Category Archives: Awards

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.

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The Poet X

This is such a beautiful book! Elizabeth Acevedo has written a teen love story, a story about finding your place in the world, and a story about how to stand up to your family and a society that only sees one thing when looking at you. And she has written it as poetry. It really works.

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

I had my doubts, but I quickly lost myself in the book, realising that you don’t need all those words found in other novels. It’s perfectly doable to describe a complex story about a teenager in Harlem this way. X (Xiomara, really) likes poetry and writes a lot of it herself, keeping it to herself as well. She needs it to make sense of the world.

X’s mother is hard on her, but as an adult I could see that she loves her daughter. She just doesn’t trust anyone, and wants X to be careful and pious, not to see boys, and to go to church.

Were it not for the poems and the beauty of this book, it’d be just another teen story, set in New York, featuring girlfriends and boyfriends and enemies and bullying at school, teachers, neighbours, the priest, and so on.

I’m not a great fan of poetry, so the fact that I loved this so much, is proof how well the concept works, and what a captivating story Xiomara has to tell. I’m not at all surprised the book has been nominated for the Carnegie medal, and I hope it goes a long way, maybe even to the top.

I was also pleased to see that Elizabeth incorporated a lot of Xiomara’s Spanish home language, without always translating every word or line. There is even a whole poem in Spanish, although that does get a translation on the next page.

So very lovely, in so many ways.

On being a witch

I was asked about being a witch recently. The how and the why. Luckily I found this explanation in Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade soon after, and it describes my situation so well: ‘Sometimes she knew things that were going to happen, although always in a sufficiently confused way that the knowledge was totally useless until afterwards.’

That’s me. I just didn’t know how to put it.

I see things and I know they will mean something, sooner or later. They will usually be meaningful when combined with one or several more such observations. I tend to know that ‘it’ will be part of something, which I suppose is why I remember it. Just not what.

It’s been like this for many many years. 1962 might just have been the first time.

So witchhood did not happen as Daughter fondly remembers from the time Son’s friend Polite Boy called me a witch. That was an accident. I was telling the group of boys wanting to play – in the mud, would you believe – for longer. It was Son’s 15th birthday party and I felt the neighbours had been enjoying the screams for long enough, and put my foot down. (Not in the mud. Obviously.)

‘I’m a witch,’ I said, by way of explanation for my unpopular decision. Polite Boy had already been very polite, in order to achieve more mud time, and uttered the words ‘I quite agree’ in the belief that he was agreeing with something far more suitable. But since I said it first, there was not a problem. There was also no more mud.

Soon after this I wrote my first fan letter to Meg Rosoff, and felt compelled to explain why I knew she’d win the Guardian prize. She took it well, and seemed to have an understanding of ‘minor’ witches.

After this, I clearly couldn’t be anything but a Bookwitch when I went public with my skills. And while seeing book awards in advance is fun, many of the other things I see are not.

Some Carnegie nominations thoughts

To begin with I suspected it would turn out that I hadn’t read very many of the books on the Carnegie medal nominations list. I am more than aware of how unaware I am these days, not keeping up with developments, and not being kept up on them either.

But from the rather long list of highly thought of books, I’ve read quite a few. 21 to be precise. No, I see it’s 22. Sorry. I have several more on the top layer of my tbr pile. I don’t feel shamed by my ignorance, even if I’d quite like to have got into closer contact with many more nominated novels.

Timing is odd, though. Some of the books feel very recent, while some feel actually surprisingly old. I’m sure it’s still the case that they all fall into a 12-month period, but I tend to think ‘Oh, is that still considered recent?’ and ‘Hmm, that got on the list pretty fast.’ But that will just be me.

And I apologise for my silence on the Kate Greenaway nominations. There is a link on the page, but it doesn’t work. And as happens every year, my Googling techniques seem to get me nowhere.

It’ll be interesting to see who makes it to the longlist. I have several books that I would like to win. I suppose that will turn out to be impossible.

The Invisible Man From Salem

Except I read it in the original, so it’s really Den Osynlige Mannen Från Salem. But at least this way you know that you, too, can access Christoffer Carlsson’s award-winning first crime novel featuring Leo Junker. Because I think you might want to.

