Author Archives: bookwitch

Which uni?

Life’s not easy.

I don’t know if anyone here remembers little ChocBiscuit? Not that he will be so little these days. Son has grown up, and hopefully, so has ChocBiscuit. Some years ago I wrote about him and his family here. Not that it matters.

But I had another narrow escape – other than the one I mentioned then – chatting to his father.

There we were, sitting on the uncomfortable chairs at the local playgroup. I must have told him about my Swedish background. That’s unusual in itself, as I tend to avoid such things. Maybe he heard me talking to Son. Because with his own connection to Sweden, he’d have understood.

Without further ado, he asked whether I’d gone to Uppsala or Lund. Which is interesting, as I’d not even hinted at being ‘educated.’ For all he knew I might have left school at 16.

But there he was, asking the Swedish equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge? As though any given country only has the two universities that you could possibly have attended. Or that you are clearly such a proper person that there are only two options, and they need to know which one, before proceeding with the conversation.

Me, I merely skulked, sinking further into the uncomfortable chair, whispering that I went to Gothenburg. I have no recollection of what he said to that. He should have mentally kicked himself for assuming too much, while possibly feeling grateful I had at least gone somewhere.

Through his first wife he had many memories of Uppsala, so he talked about those days. And I never turned the tables on him, but if I had, the answer would have been ‘Oxford.’

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The Legend of Sally Jones

This is all about where you belong. It needn’t be the place you were born, although you will probably always miss it, while still being happy – or not – somewhere else.

Serendipity – and Pushkin Press – brought me Sally Jones, the ‘prequel’ to Jakob Wegelius’ The Murderer’s Ape. It’s not, really. But for those of us who came to Sally Jones in her second book, it will feel like a prequel. For the English language market it is a new book, just published, translated by Peter Graves. The Swedes had the original ten years ago, awarding it prizes.

Jakob Wegelius, The Legend of Sally Jones

Jakob Wegelius did all the illustrations for his recent novel, but here he has really excelled. The Legend of Sally Jones is picture book; each page a work of art. Especially the back cover is gorgeous. And the story is lovely and really tugs at your heartstrings. Now we know what made Sally Jones who she is, and why she is so loyal to her friend the Chief.

Because all through The Murderer’s Ape you have to take it on trust that he deserves all the love Sally Jones shows as she searches for a way to prove he’s no murderer. When you’ve read The Legend of Sally Jones you know.

Sally Jones met some quite bad people when she grew up, but also a few lovely ones. Even her worst humans proved useful as they taught her some of the many skills she later on puts to good use. If you want your gorilla to be your slave, don’t teach them to drive.

Glass Town Wars

How I had waited for the new novel by Celia Rees! It had been far too long. But as they say, good books come to Witches who wait.

Glass Town Wars is an interesting blend of Emily Brontë’s childhood made-up world, and gaming today. Plus a few other ideas. It’s sort of Truth or Dare meets Haworth.

It’s not explained to you. The reader has to work out what’s going on, between the young – seemingly unconscious – man in the modern hospital bed, and the girl in Yorkshire who dreams her fantasy world, and her alter ego in that other world. And then they all meet.

Celia Rees, Glass Town Wars

This is good stuff, and being left in the dark adds to the experience. I’m woefully uneducated in the Brontë ways – outside of their books –  so am guessing I’d have known more, had I known more, so to speak.

It’s about love, and lust, and fighting; whether in imaginary wars two hundred years ago, or in an intensive care unit right here and now. And I couldn’t very well ignore the fact that the lovely nurse who looks after Tom – our unconscious hero – is an immigrant. Where would we have been without him?

2018 is the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth, and Glass Town Wars is a fabulous way to celebrate; to bring her and her siblings back to life – if they need it – and maybe introduce a new generation to their books, while keeping readers entertained with our own ideas of cyberspace. This is something Celia does well.

Few is fine

Really. It is OK not to have rooms full of books.

I know I keep coming back to this. Which I suppose means I’ve not solved the problem, once and for all.

But I had a bit of an epiphany at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. Three authors – Candy Gourlay, Lari Don and Elizabeth Wein – talked about their early years. And someone, maybe all of them, mentioned not having had many books as children. Going to the library for something to read.

And of course, it was the same for me. Until the age of about 15, when it suddenly dawned on me that as an almost adult, I could save my pocket money and actually buy books. So I did. I know it might sound odd. But books in Sweden were expensive and mostly things adults gave you – a few of – for birthdays and Christmases. Not something you bought yourself.

I read so much. I went to the library. I was happy with what they had to offer, and didn’t mind handing books back after three weeks. Or four.

I didn’t mind that on my own shelves I had maybe a metre or two of books belonging to me. There was no prestige involved.

Whereas now, well, not only do I want to own the books I like best, and that I’ll want to read again, but I feel the need to show off a little, as well as having a selection of books in case someone comes to stay who wants to read.

