Monthly Archives: July 2010

Vets Flickring past

Mr and Mrs Vet came by last week. Normally we go and see them at their surgery in Sweden most summers, though never for professional reasons. But this time they were in England, so called in for a cup of tea on their way past. Miss Vet didn’t accompany them, although she was the reason for the trip. She had decamped to attend a McFly concert (no, there really is no accounting for taste) in Wigan, of all places.

Having done scones last year, I went for toasted teacakes and some scotch pancakes. And gingernuts. Mrs Vet loved them. She had intended to bring us lovely Swedish preserves, but they were confiscated on the way out as resembling explosives a little bit too much.

Vetting is a busy life, so they have never really followed any of my charming blogs. Showed them what they look like, before offloading some books on them. Lots of unsuspecting people have found themselves leaving our house clutching books. Since miss Vet had enjoyed the Mary Hoffman we gave her last year, we found her another one. And Ondine by Ebony McKenna makes for suitable Vet-reading, what with it being about ferrets and stuff.

Mrs Vet doesn’t have time for the internet much, so was unnecessarily impressed by my exploits. I told her about the late night session in my kitchen 24 hours earlier, when in-between posting one blog on Bookwitch på svenska and the next one on Bookwitch I found that Flickr had changed. There I was, almost asleep with exhaustion and with loads of photos to put on the blog, and Flickr had the nerve to change how you do it. Just like that.

I had the choice between going and waking up Daughter, asking the Resident IT Consultant or working it out myself. I worked it out myself. Don’t know if that tells you something about us. Sat there swearing over how much more complicated they had made it. On third thoughts it could be that it’s actually more efficient.

But still not OK to just spring on tired witches in the middle of the night.

Bookwitch bites #16

The fruit from my January Random trip turns up now and then. I don’t mean that I forgot an apple in my bag, but that at this distance from all those meetings I attended, things are trickling through, having become real. One of the latest is the news that the novel written by the neighbour has got a contract. Annie Eaton’s neighbour Lindsey Barraclough has persuaded the powers at Random that her Long Lankin novel really was worth publishing. So it’s hopefully a happy ending for her now.

In fact, the end is all I read. Various people at the meeting had been given various parts of the novel to read, and I had the last fifty pages, which is a surreal way of approaching a book. So basically what happens is that they *** and after that it gets really tricky when ***, but it sort of ***. Maybe.

Captain Jack is going to write a sci-fi children’s book, which should have the cash tills ringing, unless they’ve totally been abolished by next summer when the book is published. John Barrowman will write the book with his sister Carole, who seems to work well with her baby brother, judging by past efforts. I know someone who will want to read it.

Daughter and I threw ourselves at Eclipse as soon as it was ready to be viewed yesterday (not counting previews and other cheats), and that was not because I couldn’t wait. I just reckoned that if I didn’t get it over and done with now, I’d not get to it at all. Still not having read a single one of Stephenie Meyer’s books I have to say that the progression of the films suggests that I’d do best to stay away by now. This was a dire film, even by my ‘easy-watching’ standards.

Less trashy is the new novel Trash by Andy Mulligan, the arrival of which I mentioned here earlier. Let’s just say that now that I’ve read it I’m a fan of a fantastic book. Only Trash by name. I would prescribe impatient waiting until September.

Losing It

There is a certain irony finding Anne Fine and Melvin Burgess sharing an anthology on the subject of losing your virginity. It shows they have both moved on from their little spat seven years ago. Or it’s simply that Keith Gray who has edited Losing It is good at persuading people to contribute. Keith has chosen well, with all eight authors approaching this topic in their own different way.

I hope I don’t sound like some sex-crazed old woman if I say that I really enjoyed all eight stories tremendously. I’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again; the short story is a very good medium, and we don’t get enough of them.

Losing It

Although losing your virginity sounds as if it’s only about sex, the truth is that there is surprisingly little sex in this collection. So any old people thinking they can’t possibly be responsible for supplying a book of this kind to their young ones should think again.

