Monthly Archives: January 2012

Writing for children

I can’t believe it’s almost five years since my Arvon course. It was one of those things I very much wanted to do, but felt I couldn’t use up funds while there was no money coming in. But I felt it so very strongly that in the end I signed up anyway, when there was just the one place left at Lumb Bank.

Arvon, Lumb Bank

Of course, I didn’t do writing for children. Mine was a sort of non-fiction, general course, which suited me just fine. I see that in this year’s programme they have something for people wanting to get started on blogs and other online writing.

In 2007 I think they offered one, possibly two, weeks for hopeful children’s writers. This year I was impressed to see they do four, and that’s before I discovered it’s actually six weeks. Three of writing for children, two for young adults and one for young people. That’s a lot. It must be due to popular demand, and why wouldn’t people want to come and spend a week in the company of real children’s authors tutoring a group of likeminded budding writers?

I heard about Arvon when Caroline Lawrence reported on having just taught at one of their centres. And I believe she had previously done one of their courses herself. That seems to be the way it is. Lots of current authors have been, and many are now taking up tutoring as the next step.

Just look at who you could rub shoulders with in a kitchen in some beautiful countryside setting; Julia Golding and Marcus Sedgwick, with Mary Hoffman as the midweek special. Or there’s Malachy Doyle and Polly Dunbar, with guest star Anthony Browne. It’s not everywhere you get to hobnob with Children’s Laureates, ex- or otherwise. The two MBs, Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess, with Aussie special Simmone Howell. Now that one would be really interesting!

You could have Joan Lennon and Paul Magrs, with yet another Laureate, Julia Donaldson. Martyn Bedford with Celia Rees, and Bali Rai doing the star turn. And finally Gillian Cross and Steve Voake, with guest dramatist Christopher William Hill.

If laureates are your thing, there is always the hope of a week with Carol Ann Duffy, but then you really have to be good. At poetry, I mean. That one is decided on the quality of your poems. Which is not going to be me.

Plus any other kind of writing. All with people who know their stuff. It isn’t cheap, but there are schemes for financial assistance. No internet, and you have to cook your own dinner in groups, so better hope for budding writers who can peel potatoes.

Ms M at Lumb Bank

(We had our own laureate connection – on wall, above – during my week. That’s as well as the house having belonged to a former Poet Laureate.)


This Is Not Forgiveness

The old scary Celia Rees is back. I’m not saying Celia is old, nor very scary in herself; simply that she’s back where she used to be, scaring me before the historical novels took over. And I’m going to say this with the very best of intentions, but This Is Not Forgiveness could have been written by a man.

What I’m saying is that if I didn’t know, I’d think the author was male. That’s neither good nor bad, just interesting. It shows how Celia has burrowed down into the male psyche, and made everything work. That’s what top notch authors do.

They also make people miss their stations. I rarely do, but found to my horror that I had arrived and needed to get off the train, but was in the middle of TINF. It was a case of quickly gathering up book and everything else and jump.

I’m incredibly impressed with the research Celia must have done. Not only is she inside the heads of her characters, but she knows a lot about weapons and tactics, war injuries and politics. For us oldies there is an unexpected return to the Baader Meinhof group, as well as to the kind of thinking that went on back then.

Celia Rees, This Is Not Forgiveness

TINF is so much more than merely a book about an injured hero from Afghanistan, or about a group of young people one long, hot summer. The reason I mentioned sex was that two of the three main characters are male, and the story is very much seen from their point of view, along with a most atypical female character.

Caro is rich and beautiful, but otherwise not at all what you’d expect. Not popular with girls but desired by boys (and men), highly intelligent and with an unusual interest in politics. Jamie and Rob are brothers and they both want Caro. Jamie is still at school and a lovely teenager, while Rob came back injured from the war and finds adapting to civilian life hard.

It’s what happens between the three of them that has such catastrophic consequences. You know from the start that bad things are coming, because Jamie is at home, ‘talking’ to an urn which contains Rob’s ashes. You can almost guess what will happen, but not how or exactly why and when.

That’s what keeps you reading, at the cost of missed railway stations.

