Category Archives: Humour

Scam on the Cam

Cambridge, Cambridge… what’s going on? More crime. Another young detective. Another college theologian. I’m beginning to feel Cambridge might not be as safe as the romantic view of this place of learning would have you believe.

Clémentine Beauvais, Scam on the Cam

Clémentine Beauvais sends her Sesame Seade out into seedy Cambridge for a third adventure, Scam on the Cam. As the title suggests, it’s water based and it’s about the famous boat race. The poor young men who row for Cambridge are dropping like flies. Who is poisoning them and why?

Or are they falling ill for some other reason? There are frogs, and a handsome young boy from one of the other schools in town. There are ze zieves. (thieves, you know) It’s enough to make Sesame shplutter.

I love the humour and the use of language (and she is French! Young, too…) and there is nothing about this rather innocent crime series and its 11-year-old detective that makes it unsuitable for old people. Quite the contrary. I hope the quality of the writing isn’t wasted on the young (like so much else).

(Illustrated by Sarah Horne.)

Wendy Quill Tries to Grow a Pet

Growing a pet is something I have to admit to never having tried. There are limits. But Wendy Quill – and I believe Wendy Meddour’s alter ego – will always start crazy schemes like that.

Wendy (the Quill Wendy) wants to be a vet, and having a couple of pets already counts for nothing. She needs more. Her parents say no. The invisible dog isn’t much use, so Wendy starts growing some alternate pets. Nits, frogs, whatever will come.

With the help of her best friend and no direct hindrance from her family, she sows the seeds, so to speak. And she’s more successful than you might imagine.

Wendy Meddour and Mina May, Wendy Quill Tries to Grow a Pet

This is a totally crazy story, made all the more fun for the illustrations by Mina May, age 12 (see, she’s a year older this time). It’s a quick read, but the time you need to study all the pictures means you could be a while.

The 2014 programme – Manchester Children’s Book Festival

James Draper

Would you trust this man to run your book festival? Well, you should. James Draper – with his dodgy taste in socks – and Kaye Tew are responsible (yes, really) for the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and there is no other festival I love in quite the same way. It is professional, while also managing to be friendly, fun and very crazy.

(While they now have their own teams working for them, and they claim there’s less need and opportunity to see each other all the time, I believed James when he said ‘I see more of that woman than I do the inside of my own eyelids!’)

James Draper and Kaye Tew

The extremely hot off the presses 2014 programme is proof that Kaye and James know what they are doing and are growing with the task (no, not in that way), but I hope they never grow away from the childish pleasure they seem to take in working together. Carol Ann Duffy was wise to give them the job in 2010. She might still have to be mother and stop anything too OTT, but other than that you can definitely hand your festival over to these two.

I’d been told the new programme would be ready by the end of Monday. And I suppose it was. James worked through the night until 9 a.m. on the Tuesday, but that really counts as end of Monday in my book. Then he slept for an hour to make it Tuesday, when he and Kaye had invited me round for an early peek at what they have to offer this summer.

James Draper and Kaye Tew

While James – understandably – got some coffee, Kaye started talking me through the programme. It went well, although if I’d brought reading glasses I’d have been able to see more. There is a lot there, and they have old favourites coming back and new discoveries joining us for the first time.

This year they start their reading relay before the festival with an event in early June with Curtis Jobling, who is launching the whole thing, before spending a month going into schools passing the baton on. I reckon if anyone can do that, it’s Curtis. The month, not passing the baton. That’s easy.

Multi-cultural Manchester launches on the 26th of June with Sufiya Ahmed returning to talk about human rights issues with teenagers.

Olive tree MMU

On the Family Fun Day (28th June) Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve will judge a seawig parade (no, I don’t know what that is, either), they expect you to make sea monkeys (instructions on Sarah’s website), and there will be countless other fun things to do. It’s an all day thing, intended to tire you out.

Sunday 29th offers entertainment at various venues belonging to the festival sponsors; Royal Exchange Theatre, National Football Museum, Waterstones and Ordsall Hall.

On the Monday Guy Bass is back, and newbie Kate Pankhurst is bringing her detective Mariella Mystery. (I think I was told that Kate is getting married before her event and then going off on honeymoon immediately after. That’s dedication, that is.)

