Monthly Archives: May 2021

Fake News

‘I’ll send out a copy of Fake News too’, said the publisher in response to my comment that while C J Dunford’s new YA title looked quite promising, I didn’t have a lot of May left in which to read it. But she clearly knew what she was doing, guilting me into finding more reading time.

Only joking! Once Fake News was here, I could tell it was a book for which May had to be stretched a little. But it has caused me much trouble, I have to tell you. The first afternoon when it was lying on my table, to be picked up by my hands, I had to – twice – remove it from the hands of the Resident IT Consultant, who, unbidden, declared it looked really good. And as I was racing through the book, I attempted to stop for little breaks every now and then, but it was actually impossible to stop. I closed the book and opened it again within seconds.

This is an intelligently written story – which will be why a certain somebody thought it was an adult novel. Let me just say it takes much more to write quite so sensibly and entertainingly for a YA audience. Partly set in a school, and also in the bedrooms of the four children involved, it doesn’t sink to the usual levels of such tales.

Three teenagers, one 11-year-old (he’s so clever he’s been moved up a few years at school) and a dog, decide to give the world some more fake news. Just to prove it can be done and that we are gullible. They do it for several good reasons, or I wouldn’t have approved. And there are aliens.

Possibly the aliens were why things happened the way they did, but that was also a lot of fun. And can you believe teenagers are so young these days they haven’t watched ET? GCHQ might have been involved. And eco-warriors. A creepy wannabe journalist, some surprisingly decent teachers at school, and the question of whether pink and purple go together.

Fake News is so much fun. You too will want to read it, even if there is very little May left. You can have June.

See you at the launch tonight?



You know when you oversleep? You wake up disoriented, maybe disgusted with yourself, and everyone is already somewhere else?

This is what happens to the mammoth in this picture book by Anna Kemp, with really very mammothy illustrations by Adam Beer. He is quite late waking up. Where is his herd? And what are all those odd things he can see everywhere?

Well you can tell what’s happened. Modern life is here and his herd is no more.

Slowly our mammoth gets used to this strange new world, and he tries really hard to fit in, but also to find a new herd for himself.

There is one. There nearly always is one, if you look hard enough. Not the same as before, but creatures you can hang out with. This goes for most of us.

Big in Barnes

Today I bring you a review from the keyboard of the Resident IT Consultant. He’s been enjoying Bernard O’Keeffe’s debut crime novel, The Final Round:

“DI Garibaldi is the only policeman in the Met who can’t drive a car which means when he’s not being driven by his DS, he uses a bicycle or buses to get around. The tube gives him claustrophobia and he feels you learn more about London and its people by travelling by bus. You have to go back sixty years to the crime novels of John Creasey and his ‘handsome West of the Yard’ to find a London detective who travels by bus.

DI Garibaldi lives in Barnes, so when a man’s body is found near the Thames, he’s conveniently close to hand. The victim was last seen at a charity quiz at which, during the last round, a series of scandalous allegations were made about his Oxford contemporaries, most of whom also live in Barnes. Any one of them might be the murderer, and their sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction only reinforces one’s suspicions.

Perhaps DI Garibaldi is a little unrealistically free from the police procedures and paperwork that dog most other modern detectives, but it’s an amusing story, firmly rooted in southwest London, and leading to an exciting climax.”

And, there’s more! On the day of publication – Thursday – the Resident IT Consultant joined me at the launch, held online and also a little bit in the Barnes Bookshop, where Gyles Brandreth showed what a fan of the book he is, by asking Bernard lots of questions. And he’s also a Barnes inhabitant…

After explaining quite how much the book, or rather, the detective, has to do with Garibaldi biscuits, Bernard read from the beginning of the book, when the dead body is found..

Generally speaking, this was a very Barnes-y launch, quite noisy, in fact, with what I suspect to have been mostly Bernard’s friends and family, plus the publishers. And us at Bookwitch Towers and Bernard’s publicist Fiona, also up here in the north.

Apart from being a bit related to the biscuit, on his wife’s side, Bernard refused to jinx book no. 2 by talking about it prematurely. He is a pantser, not a plotter, and it sounded as if he’s the kind of author who changes his mind about who did it, somewhere in the process of writing. More exciting that way.

