Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Roman Quests – The Archers of Isca

It is reassuring that I am not yet too old for Caroline Lawrence’s books. Occasionally I wonder if I will be, seeing as I’ve been reading her Roman mysteries for well over a dozen years. But I am still a child at heart.

Caroline Lawrence, The Roman Quests - The Archers of Isca

The second of four books set in Britain in AD 95, we follow the eldest boy, Fronto, as he sets off to be a soldier. It’s what he always wanted, albeit perhaps not quite like this. In Rome he could have been an officer, while now he must begin at the bottom. But for a boy who likes rules and knowing what’s happening and what he should do about it, army life is perfect.

Meanwhile, his two younger siblings continue as they were, living with the local people. At least, until Fronto’s little sister Ursula is kidnapped.

As with all Caroline’s books, this story educates as it entertains. I have learned more about life in Roman Britain through these books than I ever did from more historical texts. What’s more, I suspect I might remember facts for longer as well.

There are Druids and Romans, we learn about Roman baths and Boudica’s famous battle, and we find out how people lived; what they ate and how they worked and prayed.

And we are getting closer to knowing what happened to Miriam’s twin boys.

The White Fox

I know, and you know, that Jackie Morris makes gorgeous picture books. She can paint real and imaginary animals in a way to make most adults actively CRAVE the art in her books. But I must admit to liking her new book for Barrington Stoke much, much more.

The White Fox is – obviously – about a fox and Jackie captures the arctic fox that finds itself in Seattle absolutely perfectly. What made me even happier were the industrial cityscape illustrations, which is the kind of thing I go for, and I adore the way they appear in this book. If there is to be any tearing out and hanging on walls, this is it.

Jackie Morris, The White Fox

The story is simply wonderful. It’s about a young boy called Sol, who lives in Seattle with his father, but he is not happy. He hears about, and then finds, the fox down in the docks, and the two feel as though they belong together. Sol dreams of going back to Alaska, to meet his grandparents after many years apart.

And in the way of stories, especially those about children and animals, something magical happens. It’s also quite ordinary, in a way, but so beautiful. Considering this is a Barrington Stoke Conkers book, aimed at those who don’t read so easily, it becomes even more poignant. Small and perfectly shaped, with purple silk bookmark and everything.

(I hardly ever mention the word stocking filler, but The White Fox is definitely one of those.)

Ponytail or Dust at 70?

Philip Pullman is 70 today. Wishing him a Very Happy Birthday!!!

Philip Pullman

I wasn’t sure what photo to choose; a less recent one with less hair, or the one from last year with the ponytail? I haven’t seen Philip since then, so don’t know if the tail is still there. He supposedly wasn’t going to cut his hair until The Book of Dust is finished. It could be a long wait, and an even longer tail. When all we want is the tale.

Hope it won’t be long now.

Space Team

This is Galaxy Quest as though it had been written by one of ‘my’ many crime writing Irish boys; Eoin, John, Declan. Except it wasn’t them, but their crazy cousin from across the water, Barry J Hutchison. Barry has been tinkering with some adult writing for a while, and he is under the impression that adding a J to his name will mean his littlest fans won’t accidentally find themselves in space with a ‘cannibal’ who swears a lot.

Space Team is very funny, and not too sweary, as there is some kind of translation system set up between the different species of aliens which not only translates but cleans up the worst four-letter words. Just as well, since that lone J is not going to fool anyone. Us fans can tell it’s Barry.

I had a lot of fun reading this. Galaxy Quest, Star Trek, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Take your pick. There are bits of everything in here, and you find you don’t mind too much that Earth is no more and neither are we. Cal Carver survives, and what an ambassador for humankind he is! Teaming up with a group of criminally minded aliens, it becomes his job to save the universe. Or some such thing.

Barry J Hutchison, Space Team

Setting off on a junky spaceship, the team have a task, at which they must succeed. Or die. The question is, do they have the right skills? Are we in safe hands? Actually, it doesn’t matter, since we are all dead. At least I think we are.

The lesson here is that it’s good to be cheerful and to try and do your best, for the team and for the universe. There are a lot of bad aliens out there. This is hardboiled space humour at its best.

