Category Archives: Reading

Hostages to Fortune

I keep going on about refugees and immigrants, don’t I? But there’s just something about the situation Sadie and Kevin find themselves in. In Joan Lingard’s fifth and last book about our Belfast lovers, the pair have some bad luck, and they still seem to have to be the ones to settle for the bare minimum.

They need to move on again, and ever the optimist, Sadie keeps moving them into every nice little cottage they come across, except it’s not that easy. There is baby Brendan, who is nearly one, there is the dog, and before long, Kevin’s younger sister Clodagh turns up. And she is trouble in a way that their brother Gerald never was.

Giving up new friends again, and looking for their fortune somewhere new again, the two nevertheless stay cheerful, and do their best. Even with Clodagh they manage to be mature, most of the time, in a way that makes you forget they are still only around twenty.

But there are good people around, at least in Joan’s books, and with more hard work and new friendships it seems as if they will weather this storm as well. Kevin goes to see his mother in Tyrone, and realises that he was lucky to escape when he did, even if it is a hard life.

It’s amazing how different Northern Ireland seems, from 1970s England and Wales, but also then as compared to now. It’s almost as ‘far away’ as the places today’s newcomers have left behind.

I wonder what Kevin and Sadie are up to today?

Lari Don – aiming higher with every book.

She’s got some lovely fans, this author who wrote her first book in Primary 2. Lari Don has aimed to improve her next book ever since (although I’m sure the P2 book wasn’t all that bad). And I suppose because she remembers her own early start, Lari is quite happy to read what anyone in her audience has written, which is really generous. She even said she’d hand out her email address [the better to receive these works of fiction].

Lari was at Blackwells on Saturday to launch her second Spellchasers book, The Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away. I brought both my Photographer and the Resident IT Consultant. The latter was the first at Bookwitch Towers to read the first Spellchasers book, and he is currently ensconsed in his reading spot with the second.

Lari Don

But as I said, Lari didn’t have to rely on us oldies, as she had a lovely collection of nice girls who have read and loved her books and who had lots of opinions and questions. The perfect fan audience, in fact. She got quite a bit discussed as we waited for two o’clock, thanking the fans for choosing her over the park on such a nice day (of course they would!), finding out their favourite characters, and reminiscing about a school pupil, years ago, who was started on reading by an author’s visit to his/her school.

Lari Don

After an introduction by Ann Landmann, who reckoned we were the right kind of audience, liking the right kind of books, even more readers arrived and everyone had to squeeze in. Lari said she’d tell us about her writing process, and then she’d tell us a story, because Ann had asked her to.

She showed us her older books, including the embarrassing (to her own children) The Big Bottom Hunt. Lari likes novels the best, and after she had made the characters in the Fabled Beast Chronicles suffer enough, she started on Spellchasers. The trilogy will end with The Witch’s Guide to Magical Combat, which is out this autumn.

Lari Don

Lari read us the first page of it, which is still only in manuscript form [until later this week], and she had changed the odd thing over breakfast. Book two is about shapeshifting, so Lari asked the audience how they perceived this would look as it happens. They had a lot of ideas; eggs, smoke, eagles on top of bunk beds. That kind of thing.

As Lari began telling us the promised story, about a boy with a drum in Africa, I sort of rested my eyes a little, and the Resident IT Consultant looked as if he was asleep (I’m sure he wasn’t, really), but we both rallied when Lari requested snoring sounds, as though coming from the beast in her story… There was a monster who ate the boy’s parents and then vomited them out again. You get the idea.

Lari Don

After a brief reading from the second book, we had five minutes left for Q&A. I estimate those five minutes to have lasted about 15, so that was good value. The girls had a lot of questions, but I suppose it’s to be expected from people who know that eagles need to sit on bunk beds in order to see better.

She doesn’t want to think about how many hours she uses up on writing her books. One book takes about a year, but she’s always working and hours would be too scary to contemplate, in ‘the interest of sanity.’ A brief mention of the excellence of Speyside whisky, Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones, and then we found out that the pre-school Lari had been quite sneaky and faked reading in bed when she was actually ‘writing’ books. Unfortunately the squiggles she wrote back then are hard to read now and she doesn’t know what the books were about.

Lari Don

Ann Landmann finally put a stop to Lari and her fans (who simply continued talking over the book signing), after admitting she’d missed half her requested story because she’d had a customer to serve… As for us oldies, we had tea to drink in the café, and felt we really couldn’t compete for Lari’s attention with such ardent fans, anyway.

Tibs the Post Office Cat

From a clever dog to a clever cat, whose ‘nearly true story’ Joyce Dunbar tells, with admirably Post Office catty illustrations by Claire Fletcher. Being an old Post Office hand myself, I feel strongly about this.

Joyce Dunbar and Claire Fletcher, Tibs the Post Office Cat

Whatever the truth might have been regarding what happens in this book, Tibs himself was real, born in a Post Office in 1950, and it was his job to keep the mice away. In this story the mice are blamed for eating the letters and licking the glue off the stamps.

Which is why Tibs had to leave his mother and go to the London sorting office to sort (sorry!) the mice out before the Coronation. He even got paid.

The thing about [fictional Tibs] is that his way with mice was rather un-conventional, even allowing for his good manners. So what you expect to happen might not actually have happened, even fictionally, but the mice were certainly not a nuisance for long after Tibs moved in.

And that’s what counts.

This is a very nice little story, and I do love the Post Office connection!

