Monthly Archives: October 2015

Missing the storm

I – sort of – missed it. The storm around Meg Rosoff the other week when she voiced her opinion on diversity in books, which so offended lots of people that they felt the need to become unpleasant about it.

I did see the link to the article in the Guardian. But I was so preoccupied with something else, that I remember looking at the article but not being able to decipher what it was saying, and deciding I’d get back to it later. Seems I didn’t, and with a memory like a colander I had forgotten this when the topic came up for discussion again.

Not wanting to look more of an idiot than strictly necessary, I Googled my way back to the storm, and that’s when I recognised I’d already been there. While I am on Twitter, I rarely tweet and even more rarely read what others are saying, and this is probably a blessing, as even friends who were formerly fervent fans of Twitter say they’ve had enough.

Whether or not you believe Meg was wrong to say what she said (that writers have the right to write what they feel like writing, and not what other people feel is needed to make life more equal), she should have the right to voice that opinion without being attacked.

It is possible to write a fairly good book on demand. But it will most likely never be quite as astoundingly good as some books that have developed inside the head of an author.

You know, once publishers recognise that simply because they’d like another Harry Potter, they can’t make it happen just by demanding it loudly enough. When they send out press releases saying what a great book they have to offer, it’s not going to be a more marvellous read because it’s on a ‘worthy’ topic.

I have reviewed aspie books because I feel they are important. Afterwards I have occasionally felt that maybe I should have left a particular book alone; that it was more its topic I approved of than that it was a genuinely lovely book.

There have been two occasions on Bookwitch where things have got a little unpleasant. One was to do with diversity, and I’d have been on the side of my attacker, had she not been so rude about it.

Yes, we could do with more books about black children, say. Malorie Blackman wrote the fantastic Noughts & Crosses novels, featuring main characters who are black. That doesn’t mean that all books about black people will be good.

I could ramble on, but I’d better stand aside and leave room for anyone who feels I’m wrong. I’d like to think I’m not wrong, but I know that many others will have opinions that differ from mine. We could all be right together. If we wanted to.


Grate news

Helen Grant brought the cream. Two kinds, actually, as she wasn’t sure what kind I needed. (The kind that will make naughty cake naughtier still!! Obviously.) After a busy October for both of us, with much travelling, we wanted to meet up, and I said I would supply the cake if she got the cream.

Because Helen has had some great news. She has taken her killing to my neck of woods (i.e. Sweden) and done it so well that she won the Shetland Noir writing competition. Not that I am surprised. That woman can kill with considerable skill anywhere, although I’m not sure if I really want her to to do so in places I know, as opposed to the safely distant Germany and Belgium.

It had to involve some misuse of a kitchen utensil, and I’m thinking it wasn’t a jug of cream. On Facebook someone suggested a cheese grater. Which would be great. But I reckon that with a cheese slicer you could do so much more…

The prize is a trip to Shetland (I know, I know. There’s a lot about Shetland here) which would be good at any time, as long as ditches are avoided. But it should be especially good in November, when so many crime writers will be there for the (shared with Iceland Noir) Shetland Noir weekend. The things they will be able to discuss when they all get together.

And if you want to know what Helen and I talked about, it was mainly vertigo. Like, the best places to suffer. That kind of thing. We both had some excellent ideas as well as personal experience, and during this fruitful exchange I felt more scared than when reading Helen’s books. At least those are fiction. They are, aren’t they?


‘How did you know about the ditch?’ asked an author who shall remain anonymous. He/she had told me about teaching his/her son/daughter to drive. And I mentioned something about a ditch, feeling that one belonged there, somehow. I’m a witch. I sense these things.

Surely a driving lesson that’s not gone well must involve a ditch?

Anyway, I knew, because we’d been in one too. Not recently, but it was a memorable event which is hard to erase from memory. It was in Shetland, many years ago. We discovered we were heading the wrong way, so the Resident IT Consultant attempted a u-turn on a narrow road. Most roads on Shetland – at least at the time – were narrow. Hence the ditch.

Luckily us sitting there in the ditch with our hire car meant we were in the way, which meant that the first person to encounter us had a vested interest in getting us out. Which he did, and luckily he was driving a tractor. Luckily I didn’t have to speak to him, as I don’t drive. He spoke a very Shetland-ish dialect, and I found it hard to understand anything much. ‘Muckle,’ he said. I forget now what was so muckle. (Most likely the ditch.)

