Monthly Archives: January 2011

My life on the toilet and other facts

I’m sorry, but it’s just too revolting. I most definitely don’t want to know what it’d feel like to touch my brain. Eurgh.

I believe I also read a little carelessly (again), because Francesca Simon appeared to be claiming I’m spending a third of my life on the toilet, which even for me seemed a tad excessive. Seems it’s a third in bed (that’s nice!) and three years on the toilet. Still a lot. No wonder people keep books in there.

Francesca’s most recent Horrid Henry offering is called Horrid Henry’s Bodies. Didn’t know he had more than one, but there you go. As usual Tony Ross has drawn the – frankly revolting – pictures. Skillfully, obviously, but who wants a clear view of Henry’s gluteus maximus? It’s horrid.

The book is full of little boy type information, like what the Egyptians did to their mummies to make them mummies. Nits. Leeches. Ear hair, snot and falling-off skin.

But I recall a young girl who, when reminded that she had lots of book tokens that would be good to use, did a quick scan of the shelves in the bookshop and chose an Illustrated Medical Dictionary. As you do. This was before blood and gore became a no-go topic. There was a time when we enjoyed every last operation on Animal Hospital, and when surgeon was high on the list for the future.

I suppose it’s always useful to have pictures of body parts and illustrated illnesses in case your imagination can’t muster up enough to worry about…


Six cases for Saxby

I was sure that Simon Cheshire’s Saxby Smart books would be good. If I had been ten years old, which I’m not. But you know, I was reading as bedtime approached and found myself thinking ‘just a few more pages’ and ‘I can go to bed half an hour late, it doesn’t matter’. Those stories were quite more-ish. And humorous.

At first I thought that the idea of having three cases for each book (which means they are fairly short), as well as expecting the reader to pick up on clues and help solve the crime, was not really me. But I did warm to this crime solving business, after a while. I know the clues were really obvious. If they hadn’t been I wouldn’t have had a clue.

Saxby Smart, Secret of the Skull by Simon Cheshire

Saxby is a bit like Eoin Colfer’s Half Moon, a precocious and nerdy detective who clearly doesn’t have a life outside crime solving. Saxby has been compared to Sherlock Holmes, but I feel he’s more of a young and innocent hardboiled PI. If that’s possible.

He claims not to have a sidekick, but that’s wrong. There are two regular helpers; a female with brains and a male with breakfast down his school jumper. This PI might have to make do with a cold garden shed for his HQ, and he has to share it with the garden tools, but he has a steady line of customers and an excellent success rate of solved cases.

Six of which I’ve read about in books 7, The Poisoned Arrow and 8, Secret of the Skull and I now know about amateur dramatics, Saxby’s teacher, as well as the state of Vojvladimia and MI5. That last one might have been on the far fetched side, but…

So, I know I normally blog about children’s books that adults will enjoy. And maybe Saxby Smart is more for child readers, but he does grow on you. He’s rather sweet. He’s aware of how odd he can seem (‘Something in her expression said “Yes, you’re every bit as odd as I expected”.’) which is endearing. And as he solves his crimes he dishes out a lot of common sense.

Excellent for young readers, and not bad at all for old people.

Bookwitch bites #41

Our libraries have been in the news again this week, and the speech made by Philip Pullman has viralled all over the internet. Mary Hoffman was there, and her report from the meeting in Oxford is on her blog. I know that what Philip said is mostly common sense, but the man has a nice way of phrasing common sense.

Sally Prue does not only have a new book out next week, but has started The Word Den, a blog about words. She claims to be not very techie, but expert that I am, I think it looks just fine.

Donna Moore has had a good week, and also a somewhat bad week. The good news is that she has been nominated for THE LEFTY: Best humorous mystery novel for Old Dogs. My fingers are crossed.

The iconic Richard and Judy

In a press release this week I learned that ‘iconic presenting duo Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan’ have been made into cartoon characters for the launch of their Children’s Book Club, with them working alongside Booktrust. The club is made up of three categories with six titles in each; Reading Together, Reading by Yourself and Fluent Reader, and aims to help parents choose great books which children will love.

With the power that R&J (or more precisely, whoever chooses for them) have, it would have been nice to have seen fewer ‘best sellers’ on the list, even though I agree that those picked are great books. The opportunity for more obscure – but equally suitable – books is a shame to lose.