Asked who he’d like to see as Garibaldi on screen, were this ever to happen, Bernard moved swiftly between [a younger] Tom Conti, or maybe Peter Capaldi, to Toby Jones, which really doesn’t leave us any the wiser as to what the man looks like.

Oh well.

The virtual Phil Earle

One has some great looking string lights and the other a colour coordinated bookcase. And it really does improve things when someone with a new book to launch – Phil Earle – gets to do the launching with a good friend – Sarah Crossan, or two – Charlie Sheppard. The always enthusiastic Charlie, who is Phil’s editor, introduced everyone and pointed out that the best thing is to be friends with authors, followed by free food and wine.

Sarah Crossan, who is a great friend, took over the chatting with Phil. She knew what to ask and which direction to go, even if she was having to get used to not chatting as privately as usual. Although, no secret was made of the fact that Phil has had some personal problems, when ‘everything went wrong’, in the last five years or so. It had made him worry that he was ‘done’ with his idea for the new book – When the Sky Falls – but in the end he channelled all his pain and wrote it.

According to everyone who has provided a quote for the book, and I do mean literally everyone, this is not just Phil’s best work but really great stuff in general. (I can’t wait to read it.) It has been compared to Goodnight Mister Tom, The Machine Gunners, Kes, and so on. Set in WWII it’s about a boy who is so badly behaved that he is packed off to London, in a reverse evacuee kind of way.

The idea appears to have come from Phil’s ex father-in-law’s father and what he did in the war. (Basically, if there was a bomb threat to the local zoo, he was to shoot the lion.) Phil read to us – from page 30 – about when his main character meets a different animal at a different zoo. It’s the kind of reading that makes you want to know more.

He put his own feelings into this book, and as Phil said, ‘I can only write like I can’. He’d been afraid he was too old, in a world of publishers obsessed with debut authors, but judging by what everyone has said, he’s done all right. There was a lot of emotion, for a book launch. And contrary to what most authors say when asked about their favourite of the books they’ve written, Phil really does love When the Sky Falls best of all his. And he has written some seriously great books.

Interestingly, both Phil and Sarah, are currently reading Hilary McKay’s new book, and Phil also praised Elizabeth Wein’s war stories. He likes to read about ‘the small stuff’, rather than official war history.

He’s now off to visit sixty bookshops to sign books. ‘I have waited for this!’

You’d better watch out, for Phil and his book.

The Swallows’ Flight

I need to offer up even more and bigger thanks to Hilary McKay and her writing. It seemed impossible that there could be a book as great as, or greater than, The Skylarks’ War, but with The Swallows’ Flight I would say Hilary has done the impossible.

Thank you from the bottom of my tear-drenched hankie.

This time it’s about the children born between the two wars, whose turn it is to fight when WWII begins. Although, as with Skylarks, we learn most of what we need to know in the twenty years before. The war is ‘skirted past’ reasonably briefly. Unlike its predecessor, Swallows features not only a group of children in England, but we are introduced to two German boys and their families in Berlin.

And it works. We get to know Hans and Erik as human beings, and we see the changes to life in Germany alongside the boys. We find out what they want to do with their lives until developments mean they end up doing totally different things; in this case the boys become pilots in the Luftwaffe.

At ‘home’ we meet the generation after Clarry, Peter and Rupert from Skylarks. Peter and Vanessa have six children, and Clarry is godmother both to her niece Kate and to her best friend Violet’s daughter Ruby. We all need a Clarry godmother!

While we wait for the war that lumbers towards the families, we mostly learn about normal stuff like sibling rivalry, being bullied at school or being unwell and almost forgotten about by others. It is all this that forms the characters of these children, soon to be adults. Even Clarry’s and Peter’s rather unsatisfactory father has a role to play. There are cats, including a very random one, and there is a – smelly – dog.

There is much over the years to be sad about, but also many small and humorous incidents. I won’t spoil your reading.

My tears were partly over the inevitable deaths, but more for all those moments that simply make you cry. They rather bunch up towards the end of the story. There is much humanity here, and Hilary’s touch is lighter than ever.

Do you think it’s funny to be here?

