Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Black Cat Detectives

Books for younger readers are tricky. Because I have to admit that I review – primarily – for me and others like me, who are a little older, but who like to read books for children. And it is easy to read YA, because we are all 21. Early teen books, also mostly straightforward. But the age group below demands that the book is really pretty good, both for me to review it, and for me to feel that other 21-year-olds (cough) will enjoy it.

(I suspect I’ve just admitted to YA books getting a recommendation, despite them being crap…)

Anyway, Wendy Meddour is someone who writes for young people, while still making the reading fun for the rest of us. I was about to say that if I stop reading Wendy’s books, it would be due to lack of time. But they are fast reads, so will easily fit into a tight reading schedule. (Laying myself wide open, here.)

Wendy Meddour, Balloonride

The Black Cat Detectives feature the children we met in A Hen in the Wardrobe. And apart from being a humorous early crime story, what I like is that it’s got characters who aren’t white, or typically ‘English.’ Not even black, but Asian/Muslim. I’m not one for percentages and quotas, but we really could do with more normal stories about this category of British residents.

OK, soapbox stuff dealt with, so let’s crack on. This is about creepycrawlies and loneliness and online marriage agencies. Ramzi and Shaima want to help Auntie Urooj find a husband, and this being treated in traditional – with a modern twist – style there is no shame in an arranged marriage. Urooj is quite happy with both the idea and with the prospective husband they find online.

But isn’t he a bit fishy? Also, a beetle expert might want a man more sympathetic to the insect world. Ramzi and Shaima need to sort out what’s wrong with this suitor before it’s too late.

Wendy Meddour, Nanna Stalk

Lovely story, and the granny is fantastic! I want to read more about her.

Bookwitch bites #87

As you might have noticed, I have found Terry Pratchett’s horses. Go back to Thursday’s blog where the lovely horses, and the carriage, have been added. Oh, go on, I’ll put the horses here too.

Dodger's horses

While I’m feeling a bit Pratchetty, I’ll post this link to an interview Terry did in the spring, on the Late Late Show. Me being me, I thought of the American Late Show. Was very relieved to find it was an Irish namesake, because the quality of the interview was rather better for it.

My journey to Soho on Wednesday wasn’t quite in the style of Sir Terry’s, but it was OK. You know how I am a witch? I looked at the London train before mine (Is it only in the UK you worry so much about your connecting train being late, that you catch the one before?) and thought to myself I had never seen the 11-coach Pendolino. (Is this too geeky?) So, obviously my train when it arrived turned out to be an 11-coach Pendolino.

That means that coaches E and G no longer join together, but have coaches F and U between them. (Fascinating, isn’t it?) I sat in E. In case anyone is interested.

So that’s where I ended up assisting in the translating of a Danish press release about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and you-know-what. At the time I thought ‘oh, it will be some sort of homework,’ until I recalled the caller no longer is in a place where homework is handed out.

I’m going to have to find some sort of Danish-English dictionary if this is going to go on. (It has, already. Gone on.) I have done deeds, also in Danish. And I don’t even ‘get’ them in Swedish.

The travelling has been paused. I need a rest. Although, I am considering ScareFest 3 on Saturday 6th of October, in Crosby Civic Hall. At least if my horse and carriage will get me there. If it does, I will be entertained by Philip Caveney, Curtis Jobling, Jon Mayhew, Tommy Donbavand, Joseph Delaney, Barry Hutchison and David Gatward (who I don’t know at all).

Apparently it’s Halloween come early. You need to catch the little ones before half term.


I was going to ask Morris Gleitzman why he decided to write a fourth book about Felix, and especially one set between the second and third books. I didn’t have to, however, since he explains why in the back of After. Apparently Felix himself felt he wasn’t quite done, yet. And since we already knew he survived to become an old man, that’s not a spoiler.

After is set just before the end of WWII, but because the people living through that period didn’t know about that, it’s not as if it makes their lives easier. Felix is not having a good time at all, when circumstances change to his living hidden in the barn.

He is 13 now, but still as wonderfully naïve, and just as kind and good natured, as he was at six. Not wanting to give too much away, it’s hard to talk about this book. Felix meets and loses several people important to him. He himself becomes important to others, and he does his bit for the anti-war effort.

Felix is constantly hoping for some parental figure to love him. It doesn’t matter so much who, as long as there is someone. Starvation and the cold make life almost impossible, and there are other events which go a long way to explaining Felix as an old man.

But it’s the humour which matters the most. That, and kindness. It’s odd that you can have so much humour in what is such a bleak story. You – almost – know that the book will have to end well in some way, but it is impossible to guess how.

