Monthly Archives: February 2012

Candied Crime

Long before reading this short e-collection of short stories I had admired Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen for her witty title, Candied Crime. It’s so obvious, but I would just never have been able to come up with it myself.

Candied Crime consists of 13 short stories which are truly short. But the question is whether they count as separate stories, since many of them clearly belong together, so it’s more like short chapters of a short novel.

Written in a deceptively sweet style, the reader follows the lives (and deaths) of the people in the small, quaint village of Knavesborough. As with St Mary Mead and Midsomer, a lot of bad goings-on go on in this small area. It’s as if every individual we meet early on, will go on to have their own little ‘incident,’ sooner or later.

Both story titles – such as A Nightly Burger – as well as characters’ names – Lapsang Souchong (the Chinese ambassador) and Lipton and Darjeeling – are amusing and quite unlikely.

As regular readers will know, Dorte is a Danish crime blogger, who very enthusiastically blogs in Danish and English, and writes her own crime fiction in English. You can tell these stories were written by a non-native speaker, but this only adds to the innocent charm of crime in cosy surroundings.

In fact, there is something chilling about this very cosiness. Give me the big, bad world any day. Those Knavesborough little old ladies are creepy.

Bookwitch bites #70

Sisters and socks and television this week. I’ve been watching far too many daytime shows for my comfort, in order to take in most of the interviews with John Barrowman and his lovely sister Carole.

Then there was Blue Peter who had ‘some sort of ‘ book programme this week. The quotation marks are there to point out that I think they could have had more on books. I now also know stuff about escorting sharks in elevators – and surviving – which I dare say might come in tremendously handy one day, but which was not fully book related. Lucy Coats was lovely, talking about one of the books I have not read. Michael Rosen and others were also there to enthuse about the various Blue Peter shortlisted books.

David Fickling

Here is an ‘almost television’ programme, a video featuring Jacqueline Wilson and her books in general, and her new The Worst Thing About My Sister in particular. Jacqueline answers questions from an audience of children, and reads from TWTAMS.

This week’s sockman, Nick Sharratt is also in there. In retrospect I began wondering whether Nick got his sock inspiration from David Fickling of red socks fame. That’s DF from David Sockling Books, you understand. And in this week’s sock relay, it was to Oxford and David Sockling/Fickling that Nick headed as he left our ‘blissful, lovely’* Sockport.

Big Book Babble with Jacqueline Wilson ans Nick Sharratt

* That’s almost a literary quotation, but I’m afraid I can’t divulge who said it, for fear of repercussions.

Midnight Blue

I can’t recall when I was last so scared when reading a book. It’s all very well with horror stories, which even if really quite scary, tend to be so far removed from reality as to be easier to stop thinking about. But this, this was that kind of treacly, sweet, slow, real nightmare stuff. You know you are in it, but you still can’t work out how to escape. If there is an escape.

Pauline Fisk, Midnight Blue

Pauline Fisk did well for prizes and good reviews when Midnight Blue was first published twenty years ago, and now she has re-published her debut novel as an ebook. If you like this kind of heart-stopper, then Midnight Blue is the perfect book for you. It is remarkably well written and you quickly get sucked into the strange fantasy/fairy tale style and setting.

It’s all so real! And so sweet and ordinary. Until the menacing treacle gets you. Midnight Blue also seems to be aimed at a younger reader than I had imagined. Bonnie feels pretty young, and so does Arabella whom she meets in this odd world where she suddenly finds herself. The book starts in an ordinary way, with Bonnie having returned to live with her single mother, after years with her grandmother.

And then before the reader quite knows what’s happened, she’s somewhere else. I found it hard to work out where this was, why she was there, and how she could get away again. Because of the perceived age of the reader, I felt sure that a good ending must be possible, although it seemed very unlikely at times. I had no way of working out what kind of happy end, though.

Ultimately the story is about getting to know yourself, what you want and what you can do. But before Bonnie gets that far she’s stuck, living in the sweetest of nightmares.

When Nick Sharratt came to Sockport

Witch socks?

Nick Sharratt was in France when he finally came up with his crazy word Sockywockydoodah. He’d been waiting for it for some time, and there it was. Nick and his co-wordsmith Elizabeth Lindsay have worked on their new book Socks for ‘a few’ years, and it is finally here in all its colourful, socky glory. (But those feet you see are mine.)

