Monthly Archives: October 2013

Skulduggery Pleasant – Last Stand of Dead Men

Not all characters die quite as much as others. Being dead is not necessarily a permanent position, nor is being reduced to existing as merely a head. Though not all dead characters return to life, unfortunately.

And I had no idea that Darquesse had a sense of humour!

I can’t believe I missed the arrival of Skulduggery Pleasant’s penultimate outing in Last Stand of Dead Men. Somehow this time of year comes round far too quickly on occasion. A witch shouldn’t have to stand in a bookshop and think ‘Funny, I don’t recognise that Skulduggery cover. Or the title…’

Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant Last Stand of Dead Men

This is war, and it is very bloody indeed. And don’t believe what you see on the cover.

In fact, don’t believe what you thought as the last book ended. It’s not going to be quite like that. That’s how Derek Landy keeps his Minions on their toes. Besides, I know of no other books where the characters change sides so often you don’t even remember what side they’ve just changed from. Or how many times.

Someone you like will die. Not everyone, though, because there will be one more book, and it will want a few people in it.

I am not twelve and I don’t look like Valkyrie, but that doesn’t prevent me from loving these books. They are exciting and they are funny. I’d like to quote a bit, but there are too many potential quotes for it to be possible to pick just the one.

Valkyrie – or perhaps I mean Stephanie – has just left school with excellent results. She needs to decide what to do. Valkyrie wants to continue doing what she does with Skulduggery. The reflection wants to live Valkyrie’s perfect life at home.

And then a lot of hells break lose all over the place.

As for the surprise traitor, I had been expecting it, because there was such a heavy hint (more than a hint, actually) a few books ago that it didn’t seem like a surprise.

Did I mention that Darquesse has a sense of humour? Who’d have thought?

Dublin Express

I suppose authors know best. They probably go round thinking that there are certain shorter pieces they have written, which really could do with being published. And sometimes the world, or publishers, don’t agree. So you do it yourself.

Bateman, Dublin Express

That’s what Colin Bateman did with his Dublin Express collection, albeit with a little help from his friends, through a kickstarter crowd funding campaign. This is the book he sold from under the table at Bloody Scotland, and I believe it went the same way as hot cakes traditionally do.

Colin read The Prize to us, and it’s everything that you want from Bateman; very witty and a little rude and offering surprises here and there. Simple, but no one wrote it before him, so…

I’d come across some of the stories, or bits of them, before. It’s good to have them collected in one volume. Still not sure what the characters mean about those uncomfortable leather trousers, but I refuse to ask. It might prove embarrassing.

And then there is National Anthem, Colin’s play for the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival 2010. It’s Irish. I understand it was a sell-out. He’s good.

Goodbye Norm

Norm Geras died yesterday morning. He’d been ill for some time, and earlier this year when I asked Adèle how he was, her reply wasn’t the one I’d hoped for. So I knew what to expect, but you still feel sad when it happens.

He was such a widely respected man, and I was extremely flattered when asked to contribute to his Normblog profile early on in my blogging career. That someone like Norm would consider me ‘grown-up’ enough to contribute felt astounding.

I didn’t read his blog every day, but as his facebook friend I caught most of his daily comments about ‘everything.’ When I acquired a new fb friend some years ago, the thing that really impressed her was that I was friends with Norman Geras!

The first thing I ever heard about Norm was about his room, filled with books on cricket. He had a lot, though I understand he actually parted with some of his collection before he and Adèle moved from Manchester three years ago. I admire him for that, now that I am facing a cull in my collection of not-cricket books.

Norm and Adèle Geras with grapes and strawberries

We met when Daughter and I came to their house to interview Adèle four years ago. Not wanting to eat with us girls – or perhaps not being allowed to – his salad was brought to his office, but he came down for cake and strawberries later.

Norm kept blogging and generally staying in touch with the online world until last week. I kept checking, always hoping he’d be there.

(People have been collecting tributes and links on this new blog.)

The Teri Terry interview

Facebook is useful for, well, quite a few things. You meet people on there. People who haven’t yet published books. And then they go on to be published authors. You find out they are coming to Manchester, even if it is to speak to librarians and not to me. That’s the kind of thing that can soon be altered. Added to, rather. I didn’t prevent Teri Terry from seeing her librarians. I just made sure she saw me too.

