Monthly Archives: February 2014

On not reading

What should a bookwitch do when she doesn’t feel like reading? Or up to reading?

Reading is for me the last thing to go. Usually. Hoovering and cleaning your teeth (ew) are easy to not do. If I feel off-colour and decide to take the day off, reading tends to be what I choose to do. If bed rest isn’t required, sitting somewhere comfortable with a book is about the best occupation for a witch.

I generally justify any slacking by telling myself that at least I will get through a lot of books, which is both useful and enjoyable.

But I have to admit to having stared at my books in recent weeks, and felt too tired, and simply continued to sit there, doing nothing. Doing nothing has been pretty much flavour of the month. Very restful.

I have read. Just not much. And I’ve been reading ahead, which means that there isn’t necessarily a blog post in it. Yet, anyway.

My current book seems promising, so I’m thinking I can fill some hours on the train over the next couple of days by reading. (I’m not travelling home with Muriel! I sent her back with the Resident IT Consultant.)


Have you any idea how hard it can be chasing someone across Dobbies’ car park, carrying a saxophone case? With a sax in it. And a bag of books.

There were no more houses on Sunday, but the desired sleeping in didn’t happen. In a burst of wanting to do the right thing, I even went for a walk in the park. It was sunny and rather nice. Typical Scotland in February.

The Grandmother was driven away (so to speak) by the Resident IT Consultant, and brought back by Aunt Blane. She’d come to swap jigsaw puzzle boards. She brought her empty one and took away the Grandmother’s, which held a half made, very difficult to do, jigsaw. Aunt Blane wished to complete it at home, so the Resident IT Consultant balanced the whole thing down the stairs for her.

They’re crazy in that family.

With no more houses to go see, I’d arranged to take tea with Helen Grant. One of these days she’ll know to say no. She brought Miss Grant, who couldn’t resist the lure of cake. Good thing, as we were facing dealing with laden tea trays while manouvering the saxophone and the books through the café. It was a case of child labour again. She sagged under the weight of it all, while we sailed on with our trays. But she was rewarded with cake.

Miss Grant is a properly brought up young person, so once the hot chocolate had been slurped, she sat reading a book. Us oldies gossiped about the publishing industry and books in general. There might have been some mention of taking American tourists on muddy and dark tours through Perthshire’s graveyards, but I wouldn’t count on it if I were you.

Holy Rude, Stirling

Cuidado con el perro

That’s when I pushed the Resident IT Consultant forward. If there was going to be any biting by dogs, I didn’t want to be first through the door. Luckily my Spanish was there to warn me. Although, as it turned out, the doggy had been banished to the car. We stopped on our way out and Daughter teased it, a little. I suppose she felt safe enough with a bit of car in between.

So, day two of house speed-dating, or whatever you should call it. I can assure you that by the end of the day the Resident IT Consultant’s head was reeling, and he needed gentle guidance on where which toilet was, and that if the bedroom dimensions seemed small, that’s because it was a bathroom.

Eaves. I still don’t get why a steeper sloping roof has bigger eaves. It ought to be the other way round.

As you may have gathered, Daughter joined us for the day. She wasn’t in the slightest impressed by the estate agent who jokingly placed her in the boxroom, next to those eaves. But she did open all under stairs cupboards and make Harry Potter jokes. And, she felt the doggy property was straight out of Privet Drive.

I began the day by putting my boots on (well, I obviously had breakfast and things first first) and as I did so, the thought that I’d prefer not to have to take them off during the day, on account of them being difficult to put on, crossed my mind. That was before I discovered I had a 50p piece in my left boot so it had to come off again. But you will not be surprised to find that two house owners were of the take-your-shoes-off persuasion. Not that we did, but still. It was one of those witchy thoughts I get. Obviously, if I’d found more money in my boots, I would ‘happily’ have removed them. (This is Scotland. How much money can a witch expect to encounter inside her footwear?)

If we were proper people who kept up with all manner of normal stuff, we’d most likely have recognised one house vendor. As he opened a cupboard, which happened to be full of books (weird place to keep your books; as though they are an embarrassment) I noticed a pile of ten or so, new, pristine books, spine out, bearing his name. I refrained from asking if he was an author (which was very lucky), and went on admiring the house.

The silver shoe in the kitchen should have been a clue. We just thought it was an unusual taste in trinkets, but it seems it’s a trophy of the kind a successful football player might get. Because that’s what he was. Anyone normal would probably have said ‘don’t I recognise you?’

We gate-crashed one house viewing and sneaked around in the garden of another. We are fairly sure what we would like. We just can’t act on it yet. And when we can, it’s bound to be too late.

