Monthly Archives: January 2014

Moving tales #5

‘You’ve really got a problem’ said Daughter. It was the fact that I now spend more time on Rightmove than I do on facebook. I understand it’s something called addiction. I’ve got it.

I was always somewhat weird about houses. But never more than now, obviously. The House Book, that first gift from the Resident IT Consultant, eons ago, didn’t improve me at all.

But what might have set me off more than anything else, was my year with the G family. Back – you know – in the dark ages. The good old days. Mr G was an architect and he’d designed their house, which at the time I was a little underwhelmed by, ungrateful witch that I was.

Now, I see what a 1960s design gem it was. Is. Then, I arrived expecting some old house to lodge in. If not Victorian – because at the time I didn’t know about such terms – then Edwardian or nicely in-between the wars. And I found myself in a house like many Swedish (i.e. modern) ones, except it was English.

With my recent Rightmove addiction I had a little look to see if the G’s house was on there. It was, because it was sold a few years ago. I almost wept with happiness to see how totally unchanged it was. Same furniture and all those 1960s features intact. I got impatient with the Resident IT Consultant for not remembering.

The Gs talked about houses. They talked about periods and all things interior and exterior. Just as with the book collecting, this was new to me. I loved it. I remember thinking how clever Mrs G was for knowing what defines a Victorian house!

Harking back, I realise that their house was a mere 15 years old when I lived there. Now it is 50, and I’m hoping its new owners are being kind to it. Keeping it as intact as it’s possible.

And I no longer feel I need to live in a pre-WWII house for it to be real. I could quite see myself in a 1960s gem.

But the most important, and lasting, benefit of my year with the Gs was learning so much. A proficiency in English was a mere side effect.

Running Girl

Running Girl by Simon Mason will be on my best of 2014 books. Just thought I’d give you an early heads up, saving you the eleven month wait.

It is also – obviously – the book I was referring to on Saturday. There really is not enough crime in fiction for teenagers. Thrillers, yes. Other kinds of adventure, yes. Crime for younger readers, yes. Despite reading the not terribly enticing blurb for Running Girl, I didn’t expect what I got. From the first chapter I was almost weeping with delight, if that is possible.

Simon Mason, Running Girl

16-year-old Chloe goes missing before being found dead. DI Raminder Singh does a reasonably good job of detecting (at least he wants to find the murderer, rather than just pleasing his chief with a quick solution), but he would have got nowhere were it not for Garvie Smith, a school friend of Chloe’s.

Garvie is a nightmare. Easy enough to love in a book, if you are the reader, but in real life he’d be the end of you. Think Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and make him a black 16-year-old living on an estate, hanging out in the park, drinking and smoking (and not just tobacco) with his mates, and driving his single mother demented with worry.

Add to this an intellect very much above normal, a disinclination to attend school, let alone revise for the upcoming GCSEs (I’m not surprised, seeing how Simon has scheduled a Maths exam for the Spring Bank Holiday Monday…). He is rude, but with such charm you can’t help but like him (if you’re a reader), and his intelligence shines through. Most of the time. He is only 16, after all.

DI Singh was wise to give in – eventually – and listen to what Garvie had to say about Chloe. Garvie finds clues merely by sitting back and thinking logical thoughts. Let’s not mention his rather hands-on detecting.

I won’t tell you how it goes, except that my first instinct as to who dunnit was correct. But since it was a long and fun journey getting to the end, that’s neither here nor there.

Did I say I loved it?

(PS More crime for teens, please!)

The Story Machine

It’s enough to make you weep, this book by Tom McLaughlin. The Story Machine is about a boy who isn’t good with letters.

Elliott was good at finding things, however, and one day he comes across a machine without an on/off button, and that doesn’t ‘bleep or buzz.’ (It’s a typewriter, but he doesn’t know that.)

Tom McLaughlin, The Story Machine

By accident he makes it ‘write’ and he realises it must be a machine to make stories with. He makes lots of stories, until one day the machine collapses under the strain. Elliott was very sad, because that’s the end of the story-making.

Until he finds some paint, and works out that the stories came from him, not the machine. And after that there is no stopping him, or his stories.

The book is based on Tom McLaughlin’s own experience as a dyslexic boy, and what children tell him on school visits. It’s important they find out they can make stories all by themselves.

The best combination

The book I’m reading now is that best of things. It’s a children’s book. And it’s crime. I’m having trouble staying away from it. You’ll wonder why that is a problem, and the thing is I have so much to do. But I find myself sitting down, promising to read just one chapter before whatever.

