Monthly Archives: July 2015

In my taxi

You hear taxi drivers boasting about who’s been in their taxi.

And in my former post office job a long time ago I would ponder if I’d had any famous people in my queue. I did, a couple. A major Swedish actor and singer and celebrity in general, who none of you will have heard of. Also a local singer songwriter who none of you will have heard of. One of them knew exactly what he was doing, while the other one hadn’t got a clue and shouldn’t have been there at all.

But in my taxi, I mean, in my queue on Bookwitch; who have I had?

Who haven’t I had? So many lovely and more or less famous people in the book trade have popped in, either once, or regularly. I imagine even the Queen reads Bookwitch, but she never leaves comments, so this is hard to prove.

Two lovely ladies who are no longer with us, are Siobhan Dowd and Dina Rabinovitch. I’m very pleased they made it on here.

I was surprised to find Sharon Creech on the premises, as it were, but then again, why not? Edwina Currie. I definitely didn’t see her coming.

In a way it wasn’t surprising that Jacqueline Wilson popped by to comment. It’s just that you need to have an email address to do it, and she didn’t (then) do email, which means a bit more effort had to go into the commenting. It was kind of her.

I feel that you are in very good company when you visit Bookwitch. You just don’t know who you might have a conversation with.

Brush Back

You have to admire the ageing gymnastics Sara Paretsky does to keep some of her characters younger than they possibly can be, while others move a little faster through life, and letting V I Warshawski’s darling dogs stay as they are.

Sara Paretsky, Brush Back

Brush Back is the story Sara wrote because she wanted to place a crime under Wrigley Field, and in the end she had to hurry as they started a major overhaul of the Cubs’ home ground. She also had to make things up, as they never replied to her emails asking to come and have a look around.

Just as well, since this way Sara could do what she liked, and what she likes is always tough on V I, but eventually ends OK for most of them. I could see two people as being in the danger zone – apart from V I herself, of course – and knew one of them would ultimately be OK, but worried that the other one wouldn’t be.

V I’s dead cousin Boom-Boom is back, so to speak. A childhood friend of his – and V I’s some time boyfriend – Frank comes asking for help when his mother is released from jail for having killed her daughter thirty years earlier. It’s not totally obvious to V I what Frank wants her to do, but being V I she starts digging anyway, and soon unearths lots of shady dealings and people who suddenly want to harm her.

She has a new young and spirited protegé from Canada living with her, which is good for Mr Contreras. V I upsets old boyfriend Conrad Rawlings again, although I’d say he’s mellowing a little. Plenty of baseball, icehockey and lawbreaking – and not all of it by V I – feature in Brush Back. Plus a small cameo by NCIS. (Keep them coming!)

It’s good to be back in Chicago, and it’s good to be back with old friends. Sara knows how to grab her readers.

2 x Mal

Mal Peet

I’ve been sitting on a couple of lovely pieces about Mal Peet. You’ve probably seen them already. There was a hashtag – I think – which I can no longer find.

David Fickling on his pride at ‘ripping the arse out of Mal’s book.’

Anthony McGowan remembering his first meeting with Mal.

There will be plenty more like that, but I didn’t stack them all up, so you’ll have to look for them yourselves. If you didn’t already, of course.

Dead Good Marnie!

She won! I could find no reason why Marnie Riches shouldn’t win her category in Harrogate. I really couldn’t. But ever modest, Marnie seemed to feel there was no reason she would beat Oslo or Nepal.

Shortlisted for the Patricia Highsmith Award for Most Exotic Location in the Dead Good Reader Awards, going round killing people in Amsterdam seems to have been exotic enough to win Marnie a bespoke magnifying glass trophy. No home is complete without one.

I should have been there…

Embracing the Darkness

At one point last week I got so desperate for blogging assistance that I rounded a few likely people up. I’d like to say that Danny Weston volunteered his services, but in actual fact it was a ‘pal’ of his who made him ‘speak up.’ If he hadn’t, I’d have forced him. I mean, if he’d been anywhere near. I hope he isn’t – wasn’t – but since I don’t know this Weston chap, I can’t be sure. As long as he keeps that creepy Mr Sparks away from me!

