Monthly Archives: February 2010


Uppsala snow

Son has temporarily abandoned the piles of snow in Uppsala and the -20C temperatures for balmy Edinburgh and its recent snow. Good thing I said he should wear his warm jacket there, too. It’s not as if it is spring just yet.

(Yes, I know we did Edinburgh yesterday as well.)

As the good boy he is, he has obviously spent the week at the library. Or maybe it was because his computer went into hospital? He needed to find a replacement. And you do at the library. If you’re in Edinburgh, anyway. Amazingly for a thoroughly computerised country, Uppsala is not a good place to be when your laptop falls ill.

In Edinburgh they not only have books and computers in the library. They have Dukes, too. More precisely, the Duke of Edinburgh wandered around the place while Son was doing whatever he was doing. I wondered if the D of E needed something to read, but it seems he just talked to people.

Well, he does share a name with the place, so I suppose we have to let him roam. At least there is still a library for him to talk to people in.


More doggie tears

Greyfriars Bobby

I cried again. I knew I would, but I just had to read Linda Strachan’s take on Greyfriars Bobby. Linda offered me her book after I blogged about another GB version the other week. I suppose it’s rather like Greek Myths; a well known tale, whether based on truth or not, will invite many authors to have a go.

Maybe I’m hoping for a Greyfriars Bobby story with a happy ending? I don’t know.

There’s something about suffering dogs, and animal loyalty, which even gets to an old cynic like the witch. I know it’s ludicrous to hope for the policeman to live to old age, and for a happy ever after dog. There would be no story if that had happened. But…

This one felt slightly more ‘collected’, by which I mean it was mainly about little Bobby, and not so much about all the other people around him. Some nice pictures of Edinburgh from Sally J Collins, and you can sort of feel that rain. Brrr…

Will’s rules

I’m all for blogging without actually doing any work myself. When I read the writers’ rules thing in the Guardian at the weekend, I did consider blogging about it, but decided everyone would have read them already. And maybe it’s stupid to write about how to write, and no better to write a blog about writing about…

But, Meg Rosoff has had her say, and Mary Hoffman, likewise. And since I have no need for rules (tell me you had noticed) on account of not writing books, I don’t need to worry. I liked Philip Pullman’s ‘rule’ the best.

Since today’s blog post would look a wee bit short if I were to stop here, I will now simply copy and paste in Mr Shakespeare’s rules, courtesy of Declan Burke. I suspect nobody thought to ask old Will directly. But it made me smile at least a little bit.

“1. Write ye not a new tale if’t can at all be helped. Plunder thou yon histories, myths and pre-Renaissance Italian romances for plot, setting, character, structure, style and theme. If anyone notice, claim ye homage.

2. Makest thou heroine a maiden as young as is strictly legal.

3. Lest there be doubt on who be your varlet, give him a hump. Or a hooked nose. Or black skin. If ye can manage all three in one villain, have on.

4. A good title be half the battle. ‘Big Fuss About Nowt’ flyeth not.

5. A pox on reality. Toss ye in some ghost, fairy, witch and monster for good jizz. If ye can handle a haunted kitchen sink, have on.

6. If ye suffer from block, have your mistress take up the quill while you cane opium and give her daughter goodly tup. If ye be nabbed, claim research.

7. Ne’er miss a chance for identity mistook, for such wrangling be good for fifty page or more. If they be cross-dressers, ye’ll get a whole tale.

8. Prithee, no more than one monologue per page. Unless folio pages they be. But e’en then, no more than three, max.

9. If the pace should flag, lobbest thou in a ‘Gadsooks!’ or ‘Forsooth!’ Or have skewered a king, general, politician or prince. For the money shot, go with ‘Gadsooks, I be skewered, forsooth!’ The plebs love’t.

10. Once in while end your line with a rhyme / ’Tis posh as a turret and waste some more time.”

I do like Irish cowboys with a good turn of phrase. Thanks for letting me borrow this, Declan. Not that I asked, but anyway.

No more

I am so glad that I don’t need to read the next one. I can, but I don’t have to. I know I’ve come to this late, but I have at long last read Johan Theorin’s debut crime novel Echoes From the Dead, except the one I read was of course called Skumtimmen.