We met over fruit juices. (Because it was still, technically, morning.) We had our borrowed photographer, Marnie Riches. And there was my list of ‘things I wanted to know.’

Teri speaks with an interesting accent, which I would probably label as American. It is ‘Canadian, actually.’ With bits of several other accents thrown in. But she has that confidence when speaking that I recognise from other Amer… I mean, people from North America.

So here she is, the author who collects degrees, careers and accents the way the rest of us hoard stamps. Teri Terry, the cheerful dystopia writer who doesn’t mind running.

Grow your own meatballs

When times are tough, the tough grow their own food.

You all remember Findus the cat, I hope? The cheeky little feline who lives with his human Pettson. Findus Plants Meatballs is the latest in a – by now – long line of translated books by Sven Nordqvist about this most loveable of cats, straight from the Swedish hinterland of the back of beyond.

I can’t help but feel Findus has got the right idea. What’s the point of growing boring things like veg or potatoes? If you really can stick something in the ground and you water it a bit and then it multiplies into many more of what you stuck in the ground, you can’t lose.

So as Pettson sows seeds and puts old potatoes down, Findus plants his meatball. Unfortunately the hens are out and cause havoc in the vegetable patch in their search for lovely worms. So Pettson and Findus have to start all over again. And again, when the neighbour’s pig has been. After which the hens get uppity and refuse to go in, and forget about being scared of the fox.

Sven Nordqvist, Findus Plants Meatballs

While on fox-watch Findus ends up permitting an even worse disaster, and Pettson needs to use all his cunning to sort everything out.

This is adorable, as usual. Findus and Pettson would probably be quite annoying in real life, but in a book you just have to love them. You also need to look very closely at all the detail on every page. I’m not sure what the little green creatures are, but on one page there is a ticket booth and a turnstile for viewing the shenanigans in the vegetable patch…

(Try and forget the horsemeat for a few minutes, if you can.)

That’s rich?

I blame Tatum O’Neal. At least I think that’s who put the silly notion about chandeliers into my head. (Paper Moon?) If you have one, you are rich. I have one,* so obviously… What’s worse, it hangs right inside my front door, informing every caller about my wealth. I very nearly put it in the kitchen, for that very reason, but decided that someone who doesn’t dust, will not be wanting to wipe kitchen grime off her ‘crystal’ either.

Kristallkronan

This appearance of being well-off came up in a facebook discussion the other day, about the young men who sell overpriced dusters at the door. No sales here, because I don’t dust. Especially not if I’ve been ripped off first. But the house isn’t all that small, it’s in a good neighbourhood, and there is a car on the drive. I can’t claim to be poor, or expect to be believed should I try.

And in comparison with most of the world, we are very well off. I have no complaints in that department at all.

Anyway, the reason I’m going on about wealth is the recent stuff in the news about working for free. Or not doing it.

Me, I pay to work. Sorry, to blog. Mostly it’s free, but to bring you those witty blog posts about events I need to go to them. The least it will cost is my fare to the venue. If I’m lucky I get in for free. If not, I have to decide quite how keen I am, factoring in ticket price and anything else.

Getting in for free is becoming rarer. I don’t want to point the finger at anyone, but will say that the Manchester Children’s Book Festival have treated me extremely generously. I understand that festivals need to make money. But what I don’t get is why some organisers offer comp tickets despite an event selling out, but not for others that are only half full.

There’s a lot I don’t understand.

Then there are the presentations and the literary parties, which for someone working and/or living inside the M25 will not require too much agonising over whether to attend or not. I have needs. I’d like the event to start after 3pm and finish by 9pm (depending a little on exactly where it is). What’s more, I’d like to be told about it more than a month in advance, preferably longer still. That way I can make the trip to London for £25. Plus whatever comes off my Oystercard. (You’d think oysters…)

I genuinely don’t need to buy books. I have enough books to last me years. But as I mentioned the other day, sometimes books don’t turn up, and I might be desperate for a particular one, in which case I do my best to avoid that online bookseller, but occasionally it can’t be helped.

As some of you are aware, I won’t shop with my local independent. Even if things were not as they are, on our very modest household income it would be hard to justify a full price book purchase.

I really appreciate all the books I receive. That’s a real luxury. But you can’t eat books. You could possibly heat your house with them, but that would be taking madness too far.

