Monthly Archives: October 2010

Halloween reads

There are more – and squishier – pumpkins in Vampires and Volts, but other than that it’s always Halloween at Castle Otherhand. It’s the kind of Goth/Halloweeny place that will never be normal, and where weird is the norm.

The Raven Mysteries written by Marcus Sedgwick and illustrated by Pete Williamson are – as the name suggests – about a raven. He’s called Edgar. He is so me that we could be brother and sister and I love him. And as Edgar is my dear brother, I don’t have a problem with him being a raven, or even a bird. I’m so pleased that we can finish this Halloween week of horrors with something quite sweet and funny, while still a wee bit creepy.

Vampires and Volts, Lunatics and Luck

Ghosts and Gadgets, Flood and Fang

It’d be so easy to sniff at these books and dismiss them as brief entertainment for younger readers. They are extremely intelligently written; brief but using grown-up and mature words and sentence structure, which is the way forward for tomorrow’s readers. The humour in them is totally ‘adult’, and can possibly be explained by Edgar’s advanced years. He’s seen a lot.

The Otherhands are somewhat careless with their staff. They have so many, but they do go through them slightly too fast. It doesn’t do to call the people who supply them with maids and footmen several times a week. They will run out of prospective employees before long. And it would look better if they seemed to care when yet a few more maids snuff it.

Mum Minty is a wee bit lacking in the lady-of-the manor department for an ex-witch. Her husband is mad, but we expect husbands to be mad. Son Cudweed is dim and likes his food rather too much, but daughter Solstice is quite lovely. Goth and capable, and so articulate. Gasp. Gulp. And dear Edgar keeps them all going and assists at all times.

I read Flood and Fang when it first came out, and after that the Raven Mysteries piled up until I had a Raven weekend reading Ghosts and Gadgets, Lunatics and Luck, as well as Vampires and Volts, which is the latest one and out just in time for Halloween. But as I said, they are all Halloween books. And you don’t need to have read one before you read another. They stand alone very well. But you’d be an idiot not to read all. We all need some fun in our lives.


White Crow

It may be white, but it’s still a bird. A crow, even. And I do find birds more threatening than many other creatures. On the other hand, there aren’t any birds in Marcus Sedgwick’s White Crow. At least I don’t think so.

And that’s just as well because this is a scary read. My heart bumped more and more as the book went on. It was never a case of giving up. It’s an easy read and a ‘must-continue’ kind of read. But a bumpety-bump sort of read.

There are three stories in this novel. One is an old diary from 1798, written by the vicar in Winterfold. He talks mostly about his new neighbour, fresh from Paris, with experience of the guillotine.

The two other tales are those of Ferelith and Rebecca, who are both young girls in Winterfold today. Ferelith is a strange girl who ‘befriends’ the lonely and angry Rebecca when she moves in for the summer. Ferelith is friendly and nice when it suits her, and quite sinister at other times. Rebecca’s father has work related problems which caused them to move to Winterfold, and which seem to accompany them there.

Ferelith takes a lot of interest in the ruins of the big house where the Frenchman lived. Far too much interest. She wants to try things out with (on) Rebecca. And who is Ferelith really?

It’s the hottest summer in living memory, but the chill in the soul is something else. This is the kind of book where the reader willingly assumes that nothing will be well at the end.

Pretty Monsters

As I usually say; you know how it is. You email someone obscure-ish, asking them to send you a book, please. They say yes, of course and btw their wife has a book out too, and maybe I’d be interested in reading it? So this is all because Daughter and I went to Oxford in the summer and we had lunch with Katherine Langrish and Joanna Kenrick and Katherine recommended this obscure-ish book and I emailed for it and…

Yes, and wasn’t that a good thing? The wife’s book is short story collection Pretty Monsters and the wife is Kelly Link. It is still a read-in-progress, I have to admit. I’m about halfway in my self-inflicted period of horror and other lovely stuff. Pretty Monsters is pretty good. And monsterish. A monster just ate some American kid campers. I think. Most of them were pretty horrible anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

I had read a story by Kelly before, without remembering her name. I’m not sure which anthology it was in, but I recognised it when I came across it. Kelly has a seriously weird mind, or she writes as though she does.