“They say the devil has all the best tunes. That may be the single thought that fuelled my debut novel, The Piper.

Looking back, it’s hard to say exactly where the idea came from. I know I wanted to write a good old-fashioned ghost story and at the back of my mind, I was thinking about The Pied Piper of Hamelin; that much misunderstood tale that had the greedy burghers of a German town paying the ultimate price for double-crossing its eponymous hero.

And I thought about an old saying that I’d heard many times, but rarely paused to consider fully.

‘Who pays the piper calls the tune.’

So, I decided, my story would involve music. It would involve water. And it would feature a supernatural presence that has returned over the centuries to seek its revenge. Scaring people with mere words on paper is a real challenge. I knew that I needed to find a suitable landscape in which to set my story and I found it in Romney Marsh, that bleak almost treeless wilderness down on the South coast, replete with streams, lakes and canals. After some research, I found out about a church, St Leonard’s in Hythe, one of only two in the UK that house an ossuary – a place where bones are stored. As soon as I read about what was stored down in ‘the crypt,’ I knew it would feature in my story.

I decided early on that I also wanted to set the book in the past, merely because it seemed easier to convince an audience of ghostly happenings back in the day, rather than the perfectly lit interiors of the present. I focused on two time periods – the early 1800s and the eve of World War Two. My lead characters, I decided, would be evacuees, a fourteen-year-old boy, Peter and his seven-year-old sister, Daisy, exiled from their home in Dagenham and sent out into the countryside to face a terror that is centuries old. When I learned that this mass exodus, which involved 3.5 million children, was actually called ‘Operation Pied Piper,’ I realised that I had just been handed something that felt very much like a perfectly-wrapped gift. I had to use it.

In early October my new book, Mr Sparks will be released. The eponymous character is not human. He is a ventriloquist’s doll. He’s been around for a long time… a very long time. He tells everyone he meets that he used to be a real boy and quite frankly, his talents exceed those of the various ‘operators’ he’s picked up along the way. His latest sidekick is a young Welsh boy called Owen, who finds himself going to places he doesn’t really want to visit. The same places where I intend to take my readers.

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Once again, I’m riffing on a classic fairy tale here; in this case Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. And once again, my aim with these particular words on paper is to make the reader feel uneasy… unsettled… and dare I say it? Scared.

Have I succeeded? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Danny Weston

Eek.

 

I’ve got it covered #1

When they sent me the paperback of Simon Mason’s Running Girl, I so wanted to read it, just because of its cover. Isn’t it great?

Simon Mason, Running Girl

But, you know, I’m a busy witch, and I read and adored Running Girl 18 months ago. So I didn’t read it again. And each time I caught sight of the new cover I wanted to grab the book and sit down with it.

There should be danger warnings, really. Look out; book will grab!

Go Sell a First Draft

It’s one thing to be rescued by people you know, and another for a complete stranger to write a perfect and well timed blog post for a witch, just like that. Here is CJ Daugherty* on the book that everyone is talking about right now:

‘Let me start by saying, like so many writers, I love To Kill a Mockingbird. And I adore the film adaptation, which I consider to be one of the truly perfect book-to-film adaptations of all time.

TKAMB poster

When I was a child, I watched the film and cried during the courtroom scene. I was terrified of Boo Radley, whom I envisioned as a kind of ghost; an unknowable terror. But Scout saw through his frightening facade. Her belief in him, and her sympathy towards his plight, changed me.

I can honestly say that I am a kinder person because of To Kill a Mockingbird. I cannot think of many other books that affected me in this way.

So when I learned there was a sequel, at first I was thrilled. How exciting and marvellous that such a thing should be found! How wonderful for book lovers.

As more was revealed, though, my views began to change. What we know now is Go Set A Watchman isn’t a sequel. It’s an early draft.