Finally, for those of you who read Swedish I suggest you head over here to see if you can win a copy of Meg Rosoff’s What I Was when it’s called Den Jag Var.

Cheap, but not always cheerful

The books are cheap, but the authors are not necessarily always cheerful. And I’m your number one hypocrite.

Pure Dead covers and Tock's behind

When I noticed all six of Debi Gliori’s Pure Dead books in The Book People catalogue a few weeks ago, I saw red. But not as red as Debi herself did. Now, in one way it is very nice that readers can buy these lovely, wonderful books for a mere £7. But it’d be so nice too, particularly for Debi, if she was paid for her hard work. I don’t believe writing those books, complete with illustrations for each chapter, was done in one lunch break. Or even two.

Keeping warm

I have no idea how much money she has made from the six novels. (I trust I mentioned that they are really good?) It’s not considered polite to discuss income in Britain. (Funny. In Sweden you can look up how much income people declare. Which, of course, could be different from the truth. But let’s not go there.) Having inspected the Gliori abode reasonably thoroughly myself, it doesn’t look like Debi’s incredibly wealthy. She only has a plastic inflatable Tock, for goodness’ sake! And it has to live on a shelf above the door. Not a single moat in sight.

Homemade Waywoof car sticker

Checked to see if the big online bookshop still sells the PD series. It does. So do a number of private sellers, undercutting the big online company, presumably because they bought theirs from TBP.

This business of letting TBP print their own books, with no payment to the authors, reminds me of the annual Book Sale in Sweden where they regularly print special editions for The Sale. It will soon be upon us again, and I suppose that Swedes will yet again peruse catalogues and tick their choices and then get out of bed early in order not to miss a bargain.

The Book Sale starts on the 23rd of February this year, and luckily I will be there. I hope. Not at the sale as such, but close enough to witness the mayhem. (Almost called it the Mayhew, but that’s somebody else altogether.) It’ll be interesting to see what they are offering up as treasure this time.

Back to TBP. I can’t find it, but I know I had a blog post about them before and authors didn’t all agree. It is true that being able to buy cheap books means that an author gets read and might gain a new fan base. But then there’s the lack of payment, although  I feel no guilt about my Harry Potters from TBP. Nor my complete Famous Fives. And was total ignorance an excuse? Before, I mean.

Have to admit that I did provide Daughter with a short wish list for Christmas. One of the two items on it was Hilary McKay’s books about the Casson family. They were sold out, so no luck. I had compromised my high horses all for nothing.

‘The demon who walked alone’

If the blood and gore at the beginning doesn’t put you off, you’re going to love this book. Ice Maiden is Sally Prue’s prequel to her first novel Cold Tom. (That must be rather like making your firstborn a second child…)

Blood and gore. Yes, it’s not terribly vegetarian at any point, so either the blood eases off a little or I got used to it. But even as us wimps gag over the rabbit, the writing is so first class that there is no question about giving up. Or maybe I’m just terribly brave.

Sally Prue, Ice Maiden

I had no idea what to expect, and having read the blurb carelessly I found I got even less of what I expected. Which is good. This made more sense, as long as fantasy makes sense. You mix fairies – of sorts – with the run-up to WWII.

Franz has arrived in England with his parents, and we work out that they came just after Kristallnacht. But from what he says about his parents, whom he calls the Squirrel and the Wolf, we know they are no innocent, persecuted Jews. He hates his parents. That makes him lonely. That and being at the receiving end of xenophobic bullying from the local boys for being a Nazi.

It’s Franz’s lack of love and friendship which Edrin, the Ice Maiden in the woods, senses. She, and her Tribe, despise the Demons (humans) for their invisible vines that tie them together and have them behave so very irrationally. Against her instincts Edrin is drawn to Franz, and he can sense her, although she’s invisible to demons.

The story is a marvellously woven tale of nature versus civilisation, England versus Germany, cruelty versus friendship and looking after those who are weak or different. (This sounds very wet, but it’s really powerful stuff.)

Sally’s writing carries you through the book at great speed, and you wonder what will become of Edrin and Franz, and you just need to know quite how bad his parents are, and what her tribe might do, and if the local bullies will see the light.

It doesn’t sound from all this as though the book can be funny, but it is. And sad.

