Category Archives: Humour

Terry Pratchett – A Life With Footnotes

He was there. All the way. And that makes a difference.

So thank you Rob Wilkins, for writing the biography of Terry Pratchett, and for writing it so well, making it almost as humorous as if Terry himself had had a go at it. But most of all, thank you for being there with Terry, especially towards the end, when it can’t have been much fun.*

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a book quite as much as this one. Even when tears threatened to overwhelm me towards the end of the book, it was still [sort of] funny.

The doubts were there from the beginning. Can Rob really write a book, and can he write this particular book? Well, yes, he can and he did. He had help, from Terry himself, who had begun to gather facts about his life, especially the early years. Convenient, since Rob wasn’t around then. Other people helped, like his UK editor Philippa Dickinson.** (When Philippa once talked to me about editing Terry’s books, it wasn’t at all obvious how much she did. Now I know.)

Setting aside the fame and the money and the ability to write all those lovely books, I discovered I had a lot in common with Terry. He was clearly more right than I was when he suggested this.***

And, I know this is not about me at all. But I could only read A Life With Footnotes by keeping in mind where and when our paths crossed. I was at some of the events mentioned. In other cases I was there before or right after. And it seems I was less wrong than I thought in ‘holding on to’ Terry on that September day in 2010. Also, much of the off the record information I’ve been keeping quiet about has now been revealed.

I’ve said this before; I am so glad I have as many books left to read as I do. Now that Rob has shared what went on backstage, I feel the urge to go and check stuff again.****

If you love Terry Pratchett, this is the book for you.

*That taxi ride in New York, for instance.

** Who is ‘not a cantankerous bat after all.’

***At our second interview in 2010.

****I will need to make lists.

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The Spice Boys

They were tricked. Lured to the Project Room under false pretenses.

And everyone else knew. The emails had suggested the weather or football if you ran into them, and actually had to have a conversation. No slips of tongues permitted. I get very nervous when words like confidential and secret are used. I mean, it’s just asking for accidents to happen, isn’t it?

So, the Spice Boys. Arne and Bjarne. It’s like a double act. They were, ever since that day back in 1889 when they first met. (I always thought they looked old. But that’s the effect of teachers. They need to be.)

So, since 1989 (which seems like a much more realistic date) Norwegian Arne Kruse and Dane Bjarne Thomsen have prodded and polished countless students in the Scandinavian languages at the University of Edinburgh, including the current head of the Scandinavian department. And now they were retiring, and there was to be a celebratory gathering and a handing over of a festschrift put together by their old friends and colleagues.

They knew this. It’s just they thought it was for the other one. They’d contributed, and they had a speech. About the other one.

But they were so touched by the surprise that the speeches suffered a little.

I thought the gathering was surprisingly full of older people until it dawned on me that the ones needing to honour these two men would of necessity be a little older than the young people who had lied to Arne and Bjarne, and tried to keep this a secret for a couple of years. Then it dawned on me that I was also an old people, permitted to be present because the editor of Bjarne’s book actually invited their mother.

Tack!

There was much chat and tea and coffee before. After there was much more chat and cake and something in fancy glasses.

The Spice Boys name is from the 1990s when Arne and Bjarne started their annual mulled wine. Glögg.

A Killing in November

It’s lovely when people get on. But it’s also quite good – or fun – when they don’t. That’s what you have here, in Simon Mason’s new crime series about DI Ryan Wilkins and his close colleague DI Ray Wilkins. Ryan could possibly be described as white trailer trash (from Oxford), while wealthy Nigerian Ray graduated from Balliol (also Oxford).

A Killing in November trails in the footsteps of Simon’s Garvie Smith YA crime novels, and at first I laughed out loud at the humour of these two very different and also difficult detectives. But it’s a murder tale, so it gets darker, albeit with some very light and unusual touches throughout. I loved it.