One reason we were in Shetland at all, was that years before the ditch incident I had read a book titled Bästa vägen till Muckle Flugga [The best way to Muckle Flugga] by Hans Alfredson and Kim Meurling. At the time I hadn’t heard of Muckle Flugga, which is the northernmost spot in Shetland. But I loved the concept of travel writers getting there via Iceland, the Faroes and Orkney. All lovely places I wanted to read about.

And then, of course, I wanted to go to Muckle Flugga. We did, once we were out of the ditch. It’s a long way. And when you get there the one thing you care about is not being attacked by birds. There are many birds. Vicious birds. Probably on account of there being relatively few humans.

We didn’t stay long.

Darker Ends

If you are feeling nervous, and would like to read a book to calm you down, I suggest you don’t choose Alex Nye’s new novel Darker Ends. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind feeling scared as you are transported into the depths of a dark and snowy Glencoe at night, then it might well be just your thing.

Alex Nye, Darker Ends

I liked the book, but rather wished I’d not been reading it when I was reading it. Unless, yes, perhaps there is no safe place in which to read Darker Ends, and in that case…

We meet 14-year-old Maggie and her nine-year-old brother Rory home alone (scream!!) at the ancient inn their parents have just bought in Glencoe.

And now the parents have gone out to do some shopping (honestly!) and they are not returning home, and it’s dark and there is a snowstorm outside and the old inn creaks and groans and the children are feeling increasingly scared,

when a strange man knocks on the door asking for shelter. He’s not their only concern, either. There appears to be a resident ghost upstairs. So between the stranded traveller, the mysterious ghost boy, the weather and being suddenly thrown in with a group of people fleeing for their lives back in 1692 – Massacre of Glencoe – Maggie and Rory have a most eventful night.

Who, or what, will kill them first? And are their parents all right?

Close encounters

To me Chris Close and his ‘backstage’ photos of authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival are the bookfest to a great extent. I didn’t know who he was when I stumbled over to the press yurt the first time, in 2009. Chris had only just started his long quest then, and it’s been a pleasure seeing him at work every summer since.

Chris Close, Between the Lines

If you walk round Charlotte Square you will see his photos, displayed wherever there is a free space. You might go to an event and hear one of his ‘victims’ talk about books, or you could see them walking round the square if you are lucky. But you probably won’t have any idea of how Chris works. That he’s limited to a white sheet on the side of one of the large theatre tents, and that he has all of us milling about behind his back as he chats to the authors and makes them do the strangest things.

I have watched him read the list of today’s guests, deciding which of them seem the most interesting or unusual, and then asking if they will pose for him. And it’s fun to see Chris discover someone unusually outlandish looking, someone he couldn’t have imagined from merely reading the programme. Someone like Steve Cole who, dressed as Spiderman, jumped and cavorted until Chris had his shot. [not in the book]

Steve Cole

I like the way Chris chats to the authors, sometimes showing that he knows something about his prey – or has read up on them – and occasionally learning as he shoots. The whole concept of how he takes these photographs is great. It seems simple, and you wonder why no one thought of it before.

And equally obvious is the idea of a book of the best pictures. When I saw that Chris was publishing one, I knew I had to have a copy. To me Between the Lines is the best possible memento of summers in Charlotte Square. I wouldn’t mind one every year.

Pruning for Kenya

I thinned my books a little bit last week. The time had come when I could barely go to bed, on account of piles of books in unsuitable places. Like on my bed. So instead of the let’s get rid of three or four books policy, I decided to go for books everywhere, getting out climbing implements to help me reach.

The living room had been tidied, with only a pile of book boxes next to the sofa (so counting almost as a coffee table, really), being in the way, looking less than neat. The next step would be to send those boxes on their way to Grangemouth and from there to Kenya. The efficient way would be to add to those boxes before they went, rather than after (which would really be both stupid and impossible).

So I hardened myself and went for it. The shelves in Son’s room now look positively empty. No, they don’t. But they could certainly welcome quite a few newly read books as and when they are ready. Still double rows, but relaxed double rows.

I am not a library. I have to remind myself I don’t have a duty to stock a representative selection of children’s books for passersby. After all, I don’t lend books. I’m a mean old witch.

It’s no longer a question of whether I liked the book in the first place. It’s more whether I am likely to read it again. And even if it has been signed, I toughened up and pruned.