But at least we now have a spreadsheet listing the number of bathrooms and the distance to Lidl…

Love those houses

Still in Valentine mode, I could mention houses to fall in love with. No, I lie, I’m not into Valentine at all, but you need to be ‘topical.’

We saw some nice houses yesterday. It could have been love. Who knows?

And I’m reminded of the rather well preserved 1930s house the Resident IT Consultant and I visited at the beginning of time, or soon afterwards. It belonged to his former English teacher, and right now I’d be very happy to buy it, were it for sale. That was the occasion when I was given a lovely old copy of that wonderful teen romance, Daddy-Long-Legs.

Speaking of history, it’s what the Resident IT Consultant served up in one of the houses we looked at. It happened to be right behind the house he grew up in. Mere yards – I mean metres – from the corner of their garden, where he slept in a box in a caravan, while the house was being built. I’m not up to primitive stuff like that. And at least he didn’t claim to have walked barefoot to school. Even if he did.

We’ll look at some more houses today, but I’m sure they can’t beat yesterday’s. Although, I suppose it’d be good if they did. It would mean there’s plenty of good prospective Bookwitch Towers out there.

I have to own up to having built custom made bookcases (in my mind) in every house we viewed. Some were better than others. Could I fall for a house that doesn’t have good walls for books?

I’ll keep you posted.

You have arrived at your destination

Offspring named her Emma, but to me she can never be anything but Muriel. And she definitely has her own ideas about a number of things. The Resident IT Consultant had to ‘shut her up ‘ a little yesterday. I suppose having two women telling him what to do was one – or maybe two – too many.

Muriel is our dear, ancient satnav. But it’s not merely old age. She just doesn’t know where we live. Or rather, once we get close, she sends us (or would, if we were stupid enough to take her advice) the opposite way, which would simply not get us there at all.

Yesterday Muriel was given permission to speak, as long as she did so quietly, in order to keep us updated on last minute calamities on the roads. But he forgot to mention lunch to her. So as the Resident IT Consultant left the motorway for his favourite café in Lockerbie (that’s favourite in Lockerbie, not the world), Muriel got quite wordy, after having behaved nicely for a couple of hours. ‘In 200 hundred yards, turn left!’ That kind of thing.

Being left in the car park while we ate, didn’t seem to calm her down. She was fine once back on the motorway, but pretty soon the Resident IT Consultant decided on the scenic route (i.e. one of them), and she frantically suggested left turns and right turns and u-turns, pretty please. Although she cottoned on after some time.

We went high enough to be in the snow. It went white half due to mist and half due to snow, until we went lower down again. Quite enough for me, that was.

Muriel didn’t care much for his avoidance technique when we got to the Penicuik ‘downtown’ traffic lights and roundabouts. She was fine again, until I feared she’d demand to be taken to IKEA. I mean, what woman can just drive past and not want to go in for a look round? Especially when the official road sign suggests her favourite move; the u-turn.

She tried to get her revenge as we were a couple of minutes from Son’s and Dodo’s by pretending it was another three miles. Honestly!

But I suppose we love her, deep down. As I love all of you (except you, in the corner, obviously – yes, you). Thank you for being here. Unless Muriel guided you, in which case I haven’t got a clue where you are.

Behaviour problems

This happened years ago. The new school year had begun and it was time for me to go into the school that one of Offspring went to. I had found that by having a chat with the new teacher of the year, things tended to work better, rather than wait for parents’ evening.

It was the class teacher I wanted to see, so was a little taken aback to find she was accompanied by the teacher from one of the subject sets. But, better to talk to everyone and get it over with, I thought.

The other teacher – let’s call her Miss Duckham – was about 25. Maybe. Good looking in a kind of Mrs Posh Spice Beckham way. She took charge of the conversation from the word go. Very talkative she was. Which was fine. Up to a point.

Because I had actually come in to talk to the other one, the class teacher who taught Offspring many more hours in the day. I couldn’t quite work out if the class teacher had asked her colleague to join us, or if she invited herself. No matter what I said, the conversation was with Miss Duckham. She had a lot of opinions on everything.

At first things seemed to go the way I had hoped. And then it didn’t. For a moment I was so disappointed that I’d wasted the conversation and possibly the whole school year, that my voice rose a little at being told how wrong I was. Easy to do when it’s your child’s well-being at stake.

‘If you can’t behave, I think you should leave!’ said Miss Duckham. I rather think she was expecting me to back down and say ‘sorry, miss. I’ll be good now’ like her normal charges might have done.

But in that split second when many thoughts go through your head in quick succession, I could see that I was not going to get any understanding from these two. Certainly not from Miss Duckham, and as long as the class teacher was mute, not from her either.

So, picking up my bag, I said ‘you know, I think I will’ and left.

