Monthly Archives: October 2011


Would you rather sleep well? If so, don’t do what I did. I read a short story every evening before going to bed. I thought it’d be a good way of enjoying this new anthology – Haunted – for Halloween. How wrong I was.


The stories aren’t bad. Not at all. Most of them do exactly what they are meant to do. Scare you, and make you think of ghosts, and possibly even make your pulse go a wee bit faster.

Who’d have thought there could be so many ghosts? There are bad ones and small ones and sweet ones (I think so, anyway) and funny ones and ones you wouldn’t want to meet in your friendly neighbourhood graveyard. Even in daylight.

Some stories end well (ish). Others don’t.

As I might have mentioned when Derek Landy guest blogged here the other day, his story is very funny. Doesn’t mean people don’t die.

And if you look in the mirror, is there someone there? Apart from your good self, I mean. Also, whatever possesses people – children – to go out late at night to some dark and haunted place? On their own. It’s just asking for trouble.

I have to take issue with Matt Haig over giftshops. At first I thought he’s a really enlightened man. Then I realised he’d got it all wrong. He could have done the umbrellas even by doing the giftshop the other way round.

It’s not just dark dungeons that are haunted. Sunny beaches aren’t necessarily any better. Sunnier, but not safer. And what are you most scared of; computers or dogs?

Anyway, don’t let me put you off. Joseph Delaney, Susan Cooper, Mal Peet, Jamila Gavin, Eleanor Updale, Derek Landy, Robin Jarvis, Sam Llewellyn, Matt Haig, Philip Reeve and Berlie Doherty have come up with some good stories. Best enjoyed with your elevenses, than with your bedtime snack, though.


When Rachel went to Stockholm

When I heard that Rachel Ward was going to Stockholm to open a bookshop I could barely contain myself. Never mind that it might actually be fun for her, and an honour and all that, but I could get her to tell us what it was like. So here she is, spilling all on the cutting of ribbons (I trust there was a ribbon?) and eating ambassadors and other little things:

“‘I’ve got nothing to write in my blog yet,’ I say to Husband on the train from the airport into Stockholm.

‘You can start with how expensive Swedish public transport is,’ he replies grimly. (Well, sorry!)

Expensive, yes, but feel the quality. Whisked from the heart of the airport at great speed in a train where all the carriages look First Class. The space! The upholstery!

Husband is here to talk science with our host, Wilhelm Engström. For me, the business part of our trip is an evening at the English Bookshop in the company of members of the Swedish British Society. The bookshop is fairly new and sister to one in the university town of Uppsala which has been open a lot longer. It’s tucked away in a sidestreet on Lilla Nygatan in the Old Town (Gamla Stan).

The English Bookshop, Stockholm

I meet Christer Valdeson, one of the partners, and Tiffany, his lovely American assistant. Their enthusiasm for books, reading and their shop is infectious. They’re genuinely committed to creating a community around the shop, running reading groups and story times, tailoring recommendations to their customers and looking for new services to deliver, like printing out English language mini-newspapers on demand. It’s a wonderful place and one that deserves to succeed. Do call in and see for yourself if you’re ever in Stockholm.

There’s just enough room for the audience to squeeze in. I give them a quick rattle through my route to publication, and what it’s like to be published, including a few trusty anecdotes that won’t let me down (e.g. how I met my publisher, Barry Cunningham, the man who signed J K Rowling to Bloomsbury – a story always met with smiles and even the odd gasp, very satisfying), followed by reading the London Eye bit from my first book, minus the swearing. I’m pleased by the reaction to my talk, given that they’re not my normal target audience. There are lots of questions and even some sales.

Rachel Ward at the English Bookshop

After a short break, I’m followed ‘on stage’ by Wilhelm. If the term ‘gentleman scientist’ doesn’t exist then I think we should bring it into play – it certainly applies here. He’s very entertaining company, with seemingly boundless interests and energy. He’s recently channelled some of it into publishing a joke book gently poking fun at Americans and his presentation is warmly received, even from the several Americans in the audience.

Presentation over, I’m now officially on holiday. Stockholm is a wonderful place to walk around. There are enough attractions here to amuse a visitor for plenty more than three days, but you don’t actually have to visit anything. You can just walk and walk and walk. The last couple of years in the Ward household have been a tad alarming and stressful, and Husband and I both appreciate the chance to spend some time together just chilling. Of course, there’s always a café around the next corner for when we need to warm up.