Our two DIs have a dead woman on their hands, found at Barnabas Hall, in the Provost’s study. No one seems to know who she was. Rubbing each other up the wrong way, not to mention the people at the college, Ryan and Ray do their best, while trying [not really…] not to annoy the other one.

Highly recommended.

You can find out more about it at Bloody Scotland on Saturday 17th September when Simon Mason is here, chatting to two other crime writers – David Lagercrantz and Ajay Chowdhury – about their own respective detective pairs in Detective Duos. See you at the Golden Lion? I can almost promise you that David’s British translator, Ian Giles, will be present as well… I’ve been hearing a lot about his Dark Music. And there is Ajay’s The Cook.

Handy to be alive

It is. And we are so grateful that Michael Rosen came out of Covid almost as good as new. I’d forgotten quite how much of a performer he is. Not for Michael this sitting down in one of the book fest’s trendy armchairs and chat quietly to a chairperson like Daniel Hahn. No. He allowed himself to be introduced, and then it was full speed ahead with an hour of absolute comedy.

Comedy mixed with serious stuff, because nearly dying, or being from the stone age, isn’t all fun. But it’s possible to talk about it entertainingly, and in such a way that a roomful of very young children don’t get bored. Michael told us about being ‘put to sleep’ by the NHS, and how hard it was to wake up after forty days, and how his resourceful wife brought in a mobile phone and had his children chat to him and getting him talking (and now he can’t stop).

He had to relearn how to walk and talk. The first with the help of Sticky McStickstick, who assisted Michael all the way to the toilet and back. The talking by learning to sing Frère Jacques by making the somewhat rude noise that sounds a bit like farts (and he had the audience doing just that…). I couldn’t help thinking of the aerosol effect when so many people blow/sing raspberries.

Anyway, he now walks and talks. About pasta, for instance. There was much said about pasta, and Rigatoni the pasta cat. Although Michael prefers fusilli, with bolognese – with mushrooms – sticking to every little fold.

His current favourite [own] book is the as yet unpublished Gaston le dog. This led to a lot of French being bandied about, and coming on top of Frère Jacques and also Daniel’s translation thing, it was a very French sort of day.

Born in 1946, and not the stone age (he lied), Michael and his brother were very naughty boys. And noisy. This brought back the story of how their father used to deal with noise. He would put his hand to the side of his face (see Bookwitch archive photo of Michael demonstrating this in 2012) and simply utter the words ‘The Noise’.

Which coincidentally is how it sounds to people in the rest of the world when Michael says the word ‘nice’. It’s tricky. So is not breathing, which seems to have been something that happened at school, but which was alleviated by flapping the lid of your [ancient style] school desk lid, and breathing behind it. This saved several lives in Michael’s school.

Of course, it could be that he just made all this up.

And because this was about poetry, and because Michael is a poet, he told us some poems, making the audience repeat them.

His favourite pudding is blackcurrant sorbet, or cassis.

After an hour of fun it was Daniel’s thankless task to tell us it had to come to an end.

The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown

We have almost forgotten about polio, haven’t we? These days we fear other illnesses, even if we are still given protection against polio; both the baby and its parents. In Elizabeth Laird’s new book about Charity Brown, her heroine has been held captive by polio. This is soon after WWII. But thinking back on what happens in this semi-autobiographical novel, I reckon it’s religion that holds Charity back more.

Her deeply religious family are poor, and when she returns home after a long spell in hospital, it is to a very cold house. For her father it is more important to seek new members for their little church, than to earn money to keep his wife and four children comfortable. They are always warned what not to do, and Charity remembers it all, and heeds it even when she’d rather not.

And then, all of a sudden, they have inherited a large house, and the parents intend to use it to do good [to others].

Their new life is puzzling, but ultimately both interesting and promising. Charity makes a friend. Maybe. Religion so easily gets in the way of everything. Her older siblings want new things in life. Visitors from other countries turn up, and it’s not always the ones you trust who deserve that trust. War enemies are also people.

This is a heart-warming and lovely story. Not your standard postwar tale, but a new look on what might have been.

