Monthly Archives: March 2010


Is it bad to compare a writer’s work with someone else’s? All I want to say is that anyone who loves Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries, must surely love Zizou Corder’s Halo. I know it’s mainly the subject matter that makes me say this. Ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and one or more adventurous children and lots of real history stuffed into the plot. But it has the same happy feel to it, and it’s romantic.

Halo came at just the right time for me. If you recall my thoughts on the Greek myths the other week, then Halo is another excellent way for me to learn, or re-learn Greek history. I’m fairly sure I remember elements of the history in this book from school lessons. But lessons so frequently make little sense at the time, and then you forget even what little you may have grasped. Or is that just me?

As I was almost finishing the book I came across Josh Lacey’s review in the Guardian, and wondered whether it would contain a spoiler. I didn’t, so I was OK for not waiting. He seemed to have enjoyed Halo, although he mentions flaws. And that made me think (very unusual) and I came to the conclusion that sometimes an adult reviewer judges a children’s book as though it was intended primarily for adult readers. Because I don’t think I can agree with Josh.

Halo is a baby girl who is washed ashore in a storm, and who is then brought up by a community of centaurs (forget Foaly for the moment, lovely though he is), only to be stolen away later by humans. She is enslaved several times, and she sees Sparta and Athens, and there is a memorable chat with a certain oracle in Delphi. (I never knew it was like that!)

Our heroine has a lovely centaur brother that anyone would be proud of, and she falls in love. It’s very romantic. She makes friends, and she becomes proficient in skills from archery to medicine. Halo keeps searching for her birth family, too, and I just wondered how the oracle could be anything but someone who simply made things up.

Towards the end there is one situation where I would have preferred for there to be two characters, instead of how Zizou deals with it. But that’s just me. It’s romantic. And funny. As well as educational and purely enjoyable.

Would still like to know how a mother and her teenage daughter can agree for long enough to write a book together.

Hamish McHaggis

It’ll be my northern vowels. I couldn’t possibly read this book aloud. Hamish McHaggis and The Clan Gathering is crying out to be read aloud, in a lovely Scottish accent. I would guess that its author Linda Strachan doesn’t see a problem with that. She’s got the accent.

Ever since I met Linda in the Edinburgh Book Festival bookshop last August I’ve been aware of her Hamish books, but just never took the plunge until now. I love the name Hamish! Somehow it’s more Scottish than almost any other name, and I’d have named Son Hamish if I’d thought I could get away with it.

Hamish McHaggis and the Clan Gathering

There are lots of Hamish books, but this one is nice, with its feeling of family togetherness, although I’m not sure how so many McHaggises ended up all over the world. I do like gatherings, and I’d say some of ours have been at least as outlandish as this one, except we stop at picnics and don’t do Highland Games. And we have less tartan about, but tartan is very nice. Especially purple.

I can see that the Scottish Tourist Board would like this Hamish story, seeing as it’s a whirlwind mini grand tour of the sights of Scotland.

Hamish is a sweet little thing, and he’s very kind to his friends. I just wish they wouldn’t go round saying ‘dinna fash yersel’. How is a witch to cope? Not even her Scottish born and bred IT Consultant can manage a Scottish accent. Welsh Hamish anyone? Luckily we don’t have small Offspring anymore. They can read this book silently by themselves. And I snuck in some Scottish second names for them, just not Hamish. Especially not for Daughter who is a R L Stevenson character.

I’ll stop blethering right here. Och aye.

Bookwitch bites

No she doesn’t. Or not very much.

This is bites, as in small somethings.

You may be blissfully unaware of this, but one of my most asked questions in the comments section is ‘When will there be auditions for Valkyrie Cain?’ Two years after the Derek Landy interview I came to the conclusion that we really need to find out, so I asked him. He took an age to reply. Maybe he’s writing a book. For anyone who missed what Derek had to say, I’ll paste it here for all to see: ” The answer to this question is, um, no…! Nothing fresh to report! No developments, no greenlight, no auditions! It’s an ongoing process… a LONG, ongoing process…!”

Another piece of news this week is that Anthony McGowan has a website, all of his own making. Or so he says. Not that he has it, I mean. That he made it. I think it looks very nice, and it’s got lots of pages with lots of information. Go and enjoy.

