Category Archives: Humour

Mr Sparks

‘Well, I didn’t see this coming!’ I thought I knew where Danny Weston was going with his new novel, Mr Sparks. Set in 1919, it’s the story about 12-year-old almost orphaned Owen. He lives with his ghastly aunt at her hotel in Llandudno, when one day a strange man arrives, with even stranger luggage.

It talks. The man is, of course, a ventriloquist. Or is he? As Owen gets closer it appears that the dummy, pardon, Mr Sparks, speaks and thinks on its own. But that’s not possible. Is it?

(I’d say Mr Sparks is as real as, erm, Danny Weston. And we all know him, don’t we?)

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Soon this little horror story has Owen and Mr Sparks in a closer relationship than the boy had imagined possible. Who is in control?

It’s not as scary as I had been afraid. It’s more creepy. And then it didn’t go in quite the direction I’d imagined. And then it looked fairly promising, all set for a happy-ish ending, and then, well, maybe it didn’t. I know how it ends. As long as that Danny Weston doesn’t do anything I don’t want him to do!

You hear me?

I should probably disclose that Danny has been kind enough to dedicate Mr Sparks to me (and someone else, whom I shall ignore for the moment), which is, well, nice. It was clever of him to let Owen live in Llandudno, that pearl of seaside resorts. Although we might have to have a little chat about the pier at some point.

But that’s not why I say this is a good book. Actually, I haven’t said that yet.

It’s a good book! Even without the dedication. Creepily good, even.

Arabel’s Raven

I’m so old I have actually experienced the period in which Joan Aiken’s little book is set. And that’s really quite nice, because I almost felt that it was so lovely that it was all fiction. But it truly was that idyllic once upon a time. (Wasn’t it?)

The kind of time when ravens come and sort your life out. Become your pet, and generally cause mayhem. (Why do ravens feature in fiction more than other birds?) When there were actual unions for people who work, odd – but kind – policemen and children could be independent, thinking creatures.

Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, Arabel's Raven

Arabel is a very young girl, whose taxi-driver dad brings home Mortimer one late night. Well, he didn’t know it was Mortimer (but Arabel could tell when she saw him that he was a Mortimer), and he was so tired he forgot all about the bird. I believe the bird might have been a wee bit tipsy, due to some unorthodox reviving done by Arabel’s dad.

Anyway, this short book is about more than slightly drunk birds in taxis. It’s a crime story, because someone is going round stealing stuff, and it’s not Mortimer. If anyone can solve the mystery it’s Arabel, who is able to walk all the way where she needs to go on just the one pavement and not cross any roads because small girls aren’t allowed to on their own.

The Shepherd’s Crown

When you know it’s the last book, it’s hard to see clearly. But reading Terry Pratchett’s last gift to his fans, The Shepherd’s Crown, I did my best, and I’m fairly sure it’s as wonderful a story as we hoped for. Maybe it would have been a bit longer if Terry had had longer. But it is most satisfactory as it is.

Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd's Crown

When reading about Granny Weatherwax and her approach to meeting Death, you can’t help but feel this was also Terry Pratchett’s way. Perhaps his real name was Esmeralda? He probably didn’t scrub the toilets in his house as Death approached, but he will have done the stuff he did; write books.

There are so many thoughtful thoughts in The Shepherd’s Crown, and so many words, good words, well used, that you can’t really tell that they were assembled by a man with Alzheimer’s. Most of us would be proud to write like this at any time.

I got that warm glow from reading, that one of the characters in the book discovers, once she realises that having carried one basket is not enough. You can go on doing things for others.

Tiffany Aching finds that you can fill someone else’s boots, even if you don’t think so yourself. Or you can use your own boots. That will also work just fine. Tiffany comes to countless understandings about witches and people and everything else in the world. And this is what we needed to hear. Terry sorted the world out for us, as much as he possibly could.

And there is a lovely new character, a male witch with an uncommonly good grasp of how people function. You simply cannot beat a decent shed.