The reader sees the issue of virginity from the point of view of the ‘traditional’ teenager of today, and there is an ‘older’ person – two, actually – and there is the historical angle as well as the Asian immigrant’s. And then there is the gay experience, which I found very moving and enlightening, and I hope Patrick Ness will write something longer one day, incorporating this side of love and sex. There isn’t just the one gay character, but interestingly the reader can’t be quite sure who is and who isn’t. Much like in real life.

And I loved Jenny Valentine’s story about the embarrassing old relative at Sunday dinner. It had absolutely everything, and so much humour and warmth. I won’t forget Danny in a hurry, nor Finn, the narrator. (I really must read more of Jenny’s books.)

I’m not sure where on the scale of things Losing It belongs. It’s actually quite close to Doing It, with the exception that it’s a collection of shorter stories instead of a full novel. And it’s got Anne Fine’s contribution, which ought to guarantee its proper credentials. Buy it for a young teenager if you have one, or for yourself whether you are fourteen or 73.

In the lap of luxury

The good news is I’m not too old yet for Cathy Hopkins, although I may have stopped feeling like a 14-year-old. Cathy is back writing about this age group, because it’s just right; not too old and not too young.

Million Dollar Mates (I voted for another title on Cathy’s facebook page, but this one is OK) is Cathy’s new series about a girl who moves in with the mega rich. It’s not just another fluffy story about the wonders of wealth, or fame, however, but it looks at what matters.

Motherless Jess and her brother Charlie move in with their Dad, who’s just got a new job as manager of a luxury apartment complex in Knightsbridge. First Jess doesn’t want to move, and then she changes her mind. Then she changes her mind again, because what at first seems ideal turns out to be not so nice after all.

They are surrounded by rich people, while being nothing more than the children of staff, and very low in the pecking order. Having moved they are also some distance away from old friends and from their grandmother.

I did wonder if I’d find this a little too insubstantial, but as usual Cathy mixes ordinary teen life with some humour and with social observations, and in the end it’s not about rich and poor, but more about what to wear to a party and will the fanciable boy notice her?

Cathy still manages to fit in little snippets of sensible advice to teens in the plot. So along with the glamorous film star family from Hollywood, and the rich Russians who have yet to turn up, the readers get support for dealing with grief as well as how to make up when you fall out with your best friend. As usual there are gorgeous clothes and more of Cathy’s favourite oriental style decorating.

In fact, I used to feel I’d have to complain to her about putting ideas into girls’ minds, and now I actually have. I suppose the next step is to go out and get some fuchsia paint. And something orange.


Getting through the gates

Did you ever stop to consider this business of getting through gates? Particularly in both directions. The witch was excited enough about finally getting round to doing that interview with Cathy Hopkins, and then there was the excitement over the posh hotel Cathy was staying in, in deepest footballer-Cheshire. So exclusive is the place that there is no public entrance or car park into which to arrive by car and where you can be dropped off.

There were gates. The closed variety. The kind you can’t see through. So we were dropped off onto the puny pavement outside and crept up to the gatepost which had some intercom contraption. Luckily the photographer’s young eyes could discern the button to press, so I pressed. At the same time Cathy noticed us through her window and waved. The gates opened in that spooky way they do in films. Slightly creaky.

The gates

We walked through and walked up to the magically opening front door where Cathy was waiting in bare feet, looking like the lady of the manor. The whole operation made it seem like she had the complete house at her disposal.

So we did the interview, in those sleek and perfect surroundings. Having been forward enough to talk about bathrooms in advance, we were then invited up to have a peep at Cathy’s. Though we didn’t shove her in the bath for a photo, but draped her across the bed instead. Much more Cathy Hopkins!

Cathy Hopkins

Then it was time to worry about how to magic the gates open from the inside to escape again. Cathy fiddled with a few switches that may have been gate control thingies, or that could simply have been dimmer switches for the lighting. Who knows. The gates opened eventually and we made our escape. As we stood outside again a taxi drove in, and some motorist who happened to be passing stopped his car and asked what this place was. I think it was the taxi and the gates and the ‘paparazzi’ hanging outside that got him curious.

