Category Archives: Humour

An Island of Our Own

This is the best book Sally Nicholls has written – so far – and she has written some really good ones.

Sally Nicholls, An Island of Our Own

An Island of Our Own is that perfect thing; a tremendously good children’s book. Written as though by 13-year-old Holly, who is an orphan, living with her 19-year-old brother Jonathan who is official carer of her and their brother Davy who is seven, Holly wants new school shoes and Davy wants a bike. And for his pet rabbit to get well.

This costs money they don’t have, especially as they live in London, and when their rich great aunt Irene dies, they embark on an only slightly crazy quest for their inheritance. As it says on the cover, this really is a book about home-made spaceships, lock-pickers, an exploding dishwasher, and Orkney (my second Orkney book in a short time). But most of all it’s about love, and resilience.

Jonathan makes a far better ‘parent’ than many ‘real’ fictional parents, and it’s heartbreaking to think of this boy who was all set to go to university and had to give it up, and who cries in secret when he can’t find the money they need to pay for Sebastian’s (that’s the rabbit) care or the effects of the dishwasher incident.

Holly is a wonderful girl, ever the optimist and very clever at working out how to solve things. She reads Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie, whose novels might be for adults, but ‘even Agatha Christie never kills twenty-two kids in one book, like they do in The Hunger Games.’

There is something so very light about Sally’s writing. Her topics are serious, but she turns everything into sheer delight, and you smile and you cry. And you want to read the book again.

Going to Mars

Am I the only one to think of Douglas Adams when reading about the people who made it on to the list of travellers to Mars? I didn’t even know you could apply (not that I would have done so), let alone did I imagine people would sign up for it, seeing as it’s not exactly NASA.

Is it insanity? Or are they so grounded in reality that they realise it will never happen, so they might as well cause a stir? Does it sound good in interviews and on CVs? I ask, because Daughter was flabbergasted to find that someone she met in an interview round was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. And reading about them, the ratio of astrophysicists does seem remarkably high.

If I interviewed someone like that, would I think it showed admirable ambition, or would I feel that I mustn’t waste a position on someone that crazy who would get themselves killed in ten years’ time? Or, at least, not come back.

Then I discovered that Sheldon Cooper had applied. Not that that is a recommendation or a sign of mature thinking, but still.

Back to Douglas Adams, though, and the crashlanded batch of hairdressers and telephone sanitisers who had ‘gone ahead.’ Is this not the same thing? Almost.

My Mum might be a Gorilla…

It’s easy to despair of the lack of translated books, sometimes. There’s the xenophobia, and I suppose lack of money for publishers. Maybe. But for every iffy homegrown book, there might be a tremendously good foreign book, just waiting to be translated.

Frida Nilsson, Apstjärnan

SELTA, the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association, have a blog, and recently Fiona Graham, one of their members, published her sample translation of a chapter from Frida Nilsson’s Apstjärnan, under the title My Mum’s a Gorilla – So What? and I have to say I love the title, and I really enjoyed reading it. Yes, I know I could read the whole book in the original, but I didn’t know about it until I read the SELTA blog.

What could beat a gorilla teaching a small girl how to drive? Ridiculous, funny, entertaining. I can’t drive. Should I get a gorilla to help?

Occasionally I email publishers and suggest foreign books they might look at. I think it’s a losing battle, but every now and then I feel strongly enough to do it anyway.

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone

Desirable

Oh how I needed this book! I know, it’s been waiting for my attention a bit longer than it should have, but I was truly grateful for Desirable once I got to it.

You know, slightly bad day and you need something reliably uplifting and fun. That’s Frank Cottrell Boyce for you. Desirable. (That’s the title…)

George is a loser, and it’s brought home to him when even his Grandad can’t quite be bothered to do much for his birthday. No one else came to the party, and Grandad left pretty swiftly, after having given George the very same item that George’s mum once gave her dad (I believe it’s called re-gifting).

Although, perhaps Grandad knew what he was doing? George’s boring life suddenly changes. He becomes desirable. Not that that is necessarily as desirable as you’d think before you reached desirablity.

Frank Cottrell Boyce and Cate James, Desirable

This story is as heartwarming and funny as you would expect from Frank, and with very ‘undesirable’ illustrations from Cate James, in a desirable sort of fashion, if you know what I mean?

Those teachers are downright weird. Just saying.

The importance of culture

I couldn’t help noticing that The Importance of Being Earnest was on again at the weekend. Earnest has a special significance to me. He proved that my English was better than I thought.

This was while living with the G family and attending the University of Sussex for a year, back at the beginning of time. In our second term Oscar Wilde’s drama would be one of our set books, and when it was on at the university’s Gardner Arts Centre, during our first term, we were advised to go and see it. I probably would have anyway.

But I suspected I wouldn’t understand all of it; either not catch what they were saying, or not actually know all the words. I suppose I could have taken the executive decision to read the play before, but that idea didn’t seem to occur to me.

Mr G, when he heard of my plans, said ‘a handbag?’ in a funny sort of voice, the relevance of which escaped me. (I got it afterwards.) Personally I was pretty impressed that a university would have its own theatre on the premises, as it were.

Anyway, we went, we saw, we enjoyed. What’s more, I reckoned I could understand every word. (If I were to read the play now it could be I’d find a difficult word or two, but at least it seemed plain as daylight at the time.) I think in a way that’s when I stopped thinking of myself as a foreigner handicapped by limited vocabulary. These days I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I don’t fret. In fact, there is more I don’t catch, or understand, when watching NCIS: Los Angeles, than that time with dear Earnest.

Since then I’ve been to lots more plays, and I’ve seen several more versions of what I consider ‘my drama debut.’ The famous film with Edith Evans’s handbag quote, and probably also this one that was just on television with Colin Firth, as well as other stage productions.

At least we had no problem knowing about the trains to Worthing, what with it being more or less next door to us in Brighton.

(PDF time travel back to 1977.)

The Dragonsitter’s Party

‘Never take popcorn from a dragon.’ Obviously. And when you find a babysitter who ‘does pets’ you shouldn’t assume she will do dragons, especially if they get annoyed at having to share the popcorn.

Josh Lacey and Garry Parsons, The Dragonsitter's Party

We are back with Eddie and his family, and the dragons. Who just happen to turn up for Eddie’s birthday party. Eddie’s mum is still very much in love with Gordon, so she puts up with him having brought the dragons, although, as I said, it’s hard to go out for a romantic dinner when the sitter doesn’t do pets. Or dragons.

They have a magician booked for the party. Who needs a magician when you have an univited dragon or two? The magician arrived with a trained rabbit, but it’s safe to say he didn’t manage to leave with it. The guests thought it was the best party ever.

Eddie’s ever absent Uncle Morton is helping with the lambs (since Gordon is busy wooing Eddie’s mum), and fails to turn up to relieve them of his dragons, yet again.

I love these books, and I have high hopes for the future, considering what Uncle Morton gave Eddie.

An egg. And I don’t think it was an Easter egg.

(Wonderful illustrations by Garry Parsons as always.)