Edrin may be a fairy from the woods, but she’s female enough to covet the Squirrel’s shoes.

Turd shelter. Now there’s a new word for it.

And I can’t leave you without a quote about the Ice Maiden; ‘in case she strangled someone or ate someone’s kitten’. That tells you about the gore, and also that Edrin is not your average cute fairy.

Costa 2010

I was quite pleased to hear that the poet Jo Shapcott has won the 2010 Costa award for her collection Of Mutability. Not that I read much poetry, but I do enjoy seeing one of the least expected-to-do-well books doing just fine. And I imagine the prize money will come in handy for Jo.

With my children’s books hat on, I have to say that I would like the children’s book to win rather more often than the once it has happened so far. But great read though Out of Shadows was, I doubted that it and Jason Wallace would be able to beat all those popular adult books.

Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability

Had a quick look through the list of past winners, and I can only claim to have read three of them; The Amber Spyglass and The Curious Incident, both well before the award, and then I celebrated the start of Bookwitch by reading The Tenderness of Wolves. That was the year when I had a spy at the awards ceremony, with Adèle Geras as one of the judges, reporting back on what everyone wore and who said what, and so on.

Anyone out there who can do a full review of the ladies’ dresses? No, I didn’t think so.

Hmm, just had a thought. I had been invited to lunch with Jason Wallace for today. I had to decline, since lunching in London too often becomes both tiring and expensive. But maybe he’d have been able to do the clothes report? Or perhaps not. Maybe it was other questions his publishers had in mind. (Like what will he do with the £5000?)

The Salmon of Knowledge and other fish

I really, really shouldn’t have taken this long to read the second instalment of Adrian McKinty’s Lighthouse series. The Lighthouse War is – as Adrian himself said – much, much better than The Lighthouse Land, and that was very good. What I don’t understand is why Adrian McKinty is not a big household name in children’s fantasy. This is yet another of the instances I keep harping on about, where merit and success have very little to do with each other.

Buy and read the Lighthouse trilogy, for god’s sake!

Admittedly, I have yet to read The Lighthouse Keepers, but it can’t be that bad… In fact, I had a panic situation here, because as soon as number two was done I wanted to at least hold and stroke number three a little. Couldn’t find it. Searched high and low. In the end I recalled it was a hardback and then it turned out to be purple, and then I found it. Phew.

So. Fish. The Salmon of Knowledge was in the first book as well. But it sort of died. Jamie and Ramsay need to revive it, and please don’t try this at home! There is a fish van involved. A rather smelly one. And do keep track of how many planets our solar system has. Just in case. Lord Ramsay turns out to have a brother, the aptly titled Lord McDonald. Sounds better than Brian. Luckily he’s studied at MIT. Luckily he’s rather old. And tall. I didn’t think the Irish were tall. Red hair. I did know about the red hair.

And he’s not the only adult. Jamie (aka the Lord Ui Neill) very sensibly (not) told his Mom everything after their first adventure through the wormhole to this other galaxy. She was on morphine and didn’t believe him.

Anyway, there is this message from space which NASA can’t understand, but the boys work out it’s for them. So off they go again. The bad baddie appears to be less dead than they had expected, and Wishaway is less happy to see Jamie than he’d hoped. All is good, in other words.

Very exciting adventure, yet again, and so very funny. The humour is what makes it stand out. Nerdy and geeky, these males have some very useful ‘special interests’ and everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter comes up. A very little bit of romance. Plenty of ice age weather.

There is just enough of Carrickfergus to give the story that Irish flavour which makes it stand apart from dozens of other books on space travel. A tiny bit of New York and plenty of Altair, in the Pegasus constellation. The Cassini space probe plays its part. Leprechauns get a mention. And the Lady Ui Neill is a credit to motherhood everywhere.

I loved this.

The planning stage

You, dear reader, need an update on the Bookwitch Foreign Reading Challenge. Or, you may well feel you don’t, but you will get one anyway. Life is tough.

Bookwitch's Foreign Reading Challenge

I’ve got to the colour-coding stage. On my usual back-of-previously-used-A4-sheets I have drawn up twelve squares. One for each month. Also six squares, to cover my Ireland Challenge, which is only going at half the speed.

Then a list of possible countries. I think I can safely say there are more potential reading sources than I’ve got months in 2011. So it might be first come first served, or I might use a totally different selection process.