It is often several chapters when I surface again.

Back in the olden days I don’t recall finding crime for children once you were past Enid Blyton & Co. So the thing for young readers who wanted to go on detecting, was to move on to adult crime novels. Which was all right as long as you could stick to Agatha Christie and other ‘light murderers.’

Those books are obviously still with us, and presumably young teens who have watched Poirot, might consider trying them. But am I wrong in thinking that new crime tends to be generally more gruesome, and thereby less suitable for the post-Blyton fan?

Actually, there is old-style cosy crime still being published. But when I think new crime, I think much more graphic, with more violence and sex and swearing than you want for your average 14-year-old.

And the reverse question is whether there was a lot of that around 40 years ago, and I just didn’t notice? Among the crime novels I receive now, I seem to mainly be in for the very, very bloody and depressing ones. There are books I just look at briefly, before deciding that even if I had twice the time, I wouldn’t dream of reading that. This week, one arrived accompanied by a wooden spatula, engraved with the title of the book, and both had to go.

On the other hand, with YA books, there is less need to jump straight  from Blyton to, say, Stuart MacBride. One excellent choice would be the one I’m reading now. More about that on Monday. Hopefully.

You can never have too much intelligent YA crime.

Ethel & Ernest

The Grandmother pushed Raymond Briggs’s Ethel & Ernest at me some time last year. Being a contemporary of his, I’m guessing the book about Raymond’s parents carried even more meaning to her than it did to me. I’d already read it (in fact, I own a copy, but it took me forever to find it again) and loved it and cried over it.

It’s a little like The Snowman or Father Christmas, but because it’s real, it’s darker, but also more interesting. Re-reading Ethel & Ernest I was surprised to find it was less sweet and lovely than I remembered. Perhaps my long ago read turned into the same kind of nostalgic trip we tend to reserve for our own pasts.

And despite being by Raymond Briggs and in the form of a comic, it isn’t a children’s book. Although if used for learning 20th century British history, it’d do a better job than most school books (not that schools have actual books) would.

It spans just over 40 years, from 1928 when Ethel met Ernest, and ending with their deaths in 1971. In 1928 Ethel was working as a lady’s maid and Ernest was a milkman. I’d remembered them as both being labour oriented, but it was only Ernest, and he irritated his wife, who aspired to ‘better’ things.

Raymond Briggs, Ethel & Ernest

Maybe they achieved better things in the end. I hope so, but it seemed like Ethel was always hankering for the past. A time when you didn’t need electricity, and your son wouldn’t have dreamed of being a hippy in public.

Their one and only son, very much longed for, and born when Ethel was almost 40, and destined to be the only child after a difficult labour. Having to send her darling five-year-old away when WWII began, virtually making her childless again. Her pride in Raymond when he was clever enough to go to Grammar School, and his parents’ shock when he opted to go to Art College.

This is a book that is more relevant today, when we can no longer take for granted that time means progress. Ethel & Ernest eventually owned not only a fridge, but a car as well. Ethel might not have appreciated it fully, but they did move up in the world.

I wish many more of us could draw, and remember, to tell our parents’ story. It might be possible to do it with photos, if enough of us are able to recall what happened and what people talked about.

Iceland, here they come

We’ll be up early to send the Resident IT Consultant and Daughter out to look for the Northern Lights. I’ve worried for months about whether or not there will be any. Is it the wrong time of the month? (Yes, I understand it is.) Will the weather co-operate? Who knows?

But it seems this is the last good winter for years, and lots of people have had successful trips. And Iceland appears to be ‘in.’ (So it’s not as if they are being terribly original.)

It’s a supposedly educational trip, as well as fun, organised by the University of St Andrews Astronomical Society.

Just in case Daughter needs something to read, I had to find a successor to The Hobbit. It’s actually quite hard to pick a book that will suit. Not too long, but not too short, either. Not too heavy or large. It has to be good; exciting, but not – too – scary, with engaging characters. In other words, it has to be just right. Sort of in the Goldilocks zone of YA fiction. In the end I chose Siege by Sarah Mussi.

And for the group as a whole, you can’t beat a good quiz, so the Christmas quiz book has found itself sharing rather close quarters with a pair of heavy boots.

Should they need more entertainment, they also have Jar City on DVD. Nordic crime is in, and Arnaldur Indridason will hopefully be less well known than some other writers, and I hope no one has seen the film already. I was awfully tempted to send Virus au paradis, but that might have been taking things Icelandic too far. Besides, not everyone will be fluent in French/Swedish subtitles.