Crawled out of bed early to attend a Norwegian frokostseminar, which translated means something like an online talk at breakfast time, and being hosted in Norway meant an earlier crawling at this end.

I only do this sort of thing for special people – in this case Son – who was giving a talk, ‘Britain: so close, it’s practically Scandinavian?’ It works both ways; Scandinavians believe they are really good at English, and the British know all about hygge these days.

Hah. I was served a shit sandwich. (Language, boy!) It’s not something I usually consider, but yes, the British tend to hide a bad message with kind words, whereas the pragmatic Scandinavians just get to the point. And being Scandinavian, their sandwiches are open affairs, so you can’t really hide the shit all that effectively.

I was gratified to see that our chance encounter with some lovely people about twenty years ago, was still good for a translation talk. We had just arrived in Sweden for our holiday. We went for a walk and met a dear neighbour with her son and daughter-in-law, and the latter enquired whether we’d had a bath yet. We had not. We had not gone for a swim yet, either.

For the Q&A afterwards, someone wanted to understand the difference between fun and funny. The Resident IT Consultant and I laughed [off microphone]. But it set me thinking. At the tender age of 13 I must already have known the difference. My English pen friend visited me in Sweden. We met up with a couple of my friends one day, and the chatty one asked the pen friend if it ‘was funny to be here’ and the pen friend looked really confused. Especially as she probably thought it was rather funny to be there. But I knew where the chatty one had gone wrong and what she should have said instead, so managed to clear it up.

But yes – or should that be no? – neither side of the North Sea can pretend to be the other. Hygge is impossible to grasp (by reading books, anyway), and no matter how good your English is, people can tell you are not.

Plus I’m seriously considering crawling back into bed.

New covers

It’s not only old book covers that I get enthusiastic about.

Here are two adult crime novels, which both arrived on the same day, thereby being more noticeable [to me].

I may very well not read them. I’m sorry. But it’s time and all that, again. It doesn’t grow on trees. But I like the look of both novels, and by that I mean insides and outsides.

Neil Humphreys’ Bloody Foreigners is out in July, whereas Alan Johnson’s The Late Train to Gipsy Hill is not until September.

The thing about both covers is that they don’t look exactly like every other adult crime novel at the moment. Yes, the man on the dark street is not unusual, but the colours are attractive. And I will probably always love a train-related cover like Alan’s book has. Not much colour, but well used.

These days you get a lot of ‘special’ cover reveals, engineered to attract early attention for a book due to be published soon. But I find it so hard to work up the required enthusiasm under those circumstances. Whereas here, I saw, and I liked, and it wasn’t pushed at me.

Isn’t there anything else you can say?

In place of OMG, that is?

We’ve been watching too much of a certain type of television. The Dog House was lovely, and I can quite see why people felt the need to say those three words when coming face to face with cute puppy or needy older dog.

And we’ve returned to the company of Kirstie and Phil, and I’m surprised how much I like them. Actually. Their charges, not so much. Some like the houses offered while others are wanting more and better and cheaper. It’s probably mostly the former category who say those words when seeing a new potential home.

This harks back to the older programmes, where people volunteered to have their gardens or homes redone, and then having to say something when faced with the consequences. I mean, the results.

I’ve been trying to think what other words would convey a similar meaning; anything from ‘that’s just awful and I’m going to cry’, to ‘I love it’. I’m not coming up with much. Someone suggested crikey, but I’m not a crikey kind of witch. Nor golly, or gosh.

It’s not so much religious qualms as simply growing tired of the same verbal reaction to every single thing. I can even lipread those words if I’ve silenced the television.

I sense we are in for more of these words tonight, from Rotterdam. And I’m still puzzled by how this music competition became simply Eurovision. That surely is the whole television organisation within Europe (plus Australia, obviously…)? Not just one programme. One which I will have to not watch, but primarily listen to, because it’s turned into a contest to see who can have the most strobe lighting.

Eurovision strobe contest.

An evening with Dan Smith and Tom Palmer

I can’t be sure, but I think Tom Palmer might have been sitting on his desk. His fellow author Dan Smith sat next to the requisite bookshelves, and their Barrington Stoke ‘boss’ Ailsa Bathgate had shelves behind her desk.

