Category Archives: Reference

Eight I’ve read

At last. A list I’ve read. I’m beginning to like Daniel Hahn even more. Clearly great minds think alike.

For the Guardian Daniel has chosen eight of the best YA novels, suitable – indeed highly recommended – for adults. And I’ve read them all, which I suppose isn’t so strange, really. I thought when I saw the list that they were all recent books, but YA hasn’t been around all that long, so it’s understandable.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen exactly that list, but I could have.

And I realise I should never have absolved Daughter from having to read The White Darkness. She asked, only a week or so ago, whether she still had to read it, and I said no. It is such a tremendous book. (Is it too late to force her now?) Fancy Daniel picking Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick! Very good choice. Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan. That was a long time ago now, and I almost didn’t consider it a death/cancer novel, but I suppose it is.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, of course. The odd thing is that when I read it, I was – almost – not keen on Chris Riddell’s illustrations. I thought I preferred Dave McKean’s. Well, a witch can change her mind. Siobhan Dowd’s A Swift Pure Cry; the book I thought I might not like because I had set notions about that ‘kind of plot’… What an idiot I was. But it’s a testament to Siobhan’s writing skills that this ‘kind of plot’ can be marvellous.

Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond is the one book I remember less well. Possibly because at the time I read several of David’s books in quick succession. Patrick Ness gets three books in, as Chaos Walking is a trilogy, but you can’t have just the one part. For me they are books that have grown in stature over the years. And finally, Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. One of the best. And now there will be no more.

I know that I tend to preach to the converted here on Bookwitch, but I hope that a few of today’s readers are doubting adults, who would never dream of reading YA. Until today. Because this is such a good start to a new life of reading YA books.

Lucky you.

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

The Great Big Green Book

The world needs trees. And water. And children need this book, The Great Big Green Book by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith. I’d love to think that it can make a difference. The world needs people to do things that will make a difference. A positive one, obviously.

Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, The Great Big Green Book

Children are nearly always very open to new ideas, and are far more prepared than adults to change their lifestyles. They just need to be told what they can do.

Words can change a lot, but I wonder if pictures – especially ones like these by Ros – do even more. You just need to see those polar bears on their shrinking piece of ice to understand.

Children do need words, though. I was reading just the other day that a children’s dictionary had got rid of a number of nature words, in favour of more ‘in’ terminology; out with the blackberry and in with the Blackberry. It can be hard to save a world of things when you don’t have words for what needs saving.

Recycle, turn the lights off, compost, don’t flush the toilet every time and share a shower. Well, actually, I might skip that last idea. Re-use, don’t fly everywhere and put another blanket on the bed.

And remember the world almost stands and falls with the bees.

Bookwitch goes to a conference

Some people didn’t look anything like I’d imagined them. But then why should they? I went to a conference at the University of Edinburgh yesterday. Along with some similarly minded colleagues, Son has spent some time organising the Nordic Research Network conference, and the embarrassment factor of having your mother there was one I didn’t want to deprive him of. Both parents, actually, as the Resident IT Consultant had been roped in to chauffeur the sandwiches for lunch.

Ian Giles

And I did feel that this was my kind of thing; language, literature, translation. As I said, I’d been in contact with or heard of some of the people before, and you have a mental image of them, but they were generally less blonde than I had expected. Being realistic, I decided not to go to everything (it’s on today as well), but swanned in towards the end of the day when Son chaired the Translation session.

Charlotte Berry

Charlotte Berry talked about Chatto & Windus and their British Translations of Maria Gripe. It was based on notes the publisher had kept on how they discussed and decided what to translate, and that was really quite interesting. Basically, it was all down to networking, with an editor chatting to the right person somewhere else, trying to interest them in their book. And after that it was a case of organising the translating. One translator had been judged likely to be all right, because she was a mother herself… Charlotte said it was a hard topic to write about, since she didn’t want to offend anyone.