The Cold Cold Ground

Even without the quote on the cover of The Cold Cold Ground claiming it’s a masterpiece, I knew full well that Adrian McKinty’s latest crime novel really does qualify for that epithet. I don’t often say it, but here it’s unavoidable. I haven’t read all Adrian’s books – yet – so don’t know if it’s his best, but suspect it most likely is. Those who have, claim it is.

It’s rare to be reading a book that feels completely right from beginning to end. It wasn’t so much that it was exciting, forcing me to read on to find out who dunnit. It was more that the process of reading every page was so enjoyable I simply had to. If that sounds feeble, then so be it.

Set in Carrickfergus, just outside Belfast in 1981, it features Sean Duffy, a Catholic Detective Sergeant in a very Protestant job in a Protestant area. The first two IRA hunger strikers have just died and things are chaotic to say the least, when Carrickfergus CID find themselves dealing with an ODC.* There appears to be a serial killer of gays on the rampage, but Duffy suspects it might be more complicated than that.

It is.

The Cold Cold Ground is a time capsule, taking the reader back to the summer of 1981, with the run-up to the wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Di, and Mrs Thatcher and her government chums dealing with the hunger strike. The Yorkshire Ripper trial is on, and we have a fun cameo appearance by Gerry Adams.

Homosexual acts are illegal and there is no food to be had on a Sunday if you forgot to shop. Shopkeepers have to pay for protection and at the barber’s you can purchase protection of another type. And for Duffy every car ride begins with looking for hidden bombs, something which Adrian seems to have been disturbingly familiar with.

And that’s another thing. Adrian is completely on home ground in this book, having given Duffy a house in his childhood street. I know that writers make things up, but there is something so very right about going back to your roots in this way.

The pleasure of reading meant I almost didn’t care about who did do it. Although in the end it does get interesting, to say the least. You are under the impression you’ve got to the end several times, only for there to be more. This is one novel where I actively look forward to next instalment.

*Ordinary decent criminal.

Bookwitch award bites #67

It’s book awards season. Well, strictly speaking I suppose it’s time for an award somewhere in this country most of the year. I have given up trying to remember or keeping track of what goes on.

Nicola Morgan

Earlier this week Nicola Morgan won the RED award for Wasted, and I’m really pleased. It doesn’t matter how good your book is when you’re up against more fantastic books. And with young readers voting, there is no telling how the vote will go. RED is a Falkirk book award, which I had not heard of before. But it’s nice to know they read good books in ‘my Linlithgow alternative.’ (I’m obviously very sorry about anything I said about Falkirk in the past.)

As for yesterday’s award in Salford, it seems Michael Morpurgo won with his most recent (?) dog book. As I’ve mentioned, he wasn’t present, while several of the other shortlisted authors were.

Salford Children's Book Award 2011

That leads me to what many people have been saying over the years, about being invited when they don’t know if they’ve won or not. I can see that you’d not want to miss the Carnegie, even if you’re ‘merely’ a runner-up, but for the many-times shortlisted authors (and some really do seem to be involved in nearly every award) for ‘smaller’ awards it’s awkward to know whether to accept an invitation.

It must be flattering, and mostly fun, while also hard work and scary, appearing in front of large audiences of keen readers. But how many days can you realistically set aside for this kind of thing? Many have a day job, not to mention families. And in these cash strapped times, travelling costs can be prohibitive. Who pays? That seems to vary, but suffice to say that some authors, some of the time, foot at least part of the bill themselves.

And then someone else wins, who’s not even there. There are many good reasons why someone can’t make it, even if there is a whisper that they are the winner. And you can’t very well take away their win and give it to the next person, who just happens to be present. Can you?

(In the photo we have Alan Gibbons as MC, and Ally Kennen, publicist Mary Byrne, Jon Mayhew, Candy Gourlay, the Mayor of Salford – I would guess – and Pat Walsh as well as two unknowns, to me.)

Werewolves and book awards

First you have weeks of no authors at all on the horizon (perhaps I just wasn’t looking?) and then there are three at once. I am just never satisfied. Although, It was quite handy being able to ‘kill’ all three with the one stone, or more specifically, in a single outing.