Later on I mentioned what had happened to the head teacher. He giggled, which wasn’t quite the reaction I wanted. But Miss Duckham didn’t last the school year.

White Dolphin

I always sensed I would love White Dolphin by Gill Lewis. Even though, and I have to be honest here, I am not totally keen on animal stories. The good ones are so very good, while the others are just, well, about animals. And that’s not my kind of thing.

With White Dolphin I found myself racing through the book and loving it from start to finish. I suppose it’s partly that it’s set by the sea, which I love. But primarily this is a novel that manages to engage on so many levels that you just can’t help but be satisfied.

Kara (I’m guessing she is about 11 or 12) and her dad live with her aunt and her family, because they are hard up. Her mum disappeared a year ago and no one knows what happened to her. Both Kara and her dad are dyslexic and this causes her school mates to be unkind, but she gives as good as she gets.

This is not only about the white dolphin Kara sees out at sea, but the future of their fishing village. There are eco problems and worries about money and jobs. There’s her missing mum, and her heavily pregnant aunt, as well as Kara’s friendly little cousin Daisy. Kara’s dad owns a boat they love to go out on. And when a new boy starts at Kara’s school she finds she just can’t stand him.

For a book which I thought would be a fairly simple plot about a lonely girl and dolphins, this grew into something really quite complex, and very lovely. Most of the plot threads are resolved, but not always the way we’d like. But there’s hope.

You can tell Gill is a vet. She knows about animals, and I reckon this is what made White Dolphin so real. She could do worse than write her way through the animal kingdom.

(After our meeting last year and the challenge thrown down by the Dark Lord, I eagerly await Gill’s dung beetle saga. I bet she could make me care.)

The #7 profile – Anthony McGowan

We worship the same woman. But other than that, I wanted Anthony McGowan for my next author profile because he’s not only funny, but very very topical. He’s on the Carnegie longlist with the short dyslexia friendly Brock, which is tremendously good news. He – and Brock – also featured on my best 2013 list. It was Anthony’s birthday not too long ago, and he shares it with someone near and dear to me. Definitely a good sign.

And then as I was getting ready to grill him, he went off to Sri Lanka to play cricket! I gather this is an annual tour, where a team of authors travel somewhere exotic to show just how good they are at cricket. (Or is it for the tea breaks?)

Anthony McGowan

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

It’s a little complicated… The first book I wrote was called Abandon Hope – a grotesque comedy about a teenage boy who is knocked down by an ice-cream van and goes to hell. I sent it out in the usual way and received nothing but rejections, ranging from the coldly impersonal (“Dear Sir/Madam”) to the appalled (“Please never again submit anything to this agency”). However one agent did finally take me on, largely out of pity, and on condition that I write something ‘saner’ and more commercial. So I wrote a thriller called Stag Hunt. That got a deal with Hodder & Stoughton, and came out in 2004. I then rejigged Abandon Hope, renamed it Hellbent and, as I was now a published author rather than a hopeless outsider, it got snaffled up. So, the book I wrote first, came out second. And vice-versa. Before Abandon Hope/Hellbent, I’d started a few stories and written endless reams of terrible poetry. In fact my first published work was a poem about a pubic louse, that was on a poster on the number 13 bus.

Best place for inspiration?

There’s a small but perfect graveyard surrounding St John’s church in Hampstead. I walk through it most mornings. It really is the most beautiful and atmospheric place, with ancient trees and crumbling gravestones. And a comfortable bench where you can look out across London, drinking Thunderbird tramp wine at nine in the morning, weeping over your failures and humiliations.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I’m afraid my non-disclosure agreement prevents me from, er, disclosing that.

What would you never write about?

Although I’ve written several YA books, I’ve tended to shy away from explicit depictions of adolescent sexuality. It just doesn’t seem quite right… And yet this is clearly an important area. My way of dealing with it is to have main characters who are shy and embarrassed about sex, as I was. As I am.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

I’ve met many interesting, bizarre, half-crazed and deluded writers at various events, parties and awards. And even more mundane, tedious, humdrum ones. Writers, it turns out, are like everyone else, in terms of being like nobody else. Mal Peet’s a genius, though, and great fun in the pub. As is Andy Stanton. And Meg Rosoff is a goddess. But for sheer strangeness, nothing quite beats the lady in Gregg’s in Motherwell, where I was staying for a book award ceremony. I went in and asked for my usual Cheese and onion slice. She clearly was having some difficulty speaking – her full set of dentures seemed to have been stuck together with chewing gum – so she slipped them out of her mouth, popped them in her pocket, and carried on serving me. Top marks for imperturbability and savoir-fair.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

Most of my characters have a pretty torrid time, subjected to multiple humiliations and catastrophes. But there’s a lot of me in Connor O’Neil, the main character in Hellbent, and Hector Brunty from Henry Tumour.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

Well, it’s happened – The Knife That Killed Me has been filmed and will come out sometime later this year. Good or bad thing? I can’t imagine how it could be anything other than good.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

How do you titillate an ocelot?