Or we can retire to our hotel, The Lord Nelson, which is quite literally packed to the gunnels with Nelson memorabilia. Portholes, binnacles, and yes, gunnels – they’re all here. We do call in at Junibacken, a story museum/experience based around the work of Astrid ‘Pippi Longstocking’ Lindgren, but including other writers as well. We felt a bit self-conscious as the only adults there without children, especially on board the ‘story train’ as it chugged slowly out of the station in full view of the long queue, but it was well worth the embarrassment. The train takes you on a charming, even moving, journey through Lindgren’s storyscapes. Not afraid of an unhappy ending was Astrid – it’s amazing that Swedish children appear so emotionally unscarred.

Courtesy of Wilhelm, our evenings are spoken for; dinner with the ambassador and a trip to the opera. It’s so like our home life that we fit right in…hem, hem. Actually, it’s a little glimpse of a different sort of life altogether. Strange the places that being a writer will take you to…”

Yeah, Rachel’s posh frock went from Stockport to Stockholm, unlike me, who went the opposite direction. And I would say that it looks as if she wore that divine coat again, which I admired last year.

Bookwitch bites #63

What’s wrong with me? Earlier this month when I was between dentist and train (more comfortable than you’d think) I went to the library to kill an hour or so. Actually, that doesn’t sound quite as positive as I intended it to.

Anyway, as I came round the corner I spied a whole class of little children just departing from their library visit, and I was so relieved. And that is so wrong of me. I ought to be pleased that they went to the library. I should be happy they had a library to go and – almost – disturb me in. (Though since it was Sweden, the threat to libraries is somewhat smaller.)

But it set me thinking. You often (well, perhaps you don’t, but I do) see little school groups out in Sweden. So when my train had delivered me to School Friend’s tender care, I had to ask her about risk assessments. She had no idea what they are, and as a pre-school teacher for children up to the age of six, she ought to know. Basically, they just grab them and go out. Almost as though they were normal.

Roundabout the same time, I briefly visited the university library in St Andrews. It’s recently been done up and it does look very nice. I spent some time in front of the screen showing various bits of information. It seems that one of the new-fangled things they have is ‘behind the scenes sortation equipment.’

I can almost precisely imagine what it’s like and what it does. I’m not that much of an idiot. But the word. Is it a word? Sortation? I kept staring at it, wondering. I suppose I should have asked.

The days are getting shorter and it’s almost that time of year again. I am a serious risk to local children. We are big on risk assessments here, and I’d like to think they do some good, but I suspect not. Maybe they don’t actually write down that they think the Bookwitch will harm young readers, but I have been advised to get myself CRB checked.

For various reasons I won’t be doing so. It’s not exactly free, and now that I’ve paid to prove I’m not British, I don’t feel like forking out to prove that (deep down) I’m a perfectly lovely old witch. And what I didn’t find out until recently is that they are only good for as long as you stay near children. A gap of three months and you’re no longer considered safe.

But at least I never give pennies for the Guy. That will keep some of them slightly safer.

Bateman – he hasn’t matured yet

This was the second time in just a few days that James Draper of the Manchester Writing School hinted that I might as well go and sit on the front row. He knows I won’t. There was a lovely chair right at the back, in the corner, with my name on it.

Colin Bateman

Colin Bateman was at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester last night, bravely telling us what a great football team Liverpool is. That wasn’t all he had to say, which could be why we let him continue. He’s a very funny writer. I had almost come to the conclusion that I can’t keep up with all his books, so might have to put Bateman on pause for a while, but now I want (need, even) to read more of Colin’s books than I ever imagined.

Like Divorcing Jack, for instance. I’d consigned Colin’s first novel to history for practical reasons, but then he read us a bit from the book he named after Dvorak (yes, really) and I realised the error of my ways. It’s about to be re-issued, so perhaps..?

He started his writing career as a 17-year-old ‘reasonably good’ journalist. He was put on the gossip column of the County Down Spectator, so had to make it up, seeing as his knowledge of the cool and the famous wasn’t interesting even in Northern Ireland terms. This might have been the time of The Troubles, but the only organisation he was in direct contact with was the Animal Liberation Front. And when a bomb went off by the paper’s offices, he discovered he hated that kind of thing.

Colin Bateman

So, after coming up with the idea for Divorcing Jack while having a bath, he wrote it, had it rejected by ‘everyone’, until his girlfriend read it and loved it and told him to send it to the biggest publisher he could think of. That was HarperCollins and they quite liked it. Thank goodness for girlfriends. They are never wrong.

Before reading the first chapter from his latest book, Nine Inches, Colin told us about his narrow escape from a select writing retreat, where you mustn’t park in front of the lake, thus preventing the inmates from being inspired by the view of the water, where there is no television, and where you even have to talk to the other writers over dinner.