Curtis Jobling, Wereworld

Curtis Jobling came to Waterstones Arndale as part of a busy week of taking his Wereworld show round the schools of middle England. (That’s geographical, rather than any comment on what the fans are.) This was his only public event and with me feeling more public than school, I went along, taking my photographer with me. I think Curtis’s Bob the Builder background stood him in good stead and made him sound attractive.

Which he is, and this time Curtis was all pink and red. I pointed him out across the shop, as we’d come in early to case the joint. We take our author chasing seriously. There was a good display of all three Wereworld novels, although the tiddly table provided wasn’t ideal for a serious doodler like Curtis.

Curtis Jobling

He did well though, providing Bob the Builder style princesses on pink paper as and when required, along with wolfy doodles in the Werebooks. I have to admit that the photographer wouldn’t leave before she had a Curtis special, which in this case is a more complex wolf doodle than he normally does, and we had to steal a plastic cover to protect wolfy on the way home.

Curtis Jobling

I didn’t ask any awkward questions. At least, I don’t think I did. Curtis hinted at the developing romances among the were creatures, but I wouldn’t let him say too much in case he said the wrong thing. One young fan asked what is a good age to begin writing, and the answer is ‘early.’ Curtis’s earliest work can be found in his Mum’s loft. He thinks it might be best if it stays there.

The favourite question of the day was whether there are any subliminal messages in Bob the Builder. 12-year-olds are getting older and wiser. Not sure that the subliminalness of Bob was fully addressed, however.

Curtis Jobling

When enough doodling had been done, and there were enough photos of pink checked shirts, we took our leave, and went in search of a tram.

It’s book award time in Salford today, and Candy Gourlay and Pat Walsh checked in early and were looking for dinner companions on Thursday evening. Michael Morpurgo wasn’t there, and Jon Mayhew lives near enough to drive over this morning, and someone had to make up the numbers. So we did.

It’s beautiful in Salford Quays at night, with the lights along the canals and the lit up blocks of flats and the BBC and the Lowry and all that. At least if it doesn’t rain. It didn’t.

We dined and we gossiped. If your ears burned, that will be because we mentioned you, but only in the nicest way. We are nice people. The food was good and as you can see we didn’t leave anything. No mention here of who had three…, no she didn’t. I just remembered that none of us ate too much.


I don’t know who has won, but some time today the Lowry will fill up with Salford school children, and the shortlisted authors will be given one child each (!), but not to take home. The children will take their author onto the stage and say nice things about them, before the winner is announced.

I hope they all win.

Dear Madam, Love Frank

I listened dutifully, sitting next to the woman from Aberdeen (who might well have been a librarian). Over dinner at our Onich walking holiday centre she was telling me about a fantastic book she had read. That can be boring, but I listened. I didn’t totally believe her, but I was young. A book about letters to a bookshop sounds plain weird, doesn’t it?

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

So, along came the next walking holiday (this was in the days when I actually got out and did things), and I found myself in a bookshop in Grasmere (probably the bookshop in Grasmere, now that I think of it), and browsing aimlessly I happened upon a book that looked like an airmail letter, and I realised this was what my Aberdonian Librarian had been waxing so lyrically over. ‘I might as well buy it,’ I thought to myself. It seemed as if it was meant.

Last week when I was agonising over what books could be about, I think it was Hilary McKay who mentioned 84 Charing Cross Road, and I have to admit I had almost forgotten about it. Only from a point of view as a book that is not your average fiction or non-fiction book, obviously. You can’t forget Helene Hanff’s collection of letters.

So I hunted  for my copy of the book and failed. Told the Resident IT Consultant to find it for me. (I reckon that’s one of his good sides; finding the very obvious which insists on escaping me.) It was where it should be. Naturally.

I cried a bit, looking through the book again, and that is surely a testament to quite how special 84 Charing Cross Road is? Admittedly, I started at the end where Frank Doel dies. But working my way to the beginning of the Hanff-Doel friendship just brought more tears. ‘I hope “madam” over there doesn’t mean what it does here.’

