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Too Near the Dead

‘But it will be all right in the end,’ said the Resident IT Consultant in a rare moment of trying to reassure me. I looked at him and pointed out that Helen Grant’s new novel, Too Near the Dead, is described as a gothic novel, and happy ever after isn’t necessarily a given. Besides, with Helen’s track record, did he really believe this?

I’d agonised about what reads as a wonderfully romantic and exciting mystery set in Perthshire, but which I knew would scare me senseless at some point, possibly without prior warning. After all, it starts with the heroine, Fen, lying in a sealed coffin, seemingly buried alive. It’s menacing, but quietly so. And that sense of unease didn’t leave me.

With Fen the kind of heroine who reads Jane Eyre as light entertainment when she’s scared of being home alone at night, you just know that something is coming for her. Will it be her fiancé James, an up-and-coming novelist, with whom she’s recently moved to this lonely spot in Perthshire? Can she trust him?

Fen is a copy editor with a London publisher, and she and James have bought a large Scottish house in the middle of nowhere, moving away from London. After Fen came into some money…

There is plenty in her own background to worry about. And what about the people in the nearby small town? Or the new house, or the old land on which it was built? It has a ruined chapel, and graves. You really can be Too Near the Dead.

It’s as though having placed her couple in the literary circles she moves in herself, and in a part of the country she also knows well, Helen Grant has been free to give the scary aspects of the story her full attention. Sometimes I wonder if this is advisable.

The book took longer to read due to needing to avoid it at bedtime; otherwise I’d have raced through it in a day. If you love gothic, this is the book for you. Even if you don’t, it could still be the book for you.

Triple skulduggery

I’d really been feeling much more positive in the last few weeks. Yes, it’s fun to write. To read books. And then when you think it’s safe to step into the water, on an ordinary Thursday morning, they trip you up.

The first water has to do with that large river in South America. I was wanting to buy the new Skulduggery Pleasant, out next week. Since the last time when I was unwillingly, and unwittingly, subscribed to their prime offers, I have been very vigilant. But still, I fell in. Knowing how to, I immediately pulled myself out [cancelled] again. But that was at least two minutes out of my morning.

After that, my thought was to do just what I am doing now; moaning away about rivers and the like.

But in their infinite wisdom my blogging platform has – seemingly – taken away my old-fashioned classic editor option and I am currently writing to you from, well, I don’t know where I am, but I am not enjoying it.

So that’s two large, successful companies sticking their legs out to catch me, all in one morning.

I still ordered my copy of Skulduggery Pleasant, whereas the less pleasant skulduggeries continue to bother me. Primarily by flickering an editing box in front of my eyes every time I stop to think. If that’s not a migraine trigger, I don’t know what is. Well, I do, Marmite, chocolate, msg. And the editing box.

Just as well I wasn’t going to add a picture.

…and the Christmas tagliatelle

The Fledgling Girls booked themselves in for Christmas lunch at Corrieri’s yesterday, and they allowed me to tag along, in all my un-Fledglingness.

Moira McPartlin, Alex Nye, Bookwitch and Helen Grant

It was good. Corrieri’s used to be somewhere the Resident IT Consultant’s relatives gathered for Christmas Eve pizzas in the semi-olden days, so it has Christmassy connotations for me. And what could be more seasonal than mushrooms and tagliatelle? Fish and chips. Pizza. It was all good.

We exchanged gifts and cards.

We exchanged opinions on a lot of things, from all that stuff in the news, to literary agents, authors having large incomes (hah), second husbands, incidents with cars, art, lemon desserts, having nice offspring, 1980s music, getting on with one’s parents. You know, perfectly normal conversation.

At least I think it was…

We might have stayed longer than the restaurant expected us to, but it’s hard to stop chatting mid-gossip. If there is a next time, I’ll have Moira’s dessert.

‘The biggest poo’

It was only seeing the Scottish Book Trust van parked out the back that convinced the Resident IT Consultant we were in the right place. I dare say we should have done more than give a cursory glance at the online map before we went looking for the Z-Arts centre. (There has to be a first time for everything.)

My chauffeur and I were attempting to attend the Manchester Children’s Book Festival/Scottish Book Trust’s Barry Hutchison event, and even after the van sighting we were unsure of where to go, so followed the line of blue sweatshirted children. They surely knew where they were going?

Barry Hutchison

We sneaked in at the back, but not before one boy had queried the Resident IT Consultant about whether he was the author. He was not. Barry was. And he came up to chat, despite us hiding at the back, where we belong.

