Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Unicorn Hunter

It was only as I studied the cover of Che Golden’s second faerie book, The Unicorn Hunter, that the penny dropped. I’d been thinking the cover was fantastic, but also that it made Maddy, the heroine, look too old. She looks a cool 14, while she’s really only ten. I think. She acts more like 14, too. But back to the cover illustration. If you have Maddy looking ten years old, and add a picture of a unicorn, and if you made it pinker, it would be something straight out of My Little Pony.

Thank goodness for cool looks.

Che Golden, The Unicorn Hunter

A year has passed since Maddy and her cousins Roisin and Danny went over to the other side to find a snatched human boy. Halloween – the day when the boundaries can be breached – is almost here again and a unicorn has been attacked. Someone has to find out who did it, and that someone is Maddy.

To be honest, I’d been wondering if another adventure meant it would be the same as before, with the children popping across and dealing with the faeries. I was relieved to find that most of the excitement takes place in the real world, in Blarney, and things managed to get quite heated and dangerous before any trips through the mound.

Those faeries can be quite vicious. But Maddy can be quite difficult, if she puts her mind to it, and her cousins are pretty useful helpers, despite being ‘normal.’

Maddy is under pressure to make a deal with one of the faerie houses. Her grandfather does his best to keep her safe. But what can one old man do against Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn?

This is nothing like My Little Pony.

I’ll be waiting for the last in the trilogy. There is an ‘Aunt Petunia’ moment coming up. Bound to be good.

The Dragonsitter Takes Off

Despite my non-pet leanings we once pet-sat a goldfish for some neighbours. The father (of the girl owner, not of the goldfish) indicated ‘discreetly’ that he would not be heartbroken if the goldfish snuffed it during their fortnight away. I had imagined a goldfish would be about as perfect for looking after as you could get. Enjoying that glowing feeling of doing someone a small service, while little fishy swam around in its bowl. Trouble is, that’s what it did. Swam. Opened and closed its little mouth, leaving me thinking it was desperately trying to tell me something, and failing. It was a relief to hand him (her?) back.

So I can totally see what it must have been like for little Edward Smith-Pickle minding his Uncle’s dragon, in Josh Lacey’s new book. He has to send email after email with bad tidings. The main problem being that Uncle Morton has gone to a retreat and is almost internet-less.

Josh Lacey, The Dragonsitter Takes Off

First Ziggy goes missing. Then Ziggy is found in the linen cupboard. It also appears that Ziggy might not be a male. So you can probably work out what Ziggy was doing in the linen cupboard.

Yes, there is soon the pitter-patter of little dragon feet. And soon there is also the earthquake of visiting, cast-out dragon Dad.

Edward’s Mum bonds surprisingly well with her dragon counterpart. Old films and chocolates are always good, even when you’re sitting in your post-dragon visit wreck of a house.

OK, so I know this is a short book for young readers. But I loved it. Was slightly miffed to find out there had been another book before this one, which I HAVE MISSED.

The Felix trilogy

Should publishers keep re-issuing old books? Are they trying to make easy money, or are they catering to a need for classic stories?

Joan Aiken’s Felix trilogy is definitely the kind of reading material you can never have enough of. It’s got everything; adventure of almost every kind you could dream of, friendship, romance, history, travel. Ten years ago when I’d worked my way through the Willoughby Chase novels, one by one, I was desperate for more Joan Aiken, so happily moved on to Felix when I noticed him on the shelves.

How lucky I was to have found that branch of the well known chain that actually stocked these books. So many shops didn’t. Yes, you could order the books, but first you’d need to know of their existence.

Joan Aiken, Go Saddle the Sea

Go Saddle the Sea, Bridle the Wind, and The Teeth of the Gale have recently been re-issued, with great new covers that I hope will appeal to new readers, or to those older people (although old people could obviously also enjoy them) who buy books for young readers.

