Author Archives: bookwitch

Opening doors

For a short while – well, more like at least five minutes – I lost a French philosopher. I reckoned I could cope, as I had a government minister instead, and I could make up the philosophy bit, but then I found him again, where he should be, in the trolley.

I’d read about the Östersund football team, and how they dance, read, visit schools, behaving in a generally very cultural way. Apparently it has improved the soccer as well. They have a culture coach, whose favourite French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s thoughts are helping the team advance. (I don’t even have a philosopher, let alone French or favourite or anything.)

So, these young men act and perform and read, and I believe one of them even wrote a book. Judging by their names many are of non-Swedish origin. Many also seemed to think this culture stuff was stupid, until they discovered the benefits, like intelligence, and a better game.

Bourdieu’s thoughts on cultural capital go along the lines that education will open doors that money can’t. About how we often inherit this capital from our parents. This is both so obvious and so simple, and living in a country where people pay for ‘better’ education (without necessarily getting it) for their children, it’s encouraging to think it’s not necessary.

I mean, I knew that anyway, but sometimes you worry. (The fact that more privately educated children come to the Resident IT Consultant for extra maths lessons to help them pass their exams, could be because their parents are already used to paying [though they ought to be furious at having to pay twice], but it also proves that private schools aren’t the best.)

And then to top the philosopher, schools minister Nick Gibb last week said that ‘reading for pleasure is more important than a family’s socio-economic status in determining a child’s success at school.’ It’s very nice to hear that, but at the same time I wish his government would make this reading much more possible than it is at the moment.

We could be allowed to keep our libraries, and teachers could be given permission to spend more time on pushing reading for pleasure. But I suppose it’s going to be up to the parents to foster this love of reading, in which case they need to have this ‘capital’ to pass on, in the first place, and they need to have enough time and energy to support and engage with their children.

But at least it’s nice for someone to spout a sensible opinion, instead of the usual rubbish.

As for me, I don’t think that money would have taken me to the places and the people that books have, or that the English lessons at school helped achieve. Offspring would probably have done all right at any of the local schools. We picked ours for the rugby, and discovered by accident that it was also rare for offering two foreign languages. But no money passed hands, and the letters for private tutoring that the school was obliged to send home, went straight in the bin.

Jonathan Unleashed

Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan reminds me a lot of God. That’s God as in There Is No Dog. Or Justin from Just in Case. Young and adorable and a little useless.

Meg Rosoff, Jonathan Unleashed

Here, in Meg’s new novel Jonathan Unleashed, There Are Two Dogs, and thank goodness for that! Don’t know where Jonathan, or the reader, would be without them. Persevering with that dreadful funeral in celadon, most likely. Sorry, I meant wedding. A real-real wedding – of colour – to Jonathan’s long term girlfriend Julie, who is so wrong for him that it’s hard to know where to start.

And here’s the thing. You know when your favourite author changes genre? To the kind that you like the least. To me adult novels are full of angsty and weird ‘adults’ who worry about their relationship[s] throughout a whole book, with a bit of careers and sex thrown in. (When there could be ficticious wars and under-age sex between cousins. The odd wizard, maybe.)

So, Jonathan Unleashed is about an angsty young man, who is rather weird (his girlfriend points out, ‘you used to be less weird’), and who worries about this proposed funeral – pardon, wedding – to Julie, and about his job, and the dogs, with a bit of sex thrown in.

And you know what? It’s simply wonderful! I could read it again, and again. It’s only marginally more adult than the fairly adult YA novels Meg has written so far. It’s still as crazy, very New York, very Meg Rosoff, lots of dogs. How could you not love it?

Poor Jonathan works in marketing, writing the most soul-destroying lines to sell useless stuff. He lives in a flat that seems to be too good to be true (there is a reason for that) and then his brother moves abroad, leaving his two dogs Dante and Sissy with Jonathan.

He worries about them. That they might not be happy. Perhaps they are depressed? A bit of canine weltschmerz? He takes them to the vet, Dr Clare, to discuss the likelihood of this and whether they might one day rip a small child’s face off.

Now, that is as far from their minds as these dogs go. They have an agenda. They can tell Jonathan needs help, and they are prepared to provide it. They are not hypochondriacs. They know what they are doing. When professional wedding planner Julie suggests this funeral – sorry, wedding – for her and Jonathan, those dogs need to take action.