He doesn’t plan his books. It appears Colin begins with the title, and then he writes 90,000 words to fit. He’s got a stockpile of one-liners that he’s working his way through, and he likes breaking the rules, like killing people prematurely.

Colin writes fast, a chapter a day, and doesn’t believe a book will be any better for taking longer. A little every day soon builds up. Discipline and learning to turn off the television, and before you know it you will have written a book. Embarrassed by his own writing, he gets on with it to make it to the end.

Colin Bateman

Being a writer was one of Colin’s two goals in life. The other is to play for Liverpool. Yes, well. Even a good writer can sometimes be wrong.

Asked why he started writing children’s books Colin said he wrote Reservoir Pups for his eight-year-old son, who thought Dad’s efforts were ‘all right.’ It took the boy another couple of years to discover and appreciate the books properly. Colin doesn’t feel there is all that much difference between his adult and his children’s books, as long as you remove the violence and the ‘sex.’

When Colin writes, he doesn’t read. He’s worried he’ll discover that someone else’s book is better, and he doesn’t want to be influenced by their style. And he reckons crime readers don’t want humour. Today even Raymond Chandler would end up in a sub genre of comic crime fiction.

Colin Bateman

Quite right, too! It’s the best kind. Although the (real) main character in Colin’s Mystery Man series, the owner of Belfast crime bookshop No Alibis is less keen on his fame these days. Apparently people buy Colin’s books in Tesco and then pop over to No Alibis for a signature.

Then we queued up to have our books signed. I pointed out that Colin had had the pleasure of speaking to me before, at the Bolton Book Award a few years ago. He almost remembered.

And Colin, if you haven’t already done so, it’s time for you to return the pen you borrowed from the man in the signing queue. He might be seeing other authors some day.

The Double Shadow

You believe her. That’s the thing. Sally Gardner ‘always’ puts some fantasy into her novels, but because she’s a born storyteller, you just go right ahead and think ‘this sounds perfectly normal’. I wasn’t sure whether the fantastic elements would work as well for the 1930s and WWII as in her previous, older, books, but they do. (By older I obviously mean further into the murky past.)

What’s not to believe when a cinema comes and goes?

This isn’t so much about films, as making the reader feel they are in the film. And the film is the glitzy pre-war kind, deco style, with plenty of money thrown at it. You want beautiful women wearing gorgeous dresses, and tame tigers to pet, and you get it. You want to go see a film, you don’t mix with the natives. You build your own cinema. It’s that kind of money.

But money doesn’t buy happiness, as we all know. Time machines – if they existed – won’t make your life any better. But you can always try. (I know, this is the second book of the week featuring a time machine-building millionnaire…)

Amaryllis Ruben is 17 and her widowed father builds a machine to right all the wrongs in his life. A wealthy American, he settles down in an English countryside mansion with hordes of staff. He’s hardly ever there, but he still needs to control his daughter’s life.

Mr Ruben forces Amaryllis to befriend local boy Ezra, and he and his family become tied up with the scientific madness surrounding them. War comes and it is brutal. But not as brutal as what Ezra’s father re-lives from the war that went before.

My favourite character has to be Ezra’s mother. She is a wonderful woman, who turns her teapot three times for a better quality tea. And the MI5 chap, or whatever he is, is quite fun too. I like reading about intelligent people, not just bumbling fools.

This is a fantastic adventure, and you just can’t work out quite how it will develop. It’s got lots of sinister people and happenings, but also beautiful and fascinating and thought provoking ones. And I do love the setting! WWII is rarely portrayed as glamourous, and I know it wasn’t really, but this still works for me.

Romance, bravery and a little time travel. And let’s not forget love. Love’s important.

The Haunted tour…

The ever work-shy witch has today been replaced by some Irishman. I believe he’s eminently suited to visit us here on this blog tour for a new anthology titled Haunted (how Halloween is that?), since his usual main character is a skeleton. So, even on a normal day, he’s halfway to some perpetual Halloween existence.

Here’s the one and only Derek Landy to tell you about the great ‘failure’ of planning his writing career. (Well, he’s Irish…)

Haunted blog tour

‘When Skulduggery Pleasant was first published, I had a plan.

The plan was simple: in between every Skulduggery book, I would come out with a brand new book, something completely different. These brand new books could be for younger readers, or for adults, they could be horror or fantasy or crime, they could be comedies or tragedies… they could be whatever I wanted them to be. It was a wonderful plan, a magnificent plan, just the kind of plan that would ensure that I wasn’t going to get to the end of the Skulduggery series and then have a mild panic attack while I tried to figure out how to top a skeleton detective as a central character.