Pretty Monsters

The stories are interestingly different. What’s not to like about digging up your dead girlfriend, or skinless, ferocious dogs? I’m enjoying this collection, and I space the stories out, so I can’t start a new one when I’ve just finished the one before. They need digesting, and the mind needs to rest between the different kinds of weird. But as someone said last week, the good thing about short stories is that you can read one per day.

Pretty Monsters is one of the new Canongate/Walker co-published books for a crossover audience.

At some point I will even read the novel I wrote off for in the first place. But it’s Halloween just once a year.

Dark Matter

Dark Matter is a successful cross between The Riddle of the Sands and The Call of the Wild, set in Svalbard. Michelle Paver’s first adult novel was published last week, just in time for anyone wanting to frighten themselves a little for Halloween week. No, I lie, it’s for those who want to be thoroughly and properly scared witless.

Mentioning the books by Jack London and Erskine Childers is somewhat misleading, because they are more traditional adventure stories. Dark Matter takes the adventure story and moves it to Svalbard and adds ghosts.

Set in 1937 it has a great period feel to it. Jack gets the job as wireless operator on an expedition to the Arctic region, as the only working class man of the group of five who set out. To mention class may seem snobbish, but it forms an important backdrop to what happens.

The group begins losing members before they even leave. It’s very much a Ten Little N***ers kind of set-up. They are aiming for the remote Gruhuken, a long way from Longyearbyen.

It goes without saying that Gruhuken is haunted. The locals avoid it all costs. Or at least, they did until the Englishmen arrive.

Arriving in the short but light Arctic summer, it soon becomes very dark indeed. And the dark does things to you.

Always wanted to be a witch?

Bella Donna

Well, who hasn’t?

Me, but that’s because there is no need to want. This short and fun book titled Bella Donna, about a young girl called Bella Donna is about wanting desperately to be a witch. Her name is really Isabella, but Bella Donna is witchier.

She’s a little like Tracy Beaker; spunky and growing up in a children’s home. But there is no doubt she’s a witch. As a baby she even stole the dummy out of the mouth of her friend Sam through sheer wishing.

They both want to be adopted, but are holding out for their own special Forever Family. Someone who feels just right. They must exist. Somewhere. Bella Donna needs someone who will accept her as a witch and Sam needs a family who love creepy crawlies.

Does it happen? Well, Bella Donna ends up living with her FF in Coven Road, so what do you think?

But all is not perfect, so read on to see what life as a small witch is like. I couldn’t resist this book, despite it’s intended target age of about seven or so. And you can always be a little pink, without any ill effect.

Scaring me, scaring you

My heart has resided in my throat for a little while now. It’s an uncomfortable place to keep it, but it’s Halloween. Or very nearly. I thought I’d go in for some horror and other scary stuff for a few days, but quite frankly had not anticipated being scared by Tove Jansson.

Detail of front cover 'The Dangerous Journey' by Tove Jansson

The very last Moomin illustrations by Tove herself are about to be published in English as The Dangerous Journey. The story is in verse, which was first translated and then handed over to Sophie Hannah for some poetic English. And while I don’t know the original (though I did check online and found the odd quote, which looks just right) I feel the result is terrific.

It’s the illustrations that make this book so marvellous. Though it’d be better to call them paintings, as they really are Art with a capital A. They are sort of scary, but so beautiful that you can just sit there and look at them. And look at them.

Detail of back cover 'The Dangerous Journey' by Tove Jansson

The story is another matter, however. One Swedish reviewer pointed out that bedtime was not a good time. It’s about Susanna and her cat, and the little girl unwisely wishes things would be different. And the next thing she knows, they are. Scarily different.

So she wanders off through this new landscape, seeing weird and frightening things, and meeting many of the characters from the Moomin stories, and together they walk on, still seeing a changed world.

Until they suddenly find themselves in Moomin’s garden with all the regular – and friendly – people waiting for them. It’s like being in a book, she thinks.