Agnes Broomé

Agnes Broomé talked on the subject of In the Wake of the Crime Wave – How to Publish Scandinavian Fiction in Translation in the New Millennium. Swedish books account for something like just over 1% of translated fiction in the English speaking world of books. Of 2000 fiction titles a year, 600-800 are translated, which is pretty good. The Nobel prize and the Astrid Lindgren award raise Sweden’s profile. (Astrid has been translated into 98 languages, coming after Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, but before Dickens and Plato.) In the past Swedish books went abroad via Danish or German, but now it is all through English. In the 1970s most translations were of children’s books, while in the last decade it’s been mostly crime. The risks with crime possibly becoming less popular are that because people have concentrated so heavily on crime fiction, other genres have suffered and are less active.

Nichola Smalley

Finally, Nichola Smalley told us about Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Swedish Literature, and what translators do to make it work. The ways to do it are Compensation, Replacement, Representation, Adaptation or Standardisation. And the advice is not to translate dialect, though of course some do, as it’s integral to the plot in certain cases. Nichola’s conclusion was that translators work hard to avoid standardising texts, and that the finished work is often down to more than the named translator, who has probably discussed solutions with many people. She gave examples from a couple of recent Swedish novels.

There was a Q&A afterwards, with questions of the kind you’d expect from a more expert kind of audience than I usually encounter.

After coffee the first day ended with a keynote speech by Mads Bunch from Copenhagen, on the subject of North Atlantic Literature in a Scottish Context – Iceland, Faroe Islands and Orkney. (Privately I wondered what dear old Shetland had done to be excluded, and as though he’s a mind reader, Mads began by explaining why not.)

Mads Bunch

I was surprised that he mentioned fairies, until I worked out that they sound much the same as the Faroes. The Faroese are descended from seasick Vikings; those who felt so bad on the way to Iceland that they asked to be allowed to stay on the Faroe Islands.

According to Mads the peripheries (I think that’s the above islands) don’t tend to influence each other in literature, as they are sufficiently similar, and have less to give. The good stories come from the contrasts between modern westerners and the isolated islands. Mads told the story of Edwin Muir from Orkney, who travelled 150 years in the two days it took him to leave Orkney and arrive in Glasgow in 1901.

These days there are plenty of new things in Icelandic and Faroese literature, whereas Mads reckons there is little change in Orkney. They continue with their sagas, while the Icelanders write about the economic collapse, and the Faroe Islands have a thing about Buzz Aldrin…

In the Q&A session, an Icelandic reader pointed out how tired she is of hearing only Laxness mentioned all the time, and talked at length about her own favourite author (whose name I didn’t catch) who is quite excellent. And apparently they have a lot of bookshops in Iceland.

After suitable thanks, Son sent us upstairs to an evening reception with music and Lidl rye bread and cheese and olives, washed down with wine and IrnBru. Thinking of today, I made my excuses and hobbled in the direction of my train home (the sandwiches need chauffeuring one more day), instead of joining the others for dinner somwhere.

Height matters

We are slowly putting books onto the ‘new’ shelves. The Resident IT Consultant couldn’t wait, so got working on his four last boxes, the contents of which I had, in a moment of excessive generosity, said he could put on ‘my’ shelves. As long as he put them in double rows. They are only IT books, so can be obscure at the back, at the bottom.

That’s what I think. Anyway, with my crummy eyesight, I can’t see book titles at awkward distances, nor can I bend down to browse in stupid places. The latter has less to do with eyes than knees, though. So my books are going to be in the best spots.

I was hoping he would see the light, and perhaps get rid of a few more books while doing this final sorting. I stood and watched as he worked, since I had a short break from kitchen duties, when he got to a rather tall book. It wouldn’t fit. Wondering if I needed to offer it to share with my picture books on a taller shelf, I never had time to say anything before he muttered, ‘well if it doesn’t fit, that might be a good reason to get rid of it.’ And with that it went on the discard pile. Oh, the happiness of it!