I don’t know about Felix, but I could read more. Felix the teenager. Felix the adult. He’s a lovely person and we feel better for getting to know him.

At least they wore hats

Dodger poster

Stockport station had the right idea. It knew where I was going. (I mean, it would have, if railway stations could have ideas.)

I was somewhat less ‘with it,’ as I managed to pick the long way from Seven Dials (yes, how very Dodger appropriate) to The House of St Barnabas. But a witch has to have a hobby, and getting lost in London could be one of them.

On my eventual arrival I went where I always go; the ladies’ room. Random’s lovely Clare was there, and a Victorian lady of some kind. The Victorian lady turned out to be Philippa Dickinson in dress-up mode. She looked most distinguished. So did the many others who had entered into the Victorian spirit.


No spirit for me, so I had a glass of elder-something with salad in it. Very nice and refreshing, on what was a pretty thirsty day. And whereas I hadn’t dressed up, I did wear black, and my jacket is so old it goes a long way towards being Victorian.

Punch, and friend

There was a Punch and Judy man in the corner of one room. He said Punch would be happy to pose for me, as long as I photographed his best side. I think I did. (Between you and me, he looked worn out. Must be hard work, all that wife beating.)

Terry Pratchett at The House of St Barnabas

After a while of drinking the salad and watching Punch punch Judy, there was a commotion at the door, and there he was; Dodger. I mean Terry Pratchett. Sir Terry! Very snazzily dressed, I have to say. Hat as usual, but not the usual hat, exactly.

He arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, bearing his own coat of arms. (There was such a crowd by the door I didn’t get a picture of the horses. Magnificent black beauties, they were.)

Clare, Philippa and Lynsey

As the Victorians circulated, us 21st century people photographed them and stared. A beautifully crinolined Lynsey, incongruously wired Terry in a most non-Victorian manner, and Philippa was similarly equipped for her speech.

The MD of Random House Children’s Books spoke about how well Dodger has been received (there is a good reason for that, people!) and that it had reached number one on some kind of list. (She pretended to be from the 19th century.) Philippa apologised for the elegant venue for this book launch, explaining that she’d had her PR ladies crawling through every sewer in town, but failing to find anything suitable down there.

Philippa Dickinson and Terry Pratchett

David Jason

Terry made a reluctant speech (odd, isn’t it, how those who have every right to blow all sorts of trumpets, rarely want to?). His pal David Jason voiced his sentiments about Dodger, although he admitted to not having read it yet…

But I do believe Terry hinted that the way to a sequel was clear and that something might happen. Yes, please!


There was more Victorian mingling and circulating – with Willikins looking most fetching as a Victorian gentleman – and I drank some more salad, watched Punch and his fellow ‘actors,’ and so on.

Terry Pratchett, A S Byatt and Larry Finlay

A S Byatt was there. (I like it to be known I rub shoulders with the best shoulders in London.) She’s a fan, I believe. Transworld’s Larry Finlay stumped me by looking terribly familiar, and I required professional help in working out who he is. (It’s my age. I know things, while at the same time I don’t know them.)

Eventually Punch quietened a bit, and I took my leave, and promptly got lost again. I should have broomed.

Dodger's horses

Dodger coach

Another Life

She tricks you a bit, that Keren David. You think her book is going in the humorous, light and fluffy direction. And then it doesn’t. I knew after When I Was Joe and Almost True, that it ought to be the real deal, but Another Life has Archie as its main narrator and it’s easy to believe we’ve left the London crime gangs behind. That his cousin Ty’s problems are over.

They’re not, and we haven’t. And funny little Archie goes into gangland London and…

So on the one hand we have the spoilt and devious Archie who is working on how to get expelled from yet another school, and who fancies so many girls all at once that we know he’s not serious. And on the other hand there is Ty/Joe/Luke, still on witness protection, and about to stand trial for what he did.

Ty is angry, and refuses to speak to people. He’s a lot less loveable in this book. He was misguidedly stupid before, but he had charm. Archie wants to help his cousin, and feels that taking up boxing at Ty’s old club would be a good start.

Keren David, Another Life

Another Life is another fantastic read, and Keren would have let her fans down if this book had been the pleasant tying up of loose ends, where Archie and Ty would be best friends forever, each with a girlfriend, and their families would be able to breathe again.

All the way until the end she throws new problems at the boys, and it’s nothing like young James Bond or Alex Rider. I’m not surprised that Keren can reel in the boy readers.

Kelpies and other beasts

Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper, An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales

It’s not all Grimm. Or Asbjørnsen and Moe. Now we have Theresa Breslin’s An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, fantastically illustrated by Kate Leiper.