Joan Aiken, Bridle the Wind

To me these books are timeless, and every generation needs them. Joan wrote them over a period of ten years (actually I don’t know that. They were originally published over ten years, though) and looking at it from the future, where no waiting is necessary, I can’t help but feel it might be better that way. It’s the constant push for sequels every year that could sometimes make for less than perfect books.

I don’t know. But perhaps a good story needs maturing?

Joan Aiken, The Teeth of the Gale

Anyway, this isn’t a review as such. I only want to get more people interested in Felix, who like many other heroes is an orphan, poor, treated cruelly, and who travels from Spain to England to find his ‘family and background’, has good and bad things happen to him, after which there is more travelling, incarceration, love, and a return of sorts to his roots. He grows up, and so do we.

It’s lovely.

Bookwitch bites #109

If my bites didn’t already have such an excellent title, I’d call today’s post Hoffman & McGowan. It’s got a nice ring to it. Solicitors. Or television cops. Yes, that’s more like it.

Ladies first, so we’ll go to Mary Hoffman who has a new website design. Again, you could say, but that’s OK. Mary has been writing books for a while, and needs to go through a few web designs. They are like shoes. You must have them. They wear out. And with so many books, Mary simply has to be able to organise all the information sensibly. And beautifully. Like the shoes.

We’re not leaving Mary yet. Earlier this month she wrote this beautiful blog post on the History Girls blog about her mother-in-law. I find it fascinating to read about the lives of ‘reasonably ordinary’ people. Because once you start looking at an individual, you soon discover that many people have something special or exciting in their past.

The Knife That Killed Me

On to Anthony McGowan, who is excited about his upcoming film. Or more correctly, the upcoming film of one of his books; The Knife That Killed Me. I gather it’s just appeared at Cannes, which in itself is pretty exciting. I’m a little wary of knives, so I don’t know how I feel about watching the film. I found the build-up in the book almost unbearable. Well done, but hard to cope with.

And from the topic of knives, it’s a short step to bullying, and to another couple of ‘solicitors/cops;’ Morgan & Massey.

Nicola Morgan blogged about cyber bullying on the Huffington Post. And about teenage stress, also on Huffington. (I suppose I need to find out how to get blogging there…)

Finally, awards time! You remember how I mentioned David Massey a couple of weeks ago? Like, he was at the Chicken House breakfast, and I helped myself to a copy of his book Torn? Now he’s just gone and won the Lancashire Book of the Year, which just proves I move in the right chicken circles. The ceremony isn’t yet (can’t find when…), but the announcement came yesterday.

Walker Books and a witch with wet hands

As usual it was a case of waving your hands (or in this case, my hands) under the drier for absolutely forever, wipe them on your clothes, or go wet, hoping there’d be no hands to shake. You can guess which I chose, and what happened next, can’t you?

I was at the presentation of Walker Books’ and Constable & Robinson’s Autumn Highlights in Manchester on Wednesday evening, when I came face to face with Jo for the first time, and had to quickly get out of the handshaking she had in mind. This flustered me so much I forgot to mention my name. (But everyone knows me, right?) Besides, I’d already got the decrepit old woman treatment. Staff at the venue saw me negotiating the steps outside (which had NO handrail) and quickly bundled me into the lift before I caused more trouble.

Wally bag

Super-Jake was there, but I forgot to check his footwear. Representatives of our local LitFest and bookshops and that most Wondrous of blogs could also be seen. I was quite restrained prior to the talk, as I noticed there were partybags in one corner, which meant I did no stealing or anything beforehand.

Constable & Robinson went first, and I’d not realised that books on prescription, which I have heard of, is for non-fiction self-help type books, rather than patients being made to feel better after a dose of Pride and Prejudice…

They are big on halogen oven books. (Don’t ask.) They are the leaders in cosy crime. You can have books on WWII pets for Christmas. Obviously. C & R have begun offering children’s books, and they had an instructive video on how to fight zombies. (Head removal is recommended.) Gross. Shaun Ryder on UFOs. (It would have helped if I knew who Shaun Ryder is.) Joan Collins is nearly 80, in case you wanted to know. They have a book titled Going on a Bar Hunt. Droll.

