Monthly Archives: June 2011

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.


Plugged is a great start to Eoin Colfer’s adult criminal career. As a longstanding fan of Artemis Fowl and Co, I have to admit to preferring the child criminal, simply because there is a deep satisfaction to be gained from crime novels that are just perfect without all the swearing and violence you get in adult writing. I firmly believe the skill is far greater.

Eoin Colfer, Plugged

But, Plugged is an excellent example of hardboiled crime where the hero can be permitted to be both kind and funny, while still being a hard guy. Daniel McEvoy is a former Irish soldier, who makes a living chucking people out of a sleazy club in America. Despite a troubled past he is a much sweeter person than you’d think. A bit vain, perhaps, but then who isn’t?

His sort of girlfriend at the club ends up murdered on the same day that Daniel ‘just happens’ to kill a man. He needs to avoid getting caught, while trying to find the girl’s killer. He keeps hearing a crazy friend’s voice in his head and he also has a more than insane neighbour, whose casserole I have to admit I had greater hopes for at the end than what actually transpired.

Never mind.

It’s a bit of a shock finding the seemingly sweet-natured Eoin taking so well to violence and bad language, when the strength of his fiction for younger readers is that he can do perfectly well without them. But in actual fact, Plugged is plotted in the same devious way, with all the unrelated details tying up beautifully in the end.

Some I could see coming, but Eoin turned things around a lot at the end, and it’s a humorous and different kind of ending to what could have been a cold and violent story, but isn’t.

And if I could understand poker, I daresay some aspects would have made much more sense.

Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but in a way I hope this was just a test as far as Eoin’s writing is concerned. I liked Plugged a lot. But I feel strongly that he should use his considerable skills writing for a younger audience. Not all authors can.

I’m not saying

I don’t see the point. Well, partly, I suppose.

The latest honesty fad in blogging is to say whether a blogger paid for the book they have just reviewed, or if it came from some other source.

As yet we don’t have to declare the free books from a tax point of view. (Dare say that day will come, though.) And if we did, would we have to declare all the books that arrived and which remain unread because there are only 24 hours in every day? Pay tax on them regardless? Or quickly give them to next-door?

The thing is, I have the same opinion of a book no matter how I came by it. That’s why I tell you about it on here. Purely to bore you with my thoughts on someone’s writing. If I’m kinder because the publishers sent it to me; who am I protecting? Me from PR wrath, or the tender feelings of the author?

The author’s feelings are always the worst about a review. If nothing nice, or even neutral, can be said, we’ll do what Thumper’s mother advised.

I suppose if I’ve paid close to £20 for a book I end up hating, it’s annoying. But I can say I hated it. Except it still has an author, who may not deserve my hating them in public.

Being asked by an author if I want to read their new book is both the most wonderful feeling, and the worst. It’s flattering and exciting, but what if..?

Even with my policy of ‘saying nothing at all’, I still upset people. A half decent novel which I have read to the end, deserves a mention even when I can’t enthuse at great length. And some authors never speak to me again.

Bookwitch bites #56

All together now.

How I wish I could have popped over to Dublin last week. It was positively teeming with crime writers. I know it’s the latest vogue but this strikes me as exceptional. It was the launch of crime anthology Down These Green Streets; Irish Crime Writing in the 21st century, edited by our very favourite Declan, Declan Burke. (Sorry Hughes.)

Down These Green Streets

And I do realise some of you will find it a little hard to drop everything and pop in the Belfast direction for the NI launch tonight. But do try. I would. If I could. There are multi-signed copies of the book for sale from The Gutter Bookshop (which I believe is a lot nicer than the name suggests). I want one. It’d be the next best thing to having been there. But it’s this idea of actually paying…

It’s not just those criminally minded Irish who are ganging up. We have the History Girls. I’ve been hearing rumours for a while, and now they have got their act together. Almost. You can get them on facebook already. And from the 1st July you can enjoy their new blog.

The History Girls

They are girls who write historical fiction. I’m amazed they managed to get so many together for a photo, and very nice they look too. I understand they launched with a lunch, or possibly vice versa, at the home of Michelle Lovric. Should have known someone like Michelle would have an interesting house!

I suppose I shouldn’t ignore that large group of people who have their day tomorrow. The Daddies. We are an unfriendly kind of witch family, so don’t celebrate this kind of event at all. Not even with socks. (And he got a tie for his birthday, so there.) But can you really not go wrong with the books ‘advertised’ below?

Father's Day Penguins

Barnaby Booth

Feeling the need to finish on a softer note; here is Barnaby Booth. Barnaby’s human Daddy is Stephen Booth. I believe Barnaby (I trust you can work out who Barnaby is named after?) helps with the murdering around the house.

Edinburgh 2011

It is pretty dreadful. But on the other hand it could have been a lot worse.

I’m talking about the freshly released programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And before you jump to the erroneous conclusion that the programme is bad, I’m simply bemoaning the fact that I will miss ‘a few’ people by not getting there for the first week.


No doubt it will come as a relief to Meg Rosoff and Tim Bowler and Cathy Cassidy that they will miss me too. Not to mention Julie Bertagna and Lucy Hawking. Derek Landy, arghh. Elen Caldecott. Lots of lovely people, who all write great books.

On the plus side, we have Nicola Morgan with Celia Rees, and there is always Patrick Ness and Darren Shan. Janne Teller and Fabio Geda from my foreign reading challenge, and also Mal Peet, Morris Gleitzman and Debi Gliori. And many more. So plenty of little rays of sunshine, in the shape of authors. We know more than well that last year’s lack of mud must be compensated for, so it will rain. Plenty.

Jacqueline Wilson and paparazzi

How will I find the strength to do all this? Last year – sunny weather notwithstanding – nearly finished me off. Would they frown very much if I were to erect a tent in Charlotte Square? Silly me, the place is full of tents. No need to bring my own. It would be convenient, if a little uncomfortable and against the rules. So I guess it will be the Stirling commute again. All that walking is good for me. (To and from the train. Not all the way.)

As for the programme, it looks very, very tempting. It was at this point last year that I threw caution to the wind and opted for the whole caboodle. I can’t this time, so I won’t. Which doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there.