You don’t actually need Theresa’s stories to enjoy this book. And you know me, so you know I’m not saying anything bad about either Theresa or her stories. It’s simply that the pictures by Kate Leiper are really something. Theresa thinks so too, which is why I dare suggest her stories aren’t everything.

When I saw Theresa back in August we stood around, just staring at the beautiful kelpie in this book. I’m so glad this picture of the kelpie exists, because it helps me imagine Seth MacGregor’s ‘horse’ so much better.

Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper, An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales

In a way, these are the same stories we have heard many times before, only now wearing Scottish clothes. But that’s the whole point about folk tales. They get told, by folk, over and over again. They change a bit. Or they don’t.

Sometimes it depends what you heard first, what you will remember, and perhaps re-tell. Because that is what you do; you tell the stories. It’s less about reading and more about sharing tall tales. You know, the one about the clever boy who worked out what to do in a bad situation. The poor woman who wanted a baby. The man who really loved his dog, who loved him in return.

This time it’s Theresa Breslin’s turn to re-tell stories she heard as a child, or learned about in some other way.

It is all very, very Scottish. (And if you are not, there is a handy glossary for Sassenachs.)

The next big thing is Higashoo

Those of us who braved the unexpected rain on Sunday morning, could enjoy a discussion on The Next Big Thing with Barry Forshaw, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, editor Jade Chandler and Val McDermid.

Barry Forshaw, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Jade Chandler and Val McDermid

In between pronunciation issues and translations that made sanitary towels into bath towels, Barry kept hinting he knew the answer. It’s Higashoo. Sort of. I cornered him afterwards and even he didn’t know what he’d been saying, so there is little hope for me.

Barry Forshaw

The cream of Nordic crime has now been joined by less creamy novels, and the future might lie on some hitherto unheard of Scottish island. Or Man. Manx murders, anyone?

As long as president Putin doesn’t say he likes – or dislikes – what you write, you’ll be all right. Hopefully.

After Yrsa had said how she just likes creepy stuff, we crept uphill to the Highland Hotel and the one children’s books event of the weekend. It was free, which only goes to prove how undervalued children’s books are. We had the excellent Gillian Philip and Cathy MacPhail, along with the to me unknown, but now very scary, Helen FitzGerald talking to Christina Johnston.

Gillian Philip, Cathy MacPhail and Helen FitzGerald

The ladies chatted on the subject of Once Upon a Crime, and were photographed next to a clothes hanger. I worry a bit about the significance of that. They each read from their books, and Helen’s piece was about seeing your mother’s dead body. I think she said Deviant is her happiest book, so I don’t know… She road tests her books for teen authenticity on her daughter. For money.

Helen FitzGerald

Cathy, who does ‘like a good murder,’ learns about her genuine child characters on school visits. She likes writing from a boy’s point of view, and her next book, Mosi’s War is another boy book. What Cathy does not like is to be put in the Scottish section in shops, next to Nessie.

Cathy MacPhail

Gillian read from The Opposite of Amber, and said she tries to avoid slang for fear of it dating too quickly. But she doesn’t tone down content for YA. For her it simply means the protagonists are younger. And she does swear in her books.

Gillian Philip

All three bemoaned the lack of room for reviews of children’s books in the papers, and seemed to feel the answer might lie in reviews by young readers.

After getting a couple of Seth MacGregor books signed, we rolled down the hill, back to the Albert Halls for The Red-Headed League. An all star cast of crime writers read a dramatised version of one of Sherlock’s best known mysteries, with Gillian Philip as the villain. Karen Campbell had the most unlikely red hair, and Craig Robertson was Lestrade. Members of the audience – OK, other crime writers dotted about – made up the other hopeful redheads.

The Red-Headed League

Waiting outside beforehand provided a parade of Who’s Who in Scottish crime, with most authors walking past our sandwich-bench under a tree. (It was still trying to rain.)

Sarah Reynolds

Once an arrest had been made, it was on to the Worth the Wait short story competition, where out of 232 entries, they had chosen the best 19 for their free ebook (download it now!). The winner Sarah Reynolds received her price from one of the sponsors.

And then it was time for the inaugural Scottish Crime Book of the Year  Award 2012, introduced by Sheena McDonald and presented by William McIlvanney. The winner was Charles Cumming for A Foreign Country.

Charles Cumming

Once this was done, we trooped out and most of us went home. Sort of.

Except the witch who likes to meet authors. She had tea with Helen Grant, who is even scarier (in her books) than most of the Bloody Scotland lot.

Then we went home.