Monthly Archives: May 2020

A Poison Tree

Beware what goes on in charity shops.

I had no idea that used, donated shoes could lead to so much trouble, but I happen to know that Jon Mayhew is someone who knows about these things. Hence the major role played by an ‘innocent’ Wirral charity shop in A Poison Tree, the new adult crime novel by J E Mayhew as he calls himself here.

Jon – J E – is another children’s author who’s switched to killing for adults, on Kindle. (Once I’d read J D Kirk’s ebook, I just happened to buy J E’s as well. Only to check it out and see who’s best and all that.)

The opening scene is great, and the charity shop setting provides a fresh change from all the waterlogged corpses I have encountered recently. In fact, the old shoe boxes with shoes in them (‘What else?’ I hear you say), has a rather menacing quality to them.

DCI Blake is a good detective, not so keen on poetry, and even less keen on cats. His cat, at least, or his mother’s cat. We don’t know what happened to the mother, but Serafina the cat is vicious. Quite a few dead bodies in the Wirral, and plenty of secrets. Just about everyone Blake talks to seems fishy.

Blake has a good team, and they eventually work out who did it. And, you know, proceed with caution when you get to the charity shop. Don’t buy the red Converse boots, whatever you do!


The Stone Giant

Literature is full of clever little girls and stupid monsters. The Stone Giant by Anna Höglund, and translated by Julia Marshall, is one example.

There is a young girl, living on an isolated island with her brave father. One day he leaves her alone to go and sort out some calamity happening elsewhere, involving people being turned into stone. And of course he fails to return.

The girl – we don’t learn her name – goes off in search of her father, wearing a red dress reminiscent of another red-dressed heroine.

On the way, she meets a wise old woman, who gives her some advice on how to deal with the giant. So with the help of an umbrella and a mirror, the girl fools the dreaded giant and all the stony people become real people again.

Power to little girls!

Quiz with tea

I’ve written about the quiz books before. Daughter invested in a couple some years ago, and they rather saved Christmas. It’s good to have something like twenty questions to whip out when the conversation dries up.

She got them out again when we were confined to the house all those weeks ago, but after a couple of sessions she concluded we’d done them all. Or mostly.

The internet was consulted and soon there was another pub quiz book on the way to us. This one is ‘the same’ but newer and bigger. She tried buying it used, only to discover someone snapped it up right in front of her eyes, as she was ‘thinking about it’. I said I felt the positive effect of such a book made the cost of a brand new one perfectly OK.

This time round, we go through the book methodically over tea, working our way through the easy section. The medium section is looming closer every day, but I dare say we will manage.

I have no idea who Blur are. But I live in hope that one day the right answer will turn out to be just that. I don’t even know when they were, so when Daughter scoffs and points out I’m in the wrong decade, I can’t do much about it.

How many?

I don’t get this. I know we are all different, but how many books do you need to sell to be a success?

Quite a few authors have shared their sales figures with me. I have no idea if I’m supposed to keep quiet about them, but let’s assume that I am. Let’s just say I have been surprised. Not by the smallish number a good many absolutely fantastically good authors have sold. It’s wrong and it’s unfair and I don’t know how they live or how they sit down and write the next book. But they do.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I’ve also been taken aback by how few copies – at least of the hardback – one or two authors with very solid reputations and marvellous novels, have sold.

How does selling 40 000 copies of your books sound to you? It’s not J K Rowling, but it’s quite respectable. Especially for someone who’s not a household name.

More than ten years ago I was persuaded to buy a crime novel when on holiday in Sweden. Written by Christina Larsson, who holidays just around the corner from the sales point, and let me tell you, that is no cheap place to have a holiday home. I’d never heard of her, but felt duty bound to support both the author and the ‘bookseller’.

I never got round to reading the book, though. I went looking for it recently, but deduced it’s either ‘on holiday’ without me, or it’s a charity case. I suspect the former.

Anyway, I looked, because I discovered Christina was about to receive some award in Finland, being very popular there (all these years later). The award caused articles to be written about her and her humble writerly beginnings. The first three novels – of which I bought the second – ‘only’ managed to sell 40 000 copies, so she gave up her writer career plans due to lack of success.

I’m afraid my jaw dropped. I know the publishing business in Sweden is more benevolent than the dog-eat-dog in the UK. But I don’t see how these sales figures could be considered a failure.

Eventually Christina did continue writing and has now done even better.

At the same time she has run a summer restaurant in the holiday resort, throwing lots of time and money at it.

And before that she moved the whole resort to somewhere in the vicinity of Madagascar if I don’t remember wrong. Son has the hoodie to prove it. Lots of merchandise got printed with the wrong latitude and longitude. These things happen. And Son enjoys his ‘mistaken’ hoodie.

What I only discovered last year, was that it was a friend of mine who’d discovered the Indian Ocean aspects of our summer paradise. 🙃

And I still believe 40 000 is more than fine.

The point

‘What’s the point?’ is a question I have asked several times recently.

I actually found the point one day, as I was pontificating about some thing or other, to you, right here on Bookwitch. It’s that I quite like writing. Not all the time, but if I can be a little silly, and far too often when I don’t really mention books.

When it is right, it is really right. Still. I merely need to steer clearer of being polite, say ‘no’ a lot more often, and well, hope for the best, really. My best. Your best.

So what I just did, was bin the pile of ideas I’ve hung onto for the last dozen years, almost not looking through them, or anything. OK, I might have glanced at some. And I kept a few. The rest went straight into the bin, because, let’s face it, if I have saved them since the beginning of time, they must be appalling. At the very least, not interesting.

A bit like me.

