Category Archives: Books

Puppy Academy – Scout and the Sausage Thief

They know who the sausage thief is. Frank Furter. It’s just a case of catching him, and preferably before the village sausage festival in Little Barking has to be cancelled.

Gill Lewis, Scout and the Sausage Thief

Here, with Puppy Academy, Gill Lewis is back with clever doggy students who want nothing better than to be good working dogs. Scout, the German shepherd puppy, wants to be a police dog like her mum and dad.

As you will have worked out, this is not a real school where dogs are trained to be police dogs. This is more a world of dogs who talk, go to school and have jobs, while being pretty much the same as you and me. (Within reason.)

This is a nice little adventure, where poor Scout is working hard at being good, but having setbacks and needing to work even harder at putting things right. Catching Frank Furter is one thing, but who stole the Crunchie Munchies?

A little wolfie gift for you all

Cliff McNish is a very kind man. He has written a lovely fairy tale called The Winter Wolf, and he persuaded his friend Trish Phillips to make him some rather nice illustrations to go with it, and then his brother Michael did some, well, stuff, and here it is, for everyone to download and enjoy.

Cliff McNish, The Winter Wolf

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale about the wolf that howls every winter, scaring the other animals in the wood. They all warn their children against him, saying you can’t trust a wolf. It’s just a trick. But there is – naturally – a tiny squirrel, who wants to find out more, and who goes where he wasn’t allowed to go. He speaks to the wolf, and he wants to believe him. He makes sure he’s out of reach, and…

Cliff McNish, The Winter Wolf

Well, when I got this far I didn’t know whether to believe the best or the worst. I was interrupted twice, and nearly shouted at those who dared disturb me at such a critical moment.

According to Daughter you can’t possibly have a wolf eating a squirrel in a book for children.

You can’t?

Precious and the Zebra Necklace

I used to love sitting down with the latest novel about Mma Ramotswe. To begin with I kept up with each new book as it came, but when Bookwitch got going, a few pleasures fell by the roadside, and my crime sprees in Botswana were among them. I still drink my redbush tea, though.

Alexander McCall Smith, Precious and the Zebra Necklace

So I was happy to reacquaint myself with Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s shorter books about our favourite detective as a child. She was just as sweet then, as the woman she became.

In Precious and the Zebra Necklace, she makes a new friend at school, and when she discovers this girl has a sad mystery in her past, Precious sets out to solve it.

Like the adult ‘crimes’ this is more about human nature and simplicity and ordinary things going wrong. A bit of thinking about things, and talking to people gets you a long way.

Short and sweet.

The #13 profile – Kirkland Ciccone

Brownie points to anyone who noticed this is profile #13, following – not so – closely in the footsteps of profile #14, but a bit before #15. Not everyone is comfortable with thirteen. Quite possibly Kirkland Ciccone is not comfortable with it either, but here he is anyway. It’d be a waste of numbers not to, or so I reasoned:

Kirkland Ciccone

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

I wrote two novels and sent them out to publishers, hoping they would find me all the way in Cumbernauld. They didn’t at first and that’s just as well because I wasn’t fully formed yet. I had to develop and find my style. I got so annoyed with the YA market during the rise of Twilight that I wrote Conjuring The Infinite in revenge. It taught me to never ever follow trends, and I’m far more comfortable skipping down my own garden path!

Best place for inspiration?

The library is my second house. I spend so much time in libraries, and I feel so happy and safe in them. My mother couldn’t afford a babysitter when I was a kid so she sent me to the library…and I’ve never really left it. I feel like I’m having adventures close to home in the library, and I get so much work done and a few books to read. I love coffee shops too and I can be found in many places with a kettle.

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

I sometimes fantasize about changing my name to something really plain and normal. But I don’t think that would work for me. I couldn’t be John Smith, amazing writer of cult YA novels. I recently told Daniela Sacerdoti that I was delighted to see her leave the country….because this country isn’t big enough for two YA authors with unpronounceable surnames!

What would you never write about?

Council Tax!

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

My mother took us all to Spain when we were kids. It was a horrible experience, being a damp holiday holocaust with a cramped caravan and my brothers and sisters. I vowed never to return to Spain. Shortly after Conjuring The Infinite was published, I ended up in Largs (North Ayrshire) for the Tidelines Book Festival. I was so excited, because it was my first big festival. But I had a really troubling sense of déjà vu all night. It rained non-stop which didn’t help but it was so troubling that I ended up phoning my mother and asking her if I had ever been to Largs before and…well…she admitted Largs was Spain! I should have known; it doesn’t take four hours to reach Spain in a van.

Doing what I do has also allowed me to meet my heroes. I started reading YA as a teenager, so I’m a fan as well as an author. I remember being at a lunch and seeing someone familiar a few chairs away. It was Julia Donaldson. I had just caught her a few days earlier on BBC Breakfast! Theresa Breslin was there too and I absolutely worshipped Whispers In The Graveyard and A Time To Reap…I still do. I asked Theresa about A Time To Reap, which has been out of publication for years. But I wanted it so badly I asked if she would ever consider getting it published again. A few days later a copy of it popped through my letter box. I did a little dance of excitement then stopped when I realised a neighbour was watching me.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

Porter Minter, the protagonist of my new book North of Porter. He’s slightly downtrodden, at first, but he learns to fight back against the world. By the end of the book he’s completely self-sufficient. Besides, he has an array of handbags and one-liners which he deploys with precision against bullies and bores.