The more I think of this, the more idiotic it sounds.

I need help. Someone to climb up to the back row of the top shelf (that’s the As and the Ns), so I can start being ruthless. Perhaps.

(Almost) every time I walk past the spot at Edinburgh Waverley station where Menzies used to be, I bless the day when I discovered you could buy Alistair McLean paperbacks there for 30 pence. Even though this was in 1973, it felt impossibly cheap to me, a young witch who knew books cost a fortune.

I grabbed a few books and went up to the girl at the counter, stabbing my finger against the printed price on the backs of those books, asking ‘is that really the price?’

It really was, and from then on, my luggage always contained at least twenty new paperbacks each time I left the country. I’d simply had no idea.

And with a start like that, it’s hardly surprising I now have a habit that has to be broken. Not the reading, but the owning.

Dough comfort

The ginger biscuit dough yesterday looked a bit funny. Not that I am worried. The biscuits will either work. Or they won’t. And what’s 300 failed biscuits between friends?

I used my trusted and very worn Vår Kokbok from the mid 1970s. Mother-of-witch equipped me well when I left home. I first made ginger biscuit dough all by myself the first Christmas in the Brighton Bookwitch Towers.

That was the day when the Resident IT Consultant went out shopping for all our Christmas needs. After multiple trips lasting until about four pm I was hungry and wanted us to eat lunch. He looked at his watch and conceded that OK, we could have an early lunch! Turns out his watch had stopped and he’d been on eleven o’clock all day.

Anyway, I was worried about my dough, because every single year when Mother-of-witch made it, we never knew if the biscuits would fall to bits or not. So instead of asking for her recipe – as she never remembered from one year to the next which one she picked last year – I turned to my very own Vår Kokbok, where it said that this dough rolls out really nicely and there need be no concerns about how it handles.

So yesterday I just wanted to read that sentence again.

It wasn’t there. All these years I’ve been calmed by a non-existent reassurance.

Having said that, the biscuits have always been fine. None of the older generation’s issues.

I also made some soup. Kale soup was one of them. That well known Christmas speciality, which I discovered a few years ago was merely a family Christmas tradition and no one else makes it. It’s in Vår Kokbok too, but I can make it without looking in there now. Seeing as it’s such a tradition.

Finished my kitchen stint – the Resident IT Consultant had taken himself off to Edinburgh for the day – with a Temptation for our late dinner. Didn’t need Vår Kokbok for that either.

The bad deal

What a shame. A celebrity author who is hurt – or perhaps merely surprised – he doesn’t feature on any best books lists. Despite his books being liked by children!

Good grief.

Not DW this time, but his namesake David Baddiel, about whom I’ve previously said not altogether lovely things. I note how naïve I was, now that I’ve read this blog post by Gareth P Jones. (Who, incidentally came up with a very similar title to his post. Great minds.) Gareth is an actual children’s author. The not rich kind.

The kindest and fairest thing I can say to Mr Baddiel is that he might be quite a good author of children’s books. I don’t know, obviously, not having been supplied with a copy when I didn’t want to engage in one-sided publicity for him. However, there are a lot of quite good authors out there. And they can’t all make the best lists, no matter how much they wish.

I know this because I very recently looked through my 2018 books, and having only read somewhere between 100 and 150 books, some of which don’t qualify for best of Bookwitch rules, I had to discard a big number of really excellent books. Books I’d enjoyed a lot. Because I’d enjoyed a few others even more.

That’s how lists work. It’s rather like winning Wimbledon. They are playing because they are the best, and they don’t finish until the bestest of them all has beaten the rest.

The ones that disappeared

Unlike the Rohingya refugees that you can at least see, however awful their reality, there are others whose fates are not worse, maybe, but they are invisible. Or so it seems.

Zana Fraillon has written a story about three children, presumably sold into slavery by their [unaware] families. Or they were simply picked up from a problematic situation after some disaster or other.

I’d have liked knowing where Zana’s The ones that disappeared is set. But perhaps it makes no difference. This kind of thing exists in many places, and this way no one is excluded.

Zana Fraillon, The ones that disappeared

The children manage to escape, but that only sets in motion new problems. They are illegals, and they are frightened, not to mention hungry and cold and tired, and they don’t know who to trust. When one of them is split from the others, they meet another child; not a slave, but a boy with concerns of his own.

The reader follows the children as they try to make the best of a bad situation. This is a children’s book and you’d want, even expect, a solution to the dire circumstances they are in. But how realistic would that be? And we know that life is rarely perfect.

Will the injured child die? Will any of the others? There would appear to be no responsible adults anywhere, and children need those if things are to normalise.

It’s inspiring, not to mention astounding, to see how capable such young children are. Can be. Have to be. And then you realise how impossible the situation is. There are slaves like them everywhere, controlled by bad adults who lie to them.

While the rest of us don’t see them, even when they are right there under our noses.