I will sign off with Eyjafjallajökull, which is even harder to say than it looks.

The Scottish novelists

Lists will rarely be complete. But some are more complete than others.

On Monday Herald Scotland published a list of Scottish children’s authors.* What prompted this seems to have been Julia Donaldson’s decision to leave Scotland and move back to England. It felt like an ‘oh god who do we have left in Scotland if Julia Donaldson moves away?’ kind of list.

Don’t worry, J K Rowling is one of their ten ‘best.’ So are others that I know and admire, along with a few names I have never heard of. Which is fine, because I don’t know everything, and I’m sure they are great writers. I don’t even know who counts as Scottish for this purpose.

Although, with J K topping the list, I’m guessing they allow English writers living in Scotland. That makes my own list rather longer. Harry Potter isn’t particularly Scottish as a book, even if Hogwarts is in Scotland. Do Scottish authors living in England, or god forbid, even further afield qualify? (I’m not so good at keeping track of such people, so I’ll leave them out for the time being.)

As I said, I have no problem with who is on the Herald’s list. But along with quite a few Scottish authors, I gasped when I realised who weren’t on it. Catherine MacPhail and Gillian Philip, to mention two very Scottish ladies. Linda Strachan, Julie Bertagna and Theresa Breslin, who are also pretty well known and very Scottish indeed.

Keith Charters and Keith Gray. Damien M Love and Kirkland Ciccone. John Fardell. Lari Don, Lyn McNicol, Joan Lingard and Elizabeth Laird. Cathy Forde. Dare I mention the Barrowman siblings, Carole and John? Alexander McCall Smith writes for children, too. Roy Gill, Jackie Kay. Cat Clarke. And how could I forget Joan Lennon?

I’m guessing former Kelpies Prize shortlistees Tracy Traynor, Rebecca Smith and Debbie Richardson belong. (There is one lady whose name is eluding me completely right now, but who appears at the book festival every year and seems very popular…) Have also been reminded of Margaret Ryan and Pamela Butchart. (Keep them coming!)

Most of the above have lovely Scottish accents and reasonably impeccable Scottish credentials. But what about the foreigners? We have the very English, but still Scottish residents, Vivian French, Helen Grant and Nicola Morgan. Americans Jane Yolen and Elizabeth Wein. Ex-Aussie Helen FitzGerald.

And I really don’t know about English Cathy Cassidy, who used to live in Scotland but has more recently returned to England. I think she counts, too, along with all those writers whose names simply escape me right now, but who will wake me up in the night reminding me of their existence.

I’m hoping to get to know all of you much better once this wretched move is over and done with. Unless you see me coming and make a swift exit, following Julia Donaldson south. Or anywhere else. I think Scotland has a great bunch of writers for children. (And also those lovely people who write adult crime, and who are not allowed on this list, even by me.)

Sorry for just listing names, but there are so many authors! One day I will do much more. Cinnamon buns, for starters. With tea. Or coffee. Irn Bru if absolutely necessary.

Theresa Breslin's boot

*For anyone who can’t access the Herald’s list, here are the other nine names: Mairi Hedderwick, Barry Hutchison, Chae Strathie, Claire McFall, Daniela Sacerdoti, Debi Gliori, Caroline Clough, Janis MacKay and Diana Hendry.

The Hobbit

I never read The Lord of the Rings. I just never wanted to. I listened to the BBC dramatisation, which was pretty good. I had trouble telling who was who, apart from Robert Stephens as Aragorn, who was wonderful. I obviously didn’t see the films either. Although, I seem to have seen the end quite a few times, having managed to walk into the room where the DVD was playing, at the same moment every time. It sort of ends happily, I think?

The only Tolkien I’ve read was the first chapter of The Hobbit – to Son at bedtime – many years ago. Luckily something intervened after that, and the Resident IT Consultant continued the reading.

Daughter likes the LOTR films. She liked the first Hobbit film, too, and wants to go and see the second one. Before doing that she decided to actually read the book. She finished it yesterday.

A little bit later she asked if it was all right for her to say something, and once I’d ascertained I’d not be sad or offended by this something, she had my permission to proceed.

‘The Hobbit was boring,’ she said. I replied I wasn’t surprised. There must have been a good reason I never returned to it.