For me. I expect the book was less impressed. Let that be a lesson to you. Make books too enormous, for no obvious reason, and out they go. Possibly never in, in the first place.

Witch livingroom library #2

The Resident IT Consultant has kept up a steady pace all week, so just in time for St Andrew’s Day and the First Sunday in Advent, we have shelves. Not just undercoated, but ‘overcoated’ and filled.

Shelves

He painted for three days, and then the joiner came and secured the shelves with screws. Except for the one he forgot to do, so that will have to be done on his next visit.

'The Paretsky Shelf'

In anticipation of putting ‘all’ the books up, we placed the first few early, as they were hanging around all un-boxed. These are on ‘The Paretsky Shelf’ as we have named the slightly taller shelf for recent hardbacks. New hardbacks are very tall and never seem to fit where other books will happily go. As for Sara, she was pleased to have a home, although she declared it slightly tacky. (I’m hoping that’s the paint tacky, not the tasteless one.)

And the day I swanned off to Edinburgh I left a room full of boxed books, and returned to a wall filled with books. He’s quite useful that way, the Resident IT Consultant. He even made time to pick me up from the station.

My heart is flowing over, and so, obviously, are the shelves. They are generous, taking up a whole wall. But that is never enough, is it? There will, eventually, be more shelves in other rooms, but each step has to be done in the right order. I estimate at least two more months before the next worthwhile contribution to our shelving issues.

Shelves

We spent the following day placing the newly released books in a more orderly fashion, while also pruning quite a bit. I was being very good, sacrificing all my Ann Grangers and my remaining Wycliffes and some of the Ed McBains.

We gained a little more space by moving some books to the shelves in the alcove, which until this week had held a number of completely irrelevant items.

Bookcase

We’re slowly getting there. Thank you for your time!

Oooh, look at Anne Rooney!

What better way of celebrating National Non-Fiction November could there be but to ‘speak’ to Anne Rooney, and to learn a few new facts about this tireless non-fiction writer, who would scare me witless with her ability were it not for the fact that she is very funny, and very kind.

Anne Rooney

For information, yours is probably the best and most amusing author’s website I’ve come across. And that’s really quite upsetting, for me. Could you possibly give us a very brief summary of who you are, anyway? Feel free to reply with a simple ‘yes.’

Polymath – which is not a mathematical parrot, though both maths and birds are involved. I think I’m a kind of information magpie. I pick out all the shiny, fascinating snippets of fact that float around and try to make them into interesting collages which publishers prefer to call books. That’s not what you meant, is it?

I write stuff – pretty much anything that’s up for being written, really. Fiction for children, and non-fiction for children and adults. I like writing for children best, but it’s hardest. I think on some level I must be deeply stupid in a commercial sense, as I most like writing for children who don’t want to read. Write books for people don’t want books. Yeah. Good plan. And then there’s the me that lives in the Far-from-United State of Domestic Chaos, fails to go to the opera/theatre/cinema often enough, struggles to spend enough time seeing friends, and spends far too many happy hours playing with the local baby and her plastic phoenix and peasant.

I think of you as the mistress of non-fiction writing. Am I right?

Pretty much, I guess. I do tell lies sometimes, though. But if I spend too long writing only fiction I feel ungrounded. There’s only so long you can spend with imaginary people before it gets to you. That’s why so many fiction-writers walk dogs, bake cakes and make changes to their houses – they need to engage with real stuff.

I don’t think you can write non-fiction unless you are genuinely excited by the world and still feel a sense of wonder at discovering new things. People sometimes ask me how they can get into writing non-fiction because they aren’t making enough money doing whatever they are currently doing (usually writing fiction). That’s not really going to work; you might get a couple of book contracts that way, but you won’t be successful (=happy). You might make a living but you won’t make a life.

You have written a very large number of non-fiction books, and I have read only one of them, The Story of Physics. It was very good. In what way is that typical, or not, of your writing?

