Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Lost Boy

I was just about to reply to the email about Camilla Läckberg’s latest novel, The Lost Boy, saying that I don’t really read Swedish crime in translation, when the Resident IT Consultant said very pointedly that he would like to read her. So I reversed my plans and let him have the book. I have heard a lot about Camilla’s writing, but if truth be told, I read hardly any Swedish books these days.

Over to my guest reviewer:

“I hadn’t read any of Camilla Läckberg’s crime novels before, so I was interested to get the opportunity to read her latest book in her Patrik Hedström series set in Bohuslän, north of Gothenburg.

Mats Sverin, financial director on a regeneration project worth millions, is found murdered. As Tanum police investigate, the plot thickens and Mats’ universal popularity seems to hide a mysterious past which draws in all the characters.

I found it a little hard to get started. There’s a large cast of characters and I did not find it easy to remember who was who. Probably if I’d read the other novels in the series this wouldn’t matter. But the novel is twice the length of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s first crime novel and I did wonder whether it could have been a little shorter.

Camilla Läckberg, The Lost Boy

I liked the picture it painted of the Swedish West Coast. The book is called The Lighthouse Keeper in Swedish and I found it reminded me of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle. Otherwise the novel contains many of the features we’ve learnt to become familiar with in Swedish crime: drugs, domestic abuse, a motorcycle gang, a suicide and an archipelago. These are almost becoming a stereotype for Nordic crime.

As the plot developed I got more drawn in and I read the final two thirds of the book much faster than I had read the first third. Everything came to a satisfactory conclusion in the end.

Would I read another? Probably yes, and I assume more knowledge of the key characters would make a second novel an easier read.”

Yes, I always find it hard starting in the middle of a series. If the author explains what has gone before, I get bored. If they don’t, I get annoyed. No pleasing some…

Happy Birthday Vi!

The young Witch found Vi magazine pretty boring. It was the kind of thing old people read. I wanted colour and fun and Vi didn’t offer much of that. But that was OK. Old people need their stuff, too.

‘Everyone’ around me had it. I can’t say they subscribed, because Vi was (is) the Coop magazine in Sweden. Back then, you collected your receipts and handed them in for your annual membership dividend, and on the envelope you could tick if you wanted Vi. That’s why Mother-of-witch and all her siblings and the neighbours and everyone in the whole world read Vi.

As I got older I, too, caught the bug. I was older quite early, in my late teens. I liked the recipes and the knitting patterns and stuff. (Let’s face it; I was boring.)

At the age of 21 I spent a year at the University of Sussex, and my – own – subscription to Vi followed me there. You can’t go for almost a year and not read Vi! One of my fellow students found out I had Vi there, and I can still recall the pitying look she gave me. (Her name is long forgotten.)

It came with me to Brighton once more, when the Resident IT Consultant and I moved there. More need for recipes, and for generally keeping track of what went on in Sweden and in the world.

I did have to give it up for a while, in more recent years, when I felt the annual subscription (no longer available by ticking anything at all) with postage abroad became a bit steep. School Friend gave me hers when she was done with them. But it’s hard to go without your own, so I’ve been back as a subscriber for some time now. When the bill comes, I simply close my eyes and pay.

Cover of Vi, June 2012

And now, today, Vi is 100 years old. Everyone I know does not read it any more, but those who matter do. As for the Retired Children’s Librarian who needs to be frugal, but who likes crosswords, I send them to her.

No need to pity me. Vi is what keeps me vaguely informed both about the old country, but also about the rest of the world, when the British press forget that there are more places than the UK, and maybe the US.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

(I like the cover above. It features former party leaders for Labour, Communists and – I think – Greens. These ladies enjoy each other’s company, and are not above posing in this royal fashion, and one of them brought her toddler with her, because it was her day to look after her. And there is an article about eating porridge.)

Slaughter’s Hound

This Sligo Noir novel turned out to be noirer than expected. It is very good, and extremely well written, and it’s funny in parts, and it’s intelligent. But it is noir. No getting away from it.

Phew.

I survived, but that’s more than can be said for some of the characters. Several of them die, and quite spectacularly so. I’m not sure how anyone can come up with some of the graphic ways of killing people, or the descriptions of what you can do to a human being without actually killing them.

But I suppose that’s what makes a good author, being able to write about that which (I sincerely hope) we haven’t experienced in real life. Declan Burke is a very good writer. I know I keep going on about that, but he is. Even when noir.

Declan Burke, Slaughter's Hound

Harry Rigby from Eightball Boogie is back. It’s been a while, and he’s done time for you-know-what. (If you don’t, you will read Eightball Boogie first, before being allowed Slaughter’s Hound.) He’s quite likeable for someone not very likeable, and he has surprisingly good taste in women.