Justin Somper will buckle some swash on Tuesday 1st July, and the Poet Laureate is handing out poetry competition prizes, while on the Wednesday Andrew Cope (whom I missed last time) will talk about being brilliant, as well as doing an event featuring his Spy Dogs and Spy Pups. And as if that’s not enough cause for celebration, that Steve Cole is back again. It will be all about me, as he is going to talk about stinking aliens and a secret agent mummy.

Farmyard Footie and Toddler Tales on Thursday 3rd July, ending with a great evening offering both Liz Kessler and Ali Sparkes. (How to choose? Or how to get really fast between two venues?) David Almond will make his mcbf debut on Friday night, which is cause for considerable excitement.

And on the Saturday, oh the Saturday, there is lots. Various things early on, followed by vintage afternoon tea (whatever that means) at the Midland Hotel in the company of Cathy Cassidy! After which you will have to run like crazy back to MMU where they will have made the atrium into a theatre for a performance of Private Peaceful: The Concert, with Michael Morpurgo, who is mcbf patron, and acappella trio Cope, Boyes & Simpson.

If you thought that was it, then I have to break it to you that Darren Shan will be doing zombie stuff in the basement on the Saturday evening. Darkness and a high body-count has been guaranteed.

Willy Wonka – the real one – is on at Cornerhouse on Sunday, followed by a brussel sprout ice cream workshop, or some such thing. Meanwhile, Tom Palmer will be in two places at the same time (I was promised this until they decided he’d be in two places one after the other), talking about the famous football match in WWI. There will also be a Twitter football final.

What I’m most looking forward to, however, is the Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson festival finale, with afternoon tea and a quiz at the MacDonald Townhouse Hotel. (And it had better be at least as chaotic as the one in 2010 where James’s mother was disqualified, and I probably should have been.)

You should be able to book tickets from today, and doing it today might be a good idea. Just in case it sells out. Which would be good (for them), but also a shame (for you).

For some obscure, but very kind, reason they have put my name on the last page. 14 rows beneath Carol Ann Duffy, but only two away from Michael Morpurgo. And I didn’t even give them any money.

MMU

All I want now is a complimentary hotel room for the duration. And a sofa from the atrium area to take home.

 

Crime Always Pays

(Swish. Swish. Please don’t disturb! The witch is dusting, and that’s a very rare sight.)

So, what I’ve got here is an old review, and I find it mostly still works, which is why I will offer it up for inspection again. Many of you weren’t here back in 2008, so to you it will seem almost brand new.

It’s  complicated. Back then, Declan Burke had yet to see Crime Always Pays published. It’s the sequel to The Big O, and I read it in manuscript (the Resident IT Consultant printed it out on his office printer for me), and I loved it. Back then, it was titled The Blue Orange (which personally I still prefer).

Now, though, it is finally being published properly! It’s a real book. Not the US edition which was cancelled in the end, nor the Kindle version published to compensate. A Real Book! And I think you should read it. (After The Big O, obviously.) Below is my slightly edited, and very ancient, review.

Declan Burke, Crime Always Pays

“The Blue Orange, as he calls it, is a continuation of The Big O, with all the same characters, except those who may have died in the first book. Plus a couple of new ones. The Big O was very funny, if rather full of four-letter words, and had endearingly inept, mostly minor, crooks.

In The Blue Orange (Crime Always Pays) we meet them again, and this time I found myself quite fond of even the less charming ones. It’s a mad-cap race across the Continent, with everyone ending up in Greece, where Declan has totally taken over his favourite holiday island, which I understand was quite nice before this.

As is to be expected, there are so many double-crossings that the witch developed a squint trying to cope. The best thing is simply to sit back and enjoy, while laughing quite a lot. The story is crying out to be made into a film, and I know which part I can play.

And as Mother-of-witch so rightly said, crime is not nice. But this kind of crime is as nice, and as funny, as it gets. The worst baddies are killed or have lots of blood removed in interesting ways, and maybe the rest lived happily ever after. I’m hoping for more.”

It’s today! Get shopping!

The Dragonsitter’s Island

I love Nessie. So I was rather perturbed to find that in this latest Dragonsitter book by Josh Lacey, the Loch Ness Monster (because it is she) is the bad guy.

Someone is eating the sheep, and we know it’s not Ziggy. Or baby Arthur. So I suppose it has to be Nessie (or Josh simply got it wrong). Perhaps this is Nessie’s evil twin/cousin, or something.