Here is Sockport, which is only right and proper for a sock-book, with one sock-word cheesier than the other. Not to mention the crazy and colourful socks Nick has used in the strangest of places. Sockodiles. Socks o’clock. Sock-a-doodle-doo. Goldisocks. Hipposockamus.

You get the idea.

Nick Sharratt and Elizabeth Lindsay, Socks

And then Nick came to Sockport for some events. (Today, actually.) I caught up with him yesterday in Chorlton, where he was doing socky things with lots of little children. They sat on the floor and coloured in socks. They asked him to draw sock-bulls and sock-warthogs, and then they complained when the creatures didn’t look right…

Socks in Chorlton

Nick read to them from several of his books, and especially his older Pants (that’s a book, not his clothing) where the children all knew the lines already. He had them count socks from a laundry basket, and there was a slight issue as to whether 50 is closer to 64 than 83 is. He’s a good ‘play uncle’ is Nick. I was relieved to hear he doesn’t actually travel with the laundry basket or the clothes line, although he had plenty of bags as it was. Nick had considered wearing non-matching socks, but felt it might give the wrong impression on the bus, what with all the bags he was carrying.

Nick Sharratt in Chorlton

Once he had made sure he had his scalpel (!), he let himself be carried off by your witch (wearing her best stripey socks) and the Resident IT Consultant. This was either a good thing or a bad thing. It was too late to find a coffee shop in Chorlton. An open one, I mean. So despite gasping for a drink, Nick was driven to Tesco in the witchmobile.

Nick Sharratt's socks

Yes. That is how low we have sunk, but there Nick got his latte (once the Resident IT Consultant had stopped trying to kill him in the car park) and we had a chat. Actually, we had quite a bit of a chat in the car, seeing as any journey at that sort of time takes a long time.

He even removed his shoes for me and let me have a proper look at his striking socks. They weren’t the same ones that Jacqueline Wilson approved of on their first meeting, but it was lucky for us all that she liked the yellow socks he wore that day. Where would we be without Tracy Beaker?

Nick Sharratt

So, Sockport. Nick needed a train, and we managed to get him to Sockport station in time for the 18.05, which promptly passed Bookwitch Towers just as we arrived home ourselves.

Apologies for the grainy photos. It was dark. And OK, the photographer was not a very good one this time. I was all I had, though.

Tweet, tweet…

When there is something you don’t know, a big sister can be a very good thing to have. ‘Big sisters’ don’t come much better than Nicola Morgan, and were it not for the fact that you can buy your own Kindle copy of Tweet Right: The sensible person’s guide to getting started on Twitter, I would tell you to forget about her, because I want Nicola to be my big sister.

In fact, when I took that very first wobbly Twitter step last year, I had emailed Nicola for advice. I just knew that she was the one to ask. (Don’t ask me how I knew that.) And she held my hand and all was fine.

But I’m an idiot and idiots don’t know all the questions they ought to ask, so this book is useful, seeing as it contains not just all the questions, but also all the answers. That’s why you need it. And if by some quirk of nature you have no interest in Twitter, or already know all there is to know, you still want to read Tweet Right, because it’s such a good read.

I’m of the opinion that Nicola could write a non-fiction book on almost any subject and it would be a fabulous read. (I say almost, because if it’s too gruesome and there is a risk I might faint, I will draw the line there.) She has this no-nonsense humourous style that means that even a guide to lawnmower repairs would seem attractive.

And since Nicola’s book is about Twitter, this ridiculous new must-do activity, lots of people will have a need for the most useful self-help guide around. (No, I haven’t checked any other books. Are there other books? They can’t be as good.)

OK, so big sister takes you by the hand and tells you things you were far too embarrassed to ask. She knew, so mentioned them first. After the initial start-up information, Nicola goes on to talk you through the stuff as you are actually doing it, sitting at your computer.

Some of us are likely to commit breaches of etiquette on Twitter, but after a talking-to by big sis we will limit the stupid things we’d otherwise have done.

I’m very grateful for all this knowledge. I will practise some more now, and soon there might be no stopping me. I have also learned things about people I have seen on Twitter, as Nicola uses real life examples. And I was equally shocked and delighted to find my own Twitter identity listed at the end of the book. In case you haven’t discovered my – admittedly fairly limited – Twitter existence, I am @culturewitch.

The Barrowmans are back in Glasgow

They began queueing at nine, while I was still dozing comfortably on my Glasgow bound Pendolino. We’d all got up early; the fans, me, the photographer, and John and Carole Barrowman, who flew in for the day to sign their new children’s book Hollow Earth.

