Monthly Archives: October 2012

Getting to know Mary a bit better

I admit it. I never got the hang of Mary Queen of Scots. Not only was she not the only Mary to be queening away, but I got confused over relations with Elizabeth, as well. And perhaps so did she, judging by Theresa Breslin’s Spy For the Queen of Scots.

Whenever I heard the names of Bothwell or John Knox or even Darnley, I knew I recognised them. Could not have said quite what they did or who they were (surely Mary married one of them?), but all that has changed. Theresa has made people of the names from the history books, and I trust they will now remain with me, and I will always know who they were.

Theresa Breslin, Spy For the Queen of Scots

Not very nice, if looked at from Mary’s point of view. Hard to say if you’d look at them differently if you were Elizabeth, or someone.

I’m still hazy about some of the geography, but could easily picture Mary and her good (if fictional) friend Jenny at Holyrood or Stirling Castle.

The book starts and ends with Mary’s execution, which is a wise decision, since not all readers would know it would end in tears. The story starts in France just before Mary married the Dauphin, eventually becoming Queen of France. There is a poisoner about, and Jenny tries to protect her Queen and best friend.

Sir Duncan Alexander keeps popping up, and Jenny falls in love with him, but she’s never sure whose side he is on. After Mary is widowed they escape to Scotland, where there are even worse wasps’ nests of intrigue than in France. People change allegiance and kill each other at the drop of a hat.

Mary marries again. More than once. Jenny casts longing glances at Sir Duncan, and he at her, but theirs is a slow and uncertain love affair.

I reckon Spy For the Queen of Scots would do very well as a history book in schools. Perhaps with maps and a few other things to back up all the facts, and it should leave most pupils with a good understanding of what happened in the really distant olden days.

It’s interesting how excited you can get reading about imprisonment and escapes and feuds and conspiracies, and the odd poisoning, when you actually know how it must end. And Mary seems quite likeable. I even got the hang of her son James of the two different numbers. I mean I knew already, but now I also understand.


Old ladies

Isn’t it odd how you find you are far more prejudiced than you always thought you were? Annoying to discover, but also more common than we think.

Back in the olden days, when train travel and train tickets weren’t quite what they are now, the Resident IT Consultant had an annual season ticket for his daily commute. One bonus of this was a free day return for two, anywhere in the country. And rather than going somewhere nice a couple of hours away, he needed to get better value. He worked out it was possible to travel from Brighton to Edinburgh and back in one day.

So we did.

One of the things we did in Edinburgh was to look round the Georgian House, which proved far more fascinating than many grander mansions. The room steward in the kitchen was an elderly woman. The kind you like, but immediately write off as an elderly woman.

It was only as she reminisced about some event a year or two earlier, that I heard her say she had graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1924. Being young and stupid my immediate thought was ‘wow, she’s been to university?’ My next thought was, ‘well, why ever not?’ The Resident IT Consultant fared better, being related to an early lady doctor, whereas I come from simpler stock. If you were old enough to go to university in 1920, you wouldn’t have, if you follow my drift?

Spitfire Women

This came back to me as I caught part of an interview on the news recently, when they talked to a female Spitfire pilot, of which there were quite a few during WWII. Of necessity she’d need to be as old now as my Georgian steward was then. It’s just that you don’t think about this as being possible.

Yes, as I found when reading what is still the best book of 2012 – Code Name Verity – there were female pilots in the war. But in the war they were young… Now they’d be little old ladies.

I am deeply ashamed of my thoughts. I am on the way to becoming a little old lady myself.  At least I hope I am. It would beat the alternative, as they say. It’d be nice to think that when the not-too-far-off time comes I could have something to dazzle young ones with, but I doubt it.

Unless that day trip to Scotland counts.

Footie in the Town Hall, and other crazy stuff

OK, so the ball was only foam, but my heart was in my throat during the penalty shoot-out in the Banqueting Room. Wonder what those old gents adorning the walls thought of it? (I’m guessing: ‘Finally something fun to watch!’) The children enjoying some impromptu football after Tom Palmer’s event certainly seemed to think so.

Footie at Manchester Town Hall

It was the Manchester Literature Festival Family Reading Day yesterday, and everything happened at the Town Hall. Very successful format for children’s books, I thought. Nice and central, refined (apart from the inflatable goal Tom brought), and well laid out with one room as the market hall with tables, and space for making Viking longships out of wrapping paper, and the Banqueting Room for the events.

Craft table

Well worth getting up early for, even on a Sunday. But maybe – just maybe – I have attended too many of these if I recognise people’s piercings before the rest of them?