A kind of Bernard, but one level down

One day I will know not to say to people I’ve just met that I’m pleased they are so old. I mean it in the most positive way, but realised – belatedly – that it might not sound too good.

Two weeks ago I knew nothing about Lindsey Davis, and when her publicist mentioned her to me, I visualised a twenty-something with long blonde hair. (It’s something about the name, that sounds so blonde and so young.) Hence my relief on discovering Lindsey is 66 and wears black socks. Like Jeremy Corbyn. (Her words, not mine.) She was ‘terribly sorry, but it’s just the way things are.’

Lindsey used to be a civil servant, rather like Bernard in Yes Minister. Now a bestselling author of historical Roman crime novels, Lindsey could take up sitdown comedy if she ever wants to, with no need to go civil servanting again. And at 66 she has her pension. I do hope her sense of humour will help her forget my bad manners. As I said, I meant well. (And as Lindsey said, ‘no I’m not going to stop [writing]. I don’t think female authors give up, do they? How old was P D James? 93.’)

We had tea, and coffee (which was not so frothy it gave her the moustache she craved), before her Bloody Scotland event. I’m grateful for the opportunity not only of meeting Lindsey, but being able to switch events to go to hers. It was one of the best ever, and I’d happily go again tomorrow. She had started her day by lying down on the carpet in her hotel room, until she remembered that in CSI they always point out how much ‘stuff’ will be lurking in a small square of hotel carpet. But since she was down there, she decided to make use of it.

When she was a civil servant during Thatcher’s reign, Lindsey used to do many strange things, and I especially approve of building toilets in – already – ancient monuments. And that’s with only O-level Maths, and English from Oxford. Lindsey decided to leave the civil service when she had to write draft letters on behalf of someone, and then had to write draft replies back to herself.

Lindsey Davis

To cheer herself up Lindsey wrote a novel, set in her favourite period, the English Civil War. She was runner up in a writing competition, so decided to give writing a go. In the 1980s the Civil War was the wrong period. ‘I chose the Romans because nobody else was doing it, which now seems rather funny. I like to tell myself they wouldn’t be there [in the bookshops] if I hadn’t.’ She had a leaking roof that needed money spending on it, and she’d already done some research on the period, and could ‘bluff well.’

Her Marcus Didius Falco books are in effect the Roman Archers; with her adding family details as the series grew. When writing about the Emperor Domitian, Lindsey discovered she quite likes ‘evil paranoid tyrants,’ reckoning she is one of them.

The new Albia series about Falco’s adopted daughter Flavia Albia is set when Albia has reached adulthood, so she has a certain standing in society, despite being a mere woman. Lindsey also feels that both authors and their characters need maturity and life experience, in order to avoid that young, blonde feeling.

(I kept mentioning the Roman Mysteries, and the fact that the female detective in those books is also a Flavia. Apparently you would be named for the Emperor, which explains the staggering number of Flavias. And then I mentioned the RM a bit more still… Lindsey reckons girls didn’t marry as early as we are made to believe. ‘I’m not convinced that that really happened. I think it was something that was practised in the aristocracy.’)

The most recent Albia book, Deadly Election, wasn’t planned to coincide with the elections either here or in the US. It mainly happened because of some stolen Rugby tickets for the Five Nations in Rome, which Lindsey had thought she could use for some kind of Colosseum background. And anyway, in Rome it was the Emperor who decided, with no elections necessary. (She told me she had always wanted to write about a Roman election, and how in the series this was a good moment. ‘And I found a book on it as well, so it just happened, and then I realised just how exciting it was going to be.)

Lindsey Davis

During the Q&A we discovered that the hall was full of retired civil servants. One man wanted her to come and live next door. I think that was a sensible request. We got an explanation to the background of the turbot gift, which featured an editor burning his hands on a hot tray of recently cooked fish. A very large fish, but no turbot.

Lindsey is a sneaky woman. I like her. She wanted to write a series of seven books, set on the seven hills of Rome. Two editors said no. Instead she’s writing about Albia. Each book is set on one of the hills of Rome. A new hill every book. There will be seven books.