A wee week

It’s enough to make me wish I still travelled to St Andrews regularly. I know I can still go, but the other end of Fife is just that wee bit too far, even for me. At least when I feel all travelled out and all that.

Wee Book Fest

Toppings, the bookshop that opened a branch in St Andrews a couple of years ago, have taken up the book festival baton, after the closing of the theatre. And that is very nice of them, and good for the town. There are a few children in St Andrews. It’s not all Royal Princes and students.

So, this week is their Wee Book Fest, which I believe means it’s for the wee ones, not that it’s all that wee. They have a programme for the whole week, which is ambitious for a smallish town. And most of the programme looks good, and some of it so tempting that I almost got the train time table out to see if maybe perhaps I could go after all.

Wee Book Fest

But then I told myself not be silly and that I can see most of these authors somewhere closer and more convenient some other time. Probably.

It does look good, though, doesn’t it?

A good year

1956. It was a good year. Lots of us amounted to quite a lot of things; Bookwitching, downhill skiing, wrestling, Wimbledon wins, Astrid Lindgren Memorial Awards. That sort of thing.

So, Happy 60th Birthday to you, Meg!!!

Meg Rosoff

And that email with Nobel Prize in the subject line is bound to turn up…

Sophie Hannah on her second Poirot

Despite Edinburgh’s trams trying really very hard to keep me from Sophie Hannah’s event at Blackwell’s on Thursday evening, they failed. I steamed in just as Ann Landmann was pressuring everyone to move closer, saying there – probably – wasn’t going to be any audience participation to worry about. I was just pleased to be so late but still find someone had kept Bookwitch’s corner on the leather sofa for me. That’s all I cared about.

Ann at Blackwell's

Ann was busy stroking Sophie’s new Poirot novel, Closed Casket, suggesting what a good Christmas present this lovely, shiny book would make, hint, hint. (And it would, were I the kind of person who gives people presents.) The rest of you, pay attention! Buy Closed Casket for everyone.

I have heard the background to how Sophie was given the lovely task of becoming the new Agatha Christie before. I was interested to see how much she’d be able to vary it. It was about half and half; some the same, some new.

She put most of the blame on her crazy agent, who doesn’t do reassurance terribly well, and thinks it’s OK to tell her she is ‘brilliant, etc’ when she needs to be comforted. (As an aside I reckon Adèle Geras [Sophie’s mother] was quite correct in feeling her daughter should have been made head girl at school. Sophie is a very head girl-y kind of person.)

Basically Sophie got the job (Agatha Christie, not head girl) through good timing, and also by having plenty of experience of Dragon’s Den. Whatever that is. And you ‘can’t say no to Agatha Christie’s grandson.’

Sophie Hannah

The idea for Closed Casket, which incidentally is another four-word idea [like Murder on the Orient Express], describing how the novel ends, came when she had an argument with her sister. As Sophie now ‘blames’ her Christie fixation on her father Norm’s cricket book collection, I feel we have much to thank the Geras family for.

She doesn’t know if her book is any good, but she does know that her idea is. It’s the best and simplest idea ever, and she is very fond of this book. It has an Enid Blyton style character in it, and if the first chapter is anything to go by, I can see this will be a fun book to read.

Sophie doesn’t write chronologically, and in this case she was so tired that she began with the easiest chapter. Chapter 23. The house where the murder takes place was found by extensive time spent on Rightmove until she happened upon a house in Ireland that fitted the bill. So no, nothing to do with Irish politics in 1929.

Sophie Hannah

As she doesn’t know how many Poirot books there might be, Sophie is eking out the years between 1928 and 1932, not letting much time pass between her first two mysteries, just in case. Hitherto every generation has discovered the world of Agatha Christie, but not the current one. That’s partly the reason the Christie family needed something new to offer potential readers, and the idea appears to have been successful, with fresh interest in Poirot.