Good Dog McTavish

Meg Rosoff can’t let caring dogs lie, it seems. After Jonathan Unleashed, where his canine flatmates made sure Jonathan was all right, she unleashes McTavish on younger readers in Barrington Stokes Conkers imprint.

Meg Rosoff, Good Dog McTavish

The Peachey family have discovered that mothers are the best. They do most of the work, after all. But when Ma Peachey has had enough, something has to happen, and after some initial domestic mayhem, the remaining Peacheys decide to get a dog. Luckily they find McTavish, who’s prepared to take them on, despite them not being ideal humans for an easy – dog’s – life.

What to do about the laundry mountain, the shoe mountain and everything being in the wrong place? Getting out of bed on time?And when that’s fixed, there’s the cuisine. A dog can only eat so much pizza.

McTavish has many plans, and believe me, they are necessary. But sooner or later a firm paw will work wonders on a misguided family.

I foresee a run on rescue dogs after children – and maybe their adults – have read Good Dog McTavish. Not by me, obviously. Here at Bookwitch Towers we are virtually perfect. Especially me. But needier souls will want a McTavish in their lives.

(Illustrations by Grace Easton)

A Proper Place

We are currently thinking about and talking about refugees and immigrants more than we have for a long time, which means that the story belonging to Joan Lingard’s Sadie and Kevin feels more pertinent than ever. But rather as with the Jewish refugees in the 1930s, so it has become with the Irish who came thirty or forty years later. They are considered mainstream, in light of our most recent immigrants or asylum seekers.

They are, aren’t they? It can’t be just me? And if people have mostly got used to and accepted these older arrivals, then it is fair to assume that we will one day feel like this about whoever we worry about today; be they Syrians or Afghans, or even these ridiculous EU citizens from the Netherlands or Spain who were under the impression they belonged.

At least Kevin and Sadie were allowed to come and live in England. They were poor and not always accepted, and they had to make do with the worst accommodation and look grateful, while working hard to get somewhere. The scenario is one we’ve seen countless times. What I find fascinating is how hard Kevin works at whatever jobs he can find, while Sadie does the wifely tasks expected of females back then, and equally hard. They are no lazy layabouts.

In the fourth book, A Proper Place, they have left London and are living in Liverpool with their baby son. Sadie is learning that she can get to know people and make friends in every new place she comes to. She needs friends, and people to chat to.

Family is at the heart of everything here too. Sadie’s mother comes to visit, and no sooner have they survived this ordeal but Kevin’s ‘bad’ brother Gerald turns up. I was all set to see him on the IRA front line, but there are surprises everywhere.

Needing to look for a new job, Kevin moves the little family to a farm in Cheshire, and after initial teething problems, they are happy there. Sadie continues to learn to get on with just about everybody she meets, both through her friendliness and her hard work for what matters to her.

Behind their successes lie normal problems such as married life, belonging to two opposing religions, being hard up and always being the newcomers. Gerald and the rest of the McCoy clan in Tyrone don’t exactly help smooth things.

You have to love these two for how they cope. Wonderfully inspirational!

Beyond the Wall

Most of the major newspapers have been reviewing Tanya Landman’s new novel, Beyond the Wall, in the last few days, so why should Bookwitch do any different?

This is a fantastic book! It deals with the less common period of Roman Britain, as seen from the perspective of the slaves. Now, slaves are a bit of a speciality for Tanya, and this book does not disappoint. We’re on homeground, so to speak, and although it might seem to have been a long time ago, there’s a surprising number of situations for our heroes that could almost be today.

Tanya Landman, Beyond the Wall

Female slaves were often sexually abused by their masters, and it seems that many babies who were the result of this kind of behaviour, never had a chance of surviving, because they were not needed by the master. It is an absolute agony to think about.

Cassia is one such baby, with the difference that she’s permitted to live. In her mid teens she’s chosen to do for her master what her mother did before her, but somehow she escapes, with her master’s dogs giving chase and soon with a prize on her head.

She believes she must get to the north, past the wall, outside which people live free. And the person who ends up helping her is a young, good-looking Roman. She knows she should probably not trust Marcus, but she has no choice.

This could have been merely an exciting adventure story of how to escape an enraged slave owner, but it soon becomes so much more. You gasp as the tale takes – several – unexpected turns, and you fear for all your favourite characters. And you wonder if, or when, Marcus will show his true colours.

Beyond the Wall becomes a story about the Roman Empire, and not just a British runaway. It’s one of these all too rare unputdownable books.

Paint it black

It wasn’t an entirely traditional Easter Saturday, but I suppose it was all right.

The Resident IT Consultant drove across half of Central Scotland searching for black spray paint, and as soon as he brought some home I went outside and sprayed it all over the dining table. After enough cans had been used up, the table looks sort of finished. And black.

The [formerly green] grass is also slightly black.

And my arms hurt. Who knew paint-spraying was so tiring?

I also sprayed some tomato all over myself, causing a red-orange streak down my front. As we didn’t have a bonfire to grill sausages on, we made do with the grill pan in the kitchen. And I didn’t fly over the cooker on my broom, partly because of lack of space and partly because a witch needs a proper bonfire to be sent on her way. Daughter bought one of those foil barbecue things, but I absolutely refuse to broom over that as well.

In-between the countless black layers I read Tanya Landman’s new book. It’s so good I didn’t always want to put it down to attend to my painting.

Daughter decided to stretch Lent as far as she could, so made us Lent buns to have with our afternoon cup of tea. I reckon as long as it was before Easter Sunday it’s probably almost legal.

We watched Doctor Who, which we liked, and then we played The Great Penguin Bookchase, which we also liked, and which I lost.