Barry asked the children if anyone didn’t like horror, and then suggested that the one child who didn’t, had better sit with their fingers in their ears for the next hour. Most of the children had had imaginary friends. Many have abandoned them by now, but I would guess by the time they got home they will have gone looking for their old friends to prevent what happens when you forget and abandon imaginary friends.

Barry Hutchison

Read Barry’s Invisible Fiends books if you need help imagining your imaginary pal, a few years on. They turn into evil monstrous versions of their old selves. My own copies of the books had arrived when we returned home again. But after Barry’s brief reading from Mr Mumbles, I’m not sure I will be able to go anywhere near them. Gulp.

Barry used to believe books appeared at the library as if by magic. When he realised people actually write books, he knew that’s what he wanted to do. He wrote when other little boys played football, which is why his recent, forced moment of playing keepie-uppies with his son didn’t go well. He’s useless at all sports, except possibly basketball where the ‘big freak’ did OK.

He sold a couple of early screenplays, and on both occasions the film company went bust two weeks later. So he gave up before he singlehandedly put all film companies out of business.

Getting sacked from lots of jobs (see interview) for daydreaming about pterodactyls eating someone’s mum, the thing that finally got him kicked out of BT wasn’t not considering how to improve sales figures, but what might happen if a monkey came through the door, carrying a gun.

He used to be scared of everything. Dogs, cats, goldfish. (No mention of gun-toting monkeys.) And the very dead squirrels in Aberdeen when Barry was seven. What if they came back as squirrel zombies? Cue panic attack.

Barry Hutchison

I didn’t really believe him about killing the old woman crossing the road because she might be nine squirrels in disguise. (But he clearly is crazy.) Asking the audience about what scares them, he reminisced about the Glasgow child who was scared of toast. ‘What about bread?’ he asked the boy. ‘Nah, that would be weird.”

It would.

We got the kitchen sink tale again. It’s always good. I’d been concerned what the Resident IT Consultant would make of the poo and pee stories, but mercifully he seemed to have fallen asleep by then. (It was very warm. It’s not that Barry was boring.)

Barry Hutchison

The reason Barry went off budgies has now been explained, and I am fairly sure I’d not heard about the frenzied killing of his grandmother’s porcelain doll. Derek, the possibly imaginary friend with an imaginary friend, got a mention again. Invisible Fiends book no. four – Doc Mortis – has been banned in Germany.

Barry is a writer because as we heard he is rubbish at everything else. And possibly because he grew up near Fort William where there was nothing else to do but write. Having been chucked out of his study when it became a bedroom for his youngest child, Barry has found he can write anywhere. In corners. In the car (not while driving, apparently). Even in Fort William, one imagines.

Barry Hutchison

Irish Book Awards

Feeling a little Irish at the moment (reading Skulduggery) so this could be a good time to mention the Irish Book Awards. Lots of categories, but I’ll just concern myself with the two children’s categories here.

In the junior section we have a shortlist of The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers, Highway Robbery by Kate Thompson, Her Mother’s Face by Roddy Doyle and Before You Sleep by Benji Bennett.

For older readers you get The Magician by Michael Scott, Skulduggery Pleasant – Playing With Fire by Derek Landy, Alice and Megan Forever by Judi Curtin and The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan.

Some are well known over here, and others less so, which provides us with every reason to investigate and learn more about our neighbour’s literature. There is now a public vote, which I believe extends to us foreigners, so get voting. After you’ve read.

A modern tale

Once upon a time there was a small business. Like many others, it relied on computers and on the internet. The owners, John and Mary, were of an age not to be all that used to the finer points of computers. But they worked hard, and Mary in particular did as much as she could. Eventually they came to know a man and his son, who were both able to help them. The man advised on their computer needs, and the boy, like many teenagers, was good at installing software and generally doing things with computers.

He did work for them cheaply, as and when they needed it. One day they bought a new laptop, and asked the boy to come and install new software on it, and they asked him to supply and install some hardware, too. The task took longer than the day put aside, due to complications with their computers and very slow broadband. The boy spent three days on this, giving up his spare time. Unfortunately, as is the case with computers, not everything worked 100% when he had to leave for his ‘real’ job.