This being very much a presentation for booksellers, I now know a lot more about which books are commercial, something I rarely consider in my narrow little world. There will be joke books for Christmas. And they have just begun a relationship with Brian McGilloway, who I am very interested in.

Vivian French bookmark

On to Walker Books, who are planning a picture book party. I think that means they have lots of picture books to offer. Vivian French has something new going; Stargirl Academy. Looks good. Pink. Anthony Browne is a Marmite author, which I can understand. That gorilla still scares me.

Cassandra Clare was there last year, before she grew so big that she doesn’t do this kind of talk. She has a film on the way. Nice for her.

Walker have travel guides, and there is new stuff for fans of GHMILY (Guess How Much I Love You books). Mumsnet have done a story collection. In fact, I reckon there is one thing parents want more than anything else. They want their children to fall asleep. Lots of books for that purpose.

Manatees and bears. A book about someone pecking (I’m thinking – hoping – woodpecker) all the way through.  Going on a Bear Hunt is out again. Michael Morpurgo will be 70, and four of his books are being re-issued, including one about funny old men who are famous artists.

Speaking of funny, Tommy Donbavand has a new series called Fangs. Walker are really really really really thrilled to be working with Anthony McGowan and his new book Hello Darkness. Patrick Ness wasn’t there except on video, where he did his best to sound interesting while not giving too much away about his new novel More Than This. His Chaos trilogy, meanwhile, is being revamped for old people.

My notes say ‘spider skeleton.’ I think there’s a book about things like spider skeletons. Kate DiCamillo and her dog spoke to us all the way from their Minneapolis dining room. While the dog made dog noises, Kate told us about her mother’s obsession with her 1952 vacuum cleaner and what would happen to it after she died. Kate’s new book Flora and Ulysses also features squirrels.

Anthony Horowitz has finally come to the end of his Power of Five books, so has had time to write Russian Roulette, the Alex Rider prequel he has had in mind for absolutely ages. He is quite satisfied with it.

Lizzy Bennet (I apologise for sounding so informal) wrote a diary in her pre-Darcy days, which will give us an opportunity to find out all kinds of stuff.

Finally, Walker are publishing the Little Island imprint, which is foreign fiction. I spied a Swedish title in among the covers they showed us, and think it’s high time there are more books from other countries.

Walker Books autumn books

As you can see, they had a lot to tell us. They hadn’t rehearsed, so were surprised to find it took them so long. But at the end there were canapés and more drinks and even a few authors; Steve Tasane, Sarah Webb and Katy Moran. Someone else, too. At least I think there was.

Wally bag

I grabbed my partybag and hobbled away home. There was NO handrail on the way out either…

Mortal Fire

Let me tell you, I have had to twist arms to get this review. My very dear friend L Lee Löwe reads a lot and she reads well, and she has a lot of opinions on all that she reads. But she has this strange notion about writing reviews. She thinks they have to be good. So there is no problem, because this is a good review. Both in the respect of it being favourable, but mostly because it is well written.

I know very little about Elizabeth Knox, but she happens to be a favourite of Lee’s. I know that much, because when I sent Daughter to her for a visit, she returned home with a copy of one of Elizabeth’s books, and simply had to buy the next one… And the trouble is, after reading the excerpt from Mortal Fire, I happen to think it looks really very tempting.

Before I ado even more, here is the review:

“In a perfect world, we’d all be canny. Or Canny, the heroine of Elizabeth Knox’s latest YA novel, Mortal Fire. Canny is a 16-year-old maths prodigy whose genius is matched by her loyalty to her only friend, Marli, a polio victim confined to an iron lung, and by her own uncanny ability to see Extra – ‘cryptic letters salted like frost between a certain pair of gate posts, or floating like thistledown above the grandstand when she was at the racetrack with Marli’s family’, a script only Canny sees yet whose purpose has always been incomprehensible to her. A fully stand-alone story, Mortal Fire is set in the same alternate South Pacific world as Knox’s award-winning and well-loved Dreamhunter Duet, but about 50 years later.