It’s about half typical, I suppose. It’s atypical in that it’s for adults, whereas most of my books are for children. But it’s typical in that it’s fairly wide-ranging and it has a light, informal tone. What I aim to do in all my books is make interesting information accessible and to show that it’s interesting. That sounds very formal. All my books are, basically, variations on ‘Oooh, look at this!’

And how many books have you written?

Oh dear. I always say ‘about 150’, largely because I gave up keeping a database of them but Amazon was an unreliable guide. I’ve been saying that for a few years, though. My Amazon count has just dropped from about 400 to 198, so I’m going to assume that’s because they have stopped counting duplicates and so it’s accurate. That includes some that aren’t quite out yet, but let’s go with 198.

Should we read more non-fiction?

Yes, we should – but only if we want to. I suppose I mean we should want to read more non-fiction. Actually people spend a lot of time reading non-fiction – in newspapers, magazines, on the web, and so on. Unfortunately, rather too much of it is about which celebrities are sleeping with each other, which is of no importance unless one of them is you.

I despise the faux-pride some people take in not knowing things – being proud of their ignorance of science or supposed inability to do any maths. Being ignorant is not something to be proud of. But nor is it something to be ashamed of – it’s an opportunity to learn something.

What kind of books do you like best?

What kind of books do I like best? That’s a very difficult question as I like lots of kinds of books! I’m currently reading The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), a 17th-century German picaresque ‘novel’ called Simplicius Simplicissimus, and a book about economics (that’s work, but it’s interesting). But I also love picture books, and books about science, and books about – well, anything interesting. I like books that are clever but not arrogant. There are whole swathes of books I don’t like at all but I won’t mention them because it’s a personal taste thing and some of my friends write those kinds of books, and I wouldn’t want to upset anyone.

It seems you have so many books on the go at any one time that you forget; either that it’s being published today, or what your deadline is, or even that you wrote the book in the first place. I suppose I can’t ask you how long it takes you to write a book, but how long on average does it take you to write 1000 words?

You are being very diplomatic; you have seen my Facebook updates!

How long it takes to write a thousand words depends on which thousand words it is. Sometimes, it will take several days to write 1,000 words. Other times it will take a couple of hours. I type at about 55 wpm, so the quickest is, I suppose, about 20 minutes. But some of them will be the wrong words and need changing, so no less than 90 mins, I guess. But writing isn’t the time-consuming bit – research takes longer. If I’m writing a book that takes a lot of research, those 1,000 words can take a week. If I’m writing a story that doesn’t need much research, it can be right in an hour, or it can take months.

And how long is your average book, if there is such a thing?

Which kind of average? Median? Mean? I’m going to say about 7,000 words. But the shortest are 300 and the longest 80,000.

Do you have to pitch ideas for books, or do publishers now come to you and say they need a short book on Swedish book bloggers?

The latter. I have to write three books about Swedish book bloggers this month. Actually, I am so busy writing books publishers have asked for I hardly ever get time to pitch ideas. And that makes me sad, as there are some books I want to write that I can’t see I will get round to until there is another recession.

Is there a work of non-fiction by someone else you wish you had written?

Animalium, by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, because it’s beautiful. Otherwise, Velcro Cows by Martyn Warren but I’m not sure it is non-fiction because most of it isn’t true. No – I’ve changed my mind: Montaigne’s Essais.

Do you ever use a pseudonym? Maybe it was really you?

I have done. But obviously I’m not going to tell you what it was. I have also threatened to when a publisher majorly screwed up a book. I said I wanted my name taken off it, and suggested a pseudonym – something like Clytemnestra Sponge – that would signal that it was not a real name. They saw through it, realised I was ridiculing the book, and the uber-editor, to her credit, worked through the night to restore my original text the day before it was due to go to press. But that’s not a normal state of affairs…

You seem to have a tremendous work ethic, always working, always a book to finish. How long is your working day, or week? And do you take holidays?