No, writing Poirot is not difficult. It has ‘instantly become the thing she most wants to do.’ Even if she does have to share the profits with the Christie family. Sophie does not want to write any Miss Marple stories, if only to prevent herself from believing she actually is Agatha. She’s already half expecting them to turn over Agatha’s house Greenway to her…

Sophie Hannah

How, erm, very Nobel

Bob Dylan eh?

I like it. I mean, I’m not a particular fan of Dylan’s, but I’m not not a fan either. He’s just Dylan.

It’s funny though. Yesterday morning on Facebook people were discussing who it might be, who they wanted it to be, and so on, mentioning names I’d either heard of, or ones I really didn’t know much about. My only comment was that surely the Swedish Academy could only pick someone no one – but them – had ever come across.

Peter Englund

Can’t you just picture it, The Eighteen sitting around pondering who they could possibly find that would enable them to hold their heads up high. And then some bright spark (that could be absolutely any one of them, obviously) came up with the complete opposite to the ‘never heard of him’ conundrum. ‘Let’s go for Bob Dylan! We just need to think up some clever way of saying why we chose him. But we can do that.’

And Peter Englund – probably – said that even the Bookwitch will know Dylan. Problem solved.

(Yes, I know. Peter is no longer their permanent secretary. But I have a photo of him I can use. And he might ‘know’ me. OK, I have photos of two more members, and I have met one, but not so he would remember.)

It has the surprise factor, and the Swedish Academy never disappoint. They just ‘never disappoint’ in different ways every time.

Bob Dylan… This is Swedish protest at its best. (That rhymed. I’m quite pleased with my phrase. Witty. And rhyme, all at the same time. Yes, I know. That rhymed too, but it was totally unintentional.)

Because, it can’t be because some of those old fogeys want to hang out with Dylan? Or that the King said he wouldn’t mind hanging with Bob?

I wonder what Joan Baez is thinking?

A view of the laureate

If I’d known he’d one day be the children’s laureate, I’d never have addressed Chris Riddell as deluded the first time I emailed him. But I didn’t know, and I did.

Although, he started it, by contacting me and wondering if he might be deluded. I suppose he didn’t have the slightest inkling about any laureateships either.

Now, however, I always feel I must be on my best behaviour around Chris, and that’s a thought I have until I see him, and realise – yet again – what a nice and normal person he is. Not deluded, and just the right amount of stately to carry off the fancy title.

Anyway, enough with the musings about whether one has to be extra polite or not. Here is the interview, and it only took me a month to get it ready. (Never travel or have the builders in when you have a laureate interview to transcribe.)

Chris Riddell with questions box

Reckless 1 – The Petrified Flesh

When asked whether they rewrite their novels, authors generally say no. They might no longer like what they once wrote, but a book stays the way it is. With Reckless, the first book, Cornelia Funke has rewritten a lot, according to her. Something on every page. And it’s true, if she really felt that she hadn’t done the best she could for various characters, especially as viewed from the sequel, that could be reason enough to ‘tamper’ with the previous one.

So, this is a review of the second version of Reckless, The Petrified Flesh. I like it. I might, of course, have liked the older version too.

Cornelia Funke, Reckless 1 - The Petrified Flesh

Jacob has found a way through to another world; the world of fairy tales, but not a cutesy one. In fact, it’s really pretty tough and gruesome a lot of the time, with dangerous plants and strange animals and even stranger ‘people.’ He’s happy there, until his younger brother Will follows him through and gets cursed and is about to turn into stone.

He has to help him and he has to try and stop this if at all possible. We meet many of the people Jacob has got to know over the years, and some new ones, and all are pretty difficult. But as with all magic, some things are harder, but you can also do some quite handy stuff with it.

Will’s girlfriend Clara wants to help save him, and Jacob’s, well, girlfriend, Fox who is a shapeshifter, is forced to look on as Jacob puts himself in danger yet again. It’s exciting, and excrutiatingly tiring, reading about what they have to do in this odd world. It’s enough to cure you of any fairy tale hankerings you may suffer from.

Reading at this stage, where you know there is both a sequel and a soon to be published third instalment, you know that if things can be sorted out it can only be temporary. Besides, in fairy tales there is so much more that needs to happen. Because it can. Because you want it to.