Websites can offer other things, too. Naomi Alderman has devised some sort of interactive reading-cum-computer game site called The Winter House. It looks very good, but I have to admit to having struggled a little with it. It’s not the website, it’s me. I’m old. In computer interactive areas I’m practically pre-historic. But that’s OK, because this site is intended to help ‘young people identify with the short story form. The story, which plays on the website like an animated film and includes game-like interactive elements, is nonetheless a single narrative with a third-person narrator – the central character Millie – whose father has been murdered. The Winter House hopes to encourage young adults to read stories online, how to make them interesting and visual, so that being on a computer is an encouragement to reading.’

And as the week draws to a close, I have to return to Monday’s meeting with Caroline Lawrence. She has let me see the first page of the Western Mysteries, and let me tell you this: It looks good. I could see myself wanting to read the second page some time soon, as a matter of fact. I suspect this will turn out to be quite an enjoyable series. Yeehah!

Wading in again

Maybe I should just stay away and keep quiet about things I know too little about? The papers still write about Stieg Larsson and they repeat the by now well known facts about him and the dispute over money. And with the first film finally on general release in Britain, we get the next wave of much the same stuff. There was a blog in the Guardian written by someone who had read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but not seen the film, which makes her a bit of a non-expert. But if it’s not feminist enough, then I dare say it isn’t.

Otherwise sane people seek the moral high ground and declare they won’t see the film. Why? If it’s not very good (in their opinion, once they’ve seen it), then it’s surely no worse than many other crap films we all manage to see in our lifetime? It’s an 18, so perhaps that vouches for it being unsuitable? I would have taken Daughter along, had it not been rated 18. By that I mean it’s not legal for her to watch it, not that I didn’t want her to see the film.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to rant. At least not about the film. A couple of months ago I was a little taken aback at finding a character from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest being interviewed in the Vi magazine. Kurdo Baksi leads a busy life these days, serving the memory of his dear friend Stieg Larsson. He’s most likely a charming man and genuinely fond of Stieg. But I always smell a rat when someone describes themselves in pretty much those terms.

On the other hand, I trust Vi to a great extent, and why would they write so positively about him if he’s not kosher? This paragon of a friend spends 75% of his time on Stieg’s memory, meeting journalists by the dozen every week. He travels to Spain and France where Stieg Larsson is huge. And he has naturally written a book about his pal. He sort of says nice things about Eva Gabrielsson.

Sort of. She doesn’t about him, in the interview in the Observer a few weeks ago. Eva has also written a book, and it’s one I wouldn’t mind actually reading. I suspect it would be good to finally read something from her point of view, something which hasn’t been edited by others. The Observer interview is fairly pro-Eva, but it does chew over the same facts again.

It’s reading about Eva and Stieg and their ‘normal’ existence (unless you count the death threats) before the Millennium books and Stieg’s death, which has reminded me of what Swedes can be like, and what many of my friends were like back in the olden days. It gives me hope at a time when it’s easy to despair and wonder what the world is coming to. And unlike me who may have had the political views, these two actually lived according to them.

I suspect that’s what British journalists just won’t get.

‘Web without ads’

We need ads on the Internet – apparently – in order not to kill off websites, starving for cash. Or so it said in the paper this week. But they are annoying, flashing and migraine inducing things. I gave up on Hotmail when I couldn’t even see my own inbox for all the flashing boxes.

I’ve chosen not to advertise anything on here, other than mentioning books, obviously. And sometimes publishers if they’ve been particularly helpful. Quite a few bloggers have advertising on their sites, and some do it better than others. I like the way Candy Gourlay has designed hers, but then the answer lies in that very sentence. Candy designed the page herself, which is why it looks good, while still being advertising. And Enn Kokk in Sweden has a discreet ad at the top, which never disturbs.

Actually, I lie. I do advertise, as you will see if you peer closely at my photo from the Gothenburg Book Fair above in the header. If you read mirror image you will find a publisher’s name there, which is totally unintentional. The Resident IT Consultant just put it there while helping me set up the blog, and I felt it was so suitable that it has stayed.

Maybe I’ll get myself another picture. Three years of one image is rather a long time. I’m sure I look dated, but one reason for not changing is that I don’t know what I should go for instead. What do you say? Books always look nice, but I fear it’s getting a little clichéd.

One reason for not wanting ads on here is that it will clutter up the page. And I’m not sure it would make me rich. The donate button idea pops into my head every so often, and always makes way to the idea of asking JKR for a (hefty) donation. And that thought immediately goes away again, because I would lose my independence if anyone gave me money. (However, don’t let that stop you!)

What would be nice is to find myself recommended on the Guardian’s book blog page as ‘sites we like’. I find the absence of a children’s book blog very notable. Also feel that those recommended on there have been left like that for several years now. I don’t think they are the best, by any means. Possibly some of the better known, but then they don’t need to be on there. From time to time I click on them, hoping to find something to make me break into raptures, but it never happens.