There is no routine day. Some weeks I end up doing 50 or 60 hours and other weeks only 20, but on average I work a normal number of hours. I did a quick calculation for the first half of the year and I worked an average of 38 hours a week (so no holidays or sick time in that). I don’t go on holidays much at the moment, but that’s because of domestic issues. But I’ve just got back from Northern Ireland where I was visiting my daughter (Big Bint).

The best thing about your job?

I don’t have to do things I really don’t want to do – I can just turn them down. And if there is something I really do want to do, I can do it and call it work. If I can’t sell it later, it was just a bad commercial decision, not skiving.

The worst?

Sometimes there is a project I really want to do and I can’t do it immediately as I’ve not got a contract for it and I need to earn money. And sometimes there will be a really good project and someone else in the process messes it up and I get disenchanted and don’t like it any more. And then I have to give it to Clytemnestra Sponge, who should have quite a body of bad books to her name by now…

Is there anything else you’d want to do for a living?

What else would I do? Something that combines history and science – medical archaeology, probably. Since I opted out of being a real academic, I can write about those things but not actually do the real research. That’s a shame. I don’t like only dealing in secondhand information all the time. I can do real research and I miss it.

How did this happen in the first place? I could see it might fit in well with bringing up children.

I’ve never worked for someone – you know, officially, doing as I’m told and turning up – except for weekend/holiday jobs as a teen and student. I had a part-time flexi-time job for 15 hours a week for a while when I was finishing my PhD, but they didn’t mind if I did all my hours in the middle of the night, so that doesn’t really count. I couldn’t really see any attraction in doing as I was told and spending hours a day getting to an office where some of the people would be unpleasant and some of the work I would have to do would be boring. I had an academic job briefly and decided that wasn’t what I wanted, and since writing was something I could do, I did that. I tried out lots of sorts of writing before settling on writing for children. Journalism was my least favourite – it seemed so pointless writing things that would just be thrown away a few days later. (This was before web archives!)

My rather weird working hours evolved when I was a single parent trying to work when my children weren’t around, so very early in the mornings, during school hours, and when they were in bed. And the times they went to their dad’s house, so that meant working weekends and long hours in parts of the school holiday.

I have a feeling that you also teach and/or have university related tasks. What, exactly? How much time do you spend on each?

The last three summers I have run a summer school programme in creative writing with Brian Keaney at Pembroke and King’s Colleges in Cambridge. It’s part of the Pembroke-King’s Summer Programme. Most of our students are undergraduates from the USA. It runs for eight weeks. This year I’m Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, which is two-and-a-half days a week during term time. I’ve been RLF fellow at other universities in the past, but it tends to be one or two years on and then two years off, so some years I don’t do any university work at all. RLF Fellows don’t teach a course – they help students with academic writing, in any discipline. It’s very rewarding and a challenge. Sometimes I’ll have a chemical engineering PhD thesis to look at, followed by an essay about some aspect of the Hebrew Bible, and then an anthropology dissertation on a tribe in Bolivia… You have to be intellectually agile!

Do you have a next book? I mean, is that even possible?

You mean next coming out or next to write? I don’t write only one at once. I’m working on a Gothic novel for 9-11s, just finishing a book about inventions (8-10), starting a GCSE guide to Jekyll and Hyde and doing The Story of Maps (adult). There’s also a picture book that needs sending to my agent and a couple of adult books I’m writing outlines for that I don’t think have been announced yet. Next out is, I think, Space Record Breakers from Carlton, which is out some time early this month. It might be out already, I’m not sure.

Finally, who plays you in The Life of Rooney?

Probably a muppet… Rowlf?

I should really have got you to ask the questions, shouldn’t I?

They wouldn’t have been very sensible if I’d asked them!

Now, hasn’t this made you want to read those 198 books? (And I must point out I’m really good at maths. And exo-planets. I should also have realised that Anne would ask things like ‘mean or median?’ and given her a proper question from the start. I blame that Clytemnestra.)

National Non-Fiction November