Well, maybe she was.

My heart is still up there banging away. But I do remember being read scary young children’s stories when I was small, so it could be that it’s just because I’m old that I feel like this.

Two dogs and a horse

So at what age can one trust Offspring not to require more soft toys? Beanie Babies were at least quite small and more easily accommodated. We can’t totally agree whether Jethro is a Labrador or a Golden Retriever. But trust me, he’s big. On the other hand, I suppose he doesn’t bark. Or bite.

By pure coincidence on this soft Labrador/Retriever adoption day I also read a reissued Corgi Pups book called Snow Dog. Really.

It’s by Malorie Blackman and – since I don’t seem to have any information about the book – I’m guessing it’s part of an easy read series, for which it will be absolutely perfect. To be honest, the cover is too cute for me, but I can see that it would melt the heart of a young reader. The story however, is as woof-onderful as the dog in the story keeps saying.

Nicky wants a dog but when her parents very sensibly say no, she and her Grandad bake a dog for her. And it’s magic. As long as it stays cold.


As I was having an animal sort of day (if you’ve read CultureWitch you’ll be aware that we even had the vet calling) I also finished a second short and easy read by another giant in the children’s book world, Kate Thompson. Wanted! is set in Ancient Rome and is about the Emperor’s second-in-command who happens to be a horse.

I felt so sure while reading it that it was true, because it rang a bell somewhere, but according to Kate’s notes at the end she made it up. Oh well.

It features baker’s boy Marcus who unexpectedly meets Consul Incitatus, who is a horse. A very nice horse, but still a horse. Apart from this being a really good horse story there is some hidden political comment here. I’m sure. I think we could learn from this, how to choose our leaders.

And as all you horse lovers out there know, horses are sensible people. Loving. True.

Wanted! also provides a brief but fun look at history, served up so you almost overlook the fact that you’re being educated. Kate knows her horses.

Meanwhile I’ll have my bell serviced.

Bookwitch bites #29

I was relieved to read that someone has looked into this business of the Nobel prize for literature. Not relieved they’ve looked into it, so much as finding that being awarded this lovely prize will not generally block the happy author from writing more books. The kiss of death is what it’s been called. But it seems that aside from poor Steinbeck, there is no sign that people stop writing after they’ve become unbearably rich.

Which – ahem – brings me neatly to the Hans Christian Andersen literature award. Earlier this week the Danes handed over 500000 Danish kroner to J K Rowling. It’s a difficult thing, this. I do feel she deserves the award. I just can’t help thinking of the many other very worthy potential recipients who could use the money.

Orion Star

Orion Children’s Books have launched The Orion Star newsletter. It looks very nice, but I’d like to point out that Orion is not a star. He’s a constellation. (Subscribe to The Orion Constellation! No it doesn’t sound as good, does it?) You can read the first one here. Or if you like, you can read Bookwitch. Or both.

Speaking of stars I was really excited to receive an email telling me I could buy three Björn Borgs for the price of two. Didn’t know there were that many to go round, but who wouldn’t want three instead of a mere two?

One star I’m continually failing to see or hear is Michael Rosen. I think we might be doomed, him and me. Michael was doing a big event for the Manchester Literature Festival this week, but I still haven’t morphed into a school so didn’t succeed in getting in.

And I gather there was a good interview with Gillian Philip (surely not better than mine?) in the Times on Saturday. But because they want money for their online content, I haven’t read it. I sort of object to paying for online news articles. I don’t object to popping out to buy a copy of the paper occasionally, but by the time I have heard about something like this, it’s usually too late to get hold of the paper.

I remember once when I knocked on the door of every house in our neighbourhood to see if I could lay my hands on one or more of the Sunday broadsheets, only to find that most of my neighbours appeared not to take a paper at all. Fancy that.

(And I apologise for all those zeroes further up. I wanted to break the monotony of 00000 with, well, with something. But with what? In Sweden we/they do one thing, and in Britain we/they do the other. But right now I can’t get my commas sorted from my full stops, maths-wise. It could be 500,000 or it could be 500.000. Sorry, I’m having a nervous breakdown just looking at it.)

