Author Archives: bookwitch

Desirable

Oh how I needed this book! I know, it’s been waiting for my attention a bit longer than it should have, but I was truly grateful for Desirable once I got to it.

You know, slightly bad day and you need something reliably uplifting and fun. That’s Frank Cottrell Boyce for you. Desirable. (That’s the title…)

George is a loser, and it’s brought home to him when even his Grandad can’t quite be bothered to do much for his birthday. No one else came to the party, and Grandad left pretty swiftly, after having given George the very same item that George’s mum once gave her dad (I believe it’s called re-gifting).

Although, perhaps Grandad knew what he was doing? George’s boring life suddenly changes. He becomes desirable. Not that that is necessarily as desirable as you’d think before you reached desirablity.

Frank Cottrell Boyce and Cate James, Desirable

This story is as heartwarming and funny as you would expect from Frank, and with very ‘undesirable’ illustrations from Cate James, in a desirable sort of fashion, if you know what I mean?

Those teachers are downright weird. Just saying.

The #14 profile – Tanya Landman

It appears I just managed to tie Tanya Landman down to answering some questions right in the middle of some serious travelling. Recently back from Istanbul (who says an author’s life is not charmed?), I understand she is about to travel to Sharjah, for its Children’s Reading Festival. I’m guessing they feel about Tanya as I do after having read two of her fabulous novels, that she’s not a bad author to invite.

Here is Tanya, telling you some of her trade secrets in my latest profile:

Tanya Landman

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

Ouch. Do I have to answer that one?

Really? You’ll apply thumbscrews if I don’t????

OK, OK – if I must….

One and a half. (But PLEASE don’t mention this ever again. They were dire.)

Best place for inspiration?

Asleep in bed. Seriously. I quite often wake up with new ideas or solutions to plot problems that have been bugging me.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I do. (My real name is Eunice Petunia Biggs III.)

What would you never write about?

Anything creepy. I am a complete wuss when it comes to scary supernatural things. Vampires, demons, ghosts…I can’t cope with reading it so I certainly couldn’t write it.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

The Houses of Parliament at the launch of the Summer Reading Challenge just after the last election. I got my fingers stuck together whilst trying to eat an unexpectedly gooey fondant fancy and couldn’t shake anyone by the hand. Ed Vaizey gave a speech. (I should have headbutted him when I had the chance.)

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

I love Charley (Buffalo Soldier), Siki (Apache) and Itacate (Goldsmith’s Daughter) but they have such a tough time I wouldn’t want to be any of them. Poppy Fields just KEEPS on finding dead bodies, which might get tiring. I think Katrina Picket (Waking Merlin) would be best – she gets to ride on a dragon AND save the world.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

Good thing. Deffo. I’m expecting a call from Johnny Depp any day now.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

‘When your son was sick on the swirly-whirly super de-luxe leather executive chair – what colour was the vomit?’

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I have magic scritchy-scratching fingers that can make a pig faint with happiness.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Narnia. Talking animals? Timmy just can’t compete.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

ABBA

ABBA. They count as one person, right?

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

Arrange? You what??? Mine are stacked double on shelves or standing in piles. It’s all a total muddle and I can’t ever find a thing.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

Stig of the Dump. Works every time.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

I am confused. I mean if I’m writing I’m reading what I’ve written, aren’t I? Or am I supposed to write blindfolded?

I suspect that Eunice Petunia didn’t take these questions all that seriously. Which is good, as it means she was obeying my orders. Although, that tin foil was stretching things a bit, even for me. It seems that if Tanya can switch off the tin foil a little, she might have chosen Thomas Lundqvist, genius puppeteer, instead. (No, I’d never heard of him, either.)

(If anyone is up for doing profile #13, get in touch with me…)

Blindside

Blindside is a dyslexia friendly revised version of Aidan Chambers’s Cycle Smash, from almost 50 years ago. If you read it as an adult, your heart will be in your mouth as young Nate cycles off into the evening. Because you can imagine it being your child and you can tell what must be about to happen.

But if you’re a teenager, it will presumably just read like an interesting and exciting story about an athlete who likes running, and who is about to go on to great things. Were it not for the bike accident, of course.

Aidan Chambers, Blindside

Seriously injured, Nate is furious that he won’t be running again, and is not terribly grateful for actually being alive. We see him in his hospital bed, feeling sorry for himself and ready to do really stupid things. But then – and I reckon this is where the original date of the story shows through – his kindly nurse tells him what she thinks of his behaviour and sets him off on a new course.

