Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Book Job

Not being a regular Simpsons fan, I needed nudging to watch The Book Job. It was Son – via Dodo – who suggested it, and since he did so in the midst of a week when he had his own masterpiece (I’m so witty) to write, I took that as a sign that it really was a worthwhile episode, even for me.

The Simpsons - The Book Job, by Matt Groening, Gracie Films and  20th Century Fox

The Simpsons - The Book Job, by Matt Groening, Gracie Films and  20th Century Fox

The Simpsons - The Book Job, by Matt Groening, Gracie Films and  20th Century Fox

The Simpsons - The Book Job, by Matt Groening, Gracie Films and  20th Century Fox

It was. It didn’t take us long to work out why it was deemed suitable for a Bookwitch. I can’t sit here and quote the whole twenty minutes at you, but it really is full of the most quotable material. The bestseller that is full of ‘chapters.’ Aren’t they all?

And Lisa who was just going to ‘bang out 2000 words.’ It’s so easily done. Sitting ‘in a coffeeshop’ she ‘couldn’t feel more like a real writer.’ We know. It’s what authors do.

Except for the ones who are asked to be on the Simpsons. The poor Resident IT Consultant didn’t understand why Daughter and I burst out laughing, because he doesn’t recognise Neil Gaiman in cartoon form. Possibly not even in real life.

Bart and his crew decide to make big money by writing a bestseller. It’s a well known fact that books are written in book factories, where workers write until they drop. With the ‘vampire genre sucked out,’ they go for trolls. Wise move. (Even I haven’t read all that many troll books yet.)

While Lisa procrastinates over her music and her drink, the others write their book. But they need a ‘fake author’ so Lisa comes in handy after all. She also saves the bacon, with an ‘idea from every movie ever made.’ Good girl.

However, that Gaiman character is a tricky one. He heists his ‘way to the bestseller list once again.’ But at least Bart’s crew have realised they actually care more about what they created, than the money.

We needed a laugh. Thank you, Bart.

(Pictures ©  Matt Groening, Gracie Films and 20th Century Fox)


Books To Die For

At one point I almost got blood on my copy of Books To Die For, but after chastising myself I came to the conclusion it would have been really very appropriate. Maybe I’ll smear a few drops on later for the sheer excitement of it.

It’s most unusual to read all of a ‘reference book’ and I admit I haven’t got there quite yet, but I would have if I could have. I am simply saving some for later, because it’s one of these pleasurable reads you want to last. Preferably forever.

John Connolly & Declan Burke, Books To Die For

Declan Burke and John Connolly (two of those nice Irish boys I like so much) have worked on a real must-have book for crime lovers and others, who are thinking of entering the world of crime. They, and over a hundred of their crime writing peers, have got together to write essays – admirably short ones, at that – on the ‘greatest mystery novels ever written’ and it is wonderful beyond words.

The contents pages read like a Who’s Who, and I have been dipping in and out, trying to decide whether to pick essays about people I like, or by people I like, or about books I know and love. Or just go for the odd ones where I’ve never heard of either the novelist or the essay writing fan.

I have done all of these, and it’s been immensely satisfying, and I could go on and on. I’m quite pleased with myself for having such good taste, and it’s enlightening to see who I share it with. It’s also tremendously good to find that some of these successful writers are putting forward surprising suggestions. Liza Marklund was inspired by a Nancy Drew book, and I admire her for daring to say so.

If you are missing tags of all participating authors, let me remind you that the list would run into hundreds. Admittedly, some are both recommenders and recommended, and John and Declan get more than one essay each, but this book has one long list of the cream of crime.

You could always get the book. It’s even got its own website. You can read more on there. And you can hear some authors talk about their choices. If you play your cards right, you can also go and hear Declan and John talk about the book at various events.

Me, I’ll go back to checking out which ones I’ve read, and which ones I must read. As if I actually needed a longer must list than the one I already had. But it’s crime. Lovely crime. Recommended by the best. And because much of it is old, I reckon I can spread it out, find a book every now and then.

George and the Big Bang

I thought I was behind with my reading (I was, actually), when I realised I was almost perfect in my timing. I was, too.