There is a French coffeeshop woman who is very lovely, there is Dr Clare, and there is Greeley, the uncertainly sexed new PA at work. Who’s it going to be, and can anything be done before Jonathan goes crazier still? I mean, you can’t have a hero going round speaking funny (even if it is stress-induced).

Limpopo gleam.

When you feel stupidly neurotic, it’s refreshing and reassuring to meet someone who’s got it worse.

Blimp. Pork toff.

Bookwitch bites #134

Kathryn Evans’s launch earlier in the week went very well, as I might have mentioned. Books selling out and bookshops being tightly packed and all that. Here is a photo I may have stolen from Candy Gourlay, which shows how happy Kathryn was and how they couldn’t possibly have fitted me in.

Kathryn Evans

On the same day the list of authors taking part in the 2016 Yay! YA+ in Cumbernauld was announced, after organiser Kirkland Ciccone had had me on tenterhooks for a long time. Some I know, some I don’t.

And the programme for Glasgow’s Aye Write! has now been made public, and you can get your tickets very very soon. Please do! They always have so many people coming that I want to go and see, that I have to give myself a stern talking to and remind me that I don’t have the stamina for traipsing to Glasgow all the time. But there is one event I must go to. Have a look through the programme and see if you can work out which one.

It was National Libraries Day yesterday, and the Guardian published love letters to libraries by people such as Meg Rosoff and Ann Cleeves.

The Branford Boase longlist was announced this week, and I have read precisely one of the books on it. I don’t know what’s wrong with me… And the odd thing is that even though it’s for first novels, I could swear some of those authors have been around for years. It’s probably just me again, isn’t it? To the list:

Othergirl by Nicole Burstein, edited by Charlie Sheppard (Andersen Press)
Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare, edited by Penny Thomas (Firefly)
The Bolds by Julian Clary, edited by Charlie Sheppard (Andersen Press). Illustrations by David Roberts
The Baby by Lisa Drakeford, edited by Rachel Leyshon (Chicken House)
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, edited by Jane Griffiths (Simon & Schuster)
Captive by A J Grainger, edited by Elv Moody and Christian Trimmer (Simon & Schuster)
Seed by Lisa Heathfield, edited by Ali Dougal (Egmont)
Deep Water by Lu Hersey, edited by Sarah Stewart (Usborne)
Stone Rider by David Hofmeyr, edited by Ben Horslen (Penguin Random House)
13 Days of Midnight by Leo Hunt, edited by Jessica Tarrant (Hachette)
The Next Together by Lauren James, edited by Annalie Grainger (Walker)
The Unlikely Mabel Jones by Will Mabbitt, edited by Ben Horslen (Penguin Random House). Illustrated by Ross Collins.
Me and Mr J by Rachel McIntyre, edited by Stella Paskins (Egmont)
The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin, edited by Clare Whitson (Oxford). Illustrated by the author.
Girl on a Plane by Miriam Moss, edited by Charlie Sheppard (Andersen Press)
The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, edited by Genevieve Herr (Scholastic)
My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons, edited Kirsty Stansfield (Nosy Crow)
Birdy by Jess Vallance, edited by Emma Matthewson (Hot Key Books)
Hamish and the Worldstoppers by Danny Wallace, edited by Jane Griffiths (Simon & Schuster). Illustrated by Jamie Littler
One of Us by Jeannie Waudby, edited by Rachel Leyshon (Chicken House)
Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford edited by Nicholas Lake (HarperCollins)
The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, edited by Bella Pearson (David Fickling Books)
The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine, edited by Alison Dougal and Hannah Sandford (Egmont)

Nine

Half-baked cake and dining out with men I’m not married to. That, apparently, is what I wrote about on my last two blog birthdays. I never know what to say, so decided to go all historical and see what worked on previous occasions.

While it was quite entertaining (yes, I’m the kind of witch who laughs at her own jokes), it provided me with no inspiration whatsoever.

But, well, the thing is. We are nine years old, Bookwitch and me. Who’d have thought? Much greyer, and much fatter. Less spring (I accidentally typed sproing…) in our step. More autumn, probably. But that’s what broomsticks are for.

