Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Letter for the King

Guest review by the Resident IT Consultant:

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

‘Looking for something escapist to read, I came across Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King (Pushkin Press). The publisher, and the author’s name, led me to suspect that this must be a translation. And I was right.

Tonke Dragt was born in Dutch Indonesia in 1930, spent several years in a Japanese prison camp and came to the Netherlands with her family at the end of WWII. The Letter for the King was her second book, published in 1962. It was very successful in the Netherlands where it sold over a million copies and was chosen, in 2004, as the best Dutch children’s book of the last fifty years. It has been widely translated but only made it into English in 2013.

Ever since Swallows and Amazons and Treasure Island I have been captivated by books which contain maps. I even drew my own map for Kidnapped, and when I showed it, aged 12, to my English teacher he lent me his personal copy of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s another story.

The Letter for the King starts with a map of the Kingdoms of Dagonaut and Unauwen. I assume it is the author’s as she is credited for the illustrations, and was an art teacher. I found myself referring the to map quite often as I read the book.

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

It’s basically an adventure story set in a fantasy medieval world which owes a greater debt to Le Morte d’Arthur than to Tolkien. Tiuri, the sixteen-year-old hero, finds himself suddenly tasked with the challenge of secretly delivering a letter across half a continent. The story follows his development as he deals with the difficulties along the way and tries to decide who he can trust. He learns that first impressions can sometimes be misleading, that help can come from unexpected directions and that hindrance sometimes arises from misunderstanding.

The fantasy is relatively realistic. There are no mythical creatures and there is no magic. Putting geography, and history, aside it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy. Though I think the characters take baths more often than would have been the case in any medieval period!

One strength is the clarity of the language for which, presumably, the translator, Laura Watkinson must take credit. I found it easy and enjoyable to read and it doesn’t feel dated in the way that English books published fifty years ago often do.

I was pleased to see that Pushkin plan to publish its sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, in 2015.’

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The end is nigh(er)

It’s beginning to look like we might move house soon. Except by saying this I will have jinxed it completely. And I mean move out. No moving in. One thing at a time.

One recent evening I sat down and thought about our belongings. I felt I couldn’t sleep before I’d carefully considered how much we still have and how to bring the volume of it all down, and where did I go wrong in the first place?

So I was pleased to find I could offload one larger item to a friendly local author. (They can be so useful.) Marnie Riches – for it was she – came round to inspect said item, before inviting the Resident IT Consultant and me to lunch at Dead Beryl’s (you won’t have heard of her), and it was very nice.

Spring had properly sprung and it was warm and sunny and generally nice. It’s good to have food put in front of you, and pleasant to find other people have the kind of books on their shelves that you like and feel are comfortably familiar. The junior Riches were capable of asking ‘may they leave the table’ in Swedish, which I feel is a lovely party trick.

Most of you won’t know Marnie well. Yet. She has a crime novel looking for a publisher, and I’ll have to eat my broom if it doesn’t do well.

Some of you will get to know her better once Sarah Beeny has helped make her house bigger. (I knew there’d be a drawback to Marnie taking that item off my hands!) I can’t wait to see the results. Mainly of the house, but a little bit the television programme.

And then I’ll need a house myself. I wonder if there are television programmes that might help..?

Barbro Lindgren

Is any author/illustrator worth an award of five million Swedish kronor (approximately £500,000)? It seems like a lot of money, and if one author is worth it, why not most of them? Except very few people stand the chance of winning the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. And when you think about it, what can you hope to buy with that sort of money? In my neighbourhood you can – possibly – purchase a house. It’s not going to allow you to leave lots of money to your children when you die.

And is a well known author a more worthy winner than the one neither you nor I had ever heard of before the award announcement? As you see I have lots of questions, and they tend to surface at this time of year when the new ALMA winner has been chosen. Also, is it OK to give the award to one of your own? Swedes like their authors, so will probably say yes. How often can you award that sort of money to a homegrown author? Why does it seem better to give the prize to a foreigner? As long as we have heard of him or her.

I gather that this year’s lucky author is actually the first Swede to win the ALMA, so I suppose it’s all right. She is one whose name I can never quite remember, and seeing as Barbro Lindgren shares her surname with Astrid herself, that’s rather stupid of me. I’ll blame my shortcomings on the fact that her first book appeared in 1965, when I was too old to be her target audience.

Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson, The Wild Baby

Although, some of her more recent books are ones I have bought specifically for myself, despite them being picture books. Not for Offspring, but for me. I allowed Offspring to read them – a little – but they are mine. (Unfortunately, at this very moment they are safely packed inside some box or other, and I can’t get at them.)

The thing is, I got them for the pictures, by Eva Eriksson. I like the stories, but it’s the illustrations I adore. And I am guessing Eva doesn’t get any of the five million.

The Wild Baby’s Dog is a very sweet little story, and so are the other Wild Baby books. It’d be very hard to dislike the Wild Baby, and you feel for his poor mother.

Then there is Max, and his potty or his teddy or ball or bowl, or whatever. Short, basic picture books for the toddler beginner. Absolutely adorable.

Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson, Max Nalle

I just don’t know if they are worth five million. Well, they are. Of course they are. But then so are many other books.

Do the people in the jury realise quite how much money they are handing over, in one fell swoop?

16 floors

On arrival in London yesterday, we had to repair to a nearby hotel’s facilities to make an emergency medical dressing repair (plasters and acetone do not make good partners, but at least no one fainted). Once done we made it on time – if only just – to Hodder & Stoughton’s 16th floor offices, with no visible blood whatsoever. The lovely receptionist even made sure I didn’t have to go up in the glass elevator by ordering me a proper old-fashioned lift.

When we got there, I made sure I sat with my newly dressed back to the windows, which according to my Photographer offered great views. (She went in the glass elevator, no doubt to show off.)

The blood aspect was unexpectedly apt, as we were there to interview Marcus Sedgwick about his new ‘bloody’ novel – A Love Like Blood. There was a slight misunderstanding as to his arrival on floor 16, which meant we had a nice long chat in the lobby, with me carefully not asking him about ‘the other stuff’ and instead discussing the high points of Gothenburg and hair raising theme park rides (neither of which I like very much).

Marcus Sedgwick

We got to meet publicist Kerry’s lovely dog, which I’d only seen photos of before. I think we’d get on; plodding walking pace and a fondness for hanging out in kitchens. (Dog, not Kerry.) We diligently interviewed, and then Marcus had to rush off to finalise things to do with his book launch, while we walked to another kitchen (the Scandinavian Kitchen, for a late Lent bun).

After that we whiled away our remaining spare time in Trafalgar Square, looking at tourists, pigeons and an enormous blue rooster, before walking over to Goldsboro Books for the book launch. Thanks to Kerry’s sun dance, it didn’t rain at all. That’s what I call service.

Marcus Sedgwick, A Love Like Blood

I believe there was champagne, or some such drink, judging by popping corks, but we stayed nice and sober (I am obviously not suggesting anyone else was drunk), and chatted to people, including Thomas Taylor, who does not like blood, much. I have to admit to advising him not to read Marcus’s book.

Children’s author Linda Chapman was there. And Cliff McNish and I really must stop meeting like this. That’s twice in eight days. He’s got a nice new book out about nice dogs, with no creepyness or blood.

And then my Photographer and I sneaked out before we suffered social overload, and sort of limped home in a tired kind of way.

Crime Always Pays

(Swish. Swish. Please don’t disturb! The witch is dusting, and that’s a very rare sight.)

So, what I’ve got here is an old review, and I find it mostly still works, which is why I will offer it up for inspection again. Many of you weren’t here back in 2008, so to you it will seem almost brand new.

It’s  complicated. Back then, Declan Burke had yet to see Crime Always Pays published. It’s the sequel to The Big O, and I read it in manuscript (the Resident IT Consultant printed it out on his office printer for me), and I loved it. Back then, it was titled The Blue Orange (which personally I still prefer).

Now, though, it is finally being published properly! It’s a real book. Not the US edition which was cancelled in the end, nor the Kindle version published to compensate. A Real Book! And I think you should read it. (After The Big O, obviously.) Below is my slightly edited, and very ancient, review.

Declan Burke, Crime Always Pays

“The Blue Orange, as he calls it, is a continuation of The Big O, with all the same characters, except those who may have died in the first book. Plus a couple of new ones. The Big O was very funny, if rather full of four-letter words, and had endearingly inept, mostly minor, crooks.

In The Blue Orange (Crime Always Pays) we meet them again, and this time I found myself quite fond of even the less charming ones. It’s a mad-cap race across the Continent, with everyone ending up in Greece, where Declan has totally taken over his favourite holiday island, which I understand was quite nice before this.

