Category Archives: Humour

Skulduggery Pleasant – Apocalypse Kings

This made me quite happy. It’s the World Book Day offering from Derek Landy; a short story within the world of Skulduggery Pleasant. Judging by Valkyrie Cain, it was set a few years ago. But that’s just fine. The world was a better place then. And he has dedicated the book – which I read as an ebook – to his pets, dead and alive, and among them Lorelai and Rory. Although he points out there are no pets in the story. Just as well.

We meet Adedayo, who until he was fourteen had no idea he was magic. And then he discovered a lot more than he might have bargained for. Like, he had to save the world.

But at least he also gets to meet Valkyrie and Skulduggery. Plus some fairly unsavoury characters who just want to end the world. Thanks to his soon to be dead Nigerian grandmother he has learned a few useful things, although if he spoke Yoruba it would have helped a great deal. He’d have known what she was trying to tell him, for one thing.

Apart from all this, Apocalypse Kings is a pretty standard school story, with the added characters he meets so suddenly, not to mention unwisely.

By standard, I mean that it is fun. As much fun as you can expect for 75p, or however much I paid.

A little night reading

For some reason Daughter felt she wanted to start reading aloud in Swedish. It’s generally helpful to start light, so not the Bible, or The Times. I gave her my childhood Elsa Beskow, but that really was quite short.

After two of Barbro Lindgren’s and Eva Eriksson’s Vilda Bebin books, which were confusing because they are ‘poetry’ she moved on to Pettson and Findus by Sven Nordqvist. She has now read me all the ones we have in the original language.

That is just as well. I have enjoyed the reading, or maybe I mean the listening. But, it sends me to sleep. I know, I know. Bedtime stories are supposed to do just that, but I am old and had not intended to go to bed so soon.

Members of the Resident IT Consultant’s family are well known, or should I say notorious, for always falling asleep. You sit there being all sociable, and sooner or later one of them nods off.

That’s what I did.

I came to, and became aware that Daughter was looking at me in a horrified sort of way. Apparently I had done that nodding off, right there in my armchair.

I’m not quite ready for the reading to take place with me in bed, but I suppose it will have to come to that.

(Findus is an annoying little cat. But quite kind, not to mention intelligent, all the same.)

Paper Girls

DCI Kett is the most father-like detective I have ever come across, by which I mean Alex Smith’s description of what it’s like to be the [currently] lone parent to three young girls is spot on. And once they’ve arrived in Norwich, his detective also kicks in doors left, right and centre. Because he has to.

As an expert on missing people, Kett is on compassionate leave and has come home to Norwich after his own wife goes missing and he fails to find out what’s happened to her. It’s hard. His eldest is six and autistic, the middle girl always wants to poo, and the youngest comes along on his detecting, in her pushchair, because Kett has yet to sort out childcare. Not that he should be working, of course.

But three eleven-year-old girls have gone missing while doing their paper rounds, and the local police want his help. And even if he wanted to, Kett can’t ignore this case. He might have forgotten to bring bedlinen, but he is still a good father.

And a good detective.

I’m not generally too keen on crime novels featuring suffering children, but this is kept at an OK level. And Alex’s writing is great. It’s extremely readable.

I did guess quite early on who to suspect. Perhaps I was meant to. But you still have to wait to see how it will all work out. If it works out. You want to believe it will, because of the many children involved, but you can’t be sure.

As for the missing mother; we are clearly meant to see how Kett manages – or not – without her, so I don’t imagine there will be a speedy, happy outcome.

There will be more poos, and more doors to kick in. And naming a couple of potential suspects after his real life author colleagues is genius. Made me very happy.

You need five weeks between the squirrel columns

Some time back when things were normal, I wrote to the Guardian and asked them to send me Tim Dowling. They wrote back and said they would think about it.

Finally, last night Tim was in my living room! Admittedly only on screen, and he had Hadley Freeman with him. But it was good; two of my favourites at the same time.

The squirrels, as you will know, are his. But there’s a limit to how often even Tim can write a column about them. Not every week, that’s for certain. (But I did think it could be more frequently than every five…)

And he sounds so English! For an American, I mean. Almost like an Atlantic version of Colin Firth. I admired his living room (?), until it was suggested by someone that it might be Tim’s shed. Was it just a fake background, to fool me?

I knew Hadley’s ‘background’ was in fact her bedroom. I’ve been in her bedroom before. The bedroom with the wallpaper.

Apparently it’s hard writing a weekly column, although for Hadley it provides a break in her ‘parenting’ as she knows she should refer to the child care as.

For Tim the task is to make Mrs D laugh on Saturday mornings. She’s generally not ‘pissed off’ by what he writes, knowing full well she’s the funny one. Tim ‘only writes it down.’

If they were to write about last night, the first you would read about it – except on here, obviously – is Saturday next week. That’s as far in advance as they need to be. They both dread coming up with acceptable topics, and for Tim not much beats the squirrels. Or a hole in his sock. He started his writing career with a column [elsewhere] on ‘How to live off your girlfriend’. Because it’s what he did, having followed the future Mrs D to England. She has tried to send him back.

