Monthly Archives: March 2010

What witches don’t know

I blogged earlier – I think – about how hard it can be to know what you don’t know. I’ve found one more thing I had no idea I didn’t know. Barrington Stoke. I didn’t know they specialise in books to help struggling readers to read. I just thought they were a publishing company among many other publishing companies.

Not so. But why did no one tell me? ‘That’s one of my Barrington Stoke books’ authors would say when talking about something they’d written. And I simply assumed that this particular book was with a different publisher. Now it all makes sense!

I have just been sent a sample Barrington Stoke book, along with their catalogue, and both make for good reading.

Twisting the Truth

Twisting the Truth by Judy Waite was for me a very quick read. But it’s good. Whenever I come across such brief stories, they are usually also more childish, whereas this is for 14+. It must be horrible to be in your mid teens and only have babyish books to choose from. Much easier not to read at all, I’d say. And that’s what they do, which is such a shame.

I recall coming across some similar books at Offsprings’ school library, except they were abridged versions of ‘real’ books. That’s another way of approaching reading, obviously. But I can see that having something written specially might be nicer.

So, Judy Waite’s story is about a girl who lies to her stepfather when she gets home late. She comes up with a tale about having been abducted, almost, on the way home. As with all lies, this leads to a situation she could not have foreseen. Very exciting.

The Barrington Stoke catalogue is full of books that I don’t need to read, because I can read longer books, but so many of them look very tempting. And I can see how almost anyone with dyslexia could be turned into a reader this way.

I’m fairly sure that Adèle Geras has one or two BS books under her belt, and I know that Theresa Breslin told me that the ‘Alcatraz book’ of hers I’d come across was a BS one. It is. I found it in the catalogue. I also found lots more of my favourite names in there, like Philip Ardagh, Malorie Blackman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Terry Deary, Bali Rai, Anne Cassidy, Tony Bradman, Lee Weatherly, Beverley Naidoo, Oisín McGann, Catherine Forde, Joanna Kenrick, Hilary McKay and many more. Many more.

‘All’ that these writers have to do is come up with a great story, with short paragraphs and short chapters, and Barrington Stoke will print it on cream paper in their own clever font in a good size. But only once the book has been tested by test readers, of course.

Why didn’t I know this?

The kitchen table book

You’ve heard of coffee table books. You presumably own a few, whether or not you keep them on your coffee table. I’m currently reading – very slowly – a kitchen table book.

What’s that, I hear you ask. Well, ‘it is heavy, it’s my Per Gessle biography’ would be my answer.

Two and a half years ago I was at the Gothenburg book fair, and attended the seminar discussing this biography by Sven Lindström. Per Gessle himself was there, too, so I expected a huge crowd, considering Per is one of the biggest music stars in the country. There wasn’t, in actual fact, so it ended up being quite a cosy little talk about him and the writing of the book.

The biography, however, was nowhere to be seen. I suspect they had planned this with a view to having the book for sale, but it had been delayed, so no book. That had sort of been the attraction, though. Go hear him talk and buy the book and get it signed.

Att Vara Per Gessle

The next summer I sent the Resident IT Consultant into one of the bookshops in Halmstad while we were on holiday, asking him to pick up a copy. ‘Expensive’ he grumbled, but got it anyway. Per being a Halmstad boy himself, it turned out the book was signed after all. And there is a seven track CD included. And the whole thing is very heavy. That could be why I didn’t shop for it myself.

On account of its weight, I hadn’t got round to reading it, until recently I had a brainwave of massive proportions. I don’t actually have to sit in an armchair, balancing the damned thing and suffering aching arms and collapsing wrists. I can sit in the kitchen, with the book wide open in front of me on the kitchen table. That only took me 18 months to work out.

Att Vara Per Gessle

So the reading is no workout, but a fairly comfortable affair. It’s still an enormous book, and I’m nowhere near done, but I’ll get there.

I will report back when the time comes.