We’re happy though (when we manage to stay awake), so will soldier on for a while longer. We’d like to do some more interviews. The face-to-face kind, so if a few people wouldn’t mind coming round here?

Pass the half-baked cake! I’ll have cream with mine. And I’ll enjoy it in the company of the Resident IT Consultant, and not some other man.

A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper, A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper has done what she does so well, which is to take the tales of poor servant girls in the past, and put them in a book that anyone can read. So often this kind of story only comes as an old, fat classic of 500 pages or more, and with small print to boot. Thank you to Barrington Stoke who understand that everyone would want to read this.

In A Dark Trade we meet orphan Gina, who at 16 is ready to leave the cruel orphanage and go to work. In her case a seemingly lovely big house in London in the mid-1800s. But of course it doesn’t work out like that. Big houses, however beautiful, come with their own problems, and in this case it’s a young master with the wrong idea of what a girl servant is for.

Gina makes a run for it, and disguises herself as a boy. But it’s the usual fire and frying pan scenario, and she is no better off as a male shop assistant.

Mary occasionally lets a book end less well than you’d hoped for, so I wasn’t sure what she might have up her sleeve this time. Read the book and find out!

Wildwitch Wildfire

My first Lene Kaaberbøl book, but possibly not my last. Wildwitch Wildfire is book no. 1  in what looks like a series about Clara, who is small and shy and completely normal, until the day she is attacked by a – very large – black cat.

Lene Kaaberbøl, Wildwitch Wildfire

She becomes quite ill, and she discovers things about herself and her family. And then she ends up living with an aunt, who is a bit of a witch, and whose task it is to make Clara a fully fledged witch herself.

It seems to be less of the evil witch stuff (apart from the kind of evil you need in a book) and more a case of living in harmony with wildlife. To do good things; to fight what is bad.

Our heroine proves much more resourceful than she expects to be, and she is very brave when she has to be.

And that cat? Well…

(Translated from Danish by Charlotte Barslund, and illustrated by Rohan Eason.)

Scared off

In my past I have surprised people by not being scared of the head teacher; either my own, or Offspring’s. I have been surprised at the people who were. They were the ‘cool’ ones, and I was never cool. But how could you be scared of the head teacher? (By which I mean, scared because they are the head. If someone is really scary as a person, then that is different.)

I suppose it’s what you are used to. As a teacher’s child, I grew up with creatures such as head teachers.

Just like Lucy Hawking grew up surrounded by scientists. I recently read this very enlightening article in Vogue India, about what it’s like to be the daughter of Stephen Hawking. (I’d say that sometimes it might be nice for her to be asked about herself, and not just because of whose child she happens to be.)

One discovery Lucy made was this;  ‘I didn’t reject science because I was scared of it, because I felt nervous or afraid. I simply wanted to do something different with my life. And with what I now recognise as the lack of a wider perspective that a Cambridge and Oxford education gave me, I didn’t think other people strayed away from science for anything other than personal preference either.’

That’s what I imagined too; that you move towards something that you want, more than away from something you aren’t ‘supposed’ to be doing, like science if you are a girl. She describes how girls tell her they don’t ask questions in science lessons, in case they ‘get it wrong.’ (I was only ever nervous of talking in class in general, because I didn’t want to be noticed.)

And it wasn’t until Lucy’s article that I realised that the recent cases I’ve come across on sexual harassment at university level, where an older academic male has got involved with a female student, was anything other than poor judgement in picking a sexual partner. I hadn’t stopped to think that they might do this because deep down they don’t feel that a female student belongs in the science department.

So it’s very good indeed that Lucy talks about science, and that she writes fiction for children, about science, where the budding scientist is a clever and sassy girl. We need more of this kind of thing. I still despair that the sexes will ever be equal in science, but it’s worth a try.

(When I was 14, my then chemistry teacher was the kind of teacher who shared openly with the class who had done best. I was a little surprised to find I was one of the two – along with another girl – but I was far more surprised to discover how furious the boys were. Not because it wasn’t them as individuals, but because all the males had lost out to girls, in a science subject. I was also surprised that they had the nerve to say so out loud. Whereas the teacher simply suggested they might want to work a bit harder in that case. Whether he had an agenda, or was just tactless in letting results be public, I have no idea.)