But, like most of my plans, it kind of drifted to the side a little once I realised the enormity of what I was doing with Skulduggery. This was a nine book series, after all, with one book released per year (the exception being 2010, when we released both Dark Days and Mortal Coil. Now that was hectic).

So flash-forward to 2011 and I still don’t have a non-Skulduggery book out. Does this worry me? Well no, quite frankly, because I’m not the type to get worried. But I did get annoyed – annoyed at how easily my wonderful plan fell apart when confronted with the realities of a writer’s life.

And then Haunted came along…

It was a simple phone call from my agent, telling me about a collection of short stories about ghosts. She asked me if I’d be interested in contributing. I started to grin, thinking of all the delicious possibilities.

But actually, writing a short story is hard. Sure, it takes considerably less time to do than writing a book, but it’s a whole other discipline. The pacing is different. The execution is different. You don’t have the luxury of time to build up your characters so you really have to focus, zero in on who these people are and figure out a way to convey that in as short an amount of time as possible. Then you’ve got to condense your story, give it a beginning, a middle and – if you’re feeling generous – even an end.

Did I manage it? Of course I did. Did I get to tell a story that I wouldn’t normally have been able to tell? Yes indeed. Did I succeed in fitting in as many jokes as humanly possible? Oh hell, yeah.

So, finally, my first non-Skulduggery story has seen print. It’s not a book, but it’s a first step. It’s called Songs The Dead Sing, and it’s but one of a multitude of great ghost stories in Haunted.’

Well done, my boy! That story of yours isn’t half bad. (In fact, I quite like it.) Though I did get a wee bit worried about this ‘topping’ of the skeleton. For a brief moment I thought Skulduggery was about to be killed, however impossible that might be. But now I realise it’s just a case of finding someone even better than Detective Pleasant. (Impossible.)

I apologise for the swearing, btw. (Derek’s Irish.) And more about the book another day… Avoid graveyards this week. Just to be sure.

The Loblolly Boy

No, I didn’t know what a loblolly boy is, either. And to be honest, you don’t want to know too much.

This New Zealand novel is about an invisible boy who can fly. He can be seen by a few ‘sensitives’, but otherwise he leads a lonely life. It’s not much fun having no one to talk to, or never to be seen by others, or not needing to eat or sleep.

You become a loblolly boy by meeting your predecessor and swapping lives with him. You will do this because your own life is miserable. But it’s a frying pan into fire situation, and when you realise this it’s too late.

James Norcliffe, The Loblolly Boy

I almost got annoyed when reading one of the quotes at the front of the book, because I felt it gave away too much. But as I read on, I was quite comforted by the spoiler, and perhaps that was the intention. And to be perfectly frank, I would not have been tempted to pick up this book by either the title or its cover. But as we know, these things can be deceptive, and James Norcliffe has written a wonderful story about looking at what you’ve got before you leap. Things could be worse.


There are some truly horrible adults in this story, but one or two nice ones too. People aren’t always what they first seem. And I can’t point out often enough that you should think before you act.

The main loblolly boy is Michael. He is a nice boy, and that’s just as well. If it weren’t for him, then …

This foreign reading challenge continues to be interesting. Had it not been that I quite wanted to read a recent NZ book, I’d have ignored this one. I’d like to think that the whole exercise does broaden the mind. We must read books from the rest of the world.

Francesca Simon goes all Norse

Whitworth Gallery

She’s good at reading from her books, that Francesca Simon. She does sound effects, and she even pretended that her main character was so well behaved that the book had to come to an end before it had begun, seeing as there wouldn’t be a story.

Francesca Simon, Manchester Literature Festival

I was a little surprised a week ago when I realised Francesca was coming to talk about her new venture which is very far removed from Horrid Henry. She has a new book out, featuring the Norse Gods in a 21st century England where Christianity never happened. (Yeah, I’m not getting into that…) And I would have known this, had I been able to read, since it’s in the programme. I suppose I only pretended to read, the way you do when you are young.

Francesca Simon, Manchester Literature Festival

Her new book, The Sleeping Army, is six times as long as  Horrid Henry book, and it took her a year to write, after nine months of thinking. So, it’s a toddler by now, I suppose. Francesca was the star children’s attraction for Sunday’s Manchester Literature Festival at the Whitworth Gallery, and brought hints of all that fame and wealth. Lovely dress, as usual. Photo of her large house in London. No, hang on, that’s actually the British Museum. Francesca doesn’t live there. Yet. But she apparently did so much research that it feels like it’s her home.