People often ask why I started Bookwitch. What you should ask is why I haven’t stopped. I’ll tell you. It’s because it’s fun. Time consuming, but fun. A little costlier than I feel comfortable with. But fun.

I could go to events all the time. Often I say I can’t because I’m unavailable. But mostly it is because the money will only stretch so far. In my dreams, this is always when I suggest that a contribution would be lovely. And every single time I have this thought, it is swiftly followed by another one: ‘No. Because if I take someone’s money, it will seem as if I’ve been bought.’

For as long as I can, I will continue to pay for this fun. You – blog readers and authors and publishing types and festival people – make this worthwhile. (The Kleenex are over there, on the left. No! Not the box of chocolates!)

And when we next meet for a drink, the … uhm … tap water will be on me!

*Inherited 1940s ‘folk’ chandelier. Not fancy. Simply something that reminds me of its former owners.

The Dragonsitter’s Castle

I’m trying to work out how easy it really would be to write the kind of humour you get in a book like the third dragonsitter story by Josh Lacey. I read it and think, ‘I could do that.’ But I suspect that’s wrong. What I should be saying is ‘I wish I could write like that.’ Because I do. Wish.

Josh Lacey, The Dragonsitter's Castle

Deceptively simple, is what it is. And funny. Even when you’ve read the first two dragonsitter books and know what to expect, it is fun. I’d like to be an eight-year-old boy, getting to read this kind of thing and realising what a wonderful world you find in books. (No, I wouldn’t actually. Never eight again. And probably not a boy, either.)

Loveable, if capricious, dragons are always nice. I like Ziggy. She’s a sensible girl. For a dragon.

And we finally find out about Edward’s dad. And Wales. And there are canapés.

It’s a nicely seasonal book, so save it for the Christmas holidays. Parties. Fireworks. You know.

(That picture of baby Arthur sleeping on a hot water bottle is so sweet! I think I might love Garry Parsons.)

‘The insurance man said he’d never heard that one before.’

Fortunately, the… whatever

Guinea pig?! I felt more like a cow. (No, don’t say it.)

Unfortunately I had been reading about cows on my way in to Manchester, on a most unwitch-like train, i.e. one that didn’t leave hours in advance. I felt so little inclination to go and hear Neil Gaiman yesterday afternoon, that I cut it finer than one should with British style rail travel.

Unfortunately, that was totally fine. I arrived at the Dancehouse theatre with 15 minutes to spare and thought it was going swimmingly. After which thought we ended up penned in rather like cattle, waiting forever to be allowed in. Stairs and reception and café filled up with eager Gaiman fans, plus a few small children (whose event this really was).

I decided that if things got any worse I’d just go home again, wondering why I’d come in the first place. I like Neil Gaiman. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like crowds, and he collects them. But I can put up with crowds if treated humanely. I wasn’t alone in waiting it out on the other side of the doors, near the toilets. Fortunately, once we were allowed up the stairs, my number seat was the right number seat and so I was allowed in. (But we still had to wait for everyone to be seated, and the whole event was train-like in running half an hour late.)

Why was I not keen? Everything about this book has gone not to plan. Publisher didn’t send me a copy. I had to buy my own when that became evident. The complimentary ticket for the event didn’t materialise, so I had to buy my own at the 11th hour. The crowds, as I said. The fact that there is no way I’ll stand in a queue for three hours to have a book signed. The fact that I’m old and grumpy. And a cow.

You could say that the whole thing was threatening to curdle. I decided not to get my camera out. I’d just sit there and ‘not be on duty.’

But, you know, once Neil came on stage he worked his usual magic. He is a born entertainer, and he does events so effortlessly that even I started to feel all calm and relaxed and almost happy. His voice is nice to listen to.

Neil Gaiman

(This is a photo of Neil. Try to imagine a red curtain in the background, and that his hair doesn’t hang down across his eyes quite so much. In which case he almost looked like this.)

He said we’d be guinea pigs. He wanted to test read a longer piece from Fortunately, the Milk… than he usually does. Lying in training for Westminster on Tuesday, when he has to read it all.

As for himself he is obviously a goldfish. Or two. He’s the dad who was exchanged for two goldfish. In a way the milk book is simply a continuation of the goldfish book, and an attempt to come up with a positive book for dads.

Neil talked about his very young book, Chu’s Day. Cute pandas who sneeze, apparently. Only, I didn’t hear – didn’t know – the title, so when he asked what we thought the next book would be called, I felt Wednesday seemed appropriate.