Carole and John Barrowman

And as the gathered fans lifted their eyes upwards to watch Carole and John descending the stairs in the style of astronauts just back from the Moon, I was sorely tempted to see if I could get someone to pay me a fiver to shake my hand. The hand that had just shaken John’s hand. It had to be worth something, surely?

But I restrained myself. And I have since washed it, so it’s too late.

As you will have gathered, your witch had an audience with Captain Jack and his long suffering big sister Carole. Hence the travelling for both witch and photographer, each from their own corners of the land. (Being crazy helps.)

John Barrowman

You’ll want to know what they are like. They are bonkers. As John said, they are the kind of people you end up sitting next to in a restaurant, wishing you didn’t.

We talked about their television appearances where Carole hasn’t always been (allowed to be) present, despite the fact that it was she who wrote the book. It’s the price you pay for having a famous brother. There was a discussion about the background to the Hollow Earth story, and we covered everything from gay children’s authors, to eating ice cream in a freezing cold Scottish summer.

Carole Barrowman

After the interview we left them to gulp down a hasty lunch, which seemed to consist of salad and a smoothie, followed by a bag of Maltesers. Well, he needs to get his bounce back somehow.

And then we joined the nine o’clockers downstairs, with the photographer braving the burly bouncers for a position near the signing table. 263 photos later we repaired to an Italian restaurant for a late and well deserved lunch, before returning home our separate ways.

It’s going to be hard dealing with people’s envy, but we will do our best.

Code Name Verity

This is one of the best books I’ve read. Ever.

As soon as I had this thought I realised it’s the kind of bold statement you rarely utter as an adult. Children often say it, but when you’re older you are aware of just how many wonderful books there are in the world, and it gets harder to justify.

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity

I really like WWII novels, but that’s not why. Code Name Verity could have been merely an exciting war adventure. It is extremely thrilling, but it is also so much more. It’s a story of love and friendship, and quite a lot of early ‘women’s lib.’

It’s about two young women who end up in France during the war. One of them appears to be dead, and the other waits to be executed. I am no expert, but it strikes me as being very realistic. The dangers are real. The horror of it all is awfully real. While some things go well, many also go wrong.

Queenie is in France as an SOE agent, and Maddie is the pilot who flew her there in her Lysander plane. They are unlikely friends, coming from totally different backgrounds. But I have rarely read about a more beautiful friendship, and this is despite the fact they are apart more than they are together.

Lysander

At times I sat there with a smile on my lips, while crying at the same time because it was simply so dreadful to contemplate what must happen. But still so beautiful. Strangely, this is a humourous book, in all its awfulness. The voices of Queenie and Maddie are quite special, of the kind you rarely encounter.

I learned a lot about WWII. New things I didn’t know before. And for all the hardships experienced by people in Britain, it was worse in Europe. I’d never thought about this, but I think it must be true. I also know far more about planes now. Elizabeth Wein is a pilot herself, and it shows. And for an American she writes Scots really well. She also had the unusual idea of making Maddie a Stockport girl.

I like that.

The sister thing

They fight. Or so I gather. Jacqueline Wilson has written about many kinds of sisters over the years, but this time in The Worst Thing About My Sister, she’s got Marty and Melissa squabbling the whole time. I got quite tired of them and wanted to tell them not to be so silly.

I also got tired of the parents, who at times were rather feeble in dealing with their warring daughters. But I suppose if you want to be Dad’s favourite, it’s quite upsetting if he seems to be friendly with that horrible sister of yours. (Cue some foot stamping and screaming.)

Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt, The Worst Thing About My Sister

But that’s the whole point, of course. This is a book aimed at younger readers, and you need to spell it out, so that it’s clear that both girls are being silly and unreasonable. And I believe it’s the main character Marty who is the worst. Hopefully readers will see that she is and can egg Marty on to mature just a little bit.

Their dressmaking Mum wants Marty’s room for her business, so makes the girls share a bedroom, which is so not going to work. But they have to, because the alternative makes their Dad very upset, and they almost join forces, just to make him smile again.

It’s a clash of personalities, but in the end the girls discover they have a few things in common after all. I imagine this will be good for those of Jacqueline’s fans who are in the same situation. Sisters are often a pain, but not all the time.

Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt, The Worst Thing About My Sister

I have only one gripe. Why did the silly girl at school have to be fat, and ridiculed for it? Two gripes, in fact. The lovely Nick Sharratt has drawn the fat girl looking particularly bad, and fat. And surely that’s not a helmet hairstyle?