We all love Hadley’s interviews. When asked who her dream future interviewee would be, she said Eddie Murphy. Also a lot of already dead people. And apparently her recent piece on Angelina Jolie, which I enjoyed, caused very many readers to write in to defend Angelina…

Both Tim and Hadley have books on the go. To write, I mean. But Tim filled me with dread when he said he might need three months off to finish his novel. Don’t do it!

The Morning Gift

I 95% adored this adult novel by Eva Ibbotson. It came highly recommended by several people whose taste I respect, and my knowledge of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books backed this up.

To begin with I sat back and basked in the way Eva put her words together, how she described the background to what happens in The Morning Gift. The plot is good and the characters loveable and interesting and the setting in prewar Austria/Vienna was enough to make me want to go back there.

We meet the family of the heroine, Ruth, who is 20 when the real action begins in 1938. Prior to that we’ve learned how her parents met and how the well off Viennese intelligentsia lived. We also meet the British hero, Quin, who is everything you want from the romantic, but also kind, intelligent, rich man in your life.

When the Germans take over in Austria, the family flees to England, but due to a technical mishap Ruth does not manage to leave. Enter Quin, who obviously wants to help, and in the end this help has to take the form of a marriage of convenience.

If you’ve read romantic fiction before, you will know what to expect, except here you can expect it in a wittier and more intelligent shape than average. This is Eva Ibbotson we’re talking about.

You know it will end well, even though we are just coming up to the beginning of the war. You know that London in 1938/39 will lead to six years of a very bad time, and these are Jewish refugees we’re talking about. Added to which is the lack of acceptance by white English people who are not too keen on foreigners.

So the war is perhaps 2% of my ‘negative rating.’ The other few percent, well, this is set – fairly realistically, I would say – in the 1930s, and the book was published in 1993, written by someone who had experience of prewar London. Had I read it back then, I’d not have seen much of a problem when Ruth and Quin finally ‘get together’ properly. But now, in 2021, this is #metoo territory. And, well, I felt uncomfortable.

It quickly returns to most of its charm again, and all is well. Only, the degree Ruth worked so hard to get, is no longer needed once there is a happy ending. Not even in this modern version of a time when that would have been the norm (or so I imagine).

On the other hand, how can you not love a heroine who knows herself; ‘Would you like me to stop talking? Because I can. I have to concentrate, but it’s possible.’ So is reciting poetry – in German – to a sheep.

An inspiration lost

I don’t quite remember why Lars Westman was talking to the postbox. But it was the kind of thing he was wont to do.

I’m thinking it had to do with no stamps or not enough postage on something he had just posted, and he was trying to persuade the postbox to give the letter back, so it could be rectified. It’s obvious, you put your face close to the opening and say what you need to say.

In this case, the most interesting thing was that there was a reply. I believe there was a postal worker the other side of the hole where you post your letters, which probably means it was one of those postboxes inserted into a wall, or there would hardly have been room for a man inside the box. Certainly, my own postal background does not incorporate talking postboxes, however crazy we might have been.

It was a hilarious tale, the way many of Lars’s columns in Vi Magazine were. I read him for decades and he was always good. He was one of the people who made me want to write.

And now he’s dead. Retired for some years, he was 86. But his entertaining columns, and longer articles are ones I still remember. Except when I’ve half forgotten, like the talking postbox. (I was fully expecting Lars to get stuck, or something. Not that there’d be an actual response from within.)

Give it a Dent

‘Do you feel like lying down in front of the tree-cutters next week?’ I asked the Resident IT Consultant. He did not wish to channel his inner Arthur Dent, so I suspect neither of us will demonstrate our displeasure with Stirling Council (and yes, I’m sure those plans have been there for anyone to see for a long time. I mean, we do know about them, so…) in the near future.

But we ought to. Do it. Wanting is saying too much, but why would we want them to spend £3m on something really stupid and unnecessary, when at the same time they need to cut down on services because they need to save £8m. If they were to ask me, I could show them how they would only need to find a way to not spend £5m.

We’re not activists. But even if we were, can one afford to engage in physical protest at a time like this? Fear of covid means no one is likely to get up close to any workers, to prevent the council from chopping down a dozen huge trees to make way for a road no one needs.

What I suspect might happen is that it’s too late to save the trees, so they will go. And then someone has second thoughts or discovers they don’t actually have the money after all, and nothing much happens. But let’s start by demolishing a wooded green area near the town centre.

I’ve often wanted to believe I was an Arthur Dent, slightly ridiculous, but a little bit brave, standing up for my rights. Not this time.

A literary lift

When the time came to hand out the Christmas presents, I barely noticed that the Resident IT Consultant slipped away for a brief time. (No, he did not don a red outfit and long white beard.) He suggested that if I checked my emails, I might find a Kindle book email there. I did. And I did. Apparently this is the way. You buy and the recipient takes delivery almost instantly.

It wasn’t wrapped, though. I have to say that.