Do you have any unexpected skills?

Not really. I do a vast number of things barely adequately. I’m not bad at cricket. I have a party piece that involves juggling live babies, but it’s hard to find volunteers.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

I didn’t read either, as a kid (I was a huge Tolkien fan). As an adult I find both uninteresting. I quite like Mallory Towers, however.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

That would have to be the poet Tomas Tranströmer. Sorry…

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

Broadly by subject, then using a range of aesthetic criteria, with an element of randomness. I’m neater with my books than any other aspect of my life, but I’m still, basically, a slob.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

Of mine? The Bare Bum Gang and the Football Face-Off. More generally, it truly pains me to say that the Wimpy Kid books are terrific for reluctant readers.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

Reading, easily. I can imagine a life without writing – it has a certain appeal appeal, in fact. But I’d give up almost anything before I’d stop reading.

I’ll look out for some volunteer babies. It must be possible to find them somewhere. And if you’ve never read anything by Anthony, I trust that this profile will have you rushing off to the nearest library. In your pyjamas, if necessary. But not, perhaps, on the number 13 bus.

Soul Mates and an Old Dog

That’s not the title of a book, btw. I was simply thinking how great it is that I have two Barrington Stoke books here; one for girls and one for boys. I know, I shouldn’t be quite so categorical, but in this instance it does seem to me that Lee Weatherly’s Soul Mates is pretty satisfyingly girly, while Bali Rai has written an inspirational story for teenage boys in Old Dog New Tricks. What’s more, it covers the ‘immigrant’ angle too, even though Harvey is no immigrant. He just happens to look like one.

Bali Rai, Old Dog New Tricks

Harvey and his family are sikhs, and when they move into the house next door to old Mick, they soon find out how unpleasant their new neighbour can be. But they are friendly and persistent people, so try really hard to make contact with the lonely old man.

The story provides a good mix of ordinary life for people in Britain, whether sikh or white or black. As Harvey says, if Mick were to close his eyes, he wouldn’t be able to hear that Harvey is a foreigner. Because he isn’t.

I learned something new, too, that if I’m hungry or lonely, I can pop round to my nearest gurdwara for food and company. That sounds most civilised, and I hope Bali hasn’t set an avalanche rolling by introducing this sikh tradition in his book.

L A Weatherly, Soul Mates

Lee’s Soul Mates is about precisely that. Two teenagers who for years have dreamed about each other, despite never having met. They just know the other is their soul mate.

And when Iris and Nate do meet, they realise they have come face to face with their dream person. But not just their soul mate, unfortunately. Their dreams have also had a certain scary aspect to them, and they immediately feel this evil danger closing in on them.

They have to work out who or what it is, and whether they and their love can survive this threat. As I said, very nicely girly and romantic.

Barrington Stoke are on the right track, commissioning stories like these. Everybody deserves to read good stuff.

The talk

‘Are you going to the event next week?’ Helen Grant asked. Since I wasn’t going to anything at all, I knew my answer would have to be ‘no.’ But I still pressed for more information on the what, where and when. (A witch likes to keep track of that which goes on without her. Actually, no, not really. But still I asked.)

It was a shared presentation evening for four of Random’s authors, and once the event was over I even found out who they were. Not a random bunch at all. They are all at the crime-y thrillery end of YA. Good stuff, in other words.

So, Helen was on her own. Apart from the other three and those who had actually been invited. (If anyone is reading this; don’t take it as a heavy hint. I’ll be distancing myself much further from London soon, so will not be able to say yes to very many Southern events.)

Anyway, as you will have worked out from my post about the cover of The Demons of Ghent a couple of weeks ago, Helen has a new book coming ‘soon.’ She talked about that, as well as her first Belgian book, Silent Saturday. And because she’s a well organised kind of woman she recorded her talk and put it on YouTube for the rest of us.

Forbidden Spaces 1  Forbidden Spaces 2

Please enjoy.

The other three were Simon Mason who wrote that very good crime novel that I loved so much, as well as Jane Casey and Niall Leonard, who I am sure are responsible for equally excellent books. I just haven’t read them…

Jane Casey, Simon Mason, Helen Grant and Niall Leonard

And here they all are! I wouldn’t trust a single one of them. Would you? But I shouldn’t speak, seeing as I have ‘borrowed’ this photo without asking. Possibly the handcuffs are for me.