Thursday evening’s event with Tom and Dan was a comfortable sort of affair, where a few friends sat around chatting about books and writing. It was well worth rearranging dinner plans for.

They talked dogs when Zoom opened its doors. I got the impression that someone had been so smitten by Tom’s dog in D-Day Dog that they had got themselves a dog… Not all dogs are the same and real ones are not like their fictional peers. Tom apologised, saying he didn’t know he was influencing anyone to get a dog. He made it up.

According to Ailsa, Tom has written something like 17 books for Barrington Stoke, while Dan is a relative newcomer with two, and a third on the way. Tom read us the first chapter from Arctic Star, and it was nice to hear his voice again.

Then Dan read from somewhere in the middle of his Beast of Harwood Forest, and as far as I’m concerned I never want to see those creepy dolls’ eyes hanging from the trees. Or was it the dolls that were hanging? Anyway, they had eyes. Dan writes for himself, both the adult and his younger self. He read us a letter he’d sent to his parents from boarding school at the age of seven, when he was very much into ghost stories.

Tom got the idea for Arctic Star from his wife, who used to work on the HMS Belfast. He also felt there’s very little children’s fiction about the navy. To make sure he gets his books right, he ‘tests them on children’ which tickled Dan’s sense of humour. Now that Tom’s own children are older, he sees things differently than when they were small.

He also asked Dan if he ever dissuades fans from buying one of his books if it’s aimed at a much older age. Tom apparently has done this, but maybe because they are about ‘real’ things. Whereas Dan’s books are made up, and children like creepy stuff, ‘being scared in a safe way’.

Dan likes writing dyslexia friendly books. It lets him skip the boring bits, as he put it. Now he finds he shortens his ‘normal’ fiction for another publisher as well. He enjoys reading Barrington Stokes books, too, and has a shelf for them.

Having been a late reader himself, Tom knows the importance of short chapters. His have been known to be one page long. As Dan agreed, children often ask how many chapters a book has, rather than how many pages.

The next books are another one from Dan set in Crooked Oak again, and Tom has plans for a girl in WWII. I can’t wait. While Dan doesn’t worry too much about getting his chapter one right, or so he said, Tom works at getting a James Bond style first chapter to catch the reader’s attention.

For inspiration Dan recommends walking in the woods, smelling it, and preferably being alone. (Not with those dolls’ eyes!) It’s not surprising he likes Stephen King. Tom was more for watching WWII films when he grew up, which he reckons is why he is obsessed with war stories. And he loves the research.

Other, or belonging

I grew up in a very white country. So the child Bookwitch was not really able to see that there could be more black characters in her fiction. The books reflected – mostly – what I saw around me.

There was a piece about the lack of black children’s books [characters] by Lenny Henry in The Bookseller. I wish he’d had someone in his reading world that he could have identified with. But he also makes an assumption about being white and reading ‘white’ fiction. He assumes that I could find myself in the books I read, because Julian, Dick, George and Anne, and I, all have white skin.

I always felt like the outsider. Others were more fun, slimmer, richer, cleverer, had more friends, had siblings, had two parents, were braver, had dogs, or could ride horses. And so on. They weren’t me.

I used to spend my time thinking that ‘if only’ then my life too would be ‘that other thing which defined others’.

So no, I didn’t read Blyton thinking they were my kind of people. I read the Famous Five books for the same thrills that Lenny presumably did. The books were about others. White others, but still others.

Sweden in the 1950s or 60s could not be expected to have black fiction. Now it can, and to some extent it does. I was pleased to find the young first time authors I met in Edinburgh 18 months ago were less white than they might have been fifty years earlier.

And in Britain there should be more authors and books for and about non-white people. But I don’t think I personally can make that happen. I hope that those who want to write, will, and that publishers have seen the light and will publish.

Lenny mentions that when reading with his daughter, there was one child with dreadlocks in Harry Potter. The thing is, if that had been my childhood reading, I would merely have filed away another thing I was not, which is magic. And while I still don’t feel I belong more than anyone else, I have realised that many – most? – of us tend to believe that others are much more ‘that thing we’d want to be’.