We magicked up our getaway car while waiting in the company of a young neighbourhood cat balancing on the fence.

Well, it was different.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

SOS Adventure

Ice Quake

Contrary to what you might think, this is my first children’s book by Colin Bateman. Still haven’t got to the charity shop purchase and I never did read the Titanic book, despite it doing well in awards shortlists. But I’m past the stage where I walk up to Colin and utter the ‘hello, I’ve never read anything by you, but I’m pleased to meet you’ kind of thing.

I’m rambling. SOS Adventure is Colin’s new series for children, the first of which is called Ice Quake. It’s an Alistair MacLean for children, competently written and exciting. SOS appears to be yet another organisation of the kind that does important and adventurous stuff and which recruits young people to help out.

So, not realistic, unless I’m mistaken in what goes on in real life, but it’s the kind of thing we dream of when young. To be chosen to be part of something bigger than a school outing. To make a difference. Michael sets fire to his school and then does a heroic act, after which he is catapulted into another world. There he meets Katya, another young recruit, and they really don’t like each other.

After that kind of a start it goes without saying that they get marooned together somewhere and have to be brave and clever, and they succeed where the adults failed.

I’d expect readers the right age to love this, and I can see that they’d want to go on to the next adventure, whereas I feel so tired and exhausted that I’d prefer a rest. I’m old. That’s why.

But you can all sense a big but of the one-t variety, can’t you? Colin is a marvellous writer. Having read his Mystery Man adult crime novels that are both intelligent and hysterically funny, what I’d like most of all is a miniature version of those. Just like I found Carl Hiaasen’s latest young novel far better than the first two, for the very reason that it was like his adult books with the sex and the swearing removed, I feel Colin could (should) do the same.

Intelligently written, humorous books for children in whatever genre is something we can never have too many of. Just as Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant really is The Thin Man for young readers, there’d be room for a ‘mini Mystery Man’ of sorts.

There’s scope here for telling me that the ones I haven’t read (yet) are precisely what I’m suggesting, in which case I’ll just go and lie down in a dark room for a while.

Tea at last!

Good thing that greed won over the less gluttonous instincts I harboured at one point. I imagined I could do the reporting of the afternoon tea at the Midland Hotel unobtrusively from the sidelines, but luckily the lovely James Draper of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival said I could have the lot. Frank Cottrell Boyce and Sherry Ashworth, the tea and the quiz. For two.

Reading by Sherry Ashworth

The MCBF authors were treated to tea at the Midland on Saturday, and I’d have been more jealous if I hadn’t had Sunday to look forward to. The buffet table groaned and groaned under sandwiches and scones and cakes, and all of the highest quality. I do like a place that knows how to make scones. And tea tasting of tea.

Frank very sweetly came up to us and said hello, and explained he’d have to leave fairly soon after the reading. And Sherry gave me one of her books, which was so nice of her.

Sherry kicked off by reading from three of her books; Is He Worth It?, Paralysed, and Revolution. She picked out some ‘first experience’ pieces, seeing as this is the first MCBF. And I do agree with Sherry on walking uphill. And downhill again.

Reading by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Then we heard from Frank about his childhood school blazer in vomit green wool, which was so girl repellant that he had to take up reading books. Being such a modest man Frank wanted to treat us to a reading of something ‘better’ than his own books, so we got the wonderful short story by Frank O’Connor called First Confession. I think Frank laughed almost as much while reading it as we did. Wanting to murder your grandmother can be amusing. Then he did the same Porsche reading from Cosmic as the previous day, which just goes to prove that it’s a piece you can listen to repeatedly.

Frank Cottrell Boyce at the Midland Hotel

We threw ourselves at the tea table as Frank left, and then we settled in with our quiz papers. Made some silly mistakes, but felt fairly confident of our excellence on the subject of mainly children’s books. When the second prize was announced as going to The Two Witches team, Daughter looked totally blank. Well, duh. It was us. She chose a prize of three signed Doctor Who books. Naturally.