Jimmy Coates

The Jimmy Coates books were not what I’d expected. I’d imagined something fairly light and childish and average, and that was so wrong. Joe Craig seems like a nice man and hopefully won’t want to kill me for thinking that. Jimmy Coates on the other hand; he’s a killer, and dangerous. But only 11, which is young.

And with my visual memory problem I’ve never been quite sure who is who. I mean, why give your hero a name so similar to your own? Maybe Jimmy Coates wrote the Joe Craig books?

Anyway, Daughter had the first two JC books (Killer and Target) on her shelves, signed and everything, from when Joe visited her school. So I read them and do you know? They are good. Not at all as I’d imagined. I was a little put off the description of Jimmy as a killer, because it doesn’t sound very proper for a young character. Bad influence on the impressionable reader and all that.

So, this is – probably – set in our time, but in an alternate Britain, a totalitarian dictatorship where people are relieved not to have to vote, because how could they know who would be best? The Prime Minister has helped design Jimmy, who is only 38% human, into a killing machine for the government.

Jimmy isn’t best pleased when he discovers this, seven years before his intended awakening at 18. He seems to belong to NJ7 (one step on from MI6, you know), and they are scary unpleasant people, who don’t like the French. It’s a new way of showing young readers how easily things could be very bad indeed, and I think this will work far better than any preaching at school or in the news.

Also different from my expectations is that each book may come to an end of a kind, but it’s an on-going adventure, or problem, so the reader will want to go on and on. We need to see if Jimmy can change his destiny, and what will happen in this dreadful country. How will I find the time? Tell me that, Joe.

At last, the other ***

This is where it happened

The Mailbox, Birmingham

and this is who I met there. Andy McNab

My alert readers will immediately deduce who that sleeve belongs to, and that the asterisks above indicate that after blogging about Scandinavian Airlines and the Scattered Authors, I have finally met the real SAS. I mean, the real SAS for me is the airline, but it’s the ‘cool and dangerous’ SAS this time.

I met Andy McNab in Birmingham yesterday. At least I hope I did. I went into this bar and started chatting to the first balaclava-ed man I saw. It was him, wasn’t it? With all other writers, if I don’t know them, I google them to make sure I can recognise them. Doesn’t work with Andy. Not that he’s called Andy, anyway. This one tried to suggest he’d be Terry Pratchett today, but you know me. I know my Terry Pratchetts well, and it wasn’t him. He tried it with the wrong witch.

Andy’s lovely publicist Sally had suggested that I might want to interview him. And I did, seeing as I missed him at the local bookshop three years ago, due to someone’s unfortunate lack of understanding my likes and dislikes. The Daughter got to meet him then, so she didn’t need to come this time. Especially since the services of a photographer wasn’t top of my list for Monday’s outing.

The witch had tea and this man in the bar had coke. Whoever he was, we had a nice conversation. He looked rather like a Guardian reader, now that I come to think of it. That doesn’t mean we actually read the same newspaper. In case he wants to sue.

As some of you will want to know what Andy had to say, I’ll now work diligently at transcribing our conversation, and I will strive to make up a really good misquote, because he seemed to quite fancy being quoted wrongly, as long as it’s a good one.

And no, he didn’t really wear a balaclava. It would have attracted attention.

Maths books?

So apart from Alice, is there any good children’s fiction with maths featuring heavily? Or even lightly.

You are such a good group of knowledgeable people, that I hope you will know. I’m sure I know, too, but I can’t find anything in that jumbled area where I’m supposed to store stuff worth memorising.

It’s the Resident IT Consultant who wants to know. He spent a whole day, or so he claims, trying to come up with maths in books. There is no accounting for people’s taste. I expect it’s the general weirdness of my in-law family. Remember the slide rule and the logarithm tables a few months ago?

Over to you, good readers. You’ve had a narrow escape, I can tell you. The Resident IT Consultant suggested he write the blog, since it was to be about maths. But I do feel that an irreverent arts student is better placed to mock maths and other things. If that’s not very nice, then I’m sorry. Only a little, though.