Canny is obliged by her famously fierce mother and professor father to accompany her stepbrother Sholto and his girlfriend to a remote region of Southland, where they chance upon the Zarene Valley. Canny is left to her own devices while Sholto researches an earlier, and increasingly suspicious, mining disaster for his father. There is magic in the valley, and Canny soon recognises its affinity with her own Extra. As if driven by the power of her name – ‘canny’ derives, via Scots, from the Old English word ‘cunnan’ – she is determined to know more. Once she encounters the reclusive and hostile Zarene family, who use magic signs to protect themselves and their valley, and then the intriguing 17-year-old Ghislain, imprisoned in a house since 1929 by a powerful spell which keeps him from ageing, she learns just how powerful her own magic can be.

Elizabeth Knox, Mortal Fire

And it takes the magic of a fine writer to bring characters as complex, idiosyncratic, and infuriating as Knox’s to life. She writes with a lushness about the natural world which at times can be overwhelming, but we never doubt that we are right there in the valley, struggling  alongside Canny to discover her true nature and use it to free the many prisoners in Mortal Fire – her friend Marli, Ghislain, the Zarenes themselves. Life is indeed as intricate as Knox’s plotting, as vivid as her insights, and though the device by which Canny proves to have acted cannily – far-sightedly – seems rather too convenient, and I’d have wished for a glimpse of Ghislain’s despair during the three years which precede the final chapters, Mortal Fire is an exceptional fantasy novel – not perfect, but a perfect choice for the canny (and discerning) reader.

Read an excerpt of Mortal Fire.”

(The book will be published in the US on June 11th.)

Bringing it down to 40

The idea for some kind of Desert Island Books has been with me for years, but I’ve not got round to doing anything about it. Yet. Relax, I’m not going to start now, either.

But as the panic over pruning my library was beginning to slosh around in my brain, someone posted a link to a rather interesting article. Geoffrey Best in History Today mused about his book collecting, and then the reverse; the process where he’s had to get rid of one category after the other.

It makes for sad reading, actually. (Much sadder than the chap in the paper the other day who sold off his wine collection…) On re-reading the article I noticed two things. One was that as this was a collection, Geoffrey had not read all the books. That made me feel less inadequate. I sometimes believe I’m the only one who can’t keep up.

The other was that his potential final goal wasn’t for five books. It was for one.


His first awful ambition was which books to choose for when you can only keep 40 books. He arrived at this figure when visiting someone in a home, where he looked around and worked out that 40 might be the limit.

I reckon 40 might be possible. Hard, but doable. You’d need good criteria for how you pick, and that probably depends on who you are. I’ve always marvelled at the choice of the Bible and Shakespeare on Desert Island Discs. Obviously they had to become standard issue once almost everyone felt they had to ask for them, whether because they genuinely loved them that much, or felt they wouldn’t be seen on a desert island without them…

Yes. Quite.

While I don’t know what I’d choose, I’m fairly certain it would be neither of those.

And while I thought the end goal was five books, I toyed with the idea of How I Live Now and Code Name Verity. Both favourites, both quite short. So perhaps you can’t do it that way?

Right now I am also having some problems with working out if I’m going to be sitting on an island or in some old people’s home. Would it be more of a blessing if – when the time comes – I am past reading, to save me doing the final prune, or am I better off with any small pile of books?

Will the grandchildren visit the old witch and bring books?

Life after Artemis

What to do now that Artemis Fowl, that loveable rogue, has ‘retired?’ Luckily, the fact that Eoin Colfer writes hardboiled adult crime novels these days, has not prevented him from coming up with more outlandish plot ideas for us younger readers.

Eoin Colfer, W.A.R.P.

In W.A.R.P. The Reluctant Assassin he returns to the Victorian era, with a crime thriller complete with a sci-fi twist. As Eoin warns in his author’s notes, there are neither vampires nor werewolves on offer, but he can give you mutants, murderers, magicians, and other dreadful types. And an ‘Injun princess.’