Long live sister love! And not all fat people are evil with bad hair and worse dress sense.

Bookwitch bites #69

TheSpark

Time to do things!  ‘Faber and Faber has launched THE SPARK, a place for 13 – 16 year olds who have an interest in creativity and reading. During 2012 THE SPARK, hosted on Facebook, will invite young people to take part in some exciting projects around acting, film-making, writing and music, each linked to and inspired by a Faber Young Adult title.’

Now, you know me. I’m not much of a joiner of things, but I suspect that if Facebook had been invented in the dark ages of the 1970s, I might have found myself wanting to try some of what they are/will be doing on this Spark page.

For people too old to spark there is The Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award 2013 to go for instead. Write ‘a manuscript that celebrates cultural diversity in the widest possible sense, either in terms of its story or the ethnic and cultural origins of its author.’ There is a prize of £1500, plus the option of being published.

So that’s 15,000 to 35,000 words by the 31st December 2012. Start writing, or dust off that old ms in your drawer!

If you have your eye on a very special prize, however, I can recommend the Booktrust short story competition. 500 words on the riots in 2011, and you could win a day in the company of Bali Rai. I’m tempted to pretend I’m aged 13 to 17 just for that.

Ellie Daines, Lolly Luck

An ‘ethnic’ book for fans of Jacqueline Wilson or Cathy Cassidy (I’m just quoting here…) is Lolly Luck by Ellie Daines. I was blogging about minorities last week, and it is so wrong that ‘black’ books for children should have to be considered ‘minority’ or ‘ethnic’. You wouldn’t say that about characters from Yorkshire. (Or would you?) But on the basis that young black readers might well want to read about children with darker than the British average skin, I’m glad that Lolly Luck is here.

Let there be plenty more like her.

I have heard a rumour that there is a Blue Peter book programme on Thursday next week. I’m advising you now, just so you remember to tune in, because I might very well forget as the week careers ahead in the way weeks do.

And I feel some careering coming on.

What the Strindberg are we celebrating?

2012. The year of Dickens. Or perhaps Strindberg. Possibly the year of many different people, famous or otherwise.

But what do we celebrate? Death? Birth? Or anything, as long as we can celebrate?

I always used to think it was one or the other, but could never decide which made the most sense. Birth is a more positive thing to remember, but when you’re born you have yet to become a great playwright or a president. At least the sad occasion of someone’s death happens when they’ve become that something for which we admire them.

This year we are remembering Charles Dickens’s birth date, 200 years ago. But we are also making a fuss over the fact that it’s 100 years since Strindberg died. Less fuss than over Dickens, at least in Britain, but even so.

I got so tired of the Dickens expectations before 2012 had even begun that I decided to ignore him. (Obviously not 100%, or I wouldn’t be writing this.) When I need to ‘do’ Dickens, it will be because I’m in a Dickensy mood, and not over some new peculiar Dickens related modern book.

The most interesting recent Dickens fact for me, was the connection between him and Sally Gardner, which I discovered when I interviewed her. And that’s good enough for me. I’ve read a few of his books. I may well read some more. But not now.

And Strindberg. Well. He was a miserable old thing, wasn’t he? Not even the television dramatisation of Hemsöborna did much for me. I enjoyed the early appearance by Sven Wollter, who went on to earn the epithet Most Beautiful Man in Sweden. But this was in the 1960s and the whole country watched. We had nothing better to do.

When I saw Miss Julie the first time I felt so depressed I could have joined them in doing away with myself. I’m sure it’s all very brilliant, but how depressing!

While in the middle of his translation course, Son has ended up translating another depressing Strindberg drama. Good for him. And rather him than me.

So, what else could we celebrate? I was a struck by the poor Queen having to celebrate her accession to the throne. Yes, it’s nice. Possibly. But not only was it because of the death of her father, but it meant the end to any normal family life she might have had.

Another slice of cake?

The translating Son also ended up with a piece on Raoul Wallenberg the other day. It’s 100 years since he was born. For Raoul Wallenberg we can’t ever do the death date thing, because we are not sure when ‘they finished him off.’ But at least the man’s been made an honorary citizen of the US, and has roads named after him.

However you celebrate, I personally want to draw the line at doing it prematurely. I think it’s next year that the University of St Andrews will be 600. They already have a shop selling stuff. Also read recently about some Scottish battle (I think), which we are talking about two years in advance.

I can only think that we are jinxing ourselves.