Francesca Simon, Manchester Literature Festival

She found the Lewis chessmen in the BM. They are very old, and they look really grumpy. She sees them as a sleeping army, and in her book she has her main character – who for a long time went by the name of ‘The Girl’ – accidentally wake them up. The Goddess of Youth has been stolen by a giant and the Norse Gods are growing old, so the Goddess needs to be found.

In this new pagan Britain there are no boys called Christopher. But they do have an Archpriest of York. There is ‘The Girl’ who became Freya, someone called Snot, and somewhere there is an eight-legged horse. (This despite horses legs being the hardest thing you can ask an illustrator to tackle.) There is a berserker, who is always a nice kind of person to have in any story.

And if you too are nerdy enough to need to know why the chessmen when they are so rudely awakened speak English, it’s because for years and years they have heard the phrase ‘where’s the toilet?’ from just about every visitor to the museum. (Actually, they didn’t. I think it was probably just me. I forgot every time.)

Francesca Simon, Manchester Literature Festival

After all that background information, Francesca sat down in front of the pretty park outside and read to us. And despite Norse Gods generally bringing me out in a rash, I have to say it sounded pretty good. I might have to rethink my Norse ban.

Then it was Q & A time, and not only is her son not naughty enough to have inspired Horrid Henry, but he doesn’t know what a hoover is. (Francesca is a woman after my heart!) She hasn’t seen the HH film. Reading the script was enough, apparently.

Francesca Simon, Manchester Literature Festival

Francesca always writes a first draft that is absolutely terrible, but believes that this is necessary for a good book (which happens after another ten goes, or so). And she might be great with the sound effects, but when her toddler son wanted to know what a caterpillar sounds like, she didn’t actually know…

And then Francesca signed books. Lots of them.

Enigma? Paradox?

Whatever. Anyone here ever heard of a guy called Panama Oxridge? Or a dame by the same name? (Wow, triple rhyme!) No, I haven’t either. But here she/he is, being reviewed for his/her book Justin Thyme. That’s also very witty. It’s a book featuring a time machine, among many more improbable things.

This book was brought to my attention when I carelessly mentioned I was going to have a go with some Scottish reading. The cover is covered in tartan, so is definitely the genuine article. But I have to say that despite the tartan and dear Panama and the cheesy title it is actually a very funny story.

Justin is a millionnaire. On his 13th birthday he receives a parcel that ticks, and as he is a bright boy, he knows it’s either a bomb or another blo*dy watch. It’s fair to say he doesn’t want either of them. He lives in a Scottish castle with his parents Sir Willoughby and Lady Henny, his older sister Robyn, who is a pain, and their little brother Albion. A tame gorilla called Eliza. There is a nanny, a tutor, a gardener, a housekeeper and eventually a butler and a cook. Naturally.

They have tea. It sounds heavenly.

And at some point Lady Henny is kidnapped and they need to sort out who did it. Also find her before it’s too late, obviously. The castle isn’t exactly short on suspects, and outside the castle walls there are a few more weird people. Justin is very intelligent. But he still starts to build a time machine to rescue his mother, as boys do.

Plenty of humour. I like the cook (‘ Having Off-Day. Plenty foods in my Panties.’) Adventure, lovely teas, romance, lost grandfathers and old spies. It’s both old-fashioned and quite up to date. The cast is interestingly similar to the Strega family in Pure Dead Magic, but who cares?

Slight quibble towards the end. There isn’t one. Possibly a time machine effect.

A Horrid Zombie Vampire to you too, Henry!

There was no way I could not read the latest Horrid Henry! It’s got a picture of me on the cover! And the cover is blue and yellow, so felt even more like me. And can you just see what a nightmare it will be to put this HH in your bookcase?

Francesca Simon, Horrid Henry and the Zombie Vampire

I mean, it’s charming, the way they have made the cover all ‘hill and valley-ish’ with the help of… Yes, with the help of something or other. Henry is shown in relief and that might be his only relief in this book full of zombies. And vampires.

Henry continues as ‘Horrid’ as ever, but with a Perfect Peter in the house, what do you expect? In one story Henry forgets that one is not meant to plagiarise. Or downright steal someone else’s story.

In another, there is a famous chef capable of giving Jamie a run for his school dinners. There is also a harrowing Halloween tale, because it is that time of year. Soon.

And on the whole, it is worth avoiding sleepovers in museums. You just never know when the next zombie will appear. Most likely soon after the vampire. Or the other way round. Possibly together.

Francesca Simon, Horrid Henry and the Zombie Vampire