It was good. I agree with all others who have said so, and I sort of enjoyed most of it. Didn’t really ‘enjoy’ the ending, and felt hard done by and upset at the way it went. (Which I will not go into, naturally.) But having investigated what the next one is about, I have no wish whatsoever to read it. It sounds even drearier, and I believe it’s meant to be.

Johan is planning a quartet of books, one for each season. Skumtimmen was autumn and Nattfåk (The Darkest Room) is winter, which will be gloomier. I don’t need that, thank you. Perhaps by the time summer comes round it will be a bundle of laughs, but why disappoint all those who thrive on Swedish gloom?

Set on the beautiful island of Öland it felt very true to the landscape, both now and in the past. I only ever went once, about ten years before the bridge, and I remember a lovely summer holiday and perpetual sunshine. I wouldn’t mind going back, as long as I can avoid the drive through Småland and all the trees. In fact, having developed a recent dislike for high bridges, I’m not sure about the crossing either. (Drove over the Tay Bridge last week, and the two words on my mind were ‘disaster’ and ‘McGonagall’.)

Skumtimmen is about a missing child, and the plot is very cleverly woven from what happens now and what happened before, at various points leading up to the disappearance. The child’s mother is a wreck and drinks too much, and her elderly father feels guilty about his grandson going missing, and tries to work out what happened, over twenty years earlier.

There are a couple of ‘clues’ that turn out not to be clues, but other than that the story is full of references to what will turn out to be relevant, except often not in the way you think.

And one small niggle, which may have been lost in translation for all I know, but does the word ‘dying’ mean that someone dies? I thought it did. Unless we are all considered to be dying, because we all will one day, then I feel the word suggests a fatal end caused by something which hurries the sad event on its way. I’d have been saved some concern if the word had not been used here.

It was dismal enough anyway, so why make it worse?

Web chat date

I have this feeling of impending doom here, but feel free to ignore me.

It was only back in August at the Edinburgh Festival that Random’s Clare showed me their new (well, re-issued) book by Markus Zusak, and I still haven’t read Fighting Ruben Wolfe. It’s short enough, so not another Book Thief, but as I said, I still haven’t anyway.

Today at 17.30 Markus will be doing a live web chat with his readers, and you can sign up for it here. I have, but with my luck I’ll be so featherbrained that I will forget about it as the afternoon draws to a close. I’ve never done a web chat like this, so have absolutely no idea whether it will feel worthwhile, or if you just end up sitting there feeling the whole thing is passing you by. A bit like trying to attract attention to buy a drink, when you’re short and insignificant.

Let’s hope it’s an event to be enjoyed by all.

Loathing, or not

‘Please feel free to loathe it’ is what it says in the accompanying letter, and that is such a relief.

Now, I don’t expect to loathe Donna Moore’s Old Dogs, when I eventually get to it, having courageously worked my way through mountains of books. And maybe Donna doesn’t expect me to either, but for an amusing writer she is very modest about her own work. Even her stationery looks good; a retro looking picture of a lady and the caption ‘she kind of enjoyed working for an idiot’. You have to love it.

Press releases gush about whatever they are there to gush about, and they are generally written by someone other than the gushee, so that’s OK. PR people are experts at pressing the right buttons to make me feel compelled to read ‘their’ book. But if I don’t like the book, I can just leave it.

Sometimes people contact me out of the blue to offer their books for review, and the offers can be anything from quite suitable for me to the downright wrong. Some writers are modest while doing this, whereas many are very full of themselves and the excellence of their books, which tends to bring out my worst Swedishness along the lines of ‘thou shalt not believe you are anything special’.

It’s easiest when books are either already on my shelves or I have bought them fair and square (and anonymously) or if sent out with hundreds of others by the publishers. Then the author has no idea that I may do a review of it, and I don’t have to skulk if I hate something.

I’m forever dreading the scenario where someone knows full well I have their book and I end up not liking it. This has not happened yet. Can I be so lucky that I will never be acquainted with the author of a really bad book? I know more writers who may join the ‘feel free to loathe’ club, but you don’t mean it. Deep down.

Old Dogs

Keren David’s When I Was Joe made me nervous, before I read it. The relief I felt when it turned out to be wonderful was such a, well, relief. The same goes for Candy Gourlay’s marvellous Tall Story, which isn’t out yet.

