Monthly Archives: June 2011

Orion’s party

Lucy Coats

The first to arrive and the last to go, is how Lucy Coats described herself last night. I have to take her word for it as Daughter and I took slight detour en route for the October Gallery (I have to admit here that it was my fault and Daughter would have made a better job of it) and arrived when things were in – if not full – then some sort of swing. And we didn’t outstay our welcome (at least I hope we didn’t) so weren’t there to witness Lucy washing up at the end.

Orion's party at the October Gallery

Lots of Orion’s very lovely and our favourite authors were there. Lucy, as I said. Caroline Lawrence, who by now will be feeling she has to put up with us every week. Nice to see Mr Lawrence again. Liz Kessler, fresh from ‘research’ along the coast of Norway. The Michelles, Lovric and Paver, and Annabel Pitcher, Angela McAllister and Viv French. I was introduced to Lauren St John, whose book I was reading on the train, getting me into a very St Ivesey mood. Daughter has obviously been around the literary world too long, seeing as she was clinging to the fire escape throwing names about; ‘there’s Francesca Simon, and that’s Tony Ross!’. Right on both counts.

Michelle Lovric and Annabel Pitcher

Boss Fiona Kennedy made a speech, praising her writers. Nina Douglas and Kate Christer had worked hard to organise things, and the October gallery, complete with bones and ‘dead babies’, not to mention glittery paintings was a good place for a party. The weather helped. We were all out in the courtyard in the mild and sunny evening. London at its best.

Caroline Lawrence

Francesca Simon

The courtyard

Among the ‘non-authors’ present were the other Stockport blogger, Wondrous Reads (we’ll have to stop meeting like this, Jenny), Geraldine Brennan (about whom I had a strange but nice dream last week), Julia Eccleshare, Ted Smart, Catherine Clarke, and I am sure I have left out lots of worthy people, but I’ll stop now before I turn into Hello Magazine again. (Better class of people, but too many lists of human beings clutching champagne glasses, if you know what I mean?)

I have a dreadful suspicion that in among everyone in the photos there will lurk someone with a dark secret, or someone committing a crime or an indiscretion or something. If you find anything like that, don’t tell me. I was the one in the flower pot. I noticed a dreadful smell and realised the pot was a geranium pot and I had disturbed the leaves. I hate the smell of geraniums!


A misuse of books?

Every now and then I come across this inexplicable baby bear picture book on the floor in Daughter’s room. I think to myself, ‘what is she doing with that?’

And then I actually worked out what the book was. Not a favourite from childhood or anything sweet like that. It’s the one she got from the charity shop to ruin. I mean, she got it to be thoroughly educational. I believe I complained here earlier about the Art teacher who instructed the students to get an old picture book that was to be painted white and then have various arty things happen to it. I felt it was sending the wrong signals to young people.

Book wall

Recently I happened upon this wall in my house magazine (and what a wonderful source of material it is for a book blog!) and had to have a long think about whether I thought it was OK to use pages from books in place of wallpaper. I suppose it might be. But…

At that point I remembered reading about two people who shared a flat once. One of them produced an expensive coffee table book on art and then cut all the pages out and stuck them on the walls, like paintings. The other at first thought this was sacrilege, but realised when they came to move out after some years, that this way they had got to enjoy that art properly. If it had sat in the dark inside the book on a shelf, or even on a coffee table, the pictures would rarely, if ever, have been looked at.

That struck me as quite deep, at the time. So on that basis I suppose cutting up a book for wallpaper is fine.

But can I see myself pulling pages out of  books? No. Although if I did, I’d make sure I arranged them in a considerably neater way than the people in my magazine did.

And then there is the rather special picture presented to Keren David on Saturday. That too, was a former book, so to speak. But very nicely done, complete with witch.

I’m nothing if not inconsistent.

With a Sword in my Hand

When I started out with my foreign reading challenge I had ideas. I knew some things I’d be interested in reading, as well as some obvious countries I could pick. And then there are the totally new and unknown. I asked around, and one of the books that fell into my lap almost immediately was With a Sword in my Hand by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs. It’s what I’ve fondly referred to as ‘my’ Flemish book all spring.

I went looking for the original title, but can’t find it in a veritable forest of Flemish. Whatever the novel was first called, it’s been translated by John Nieuwenhuizen.