Josh Lacey, The Dragonsitter's Island

That detail aside, this is as much fun as all the other Dragonsitter books. This time Edward and his family have gone to Uncle Morton’s home, on a Scottish island, to mind the dragons while he’s off ‘somewhere’ again. That man is not to be trusted. He always drops off the radar when he is most needed.

There is romance in the air, which bodes well for the future. And it gets pretty exciting when Ziggy and Nessie have it out, and Mr McDougall realises he could maybe possibly perhaps have been wrong about the sheep-eater.

And as much fun as Josh’s story is, half the fun comes from Garry Parsons’ magical illustrations. Eddie and Ziggy are their illustrations. See those armbands?

Bookwitch bites #118

We are mostly the same, whether we are girls or boys. By that I mean of equal value, but not necessarily quite the same, which would be impossible as well as boring.

(Girls rule!!!) And that will be why the ladies on Girls Heart Books have actually invited a few men to write for them. They’ve got that Steve Cole, for instance. He used the charms of Matt Smith/Doctor Who to get us interested. OK, and that rather lovely Spidey photo of himself. They have Tommy Donbavand, who surely inspires crazy behaviour in his young fans. I don’t see how they could have been like that before he turned up. The poor ‘orphan.’

It’s half term, and one night earlier this week Jacqueline Wilson made an appearance at a rather special sleepover for girls, reading a bedtime story from Paws and Whiskers. It was at Waterstones Piccadilly, where The Children’s Reading Fund organised for twenty girls in care to spend the night in the shop, providing them with new onesies and hot chocolate at bedtime (along with Jacky). And all I can think of is onesies and hot chocolate, and lots of girls having fun. Onesies and hot chocolate. Not the most practical of combinations, however nice…

I’d further like to recommend Nicola Morgan’s latest venture, her Brain Sane Newsletter, which you can subscribe to. You don’t need to be a teacher, or even a girl. And you know Nicola, she knows her stuff, and there’s bound to be something interesting in those newsletters. She recommends coffee or herbal tea for people to work their way through her rather long newsletter. Good value for money (it’s free, of course).

Meet the Somalis

And – this is something I’ve been meaning to mention for months – here is a link to Meet the Somalis, which is a collection of real life tales about Somalis who have left their own country and are now trying to make a life for themselves elsewhere in the world. You can download the whole thing to read. Are people the same? No. Are they equal? Not always. And you change when you live somewhere else, even if you don’t think you do.

I might have wanted to bring up two new young ‘Swedes’ but if that’s what I had in mind I was in the wrong place. And this will be multiplied whenever and wherever parents go and live somewhere different. Their children can’t be like they themselves were. And you generally only live once.

When I was younger and sillier I quite fancied myself here:

Hollywitch

Little orphaned Ondine

I must be careful. Very careful. If I’m not, you’ll find Ebony McKenna has taken over as chief Bookwitch. Which would at least mean you’d be well entertained. As you may have noticed in yesterday’s review of her third Ondine book, it is an ebook. Below is her background story as to why.

‘I hate orphans. Not actual orphans (poor loves) but the trope of orphans in fiction.

They started in fairytales and never went away, did they? The loner who has to face the world – alone – with no parental figures to offer sanctuary; the plucky victim of circumstance who wins the prize based on their sheer goodness/magical abilities/discovery of the elixir. Orphans may have reflected the times they were originally from – mothers who died in childbirth, parents who died in battle or from the pox – but they’re an anachronism today.

Which is why I made sure Ondine wasn’t an orphan. When her story first crashed into my brain she was an orphan. Because I picked that low-hanging fruit. But as her character became flesh and blood she grew a family. Two older sisters and parents who treated her like a baby, plus a batty great auntie slash mentor. Love and conflict all rolled up together. Plus, she worked in a pub, surrounded by people. Family, magic mayhem and a talking ferret. I’d captured lightning in a bottle.

Ondine and her sequel found generous parents at Egmont in the UK, who doted on her, educated her and gave her the prettiest clothes. They sent her off to the ball bookshop, in hope of finding true love with readers.

Many readers did love Ondine. Laika films showed interest in adapting the story for animation. Alas there were more books that were prettier, had wealthier suitors, were more glittering . . . and I’m clubbing this fairytale analogy to death.

Ondine had two big adventures in the bookstores in the UK and Commonwealth, but all the love and care in the world wasn’t enough to guarantee a third outing (let alone a planned fourth). Around this time, bookstores were closing and the GFC was kneecapping everything. Times were bad, especially for authors.

My anti-orphan series became an orphan.

