t consider our mortality soon enough, do we?) Another thing that is easily forgotten, is that when Stieg died, he had no more money than most people. He didn’t know there’d be millions to fight over. And Annika reckons he also thought the three people in his life would get on better than they do.

She feels that although the offered 20 million is a lot of money, it’s not enough, and that a fifty-fifty share would be the fair way to do it. They should also cooperate over the intellectual property Stieg left behind. She mentions a dispute over the English translation, too. So it seems nothing is easy in this sorry saga. As for anyone finishing the fourth book, Annika reckons this would be wrong, unless it’s practically all finished anyway.

There was a very early will, in which Stieg left his money to a communist organisation. So it doesn’t seem as if he’d intended his father and brother to enjoy whatever he had to leave.

Annika’s blog usually has many, and friendly, comments left by her visitors. This time feelings have run high, and people have left some much more strongly worded comments than usual. Not all are on Eva’s side, and some don’t manage to comment politely, whatever their opinions.

and then I’ll have a book festival

Not content with imagining a bookshop, I need to dream a little about my imaginary book festival. As Amanda Craig said on her blog recently, everyone seems to think they should run a festival of sorts these days. And they don’t always do it well.

That’s the part I don’t get. If you ask people round for dinner, most hosts don’t go out of their way to ignore the guests. So what’s different running a festival? It’s surely just one big dinner party or children’s party or whatever?

I’m too lazy to go ahead with anything like a book festival, but the idea really appeals. Shows how lacking in originality I am; having the same dream as countless other well-meaning idiots. I’d also find it too stressful, but I would want to offer any visiting authors all the comforts of home to keep them happy (and me popular).

Or maybe I just expand a little on my literary Tupperware party? Come and talk about yourself and your books in my living room over some nibbles and wine, with some book sales at the end. Some of the time I even have a spare bed to offer.

A Necklace of Raindrops

Some years ago Daughter begged a copy of Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops from my friend Pippi when we visited her. It was an old battered paperback, and she just had to have it. I didn’t forget about it, but I must admit to not having looked at it carefully enough to realise it was illustrated. Daughter was past needing it reading to her, so I just didn’t get involved.

A Necklace of Raindrops

That’s why I was so keen to see a copy of the book now that it’s being published again. I somehow thought the illustrations by Jan Pieńkowski were new. They are, in fact, original, and were in the 1968 version as well.

Oh, well. This is a lovely book, and two copies can be better than one – old and battered.

I love Joan Aiken, although I’ve not read much of hers for this age range, which is younger than the Wolves Chronicles. There are eight short stories, which are all perfect either to read to a child or to have them read on their own. I was going to say nicely old-fashioned, but perhaps they were simply normal forty years ago. They are the sort of stories we read when I was young.

This is a larger size hardback, so Jan Pieńkowski’s pictures look marvellous. They have that authentic 1960s half modern, half old style feel to them. If you know what I mean?

Y is for yay!

Unsolicited books get shorter shrift than the ones I ask for. But there can be real gems, that I didn’t even know I wanted. This is one such occasion. There is a pop-up book out to celebrate that Sesame Street is forty years old.

Generally I am more of a C is for cookie kind of person. Offspring and I watched Sesame Street with our lunch for years, and then out of necessity we had to stop. I wouldn’t mind watching it again, but I get the impression it’s no longer on in Britain. Why not?

A Walk Down Sesame Street is some consolation. Elmo walks round, meeting some of the regulars, and doing a little educating as he meets and greets. Good Elmo! There are even pull-thingies to make Grover fly and Cookie stir his cookie mixture. Big Bird is really an awfully big Big Bird.

Sesame Street

Ernie has put down his duckie, believe it or not, and Oscar and his trashcan are very much in-your-face, popping out. If only they knew of the agony suffered at witch headquarters over the elephants Oscar keeps. I thought we were heading for a major bin phobia at one point.

As Daughter walked in through the door after college, she jumped on this book. Maybe 17 isn’t too old for pop-ups after all? She made Elmo dance, which was something I had missed.

Oh, now I want to get out all my Sesame Street videos again and watch…

In my pink imagination

I walked past the empty shop again. Well, since it’s in amongst our nearby row of shops, I go past it often, so it’s hardly worth mentioning. The shop front is rather pink and purple, which might be because it was a florist’s before. In these hard times it’s not surprising they went out of business, and neither is it strange that the premises still stand empty.

When I pass the shop, or even when I think about it, it turns into our local specialist crime bookshop. My bookshop, to be precise. Well, a person can dream. As someone who had a house covered in vividly pink carpets for a few years in the mid 1980s, I can assure you it is much cheaper to imagine, than actually to do. I never did have pink carpets, really, but in my – inexplicable – pink period I wanted them. Lack of money meant they remained in my mind, although I tried to get visitors to see them too.