We know that Harper Lee worked closely with her editor to revise that draft, rewriting the book over and over and over, across many years, polishing the rough stone down to the perfect faceted gem that is To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might still have been fine with the release of this early draft, if Lee hadn’t tried so hard for so long to keep it hidden away. If those who loved her and spoke for her – because she is, Boo Radley-like, afraid of the world; too frightened to leave her flat in New York when she was young, afraid to leave her home in Alabama when she grew older – if they hadn’t maintained until their deaths that there was no other Harper Lee book.

Sadly, elderly people are vulnerable, and there is money to be made. Unimaginable sums of money.

Obviously, there is simply no way for us to know if, in a nursing home in her nineties, Ms Lee did not just, at long last, change her own mind. Or if her mind was changed for her by younger, stronger people with Manhattan mortgages to pay.

Does that make you uncomfortable? I makes me very uncomfortable.

You see, I grew up surrounded by elderly southern women. This was the world of my childhood. I think of Harper Lee now and I see my grandmother, a fragile, white-haired southern lady trapped in the modern age, and bewildered by it. As a child, I watched her retreat from the real world to her garden in small-town Texas, where she spent her days taking care of her roses and listening to ancient sermons on a reel-to-reel tape player.

When she went to the supermarket in 1985, she still put on white cotton gloves and a straw hat and drove her enormous ancient Buick like a captain guiding a ship through rough seas. If the manager of the supermarket spoke to her kindly, as he often did, it flummoxed her utterly. She did not want to speak to modern men.

All the way home she would complain about it.

‘I do not understand why that man must always speak to me,’ she would say in tones of vexation.

Sometimes I would venture a defence of the kindly supermarket manager. ‘I thought he was nice.’

‘He was nice,’ she would explain as if this were perfectly obvious. ‘But I do not know him.’

When she was older, my grandmother would sign anything you wanted her to sign. Anything to make you stop asking and let her get back to her memories and her roses.

According to Harper Lee’s now-dead family, she was much the same. I think it is the way of southern ladies of that generation.

So I worry.

Then there is the fact that I am a writer. And as a writer, I know what first drafts look like. Any writer can talk with horror of ‘ugly first drafts’. Writing a novel is a process of evolution. We come to our stories gradually. Painfully. And when we get there, after much, much work, everything that came before seems disastrous to us.

The first draft of my book, Night School, contains vampires and witches. The final book is about Bullingdon Club style secret societies. I worked a long, long time to get to where I ended up.

I wouldn’t want anyone to sell the evidence of my journey.

So here, for all to see, allow me to make the following statement:

Someday, if I’m lucky, I will be 90 years old. If I am still a writer then, it is entirely possible that young lawyers in expensive suits and thrusting publishers with more ambition than morality will come to you and tell you that CJ Daugherty wants the first draft of Night School published.

If that day should ever come, remember what I am telling you now: It is a lie.’
C.J. Daugherty

(*Former crime reporter CJ Daugherty is the author of the international best-selling Night School series. Her books have been translated into 22 languages, and are number one bestsellers in multiple countries. She is now co-writing a new series, The Secret Fire, with French author Carina Rozenfeld. Find out more at www.cjdaugherty.com)

Brush Back with Sara Paretsky

If I’d had one of those buttonhole cameras I’d have taken a photo of Sara Paretsky as she gave me that searching look after signing my copy of Brush Back at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh last night. But I didn’t, which is a shame because she looked particularly pretty and happy at that point. I, in turn, got all tongue-tied and eloquently uttered ‘what?’ like the teenager I’d turned into.

Sara Paretsky

Oh well, I don’t think I had spinach between my teeth, and I hope there will be a next time when I might have grown up a little. It’s a blessing that Sara has friends near Edinburgh and that she was willing to break her holiday to meet her fans for an extra early book launch, and that Blackwell’s Ellie had had the good sense to snap her up. (There would have been Harrogate, but it’s another of those things I’ve cancelled, so this was a most welcome break for me.)

Sara Paretsky, Brush Back

And for many others. There were lots of chairs set out, and then there was floor space to stand on or stairs to sit on, because Sara has masses of fans, most of them women who don’t look like they go round murdering people. Or not much.

As Sara was being introduced, she squeezed past where I was sitting on one of the comfy sofas and rested briefly on the armrest (something that slim people can get away with), before standing in front of us saying she hoped we’d have a good time, herself included.