If my life were a book, this would be ‘the black moment’, where all is lost and love is not enough.

After gobbling chocolate through a funnel, it was time to look at options. The first step was to take advantage of ‘the rest of the world’ rights I’d retained, so I could self-publish the first two Ondine novels as ebooks into the USA, Russia, China, Japan and Moldova (which has eerie similarities with Brugel, where Ondine is set. For starters, neither has won Eurovision).

Ebony McKenna, The Winter of Magic

The thing about self-publishing is you have to do it all yourself. Which means hiring everyone to do the things an author can’t do.

Fate had not completely given me the middle finger; I found an editor who used to work with Egmont, who was now living in my home country, Australia. Naturally I hired her to edit the next two novels in the series. I hired a cover designer to give the series a stunning new look. I hired a formatting company to crunch the pixels into shape so the novels would be available everywhere good downloads were sold. All the while I kept writing, because that’s what had gotten me into this fix in the first place, and it would be what got me out of it.

Now the Ondine ‘trequel’ is available worldwide. The Winter of Magic has me brimming with tears of joy. Relief is in there too. Terror gets a mention – it’s always scary putting a book out there into the world, however it’s published.

There is also pride. Not a boastful pride, but a quiet, satisfied sense of a job well done; a wellspring of hope as my orphaned Ondine gets to dance at the ball once again.’

Thank you, Ebony! And don’t worry too much about Eurovision. One day Brugel will win. (Also, please keep writing.)

The Winter of Magic

I get it now. Ebony McKenna is working her way through the seasons. We did autumn three springs ago (she’s from Australia. She’s bound to get things like that ‘wrong’), and now it’s Christmas (with the before and after, so almost right) and it’s cold in Brugel. Very cold. Especially with the electricity cuts.

The Winter of Magic, the third book about Ondine and her beautiful Hamish, who is only occasionally a ferret, is out as an ebook, which means you can do amusing things with the lovely footnotes. Ebony said to tap the screen, but no amount of tapping the Resident IT Consultant’s Kindle did me any good. Was she pulling my leg, or is my equipment no good? Not to worry, the footnotes come at the end of each chapter, and if you have a good memory, you will even remember what they refer to, by the time you get to them.

If you’re waiting for Hamish, you can’t wait too long. Three years is obviously far too long a gap, but you will do it for Hamish. I mean Ondine – of course – because she is the main character here. A witch. Luckily for her, most of her witchery must be done by kissing Hamish. Such hard graft

They are back with Ondine’s family, working hard in the pub. Her sister is getting married, and her great aunt is poking her nose into everything. The Duchess is trying to make herself popular, while town is filling up with witches (it’s time for the CovenCon), one of whom is a very bad witch.

This is such fun. Again. I recommend this book against the dark depressing times we have to suffer through before it’s summer, or at least spring, again.

The seasonally obsessed Ebony seems to plan to end the series (which personally I thought was a trilogy) with a spring themed fourth book. She had better be kind to Hamish!

(Review of first book here. To buy The Winter of Magic.)

The Lewis Chessmen

I was about to say I don’t reckon I’ve seen the Lewis Chessmen in real life, but in my younger museum-going days I looked at lots of things without retaining a great deal of memory. (In one eye, out the other?) So I might well have said hello to them.

If not, I have now, through a book. The British Museum is re-issuing Irving Finkel’s The Lewis Chessmen and what happened to them. Great illustrations from Clive Hodgson shows you the Queens braiding their hair, and chess people drinking and having fun.

And fun is what this is. To be honest, I didn’t expect it.

Irving Finkel and Clive Hodgson, The Lewis Chessmen

Irving is telling the tale of these chess pieces from back when they were hibernating on Lewis and were found by a cow, and soon after by a fisherman. Then follows a trail of the Lewis Chessmen’s travels all over the place. They kept being sold, until they ended up in The British Museum in 1831.

Well, most of them did. They had to suffer the agony of separation, and across marriage vows at that. It wasn’t until 1993 that some Queens and Kings were temporarily reunited, when they were able to ‘visit’ for a few months. (They had a lot to talk about.)

This is a terrific way to sell history and ‘boring old museum exhibits’ to people like me. I believe the book was mainly intended for children, and I hope loads of them get to take a copy home from the museum shop. You could do a lot worse.

(And afterwards I suggest you have a go with Francesca Simon’s version.)

