Category Archives: Reading

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.

Advertisement

Wished was best

2022 was not my best year for reading. I’m sorry about that, and so are the books.

There were books, though. And because I was so hard to persuade to read, or to continue once begun, to be the best this year is pretty good.

Wished, by Lissa Evans, is the kind of book you wished for as a young reader. Even more perhaps at my age when cynicism sets in.

I’d wish for more stories like Wished, only I don’t have any magic birthday candles. But thank goodness for this one.

Cover illustration by Sarah McIntyre

Beignets and bagels

Breakfast was late. That was the first breakfast, which due to jet lag was supposed to feed me round about two in the afternoon, but because of [their] lateness was almost three. Or nine, over there. Apart from our empty tummies, the wait was pleasant enough, in the early morning sunshine on the terrace next to the San Antonio Riverwalk. I ordered a churro waffle with cream and strawberries. Start as I didn’t mean to go on, kind of thing. Very American.

It was downhill all the way from there on. The waiter at the next hotel assured me that three pancakes would be enough. One and a half and I was ready to burst. (In my defense, I had imagined much smaller pancakes.) Via blueberry muffins I arrived at bagels with cream cheese, to bagels with cream cheese where the cream cheese got forgotten. (Both times. Thank you Tim Hortons.) Finally there was the hotel receptionist who assured ‘madam’ that the breakfast was there. In fact, she could see it. (The wonders of CCTV…) They placed breakfast baskets outside the rooms. And clearly Bookwitch madam was stupid beyond belief in not finding hers, despite me saying this was my third morning and I’d managed just fine the first two. In the end her ‘did you say room 205?’ made me realise she had been seeing the wrong breakfast. The one outside room 206…)

As well as pancakes New Orleans offered beignets. They are little deep fried things with two kilos of icing sugar on top, and come with their own sweeper-upper of the surplus sugar.

Boats played their part, from the Día de los Muertos floats in San Antonio, the old style Mississippi steamer, the ferries on New York’s East River, smaller boats in the marina on Lake Ontario to something larger on the St Lawrence. I like water fronts.

There being a wedding involved, we mustn’t forget the baraat, where the groom was danced towards his bride, assisted by his family. I’d read up on this, and was a little disappointed there was no horse. But dancing is fine too.

Fictional New York?

I’m not able to keep track of all new books of this kind, or most kinds, actually, but this is a nice return to a nice children’s book, which I reviewed just over ten years ago. Doesn’t time fly?

“Liar & Spy is what I have taken to labelling a New York kind of children’s book. Do you know what I mean? I love them with a passion, and I’ll have to stop ridiculing the Americans for loving boarding schools and castles and other charming – and English – things.

Rebecca Stead has written a wonderfully warm story about Georges, who has to move with his parents from their house in Brooklyn to an apartment when they fall on hard(er) times. It’s close enough that he can stay at his school. But he is being bullied, and his only friend has joined the ‘other side.’

There are other children in the apartment block, and Georges makes friends with Safer and his sister Candy, who are home-schooled. Safer invites Georges to join his spy club and they take to spying on the neighbours, until things get a bit bad. Things at school are also not going well, but Georges doesn’t share any of this with his father.

We don’t see much of Georges’ mother because she works double shifts at the hospital. She leaves him messages by way of Scrabble tiles when he sleeps.

Eventually we learn why Safer spies on people, and Georges works out what to do about the situation at school. It is all very American. I don’t think this would work in the UK, and that’s the whole charm of Liar & Spy. I just loved it!”

Return to the Easy

To the best of my knowledge, this is ‘my’ only book about New Orleans. It’s a good one. This review originally appeared in March 2013.

“I enjoyed this book so much! Out of the Easy is the new book by Ruta Sepetys, published this week. In her first book Ruta proved how much she knew about being a starving Lithuanian, whereas here she is a right madam.

Is it OK to feature a brothel in a YA novel? I mean as the main thing the book is actually about. I think it is. Ruta writes awfully knowledgeably about it, too.

Set in 1950 in New Orleans, Out of the Easy feels really fresh. By that I mean it’s in no way a standard story for young readers, either in setting or in plot. The first chapter where we meet 7-year-old Josie and her hooker mother is one of the more captivating first chapters I’ve come across in a long time.

And the rest of the story, set ten years later, keeps the pace and the promise. Josie has long looked after herself, since her mother is incapable of doing so, or even caring that she doesn’t. There are no regrets at all. Instead Josie has a makeshift, but well functioning family around her, from the local madam and her driver, to the author and owner of the bookshop where Josie sleeps.