Sara Paretsky

Normally she starts a book because she has a crime she wants to write about, but this time Sara was wanting to set a story at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs* ‘pretend to play baseball.’ Having had Harrison Ford beat her to a chase scene somewhere else in Chicago, she wanted to get in and write about Wrigley Field before Harrison got there. Built in 1923 from poured concrete it is virtually indestructible (although I imagine V I Warshawski could have something to say about that), to the extent that rumour has it there is a toilet which has not been flushed since 1927. After reading the first chapter, she invited us to ask questions, warning us that as an author of fiction her answers could be fiction too.

Sara Paretsky reading from Brush Back

The first questions was what she thought of the film. Not much, is the short answer, but Sara told us much more. In effect she has signed away the rights to her character, and Disney – who own V I – once phoned her regarding ‘a product of theirs that Sara had once been involved’ with…

But it got V I attention, Sara had the opportunity to tread the sacred grass at Wrigley Field; even running the bases. And falling on the home plate. Kathleen Turner also bought Sara and her husband Courtenay dinner, handing Courtenay her private phone number.

Sara Paretsky

The next question was about Totall Recall, which was a very personal book for Sara, featuring Lotty in 1930s London. She’d have loved to write more on London in the thirties and forties, but reckoned it’d be hard to get right. The book came out in America on September 4th 2001, with a reader contacting her to ask who the Taliban were.

Sara Paretsky

Asked how V I came to her, Sara said she’d been fantasising about turning the tables on old style hardboiled crime, and her first character, Minerva Daniels, was much harder than V I. Sara realised after a while that she didn’t want Philip Marlowe in drag, but a woman like herself and her friends who say what they mean.

The final question was one Sara mentioned she’d just answered on Facebook (which I’d seen), about how long it takes her to write a novel. Between nine and 24 months, with research, meaning it’s anything between a human pregnancy and that of an elephant. Sara has been working four months on her next book, and has 16 usable pages. She has an uneasy feeling this one is an elephant baby.

With Sara you always get nice, long answers to your questions, even though she apologised for the length. (It’s good to go in-depth and find out more!) But very sensibly the talk had to end giving Sara enough time to sign a lot of books. You can’t have too much queue left when the shop closes. As I already had my copy, I jumped in early. And then I did that juvenile thing… Sigh.

Sara Paretsky

*Apparently they are ‘over 500,’ which is the same as winning the World Cup, which Sara knows is as incomprehensible to us as cricket is to her. And to me.

The Winter Horses

There was never any time to read the crime proof by Philip Kerr, several years ago. It looked good, though. And the book survived my culls, simply because I really wanted to read it. And I didn’t know about Philip’s children’s books. Then I was surprised to find him described as a Scottish crime writer, because I didn’t know that either. Seems he was born in Edinburgh, but doesn’t live in Scotland. Though I could be wrong on that.

Philip Kerr, The Winter Horses

But I’m not wrong about how great a book The Winter Horses is. Set in the Ukraine during WWII it makes for grim reading, but is also enormously uplifting. It’s mostly about Przewalski’s, which are very unusual horses, and during the war they were facing extinction because they weren’t pure enough for Hitler.

The ones in this book are almost human (which is more than you can say about the men who killed most of them), and although wild, can adapt to circumstances. 14-year-old Kalinka has seen all her family killed by the Germans, and most of her home city too. She won’t accept that the Germans will get these last horses as well.

With the help of an old man, this starving girl manages to get a pair of horses away, and manages not to freeze to death on the winter steppe.

This is a children’s book, so I think I’m allowed to say that much. You know there has to be something positive at the end. But I won’t tell you what or how. Only that I had been correct in feeling I’d like Philip’s writing.

A borrowed interview

And while I’ve not got much time to blog, I have a borrowed interview to offer you.

Cambridge University’s Varsity had the good taste to interview ‘old’ girl Marnie Riches about her novel The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die.

I’m only a little annoyed. I wish I’d thought of it. And I wish I’d done it so well.

That’s all.

Read it here.