Monthly Archives: April 2010

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.


I hadn’t given Thai orchids a moment of thought. It would be wrong to say I don’t care. But most of any care I have over the lack of orchids from anywhere, would be to do with loss of income for those whose livelihoods depend on them.

Until Monday evening we didn’t know whether Son would be able to turn up here this morning, and for a while it looked as if he’d be one of the lucky ones, with flight not yet cancelled and due to arrive 15 minutes after Manchester airport reopens Tuesday morning (if it does). But it was not to be, which I suppose should have been expected after he has narrowly avoided other air traffic disruptions this academic year. Son has a certain talent for ending up with travel disruption where his education is concerned, so why would now be any different?

But let’s return to the subject of Eyjafjallajökull, which Son can pronounce almost to perfection after his year in that place where he’s stuck for the moment. The Resident IT Consultant was amused at the Icelander interviewed on air on Thursday when it all began, because he reported that ‘the ways were closed and the cows were in the houses’. Of course they were.

Son has found himself increasingly annoyed with the BBC on this subject, and has resorted to Icelandic news on the internet. And as the orchids above indicate, I’m a little intrigued at how our trusted newspapers are reporting things.

It’s worth covering the repercussions of businesses going under, and possible shortages of tomatoes, say. But the Thai orchids can’t be unimportant only at Witch Towers, surely? Or the pre-washed salads. Convenient (and yucky, when you think of it), but hardly essential. I noted to my surprise that elusive ingredients for medicine is bad for the pharmaceutical companies. I’d have imagined it’d be worse for those who are ill and may need the medicine to survive. And I’m not going to lie sleepless if Robert Downey can’t make his film premiere next week. Will you?

Why do papers report such silly news? I’m the first to enjoy Lucy Mangan or Tim Dowling poking fun at stuff in an entertaining manner, but who checks what gets into the news pages?

Johnny Swanson

This won’t do! I just can’t wait any longer, and who cares if this review is a little premature? I’ve sat on it for three months.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, Eleanor Updale’s new book Johnny Swanson made me extremely anxious. I was over one third into this book about a young boy set in 1929, and I could almost have given up. Not because it’s not excellently written. It is. And that’s precisely why Eleanor had me in such a firm grip where I twisted and squirmed and asked the Resident IT Consultant what I should do. As if he’d know.

Johnny Swanson

I was reading about Johnny in a typed manuscript, which meant I had no cover image and no blurb and also no previous experience of Eleanor’s books. If I’d known this was going to turn into a crime novel I’d have breathed easier. As it was, Johnny was behaving in a very bad way, despite being a good little boy, really, and I couldn’t bear the thought of  the damage caused by his actions and the cringe factor of what would happen when he’d have to own up to what he’d been saying and doing, was overwhelming. I’m too law abiding to cope with this kind of thing.

But I read another chapter or two and luckily a very nice character is murdered and the plot goes down the more normal route of little Johnny solving the crime. He has a very valid reason for turning boy detective, and luckily all those bad things have a purpose in what happens.

It could be another world. That’s how different Warwickshire in 1929 feels. It’s not WWI and not WWII. It’s really different. Johnny and his widowed Mum are poor, and powerless in the face of prejudiced neighbours and bullying teachers and a landlord who wants more rent. TB surfaces in the town, and the reader is introduced to the stark reality of tuberculosis eighty years ago. This is before the NHS, and it’s a worrying picture that’s being painted.

But, there is help and friendship amongst the bad stuff. And there is a lot of humour in the book, even though the setting is grim. It’s good to see how Johnny can eventually triumph in the face of adversity.

(Note to children: please don’t lie and please don’t do too many naughty things.)

The grass is greener

It is, now that it’s spring and all that, but it wasn’t what I had in mind.

I trust that those readers lucky enough to live in Britain realise just how lucky they are. We all live in Midsomer Something-or-other, in pretty little cottages, unless we are so wealthy that we own the mansion/palace or belong in the charming vicarage. It’s a well known fact.

Just as well known as sending your child to boarding school.

High tea at five o’clock. They (by that I mean foreign foreigners) know that that means scones and cake and tea, preferably with warm milk. Maybe even marmalade.

And the bookshops are better. And I believe that they probably are. They may not sell Marimekko folders or Converse school bags, but who cares?

Now that I’ve sort of established myself in a tiny corner of the Swedish book blog market, I read Swedish blogs when I can find the time. One such is Holly Hock, who likes Harry Potter and English books in general. She also likes English bookshops.

And as any sensible person would do, she set aside some days just before Easter for a trip to London simply in order to go round bookshops. She had been collecting names and addresses for her list, so knew just where she wanted to go. And then she blogged about them, with photos and everything.

Looked at from her perspective the shops look adorably charming. If I’d still been in Sweden I’d have jumped on the first plane over here to follow in her footsteps. (Always assuming air traffic hadn’t come to a standstill.) Now, I’m just a bit jaded. But they do look great.

I still want a scone, though. And floral chintz in some form or other.

Bookwitch bites #5

After having promised me there’d be a brand new website for, well, for some time, Jeanne Willis has finally arrived. Website-wise, that is. Internet aside, I’d say she arrived quite a while ago, because the list of books she’s written is long. The website looks good, and on the home page you get a very Hollywood sort of photo of Jeanne. Check out the lipstick! Further in, she has arranged her life in pictures, complete with kissing toads and getting married in a zoo. So that explains some of her books…

On to mermaids and other realistic creatures by Michelle Lovric. Her second children’s book The Mourning Emporium is due out towards the end of 2010. Here is what Michelle said in an online interview recently: “I am just finishing my second novel for children, which is called The Mourning Emporium, a follow-up to The Undrowned Child and it’s another fantasy adventure set in Venice. But this time my child protagonists end up in London in time for the funeral of Queen Victoria. It’s got a full complement of mystical beasts such as vampire eels and winged Syrian cats. My villains are, unusually, Australian. Being born there, I feel entitled to write bad Australians. I hope to continue with the children’s books, though I also have another idea for an adult novel – having done skin, I am now very interested in hair.”

I’m sorry I moaned about interviews recently. Well, I’m not really, but I just thought I’d better mention that I did do another musical interview last Sunday, the result of which is here. Isn’t it lucky that I learned to do ï?

And come on now, don’t be shy! It’s time to have a go at my quilt competition. Eight days left. Or have a go at me, whichever feels easiest.