We sort of came to the conclusion the reason it’s possible to make so many films out of the one book, might be that its boringness requires more fun and exciting stuff to be added. Which makes it longer. Rather like the  two-hour films made of Agatha Christie’s short stories. You pad. And then you pad some more.

J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit

(The cover is nice, though.)

Notes from the editor

If you’ve never used an editor, you might not know what they do. To be perfectly honest I’m not 100% sure, either. But I might have a better understanding of the need for them than some. I remember what the editors on the Guardian used to do to my blog pieces for them. Some of it good; some infuriating annoying. It’s good to blog on my own here, where I can do as I like. But the paid blogging was good too. Getting paid. Reaching a larger or different audience.

(Can you tell I edit Bookwitch all the time? And still I have Offspring telling me there are two ‘thes’ or a missing possessive ‘s’ and all sorts of other stupid mistakes. I try not to kill them. I don’t always have a feel for what my readers will find interesting. I get things wrong. Assuming someone wanted to make a book from my blog posts; what do you reckon would happen? Are they ready to be printed straight as they are, or would they need endless editing? The former sounds nice and easy. The latter would make for a better product, but would also cease to be Bookwitch the book.)

As you know (if you’ve paid attention!) I get asked to read self-published books a lot. Some are book books, others ebooks or manuscript. Some are offered for possible review, others merely want an opinion. Some are seeking a ‘real’ publisher. Some are doing well, while others are not.

I seem to recall suggesting somewhere on here that people who can spell stand a better chance of hearing back from me. Some writers seem to feel that if they have indeed got the spelling and grammar right, then that’s all that’s needed.

It’s not. What – nearly – every writer needs, apart from the ability to be self-critical, is someone else to offer constructive criticism. Not nearly enough writers take this route. Or maybe they don’t specify that the husband, mother, neighbour or cousin should be truly critical. Not just say ‘that’s quite good, dear’ and let the writer continue in the belief that nothing needs changing.

Do you remember Fletcher Moss? He won the Chicken House competition a couple of years ago, and his published book was out last year. And it was very good. But, the place where Fletcher ended his story was where the editor suggested he had got about a third of the way, and he should write quite a bit more to make it a very different book. That didn’t mean Fletcher can’t write. He can. They, on the other hand, could see what might sell, or at least, sell better. If your neighbour isn’t Annie Eaton at Random, they will probably not know these things.

No one can see what goes on inside your head. You can, which is why what makes perfect sense to you, doesn’t always work when someone else reads your story. Is it even interesting to most people? Might it be a tad too encouraging of illegal or immoral behaviour? (I’m talking children’s books here.)

I know I like things to be smooth and lovely, and I still grind my teeth when there are lots of dreadful obstacles in a (published) book. I wish they didn’t need to happen. Except I know the obstacles are there to pave the way for improvements later. So, you need to have some bad stuff happening. Too smooth is ultimately boring.

A year ago I read someone’s manuscript, and the asked for criticism of what was a very good novel was taken extremely badly. In this case it was someone I don’t see in my daily life, but it was a lesson to be learned. I’m reading a surprisingly similar (in feel, not plot) MS at the moment. I have no need to say anything bad about it, but my heart beats faster, reminding me of last year.

In short (yeah, I know this wasn’t short at all), I may have to change to reading nothing outside mainstream publishing. Flak for money is all very well. Unsalaried flak is a different kettle of fish.

What are you playing at?

Sex stereotypes; who needs them? Not us.

I probably ruined Offspring for life with my odd parental behaviour. I shopped for clothes for Son on the girls’ side in the shops when I found the boys’ clothes too boring. When he tried to change nappies on the knitted doll he’d been given, I tried to make life easier by getting him an anatomically correct male baby doll. With nappies. (Other mothers were horrified. ‘What if it makes him gay?’)

Although, it has to be said that the doll fared better when he was adopted by Daughter a few years later.

And now the Resident IT Consultant and I have ended up with one language graduate and one astrophysics student, symmetrically complementing ourselves and our interests. I can live with that, since the subjects are arranged ‘the wrong way round.’

What are you playing at? by Marie-Sabine Roger and Anne Sol

Anyway, here is a book ready to deal with people who have, maybe not the wrong ideas, but somewhat mixed-up thoughts on who does what and why. What are you playing at? by Marie-Sabine Roger, with photos of real live people by Anne Sol will challenge the way you think.

I hope it will. It’s very simple, but often simple is best.

Purple is a nice colour, and as far as I know will not make anyone gay. Nor does changing nappies, whether on knitted creatures or human babies.