The problem could have been easily solved by asking his father for help. Instead, John and Mary panicked, and asked advice from virtually the first person they saw that day, and who generously offered to help, since she had some IT experience from her work. Unfortunately that experience didn’t mean she knew what a firewall is. It does sound rather unpleasant, so with their helper, John and Mary deduced that a firewall was a bad thing. There was also something called Firefox installed on the computer, and it’s easy to see that they should panic over that as well.

When you panic, you tend to be less polite to people than normal, so they said a number of choice things both to the boy and to his father. The boy, being young, wasn’t as polite in his response as he should have been. So, not only did the relationship with John and Mary come to an abrupt end, but they refused to pay him. The boy generously decided to forego any claim on pay for his time. But he did feel they should reimburse him for what he’d bought for them. Living on a budget himself, he had got the stuff as cheaply as possible, so their bill was smaller than it could have been.

Eventually they paid for the software, but said that as far as the hardware was concerned, they’d never asked for it and they felt it wasn’t suitable for them. The boy’s father had been present when they asked for it, but John and Mary were adamant. The boy felt that in that case they should let him have it back, so he could re-sell it and recoup some of his money.

Some months later the new laptop was stolen when the business was burgled. The worst aspect of this wasn’t the theft of the laptop itself, but instead the loss of all the hard work that had gone into designs and other information stored on the laptop.

The boy’s father felt John and Mary may have been careless leaving the laptop lying around unsecured, but he had an idea. He knew his son had most likely backed up the contents of the laptop before undertaking the work he did. (Or the tampering as it got called.) He asked him, and as luck would have it, the boy knew exactly where the data was stored. He’d put it onto the external hard disc he’d bought for John and Mary. The very same piece of hardware they didn’t want and hadn’t paid for. They had spent years running their business without backing anything up, and didn’t feel like starting because some teenager told them to.

The father relayed the good news, out of kindness despite their behaviour, but it didn’t cheer them up. However, they soon saw the value of this turn of events but were unable to retrieve anything from the disc themselves, so asked the man to come and help as he had offered to do. And what do you know? The pesky boy had saved all the important business information, and it was sitting there on the unwanted little hard disc. John thanked the father for his help, but Mary seemed unable to show any gratitude.

Whether they will now feel they should pay the boy what they owe him, I don’t know. And will they turn a new leaf and take up using the hard disc regularly?

The next witch

Meet Bookwitch’s baby sister, CultureWitch, who was born yesterday. It’s utter madness, I know. I can barely keep the books going, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens. It’s a sign of opinionated bossyness that I have to go on and on about anything that takes my fancy.

Back tomorrow with a proper book blog entry. Whose new book will it be?

Tall Ship

Well, I suppose you could say it was the witch’s incredible writing skills that took her and the Resident IT Consultant to the Statsraad Lehmkuhl last night. And, no, the name is almost as incomprehensible to me as it is to you. It’s a tall ship, a three-masted barque, I understand. I’d call it a boat. What I’m trying to say is that this has nothing to do with books.

When the envelope from the Norwegian embassy arrived, I did that annoying thing people do in books; turn it round wondering what it could possibly be, rather than open it. I decided it had better be an invitation from the ambassador. And it was! He was throwing a party on board the Statsraad Lehmkuhl in Liverpool for the Tall Ships Race.


So, we went. In fact it wasn’t the great writing skills that took me. It was the family car, and it did so with difficulty, and let me tell you there are countless ways of getting lost in a Liverpool with diversions. But the first man we stopped to ask, knew we wanted the Malmaison car park without us saying a word. So it ended weller than it should have.


The boat was teeming with Norwegians and a small scattering of us other Nordics being tolerated for the day. The food was wonderful! Masses of fish, and all of the highest quality. The Resident IT Consultant felt under dressed until he saw all the Norwegian knitted cardigans worn by those in the know. He should have worn his fake one.

When the band struck up The Leaving of Liverpool, we took the hint and went home.

The brilliant writing that I mentioned earlier is that piece I wrote in Dagens Nyheter (leading Swedish paper) about the threats to the Scandinavian church. People are easily impressed, I can tell you. My latest technique when receiving compliments, is to agree completely with whoever I’m talking to. But whether this will help save the church is still uncertain.

“Famous, aren’t you?”

It was in Publishing News last year that I first found Oliver Jeffers, in an interview with, I think, Graham Marks. I was left with an impression of handsome biker, who was also the “in” illustrator of the moment, responsible for the World Book Day posters. I wasn’t all that interested, to be truthful.