Presents past and much more past than that

Who wants kitchen mixers when you can have books? For a wedding present, I mean. Though now that I think about it, I believe the Resident IT Consultant came with some kind of kitchen machinery at the time, so he was a real bargain.

Ordnance Survey Atlas

We didn’t get that many books as wedding presents, but in amongst the towels and tea sets there lurked an Ordnance Survey Atlas. The giver clearly knew his recipients. The atlas has been in heavy use for many years now, which is more than you can say about some of the other gifts. Useful though they were.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

There is a much larger wedding present of the book persuasion in our humble house. It wasn’t our wedding, though. It was the grandparents of the Resident IT Consultant, and I think they must have married in the mid 1920s. Their present was the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. That, too, has been useful over the years. What it lacks in recent information, it more than makes up for with ‘old stuff’. We got it out as recently as a few days ago when Daughter had homework needs.

Actually, we received some book tokens as well, but I no longer recall what we used them on. Better than butter knives.

Comes highly recommended

I don’t do it on purpose. But when I do it, I’m actually very aware of doing it. As far as I know, I’ve done it three times.

You may recall how excited I was the first time I got my name into a book? One of those ‘this is the greatest book ever’ recommendations you get inside novels, to prove to the browsing customer in the bookshop that this is a book worthy of being bought. My first was by Philip Ardagh.

And now Sally Nicholls has my name and my quote in the new paperback of Season of Secrets. Or maybe it’s her publishers who have gone and printed the Bookwitch quote. It’s the one where I say it’s exactly as a children’s book should be like. And I meant it. It’s such a very children-y children’s book, just the way books used to be.

Mind you, the other people whose recommendations are in there are quite right too. We are united in thinking Sally writes great books. Though I do wonder why they had to go and put Jacqueline Wilson on the front cover? I suppose I have some way to go before I can manage such a prime position…

If there are readers out there who didn’t try Sally’s Season of Secrets the first time round, I suggest you remedy that. Now.

As for me, I’ll have to wait and see if my third review containing ‘that type of phrase’ will make it into print. As I said, I hardly ever write the kind of enthusiastic phrases that will look good quoted, because I feel too self conscious about it. But I’m aware I’ve one more like that, so we’ll have to wait and see. Sometimes they just slip out of the keyboard. And slip they may, but they are always sincerely meant.

Lost exile

Can you hallucinate a book? I thought I did a couple of weeks ago, while we were all in the throes of the gay book argument. It started with that Guardian review of Steve Augarde’s latest book, X Isle.

I knew I had a copy. I knew. I did have it. Until Christmas it had been sitting in a very prime position in the row of my most prime books to read next. Then I felt obliged to tidy those books into new formations, in order to allow some Christmas decorations to adorn the room. It’s not as if my aunt’s bureau is a bookcase, anyway.

The Resident IT Consultant crept up and asked if we had a copy of that much debated book, since the blog storm had made him interested in reading it. I said I had had the same thought and had intended to look for it. So I looked. I didn’t find it anywhere.

I looked in the same places again. I looked in different places. It wasn’t there.

Doubt crept in. Maybe I had imagined receiving it?

Then I found the press release, and thought that it was most unlikely I would have that and no book. I still couldn’t find it, so felt it was better to give up. Vaguely wondered if I could email Random and admit to having mislaid it and ask for another.

A couple of days ago I suddenly remembered that it had been one of those early proofs consisting of sheets of paper held together with a white plastic thing. (I’m sure it has a name.) With that new knowledge, I cast my eye around the room, and saw it immediately. It was sitting almost a foot away from me in my armchair. I was in the armchair, not the book. The book was on the shelf under the plant stand.X Isle

The relief I felt on discovering I’m as sane as you are was, well, a relief. So, back to square one.

City of Ships

I’m in despair. I clearly went wrong somewhere with Daughter. Why isn’t she reading Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series? It’s got everything she wants in a book, with the possible exception of David Tennant. (Mary, perhaps you could fix that?) Mary’s teenagers in today’s London could be cousins to Cathy Hopkins’s Mates Dates girls. And boys. Her boys are seriously fanciable. Definitely cousins of Tony’s.