Btw, I didn’t take notes.

He recounted how it came about that Chris Riddell would illustrate Fortunately, the Milk…, this the shiniest book in history. And Neil is about the only one who doesn’t find the charicature of himself all that amusing.

Then it was question time. Say what you want about his fans, but they ask good questions. Not all of them were fans, however, so a pattern developed where the person doing the asking qualified how fan-like they considered themselves to be.

One question was about Terry Pratchett, and in the end we all felt we were privy to some personal secret (and I don’t mean ‘when Terry slept with Neil,’ which he did, when they were both younger and poorer and didn’t buy the hotel first if they had to stay somewhere), and that’s a great skill to have. Neil even made the last rather pedestrian question sound exciting, because he was able to make the answer really special.

At the end of all that, ‘we will do some signing.’ Though Neil reckoned it would be best if he signed, until his head fell off, and the rest of us waited patiently in line.

Well, I didn’t do that, so I have no idea how long his head stayed put. Here is a photo someone took earlier, showing what Neil looks like when signing.

Neil Gaiman

‘Did you enjoy that?’ said the adult to the small child behind me. Small child said nothing. This was not a small child event, whatever the organisers say.

Now me, I did enjoy it. In the end. Neil always delivers. But I’d be happier without the crowds.

Bookwitch bites #115

Steve Cole had some great news to share this week. He will be writing four (yes!) new Young Bond novels, with the first coming next autumn. He even had to go get a nice new photograph of himself, as befits an Ian Fleming replacement.

Steve Cole

Some longlists are longer than others. The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award list is longer than ever this year, with 238 names of hopefuls. 54 are there for the first time (which just goes to show people get nominated and nominated until they win…), presumably getting all excited about the possibility of winning five million kronor.

I was going to say that the Nordic countries have put forward more names than others, but I happened to notice that the UK list was longer still. See below. For the rest of the 238 you have to download the pdf yourself.

UK nominees for ALMA 2014

This week also saw the announcement of other Swedish related prizes, and I’m pleased for Alice Munro and Canada. A bit shocked to learn that only 13 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, however…

The other Nobel Prize that made the Bookwitch family very happy was the Physics prize to Peter Higgs. It almost feels as if we’d been awarded the prize ourselves.

Peter Higgs

Malorie Blackman has announced ‘a campaign to support fiction for young adults in the UK during her two year term in the post. A highlight of this will be the first ever YA Literature Convention, hosted at the London Film and Comic Con in July 2014. Blackman will also be working with Booktrust on a search for the rising stars in the UKYA community.’ I think that sounds terrific, and I’m looking into ways of splitting down the middle so I can go to lots of events all at once.

And finally something on a smaller scale, but who knows? ‘Anyone’ could make it to be children’s laureate or discover a boson or write James Bond books. Here is a challenge for students doing A-levels. The Connell Guides are giving £1000 for the best essay in a competition to be judged by William Boyd. Submissions in January, but they want students to start writing now. So I suggest doing just that. Write! Who knows where it might end? (In Stockholm, shaking some royal hand.)

‘Children have the right to read rubbish’

Malorie Blackman

The children’s laureate was in Manchester yesterday. If anyone has the right to say something like that about children’s reading, it must be Malorie Blackman. And she was only saying what Patrick Ness said the other evening. I think we can all (well, most of us, anyway) agree that reading everything can only be good.

This was another school event organised by the Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and Malorie was talking to Jackie Roy, who is a favourite chair of mine, someone who asks all the right questions. The event was at Z-arts in Hulme, which is a suitable venue for children of immigrant background in particular to find out how far you can get in life, and that it’s got nothing to do with what colour you are.

Malorie Blackman behind fans

The place was packed, and they even Livestreamed the whole thing to interested parties who were unable to attend. Until this year Malorie has also been unable to come, despite being asked by MLF every year, but as they say in Sweden, trägen vinner.

Malorie spoke about how far equality has come, but pointing out there is a long way still to go before fiction is ethnically diverse, with books featuring disabled characters without being disability books, and where people have a place regardless of sex, race, culture, and so on.

She read very little fiction at home, as her father said it wasn’t real and you ‘never learn anything from fiction.’ So Malorie practically lived at her local library from the age of seven until she was 14 and got a job and could buy her own books. She’d take a packed lunch every Saturday and spend the day, returning home with as many books as she could take, hoping they’d last until the following Saturday.