Feel free to start a campaign.

Black Stars: Benjamin Zephaniah

I mentioned before that there is a series of books about successful black people. It’s depressing that you need a special series, but it’s wonderful to find books which inspire black children. As Malorie Blackman said when we met, they need to know, because it’s not at all as obvious as it may seem to someone who is white.

Here Verna Wilkins tells the story of Benjamin Zephaniah, who had a sad and difficult start to life, but who is now a tremendous role model. He is really ‘very cool’, which is almost at odds with the fact that he is so gentle and down-to-earth.

You have to admire the man for what he is. And his poems are fabulous, and even a non-poetry person like me enjoys them. Best served read by Benjamin himself, but the poems in this Tamarind book will serve as a good starting point.

And then you can read his novels about black children and teenagers.

Caroline’s bath

As Daughter left the house yesterday morning she realised she was under-equipped, so came back for the forgotten mobile. Good thing she did, or she couldn’t have texted me during lessons. (Ahem, you didn’t read that here.) The glad tidings was that Caroline Lawrence, our favourite Roman is coming to Daughter’s college today. Some quick Facebooking on my part and the message from Caroline was that her train was just pulling into Stockport that very minute.

Caroline Lawrence

As I was getting ready to dig into my lunchtime porridge (no need to feel sorry for me) the phone rang. ‘Caroline Lawrence for you’, said the Resident IT Consultant. Oh. ‘Would we like to have tea with her?’ Yes, we would. More texting to Daughter. (Sorry, Aquinas!) Hot on the heels of all this came the very timely press release from Orion with the news that they have bought Caroline’s new book series. The Western Mysteries: The Case of the Counterfeit Injuns will be published next year (that’s a long time to wait…) and there will be four books altogether. We can’t wait.

Henna tattoo and lemon tea

Anyway, we took ourselves off to Caroline’s hotel for when she had finished her school event, and got there just as Caroline emerged from her taxi, looking as fresh as anything. Daughter went along to inspect Caroline’s room and both came back in raptures, which is why we all trouped up for a look after finishing two large pots of tea between us.

Caroline Lawrence at Eleven Didsbury Park

Two baths. One in the room and the other on the deck outside, but we felt it was a little too cold for the al fresco one.

Caroline Lawrence and Stockport hats

I don’t think the hotel knew what had hit them, with requests for more tea, lemon slices and cake. We only stopped short at licking the plate clean. The tea was so good even Daughter liked it, and the lounge was very nice and did all right for photos.

Halo there, Caroline

We talked Westerns, obviously, with lots of info from Caroline’s many research trips. I really feel for her with all that tiresome travelling. I had another look at her Western blog, full of gun powder and other stuff on how to kill people. Can’t wait. I know I already said so, but repetition is good.

Nice gossip from the Dubai literary festival, which Caroline had just returned from, hobnobbing with Jacqueline Wilson, Garth Nix, Darren Shan and Martin Amis. That’s the life.

Her trip up north is for a couple of events at Manchester Grammar School, one yesterday and one today. And as a bonus Caroline’s number one fan James has arranged for this morning’s talk at Aquinas College, where by pure coincidence another number one fan, Daughter, can also be found. We have actually already met James at another event, which goes to show how fans keep bumping into each other. The teacher involved is so popular that he has a fan page on Facebook, or so I understand. It’s the English department who are hosting this talk on how to write novels and getting published. Daughter will leave Physics and venture into foreign lands to hear what Caroline has to say, and to take photos. So there will be an update later.

Make sure you come back.

Monday was going to be the day when I recovered from a very busy week. But then it’s not every day a real American cowgirl steps off the noon train as it draws into our little town.


Later, as promised. I gather from Daughter that Caroline’s talk was interesting and that a good number of students had turned up for this first period of the day. Judging from the slides I’ve seen in the photos, Caroline covered some of the Roman Mysteries as well as things on writing in general. I’m hoping for some inspired future novelists, here.

Caroline Lawrence at Aquinas College

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Critical thinking

And no, this isn’t about that peculiar A-level subject you get offered these days. I was just ‘inspired’ by it, to do my own very critical thinking. I trawled through my borough’s information ‘newspaper’ the other day. Very pleased to see they are now offering free advice on benefits. Can only assume this means they charged for benefits advice previously. A bit ludicrous, but the council has to make money somehow.