So, I have the loveliest little bookshop, a mere three minutes walk from our house. Couldn’t be more convenient. We considered making it a children’s bookshop, but since one opened a few miles away very recently, we felt it’d make more financial sense to pick another speciality. I have already – in my mind – invited lots of authors to come to events. I’ll use the upstairs for my cosy author events.

It’s a far better shop than the one we imagined 25 years ago. I suppose it just goes to show that we don’t change much, just mature a little and improve on the dreams. And they had better remain dreams. I am not a good shopkeeper. I read. I dream. I don’t sell.

But I’ll repaint the shop premises. This time I don’t want pink. In my mind the shop looks like an amalgamation of everything I love in my house magazines. Except it’s a shop, not a house.

I, Coriander

I, Coriander is a prize in several ways. Daughter won her copy, personally signed by Sally Gardner herself, when the book was new. I forget what she did that was so good, but she won it nevertheless. It was something at the local bookshop, and Sally had been meeting the owners, and so the signed book came this way.

It is a beautiful book, just like Sally’s two later novels, with old pictures of London on the cover and inside. A red ribbon to keep the right place for the reader. Very old-fashioned and attractive. But I could never quite get away from visualising a bunch of green herbs. Extremely stupid of me, but that, and lack of time, meant I didn’t read I, Coriander until now.

The lovely thing about having been a prize idiot over Sally’s book, is that this way I was rewarded – undeservedly – with a wonderful read so much later. It’s set in the era of Cromwell, and I realised yet again that I need to improve my knowledge of British history. Coriander was born in 1643 and the novel ends in 1660. Her family were Royalists, which wasn’t a good thing to be just then.

What actually struck me was that it’d be easy to read the descriptions of what London was like at the time, and what Cromwell’s regime was like, and think that nowadays everything is so much better and more refined. But pessimist that I am, I feel the story describes pretty much what it’s like here and in other countries today. I don’t think we ever improve. We just like to think we do.

Coriander’s mother dies when her daughter is young, and the effects of her death almost ruin the lives of all those around her. There is a lot of fantasy or magic, which is never quite explained. Coriander finds she can do magic, a bit like her mother, but that’s not good. In Cromwell’s England magic is dangerous, and in Coriander’s fantasy world things aren’t so great either.

Sally has come up with an appalling stepmother figure, and her even more appalling ‘helper’. Coriander has a hard time, and it takes her years to find her way back to some kind of normal life. In fairness, she has also created some wonderful and strong minor characters, who all have their part to play. I loved the story, but I must admit to not having ‘got’ the very end.

Foreigners – who wants them?

A little over ten years ago I was called for an interview at what I understand is often called Heroin House locally. To be honest, I forget what the government department is called these days, but it’s where you get your benefits, if you’ve been good. The only benefits I’ve ever been after is child benefit, which I always felt fairly entitled to, having produced the two Offspring. What I didn’t have at the time was a National Insurance number, which was hardly my fault. After all, it’s handed out by the authorities, not grabbed by the recipients.

So, an interview was required, to ascertain that I was really me and that Offspring really existed. I was treated to a very condescending ‘chat’ by someone half my age, whose educational background I don’t want to speculate on, but I doubt she outranked me, so to speak. Even though I’m a mere foreigner.

It was quite clear that any foreigner is considered to be roughly on a level with monkeys. What’s more, they were fairly certain I’d want to flood this country with other foreign family members. It was the thought that my lovely, but ancient, aunts, who spoke no English, and who had wonderful flats and their own holiday homes, would be desperate to enter Britain and be a burden on the UK benefits system, that really upset me.

In some ways, it’s to their credit that they love their country so much, these benefits people, that they feel the whole world will want to come and live here, too. But that’s what my aunts would have said about their country, and why they were so worried about my safety and happiness when I left for Britain.

Anyway, the reason I’m moaning about this right now, is that I was sent an email from one of my regular publishers, about an illustrator who isn’t allowed back into Britain because his educational status is too modest. Nikhil Singh has lived in Hampstead for three years, but after briefly returning to South Africa, has to reapply for a visa, for which he needs to be university educated.

So he missed his own book launch for the comic book Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers. Without a degree Nikhil can’t have a visa, and he has had to take an English test, which seems a little superfluous for someone who has worked as a journalist here. He has also lost his London home, and has not seen his long term girlfriend for months.

I don’t know Nikhil’s work, but I can sympathise with his situation. There is a petition you can sign, which isn’t about Nikhil in particular, but about this whole idea that this country can’t let in just anyone.

I fully expect to be kicked out after this. Or maybe they can’t do that? I have a degree. Doesn’t make me a better person, though. In fact, they wanted me to sign a piece of paper that ‘guesstimated’ my date of birth, because without a proper British birth certificate you can’t be too sure.