In this book he watches his friend Finn fall from nine floors up, flattening his taxi on landing. So he really has to find out how Finn came to fall, and why. Most people seem to think Harry pushed him.

It’s a complicated tale of art and drugs and an old death, played out in the shadow of what’s left of the Irish economy. Harry has to contend with rich women, crazy women, angry ones, and also some pretty dubious men, such as the police and lawyers.

Harry’s adopted son Ben has got older and is having trouble at school. Ben’s mother expects Harry to behave honourably and do the proper Dad thing. But with bad guys on your heels, there is less time for fatherhood than there should be.

As with Declan’s other novels, Greece plays a part in the plot, and as you can tell from the title, there is a doggy, too.

If you can take the gruesomeness, this book is one of the best. A lot of people have been saying so, and I can confirm they’re right. But you might want to look for something splashproof to wear for when the blood starts to flow.

Meeting Fletcher Moss

I suppose it’s safer this way. Instead of Poison Boy author Fletcher Moss coming to Bookwitch Towers for coffee, he has opted to meet us on neutral ground. Sensible man. You never know when someone will next want to poison you. Not giving away his real name, is another thing. Fletcher is assistant head at a local school, and wants to ‘keep it secret.’ I’m not sure this is possible, or even necessary. Pupils ought to love having a real live author for their English teacher. Someone who knows their stuff.

(For any Mancunian who has already thought that the name Fletcher Moss sounds familiar – but odd – it’s because he’s taken the name of a park in Didsbury. The park in turn, was named after Alderman Fletcher Moss, and the new Fletcher says he wants to pay homage to the old one.)

Fletcher Moss

However, the neutral ground idea backfires when it turns out that the Waterstones coffee machine is broken. As for choosing his name, Fletcher has worked out this could have been a mistake, too. His books will have to sit next to Michael Morpurgo’s… You should always think ahead.

(That’s what I did the night before, putting the book where I’d remember to take it with me in the morning. In the morning it wasn’t there. After giving the matter some thought, I worked out the Resident IT Consultant must have ‘borrowed’ it. He had. I borrowed it back.)

As the photographer and I stand in the café searching for a brand new author-cum-teacher poison expert, Fletcher – at least we think it’s him – appears, pushing an empty pushchair, and asks if we are who he’s meeting. We say we think so, and he goes off to find drinks that aren’t coffee. The pushchair belongs to young Miss Moss who has wandered off to discover new picture books with Mrs Moss while we talk with Dad. (I gather The Worst Princess found favour.)

While the photographer stirs the tea, Fletcher thanks me for my review of The Poison Boy, and I say how relieved I was to find I liked it, having worried about what I’d do if I hated the book. And then I ask about everything there is to do with winning competitions and turning into an author, and all the work that comes with it.

Fletcher Moss

For one thing, Chicken House have had Fletcher change a lot about the book. They loved the end, but felt it was in the wrong place. (It now comes about a third into the story.) He had too many characters. It was a case of simplify, simplify. The politics had to go. Fletcher couldn’t help wondering how he won the competition, with so much editing being necessary. But he says the first chapter was always the first chapter. And he found he had been rather too fond of the word ‘caked.’ At one point it was absolutely everywhere.

Although, after ending his book with a cliffhanger, Fletcher has had second thoughts about whether there will be a sequel. He’s got ‘one or two ideas that [he’s] quite excited about’ and he does like Eyesdown as a character. There could be a book about him.

Fletcher is very happy with the support he’s had from his publisher, and is more than a little impressed to have spoken after Melvin Burgess at a recent Chicken House launch. Fletcher once organised a school trip to Preston to hear Melvin talk, and here they were, as equals…

Combining the ‘assistant heading’ and teaching with writing and editing a book sounds like gruelling work, and he says ‘you need to be so disciplined.’ Fletcher wrote the book by doing 1500 words every Sunday for a year. He goes to a writing group one evening a week. In between he thinks about what he will write when he next sits down at his computer. He reckons he’s a 65,000 word book kind of writer.

At the end of our chat I ask Fletcher to sign my copy of The Poison Boy. He looks a little embarrassed and explains he’ll need to practise on something first, just so he knows what he’s doing. I offer my note pad and after a bit of scribbling; ‘I’ve got it nailed!’ (On the off-chance that Barry Cunningham has indeed found the successor to J K Rowling, I will hang on to the piece of paper. Might pay for a new kitchen one day.)

‘I want the book to be a success’ he says, before we take him down to the children’s books department and stand him where he belongs. Next to Morpurgo.

Fletcher Moss

Bookwitch bites #103

Close encounters.