When I first met Adèle Geras and she signed her first edition hardback for me, we both agreed that if the book should turn out really valuable one day, then I should sell, and she wouldn’t mind. (This was as she reminisced about her signed proof copy of Northern Lights, which she gave to Oxfam after reading…)

So, dear authors, if by chance you come across one of your signed books and you can identify it as mine (I have no idea why it’s not in Kenya!), please don’t be insulted. I loved the book, but I have only so many shelves.

The Bear and the Piano

The idea that given enough monkeys and typewriters you will end up with Shakespeare works for bears and pianos found in the woods, too.

In David Litchfield’s beautiful picture book The Bear and the Piano we meet a bear cub who encounters a piano in the woods one day. He has no idea what it is, but plonks a bit.

David Litchfield, The Bear and the Piano

He keeps returning to the piano, plinking and plonking, and suddenly one day he finds he can play beautiful music, which makes him very happy. The other bears come and listen, and before long he’s discovered by the humans and carted off to perform in packed concert halls.

The bear enjoys his new life, but starts to miss the woods and his friends. The question is, can you go back? Will they remember you?

This is a nice little story, with gorgeous illustrations.

Another wolf

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

I won’t say that this is the coolest cover ever of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It is very cool, though, and I like it a lot, and it makes me want to read the book.

Which I don’t ‘have to do’ as I have already read it, many covers ago. Not that it isn’t a book you could read many times. It is. It’s the first part of one of the best children’s series in the world, with the best of girl characters. (And Dido Twite isn’t even in the first book.)

So whenever there has been a revamp and I see a new Wolves cover I just want to read it again. I hope the cover has the same effect on readers who don’t know Joan Aiken’s books. I envy them the opportunity of starting their friendship with Dido and Simon.

Goodbye Stranger

You remember those fire drills at school? They still have them, and possibly even in New York. The school in Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger [also] has intruder practice. Very sensible, when you stop and think. And more frightening as a concept than the fire drill. They have to practise making themselves small, and staying silent.

Rebecca Stead, Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger is another sweet story about children of that in-between age where you are not a small child, but you are not yet a proper teenager. Although in seventh grade some of the students are beginning to outgrow their friends, and this can cause problems.

Bridge is a survivor, having had a serious accident in third grade, missing a whole year of school. She is currently wearing cat ears to make herself feel better. Her friends Tabitha and Emily each have their own problems to worry about, with Emily being the early maturing one, receiving attention from boys and older, popular eighth graders.

She’s not the only one, though, as Bridge makes friends with Sherm, who really likes her. They all appear to lead ordinary, happy lives, were it not for that one little thing that bothers each of them. Sherm’s grandfather has suddenly upped and left his grandmother, and Bridge had her accident, and Bridge’s older brother has the wrong friend.

Emily learns the hard way about exchanging texts with the boy she likes, and Tab and Bridge are there to help her. And then there is the anonymous girl who is having a really bad day, as we follow her around, without knowing who she is, but learning all about what troubles her. We can tell she’s close to the others, but not who she is.

As the year progresses the children develop, and they learn from their mistakes. It’s all pretty middle-class, and for the overseas reader it is charmingly New York-y.

And there is the question of whether Apollo 11 really landed on the moon, or if it was all a hoax.

The Compleat Discworld Atlas

‘Oh, it’s not a real map,’ said the Resident IT Consultant on seeing the newly arrived Discworld Atlas. Whereas I would say it is as real as Discworld. But what do I know?

In fact, I feel it looks suspiciously like Earth in some ways, which is odd for something supposedly flat, which rests on tortoises and elephants and stuff. (I know. Discworld experts are fainting left, right and centre on hearing – reading – my ignorant musings on Discworld. Sorry.)

It’s just, my Discworld looks different, in my head. And yours, and theirs, will be different still inside your respective heads. Which is where it should remain, unless it’s to get messy.

The Compleat Discworld Atlas

But it’s a lovely volume of regional maps (I’d forgotten, or possibly never realised, quite how many areas there are), with all sorts of information on people and money and anything else you might want to know.

And when you get to the end there is a big fold-out map, which could get very nicely tangled in windy weather or turn soggy in the rain, were you to take it out when you go places.

All in all, this is a nice book. At least, I think so. If it has anything new to offer the Discworld nerd, sorry, specialist, I couldn’t say. It has plenty to offer me, and that’s what matters.

(You could always play with the elastic band which keeps the atlas under control.)