(Our opposite team didn’t know The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so answered James Draper instead. JD wasn’t best pleased when he found out.)

Second prize

Considering Daughter was vaguely reluctant to go out another day, it cheered me up when she said on the way home how much she had enjoyed it. Right now I feel as if I don’t need to eat for some considerable time. But should anyone say ‘tea at the Midland, witch?’ I’ll be off like a shot. That’s how much self control I have.

Cakes at the Midland

(Photos by Helen Giles)

The bookwitch and the weeping angel


At the sight of all those lifesize Doctor Who cardboard cut-outs Daughter cheered considerably. They were an unexpected bonus in Saturday’s full programme at the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. We don’t often go for photos of cardboard photos, but we now have a nice selection of the Doctor and his ladies and some ‘monsters’. The Green Screen experience provided us with a great photo of the witch photographer in the Tardis, which is a very good fundraising idea.

Captain Hook

As we attempted to get our bearings more generally, we were interrupted by Captain Hook removing his moustache up on the first floor walkway to announce the next event, which was Frank Cottrell Boyce, so we dashed off for our Frank. He began the day with an Alka Seltzer, something which was lost on the youngest in the audience. It was an experiment, rather than a hangover remedy. And it failed abysmally. Twice.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Frank read from Cosmic, which is fantastic even when you already know the book. He also read from Framed after borrowing a copy from a young fan. He even remembered to return the book. Frank loves art robberies, and told the audience how to go about committing art theft, and also about readings in jails where that kind of thing is frowned upon. There was also the tale about his dying friend and George Clooney, as well as facts about the many Waterloos of the world. And I have to admit to having lost my Millions. Must be somewhere. I’ll look again.

Steve Cole with chonster

One very amusing man was followed by another when Steve Cole got started on his shenanigans. I don’t know why I always forget quite how funny he is, even when you’re more than forty years older than his target group. I’d like to bottle Steve as an anti-depressant. He jumps and makes the most astonishing faces, and he admits to forgetting how many books he has written and when the last one was published. There seems to be at least one a month, so with such riches I believe I’ll ask to have one dedicated to me.

Steve talks about chonsters and poofish and chocodiles, not to mention vampire bananas. Very dangerous. This man who has written as Lucy Daniels, spent his childhood looking for new Doctor Who books in WHS on a Saturday, before growing up to write them himself. He reckons he’s learned a lot from comics. It’s ‘hard to run out of stories, which is nice’ he says. It is.

Liz Kessler

Cathy Cassidy

With far too many lovely authors doing events (not complaining!), we had to miss a couple. Liz Kessler was on, but we run into her over lunch where she tries to sell my photographer a camera part. And signs her book. Cathy Cassidy we also had to miss, although we find her after her book signing for a brief chat and photo session. She praises the book festival, and we reminisce about when it was we first met, which tends to happen when people realise Daughter is no longer as young as she once was.

The MCBF have laid on sandwiches for the authors and we squeeze into the green room to watch them eat and catch up with friends. Adèle Geras and Mary Hoffman turn up together, and soon after Kevin Brooks walks in and so does Keith Gray a little later. Nice cups of tea are offered by the green room volunteers, one of whom has written a children’s cheese mystery, which I simply will have to hear more about. We get our books out for some signatures, and Mary gives Daughter a silver mosaic tile, as featured in her latest Stravaganza novel.

Mary Hoffman

After being fed Adèle and Mary go to their shared event on romantic historical fiction, which is really good. They take turns asking each other questions, rather like television presenters. Mary says she created her own parallel Italy in order to avoid readers looking for historical discrepancies, and Adèle admits to having introduced lemons into ancient Greece. They discuss when some period becomes history, and decide that the 1980s qualify.