Manchester Children's Book Festival table

First out was Juliet Clare Bell (call her Clare) with her Kite Princess story. Clare made little girls balance books on their heads for better deportment, learning to glide. After which they blew bubbles. Ideas for books are like bubbles. Write them down before they pop. Clare also read Don’t Panic Annika (great name, that), and she talked about toys who brush their teeth. Of course they do…

Juliet Clare Bell blows bubbles

I chatted to Clare afterwards, but forgot to compliment her on her princess-style floaty dress. Would you believe it was her first visit to Manchester? Good thing the city was on its best behaviour, almost meriting that sundress. Not a single fire alarm, thankfully.

Juliet Clare Bell

Clare’s into reading for boys. Getting them to do it. Someone who knows how, is Tom Palmer, who was on later in the day. As with last year’s rugby event, this was great and absolutely perfect for boys. They read, you know. Football magazines and footballer’s biographies and such like. If it’s about sport, they know the answer, which was handy for the quiz Tom did with them.

Penalty shoot-out

And then they put MLF boss Cathy in goal and started the penalty shoot-out. She’s good. So were they. As is Tom when he talks to children. He is less condescending than most adults tend to be. He has a Russian billionnaire who murders football players in his new book series. And he travels to gather new ideas, because he likes writing about other countries, and getting it right. (Tom, about that Norwegian cathedral?)

Tom Palmer

No billionnaire himself, Tom was open with the children and told them how much he gets paid, and that he can’t support his family on what he makes on writing.

White Witch with The Servant

Earlier in the day we had a group of actors tell us about Narnia. The White Witch was there in all her splendour, but she’s not a terribly nice person, is she? Three actors and a wolfhund (might not have been real, actually) covered both the Witch and the Wardrobe, with help from audience volunteers. Not much of a Lion, however. Very popular, with a full room, and people sitting on the floor.

Alex Winters

The day’s highlight for most of the children, and their parents, was Dinnertime Stories with Cerrie Burnell and Alex Winters. And before you ask ‘who?’ I will say CBeebies. These television presenters read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, and two more stories. Famous people and well known books are a winning concept.

Cerrie Burnell - The Wheels on the Bus

We sang The Wheels on the Bus, and discussed how many of us had arrived by camel. Or submarine. And we ran out of time.

So did Sita Brahmachari, who came to talk about her new book Jasmine Skies, but talked a lot about her award-winning first book Artichoke Hearts, as well. Due to some technical hitch (I can so identify with that) she borrowed Clare’s laptop for a while, before Clare had to rush home to Birmingham. But by then we had seen all the lovely family photos of Sita’s inspirational family.

I’m not quite sure how she did it, but before we knew where we were, her hour suddenly came to an end. Sita had some good volunteer strategies, and she read from both books, and then she spent a very long time folding and unfolding a sari. Interesting. Diaries and doodles have a lot to answer for. So does wearing orange. It could have been a trick. Or not.

Sita Brahmachari

Sita is off to Calcutta, to the bookshop where her late father used to sit and study, before he became a doctor. It’s rather nice to think of a bookshop allowing itself to be used as a library.

And then, I have to admit it; I went home. The day was not yet over, but the Bookwitch was very over. And five events out of seven is almost acceptable. I’m sure the Viking event with V Campbell was great. Especially for those who had built their own longships earlier in the day. (I wonder if the V stands for Viking?) The final event was Stanley’s Stick, an Oldham Coliseum Theatre production.


I am of the opinion that the MLF have got it just right. If they could just sell some energy for old ones, it’d be even better.

Wolves, again

It’s autumn. Time for another Joan Aiken Wolf-fest. As I said, wolves appear to be the in thing right now. Jonathan Cape brought out a lovely Wolves of Willoughby Chase last year, and now it’s back in time for the 50th anniversary of the first Wolves. Same edition, but wearing new clothes. This dust jacket is, if possible, even more appealing than the last one.

And to be quite frank, I can find room for lots of Aiken wolves on my shelves. But I won’t review it again, this excellent start to a most wonderful series of books. What I want is for the remaining ten books to magically pop up in this new edition as well. I went back to my emails from last year, and realised I just might have read them wrong. Maybe, just maybe, they said other classics were coming; and not that more Willoughby Chase stories will be re-issued.

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

In that case – please, please, pretty please, change your minds!

Wolves is good, but as I mentioned last year, it is not the best of them. Black Hearts in Battersea is the next one, and is one of the very best, if not the best. And coming second, it wouldn’t be too hard to go there next, would it?

I’m not saying this because I need them. I have every single one, but there will be people who don’t. They need them, whether they know it or not.

There was a vivid discussion in the comments section here several years ago, when I blogged about Dido Twite, one of literature’s feistiest heroines. Even Lizza Aiken joined in, and I learned that The Whispering Mountain is actually a prequel. Which I didn’t know. I am pretty certain it is lurking somewhere, and I must unearth it, even if it involves cleaning and tidying.

Great tidings from the publisher about reissuing the Felix trilogy next year. Lovely. But it doesn’t mean we don’t need Battersea and Simon and Dido. And I don’t know why I found out about the event in Cheltenham one week after it happened. Howl!