It’s very good. And it’s good to know there is plenty of unknown stuff out there. The world doesn’t revolve round English language books.

We frequently get some excellent historical novels set on the continent, but written in English. This is the same, only more so, as inevitably Jean-Claude and Pat must be more familiar with Flanders. When they make things up, they make it up the Flemish way.

Marguerite van Male

This novel is about a real person, Marguerite van Male, daughter of the Count of Flanders. It seems very little is known about her, so the authors simply borrowed her and made it all up, apart from her date and place of birth. She lived between 1348 and 1405, which in itself helps the reader, because at least you know she will be alive at the end of the book. There is enough of plague and sword fights that you could easily begin to worry.

Marguerite is a bit of a tomboy and she rides and uses a sword like a boy, if that’s not an un-pc thing to say. Her father is hard to get on with, and she has to learn to live with men deciding what she can and can’t do. There is an arranged marriage and there is a love affair or two.

In a way, nothing much happens, and at the same time an awful lot goes on. Marguerite is an interesting girl, and I now feel I know so much more about Flanders in the mid-fourteenth century. I’m not one for getting atlases out when reading, but seeing as there is no map included in the book, maybe I should have.

There is a refreshingly different attitude to nudity and childbirth, if not to the fighting and the swearing. Very impressed with the lessons in sword fighting. Less keen on the plague. But all in all, a wonderful story.

Wish me Dead

What is it with Helen Grant and her fondness for the gruesome? There are books you are best to save for daylight reading, and this new one of hers, Wish me Dead, I would probably not get out to read if I was home alone. At least not if I knew what horrors awaited me. If you don’t; then well, it’s too late, isn’t it?

Despite ‘me’ turning up as early as the third line of chapter one, it’s not us witches who are scary as much as are rumours, superstition and plain ordinary people. As far as I understand, Helen stumbled across loads of old tales when she lived in Bad Münstereifel, and it seems like this little German town can supply endless horror stories for her keyboard.

That’s what adds to the scariness; this business of romantic looking old town with pretty houses and flowers and cakes and even sunshine. Can you really hex people and make them fall down dead?

It seems that Steffi can, despite not being a witch. She and her friends go to an old witch’s house, and for fun they decide to hex people. An early ‘success’ means they continue and go deeper and deeper into unpleasant thoughts. Can their friendship survive? In fact, can people around them survive?

I had more than one theory as to who ‘did it’. There were several red herrings, including one that was very red indeed. But I also sensed something about the real one. Takes a real witch to recognise a fake one, I suppose.

In amidst the horror we are treated to so much German cake and bread that I was halfway on the plane to go and sample some. And having recently encountered German blinds for the first time, I was pleased to realise that I knew precisely what Steffi does when she closes all the blinds as she is worrying about being alone in the house…

It’s great that Helen feels she can set her novels somewhere foreign, and better still that she intersperses her English story with enough ‘Scheisse’ to keep us going very nicely. The German flavour is what makes the story. That, and the gory horror.

I won’t be taking a walk in the woods for some time.

Always share your banana

If you don’t, you can’t be sure of where literary history will lead. In this case it always comes back to Preston and Lancashire.

Lancashire Book of the Year 2011

As you well know, Keren David won the Lancashire Book of the Year award, and yesterday we travelled to Preston to see her receive her prize and to hear her speech. It was a good one, and it features UMIST and non-iron fabric for the Royal family and several generations’ worth of romance in her family. And the banana.

Keren David

With space at a premium I can’t tell you the whole story, but rest assured that coincidence is not dead and it really is a small world. And had Keren’s mother not been the type to share bananas, we might not have had When I Was Joe to read and enjoy and to reward with huge cheques (physical size, mostly) and art.

Chris Higgins

Joseph Delaney

This was a good year, with nine out of ten shortlistees  present; C J Skuse, Chris Higgins, Hilary Freeman, Jane Eagland, Jim Carrington, Joseph Delaney, Keris Stainton, Sam Mills and Keren. And as ever, Adèle Geras, overseeing the young members of the jury. Unfortunately, I have only read Keren’s and Keris’ books. Fortunately, those excellent child readers have read every single book on the longlist, and some of them have read and re-read their favourites on the shortlist several times.