They say that the 18th century is quite crowded in teen fiction now, and Adèle says she would never write about the stone age (so we can expect one quite soon then…) whereas Mary thinks she’d write anything for a large wad of cash. Adèle tells us she does the bare minimum of research, while Mary does a fair bit, always starting with the internet. She also creates scrapbooks for each novel, which is an idea she’s borrowed from Celia Rees. Both of them feel that it can be hard to teach children today about periods older than their grandparents’, and they’ve been really pleased when they find a young reader wants to know more after reading their books. And getting your book banned is always good for some attention.

Keith Gray and Adèle Geras

The final event is a panel discussion on teen fiction with Kevin Brooks, Keith Gray and Adèle, moderated by Sherry Ashworth. One conclusion they arrive at is that teen books should be sold in places other than the traditional bookshop, and especially not next to younger children’s fiction. Clothes shops and music shops are suggested. They also feel reading is tied too much to schools and libraries. It’s not as if you’d ask your teacher for advice on what music to listen to, and the same may go for books.

Losing It

You can’t research teenagers; you can only follow them, but not literally, or you might be arrested, as Kevin says. There is a problem with the ‘gatekeepers’ of teen books. It’s always the adults who are offended by the content, and never the teenagers themselves. Keith wishes books weren’t seen as ‘so dangerous’. They all self censor according to what they themselves feel is OK. Keith mentions Losing It, a new anthology he’s edited, which is about losing your virginity, and which some schools are refusing to let their students hear about.

On the question whether vampires have bled the market dry, they feel the publishers’ confidence has been ruined. They don’t try new and different things, which means there are fewer books and it’s less easy to live off writing. As Keith says, he’s never known any boring children, but plenty of boring adults. He writes the books he’d want to read, and Kevin does his Gordon Brown thing and agrees.

Kevin Brooks

In five years’ time Kevin is still writing more than ever. Keith will be doing the same, knows what his next three books are about, and hopes for more hair. Kevin replies ‘as if that will happen’. Adèle hopes she will still be here. So do we.


Carol Ann Duffy

After the book signing we encounter both Elmer the elephant and the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, which goes to prove the wide range offered at the MCBF.

Daughter requires a last photo of herself and the Dalek, and I fail to understand why she laughs like mad when I oblige. It’s not that funny to see me with a camera, surely? ‘Look behind you’, she says. I turn, and find a weeping angel has crept up and is standing right behind me.

It’s time to leave. Preferably without blinking.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Hook, line and Alderley Edge pub

I didn’t see it coming, and David Fickling certainly didn’t. But when Daughter does something, she does it thoroughly. As David enthused at length about Alan Garner and his writing, which he admires very much, he mentioned god’s head (that might not be how it is spelled) and mused about what it might be. Without missing a beat Daughter explained that it’s an Alderley Edge pub, and David was very pleased to have an explanation at last. And then she had to go and let on that she’d just made it up.

(I was thinking that I was a wee bit surprised at her knowledge of pubs, especially in Alderley Edge, but you never know what your babies grow up to know, do you?)

He took it well.


After my Random trip to London five months ago I knew that I had to go and visit David’s Oxford office, because it’s like publishers offices used to be like, and generally really wonderful, according to those who get to go there with their books. The lovely Matilda put us into the diary and threatened – ever so nicely – that there’d be weeding to do in their garden. It seems Linda Newbery and her recent book Lob, about the Green Man, had something to do with that. I believe Linda planted some trees out there. It looked really pleasant, and we were let off the gardening in the end.

DFB garden

David Fickling

Captain's hat

Curious Incident red cars


DFB floor

R L Stevenson

On their other outside there was scaffolding. There is always scaffolding wherever I go. It sees me coming. Here it was padded in yellow stuff. Presumably to prevent me injuring myself when walking straight into it. I had wondered if DFB has the whole house in Beaumont Street, but on the top floor they have stashed some dentists who are used to persuade authors to behave. Other measures against difficult writers involves incarceration in the basement. We found two men down there, ostensibly ‘working’ on comics and covers, but I don’t believe that. It’s also where David keeps his bike, and I can just imagine him racing through Oxford, red scarf trailing in the wind.

