Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Commonwealth course

For some reason the student witch joined a Commonwealth literature course at university, back in the early 1980s. Or was it late 1970s? With no right to sit the exam (I had already passed the level at which it was set), I only joined the classroom discussions every week, presumably thinking it’d broaden my mind. Or something.

That’s where I was introduced to books by people I’d never heard of before, including Chinua Achebe. We read Things Fall Apart, which I don’t remember anything of, except that I didn’t understand it very well. I’ve always had this thing that I need to know where characters are coming from, and I didn’t know Africa at all.

Other authors included Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Canadian Mordecai Richler (whom the Resident IT Consultant found in the bookcase only the other day, and said he’d never heard of) and a couple of Australians, like David Malouf and David Ireland. Indian authors such as R K Narayan and Anita Desai. I’ve probably forgotten some, but it was only for one term, so the list won’t have been too long.

It was good, because these were the days when – even more than now – I stuck to what I knew. And these I didn’t know. Some, like Narayan, I simply could not get on with. At the time I almost wondered why I did it. I’m guessing it’s so that now I can know a little of what the world has lost with the death of Chinua Achebe.

Not being a native English speaker it was difficult to grasp how English was used back then, by people who had other first languages. And I suspect I expected anyone who wrote in English to somehow write as though they were English.

In more recent years, when seeing photos of Chinua Achebe, I’ve always been struck by how much he looked like my Uncle. Not skin colour, obviously, but apart from that. It made me feel closer, and occasionally I have wondered if I ought to re-read what I didn’t quite get in those days.

(I looked up my then tutor, Britta Olinder, to see what  she’s up to these days. I remembered that she did her PhD on Dryden, but after that it seems as if she has stuck to her Commonwealth literature. Good to know I was in good hands. I mean, I knew that even then, but I like having it confirmed. Intrigued to see I narrowly missed meeting Salman Rushdie.)


Bookwitch bites #104

Waterstones Children's Book Prize Winner Annabel Pitcher

When Jimmy Savile trumps US murderers, you know it’s a strange world. Very pleased for Annabel Pitcher who has gone and won something yet again. Her Ketchup Clouds won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize this week. ‘Unsettling’ story is how the press release described it. Then I read in the paper that Annabel had had a narrow escape, by abandoning plans to have her heroine write letters to Mr Savile. Death row prisoner is nowhere as awful.

El Mundo es Nuestro is about another world. Daughter and I went to see this Spanish film at Cornerhouse on Monday night, enjoying both it and the Q&A with the actors and the director and the producer that followed. The world the film is about is the [imagined] financial crisis in Spain (this was in 2009), and it is very funny. It’s been ignored by Spanish television, presumably because you don’t talk about stuff like this.

Alfonso Sánchez

The actors were relieved to find the Manchester audience laughed at the same things as they did. In fact, they have a facebook page where they were quite interested to see what the ‘English journalist’ thought of the film. (That’s me, btw…) What I think I’m trying to say here, is that we are more alike than we think. And it’s good to have learned languages, especially when visiting actors do their Q&A in Spanish. (Not to mention the DVD the week before that came sans subtitles. But ‘anyone’ can watch Spanish OAPs learn about sex…)

I did a book review over on CultureWitch yesterday. It felt more appropriate doing it there since it was the 1986 autobiography of Roger Whittaker, So far, so good, and it was Roger’s 77th birthday yesterday. I reflected on how much easier buying books from across the other side of the world is today, than back when I needed to find it (a local bookshop said they would, but failed).

On discovering Mr Decorator working down the road from Bookwitch Towers, I summoned him to come and relieve me of more books. The poor man staggered out of the house with another three bags of reading material. Not only am I trying to keep track of his children’s ages, but I’m targetting their cousins, too. Baad witch.

Lucy Hawking and Helen Giles

After a pretty lengthy delay* since she conducted her interview with Lucy Hawking, Daughter has now published their January chat. The additional wonderful news is that Lucy and her Dad are writing another two books about George. That’s the thing about trilogies. Some are longer than others.

And now Daughter’s off to chase more scientists in Edinburgh. The Science Festival begins today.

*Random House needed time to formalise all the Georgian plans before they were released.

The Big O as an e

It’s his birthday tomorrow. That’s why I’m letting Declan Burke have two reviews in one and the same week.

I’ve already reviewed* The Big O. It was back in 2007, when I didn’t know what to make of this Irishman with his entertaining blog. Could he write crime novels?

He could. And for anyone who is now feeling traumatised after reading Slaughter’s Hound (if you haven’t had time yet; don’t worry. You will feel in need of something lighter), The Big O is just the thing for you.

As good, but less bloody. The characters swear, and they commit crimes, but the tale is more humorous than brutal.

The paper version of The Big O is long gone. And Declan found it was hard to interest people in its sequel when there was no way of reading the first book. Hence the move to a new ebook. I think it’s an opportunity you should take. If only because it will then ease your way to reading Crime Always Pays. The sequel. Which is even better. And funnier.

Declan Burke, The Big O (ebook cover)

I know what you are thinking. That witch is besotted. But then, so is Eoin Colfer. I’m in good company. Join us?

*Please note. Back then I didn’t imagine there would be much more Irish crime for me to read. Hah!

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.


(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.


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