Hilary Freeman

Jim Carrington

When the witch and her photographer arrived, Adèle was busy drinking coffee but took us round to meet everyone. To my horror some people had heard of me, which makes you wonder what they had heard. It was lovely to meet super-publicist Nicky for the first time, and now she will be not simply a name at the end of my email line.

County Councillor Geoff Roper

The place was heaving. The place being the plush home of Preston’s councillors. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel important, and those men wandering round with fancy necklaces add to the style. Pleased to see the efficient Sue and Elaine of the SilverDell Bookshop providing books for sale, at this oldest of book awards.

Jake Hope

More than one speaker reminisced about 1987, when the award started, and whereas I can remember much further back than that, I suppose it was quite long ago. Especially if you weren’t born. Super-librarian Jake had dressed to impress, and he certainly did. It’s not just a jacket; it’s a whole suit. Note his ‘cheeky’ 25!

Jane Eagland

C J Skuse

As always, the children spoke about everything to do with the award and the reading, and I’m glad the boys realised that some books might be pink, but the reading of them ‘has to be done’.

Keris Stainton

The authors, too, had to speak, and they pointed out how important it is to have reviews by children, and not just by us boring adults. Awards like these can also save authors’ careers, for which we have to be grateful.

Adèle Geras

Adèle spoke, and she mentioned her predecessor Hazel Townson, who died this year, and who had supervised the readers for 21 years. And finally it was Keren’s turn, and as I’ve mentioned, she spoke of bananas. If I’d been her, I’d have died of nerves by that time, so it’s to her credit that she was both alive and completely lucid. She was pleased to hear the other shortlisted books praised so often, since that made her win even more valuable. It also seems that Keren had always wanted to marry someone from Lancashire. (No need to propose. She’s already married.)

Keren David

The cheque Keren received was beautiful, and so was the work of art by Hayley Welsh, which came in the shape of a defaced book. But it was beautifully done, and seeing as it even had a picture of me, I wholeheartedly approve.

Art by Hayley Welsh

Keren wasn’t the only one to receive prizes, with the children each getting a signed copy of When I Was Joe. And despite her dislike for attention, the hardworking librarian Jean, who is retiring was also on the receiving end of speeches and flowers and a hug from Keren. She admitted to always being bossy. Well, how else do you get something like this award to happen? So, thank you Jean for telling so many dignitaries how and when and where to sit, stand, do, or whatever. They need that kind of thing.

Jean with Keren David

It’s funny how after my last and only presence at these awards two years ago, how many friendly faces I recognised, and who recognised me back. It was like coming home. Julie was another hardworking ‘face’, so it must have been the power of the Js. Jake. Jean. Julie.

Jane Eagland

Joseph Delaney and Jim Carrington

And I talked quite a bit to author Jane (Eagland), so she was another J for the day. Also Joseph and Jim and C J. There was a signing afterwards, and even more afterwards there was that lovely lunch they do so well in Preston.

Then it was time for us to catch trains home in all directions. Luckily Preston offers through trains to my back garden, so there was no need for any broomsticks at all.

Sam Mills

Of all the admirable books yesterday, the one that was praised the most, besides When I Was Joe, was Blackout by Sam Mills. I might have to try and read it.


Bookwitch bites #57

Down These Green StreetsSon went to Dublin to buy me a book. Very kind of him. It would have been cheaper to do it some other way, but you have to admit it does have rather a lot of signatures. It’s nowhere near all who contributed to the book, but it’s not bad. I will have to play detective to work out who some of the illegible scribbles belong to. Down These Green Streets, edited by Declan Burke, and with contributions by just about everyone in Ireland.

That same Declan just tried to put me on the spot on his blog, by asking if I know what my child is reading right now. (By which we mean Friday evening. We are not all sitting round the kitchen at dawn on a Saturday.) Happily I could say yes to that. Daughter had grabbed hold of the next Jacqueline Wilson when it arrived in Friday’s post, and she was just finishing it, while the rest of us listened to Son’s complaints about the lack of bus maps in Dublin. And the street map Mother-of-witch bought in Dublin thirty years ago turned out not to be 100% useful, either.

Anyway, the reading challenge had to do with Adrian McKinty’s YA novel Deviant, which will be out later this year. And not March, as I was mislead to say back in January. It’s labelled YA noir, and I have spent this week wondering what that actually stands for. Any useful hints will be welcomed.

