Monthly Archives: April 2010

No pasarán

If I try hard enough I’m sure I can manage to write something on the election that somehow has a tie with books. I expect many of you have already seen that piece by JK Rowling in the Times a couple of weeks ago. Along with most others, I was really impressed, but not surprised, by what she wrote. Unlike her I’ve never listened much to the bad things they say about single mothers. Not because I’m not one of them – I’m not – but because I’ve never in my wildest imagination been able to see anything amiss with single parenthood. One of the people closest to me was a single mother, and how hard she worked, and what an upright citizen, and decent human being she was!

Around the time when the JK piece was in the news, there was a programme on television. I read the blurb for it in the paper and it made me really angry. The premise for the programme seemed to be that the children of these single mothers were destined to become failures. So not only are the parents bad, but their children automatically become bad. And this wasn’t even the politicians speaking (hang on, if it’s an election; don’t they want those votes? Maybe not…), but the programme makers. So they dislike us too.

It had never struck me that I might be bad due to mother-of-witch being a single parent. But now that I consider me, well, I’m one of those very bad things – a foreigner. And an immigrant. She clearly failed there. And I’m unemployed. No, I’m not, insofar as I’m busy all the time. But no money paid for my efforts. Not even benefits, actually. And as I began this piece, I hadn’t thought of the fact that nicely British though he may be, the Resident IT Consultant is also unemployed. Can all the voluntary work he does count as a mitigating factor?

The other day on Facebook Bali Rai had a little rant about the BNP who had left a leaflet but not stayed to engage in a discussion with him. I think he really wanted that chat. The same day I received my leaflet, also stuffed through my letterbox. I had hitherto imagined they might phrase their dislike for certain kinds of people a little more diplomatically, but no. It would appear all foreigners are unwanted. So that covers me, then. Don’t have a vote anyway. Daughter came home and read the leaflet, then asked if I would permit her to tear it into little pieces. I had pondered having it framed, but in the end I let her. As Son said when he heard, he hoped we recycled the paper. We did.

I’m writing this while listening to some foreign rubbish on iTunes. ABBA, since you ask. I’m blogging on a genuine IKEA pine table. It’s foreign, too, but maybe IK’s youthful leanings exonerate me?

And then, very serendipitously, a little book by the to me unknown Joe Layburn, called Street Heroes, arrived. It’s about a young boy whose father is leader of a British fascist party, and it deals with the confused feelings he has about his dad’s behaviour and his reputation at school. Basically it’s a quick lesson in fascism for very young readers, coupled with the history of the Battle of Cable Street and Mosley and the Jewish immigrants.

This time round it’s the Muslims who are the target, as well as many other ‘undesirables’ in London’s East End. It’s a very uneven story, and the fact that it depends on a fantasy element doesn’t help. But it deals with such important issues, that I can overlook that. The finishing pages are enough to make your hair stand on end, at least a little bit. Too many young people no longer learn anything about stuff like this.

So far, I’ve never had it suggested to me that I should go back to where I came from. Son has, on the other hand. There was a period when playing out on the street – our very leafy, pleasant, fairly well-off street – his so-called friend suggested he do that. I can only assume he meant the hospital a mile down the road. Do you reckon the maternity ward would have Son back?

These may be election-fevered days, but I’m not suggesting you vote for any particular party. I haven’t voted in a parliamentary election for about 19 years. That last time I took Son in his pushchair and invited a friend with another toddler-on-wheels to accompany us to the consulate. We left the solicitors’ firm, where the consulate was situated, in disgrace. I had had the temerity to tell the person there that her ‘polling station’ routine was incorrect (is it my fault I’d been trained to do her job?), and she wasn’t entirely happy with that. Well, that should teach my friend not to go anywhere with me again.

Anyway, even the best political party seems to go mad after winning an election. We’re all doomed.


Victorian fantasy, and autism

I’ll offer no apologies for getting carried away with the autism in my interview with Jon Mayhew. Just a little explanation. When I looked Jon up on Facebook (the man kept popping up in almost every single conversation I was in!) I was pleasantly surprised to find he wasn’t only amusing in discussions, or only a new hopeful novelist, but he actually works with autism. And that, to me, made him really interesting.

So I thought I might befriend him. Although that witchy thought had barely entered my mind before Jon befriended me, however misguided he may have been.

Jon Mayhew

That, and the fact that I loved his book, was why I was keen to do an interview. I often feel that one book isn’t enough to sustain a conversation, but rules are there to accommodate exceptions. Witchily enough, we both had that thought at the same time, too. The interview idea, not the exceptions to rules. I’m sure Jon doesn’t want to have rules about not being interviewed on the strength of having just the one book.