Daughter had a busy Friday. Not only was she expected to do normal lectures, but I had said she’d be better off travelling ‘home’ that day and not waste all Saturday on a train. Not that time on a train is wasted. Then they (uni) decided to serve up a lecture by Chris Lintott Friday morning, and not content with a mere lecture, she acted on the insanity that runs in our family and requested an interview.

So, that was one tall, famous person. Once on the train she phoned to tell me her favourite children’s illustrator was sitting further along in the same coach. I told her to go talk to him. She phoned back later to say she chickened out. I said, was she sure it was him? She said there can’t be too many men carrying a Tracy Beaker bag. She’s probably right. So that was tall man number two.

Then she arrived ‘home’ and after barely any sleep, I forced her to travel on another train, all the way to Manchester, early Saturday morning. It was time for encounter number three. (We only have a week. Much has to be crammed into it.)

We had arranged to meet Fletcher Moss in the café at Waterstones Deansgate. It’s quite fun arranging to meet a pseudonym somewhere public. We allowed this man who came up to say he was meeting someone there to buy us a pot of tea. It seemed like more than a coincidence. He was probably ‘Fletcher.’

He was tall, but not as tall as the other two.

There will be more on Lintott & Moss another day. (They’d make good solicitors.)

Sweet and refreshing

After reading Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, I know so much more. Having ‘met’ that Peel chap in Terry’s book, I now understand what and who he was, and also why his men were peelers. Before, I only knew they were the police, just like the Bow Street Runners.

But still.

The Resident IT Consultant brought home some peelers the other day. They are (or at least were decribed as) seedless and easy. Also refreshing and sweet. Lovely policemen, in other words, and not in the slightest seedy – unlike their customers – and easy (perhaps like some of their clientele).

They came from Waitrose. Can you tell what was on my shopping list yet? Because it doesn’t actually say on the numerous labels of these peelers what they are. They are described, but they are sweet and easy whatsits?

Nadorcott, to be precise. Size 64 to 69 mm, class 1. And they taste fine.

My shopping list had the word clementines on it. I needed to google to see whether that’s what the Resident IT Consultant brought home.

According to one, he did: ‘A high quality, mid to late-maturing Clementine. Easy- peeling with great depth of flavour and sweetness, with a good acidity balance.’ The next entry offers a slight difference of opinion: ‘A new variety of Mandarin Tangerine, … the fruit is easy peeling with a superior rind and juice color.’

So, a clementine. Or possibly a mandarin. Or tangerine. One of those orangey things.

Why not say so on the label? It feels weird to tell myself I’m eating a peeler, however sweet and seedless. The label even mentions love life. Whose?

(As for the small print, ‘all care is taken but on rare occasions fruit may contain seeds.’ Meaning someone was meant to de-seed and might have missed a few? Also ‘wash before use.’ I’m generally clean. And I peel the peelers. So what wants washing?)

The Poison Boy

It begins with an unpleasant death, continues with a chase, followed by a little nudity. From then on you just want to read and read.

I’ve been a wee bit cynical about writing competitions to find new talent, but I have to admit to being wrong very occasionally. Fletcher Moss and his debut novel The Poison Boy are more than worthy winners of last year’s Times children’s fiction competition.

Fletcher Moss, The Poison Boy

This is close to being a perfect book. The plot, featuring a boy who tastes food ‘for a living’ is unusual and refreshing. Perhaps the adventure that follows the death by poison on the first page is a familiar one, but it’s executed so well and it makes for extremely pleasurable reading.

The characters are interesting, and the world in which they live is just that little bit different from other historical fantasies. Nothing outlandish, but simply very satisfying. Just how I like my reading!

Dalton Fly is the poison boy who survives, and he and his colleague Sal Sleepwell work to find out what – and who – killed their friend Bennie. Rich girl Scarlet Dropmore ends up helping them, and soon they are racing against time to save more lives, while trying to understand why all this is happening in their city.

It’s a fascinating subject, this poison business. You take a little poison regularly, the better to survive when you accidentally eat too much of it, for someone else. But it’s still pretty gruesome.

There is a pleasing symmetry to the plot, and there will have to be a sequel, but even that didn’t upset me. I’m looking forward to it, especially because Fletcher left us hanging in mid-air so elegantly.

Silent Saturday

I loved Silent Saturday. I also loved Helen Grant’s earlier German novels, but something tells me I love this one even more. Silent Saturday is the first of Helen’s new Belgian trilogy, and if a horror thriller can be described as comfortable, then this is it.

Helen Grant, Silent Saturday

Set in and around Tervuren on the outskirts of Brussels, it begins with seven-year-old Veerle seeing something which scares her very very badly. It was so bad that ten years later she has forgotten all about it. But then her past seemingly comes back to haunt her, and her childhood friend Kris, who was with her when whatever it was happened.