Catching Fire: A Translation Diary

This is the most wonderful book! And it’s not even fiction. At least, I don’t believe it is. Daniel Hahn’s online diary on his work translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire – as it became – from [the] Spanish into English (I’ll go without the ‘the’ there.)

You will remember – yes, you will – that I wrote about the diary last year as it was actually happening.

So, why would I read the same thing all over again, in book form? Well, because another translator I happen to know sent it to me. And it was pure luck I hadn’t already bought it myself. Because I wanted to read it again. Not so much as the companion piece to Never Did the Fire, but because this is like sitting down with a dear friend; someone who is funny and intelligent and you just want to spend more time with them and you want to be entertained by their thoughts, and they have a fun and different way with language.

Daniel is modest about his abilities. (Maybe.) He doesn’t mind mentioning all that he doesn’t know [yet], or musing on how he might solve another stumbling stone he’s stumbled across. I think I hadn’t quite understood that a professional translator might read a book they are about to work on, knowing only half the words or not understanding what the author meant, like the 13-year-old witch read Agatha Christie in English. You are propelled forward by a wish to get somewhere, and you learn as you go. Though I have to say that Daniel being equipped with a Chilean stepfather is a very handy thing. Under the circumstances.

I was also amused to learn Daniel has lots of incomprehensible gaps in his manuscript, once he’s ‘written’ the first translation. It’s what I have when transcribing an interview, having no idea what my victim just said there. But my advantage is that I can cut out the worst. I imagine Daniel needed to keep what was in Diamela’s book; ‘Plugging the gaps makes what looked like sheer linguistic carnage begin to resemble a piece of continuous text’.

So, this is my random meander through a really fun diary.* And I’d say that unlike with some books, this one got even funner** on a second reading. Daniel talks directly to the reader. He also chats to himself.

I could read it again, again.

I have to say: read this book! Even if your friends aren’t in it, or if you know nothing about languages. It’s like having the loveliest of friends pop in for a visit.

*He doesn’t really favour footnotes. But they are amusing. He also very kindly put me in one. Or did he? No, he didn’t. But still. It’s one of my favouritest footnote tales. And he mentions people I know.

**Channelling Daniel’s style of making words up.

When Frank went to Seattle

It’s half term, and Arvon – with Mary Morris – wanted to entertain children needing entertaining, so they brought in Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is just the man for it. He was backlit by the Solway Firth, but we could still see most of him, and the internet cables were only marginally gnawed on by sharks.

Frank read a couple of excerpts from his new book Noah’s Gold, about the dangers of incomplete addresses for the GPS in the school’s minibus taking children on a trip to the Amazon warehouse. You can guess the rest. The book is about being unexpectedly marooned on an island, where there is no need to be horrid to the others when you can be nice and helpful instead.

He loves ‘ending up where you shouldn’t be’, which is why his own day trip to Oslo, allowing him plenty of time to get back to his daughter’s school assembly, didn’t quite go to plan. (The heading is a hint at what happened, but don’t ask me how. Though Frank strikes me as the kind of man to make little mistakes like that.) He has personal experience of being marooned on Muck with his children and a packet of Bourbon biscuits.

Frank’s own start on writing happened in Year 6, when his friend Graham was off sick and he ended up writing a long story in class. His teacher couldn’t have been more surprised by this ‘if he’d laid an egg’ but she read it out and it felt good.

This, in fact, is the solution to the question on how to get secondary school pupils to read. You read to them. People like being read to. You can’t teach pleasure, but you can share it. Frank acquired his own confidence when he was kept back a year – although he didn’t actually notice – and grew very confident during his second Year 6, and this has never left him.

These days he writes in a notebook, and at the end of the day he reads what he’s written aloud, to his mobile phone, which in turn saves it as text before he continues working on it on his computer. The app isn’t very good, it seems, but it only cost 59p.

