Category Archives: Books

Retiring Philippa

My pangs of envy and regret started even before Philippa Dickinson’s retirement festivities got under way on Monday. When you’re online you can see what everyone else is doing and quite a few people announced they were heading that way, making me wish I was too. But there are drawbacks to moving to Scotland, and the spontaneity of sudden trips south is one of them.

So I wasn’t there, and now I can follow – online again – those who were, and there are more pangs. But I’m glad there was a party, and that it was good, and that – almost – everyone else was there. Because Philippa deserves to be celebrated.

Philippa Dickinson

Back in 2009 when I was introduced to her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it felt a bit like meeting the Queen, although perhaps more relaxed. And six months later when her publicists invited me to actually come and spend a day in Ealing, I was impressed with her again, and not only for remembering me a little.

Random House Children’s Books felt like the most active publishing house at the time. And she might have been the MD, but Philippa was still hands-on (editing Terry Pratchett, the lucky thing), working like a normal person. During our brief meeting in her office, she made a point of showing me her personal recommendation and arranging for me to have a copy of Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza.

Philippa and I are almost the same age, and occasionally I have stopped and asked myself what I have achieved with my life, and why I couldn’t be a bit more like her. (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Sometimes when I think of Philippa and wonder what made her better or more interesting than other publishing bosses, I realise that apart from a few directors of smaller publishing houses, I didn’t meet or get even a little acquainted with anyone else.

So maybe that’s why. You need to be out there, possibly rubbing shoulders with the little fish.

Do they even know?

Recently I had a brief discussion with an author about a small factual mistake in their book. I had sort of noticed it when I read the book, but was too busy actually reading and enjoying, so thought no more of it. It took the Resident IT Consultant to bring it up, and I decided I might as well mention it to the author, in case they’d rather know, perhaps with a view to correcting it in a reprint later on.

The author sighed, along the lines of how ‘the editor, copyeditor and proof reader could all have picked it up too, but didn’t.’ I’m not surprised. Not because I think these people are no good, but this wasn’t a grammatical error, or bad spelling, or anything that simply needed some pruning to look better.

We all make mistakes, even when we know the right answer. So the author is entitled to get things wrong, and the various people at the publisher’s are – sort of – allowed to miss it as well. The author could have asked someone, but to do that you need to know that you need to know. And you don’t always know that. Nor did these editors know that the author might not have known.

It’s rather like Masklin in Terry Pratchett’s Truckers says about learning to think: ‘some things we can’t think because we don’t know the words.’ And later on, about the nomes in the Store: ‘They don’t know, and they don’t even know they don’t know. What is it that we don’t know?’

In the last few years there are absolutely masses of words and ideas that I have realised I don’t know, when I had thought I did know. I’d been told these things by people I assumed knew. Maybe they did, or maybe they didn’t, and either way they didn’t know that either.

Life’s not easy, is it?

In the dark

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Well here you have four pictures. The first one shows you the lovely Helen Grant somewhere in some pleasant countryside, sunshine and all. What could possibly go wrong?

Helen Grant

The second picture is a bit darker, although you could be fooled by the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe this is the tunnel Helen has invited me to come and walk with her. Hah! As if I would, after all she’s put me through in Urban Legends. Could, even. She’d sit me down and tell me one of those legends, and then where would I be?

Helen Grant

You can see the other two, fleeing while Helen’s attention is on me. (If I was in there, in the first place. I’m not an idiot.)

Tunnel

Finally, we have the storyteller looking all atmospheric, getting ready to start on one of her legends. And it’s too late for me to leave. She’s looking right at me…

Helen Grant

Aarrgghh!!!

I’ll send the rest of the family in my place.

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

Urban Legends

It’s not so much the ease with which Helen Grant kills in Urban Legends that scares me. It’s more how she scares me while she scares me. As it says on the cover of the book, ‘no one is safe.’ You’d better believe it.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

I read slowly to begin with, because I was that scared. Really. What’s worst with this kind of plot* is when no one knows anything, when no one suspects or realises they need to look out. So, once Kris and Veerle are aware that De Jager – The Hunter – is once again after them and that he’d quite like to kill them, and probably slowly and painfully, you can half relax as they at least know what they are up against.