Lucy and Stephen Hawking’s trilogy about George came to an end last year, and not a moment too soon, as Daughter said, seeing as the Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of the Higgs Boson happened shortly afterwards. 4th July, to be precise. And the world didn’t explode, which will be a bit of a spoiler in George and the Big Bang.

My impeccable timing has to do with the paperback editions of all three books being published tomorrow. So go out and get them, if you haven’t already. You are living history at the moment (strictly speaking, I suppose we always are, but…) and it’s good to read something light and fun on the subject of this Boson.

I’m not claiming I actually understood everything in those excellent essays on Physics and Maths that are dotted around this book for young readers. I wonder if it might be that the younger you are, the easier they are to understand. Children come with fewer blocking mechanisms, whereas I have worked up some intolerance of complicated thoughts about string theories and wormholes. All very interesting, but somewhat incomprehensible.

The story, on the other hand, is easy to grasp and great fun. The baddie, Reeper, pops up again. He is supposedly reformed. But is he? Someone is being bad. Could it be someone else, or both, or just Reeper?

And what have pigs and cats and hamsters got to do with the LHC? The computer Cosmos has been misbehaving a little. George is shocked to find that Annie’s dad might be in trouble, and why has Annie seemingly got herself a new best friend?

Let’s just say that George finds more use for his spacesuit, and that understanding about Schrödinger’s cat is not a bad thing. (I am almost there.)

Like the previous two books, this one has several sections of colour photographs of space. They are absolutely fascinating, and what makes them better than most is that they are not pictures we see every day. Between these photos, the drawn diagrams of ‘stuff’ and the essays written by Stephen Hawking and some of his fellow Physicists, as well as other encyclopaedic information, this is the perfect book for budding scientists, and even for those who ‘just want to know.’

I will need to read about the Big Bang a few more times, but am hopeful I will eventually get – some of – it.

Below is one of Garry Parsons’ fabulous illustrations for the book.

George and the Big Bang, illustration by Garry Parsons

(It is virtually impossible to find images which don’t somehow turn into something from a certain television show…)

Ribblestrop Forever

The children of Ribblestrop beat Harry Potter big time when it comes to returning to school in an unorthodox manner. Forget about magical, flying cars. Think Airport, and Speed, and you are closer to understanding the start of summer term at Ribblestrop Towers. Why have only cars involved, when you can have planes and buses and helicopters as well?

Andy Mulligan, Ribblestrop Forever

You might need to have read the previous books for the beginning of the last Ribblestrop book to make sense. Not that Ribblestrop books are sensible. Sanchez is travelling back as befits someone with a lot of Colombian wealth behind them, and Millie and Miles are with him. They are in a small chartered plane… The only thing you need to wonder about is which one of them ends up flying it.

Meanwhile, the orphans are returning from their Easter holidays running a circus. Keep in mind those circus skills, while also remembering they are on a bus on the motorway. Sam and Oli and Ruskin are in Sam’s dad’s car. Same motorway. That’s about it, really.

Elsewhere, we have redundant librarian Ellie in her appropriated library van, looking for ancient stones. We also have two more schools near Ribblestrop, and we’ve got the crooked Cuthbertson brothers.

After the hilarious movie start, this books moves into ancient history, and so do the children and the whole school. They go back to living like their ancestors, as a forced-on-them project for the summer term. As with everything, they do it well.

They encounter the spirits of people from long ago. This is actually quite moving and profound, especially for the orphans who are closer to this kind of thinking. For a humourous book, Ribblestrop Forever is filled with sensible and sensitive thoughts on everything from library cuts, back to how people lived a very long time ago.

And it’s possible to live so still, if you try, without computers and cagoules, mobile phones or colour coordinated fleeces. And the bad guys can’t be allowed to win.

But I can’t believe this is the end of Ribblestrop.

How can they not know about the war?

Occasionally I feel the need to apologise, quietly, for my fondness for war novels. It doesn’t always feel right. It’s like crime novels. It ought to be wrong to enjoy something that’s based on someone dying. In war lots of people not only die, but millions more are miserable. How can you enjoy that?