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

I think Conjuring The Infinite would be good for television while Endless Empress would make a good independent movie. Empress is anarchic and over the top, my big punk rock YA novel, but it’s so grisly and vicious that it would probably be cut to shreds in order to make the big screen. I’m not sure where North of Porter falls but it would probably be better for the big screen. I would love to see my books performed at the theatre, though I don’t think that would work either, because of the plot twists in each novel.

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

“Is your hair real?” YES IT IS REAL!

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I’m good at improvisation. I’ve had to learn how to do that as a performer. You never know when equipment might break down.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

It has to be Narnia. It has everything in it…a group of kids trapped in another world with a genuinely terrifying villain and a magical lion. I tried to get into Narnia when I was seven, but I ended up knocking the wardrobe over!

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Greta Garbo, The Cardigans (they’re a wonderful and sadly underrated band), and Robyn.

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

I try to do it alphabetically but I have a separate stack which is my TO READ pile.

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

The Three Investigators and The Secret of Terror Castle. I lived for The Three Investigators, and I can still read them today and find more to love. It was a juvenile mystery series about three boys named Jupiter, Pete, and Bob. They solved very weird cases and Alfred Hitchcock made cameo appearances. I wish they were still in print today. They were so easy to read and well written. A killer combo for any unwilling reader!

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

What a horrible question! I would be terrified of not being able to read, because without reading and books…I wouldn’t be who I am, and I wouldn’t be writing now. I would choose reading, but then I couldn’t give up writing. There’s nothing I want to do other than write the books I write. I love the YA genre. It can be anything. It can be everything. If I couldn’t write those stories I’d probably be deeply depressed. So I’m going to be contrary and choose both!’

Half a dozen Swedes, and I’m still not one of them? ‘Fully formed?’ You think so, John? That’ll be the eyebrows, I suppose.

Is it all because of Ladybird books?

Would I even be here if it weren’t for Ladybird books?

Years ago I blogged (rather peculiarly, it strikes me now) about Ladybird books, and how they were not part of my past, and how I almost resented this. But now it seems to me as though that one book I bought at the age of ten and could barely read, might have set me up for life. Where would I be if I hadn’t?

I have always ‘blamed’ my fascination for the UK on Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, and while it is still true that they inspired me, I now feel I must add my sensible Ladybird book. People here think back to those days, when both they and Britain were different. I actively went in search of this charming country where children walked around in those T-bar shoes and boys wore shorts and had haircuts like they did in old films.

And there was cake.

I so wanted to go and see the Ladybird exhibition in Bexhill; not just for the books, but for the De La Warr Pavilion as well. But it was all too much at the other end of the country to be realistic. The exhibition is in London now. Can I make it to London? I don’t know.

The article in the Guardian a few weeks ago made me feel many things. It was fascinating to read that someone’s real birthday party actually ended up in the book. I mean, surely that’s the complete opposite of today’s fantasy books; finding your own reality in a book. I knew I wanted to be part of it, except you can’t wish your own past away.

Perhaps I can take up collecting Ladybird books? Not terribly original as ideas go, but maybe I can fake a new past? I never did wear shoes like that. The one time I got close to it, the woman in the shoeshop pointed out I was an adult and couldn’t have them.

Enough research? The right research?

Complaining is such a satisfying thing to do. Sometimes, anyway. I caught the tail end of something Lucy Coats said on Facebook, and which I feel entitled to mention here as she tweeted it at TES, making it public. Lucy was dissatisfied with their list of recommended books for children.

Keeping in mind my own moan a few months ago, on a similar topic, I read all the comments, feeling quite enraged. Then I read what school librarian and children’s author Dawn Finch said about it on her blog, including her own list of suitable books. Many great books, and I couldn’t agree more.

Finally (yes I know, I should have started there) I had a look at the offending list the TES had put together. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared, especially considering the list had been compiled by asking teachers. I suppose the TES could hardly go around asking accountants for their recommendations, so the question I have is why ask teachers?

Why not the school librarians, while they are still not totally extinct? Is it that teachers are supposed to know more? Or was it to see how little they are aware of books?

The thing is, as I’ve said on other occasions, by asking fewer experts and more people in general, you end up with the same general lists, because that’s the kind of knowledge we have on things we don’t specialise in.

As I said, the list was nowhere near as bad as it might have been. But if the purpose of the listmaking was to guide adults guide children, then they should have asked the librarians.

One of the first things I was involved with at Offspring’s secondary school library, was the voting for favourite books. Admittedly it was probably mostly the keen readers who responded. But it was illuminating for me, who thought I knew it all. Among boys, the two books that stood out were the Guinness Book of Records, and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called ‘It’ and both surprised me. Had it not been for the school library, I’d have assumed the winner would be one of the well known novels for children. If not Harry Potter, then one of the others that we adults ‘have all heard of.’

The Smile

Don’t you just hate babies? I mean, younger siblings. They get all the attention and they are allowed to make noise and keep you awake all night.

Michelle Magorian’s The Smile (a Little Gem) with lovely pictures by Sam Usher is about a young boy called Josh. He has a new baby brother called Charlie, and as if it’s not enough to have your mum stolen away by this noisy newcomer, he’s also had to move house, and his new room has pink and yellow wallpaper which is so bright you need sunglasses to cope.

And here is poor Josh, all alone in his floral jail, while Charlie has the attention of both parents and gets to sleep in their room. His mum even seemed to like the idea that Charlie was going to be with them for years and years.

But being a mum she knows what to do. She cunningly makes sure Josh is in a position where he has to get to know this little pest better.

Or maybe she really did need a shower.

This is a sweet new-baby-rivalry story for the slightly older than the traditional picture book reader.