I do like a colour co-ordinated man. (Or have I said that before?) It’s all to do with Mother Fickling, whose clothes shopping expeditions little David didn’t care for. But once he knew he had to dress for an ‘audience’ he hit on his ironic style, which is very Fickling. Red bow tie, occasional red scarf, and red socks. And shirt and trousers in-between. Saw no evidence of shoes. Captain’s hat hanging on clothes tree.

Once we’d Garnered on about Alderley, we moved on to where we belong, and David does a good falsetto when he talks about Australia, which is nice, but not for him. Neither was Spain. He’s learning Japanese, but is most likely not contemplating moving there. He likes Oxford, and his house where you can’t swing even a small cat.

David and I have both – separately – worked our way through what the library had to offer, and that’s how he feels you should expand your reading, by trying new things. He reckons the UK is bad for comics, and he still hopes to remedy this by bringing his DFC back. He will not be beaten.

Among the many DFB books both in David’s room and in Matilda’s front office he has some shelves with his own childhood books. And Daughter pointed out how many different language versions of Philip Pullman’s books she could see. I noticed lots of copies of Jan Mark’s Useful Idiots, and I hadn’t known David worked with Jan.

Someone else who works at DFB is Bella Pearson, and on the same upstairs floor we encountered something as rare as an editor of adult books. She remained safely behind a closed door, and David did a passable Attenborough commentary on this species.

As I mentioned yesterday, Matilda went and got us sandwiches for lunch, although David said he’d be happy to take us out (must remember that) and even threatened us with sushi (we’re northerners for goodness’ sake!). Once we’d sorted our chicken from our falafel we did very well. Even Daughter managed fine, avoiding all tomatoes, and the root vegetable crisps.

If he is to be believed it seems David has a past in Swedish geography, and accidentally ended up at Cambridge through having read a book on history. Now he’d quite like to do physics… But he’d rather avoid blogging, so let’s be grateful for that.

David Fickling

And after our little battle over the k-word, David gave in at the end. One day I’ll learn to curb my typing, but I guess that’s not today.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Don’t walk on the grass before 12.30

In the middle of the night we found to our great surprise that Stephen Fry’s Harry Potter had turned into Kidnapped in a non-Fry Scottish accent. By strange coincidence we encountered the collected works of Robert Louis Stevenson the very same afternoon.

The manicured lawns don’t do much for me. The ones you aren’t allowed to walk on at all. Then there are the bits of grass that you are permitted to use after 12.30. I know there is a good reason for this. I just don’t know what it is. I much prefer the wild strawberries of St Edmund’s. Must be the corpses resting below that fertilises nicely.

Wild strawberries

After about the fourth college of the day they began to blur. As we left one, I had to enquire from Daughter where we were. Lucky then, that I had booked ourselves in to see Mr Fickling in his office for some light relief. And apparently for lunch. I had a narrow escape eating David’s chicken sandwich, but the falafel one was wonderful.

The office

We talked so much about so much that it will have to be a separate blog, one day soon. David’s socks were interesting, and in the end we didn’t have to weed the garden for him. Coincidences being what they are, we were recommended John Dickinson’s novel We. The very same book that Katherine Langrish told us on Wednesday that we had to read.

Red Sox

Strengthened by our DFB we were able to face a couple more colleges, before returning back to our hosts who were hosting (obviously) the annual book club group’s summer dinner. So they had the ‘pleasure’ of a real bookwitch for their gathering, and I had some nice conversations with various members of the group.

With so much socialising in one day, the rather anti-social witch is actually going to bed. Anything remotely clever or amusing from this college-blurry day will have to be dealt with some other time. I’m off to Bali Rai-shire. Early.

And if you want to know where Philip Pullman was all this time, he was out unveiling solar panels. (When all we want him to do is finish The Book of Dust!)

(Photos by Helen Giles)