As is to be expected, there are so many double-crossings that the witch developed a squint trying to cope. The best thing is simply to sit back and enjoy, while laughing quite a lot. The story is crying out to be made into a film, and I know which part I can play.

And as Mother-of-witch so rightly said, crime is not nice. But this kind of crime is as nice, and as funny, as it gets. The worst baddies are killed or have lots of blood removed in interesting ways, and maybe the rest lived happily ever after. I’m hoping for more.”

It’s today! Get shopping!

‘People respond to courage’

While I eyed up the new furniture at MMU (would anyone really notice if I walked off with one of those sofas?), the other people who had come to hear Deborah Ellis speak scoffed wine and canapés. Deborah is back in the UK for the first time for years, so I’m not surprised her fans wanted to see and hear her.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

Deborah’s interest in Afghanistan started in the late 1990s, when she visited refugee camps in Pakistan a couple of times. She based her idea for writing books about it on the fact that if you know who someone is, you have a relationship, and it’s much harder to hate them.

She heard about two girls who dressed up as boys and went out to work to support their families, and they became her character Parvana, and as she herself has an older sister, it wasn’t at all hard to write about family members who drive you crazy, because that happens wherever in the world you happen to live.

When asked about writing torture scenes, she described water-boarding, and discussed how you know what counts as torture, as well as saying she hopes her fellow Canadians have not taken part in it, but she’s not sure. Deborah reckons children understand complicated situations well, and always ask astute questions wherever she goes.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

Her wish was to show the Afghan people as warm and welcoming, and she pointed out that the Taliban are people too. Trying to explain why the parents and grandparents in My Name Is Parvana didn’t want their children to go to school, she said that if none of them had attended school, it’s hardly surprising they were nervous about it.

Asked about how to deal with writer’s block Deborah recommended doing something real, like the washing up or mowing the lawn. On how to become a writer she suggested reading a lot, as well as reading more advanced things than usual and also different stuff than what you normally read. Then you just sit down and write and 90% of it will be garbage, but you’re allowed to spend 20 minutes a day on writing bad stuff.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

The teachers in the audience use The Breadwinner in the classroom and find that it provides openings for all sorts of discussion and tasks among their students. Not bad for a book which Deborah only hoped would sell $3000 worth for the women in Afghanistan.

Before the book signing at the end, Deborah read a short piece from her new Kids of Kabul, which is based on interviews with children. The one she read was about ‘Frank Sinatra.’

This was a marvellous early start to the 2014 Manchester Children’s Book Festival. (The regular programme will be available very soon.)

A Love Like Blood

A book like The Thirty-Nine Steps, but with blood. Lots of it, and not for the faint-hearted. Like Marcus Sedgwick’s mother, who promised not to read her son’s first adult novel. I can see where they both are coming from.

I wanted to read this, because it is a Marcus Sedgwick novel, and I wanted to see what he’d get up to when writing for adults. Considering that his YA books are no picnic (ooh, bad word, under the circumstances), it is not surprising that Mrs Sedgwick abstained. I wish I’d known.

Marcus Sedgwick, A Love Like Blood

This is a thriller set over 24 years, starting in Paris in 1944 and ending in Italy in 1968. I thought I could guess how it would end. I was wrong. And that’s despite the ending coming at the beginning of the book, giving you a flavour of what might be.

Charles Jackson is a young-ish consultant haematologist in Cambridge. He’s rather a failure of a man in most other respects, and not terribly likeable. It is, however, quite easy to identify with him. At least it was for me. (Up to a point!)

The book reads like an old novel, from the period it is set in. It looks so easy, but I’m guessing it’s not. Setting aside one mention of ‘having sex’ which felt too modern and one possible fashion mistake, this is pure old style adventure. It feels really comfortable, even as you wince at the inept Charles. You are lulled into a false sense of knowing where this story is going. Very clever.

It is mostly about blood. Possibly there is a vampire. You can’t be sure. Partway through you get a very Buchan-ish adventure, making my spirits rise, only to be dashed soon again.

Dr Jackson looks like he won’t last long. And in a way you don’t mind, because he’s hard to love. On the other hand you feel that a main character ought to be allowed to have something positive happen to him.

This is a fantastically well written thriller. I just wish there’d been less blood.