The #7 profile – Anthony McGowan

We worship the same woman. But other than that, I wanted Anthony McGowan for my next author profile because he’s not only funny, but very very topical. He’s on the Carnegie longlist with the short dyslexia friendly Brock, which is tremendously good news. He – and Brock – also featured on my best 2013 list. It was Anthony’s birthday not too long ago, and he shares it with someone near and dear to me. Definitely a good sign.

And then as I was getting ready to grill him, he went off to Sri Lanka to play cricket! I gather this is an annual tour, where a team of authors travel somewhere exotic to show just how good they are at cricket. (Or is it for the tea breaks?)

Anthony McGowan

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

It’s a little complicated… The first book I wrote was called Abandon Hope – a grotesque comedy about a teenage boy who is knocked down by an ice-cream van and goes to hell. I sent it out in the usual way and received nothing but rejections, ranging from the coldly impersonal (“Dear Sir/Madam”) to the appalled (“Please never again submit anything to this agency”). However one agent did finally take me on, largely out of pity, and on condition that I write something ‘saner’ and more commercial. So I wrote a thriller called Stag Hunt. That got a deal with Hodder & Stoughton, and came out in 2004. I then rejigged Abandon Hope, renamed it Hellbent and, as I was now a published author rather than a hopeless outsider, it got snaffled up. So, the book I wrote first, came out second. And vice-versa. Before Abandon Hope/Hellbent, I’d started a few stories and written endless reams of terrible poetry. In fact my first published work was a poem about a pubic louse, that was on a poster on the number 13 bus.

Best place for inspiration?

There’s a small but perfect graveyard surrounding St John’s church in Hampstead. I walk through it most mornings. It really is the most beautiful and atmospheric place, with ancient trees and crumbling gravestones. And a comfortable bench where you can look out across London, drinking Thunderbird tramp wine at nine in the morning, weeping over your failures and humiliations.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I’m afraid my non-disclosure agreement prevents me from, er, disclosing that.

What would you never write about?

Although I’ve written several YA books, I’ve tended to shy away from explicit depictions of adolescent sexuality. It just doesn’t seem quite right… And yet this is clearly an important area. My way of dealing with it is to have main characters who are shy and embarrassed about sex, as I was. As I am.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

I’ve met many interesting, bizarre, half-crazed and deluded writers at various events, parties and awards. And even more mundane, tedious, humdrum ones. Writers, it turns out, are like everyone else, in terms of being like nobody else. Mal Peet’s a genius, though, and great fun in the pub. As is Andy Stanton. And Meg Rosoff is a goddess. But for sheer strangeness, nothing quite beats the lady in Gregg’s in Motherwell, where I was staying for a book award ceremony. I went in and asked for my usual Cheese and onion slice. She clearly was having some difficulty speaking – her full set of dentures seemed to have been stuck together with chewing gum – so she slipped them out of her mouth, popped them in her pocket, and carried on serving me. Top marks for imperturbability and savoir-fair.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

Most of my characters have a pretty torrid time, subjected to multiple humiliations and catastrophes. But there’s a lot of me in Connor O’Neil, the main character in Hellbent, and Hector Brunty from Henry Tumour.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

Well, it’s happened – The Knife That Killed Me has been filmed and will come out sometime later this year. Good or bad thing? I can’t imagine how it could be anything other than good.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

How do you titillate an ocelot?

Do you have any unexpected skills?

Not really. I do a vast number of things barely adequately. I’m not bad at cricket. I have a party piece that involves juggling live babies, but it’s hard to find volunteers.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

I didn’t read either, as a kid (I was a huge Tolkien fan). As an adult I find both uninteresting. I quite like Mallory Towers, however.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

That would have to be the poet Tomas Tranströmer. Sorry…

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

Broadly by subject, then using a range of aesthetic criteria, with an element of randomness. I’m neater with my books than any other aspect of my life, but I’m still, basically, a slob.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

Of mine? The Bare Bum Gang and the Football Face-Off. More generally, it truly pains me to say that the Wimpy Kid books are terrific for reluctant readers.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

Reading, easily. I can imagine a life without writing – it has a certain appeal appeal, in fact. But I’d give up almost anything before I’d stop reading.

I’ll look out for some volunteer babies. It must be possible to find them somewhere. And if you’ve never read anything by Anthony, I trust that this profile will have you rushing off to the nearest library. In your pyjamas, if necessary. But not, perhaps, on the number 13 bus.