But just think, if I had avoided these books on the off chance that I’d not like them. That would have been stupid.

I’m sure Old Dogs will be just fine, even if I’m not into pets that much. Oh, it’s not about dogs? Oh well.

Seeing Sara

Woke up early to a snow covered world and pondered the possibility that I might be mad for contemplating crossing the Peak District on the first train on a Sunday morning. It could be cancelled, or it could get stuck in a snow drift beyond Hope. Or something. All this to watch an author sign her books in Nottingham.

And that’s another thing. Nottingham. The witch family always gets lost when travelling anywhere near Nottingham. But, this was for Sara Paretsky, and if she can cross the Atlantic, braving airport security in her new undies, then a witch can battle the snow. Broom would have been good, but chilly. The train was OK in the end.

Once in Nottingham – which seems quite a nice place – I cased the joint (=checked out Waterstone’s) and downed a cup of tea in the store’s Costa, which had that nicest of things; a member of staff who likes NCIS. (He fancies Ziva.) Not being someone who eats her own sandwiches in cafés, I then attempted to gulp it down just outside the shop, only to encounter Sara’s marvellous PR lady Kerry mid-chew. My mid-chew. Kerry appeared to have lost her author.

We went inside and inquired about Sara’s whereabouts, and they had also lost her (I said Nottingham was dangerous!), until she turned up exiting the lift bearing a cup of coffee. So that explained that. Having heard Sara on Radio 4 saying how she is such a perfectionist with her coffee that she even makes her own and pours it out if it fails to make the grade, I was astonished at her bravery, but Sara said it was good coffee, when I challenged her. Must be the NCIS connection.

And that wasn’t the only losing of Sara going on. Someone had misdirected her in Cambridge the night before, and THAT’S NO WAY to treat Sara Paretsky. I was introduced to Ian who had SatNavved Sara to Nottingham (that will be why they made it…) and he’s perfect. I didn’t realise there are men like that. Young and good looking and wearing a purple shirt and purple Converses. With black. Sigh. I’ll start writing books for Hodder now. Just so I can, you know…

OK, I need to get back on track.

Sarah Paretsky in Nottingham

Sara settled down to her signing and chatting with all the fans who had turned up. I don’t know how she does it, but when every single one of them say how great her books are, and she manages to sound surprised and pleased and thanks them for saying so. One fan pointed out it had been 19 years since he’d last seen her, but I say he hasn’t tried hard enough. And I hope I got this right, because it seems Sara has only ever missed one signing, which is pretty good going.

While this happened, Ian and Kerry went off to switch luggage and cars in two different car parks, as part of what they call their ‘author relay race’. They only lose a few authors that way. (Joking!)

Sara apologised for being tired and confused, due to having been farmed out to breakfast television, live radio, two events a day and eating odd food at odd times in odd places. And then Kerry told Sara about the lovely fish and chips you get in Whitby, before saying they weren’t going there. Well, fine.

Sara Paretsky

So what did we talk about, as Sara signed every book in the shop? Of hers, obviously. The new Hardball, and all the others. Well, her blogging, and how she enjoys the little cyber community that meet on her website blog. (Yes Bag Lady, that includes you.) Her writing plans, where she is contracted for more VI Warshawski books, and the novel Sara hopes to write for her husband based on his background working in Physics, which sounds a lot more interesting than I can manage to describe like this.

And we had to mention NCIS. I complimented Sara on getting her UK tour dates arranged almost to perfection, with no need to miss any episodes, seeing as the Olympic Winter Games are on while Sara tours. (How did she manage that?) She watches on her laptop, (well, who doesn’t?) and Kerry added that she had watched the previous night, which only shows that her heart is in the right place, but she’s seriously behind. Sara likes Gibbs best, although I got the impression she feels Mark Harmon has passed his best by date. (Nah, I wouldn’t say so…) And she secretly wants to be Ziva.

After that serendipitous meeting of so many NCIS fans under the roof of Waterstone’s, they had to go and play a trick on a poor witch. In exchange for a photo of Sara, I had to pose with her while Melissa from the shop repeated her Hairy Bikers camera duty and snapped us together. I pointed out that when forced in this manner, I tend to cut myself out later, but Sara had a way round that, albeit rather short arms.