Women are more ‘properly interesting’

Val McDermid

We have all wanted to murder someone, but most of us don’t succumb to those murderous instincts. Something to do with no laptops in jail. Or that’s what Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid claimed last night at their Manchester Literature Festival event. But they do murder well in their books.

Val described feeling that ‘the bridegroom had to be dead by bedtime’ when dreaming up a new plot, and she did so in a much more Scottish accent than I had anticipated. Don’t know why. The anticipating, I mean. Maybe it’s because Manchester claims her for their own, so she has to be a Mancunian?

Sophie Hannah

Sophie reckoned that women crime writers are more interesting, and they write more devious books than the men who just write about being chased by the FBI and other letters of the alphabet. And she tells a good story, such as the time when she bought a copy of Val’s book twice. It’s what might happen when you sit down next to a Strongbow drinking fan of lesbian fiction on a train.

I could see Sophie and Val mirrored in the large window behind them, which was good because I didn’t see much the normal way, in the very packed Whitworth Art Gallery. We sat in an ivy-papered room, with an exceedingly green feel to it. On leaving we had to walk through an artificial wood in the dark. Whether this had anything to do with what they’d just been saying about late night walks and being scared, I don’t know.

Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid

They mentioned the guilt many of us feel on reading crime, because we read it purely for pleasure. It’s slightly ‘better’ if it’s Swedish (of course!) or technical like Patricia Cornwell’s. And they are both critical of the idea that publishers ‘need to have one like that, too’ as soon as a new type of crime novel becomes successful.

There’s the Swedish tidal wave, and there is other foreign stuff which nobody understands, so the author must be a genius. None of them are into cosy crime, where you get recipes or instructions on embroidering bookmarks.

Sophie likes her crime dark, feeling that murder is dark, whereas Val likes humour and claims the Scots even laugh at funerals. Sophie keeps lists of the books she reads, and she has come to realise that her favourite books never win any prizes. She knows she’s right.

Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid

We ran out of time long before we ran out of questions, and then it was book signing time, which took place in an exceedingly dark room. But as Val pointed out, ‘it’s never too early for Christmas shopping’. Though I suspect I was the only one bringing a Moomin book to the signing.

Sophie left in a chauffeur driven car, whereas Val walked over to her own car and changed into a more comfortable jacket before driving off into the night. I know this not because I was stalking them, but because my own ‘chauffeur’ was a little late, so I had nothing better to do than watch everybody else.

Saying goodbye to Eva and Hazel

I was sad to learn two days ago that Hazel Townson has died, and only a day later that Eva Ibbotson died on Wednesday this week.

With Hazel being a local children’s author I can’t gauge how well known or not she was in the wider world, or even further afield in Britain. She was tireless in doing school events, and I witnessed her appeal to young children at first hand when Daughter required every single one of the books available to buy when Hazel came to her school. I remember it was this time of year, because Hazel signed a book saying Happy Birthday, which made it even more precious.

More recently Hazel gave up her work with the Lancashire Book of the Year, handing over the task of overseeing everything to Adèle Geras.

Eva Ibbotson was such a special author for so many. Her name always came up whenever authors expressed admiration for a colleague. But I never needed to hear that, because reading her Journey to the River Sea was enough to convince me I’d found a real star.

As another foreigner I suppose I was particularly happy to find someone who could write so well in another language, while retaining that different outlook on both Britain and Europe. It was good to read novels set in Europe as though it wasn’t abroad.

I’ve been a little slow in working my way through Eva’s books, and her recent shortlisted novel for the Guardian prize is high on my tbr list. The Secret of Platform 13 was another one that waited for my attention for far too long. But at least this way I know I have a few to keep me going.

I did nurse a secret dream to interview Eva, but felt I could never hope to improve on Dina Rabinovitch’s chat with her in 2004. I have to admit I would have quite liked for Eva to win the Guardian prize, if it’s OK now to show favouritism.

Which Witch? This is the Bookwitch saying thank you, and goodbye.