It is, apparently, easy to write film scripts, which is what Frank did first. But it’s hard to get one made into a film. On the other hand, if you write a book, it’s relatively easy to get it published, because it’s so much cheaper than film making.

The last reading we got was from Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, the lightsaber episode. It’s odd. This must have been at least my third time, but I swear it sounds different every time. The thing to remember, when you are a dog from space, is that you do not eat the children. Nor should you actually make the lightsaber work, even if cutting children’s hair with it is the new face painting.

Murder Under Her Skin

That was a good run-up to Christmas! I so enjoyed sitting down with Stephen Spotswood’s second Pentecost and Parker mystery. Happily it was even better than the first, and I now wish myself into a future where there are lots of Pentecost and Parker novels. I hope to see you there.

This time our private eyes leave New York to go to the circus. Parker’s old circus no less. She doesn’t need to throw any knives, but the murder they have come to solve does involve a knife in the victim’s body, and it’s a victim Parker knew well, and the obvious murder suspect is her old mentor.

The small Virginian town the circus is in might be your typical small town in the South, but it is also not, and that’s very refreshing. People are prejudiced, and there is religion, but it’s not the way you’d expect. Ruby, who used to look out for Parker when she arrived as a teenager, was popular with everyone. And still she ended up dead.

We discover more about Parker’s past, obviously, but also about Pentecost’s family, and the usefulness of knowing your bible. Perhaps our two detectives packed too many changes of gorgeous clothes – I can still see that film – but it’s learning about life in the South and what a circus is like, as seen from the inside, which makes this book. I’d already minded, a little, that the action moved away from New York, and now I mind a little that it will, presumably, move away from the circus too.

But there will doubtless be another setting for me to like, and new clothes for Pentecost and Parker to wear, and more characters for them to suspect.

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].

Seven books and a smell

For a few panicky seconds on Christmas Eve as the presents were being handed out, I was afraid we were going to do a Mr and Mrs Hilary Mantel thing. I’d read how last year they gave each other the same book. This comes of knowing perfectly well what the other one would like.

At Bookwitch Towers Daughter is good at knowing this (the Resident IT Consultant follows the list given to him), and when I found myself staring at a British Library Christmas crime anthology edited by Martin Edwards, I hurriedly tried to recall what I’d got the Resident IT Consultant. Two collections edited by Martin, but which ones? And how did they differ from the ones last year?

In the end they turned out to be different collections, but Daughter and I had clearly studied the list of crime stories edited by our Mr Edwards, and then made our separate choices. This was a problem I’d not even seen coming!

As you can see I am looking at a varied reading diet for the near future. Eoin Colfer and Shaun Tan were by request, so to speak, while the Literary Almanac was the result of individual thinking by the Resident IT Consultant. So, Silent Nights from Daughter, and also two Mary Westmacotts, chosen without even the prompting of Sophie Hannah’s suggestion in the Guardian during the year. Very perceptive. And at last I have got my Glamorgan sausages back! I’ve been going on about Michael Barry all year, after realising that parting with his cookbooks from the olden days might have been somewhat premature. I just couldn’t find his Glamorgan sausages online. But here they are. Someone paid attention to her mother, and then went secondhand book shopping.

That’s the seven books. The final gift was a scented candle from ‘an author’, smelling of old bookshop. The candle. Not the author. I’d have thought Bookwitch Towers might almost manage that smell on its own, but now we’ll leave nothing to chance.

I wish my hairdresser could see me now. I mean, when I unwrapped my books. Earlier in the week he’d asked if I thought the Resident IT Consultant would surprise me with a really special Christmas present. I’m afraid I laughed. I came home and told the other two, and the Resident IT Consultant said that it really would be a surprise if he were to do that. But I felt fairly safe from any development in that direction.

In return I surprised the hairdresser. Twice. Seven years on he discovered I have a Son. Who is not a scientist. And who does not translate for the police. He’s also into books. Son, I mean. And the hairdresser does read, so I decided to combine the two, and went back a few days later and gave him one of Son’s.