In more recent years I have come across people who express themselves like Helene did. Americans, I mean. At the time she struck me as ‘different,’ whereas the polite English letters from the bookshop seemed perfectly normal to me. ‘I could rush a tongue over.’ That’s an unusual thing to want to do for a bookshop, but it brings back the lack of food in Britain even as late as 1950. In fact, the whole book is a lesson in modern history.

I loved this book, and I have offered delayed thanks to Aberdonian Librarian ever since. Not that we’ve been in contact. I’m not sure how many copies I’ve bought of the book to give away, but long before I gave up on being a stingy old witch I actually spent good money on giving people their very own 84 Charing Cross Road.

I’m afraid I have no plans for more of that, so you can just go get your own copy. Just make sure you do. The only excuse is already owning one.


My comment in yesterday’s review about ‘free’ travelling for more people – preferably for all people – is something I have long believed in. OK, so ‘opening’ your borders might allow a few undesirables in, but I reckon they get in anyway. It’s the desirables who are kept out, because someone is under the impression their own lives will be better and safer for it.

Look at me! Or rather, look at the United Kingdom! Is it any worse off for having allowed me entry? I’d like to think not. Although they did their utmost best even towards a ‘nice white witch’ like me.

I liked this country, and I still do. I used to come here as often as I could squeeze the piggybank for the price of another ticket. The last few years before the Resident IT Consultant made me legal I used to come about six times a year. And that involved increasingly closer contact with the black book.

The immigration officers used to have this enormous family bible type of book next to them, into which they looked without fail whenever I attempted to enter the country. Black book = blacklist. Obvious. They always seemed disappointed I wasn’t in it.

However attractive you might think it is to be able to speak a foreign (to you) language well, it’s not good under such circumstances. It indicates you have spent too much time somewhere you aren’t supposed to have been. Hence the suspicion.

The way the book was used was similar to how Santa’s helper in Disney’s film checked if you were allowed what you had asked for in your letter to FC. Eat enough spinach, and you’re OK. I love spinach, and that will be why they always let me in.

Post Office Tower

I thought nothing of it. I knew they had to do their bit, and I did my bit. Then we could both be satisfied. I must have told the Resident IT Consultant about the black book, as you do when you run out of more meaningful things to base a conversation on.

He probably thought nothing of it, until some 15 years into my legality, when he happened to consult for the Home Office. He mentioned the black book and my experience with it. ‘How do you even know about the book?’ they asked.

It seems the big black book is/was a secret. (Like the Post Office Tower, I suppose.) You’re not meant to know it’s there, and the reading of it could have done with more inconspicuousness applied. Whether they didn’t know, were unable to or simply couldn’t be bothered, I have no idea. But large family bibles are hard to hide under your desk.

A Hen in the Wardrobe

Chicken soup for the soul. I’m sure someone said that, but I can’t remember who. We had a starring chicken here just the other day, but a hen in a wardrobe is not to be sneezed at either. Unless there is a cold involved, in which case sneezing might occur and good books are very much wanted, and much better than soup.

I have been reading Wendy Meddour’s debut A Hen in the Wardrobe, and it is true chicken soup material. I absolutely loved it! It’s short and a seemingly easy read, but not at all a simple book. It deals with important issues like where people belong, and what you do when life just doesn’t feel right.

Yes, what do you do? Ramzi’s Dad sleepwalks. That’s why he ends up looking for a non-existent hen in Ramzi’s wardrobe one night. He’s not entirely happy in England, and secretly longs for his native Algeria.

And what do you do about that? Taking professional advice, Ramzi’s family come to the conclusion they need to visit Algeria, so they do. His Dad is very happy to be home again, and Ramzi quite likes visiting. At least for some time. Until he sleepwalks and finds a sheep in the kitchen.

Not everyone can be happy all the time, but what to do when half the family wants one thing and the other half wants something else? Because there is no right or wrong. It’s a case of where we come from, and we only really come from one place, however good somewhere else is.

Wendy Meddour, A Hen in the Wardrobe

This story lets the reader actually ‘live’ Algeria. There is no preaching or showing, just an immediate dip into Algerian life. And you can see how people are the same everywhere, but also different.