Hence the Witch family outing to the Wirral, one sunny day during the Easter holidays, with Witch and Daughter in the house, and the Resident IT Consultant behind the chicken shed.

I simply couldn’t talk to Jon and ignore the autism angle. What was so good, was finding that he never stopped to explain anything, but spoke to me assuming I’d understand. He either credited me with more intelligence than most ‘experts’ have done, or he was being a little aspie about it himself. Both, maybe.

Anyway, tuck in and read! (I think he’s funny.)

Stratford Boy

Stratford Boys

There is only one other novel that’s made me feel like The Fool’s Girls by Celia Rees did, as far as getting that ‘Stratford feeling’ goes, and that’s Jan Mark’s Stratford Boys.

The first sentence of the book is sheer genius for setting the tone of the whole story; ‘The Shakespeares had the builders in again’. You can’t know that it was the same in those days, but it’s quite fun to imagine that it was. It’s what makes you identify with Will Shakespeare and his parents and friends. No matter what century; we’re all the same. More or less.

16-year-old Will ends up writing, and putting on, a play with his friends, and various other more or less sane characters. It’s absolutely hilarious, and not everything goes wrong. In fact, by the end of the book Will is thinking ahead to ‘next time’. So it can’t have been too bad.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I’m no Archbishop, but I’ll have a little go with Philip Pullman’s latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is such a mouthful as to make it almost impossible to talk about. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, but thought that since I usually like Philip’s writing, there was no reason to make an exception for something where he tries to stir up the church. Except Rowan Williams seemed not stirred at all. I think he was meant to be, and it’s only because the man is quite reasonable, as Archbishops go, that he could say he liked it.

Did I like it? If I say I’m not sure, it’s an indication of how well written it is. Because I was so drawn into this new version of the life of Jesus that it was hard to see it as fiction. So I can totally identify with any Christians who become enraged with it, despite it saying in large letters on the back ‘THIS IS a STORY’. Most will still not remember that when tempers warm up.

Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The other hint to its status as fiction is the small detail that there are twin brothers, Jesus and Christ. But after that I sort of lost the plot. I struggled to come to terms with who was bad and who was good, if such a division could be made. I was pleased, and relieved, to find that I seem to have learned more than I thought, back in primary school. There was nothing new here, with the possible exception that I’ve never read much from the Bible in English.

There was no good or bad in the end. What Philip shows us is the two sides to Jesus. He simplifies the reactions to Jesus from those around him. Jesus doesn’t always come across as a ‘nice guy’, but I think Philip was more after the church than Jesus. It feels very anti-church, which I suppose is only to be expected.

TGMJATSC is different from Philip’s usual fairy stories in that it seems to follow the original far more than we’ve seen elsewhere. There was more of the New Testament here than there is of Cinderella in I Was a Rat, for example. And maybe you can’t have people laughing at Jesus, which explains the lack of jokes.

I don’t like the title. I didn’t find Christ to be a scoundrel at all. And I would have thought that was the whole point.

And the guilt quilt competition winner is

Linda Lawlor. Well done! 46 correct faces suggests a woman who reads her Bookwitch religiously. That’s what we like, you know. A signed copy of Tall Story by Candy Gourlay should get itself into the post as soon as it’s been printed. Waiting for the printing would help, wouldn’t it? I read the manuscript, which is always a bit tricky. Besides, the cover of the real thing is beautiful.

Now, at first I thought this would be dead easy, and everyone would have 51 correct names. Then I thought they’d miss about four, and I decided which ones would be really hard. And I was wrong. Some were obviously hard, but not the ones I predicted.

The prize was so attractive that Candy herself entered the competition. She went for the humorous approach. Or was it just that she needed to get a few names wrong in order to make sure she didn’t win her own book? Could be, I suppose. But why did she miss out Lord Ardagh himself? I can understand that Craig Simpson is less of a household name than some. And ‘hunky’ Frank Cottrell Boyce? Hm. Bali Rai ‘probably can sing (and play the mandolin)’. Perhaps. ‘Cute guy’ (Mr Percy Jackson), and another ‘hunky’! Honestly. It’s Oliver Jeffers. ‘Looks like uncle Ian who was a marine’ (Gerald Scarfe) and a ‘smiley’ (Marina Lewycka).

There just might be a consolation prize, Candy.

2010 Carnegie shortlist

At last! I kept checking and checking, until the shortlist snuck in the back door while I wasn’t looking at all.









Of the eight I have read six and they are all excellent, as is to be expected. I have never read either Julie Hearn or Philip Reeve, but I’m fairly certain they are equally good.