She doesn’t plan much. (Except perhaps for the seven hills thing.) She has a vague idea of who will die and who did it, but wouldn’t want a long synopsis to ‘colour in’ when writing the book. And no need to suggest potential plots to her. ‘I don’t want people to give me ideas. I have plenty of ideas myself!’

At this point someone felt called upon to let us know that Lindsey’s ‘twin’ Jeremy Corbyn had won, so black socks are clearly ‘it.’ She grew up as much on radio drama crime as on books, liking Chandler and Hammett. Lindsey does read, but ‘when I stop work I tend to do something completely different, like gardening.’

No ‘street Latin’ for her in the books, either. ‘I hate books where they break into foreign languages.’  What she’s got is mainly 1940s style wise cracks. Lindsey finished by reading the first page from her next novel in the Albia series. This is a woman who knows what she’s doing.

Lindsey Davis

At the end of the day I discovered I was also wearing black socks. Admittedly, I’m not 66, but it’s a good witchy number. Long live old age.

You can’t have an Irish road trip


That’s why Derek Landy first wrote his new book after Skulduggery Pleasant as something totally different, before he realised this was no good and he’d have to rewrite the whole thing. So he wrote a new new book during a month after Christmas and moved all of it across the Atlantic to America where they really do road trips, and you can drive for weeks and see no one.

He reckons Demon Road is very good. It’s the best he’s written. This year. He knows that the rule in publishing is that your next book or your next series will never be quite as bestselling as the first. But he’s got used to us loving him, and he feels other books lack a certain Derek-ness.

The audience was full of fans. (At least I believe so, unless it was a cunning plot.) I’d say mostly the sort of age you’d be if you’ve followed Skulduggery for his lifetime (and I don’t mean the hundreds of years he’s had as a skeleton). So when Ann Landmann introduced Derek (in the – for her – unfortunately titled The Waterstones Event with Derek Landy) there was thundering applause for him, which he conveyed home to his mother via mobile phone, as it seems the woman doubted his popularity. Some mothers!

Derek Landy

He’s a sneaky fellow, that Derek. He did the Village Idiot act almost to perfection, and if I’d not read and admired Skulduggery all these years, I’d have been aghast. And I’m trying to visualise him in his 66 Ford Mustang, which he rarely drives at home in Ireland because he feels like a moron when he does. But he likes powerful cars, which is why his male characters drive really interesting ones.

Having stopped being a feminist for a while, he became one again when his girlfriend showed him what it’s like for us girls out there. He loved Valkyrie, and she’s someone who does not need feminism, but his new girl Amber, who is shorter and fatter than average, brought back the need for a bit of feminism. In demon form Amber is a bit of a nutcase, a psychopath. And Derek hasn’t got a clue how the third and last book about her will end.

Someone asked if Derek is Gordon. NO! He is Skulduggery, as will be obvious from how alike they are in every respect… Coming up with the funny names for characters in Skulduggery Pleasant was hard (although there was a competition to get fans to do the work for him…), and with Demon Road the tricky thing is looking everywhere up on Google streetview, as his sudden change of setting meant he had no time for on-site research.

Derek was about the third author in Charlotte Square to extol the virtues of the work of H P Lovecraft. He didn’t set Demon Road in Skulduggery’s world, because if there’s a film deal for one, the film company would automatically own the other books as well. Or something like that.

He never wrote from Skulduggery’s point of view, to keep him as the mysterious genius he must be; an icon, a figurehead, tough hero. (That’s enough now, Derek.) And he (Derek) kills our beloved characters because we love them so much. So he can break our hearts.


Derek Landy

At his signing, we were warned he had a train to catch three hours later, so he’d not have time to do his usual chatting at length with everyone. But looking at his first chattees, he Talked. A. Lot. The Irish do. On the other hand, I did witness him sneaking out the back gate in time for his train.

And talking of trains, as I got off mine, the people in front of me sat proudly brandishing a shiny new copy of Demon Road. I believe I know where they’d been.