We can never really solve the puzzle of where to live when families are mixed. There is no single right answer. But it would be a whole lot easier if countries didn’t have so many obstacles in place to prevent free and easy visiting between people who belong together.

This is a lovely tale about families, and about Algeria as well as Muslim life in England, and none of it quite like any other book I’ve read.

(Great illustrations all done by Wendy.)


‘I think it’s always best to start at the beginning,’ said Curtis Jobling when I asked for his expert knowledge of his own books. That’s why I’m giving you the first Wereworld – Rise of the Wolf – rather than Curtis’s brand new third Werebook – Shadow of the Hawk. I’ll have to work my way slowly through this Wereworld, which is going to be hard if Curtis keeps up his current publishing speed. Basically, we’ll never be on the same level. Oh well, his loss…

The word ‘were’ sends shivers down my spine, and not the team Jacob kind of shivers. OK, so I loved Lupin, but there are only so many werewolves a witch can grapple with, and you do tend to think of black books and silly romance. But in this case you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Wereworld is your good old-fashioned adventure story, where some of the characters simply happen to be were-somethings. You need some magic, and pulling on were-powers when you’re in dire straits is about as normal as becoming Spiderman.

Curtis Jobling, Rise of the Wolf

We begin with young, innocent Drew who has a very bad day. A creature turns up, does unspeakable things, and Drew’s father isn’t as understanding as he could be, so throws Drew out, leaving him both shocked by what has happened, and having to look after himself in the woods of Lyssia.

After living wild for months, Drew meets people who come to have something to do with his future. He learns that he is a werewolf, and while he makes new friends and allies, there is a lot of backstabbing going on, too. Basically, this is a fast paced adventure where Drew and friends and foes head for the exciting end of book one. There is a temporary ‘happy’ end, but the cliffhanger is good and ready and we want to know what happens next.

If you like adventure, and are ready for weresharks and werebadgers (yes, really) and any other kind of ‘were’ you can think of, this is for you. Hard to say when this is set, if you can ask that about a fantasy world. Mostly it feels historical, but some of it seems more modern. The thing with fantasy is you can do what you like.

Lovely hints at a possible romance, although I suspect Curtis won’t take it in the direction I’d like. There is a warning on the back cover that the book ‘contains scenes of violence’ and it does, but probably no more than readers would expect. It’s a bit gory, but not too bad. Personally I feel it’s the politics that leave you feeling sick.

And I’m afraid they ate Bambi.

The Sewer Demon

I can always rely on Caroline Lawrence to write an entertaining story. She has a new Roman book out in early February – The Sewer Demon – part of her new spin-off series The Roman Mystery Scrolls. It’s nice to return to the Roman settings and to the mystery solving.

Caroline Lawrence, The Sewer Demon

This one is about poo. There are some pretty graphic descriptions of Roman toilets and sponge sticks. And poo. For good measure there is a large illustration at the beginning of the book, which I’m fairly sure shows five grown men on the toilet, some of them dark in the face. Constipation, perhaps?

We met young Threptus in a short story the year before last (I think it was), and he’s friends with Lupus. He’s another beggar boy, and he admires Lupus a lot and wants to be like him. So he solves mysteries. His first one gets him a job and a home with a grown-up, and he should be safer than he was.

But Threptus ends up in trouble almost immediately, when he runs into the same old bullies. It’s as he tries to escape them that he encounters the men on the toilet, and you don’t really want to know where Threptus is just then.

We also meet Aphrodite the chicken, and there is a wealthy widow with a problem. And Floridius, Threptus’ grown-up, lets go of something important in the wrong place. (You can guess where.)

Floridius isn’t terribly good at much, but Threptus is. He notices things and he remembers them, and he puts them to sensible use. He will do Lupus proud. There is romance developing for another old Roman friend, as well.

And down in the sewer; it could be mud, or a log, or ‘something worse.’ You just never know what you’ll find there. Or perhaps you do…

The Sewer Demon is a shorter story than the Roman Mysteries, and will make perfect reading for slightly younger children, while not stopping us elderly fans from having fun.