*It* was the complete works by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Apparently ‘why buy one book when you can buy them all?’ is the reigning idea. Indeed. My thanks to Amanda Craig, whose Guardian article Books to Bring Cheer caused a bit of book buying at Bookwitch Towers. Rather craftily I asked for some books for me, and then divided things up by giving the Resident IT Consultant one I wanted to read too. What’s his is mine, or some such thing.

Whereas Daughter can think up ideas by herself, for us. Everything I’ve happened to mention gets noted. Which accounts for the Tom Stoppard collection. And my craving for codewords to solve has now received a real challenge. One for every day! What I want to know is whether I will be allowed to solve the one for, say, 13th May on a later date in May?

A grown-up Eva Ibbotson and a new book by Sally Nicholls complete my book presents.

My other pile of books supported the family Christmas gathering. We had a Boxing Day worldwide party, starting in Texas and ending in Moscow. As with everything else in 2020 it was on Zoom, and I was determined to get my chins under control. Hence the lifting of the laptop with the help of literature.

It was nice. People who didn’t often see each other, even before lockdowns became widespread, were able to join in. Before the day was over there had even been an online crossword for one new recruit. Otherwise we’d all spent the day on the Hungarian Accountant’s Russian quiz. (I know. He’s moved.) It was quite a devious one, and I seem to have outwitted the Resident IT Consultant. (There was a trick question. Or two.)

‘My Mom got me my job’

I’d like to think that Hadley Freeman and I are [almost] the same. She’s just more famous, and mostly gets to interview more famous people than I do, but we both do it for the same reason; to meet people we admire. So that’s why I simply had to attend Hadley’s event for Arvon at Home this evening.

She apologised in advance for any potential interruptions from her young children. There were none, but I’d say she was a little tense, just in case they’d decide to join us. I’d have liked it if they did, and I’m sure most of the others would too.

To start, Hadley read from the beginning of her latest book, House of Glass, about her French grandmother. I’d read about it in the Guardian, so knew it would be interesting, and almost enough to make me want to read something other than children’s books. Deauville is not like Cincinnati. And none of the elderly relatives five-year-old Hadley met on that holiday in France were the type to run around like she was used to doing with cousins.

Having spent something like twenty years on this book, after finding a shoebox at the back of her late Grandmother’s wardrobe, it was interesting to learn how she set about her research and the writing. Her American – but bilingual – father helped with some of the French, while the Polish was done by the wives of her Polish builders at the time.

For the structure of the whole thing, help came from all directions, and as I keep quoting others on, you should always ask your friends. Apart from different coloured files, which is always attractive, you should know your subject completely, but write only what’s interesting and what your readers will want to know. Like the interviews, in fact.

Hadley’s Grandmother and her siblings never spoke of what happened in the war, but they kept everything. It was there for Hadley to find and to read. It took her 18 months to write the book, and the way you achieve this with three children under five, is to have the right husband who does the parenting at weekends, leaving Sundays for writing.

For her second reading Hadley chose her 2015 book Life Moves Pretty Fast. I think it’s about her love for the 1980s, and in particular for 1980s films. And music. Apparently they are better than 1960s stuff, which I can almost believe. (Except for the music.) She herself was surprised to discover that her mother, being the kind who only gives you fruit for dessert, let her discover these movies at a young age.

But then, it was that same mother who sent an early interview to a competition, which Hadley went on to win, and which brought her to the attention of the Guardian, where she has been for the last twenty years. Mothers are good.

Questions, and compliments, from the audience seemed to surprise Hadley. I think it’s time she realises that quite a few of us admire her writing quite a lot. No, scratch that. It’s better she doesn’t, in case it goes to her head.

As you were, Hadley.

Travels From my Twilight Zone

You’ll remember Jeff Zycinski and his autobiographical The Red Light Zone, about his years as Head of Radio at BBC Scotland. It was very good, and as I said at the time – barely two years ago – you could remove the radio and you’d have excellent coverage of 25 years of life in Scotland.

Not only has Jeff now been seriously ill, while narrowly avoiding the dreaded virus of 2020, but he has written another autobiography, mostly about the years before the radio years. And it is an even better tale. ‘Morphine, memories and make-believe’ describes it perfectly.

We start with Jeff not being the slightest concerned that ‘it might be mouth cancer.’ Well, it was. So first we see him in his hospital bed, at the start of the year. And while he works on getting better, we read about his early life in Easterhouse, the seventh son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother.

It has completely changed my outsider’s view of Easterhouse, and it has reinforced my feeling that we are all mostly the same. A few years younger than me, and a Catholic boy in Glasgow, it still seems as if Jeff had a childhood I can relate to. It is fascinating in its ordinariness.

He tells it so well, and I’m beginning to believe he could tell me absolutely anything, and I’d believe it, and have fun. So, yes please, go on!

The second part of the book is fiction. Probably. The first story about the man not far from Loch Ness reminded me of Jeff. So, about that money..? All super stories, really enjoyable, and just that bit different from many other stories.

Then we return to Jeff’s health – please stay well! – before he takes us on a trip round Scotland, outlining the best of the places mentioned in the biographical first half. And I hope he has been allowed to hug his children again. Even if they are adults now.