Lisette’s Green Sock

To learn to be happy with what you have. That’s what you find in this adorable picture book by Catharina Valckx.

Lisette – who is a duck – is out for a walk when she finds a lovely green sock. She puts it on, and is very happy. At least until a couple of cat bullies tells her how silly she is with just the one sock.

She looks for the missing sock, but only finds a fish with some of its own treasure. Her pal Bert – who might be a rat – reckons the sock is a great hat, and being a kind friend, Lisette lets him wear it.

In the end there are three socks; one for Lisette and one for Bert, and one for the fish. Everyone’s happy in their own way.

(Translated from Dutch by Antony Shugaar)

Are we really ready for this?

To mention, or not to mention. That is the question.

I am of course talking about the virus. Something that has touched on the lives of everyone, in the whole world, can’t just be disappeared in fiction. Can it?

I’d been thinking about this quite a lot, when a crime writer on social media asked her fellow writers what they thought, and what they were going to do. As for her, she was definitely going to mention it in her future writing, because, how could she not?

But someone else had asked her publisher and they had advised against it. Now, I don’t know if she will take that advice, but unless you set all your modern life fiction in the past, you can’t not have the whole virus situation as part of your story, even if it’s already – hopefully – in the past. It will need to be harked back to.

And if you write crime fiction, what an excellent way of adding a little something.  You could kill, hide, do anything, almost, during a lockdown.

As for children’s fiction, no need to kill off the parents in some outlandish way. Here you have a number of possibilities to make a young protagonist free from bothersome adults.

What you do if you’re halfway through a story now… Well, maybe rewrite it to end before February 2020. Or give up and write something different. Many authors seem to find writing hard right now. I’m not surprised. We don’t know the outcome yet. On the other hand, I marvel when reading books or watching films from, say, 1943. ‘How could they?’ I ask myself, ‘when they didn’t know what we know.’

Publishers are funny. So the one who advised against, can’t be the same who commissioned a Covid novel. I’m guessing it’s going to be a fast turnaround and the book will be out before we know it. I wonder if it’s done in the belief, maybe actual knowledge, that people will flock to such a story, like they supposedly click on news articles online.

I wasn’t ready for a Brexit novel before. I’m certainly not ready for a Covid one now. But as for mentioning it; yes, you must.

The Sunbird

When Elizabeth Wein mentioned her 2004 novel The Sunbird recently, saying she had just re-read it, I decided I needed to get my copy out. It’s so unusual to hear an author say they’ve read their own book again, long after publication. Elizabeth has signed my copy, claiming ‘it is the darling of my heart’.

But, being the third in a trilogy, I’d not got to it. Now, though, reading the inside cover blurb, I [re]discovered that it is about a deadly plague, and quarantine, in the African kingdom of Aksum during the sixth century. I didn’t ask, but maybe that explains the re-reading? It’s such a coincidence. For me, anyway.

We’re back in the Eritrea/Ethiopia corner of Africa, which Elizabeth knows well. Telemakos is related to kings, and when he accidentally discovers how some men intend to use the quarantine to make money, he tells his aunt who is Britain’s ambassador to Aksum. She asks Telemakos to undertake several dangerous tasks to save their country.

I don’t know how old Telemakos is; but I am guessing 10-12. From here on it’s mostly a thrilling spy mission for a young boy, and it gets very exciting. Elizabeth is not gentle with her characters, and Telemakos suffers a great deal. I imagine it’s realistic.

There is less mention of the plague and I assume it’s there as the reason for what Telemakos has to do. If it was written today, there would most likely be more of the fear of contagion. But still, it’s very current. Bad men will be bad men, whatever century they live in. And money rules.

We have a likeable hero in Telemakos, and his family feels so real.

And yes, you can read a third book first.


“When he gets older losing his hair
Not so many years from now
Will I still be sending him a Valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine

When he’s sixty-four
I’ll be older too”

Yes, well, you get the gist.

One of us has reached that far away pinnacle of old age, and it wasn’t me. (I remember back in the 1970s counting forward to the year 2000, marvelling at the very old age I would have got to then. Now I think about it, it wasn’t so bad…)

And no, I don’t generally send him Valentines. I don’t think he’d want one. This year Daughter and I shared a birthday card, even. But it was mathematical, and that’s what counts. (See what I did there?)

Son and I had the same idea for a present, but luckily not identical. Let’s just say Bookwitch Towers will henceforth be equipped with both Private Eye and The New Statesman. And coffee, and socks adorned with mostly mathematical stuff, but the odd taco and pineapple did shoulder their way in too.

Thank goodness for authors who send out newsletters. Stephen Booth reminded me just in time that he had the perfect gift. His new-ish, standalone crime novel Drowned Lives in hardback, with any dedication I wanted, posted directly to where it was wanted.

So that was that.

(So far we have resisted singing that song out loud. Might not be able to keep it up, though.)

What sister number four did

In this day and age when we rarely work at the same thing for our whole working lives – if indeed, we have jobs at all – it’s refreshingly unusual when someone does. Someone normal, just like you or me.

Like my youngest half-sister. As some of you will recall, I have several half-sisters, but I didn’t know them when we grew up. This one, B, is very close to me in age, so I can sort of identify with what she did and when she did it.

Which is why I am right now trying to visualise myself still doing the job I trained for in 1976. It’s not even there now, so I couldn’t if I wanted to.

B started her job even earlier, at eighteen. And now she has retired after 44 years of driving underground trains in Stockholm. Imagine that; my sister, the train driver! It has a certain wow factor about it.

Today she officially moves into her new home. My address book has been suitably amended.

And it seems she got married on Saturday. It’s all go.