Because there are people far worse off than Nate, and it’s time he realised this. As he does, you might want a tissue handy.

And if you are a parent, you’ll be out locking your child’s bike away.

Totte, or Thomas

Author and illustrator Gunilla Wolde died earlier this week. I realise that many of my English language readers won’t know her. On the other hand, you might. I was surprised, and delighted, to find that author Guy Bass made his parents read Thomas bakes a cake every night for two years. That’s the kind of tenacity that pays off eventually. (Or they try and have you adopted.)

Gunilla Wolde, Totte badar

As with many Swedish authors, Gunilla’s books came too late for the young Bookwitch to read at the appropriate age. But being classics, they were widely available when Offspring appeared on the scene. (I’m actually not sure, but I suspect I owned mine well before Offspring arrived. I think I just liked the look of the books.)

I tried searching for them now, so I could tell you more, but couldn’t find where I’ve stashed them. The one that has stayed in my memory the most, is when Totte – or Thomas, as he is in translation – goes to the doctor. There is something about toddlers facing injections, or putting plasters on their teddies, that makes a lasting impression on you. (Perhaps I didn’t dare show Offspring those injections, in case they thought that’s what happens when you go to the doctor’s.)

Looking for cover images you find so many, in several languages, which brings home to you quite how popular Gunilla’s books were. Are. And if you study the ‘Swedish’ images page carefully, you will find illustrations that might be too, well, too Scandinavian for readers in some countries.

So you’re probably safest with Thomas bakes a cake.

Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

Rilla of Ingleside

I’d read L M Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside before. A long time ago. It was the one I remembered well but couldn’t get hold of as I bought all the Green Gables books in English, thirty years ago, so I’m particularly pleased it’s one of the ones re-issued by Virago. It’s also the first book to bring the reality – for normal people – of WWI to my attention.

L M Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

I mean, if L M Montgomery couldn’t even fictionally keep Anne Shirley’s family safe from the war, then no one was safe. Which, obviously, was the truth. Before Rilla I had callously imagined that people back then were used to it and that it was a long time ago. And anyway, Anne lived in Canada, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the trenches.

Rilla of Ingleside is a sweet book, for all that it features the war so much that there is barely room for any romantic nostalgia for life on Prince Edward Island. Anne and Gilbert are growing old, and back then 50 was probably a lot older than it is now. So we concentrate on 15-year-old Rilla as war breaks out, and her brothers and friends go off to fight, one after the other, or at least to do their bit for the war closer to home.

The years between 15 and 19 were meant to be the best of her life. Instead they changed her completely; making her someone who could quite capably knit socks for the soldiers by the end of those four years. And a few other things, too.

Like what you can use a soup tureen for, and that it is possible to love an ugly baby that isn’t even yours.

There were just two things that made me cry, though. It was the neighbours’ little boy, Bruce, picking flowers for Anne (stupid Witch, crying again, now), and Jem’s dog, waiting all those years for his master to come back on the train. (Get me a hanky!)

You presumably know all this already, but when you love Anne and all those she loves, you do tend to go on about it a little.

The Lost and the Blind

Declan Burke writes thrillers like he does crime novels, seemingly just taking what’s around him, turning it into the most exciting of novels. Not every author can put him or herself into a book and get away with it. Less still their child, but what’s a thriller without your small girl’s Barbie?

Declan Burke, The Lost and the Blind

In The Lost and the Blind we have the separated Irish journalist Tom, who makes ends meet by reviewing films. Tom is hired by a wealthy American who wants him to ghostwrite a book about the killing of some young children during WWII, something which eventually causes Tom to run for his life in the company of a lovely female; his six-year-old daughter Emily.

Tom is a nice, peace-loving man, but he is no fool. On the other hand, as it’s his turn to have his daughter, and he needs to make sure he is a good dad so he stands a chance of getting custody of Emily, he can’t go off on the usual macho hunts for bad guys. As in some of Declan’s crime novels, I was enjoying reading a thriller which does all the right things, but with rather less bloodshed than you tend to expect.

Although that only works up to a point. Just warning you.

This is an interesting mix of ordinary Irish life from the days of the country’s economic collapse, and flashbacks to WWII in neutral Eire, featuring German soldiers and the IRA, as well as an English spy.

And none of it went in the direction I would have guessed, had I been capable of guessing. Very, very good.