But you need some sort of conflict in a story, and what can be better than war? You don’t even need to blame an individual. We know who or what caused the war, and then the characters can get on with what they have to do.

I’m on this topic again, after the shock of hearing Peter Englund talking about the background to his WWI book; that his history students at Uppsala didn’t know that the war had happened. I felt a bit like, if they didn’t learn about it during history lessons, then surely they must have come across war fiction at some point?

But apparently not.

So I shouldn’t feel bad about war novels. They not only entertain, but can potentially give history lessons where history lessons are needed. In actual fact, I feel I learn more about many school subjects by reading fiction, rather than school books, or listening to teachers droning on and on.

Linda Newbery is someone who has written many WWI novels, and I might not still remember all the fictional details (I am a terrible forgetter), but they still provide me with a good feel for the war as such. The same goes for Theresa Breslin and Marcus Sedgwick. In fact, when my forgetfulness works full time, I find some of the plots blend into one, and that is pehaps because they are all pretty true, and they all share the same basic settings.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

Leaving fiction behind, there is the marvellous Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. That, too, is similar to the novels mentioned above. Presumably because it is about the same period and similar activities.

There is Michael Morpurgo’s tale about the football match played at Christmas between the British and the Germans (based on something real?). I have come across it many times, and would guess many children or former children also have.

I wonder if there is a difference between neutral Sweden and countries which took part in the war? (This in turn makes me think of Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts, featuring the destiny of all the Indians who fought in Europe in the Great War.) Now that no one has a living great grandfather who fought in WWI, it must still be well known. Newspapers write about it often. I imagine families still talk about those who died. And for that matter, those who came back.

Recently I had cause to look at the family tree again (British side), and was reminded of the Resident IT Consultant’s great uncles. He had many of them, but two he never met, because they died within days of each other in July 1916. I keep thinking of how their mother must have felt.

The Spark Gap

Now might a suitable time for another Scottish book, with me barely returned from that lovely country. I’m feeling sad, because it’s the last of the books Julie Bertagna gave me last year, and what shall I read now?

The Spark Gap is the book Julie wrote for her school pupils, because there were so few Scottish books back then:

‘The setting was a big tower block that was right beside my school. I literally looked out my classroom window and there were these huge tower blocks. I was trying to get the children to read and write more. Couldn’t find anything that they wanted to read …  and I got them to tell me what kind of books they thought they’d want to read. They were saying “about people like us and places like ours.” I was very attached to them, they were scallywags, but some of them had really, really difficult lives – very loveable the lot of them. I wanted to take them all home for the weekend.’

Kerrie lives with her gran, because her mum isn’t quite as responsible as she should be. And then her gran dies, and Kerrie finds her mum is still as difficult as she remembered, and her mum’s boyfriend is no better than the ones she used to have.

Julie Bertagna, The Spark Gap

So she starts living rough, in the company of two other teenagers. At first it’s easy to think that this won’t last, but crazy as it seems, Kerrie really does go through with it. There is a lack of food, it’s cold, and she needs to stay hidden.

And then something happens to force the three of them away from Glasgow, and it’s a good change for one, but not for the others. And, I’m not sure how to understand this, but two of them stumble into some historical ghost-like scene, which I take to be both a catalyst for what happens afterwards, but also to teach Scottish readers about Scottish history.

It worked on me. It dealt with something I’ve often heard of, but never quite understood. I can imagine it would be like that for many young readers, as well. Exciting, and empowering. And ultimately leading to the ‘solution’ to Kerrie’s problems.

It’s rather nice.

And I like the fact that someone can put so much action into less than 200 pages.

Putting EIBF 2012 to bed

Edinburgh International Book Festival

At least here. They have a few more days to go in Charlotte Square, but I shall bore you with some photos. Or infuriate you, because it will make your page too slow to load.

We aim to please.

Reader at edbookfest

This is what it should be all about. Reading. On the spot.

Jenny Colgan

Jenny Colgan, who so very kindly helped out a Doctor Who fan in distress. Here is a link to what her event was like, courtesy of HG2G. (No, not the hitchhiker…)

Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, Bloodhoney

Another thing the edbookfest is about. Books.

Interview room in Charlotte Square

And the ‘interrogation gazebo’ where interviews can take place.