W.A.R.P.ed, or when Fong broke his arm

Eoin Colfer

Admittedly it was my own fault. When the programme said Eoin Colfer would be talking about his second WARP book, I could have done my homework and seen that it’d be the third book. But luckily he didn’t really talk about either of them, except to read a chapter from book three, which will be the last. WARP, that is, not from Eoin. He has lots of books coming, already written. (But I could have prepared by acquiring and reading the last WARP. Just so I wouldn’t feel left out.)

Eoin had a photocall session before his event, and he was only scolded once for looking my way and chatting, when he should have looked the other way and been quiet. He recognised me, despite my cunning disguise of cutting my hair.

Eoin Colfer

Anyway, he spent most of his event – which was full of children, mainly boys, of the ‘right’ age – telling us about his eldest son’s broken arm. This is a recurring thing, and I’d say Eoin gets plenty of mileage out of poor Finn’s misfortune. Or Fong, as he’s called when he breaks his arm in France.

Finn gives as good as he gets, though, hugging his father and patting him on the head, because it’s not every dad who wears children’s jeans. In fact, I’d hazard a guess and claim that Eoin’s sons might have taken over where Eoin’s four brothers left off. And it’s not as if Eoin never broke an arm, or tried to splint it with tin foil and stuff. It’s a hard life being a Colfer.

So, Eoin is the kind of author who goes from writing about leprechauns to time travel, because it’s more mature. He told us about his best bad guy, Albert Garrick, and about the witch trials he set up in the 17th century, where he ended up hiding.

With 20 minutes to go, he reckoned he had time for four questions, as Eoin knows he’s the kind of man who never stops talking. There were no remotes in the 1970s, but they had one of the first in Ireland, achieved by throwing things at his baby brother to change channels. He didn’t always want to be an author, but an artist, so began by making comics until he realised he was better at writing.

His favourite book that he didn’t write is Stig of the Dump, and this has something to do with the exhaust in their Renault 4. He liked having a book to read in every room of the house, in case of earth quakes. Eoin also broke the toilet by stuffing books behind the cistern, while his brothers used to pull out the last page of his books. (What did I say about the Colfers?)

Eoin’s favourite authors are Oliver Jeffers, Philip Pullman and Roddy Doyle. At his age he likes short books, in case he dies, and people like Raymond Chandler who wrote 190p books are just the thing.

Favourite book that Eoin did write is The Legend of Spud Murphy, written especially for his favourite son Fong (or was it the other one?). Asked if he has put himself in a book, he didn’t believe he had, until his wife pointed out he’s just like Foaly; sits around all day at his desk, thinking he’s hilarious. To prove it he told us the cardboard box and computer story again.

Future books include one with Oliver Jeffers, and an adult (I hope crime!) one.

Eoin Colfer

When I looked in on Eoin after an hour, he was still signing. And that was without me bringing him all mine.

Celebrating Young Adult Fiction

Daniel Hahn

There were so many authors for Daniel Hahn’s event on YA literature that we got 15 minutes extra to sort out the seating arrangements, (a rather nice booth at the edge of the Spiegeltent for me) or so he claimed. We should – could – have had much longer. Not so much for the chairs as for the sheer marvel of what everyone had to say, whether or not YA exists. (Some of them reckon it doesn’t.)

Them, were Elizabeth Laird, David Almond, James Dawson and Tanya Landman, plus Agnes Guyon, chair for this year’s Carnegie. That’s four award winners, and one awarder. Daniel said, two of them were suspicious, but he changed that to having suspicions [about YA] when we laughed. The introductions had to be kept short or there would have been no time for the event. Elizabeth has written 150 books, and she claimed ‘most of them rubbish.’ David Almond has won everything, including the Hans Christian Andersen prize. New kid on the block, and reigning Queen of Teen, James Dawson, hasn’t won so much yet, except for the rather spiky QoT crown he keeps in a cupboard. And then there was this year’s Carnegie medalist, Tanya Landman.