The first offering will be here very, very soon. It has to, since there is a limited amount of January left.

I’ve asked around for advice. I’ve written to publishers to ask if they have anything foreign coming this way soon. Some do. Some don’t. The Danes have already put something in the post. Someone else suggested a Finnish book, and I found the author on facebook, as you do.

Before that I’d tried to google Finnish publishers. Have you any idea quite how hard (=impossible) it is to read the search results? Never one to ignore a statistical challenge, the Resident IT Consultant went and looked in his own way and found lots of translations of Harry Potter et al.

The Swedish teen blog I read asked its readers for me. Just wish they could all have agreed on one and the same book…

I received a Norwegian suggestion, and looked up the author. The man’s got everything about himself on his website, stopping short of shoe size. His phone number is there, and his mobile. It’s a different world. It really is.

I’m learning, though. And I suppose that was the intention. To go somewhere new.

How old is old?

One correspondent I’ve found through this blog told me just the other day that her 14-year-old doesn’t read old books. The old/new boundary is currently set at 2005, so ‘not old’ means that fairly recent books will fail the age test.

And here I thought I was a failure for not persuading Offspring to read old-ish stuff more than once in a blue lagoon. Being old-ish (very -ish in fact) myself I find there is nothing strange about books not written yesterday or not featuring mobile phones. Or even relatively vampire free.

As we oldies keep saying; back in the olden days we had fairly few new books and it was natural to read old ones. In fact, I’d take that a step further and say that I actively preferred historical books, and in those days historical seemed to mean they were written in historical times, rather than just set a few hundred years ago.

OK, Dumas wrote about his musketeers long after the period when the story was set, but they were still pretty ancient. Ivanhoe and Oliver Twist and Tom Sawyer (to pick some childhood classics that come to mind) were all written long ago, even then.

I think I felt them to be more real. I know I did crave a book that would mention modern things occasionally, and was really happy when a Danish ‘current’ novel mentioned the Hep Stars. But with hindsight I see that it can’t have been a very valuable read since I don’t recall either the title or the author. Or what it was about.

Other than the Hep Stars book, ‘modern’ seemed to mean set in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s why the musketeers made more sense? Would Offspring’s lives be richer for more Dumas or Dickens, Austen or Alcott? All excellent, but because they are old doesn’t mean better.

Anyone who won’t consider a pre-2005 book will miss a lot. On the other hand, there are a tremendous number of truly great books that do qualify. And since you can’t possibly read everything, age is probably as good a selection tool as any other.

Reading only books with blue covers, or just books by authors whose name begins with an M? Or only novels about vampires? No, the latter doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?

Bookwitch bites #40

Far too often you find out about thoroughly wonderful people when it’s too late. I have been wondering if there is any way of publicising the kind of appreciation you get in obituaries, before someone dies. Becca Wyatt, who worked on the Carnegie medal, is one such woman. She died suddenly and at far too young an age just before Christmas. And from what I’ve heard about her she sounds like someone I would have loved meeting. Here is an account of how Becca’s many friends paid tribute to her at her funeral last week.

Someone else who has died is Dick King Smith, who by all counts also was both lovely and interesting. And he wrote great children’s books. I remember reading one or two with Offspring when they were the right age. Other than that I’m a fan of Babe, that wonderful little pig with grand ideas. Lucy Coats worked with Dick King Smith when she was an editor, and I rather liked her blog post about him.

I first met Meg Rosoff at an event in the Jewish Book Week five years ago. Ever since they send me their programme, and there is often a lot that interests me. But, it’s not always at a time and place that fits in (first time lucky, I suspect) for me. I will persevere, however. And for those who are in London there is a Family Day on Sunday 13th February, featuring Francesca Simon, Andy Stanton and Inbali Iserles.

Just think; without JBW there would have been no Bookwitch blog… And I promise to go away and practise saying Inbali’s name correctly. I know I have been taught it once, so am sure it can be done again.

I have this silly notion that once we’re into the twenties in January it’s practically spring. It would appear I’m not the only one who is calendarically challenged (I just love making up new words). Keith Charters can be seen being interviewed wearing a short sleeved shirt (and trousers, I expect) in Scotland. In January. And there is something which I took to be a surfboard, but turned out to be a rocket instead.