Jacqueline Wilson, Sapphire Battersea

The Jacqueline Wilson book is the second novel about Hetty Feather, now calling herself Sapphire Battersea. And the verdict from Daughter was ‘skitbra’, which you will have to accept as meaning really really good. I shall have to find some time before publication in September to reacquaint myself with Hetty as well.

But its those leprechauns who are hijacking my blog post today. Sorry. Declan (yes, him again) interviewed Eoin Colfer a while back, to mark the publication of Plugged.

To restore some kind of national order, I will immediately jump across the sea to Scotland, where Nicola Morgan is inordinately proud of her local bookshop, Sainsbury’s. It’s an award winning bookshop. But Nicola appears to prefer their bacon. And judging by her tale, I suspect that so do Sainsbury’s.

‘Stands in Confusion’ comes to town

When the 08.37 Pendolino rolled into town, a cowgirl got off. She’d been invited to breakfast. (So why did she bring her own hardboiled eggs?) Her name is ‘Stands in Confusion’, but this time she was all right. The Resident IT Consultant and Daughter were there to meet her, so she adjusted her prized and bejewelled hat and followed them to where they had left the horses, with a spare one for their guest.

(Sorry, I can’t keep this up.)

Caroline Lawrence ‘Stands in Confusion’ is better known as Caroline Lawrence, and she had crawled out of bed at a most ungodly hour for breakfast ‘up north’ with the Witch family. Coffee was the only thing she’d asked for, to go with those eggs, although I added strawberries and Brie. Olives. And salt for the eggs. (And if that mixture doesn’t grab you, I don’t know what will.)

Here I have to voice a slight disappointment. I’ve always wanted to eat beans around a campfire, and to have an opportunity to say something like ‘these beans sure taste good.’ Caroline Lawrence's spittoonSome other time, maybe.

Caroline has always looked good in Roman dress, but I have to say the leather fringed cowgirl outfit is to die for. If only we were the same size… I even found myself coveting the carpet bag, and I’m so not a carpet bag person. Despite its modest size (for a carpet bag) it holds a spittoon and any number of useful objects. (Keep in mind what was for breakfast.)

I’d been aiming for a brief chat about Caroline’s Western Mysteries, but somehow we talked and talked, because there is much you can say about westerns. I always used to love them, but I am a mere amateur compared to ‘Stands in Confusion’ who knows everything there is to know. (And yes, you’d think that anyone with an iPhone would never do that. Stand in confusion.) Caroline Lawrence's western boots If you find posts here drying up in future, I’ll be off somewhere watching classic western films. But first I have a few strawberries to deal with.

The Julie Bertagna interview

It’s not every interview subject who has previously sat in on another Bookwitch interview, but Julie Bertagna sampled this dubious experience back in 2008, when she came along as my support act with Neil Gaiman. I felt a bit like that story about the inept violin player at his first recital.

Julie Bertagna

And I’m fairly certain that Julie is the only person I know who has managed to maneuvre herself into the arms of Sean Connery. I understand it was by accident.

Now that Aurora is here to complete Julie’s Exodus trilogy, I’m very, very happy to have been able to catch her for this interview. Some people are just too modest.

Also, it’s not every teacher who will sit down and write a novel for her pupils.

A fascination with graveyards and death

I will have to have words with Mr Google. Crosby Civic Hall just isn’t where he said it’d be. It’s also ‘quite easy’ to walk past, hidden by greenery. Which is nice. The greenery, not so much the extra walk, although I suppose it might have done me good.

What did do me good was the fabulous Sefton Super Reads event yesterday in Waterloo (I have finally seen the Waterloo of Cosmic fame!) Once Ellen Renner had given up trying to make me believe it was July, when it actually was June, I quickly chatted up Tony Higginson of Pritchards bookshop fame, and the kind man said what a great idea it’d be if I came. So I came, after giving up on Mr Google’s ideas.

Tony Higginson, Mary Hooper, Jon Mayhew and Ellen Renner at Sefton Super Reads

Zoe and Tony at Sefton Super Reads

Sefton Super Reads with Mary Hooper, Jon Mayhew and Ellen Renner

They had an incredibly strong shortlist comprising Mary Hooper, Ellen Renner and Jon Mayhew, who were all present, and also Eleanor Updale, Andy Mulligan and Ally Kennen, who weren’t. It’s fantastic that so many could be there, and I’m pleased that I managed to escape the – frankly ridiculous – idea that I pose for a photo with Ellen, Mary and Jon. Tony did that so much better. (I thought I hadn’t met him before. But I had. He was at the Plaza last month, also chatting with Elvis. Small world.)