With the exception of young James, who did grow up on  Nancy Drew, Melvin Burgess and Judy Blume (yes, that book), before moving on to Stephen King, none of the others had had access to any YA books back in the olden days. Elizabeth read Kipling, Geoffrey Trease and moved straight from Wind in the Willows to Agatha Christie and Jane Eyre. Oh, and she read her great aunt’s books…

David liked John Wyndham and Hemingway, as well as Blyton. Tanya was also a Wyndham fan, she read Leon Garfield, and then she has forgotten the rest. Agnes Guyon went straight from the Famous Five to Zola. As you do. Daniel felt this was a terribly French answer, and one he will use in future.

On being asked how they became YA writers, James said he decided after reading Noughts & Crosses. He reckons we’re all here because of J K Rowling, and what Stephenie Meyer did to follow. David didn’t even know he’d written YA when asked about it in America. Tanya reckons a book is a book is a book, and she doesn’t like categories.

James Dawson

James believes Philip Pullman only got away with what he wrote because the books were aimed at young readers. Elizabeth’s reading is mixed, and she reads what she needs for the moment. When ill she can consume many Agatha Christies in a short time.

Tanya read from her Buffalo Soldier, and had to stick to the first chapter, as she wrote the book with a southern American accent in mind, but she can’t actually read aloud like that.

Talking about diversity, James said there are many books, but none are bestsellers, unlike the leading David Walliams, John Green and the Hunger Games. Elizabeth feels that it’s the 3 for 2 offers in shops that make the bestsellers, in a fake sort of way. That’s why we need libraries, with librarians in them.

According to David, children’s publishers are more adventurous, and more confident in what they publish, than adult ones, and mentioned Shaun Tan. Elizabeth has experience of being recycled. If you can stay in print for 25 years, you find that your readers have become parents and will be drawn back to your books, until 25 years later when it’s the grandchildren’s turn.

Elizabeth Laird

Daniel’s bugbear is translations. There are not enough of them. Pushkin and Little Island are two publishers who do look for fiction to translate. Elizabeth read from her book A Little Piece of Ground, which was very moving.

Adults are people who ought to know better; they should read proper books. Or that’s what people think. Tanya reckons To Kill a Mockingbird has become what it is because it’s accessible. She knew someone who was embarrassed to be seen reading The Book Thief, because it’s not a ‘proper’ book. James even defended Twilight, being someone who’s ‘heading into his mid twenties.’

Tanya said what I’ve long failed to put into words, which is that in YA books things get better within the book (except for Kevin Brooks), while in adult books you start level, and then things spiral into something worse, with divorce, unemployment and worse. Elizabeth had some insight there and then which she shared with us; YA wants to tell a good story, straight and simple, with no ‘tricksy writing’ unlike so many adult books.

Agnes said that what the Carnegie judges look for is plot, style and characterisation, well told. And as someone retorted, ‘how hard can it be?’

James read from his new, almost not published, book, about a bisexual relationship. I think we were all impressed by how daring this seemed, but when asked if he’s ever encountered resistance, he said his whole next book got scrapped (grindr culture for gay men, starting with hardcore gay sex), and as a World Book Day author next year this wasn’t seen as being quite right. Elizabeth laughed so heartily at this, that I suspect the publishers are wrong.

We finished with David reading from Ella Grey, about Orfeus and rather grown-up sleepovers.

One question from the audience was on how children seem to get older younger these days, and James treated us to his memories of reading about demonic sex at the age of eleven.

Someone else told us that YA books save her in her job as a teacher, because the books suit the children. Elizabeth wonders if we are all teenagers, really, and Daniel added that it could be we are just optimists.

Perhaps there wasn’t any wolf whistling from the audience, but almost. This was one happy group of book lovers and we could easily have stayed there much longer. As it was, we trooped over to the adult (the irony of it!) bookshop for signings. It was good to finally speak to Tanya Landman, who was excited enough to give me an extra ‘e’ but that’s all right between Carnegie winner and witch.

James Dawson, Elizabeth Laird, Tanya Landman and David Almond

(This photo borrowed from Lindsay Fraser, because it’s so much better than mine.)