Chris Riddell in Charlotte Square

Stumbling across illustrators illustrating al fresco.

Celia Rees and Sally Gardner

Or being told off for profile photos. Sorry…

Edinburgh International Book Festival

The famous water in Charlotte Square, where it hides underneath the walkways and jumps up to get you.

Michael Grant

Californian authors can’t be too careful, and might as well adopt the local custom of carrying a brolly.

Hopes of a Nation at Edinburgh International Book Festival

The competition Hopes of a Nation in the bookshop.

Mirror in Charlotte Square

I have absolutely no idea why this photo was taken.

Light in Charlotte Square

Tree light.

Chris Close at work

Sitting down on the job.

Gordon Brown

And the MP for Kirkcaldy dropped in. We nearly dropped. But we are almost rested again, and as good as new.

(That was a lie, intended to make you feel better.)

The Importance of Reading to Children and to Society

I didn’t exactly remember what I’d come for. I am so forgetful, and when the lady in the Scottish Parliament asked what I was there for, I mumbled something about books and reading. I mean, I didn’t know how specific she wanted me to be. It was enough. It separated us from the normal tourists, and she sent us to wait over by the letter D.

Theresa Breslin had suggested we come to hear her on a panel organised by the Carnegie Trust. Other participants were Annie Mauger for the Carnegie Kate Greenaway awards, Miranda McKearney from the Reading Agency and Marc Lambert from the Scottish Book Trust.

I was surprised to find the parliamentary chairs so tightly packed. You need to be friendly with whoever sits next to you. And I’d have liked an elevator to get up there. Daughter was disappointed that she couldn’t vote without a card. Not that there was a vote, but still.

The discussion was chaired by former Biggles fan, Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, John Scott MSP. He gave the four guests ten minutes each to speak, and Theresa went first, starting with a most impressive Scots poem(?), waving her tartan scarf around to signify who was saying what. It seems she was brought up on this kind of thing, so it’s hardly surprising she went on to become a librarian and an author, despite having to be interviewed by the dragon librarian before she was allowed to borrow books as a child.

She told us about the two books that were the most important to the young Theresa, and went on to describe how she wrote Alligator with the help of some school children. Only a numptie would buy an alligator, apparently.

Miranda spoke about how shocking it is with disadvantaged children who don’t read. She wants reading to have a wider role in children’s lives, and mentioned how well it deals with stress. There is bibliotherapy for mental illnesses, and she seemed to advocate doctors who would prescribe reading.

The Reading Agency has a Story Lab, and it offers the Summer Reading Challenge. She had a lot of quotes from successful cases, and I especially liked the child who said that reading is like going on holiday, but without having to pack.

Next Marc talked about the costs of illiteracy. One billion pounds every year, which sort of makes you wonder why no one does anything about it. Prisons are full of people who can’t read, and too many children’s bedrooms have televisions in them. Few Scottish teenagers read for pleasure.

He compared things here with how it is in Finland, pointing out that teachers there have less teaching time per week, so have more time to arrange their work. It is a prestigious job to have, and the children don’t start reading until they are seven. All this helps.

Annie – who is not a dragon – works with the Carnegie Trust. She had been to a conference in Helsinki (Finland, again), where she had talked to delegates from Nepal. There people put small change into piggybanks, with the money eventually being used to build simple libraries. And South Korea is building 180 libraries. (Did you hear that? 180 libraries!)

‘A literate society’ helps you move forward. (Now, what does that make me think about this country?) It’s important to find the right book for the right child. The shadowing programme for the Carnegie/Greenaway prizes involves a lot of schools, and provides an online discussion forum where silent children can take part, chatting about books.

The Biggles fan remarked that as a new grandfather he sees his daughter reading to her six-month-old baby. But for those who aren’t that lucky, one participant mentioned how you can teach parents to read to their children, including how to hold the book and how to turn the pages.

One important question is how to make reading cool. Theresa favours inviting authors into schools. Someone suggested free online reading for first chapters, and then, once people are hooked, you charge. When money has to be saved, the choice is often between books and sports. Usually sports wins.