There were no black children in those books, and it might have been this which made Malorie write on, despite receiving 82 rejection letters from publishers. (She said that she almost gave up after no. 60, but vowed to carry on until the 1000th.) She wrote what she would have wanted to read as a child.

Malorie Blackman

While trying not to tell her readers what to think, Malorie presents a dilemma, and then asks questions to make her characters explore the things she herself is wondering about. It could be animal organ transplants as in Pig Heart Boy, or being a whistle blower versus allowing some things ‘for the greater good,’ like in Noble Conflict.

‘Oh my god, I thought that was an enormous spider!’ I’m not sure what she saw, but something almost made our laureate jump out of the sofa and run…

As a child – and still, actually – she loved comics, using her pocket money to buy them. Their use of cliffhangers has influenced the way she writes. Malorie describes how a teacher at school took her comic away from her and tore it to pieces, because it was ‘rubbish.’ The fact that Noughts & Crosses is about to become a graphic novel gives her great pleasure.

Her careers teacher told Malorie that blacks don’t become teachers, and that she would not pass her English A-level. She laughed as she described walking away from that advice session thinking ‘I’ll show you, you old cow!’

The young Malorie got hooked on computers instead and her first novel was Hacker, which Transworld took on, despite ‘all of it’ needing re-writing. This taught her how to plan, so she wouldn’t waste time writing, and it won her an award, which turned into a wonderful holiday to Barbados.

Malorie Blackman

‘Is that water for me, or has it been here for a long time?’ Malorie pointed to the water next to her when her throat felt dry. (It was for her…)

She’s currently writing her 61st book, and hopes to go on until at least her 100th. And if she didn’t write, she’d have some other book related job. Or maybe she’d be an English teacher. She laughed at that.

When asked if she’d be willing to become the next children’s laureate, her gut reaction was to ask if they had the right person. They were very big shoes to fill, with so many great authors who had done it before her. But she knew she wanted to do it, and it’s an honour to be able to spread her passion for books and reading.

Her mother would be very upset if she didn’t say she supports Arsenal, but to tell the truth she is not a football fan. She has rarely been recognised when out, except for one stalker incident in Sainsbury’s which was ‘well creepy.’

This lovely children’s laureate got the audience to sing Happy Birthday, when a girl asked if she could wish her friend a happy birthday. Our laureate also admitted to having carried around a leotard and tights and a utility belt for a couple of years in secondary school, just in case she ever needed to turn into a super hero in a school kidnapping scenario…

Malorie Blackman

Every book is like opening a new door to somewhere. Malorie loves crime and Jane Austen and can quote most of the first Narnia book. She admires many writers, including Benjamin Zephaniah, Melvin Burgess, Anne Fine, Patrick Ness, Jacqueline Wilson and Jackies Kay and Roy.

The character she feels is mostly her is Callum, and much of what happens to him in Noughts & Crosses has happened to Malorie in real life. As a teenager she was once told to go back to where she came from, so she asked for the bus fare back to Clapham.

Spookily, the launch for Checkmate was on 7/7 seven years ago, and she was having her hair done in central London, when the whole city shut down, and Malorie felt as if she was almost inside one of her own books. She doesn’t condone terrorism, but she can see why people become terrorists. Because of the book connection, she was interviewed on television that time, and there were even people who wanted to ban her book.

Malorie Blackman and Jackie Roy

I’d say that by now Malorie has shown that ‘cow’ a thing or two. The fact that there were two black women on that sofa yesterday made me very happy. One of them is a university lecturer and the other is the children’s laureate.

As I was waiting to go in to the event (gobbling down sandwiches again, having been driven there by the Resident IT Consultant, and trying not to drown in the incredibly deep sofa we hid in) I noticed Malorie disappearing off in the company of a young lady. I was introduced to Sophie (that’s her name) a few minutes later, and she turned out to want to interview me. Yikes. First Malorie. Then me. (Good taste, I have to say.)

Malorie Blackman

And now that Malorie has finally been, she promised she’d be back if the MLF would let her have one of their t-shirts. That seems like A Very Good Deal, so please don’t forget to put one in the post!

Malorie Blackman can be our superhero in a literary T-shirt. No leotard necessary.