The historical setting could be from Theresa Breslin’s historical and romantic books. Or from Mary’s own standalone novels. And then you take the people and the settings and throw a little Alex Rider adventuring into the whole thing. In City of Ships, add a tablespoon of Johnny Depp.

What’s not to like?

Every time a new Stravaganza enters the house, the Resident IT Consultant is there, nosing around like a puppy just waking up to some intriguing smell. And then he’s off reading. This is the man who can be quite scathing about reading which isn’t serious enough, so although Stravaganza falls into my category of settling down with lots of comfort foods, with dessert, it has a lot of merit.

I suppose we all want to be one of those teenagers in Barnsbury. The one who thought they were nothing special, who wakes up somewhere very strange one morning, and discovers they are very special indeed. A whole new life in Talia, four hundred years ago, and with an important role to play in Talia’s history.

In City of Ships, which is Mary’s fifth, it’s Isabel who carves out a new life, away from her leading twin brother Charlie. Double trouble. Isabel wakes up in Classe, the Ravenna of Talia, and she meets the very handsome pirate Andrea.

Mary has also come up with some new travel arrangements for the stravagantes, which means they no longer need to ‘buy’ return journeys, but can make single trips to almost anywhere. And they may not have mobile phones in Talia, but those canny old men have come up with Talia’s answer to Skype.

Fabrizio is up to no good, and war on two fronts is on the cards. Thanks to Isabel and a two-timing spy, things work out in the end. Mostly. Some people have to die, but it wasn’t my primary suspect which was good. And I do like the fact that old enemies can reform and become good guys. We’ll soon be one big, happy family.

If we could only tie up a few loose ends in London?

Summarising and spoiling

A friend of a Facebook friend of mine had some very strong opinions on who is capable of reviewing books. Basically bloggers are no good. We are taking jobs away from properly trained journalists, who do it for a living. They know how to, and we don’t. I was a little shocked.

You can summarise the plot of a book and call it a review. Many bloggers use the amazon blurb or the back of the book blurb or the press release blurb. Mostly they then add some thoughts of their own. But I can’t help feeling that it’s cheating a little. Many of us have already read the blurb elsewhere.

Some quite big names who review for newspapers also spend rather a big chunk of their allotted number of words on summarising the novel before they come to the point. If that’s who she had in mind, then it would seem it’s not just useless bloggers who are useless.

So what do I do?

I’ve more or less decided against regular reviews of books here. (No, don’t stop sending them, please!) By that I mean that there is no way this formerly ‘so useless at analysing literature at all that her teacher almost cried’ blogger can do a ‘real’ review. No point in trying. I can’t say ‘the author’s use of *** indicates that ***’ and make it sound right.

Some ‘properly trained professionals’ give away the ending, often with no warning. So do bloggers. I’m sure I’ve done it, very occasionally. Sometimes it’s impossible to talk about something while avoiding certain facts.

I think my intention with what I do is to say what the book meant to me, with some personal reference on some level or other. If it’s not a new book, but one I read years ago, it makes sense to mention why I’m going on about it now. And I do mention what other family members have said about a book, despite seeing somewhere that this is so not interesting. OK, saying ‘my child loved this book’ doesn’t prove anything. But if you know that Daughter very reluctantly reads certain books, then the fact that she tore a book out of my hands is relevant. I think.

There must be a reason I’m going on about this now… Oh yes, I’ve just embarked on what feels like a marathon list of books to mention. Reading lots of books, and then giving them some kind of mention here, is almost counter productive to writing a fascinating blog about books.

When I regularly provide you with photos and/or lists of what I’ve just received in the post; please take me out and shoot me. That day is closer than I’d hoped, having just had a ‘reading priority’ talk with me and my aunt’s pink armchair (where the recent arrivals were resting), and catching myself thinking that I could do some of those combined posts and get rid of a few books that way.