I say relax, but I don’t mean that. Readers have been forced to sleep with the lights on. Because Veerle and Kris understand De Jager, and will recognise him if they see him (apart from the fact they thought he’d died, twice). But all those others, who walk like lambs to slaughter, or who maybe suspect they’ve made a mistake but can’t do anything to escape? Yes, them.

The first two brilliant books in the trilogy were ‘merely’ about setting up this final (?) one. You see the point of every detail from those books when you get to Urban Legends. And you rather wish you didn’t. The urban legends; they are the tales told by one of the group of people who regularly meet in out-of-the-way places to explore and listen to stories, before someone departs for the afterlife in ways recently described in these ‘legends.’

It would be easy to ask why I read Urban Legends all the way to the end if I was that frightened. The answer is that Helen writes so perfectly, that you just can’t not read. She knows precisely how to play on all your inner fears, and then some. (You do need to get past p 38, however.)

*As if there could be an archetypal plot where Helen is concerned. Read, and shiver. But first close the blinds.

Truckers

Poignantly Terry Pratchett’s Truckers was re-issued on the day he died. But perhaps we should see that as his gift to us; and ‘nothing ate him or ran him over or anything.’

I simply had to read it immediately. It was as if nothing else would do. And I felt so much better for it, reading, instead of doing ‘stuff.’ I mean, I’d read Truckers before, as part of Son’s copy of The Bromeliad, which doesn’t live with me any more. But that was a long time ago, well before I knew very much about this Terry Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett and Mark Beech, Truckers

One of my all time favourite quotes comes from Truckers, ‘Road Works Ahead.’ I’d forgotten many of the others, but if I had the talent of remembering lines, I’d walk round quoting Truckers at everyone I meet. (Count your blessings, people.)

Masklin is a true Pratchett hero. He may be a nome, but he is a leader and a great and brave man. He had to be, as Outside the Store there was only him, not counting old people and women. And Grimma is a marvel of female role model, especially for male readers. Careful what you say or your brain might explode a little.

Truckers is a book full of wisdom, and also of commercial clichés and funny misunderstandings. When Masklin and his very small band of Outside nomes are forced to abandon their Outside home they end up in the Store – Arnold Bros (est 1905) – where after some rest and respite, they and the Store nomes discover that Everything Must Go.

And go they do, in the most spectacular manner, stealing one of the Store’s lorries, the driving of which is only slightly awkward when you are four inches tall.

If I could be Granny Morkie, please?

(Illustrations by Mark Beech)

Eight I’ve read

At last. A list I’ve read. I’m beginning to like Daniel Hahn even more. Clearly great minds think alike.

For the Guardian Daniel has chosen eight of the best YA novels, suitable – indeed highly recommended – for adults. And I’ve read them all, which I suppose isn’t so strange, really. I thought when I saw the list that they were all recent books, but YA hasn’t been around all that long, so it’s understandable.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen exactly that list, but I could have.

And I realise I should never have absolved Daughter from having to read The White Darkness. She asked, only a week or so ago, whether she still had to read it, and I said no. It is such a tremendous book. (Is it too late to force her now?) Fancy Daniel picking Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick! Very good choice. Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan. That was a long time ago now, and I almost didn’t consider it a death/cancer novel, but I suppose it is.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, of course. The odd thing is that when I read it, I was – almost – not keen on Chris Riddell’s illustrations. I thought I preferred Dave McKean’s. Well, a witch can change her mind. Siobhan Dowd’s A Swift Pure Cry; the book I thought I might not like because I had set notions about that ‘kind of plot’… What an idiot I was. But it’s a testament to Siobhan’s writing skills that this ‘kind of plot’ can be marvellous.

Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond is the one book I remember less well. Possibly because at the time I read several of David’s books in quick succession. Patrick Ness gets three books in, as Chaos Walking is a trilogy, but you can’t have just the one part. For me they are books that have grown in stature over the years. And finally, Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. One of the best. And now there will be no more.

I know that I tend to preach to the converted here on Bookwitch, but I hope that a few of today’s readers are doubting adults, who would never dream of reading YA. Until today. Because this is such a good start to a new life of reading YA books.

Lucky you.