Admittedly, I hate the kind of society he’s writing about, but firmly believe that this is what people in other countries find so charming about Swedish noir. Life is dark and dismal, but because it’s not your dark and dismal, it’s all right.

This is an adult crime novel, but with enough flashbacks to Leo’s youth in a concrete-covered Stockholm suburb in the mid-1990s, that it can almost double as YA. Almost.

Christoffer Carlsson, Den Osynlige Mannen Från Salem

Leo has been relieved of his police badge after some dubious goings-on on Gotland. Not his fault, but a scapegoat was needed. And now a woman has been murdered in the flat below his, and he feels he could do with something to occupy himself with, in his half-drugged, sad state. And then it turns out it’s all much closer to home than he thought.

Maybe something to do with his friends from sixth form college? The police don’t like him much, nor do people from his past private life. It’s been tough, and the drugs are just about understandable.

There are no charming vicarages here. Very little that is nice at all, in fact. There is so little hope, even. I was glad I’d got out. Despite this being set 30 years after I was that age, it felt as if nothing had changed. I could have gone to that school. Those teenagers could have been my classmates.

It’s awful.

And it’s also very well written, and after a while I sort of liked Leo. A little. When I reached the end I did what any sane person would do and started on the attached sample chapter for the second book. Apart from having other books to read too, there is the slight conundrum of me only having the fourth, and last, book to hand. On Christoffer’s advice.

What to do?

(There are more than a few nods to Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series.)

Where the World Ends

Geraldine McCaughrean isn’t kind to her characters. The ones in her Carnegie-winning Where the World Ends are not purely fictional. Something like her story did happen for real. And if you want to know what, I suppose you can look it up. Or you could pay close attention as you read the book, and that might give you useful hints.

That’s what I admire about really good authors; the fact that if it’s in there, however small, it’s probably there for a reason. Or you could be like me and simply plod blindly on and wonder and hope for the best. Will she kill all those boys she has marooned on a faraway sea stac off St Kilda, or will they survive? How many of the nine will still live at the end of the book?

It’s less Lord of the Flies than I’d been afraid, because there are three grown men with the boys. Although being men does not necessarily make them more sensible in times of hardship and struggle.

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends

Set nearly three hundred years ago, these boys were already used to a hard life, but as their three weeks on Warrior Stac turns into nine months, life becomes almost impossible at times, even for those used to being cold and wet and hungry.

You learn a lot about sea birds, and not just in the first sentence where Quilliam’s mother gives him a new pair of socks and ‘a puffin to eat on the voyage…’

Quill is a lovely and resourceful and unusually mature older boy, and so special that I found it hard to imagine he would be allowed to live. The other boys are the way boys often are, a little mix of everything, including the one who’s a bully. But they have such strength and so many skills, climbing and hunting for anything in this bird world that might make their survival possible.

It’s a beautiful but harsh place, and I have absolutely no wish to go there. I’ll take Geraldine’s story and that will be quite enough. I know why it won her the Carnegie medal, and so will you when you’ve read it, puffin in hand.

A perfectly ordinary Monday

Or was it?

As the rest of the literary world gathered in London for the announcement of this year’s Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medalists, I made my way to Edinburgh for lunch with a literary lady. It’s always nice to get out and see new places and new people and to pretend to be a proper grown-up. So over 35 years after eating at Brown’s in Oxford, I’ve now tried the more local-to-me branch north of the border.

On the way I passed Charlotte Square. It looks so small when you see it without a book festival on top. Just grass, and trees, with a fence round it. Soon, though.

For anyone who missed it, Geraldine McCaughrean is our latest Carnegie winner – second time round, I believe – for Where the World Ends, and Sydney Smith won the Kate Greenaway medal with the book Town is By the Sea. Thank goodness it was someone as senior as Geraldine who won, because who else would have the nerve to tell publishers off for dumbing down the language in children’s books?

By the time the lunch was over and my literary lady and I made our way to two different shoe shops; one for her, one for me, Son had begun his PhD viva ordeal at the nearby university. I’d have been there if they let people in to watch, but they don’t. I will simply have to assume the boy was brilliantly clever and dazzled everyone in the room, including the not one, not two, but three supervisors. And, erm, the specially flown in expert. From Norway, I believe.

I gather Son is now Dr Son.

On the train home I continued reading one of the books one of his supervisors – Peter Graves – has translated. But more about that some other day.