Received a phone call – in the middle of a television programme, which is why I was even less gracious than my usual lack of friendliness – where the very Indian accented lady informed me they were ‘calling today from the UK…’ No, I don’t think so. If you have to mention it, you’re not in the UK. Why lie? I’m no more likely to buy whatever it is because it’s from the UK.

One of my few ‘helpful’ acts in life is to fill in a questionnaire from the council on a regular basis. (I reckoned they needed someone awkward like me to balance out all the others.) But how do you answer the multiple choice query regarding my eating habits where they want to know if I’ve eaten more fruit and veg in the last twelve months? I’m such a slob that I had to say no. I usually eat more than enough, so haven’t increased the amount. Nor do I plan to do so anytime soon. But I feel awful having admitted this. It’s surely related to the quandary you face when asked if you’ve stopped beating your wife. Not that I have a wife, but you just need a sensible alternative.

I had to email Daughter’s college, but it came back after getting caught in their spam filter. It was about exams. It’s just very hard to decide exactly which word(s) upped its spam-ness. Daughter’s last school had a lovely (well, still has) teacher called Mr White. I needed to email him about something. Email came straight back due to foul language. And I thought I’d been so reasonable. Mr White is kind and intelligent and sings well in the corridors. I then emailed the form teacher, to say I’d not been able to get through to Mr White. That came back too. More foulness. Yikes.

Showed my missives to the Resident IT Consultant who diagnosed the problem. White isn’t a very pc word to be using in this day and age. But it was the email address, for goodness’ sake! That only sorted itself out by me emailing the school’s IT expert on his private email when it got too tiresome describing Mr White as the teacher with the name that is a colour which is the opposite of black. Black is pc enough it seems.

As a child I was very sweet and trusting (yes, really) and thought good of everybody. I’m making up for this sweetness now by practising my own kind of critical thinking.

Boy heroes

I’ve feasted on this boy hero (or killer….) stuff all week. Meeting Andy McNab (or not?) and finally reading Joe Craig’s Jimmy Coates, and now I’ve polished off my active week with the latest Alex Rider. I suppose he’s proof that I’m not entirely sequel-proof, since I think this one might have been Anthony Horowitz’s eighth.

At first I found the ‘warming-up’ adventure in Scotland a little boring, to be honest. Although I was on a hot and crowded train for 100 pages, and maybe being slow-roasted made me slightly irritated. But it was soon back to normal, with Alex skipping school and almost getting killed in ten different ways in a very brief period of time. Again.

I suppose it’s what we like? Daughter wondered if the fact that Alex turns 15 means there will be no more? He could settle down with Sabina and grow wheat, or something.

Wouldn’t be surprised if charities now hate Anthony for opening our eyes to how easy it is for them to manipulate us and our feelings and more importantly, our wallets. Mind you, as your resident cynic I didn’t have far to go.

Crocodile Tears (that’s the title, btw) has yet another mad baddie, of the kind who conveniently sits down to boast to Alex at the end, so that we all learn exactly what’s been going on. Why do they all do that? From gambling in a Scottish castle to a GM lab in southern England and on to Kenya for the big finale. Even Mr Blunt is getting a little bit soft, and I wonder who Anthony based his new Prime Minister on? He’s an idiot.

Unlike Jimmy Coates, Alex may not set out to kill people, but he does, regardless. And for a blonde he’s quite intelligent and resourceful. Could we have him as a brunette next time, if there is a next time?

Privacy – or not…

As I may have mentioned before, I ‘read’ a monthly Swedish house magazine. Considering that Swedish papers aren’t allowed to print the names of people arrested for crimes (they are always ‘the 43-year-old’ or ‘the mother-of-five’), it’s strange how house magazines frequently identify the people whose houses they feature.

In the last issue there was a great house, and I particularly liked it because it’s near where mother-of-witch came from, so the style of architecture was exactly what I have been exposed to from an early age. Needless to say, I wouldn’t mind a house like that. Especially after someone else had restored it.

I didn’t recognise the name of the part of town it’s in, so I googled it, and got nowhere much. I then fed the name of the house owner into the online telephone directory, and got his full address and also a map of where the house is. That’s almost OK. What I also got was his date of birth and his ‘name day’, his mobile phone number and his email address. I also know that the domain name for a website with his name is still available to buy.

Once you know when someone’s birthday is, you can click on a link to send them flowers. Very handy. But if you should ever happen to find me, don’t bother. I’m allergic.

I didn’t take it any further, but people’s declared income is the next thing we may want to know. Exam results, obviously. I don’t think they do shoe size. Yet.