Several people in the audience spoke passionately on the subject of reading, and one politician who was present ended up answering questions. We could have gone on and on. But we didn’t, because there were more places to go and more things to do for all of us.

And back in Charlotte Square, I couldn’t help noticing that the children there are the complete opposite to the disadvantaged non-readers we’d just heard about. It makes you think.

Library Cuts doodle

Someone next to me found inspiration for this doodle during the debate… Wonder who she had in mind?

Goodbye Nina Bawden

You know it has to happen, but you wish it won’t. I was sad to hear of the death of Nina Bawden yesterday. She was a real, old-fashioned children’s author. There are still a few of them left, but now I find myself worrying about the great writers born in the 1920s.

They lived through WWII, and their books about that period have a different feel to them than those built on research. Carrie’s War makes me think of the Grandmother’s time as an evacuee, because there were similarities. Probably also many differences.

Despite writing lots of excellent children’s books over many years, for me her masterpiece will remain the sad, but wonderful Dear Austen, written after her husband’s death in the Potters Bar train crash.

I don’t suppose I expected to meet Nina, but there is something so final when you hear that someone you admire has died.

Thank you for the books.

Guardian obituary

‘Just an average writer’

Those are his own words, because I would never say that about Michael Grant. What he meant was he’s not a literary type. What I meant is he’s not average at all. But I suspect we mean roughly the same when it comes down to it.

Michael Grant

Since Michael’s Edinburgh debut in 2010 he has clearly grown in importance. Accompanied by the lovely Vicki from Egmont, he now had a larger venue and a very long signing queue. Although he was quick to point out all that he is not; teacher, inspirational speaker or role model. He is a writer. Writer. Writer.

I might repeat myself here, and I suspect he did too, because there is only so much variation in background information you can mention. But for all I know, you are reading about Michael here for the first time. He was introduced by the marvellously named Andy Peppiette, who astutely knew we weren’t there to hear him, so he shut up after the intro.

There was a trailer for Bzrk and so much gross stuff about what you see in microscopes that I expected Daughter to walk out. It was the minuscule spiders in our eyelashes I worried about. But all the young men in the audience will have useful memories about what’s on people’s tongues, for when they are making out…

We were a grim audience, with most of us preferring death to insanity, Bzrk style. Michael admitted to freaking himself out with Bzrk, so not much hope for others. Another trailer, for Fear, passively advocating birth control to avoid the ‘worst teen pregnancy you’ve ever seen.’

Michael repeated the experiment from two years ago, to see if children in the audience would kill for a Mars bar. (Might have been a different kind of chocolate last time.) This time they would kill. We have evolved. I blame the sweet looking girl with Drake’s arm. What was wrong with her?

It’s all the parents’ fault. (Michael even showed us a picture of the cute cat, last meal of one of the volunteers.) Bzrk and Fear are both the kind of books that you read all night long, leaving you too tired for school, resulting in bad exam results, making you unemployable and cause you to sleep rough.

He likes work, does Michael. That’s why he reckons he’s most like Quinn in the books, with Brianna being his daughter and Computer Jack his son. But Diana is the most fun to write about. He does very profound, scientific research on Google, and found Perdido Beach by following the California coast until he located somewhere that was right. He even has a photo of ‘the damned mineshaft.’

There might be a film of Bzrk, but probably not of Gone, due to a lack of roles for Will Smith to play. He thinks there is more likelihood of it becoming a television series. Hollywood does not like his talking coyotes, however.

Michael’s favourite book might be Fear, as his editor felt he had ‘gone too far’ with it. But Hunger was very hard work, so also has a place in his heart for having had to be so extensively rewritten. His inspiration is Walt Disney for being so quick to murder parents, but feels he went one better in getting rid of all the old people on page one.

Michael Grant

Questioned on the religious aspects in his books, he replied that people in America are religious, so any book featuring real Americans will have to incorporate different religions. That’s why Astrid is deeply religious.

He makes things up every day. He has no idea what will happen, and does not believe J K Rowling did either. You write your last line, maybe, but then you make everything up as you go.

Michael is 250 pages into Light, and I hope he can continue making stuff up, so we can read the explanations to everything, reasonably soon!