Sefton does a brisk and informal awards ceremony, with brief introductions to the books, a Q & A where the schools who took part in the reading and voting got to ask questions of Jon and Mary and Ellen.

Mary Hooper, Jon Mayhew and Ellen Renner at Sefton Super Reads

Running out of ideas is not generally a problem. Time to write all those potential books is. Both Mary and Jon are fascinated by graveyards and death and both their books feature professional mourners as main characters. The books are also set in much the same sort of (Victorian) time, as is Ellen’s Castle of Shadows. In fact, more than half the shortlist is historical, suggesting young readers like what’s old, as well as what’s dead.

Mary Hooper

Mary takes a year to write a book, and if Jon didn’t have to do all sorts of other things like paid work, he’d write lots of books in a year. Ellen disappointed us by saying her third novel won’t be coming next year. Jon stops the car to write down ideas. Hopefully only if driving while getting them.

Ellen Renner

One very sneaky question was what they thought of the competition and whether they had read each other’s books. They were pretty adept at admitting to having read less than the teenagers present, but complimented the others. And like me, both Jon and Ellen had had Mary’s Fallen Grace waiting in the tbr pile for some time. (I dealt with it by reading on the train…)

Jon Mayhew wins Sefton Super Reads

Then it was straight onto the announcement that Jon Mayhew had won with Mortlock. With so many wonderful books I was just grateful that it was one of the authors present who won. It feels so much better that way. But as with choosing who your favourite child is, there’s no way I was going to pick a favourite among the shortlisted novels.

After Jon’s admirably short thank you speech, which he may or may not have written (or thought about) in advance, I could see Mrs M eyeing the trophy with a view to dusting it and possibly arranging for a special trophy room at home if hubby is going to keep this winning streak going.

Reviews of Sparks at Sefton Super Reads

Drinks at Sefton Super Reads

Before the local school children could stampede towards the waiting refreshments, their reviewing labours were rewarded with book tokens. They had written some very good reviews and I especially enjoyed hearing about the teenager who had developed bird phobia after Mortlock. (Well, who hasn’t?)

Prize winners at Sefton Super Reads with Mary Hooper, Jon Mayhew and Ellen Renner

Tony Higginson at Sefton Super Reads

The osmotic (his own choice of word) Tony provided the book tokens and ran the bookselling and took photos and told us about the great future events he is organising. That’s what booksellers should be like!

Jon Mayhew, Ellen Renner and Mary Hooper at Sefton Super Reads

There was book signing and queues and photographs, and it was hard to see the authors for the crowds. But that’s as it should be.

When everything had been said and done, I marched off towards Waterloo station, and found that I could see the sea. Lovely. I must return. And Waterloo does funny minutes. At times they last for ages, and at times they pass so fast they have to rewind and do the same minutes again. Weird, but interesting.

My Brother Michael

For years I always remembered My Brother Michael as one of Mary Stewart’s more ‘boring’ romances. Then one day I re-read it and wondered what that had all been about, because it was absolutely fantastic.

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael

It’s a low-key kind of romance, so maybe I was too young the first time, wanting something more exciting, and not getting it. I used to think of the hero, Simon, as someone who wasn’t terribly fanciable. Possibly even a little boring. How wrong a witch-in-waiting can be!

But then, I myself am so boring that I would never do what Camilla does. Barely hesitating when offered the keys to a car that needs to be driven to Delphi for someone by the name of Simon, she gets in the car and off she goes.

Well, it saves money and she’s low on funds. She’s also low on self-esteem, having a recently broken engagement behind her, and her travelling companion had to cancel. Naturally she runs into Simon, who may or may not be the Simon the car is intended for.

As your typical ‘macho’ Classics teacher, Simon takes over. He’s in Greece to look into the death of his brother Michael many years earlier. This being a romantic mystery there is plenty that goes wrong, before it goes right.

Those English school teachers are really something! And there is yet another ‘charming young man’, of the kind Mary Stewart does best. With colourful socks.