We have Victorian urchin Riley and 21st century FBI agent Chevron Savano, age 17. (So, totally unrealistic. Or not. How are we to know what those alphabet agents really get up to?) What’s more, we have a wormhole. And Riley and Chevie couldn’t meet without one or other of them travelling through said wormhole.

Other people go through the wormhole, too, and in some cases it doesn’t end so well. W.A.R.P. is the witness relocation scheme with a difference. Witnesses are stashed in 1898, which is so safe.

There is a villain, who – I think – is actually quite charming. The blurb describes Garrick as a terrifying assassin – which he is – but I quite liked him. Not sure if I was meant to.

So, a thriller set in London, now and in 1898. The advantage being that even an FBI agent will recognise the landmarks in the past. They are the same, but smell worse. And Riley’s reaction to television was quite something.

This book has the usual humour that you come to expect and crave from Eoin, and whereas at times I was afraid that it would turn out to be only a Victorian FBI through the wormhole kind of affair, when you get to the end – which is not really an end at all – you understand that there is much more to it. Temptingly so.

Lulu and the duck, and the dog

Only a very skilled author could make a non-pet kind of person want to find and befriend a wild dog, and then keep it. Hatching a duck’s egg under your clothing is another almost attractive animal adventure (although I’d worry about accidentally harming the egg).

I have been reading about Lulu, one of Hilary McKay’s lovely heroines. She is only seven, and normally I wouldn’t pick a young book like these for my own entertainment. But I know I’ll be all right with Hilary.

Hilary McKay, Lulu, and the Duck in the Park

Lulu, and the Duck in the Park, and Lulu, and the Dog from the Sea are the first two in the series about Lulu and her love for animals. True to Hilary’s story telling style, we have another set of lovely parents, and Lulu’s best friend is her cousin Mellie, with whom she doesn’t seem to have any quarrels, either.

It’s very refreshing, not to mention soothing, to read about characters who don’t fight every step of the way. No tantrums needed. No tedious misunderstandings. There is enough excitement in the story itself. And humour.

I just love them. I know I won’t be adopting a stray dog, but it’s still very charming. And I don’t mind admitting I shed some tears over that duck.

Fickle news

David Fickling Books

In the end my agonising wait resolved itself. I heard about David Fickling’s plans to set up his own publishing company back in January. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to mention it, so thought I’d ask David. I suppose I kept back from doing that, in order to save him having to tell me to mind my own business.

Not that he would be so rude, but you know what I mean.

So the official news a week or two ago was very welcome. It was out in the open. I didn’t have to ask any awkward questions (I might still, actually). The one thing that did surprise me was to find I’d got it wrong. I’d always thought David set up on his own, and was later taken in under the Random House umbrella. But it seems this is the first time David Fickling Books will be independent.

Poor, but independent.

I’ll be very interested to see how it goes. The principles for publishing should be what DFB will try to do; working with what you believe in, at the pace you decide, and with as little glancing at ‘what sells’ as possible. Please make this a success!

David Fickling Books

I wonder if they will [be able to] hang on to their lovely home in central Oxford? The place where Daughter and I encountered Simon Mason in the cellar. Now that Simon is going to be managing director, it might be unseemly to have him stashed away below street level?

We’ll see. When the news came, I’d already had witchy thoughts about tiny houses where you couldn’t even swing a kitten, because I remember David talking about modern houses with deceptively tiny furniture. I hope that doesn’t mean he needs to shrink his publishing palace, where the MD sits in the cellar and there is a dentist on top. Always so handy.

(The Book of Dust, could come in useful. Some people would be willing to hand over good money for a copy of that. In fact, my first introduction to David Fickling came through a letter I was sent while we were all waiting for The Amber Spyglass. [Long time ago!] In it David was telling the impatient fan of how wonderful the bits Philip Pullman had been reading to him from his work in progress had been. There was something about David’s enthusiasm, and the way he shared this with the fans, that suggested he was no ordinary editor.)