She is hoping to rise from all this and make something of herself, when she gets caught up in the murder of a rich tourist.

This is James Dean and Tennessee Williams, and we might have met the characters before. But the story is new, and it’s crying out to be turned into a film. I loved it!”

Dogs of the Deadlands

Now is a poignant time to be reading a book set in the Ukraine. Especially one about Chernobyl, because the news is full of relevant stories about both the Ukraine and the awfulness of potential nuclear ‘problems.’ But Anthony McGowan couldn’t know this when he wrote Dogs of the Deadlands, his tale about what happened to the dogs left behind when the humans fled the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

I didn’t know how he would handle this plot, but I was sure it would be absolutely excellent. And I was right. It is. There are not many people I would trust to kill [fictional] dogs and wolves with such tenderness. Or even the odd human who happened to get in the way.

Starting to blub already. Sorry.

And I have to admit that like many people, I didn’t actually remember which part of the old Soviet Union Chernobyl was in. Just that it caused so much suffering to so many.

Dogs of the Deadlands introduces a new puppy as a seventh birthday present for Natasha. It’s what she always wanted. But then, as soon as her happiest moment has come, they have to leave, because of the nuclear meltdown. And no pets, not even cute puppies, can come. They were to be looked after, at first. Then to be put down. But this didn’t happen in all cases.

And it’s the ones that remained that we meet in this book. I would like to say it’s very realistic. But what do I know? Or, even, what does Tony actually know? It’s a fascinating premise and we meet so many interesting dogs and wolves, and a few other animals of the forest.

It’s not terribly vegetarian, if you get my drift. We want the animals to find food and not starve. But it’s not very appetising a lot of the time. They fight, and they struggle. There is friendship and lots of courage and cunning.

This is a perfect book.

(Fabulous illustrations by Keith Robinson.)

A report from the pavement

I spent quite a bit of my Bloody Scotland weekend trying to hunt Elly Griffiths down. This entailed looking into bars; a thing I don’t normally do. I wanted her to sign a book, but by the time I had the book, Elly was nowhere to be found.

She was one of the crime writers taking part in Vaseem and Abir’s Red Hot Night of a Million Games. It was a very silly night, but a lot of fun, and it cheered both Daughter and me up. We’ll go next year too if it’s on. Daughter’s favourite was Luca Veste singing Hit Me Baby One More Time. Again. We got to wave our lit-up mobiles in the air and everything. Elly did some good moves with her maracas. Helen Fitzgerald played a convincing corpse on the floor. There was much cheating.

And when all’s said and done, it has very little to do with crime fiction, except that these authors are fun to spend time with.

In Houses From Hell, all I wanted to do was move the furniture on the stage around. Lovely, tartan armchairs, but Helen Grant, Lesley Thomson and Stuart Neville didn’t get to interact enough, because they were not seated in a convenient semi-circle. (Please take note!) Besides that, between you and me, they are quite creepy people. No, that’s not right. They have creepy interests and they put all sorts into their books. Helen even managed to scare her own husband.

When the programme for Bloody Scotland came I wanted to go to so many events. But I know my [lack of] strength, so decided to pace myself, and opted for four, thinking I could add to them later. When the time came, however, four seemed like really quite enough.

After many years of not meeting Martin Edwards in person, there was no way I was going to miss his Cosy Makes a Comeback event. I think of him as a cosy writer. And then he started off by saying he prefers traditional; not cosy. Conveniently enough both the other participants, Jonathan Whitelaw and S J Bennett, as well as the audience, were quick to adapt and the word traditional got a lot of airing. Big audience, too, so I have to say that we are many who like cosy crime. Pardon, traditional.

Hadn’t been sure how the death of the Queen was going to influence the discussion, seeing as S J’s detective actually is the Queen. But she has many plans, and always lets fictional characters do the actual deeds, so this may well continue working. Martin’s excellence at editing [other people’s] vintage crime got a mention, with very many of us being big fans and wanting to know that there will be more from the British Library. He’d initially expected to edit two. There are now over a hundred, so that clearly exceeded expectations.

At the cosy event (sorry!) I said hello to Lizzy Siddal, who I now recognised, and was introduced to her companion Marina Sofia. This turned out to be serendipitous since Marina bore down on me outside the room for the evening event about Detective Duos. We exchanged cards, the way civilised people do, and talked. A lot. For obvious reasons we were able to talk about funny foreigners. Marina is a publisher of translated crime. When Son arrived, in his role as translator of David Lagercrantz’s book, I introduced them, and it turned out they knew about each other already, and a lot more conversation took place.