Which book will win? So far Neil Gaiman seems to have won everything with The Graveyard Book, so there may be no stopping the man. Will they go for old established, like Terry Pratchett, or new like Helen Grant? And Patrick Ness has won quite a bit in a short period of time.

Or they could simply surprise me if they feel like it.

Bookwitch bites #6

Once, when we got our first computer (and let me tell you that was a while ago), I had this idea that that was it. Once and for all. Hah, is what I say today, many many computers on. Maybe that’s how people felt about getting themselves a website, too? Now the time has come for many to revamp, just to avoid looking dated.

Mary Hoffman has recently given hers a facelift, and it’s definitely spring now. What with words like tweet and twitter, the countryside feel to Mary’s home page makes me think of ‘back to nature’. Mary has also changed her newsletter style blog, and it looks as if her old news blog is no longer in use.

Candy Gourlay has been to the London Book Fair and has written several posts about what she and her author friends got up to. By the sound of it, they rather took over the place, seeing as the lack of planes made for an emptier than usual fair. Wish I’d known. I love empty spaces. I could have set up my own Bookwitch stall. Just think.

At the Love & Sex event this week I happened to be standing next to Keris Stainton who was telling William Nicholson all about her first book which is out now or soon. I’m not completely averse to eavesdropping, and when Keris gave William a postcard I swiftly asked for one, too. A book that comes recommended by Meg Cabot can’t be bad, can it? (I was thinking that really Keris could have done with carting round a few spare novels in her bag, in case people in the street or witches at bookshop events show an interest. Just a thought.)

Nicola Morgan launched her new blog, specifically created for her new novel Wasted, yesterday. There are a number of enthusiastic comments/reviews of Wasted. Me, I wouldn’t know. But there is a reason for that. Cough.

Friday saw another exciting event, which was the 25th anniversary of Beverley Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg. The invite went like this:

“Learning through Literature: A South African Story”, Celebrating 25 years since the publication of Journey to Jo’burg, by Beverley Naidoo.  Michael Rosen with Chris van Wyk, Njabulo Ndebele, Gillian Slovo, Ret’sepile Makamane and Beverley Naidoo.

And who wouldn’t have wanted to be there for that? I did. But for some reason Virgin want payment for their train tickets, and in this instance rather too much. I just hope it was as good without me as it would have been with. Beverley’s books are fantastic.

Depending on when you read this, you have approximately 24 hours left to attempt to win a signed copy of Tall Story by Candy Gourlay. Identify the authors above, and send list to contact, also above. Candy Gourlay has joined in the spirit of the thing, and just may win a copy of her own book…

In the company of great authors

You know me, I like hanging out with authors. This week I’ve been hanging with Shakespeare, which is pretty good. Being fairly dead (him, not me) it had to be in Celia Rees’s The Fool’s Girl, and let me tell you; that’s not bad at all. As far as the book is concerned, it’s absolutely outstanding. And wonderful. In some silly way, I feel proud to have hung out with old Will.

I just wish I could remember what Celia was saying about her plans for the book in Cheltenham 18 months ago. I listened, but it’s all gone from my mind now.

Like Celia, I quite like Twelfth Night (and unlike her I believe it’s the 5th of January, but let’s not quibble). I was a little confused to begin with, not quite working out where we were in relation to Shakespeare’s writing of the play, and what happened to Viola ‘in real life’. Because that’s what we get. There is a real Viola and Sebastian and everyone else, and eventually there is the play.

It’s rather like the photo of the photo of the photo. It’s hard to know what is real and what is real. Twelfth Night isn’t really real, but nor is The Fool’s Girl. And I was so not helped by placing Venice somewhere really strange in my mind at the start of this novel, but that’s not Celia’s fault. Don’t know what happened to me.

So, Will gets to play the hero, or at least help Violetta and Feste sort out various things that have gone wrong in Illyria. Most of the characters from the play are running around London and Oxford and Stratford, and some of them doing not very nice things. It’s a great caper, and it’s an interesting look at England in 1601. I have been there before, but it’s always good to see different perceptions of this period.

I’m tempted to say this is Celia’s best novel, but I am very fond of her witch (understandably) and her pirates, so I can’t say that. But it’s a close thing.

And the book is purple, which is always appreciated. Remembering it’s about Violetta, I suppose it’s not surprising. For those who also like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is another treat in store.

When Melvin met William

It was almost ‘ladies only’ at Waterstone’s in Deansgate last night. We’d come for the sex. A little bit of love, too, but mostly sex. I noticed on the poster that it was titled Adult Author Talk, which would explain the ban on under-13s. Melvin Burgess is no longer the only one. William Nicholson has joined him in the very small club of writers who have tackled sex for YA readers, without confusing the issue with vampires and things.