Bookwitch bites #90

I’m very grateful to my faithful and hardworking commenters here on Bookwitch. Hence Seana’s link yesterday to a profile of Hilary Mantel in the New Yorker, was most welcome. I was going to say it was surprisingly timely, as well, but I’m guessing it was actually in the paper because of Hilary’s second Man Booker win.

Congratulations! I’m not a Hilary Mantel reader (yet) but I gather she is marvellous. The profile was a thorough and interesting one, and Seana suggested it on account of similarities she could see between Hilary and J K Rowling. Perhaps J K will win the Man Booker at some point in the future. Personally I hope for more children’s books from J K, but you never know.

Somewhere to rub shoulders with great names in the book world, is at next year’s Crimefest in Bristol. I have been reminded that if you book a place before October is out, you can buy it with a discount. And once you have your pass booked, you can also have the hotel booking cheaper. Win-win situation, in which you get all those lovely professional murderers. Just imagine; you too can meet Søren Sveistrup, the man behind Forbrydelsen (The Killing).

What goes on in people’s brains could be interesting, too. Sorry, not people. Teenagers. Slight difference. Nicola Morgan is going to talk brains in Edinburgh next month. She’s good on brains. I was feeling all nice and safe from this lovely event, until I realised I could probably actually be there. But it will be fine. Interesting, and not gruesome. That’s when Nicola operates on people without anesthetics. I pass out and that’s that. This will be most civilised.

The Royal Institution is also about brains. They are making it easier, or more accessible for smaller brains perhaps, with a series of one minute videos. On real subjects!

Lena Hubbard

And to usher in the weekend, here are a pair of almost identical interviews with Swedish singer Lena Andersson. You might prefer the one in English. But should you be feeling adventurous, the Swedish one is here. (They are not identical. Obviously.)

The YouTube clips should have you singing.

The Casual Vacancy

This isn’t one of those the-day-after reviews. I feel The Casual Vacancy required more time to read and digest than a Harry Potter style overnight read. The Casual Vacancy is no Harry Potter, and that’s just as well.

I have to admit that I don’t generally read, or even like, (adult) novels featuring the ghastly lives of sad and bitter people, with the odd bit of romance (hardly any, actually) thrown in. But The Casual Vacancy made for interesting reading, and J K Rowling may be no Dickens, but she does have a way with looking at our society. The Emperor’s New Clothes, kind of thing.

Neither the advance blurb, nor the reviews I glanced at beforehand described adequately what this book is about. I wonder if reviewers read it in too much of a hurry? In which case the publishers were wrong to embargo the novel quite so protectively.

Be that as it may. I quite liked TCV in the end. Pagford is a village seemingly full of unpleasant people, living too close to each other while hating their neighbours, or suspecting them of whatever they prefer to suspect people of. The Fields is where the undesirable and poor live. Barry Fairbrother came from the Fields, and made it to live in Pagford.

And that’s where he dies, on page four. He wanted the best for the Fields, but no one else seems to.

You want to believe that by the end of the novel some poor soul will have a better and happier life through some marvellous development or other. This might count as a ‘Dumbledore is dead’ kind of spoiler, but what you’d expect to happen in real life happens.

I think we – occasionally – need books that tell it as it is, with no fairy tale ending. I trust the kind of lifestyle J K has portrayed in both the Fields and in Pagford is worse than real life, but I’m not hopeful. I know I am pretty much like several of the women in TCV, and not in a flattering way, either. I went to school with teenagers like the Pagford/Fields ones.

There are four likeable characters in the book, which isn’t bad going for this neighbourhood.

It’d be great if something changed because people have read TCV. I don’t believe it will, but I’d like it to.

(The many brackets drove me bananas, but that might be a result of editing. Too many and too long. And I doubt that dyslexia prevents you from becoming bilingual.)

Rosalind and the Little Deer

This is an Elsa Beskow story I didn’t know. I am guessing it’s because it has only recently become a book, even in Swedish. The pictures are obviously Beskow originals from almost a hundred years ago, but maybe they haven’t appeared in book form until now.

Elsa Beskow, Rosalind and the Little Deer

Rosalind is a little girl who, with the help of her grandfather, writes (draws) a story. It is about Rosalind, who has a little deer. The deer is accidentally frightened and runs off, and is captured by a wicked King, as creatures often are in picture books.

The deer refuses to eat and there is a reward for managing to feed it. And eventually things happen much in the standard picture book way; after a bad start, things work out in the end.

While, for me, the pictures don’t have quite the same magic as the ones from my childhood, I suspect this is the reason. Elsa Beskow should be enjoyed at a young age, and you will always feel that special tug at your heart, no matter how old you are. This will do the same for today’s young readers, tomorrow.