The Detective Duos event was interesting, and I was pleased to finally come across Ayo Onatade who chaired it. Must have been aware of her for ten years at least. And I had thought it was her I saw down at the Albert Halls the previous night. It obviously was.

One day I’ll have to explain to David Lagercrantz about spoilers. Like not mentioning them too much at events… I liked new-to-me author Ajay Chowdhury, who is a Bloody Scotland-made success, having won a competition to write new crime. Having decided against buying his book before the event on the grounds that it was a hardback, I hurried out afterwards to hand over my money, and still make it to be first in the signing queue.

Simon Mason talked about his two DI R Wilkinses, and if I’d not already read and loved his book, I’d have bought that too. At the end Ayo put them all on the spot, and David agonised at great length before giving up on answering. (In case you want to know what it was about, I’m afraid I can’t remember.) When asked about their personal favourite detective duos, I was very pleased that Ajay chose Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Haven’t heard those names mentioned in a long time.

I then proceeded to confuse everyone by chatting to Simon and David at more or less the same time at the signing table, about different things in two different languages. I think maybe I won’t do that again. But it was nice to reminisce a little with Simon, and good to introduce myself as the mother of you-know-who to David, who got quite carried away. And he finally got to meet his translator. So I suppose that was all good.

Afterwards Son and Dodo and the Resident IT Consultant went for a beer somewhere. Probably not where I was looking for Elly. Instead I hugged an author and talked about cows with another while I waited outside on the pavement for Daughter to pick me up. It’s quite nice this, finding yourself right next to some favourite writers on the pavement (where many of them go to smoke. But not these two!).

As you may have guessed the cow conversation was with James Oswald, which in turn started Vaseem Khan on the Scots use of the word coo. I worked out later that they might have been on their way to Crime at the Coo. Talked elephants with Vaseem. Obviously. And said what fun we’d had the previous night. Soon after the hug Daughter turned up and she tried to invite him round for chilli. Vaseem turned us down very nicely. But we can try again next year.

So, as I said, you find a lot of authors milling about both in and out of the Golden Lion. And when the ticket table remained unstaffed for rather longer than it should have, Gordon Brown came to the rescue.

Dark Music

I surprised myself by reading David Lagercrantz’s Dark Music. But what with David appearing at Bloody Scotland this Saturday, and the fact that a copy of his book ended up in my hands, I decided to see what he could do with two detectives from two completely different backgrounds.

In fact, seen from my exile point of view, I am wondering why Chileans seem to pop up so much. Are they – the second generation immigrants – seen as more attractive than some other nationalities? More attractive to me, having met some of the parent generation fleeing Chile back in the day. Anyway, here we have Micaela Vargas, who almost ruins her family’s reputation by joining the police. I’m curious to see if her delinquent brothers will be made more of in future books.

And on the opposite, but same, side we have the Holmesian Hans Rekke, a professor who sees too much and who is frequently high on drugs. He’s rich, too. Being clever can be a drawback, and it can be hard to stop thinking, and seeing.

Together these two start solving a murder that the police gave up on. It’s 2003/2004 and most of the signs point to Afghanistan. The crime as such is perhaps not so interesting, but the way the two detectives interact is. And then there’s the government and various foreign agents. What’s so special about a football referee from Kabul?

I quite liked the way David introduces the next book. At least, I hope it’s the next book. So I suppose that means I want to see more of Vargas and Rekke?

(Translation by Ian Giles)

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.

Sally Jones and the False Rose

Sally Jones and The Chief travel to Glasgow! Here is Jakob Wegelius’s new story about our favourite ape and her beloved chief, and it’s a good one. Glasgow offers up all manner of horrendous characters, and one or two good ones. And, I hadn’t thought this through before, but for the purposes of the story Sally Jones needs to be left alone and like so many parent figures in fiction, The Chief has to be temporarily removed.

They are both honourable creatures and that’s why they travelled to Scotland. While renovating their old ship, the Hudson Queen, they came upon something valuable, which they are determined to return to its rightful owner. If only they could find her.

The low lifes of Glasgow quickly send The Chief off on bad business, holding our dear ape hostage. But Sally Jones is no ordinary victim, so she manages to move ahead, towards some sort of solution. Old Glasgow is an interesting place, and so are the crooks you find there (although their names could in some cases have been a little more Scottish).

I won’t tell you more though. You will want to read and discover for yourselves how some decent people are not decent at all, and how some bad ones are not all rotten. But which ones?

(Translation, as before, by Peter Graves.)