Now she is in love with Kris, and she happily joins him and his group of associates in breaking into people’s houses when they are away. They only do this for the thrill, to see something new and, supposedly, to ‘put something back’ by doing simple repairs.

Before long, things start to go wrong. Members of the group disappear. Dead bodies are found in various places. And they only have one thing in common. The housebreakers.

What to do? If you are breaking the law, you won’t be so keen on talking to the police.

Veerle has problems at home, too. Her mother is extremely clingy, and sees monsters everywhere. The thing is, there could well be monsters, and close by…

Great – and different – setting in what feels like ‘the real Belgium,’ featuring the language gap between the two official languages. Good use of Flemish swearing, or at least I believe it is.

Go find a sofa to hide behind. Not that it will help, but you’ll be under the impression that you’re in control.

After Tomorrow

By turning a situation round 180 degrees, you could find you don’t agree with yourself. If I were not an immigrant, I would most likely find it easier to cast a suspicious eye on all those foreigners flocking to Britain. Heaven on earth, and everyone made so welcome, too. What’s not to like?

Besides, the other lot aren’t quite as nice as we are.

Gillian Cross has done this. She sends her characters in After Tomorrow to France. The situation in the UK is desperate. Food is scarce and anyone caught hoarding gets rough treatment from gangs of raiders; their food taken, their homes smashed up and people injured, raped and even killed. There is a website naming the Scadgers, telling others where they live.

Matt’s family are branded scadgers, and his grandfather dies after one such attack. His mother and stepfather make belated arrangements to leave the country and escape to France before they close their borders to the British.

(When I’d got this far I felt more anxious than ever while reading ‘mere’ fiction. I began calculating what I had in my freezer. First with a view to survival eating it, and then with fear because someone would come and punish me for it. I was halfway to leaving the country myself. Where to, though? Who would have me? Yes, I know. But perhaps that would no longer be possible.)

Gillian Cross, After Tomorrow

Some of them get away, on what is virtually the last lorry convoy to leave. And on arrival they find only those with children are allowed in. People scheme and lie in order not to be sent back. They have no food to begin with. Nowhere to sleep.

Eventually there is a refugee camp set up, of the simplest kind. They are given food vouchers to shop for. Bartering becomes a new way of surviving. Matt brought his grandfather’s bike, and the lorry driver who drove them to France has grand ideas for it.

The locals hate and distrust them. Most of the refugees don’t speak French. Most don’t want to learn, either.

Now, take all these facts and change the nationalites. Even you, who are normally so fair minded, might think it sounds perfectly normal and only to be expected. But not if it’s you in that muddy field, needing antibiotics that you can’t afford. If the doctor gets there on time.

How far away are we from this kind of scenario on our doorsteps? Sometimes I think we are almost all the way to it. I hope not. And I still can’t decide whether to fill my freezer some more, or to eat most of the food.

Just in case.

Binny for Short

By the time I got to Joseph I was crying. It’s the kind of effect Hilary McKay can have on you, and I really had not seen what came coming. And I’m sort of glad. I’d only come across one review of Binny for Short, and to be on the safe side I’d only squinted at it sideways. Briefly. You don’t want your Hilary McKay books to be ruined, however well-meaningly it’s done.

You want to enjoy them whole-heartedly, by yourself, and if the phone doesn’t ring when you have ten pages to go, so much the better.

Hilary McKay, Binny for Short

I’m coming to the conclusion that Hilary can’t write bad books. Binny is no Casson. She’s a Cornwallis, and this is another wonderful McKay family. Hilary has no need to kill off parents to be rid of them. Simply by being so very nice – yes, nice – and so different, they make their stories totally unique.

Binny’s father dies (sorry about that, but he was old), and her new dog has to go and she is heartbroken. With her lovely mother, and her equally lovely older sister Clem, and sweet younger brother James, she starts moving around. A lot. They have to.

Because she was the one who got rid of Binny’s beloved dog, Binny hates her Aunty Violet with a passion (I’d like to be Binny’s mother, but suspect I’d be Aunty Violet), and anything connected with her is bad.

I didn’t mean that Hilary doesn’t kill off characters. She does, and quite quickly, too. But the Cornwallis family need somewhere to live for the duration of this book, and they couldn’t have ended up in a better place. Mrs C finds a job, Clem works hard at everything and James is in heaven. Binny makes an enemy, which she finds most satisfying.

And in the midst of the charming day-to-day happenings, Binny has a bigger adventure, which carries through the book from the start, before you know why or what. As I said, I didn’t see it coming, but just let myself be lulled into this comfortable place, knowing that somehow everything would make sense.

They are just so nice! And so is the book. And I know the author ‘shouldn’t matter’ but I would guess, so is Hilary McKay. You can’t write this kind of thing and not be. Her writing is sheer genius in its simplicity.