Sara Paretsky and Bookwitch

It would seem that my camera malfunctioned in a big way, but anybody’s cheeks would be that red after a trek across the Peak District. In the snow.

Then Kerry gathered up her author and went to find the M1 going North.

Greek Beasts and Heroes

I like hanging out with intelligent people. Like Lucy Coats, for instance. Thank Zeus & Co for educated writers who will make things available to me in a form I can digest.

Europa och tjuren, Halmstad, by Tina Håkansson

(Photo by Tina Håkansson)

Now, take Europa and the Bull. I should know their story intimately, back-to-front and always. But I don’t/didn’t. I’m sure I have heard the tale, but managed to forget it, which is strange seeing as every child who grew up in my hometown knows Europa and the Bull. The very magnificent statue of them stands in the town’s main square and we can probably all tell you the name of the sculptor. (Carl Milles) But I can’t be alone in not knowing the story. Can I?

So, I’m very grateful to Lucy, and now I’ll endeavour to remember.

Lucy’s first four books about the Greek Beasts and Heroes are fun. Lots of the stories are well known – even to me – but are well worth retelling again. The format is based on Atticus the Storyteller who travels around and tells people stories to keep them happy or calm, or to pass the time, or in return for food or a bed for the night.

The stories are beautifully short, which means they should work well to read to a young child, or have the child read themselves, with room for a second story if required. I’m sure I remember reading some of these tales in a much longer version, and I can’t praise Lucy enough for shrinking them down to what matters. Though Zeus could do with not being quite such a ladies’ man.

Keep them coming! (I think she will, as there are another eight to go.)

Illustrations by Anthony Lewis.

A Victorian spy agency

I adore Victorian crime novels. By that I mean books set in Victorian times. Not that there is anything wrong with Wilkie Collins. There isn’t. But I quite like a little modern flavour to a Victorian plot. I’m sure Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart could not have been written in the 19th century. Having said this, I feel that there may be just a little bit too much modern thinking in The Agency; A Spy in the House by Y S Lee, which I’ve just read.

The setting is very nicely Victorian, as it should be, since Ying has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, and came over from Canada to London while doing research. It shows, and maybe a little too much. I think what I mean is that there is obvious Victorian research, coupled with a very 21st century mindset in some of the characters.

But it is a really good adventure and a great read. So if you want a female Alex Rider in Victorian London, then this is for you. Once I’d disconnected the modern women from the era of Wilkie Collins, I enjoyed A Spy in the House a lot. It’s the first in a trilogy about ‘The Agency’, which seems to be a secret women’s spy organisation. Female because women don’t count, so are not noticed, which is a nice premise. Perhaps nice isn’t the right word. Handy, is more accurate.

A Spy in the House

Mary Quinn (alias Lang) is only seventeen, but seems more mature, which could have something to do with her difficult early life. Apart from her own little secret, which she has so far not shared with anyone, she is very much a cousin of Sally Lockhart’s and she encounters her ‘Fred’ while on assignment.

The adventure is rather like The Ruby in the Smoke or The Moonstone, with smuggling, sinking boats, opium and Chinamen. Like Alex Rider Mary is surprisingly capable, but that’s good in a heroine. Her spy bosses are awfully 21st century, and I’m not sure I like them so much. Did enjoy James, Mary’s ‘Fred’, though. I trust we’ll see more of him.

I somehow missed this book when it was published in Britain last year, but it’s out in the US in March, and has been given a great Victorian cover, which I suppose they like ‘over there’.

The King of Tiny Things

Some more perfect poetry from Jeanne Willis with dreamlike pictures by Gwen Millward, on a subject quite similar to Linda Newbery’s Lob the other day.

The King of Tiny Things

Here we have two small sisters visiting their grandparents and trying sleeping in a tent in the garden. That is not going to go well, what with creepy crawlies all over the place. And it’s dark.

Then they meet a small boy, the size of a beetle, whose job it is to help small creatures in the wild, because these creatures in their turn help things to grow. And then he dies. Or does he?

I really, really need a small person to read some books to. This is one such book. Jeanne’s words have a lovely rhythm, and are crying out to be read aloud. Maybe I can read to myself?