William and Melvin warmed up in the adjoining Costa, and when they arrived in the events room they sat down in the wrong chairs, but dealt with it by swapping their books round to where they sat. Alistair Spalding from Egmont introduced them, and didn’t seem to get them too mixed up.

William Nicholson and Melvin Burgess

The very well spoken and polite sounding William started, on the grounds that it was he who has a new book out, Rich and Mad. (It’s confession time again, because I’ve not had time to read it. Yet. I’d seen the news that William’s doing the Groucho Club tonight, with his book, and been a little disappointed that I couldn’t make it. So a last minute piece of intelligence that he’d be coming here pre-Groucho was more than welcome. I lead such a boring life that I was free. Naturally.)

William Nicholson

He may be 62, but inside he’s still 16, and he told us about his early love life, such as it was and about what passed for p*rn in those days. He feels there’s a need for more books like the one he’s just written, and he and Melvin did that thing where people admire each other’s work. Whereas William’s teen years were quite chaste in his boys’ school with the purposely ugly ‘hags’ employed so as to avoid stirring any sexual feelings, Melvin reckons that a film from his teens would need to be an 18. Yes, well.

Melvin claims to have been scared of girls in his teens, while William was taken to a brothel at 18. He fantasised about American cheerleaders, and Melvin really didn’t like school at all. And as Anne Fine found, he did want to shock when he wrote Doing It. William has been all set for a ‘storm of outrage’ and it hasn’t materialised. Could it be that we are seven years on from Doing It?

We all agreed that the hardest thing with books like these is to get them past the parents of prospective readers. The cover of Rich and Mad might make it hard for it to be unobtrusive, and I heard there was one school that has cancelled an event due to fears of upsetting people. The head teacher read the book between booking William and the event.

Melvin Burgess

Not surprisingly, Melvin wants readers to be ’empowered rather than protected’ and feels that schools are just the right places to do this, if they could just escape their fear of complaints to the press. He told us about Morris Gleitzman turning up at an event wearing his dressing gown which didn’t go down well with the school. On a brighter note, William had a good school event on Wednesday morning, and was heartened by the students’ discussion on love and sex.

Anyone who wants to discuss anything with William is welcome to email him on his website. He describes it as ‘Paypal’ style, where your email address isn’t made available to him, so you’re quite safe. He’s used to silly questions, but would most likely prefer good ones. He’s had mainly good feedback for Rich and Mad, and he read us a short excerpt from the book.

William Nicholson and Melvin Burgess

For the signing afterwards it looked like many in the audience had brought all their favourite books along. Not great for sales, perhaps, but it’s good to see how keen people are. I believe my local blogging colleague from Wondrous Reads was present. I meant to say hello properly, but gaga-hood struck (me) again, and then she was gone. When Waterstone’s staff started removing the chairs I took the hint and stood up. It takes more than some missing chairs to make a bookwitch leave. I hung on to the bitter end, but not so late that it was dark for my walk through Manchester.

George IV lived here

Not here here. There, in Brighton, in the Royal Pavilion. I was sitting peacefully reading G2, about the Indian soldiers and their hospital in Brighton during WWI, when the sentence about the Prince Regent leaped out at me. For some reason, ‘George IV lived here’ was something we started our lessons in phonetics with, while recently arrived in Brighton and the University of Sussex.

I think it proved something. Possibly only the musicality of the phrase; you know, how the words rise and fall and so on. And it had the local connection to the place where we were studying.

The Guardian article featured photos of the Pavilion showing rows of beds with Sikh soldiers sitting to attention, which then made me think of Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts. (In true witchy tradition I then happened to cast my eye over the Carnegie longlist which was sitting on my computer screen, with City of Ghosts the first title I saw.)

Nice to see patients recuperating on the pleasant lawn outside the Pavilion, but it would, of course, have been a lot better if they hadn’t had to be there at all. They made a difference to the outcome of the war, but they shouldn’t have been involved in a war so far from their own lives.

At least the authorities seemed to understand that they needed to arrange care for these soldiers taking account of their religion. There used to be a halal butcher close to where we lived in the 1980s, which makes me wonder if that shop was a relic from those days. (I used to shop there for unusual spices that I couldn’t get anywhere else. The man in the shop looked at me and asked what a girl like me was doing in a place like that, which seemed a strange thing to say to a customer.) And back in my ‘phonetics with George IV’ days my landlady was, as she used to put it, ‘a butcher’s daughter’. Not halal, though. And luckily I wasn’t a vegetarian in those days.

Read City of Ghosts, and check out the photos from the Royal Pavilion.