By the time Oliver materialised at the local bookshop on Friday, I’d worked up more enthusiasm, and by the time he was done, the enthusiasm level was really quite high, and not just because of the biker looks and the designer stubble. I even had the opportunity to start by translating Oliver’s request for a USB pen into something more intelligible, rendering me an aura of being almost useful.

Oliver Jeffers 3

His appeal must be fairly universal, as the people who turned up to hear him talk were of all ages, and whereas my tolerance for slide shows and power point presentations isn’t that great, this was interesting. How a picture book is made and why they are often 32 pages and how the text comes last in the printing process. And how the Americans will change his words if they don’t like them. Now, how could little boy running out of rocket fuel near the moon possibly be seen as too unrealistic?

The Way Back Home

I’d made several visits to Oliver’s website, and had had considerable problems with all the insects, until I finally worked out what’s what. And then he said he was thinking of changing it, to make it easier. I said no, not when I’ve actually got it, at last. Anyway, I’d had a good look at some of his “proper” art, and if the witch household had any spare walls, not to mention some spare cash, there would soon be a Jeffers on our walls.

Being slow (me that is), I didn’t make the connection with Hopper until Oliver mentioned it, but that will be why I loved “my” favourite painting instantly. And look, there is Hopper in the books as well. Couldn’t be better. Quite liked Michael Sowa, too, who’s another of Oliver’s favourites.

Oliver uses whatever paint feels right at the time, but seems to prefer acrylics, at least now. He also uses water colours, Dulux One Coat, and finds his white pen extremely useful. With the water colours he sloshes on too much water, adds colour and then tilts the paper from side to side, letting the colour slide this way and that. And I think Oliver said he rests the paper on a toilet roll, until the colour settles as he wants it.

He has, or had, two work areas in Belfast; one for making a mess vertically and one for making a mess horizontally. Makes sense, when you think about it. Right now he is living and working in New York, so his visit here is a short one, and supposedly so he can see his uncle. Oliver was born in Australia, grew up in Northern Ireland, which is why he has that lovely accent, and has lived in Sydney, before New York. So, very cosmopolitan. At one point he and some friends also kept posting a work of art across the Atlantic. They started with an empty book, and then added a picture, before posting it on, and on, for 36 weeks. Surprised it didn’t go missing.

How to Catch a Star

His interest in how words and pictures go together made him experiment, and before he knew it he had made a picture book without meaning to. Among his favourite books by others are Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, and Quentin Blake’s Clown. Oliver feels young children make the best critics, because they get bored easily.

Oliver Jeffers 2

I’d say he is rather like an overgrown child himself, with his ideas. For one page in The Incredible Book Eating Boy, he photographed books which he and his brother threw into the air, to let them fall in the right way, before Photoshopping them onto the page.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

After meeting a quantum physicist he thought about how people become intelligent, and took to combining oil paintings of people, with equations. Another unusual idea is to leave his mug of coffee on the paper, letting it leave a ring and then doing a picture round the coffee ring.

Oliver did typography at university, so is very keen on doing all the lettering in his books, even when it involves writing the copyright page in Spanish by hand four times because he kept making mistakes. When asked whether it’s important to have gone to university, he says it is, because then you know all the rules, before you go on to break them.

Oliver Jeffers 1

Among things he has done that aren’t picture books, is a poster for Starbucks, an ad for the big bookshop chain, cards that the Government sends to all new born babies, and something unintelligible about Orange priorities. And a Darth Vader helmet.

It doesn’t sound as if Oliver is man who struggles, but when he does, coffee helps. That and knowing there’s a mortgage that needs paying.

His next book is, supposedly, called The Great Paper Caper, and has something to do with FSC paper, but he won’t say too much. “A children’s detective thriller”.

Lost and Found

Lost and Found is being animated, using CGI, and Oliver got his Mac out to show a short piece from the film. Absolutely adorable, are words that come to mind. However, putting his own nephew (Henry, I think) in the penguin compound at Belfast Zoo, doesn’t strike me as very nice. Henry was helping illustrate Lost and Found, but what they did find, was that he’s scared of penguins.

Well, so much for the man who wins everything or is shortlisted for everything. Good artist, but is he a good uncle? And he uses books from Belfast Central Library to paint on. Hang on; that’s what I was complaining about a couple of months ago, in regard to Daughter’s school…

And have I just lost an opportunity to interview Oliver properly in the future? This blog post is too long.

Page 123

This week’s game would seem to be some blog tagging exercise where the victim has to bore their readers with three sentences from their nearest book.

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

I am rather belatedly reading Jacqueline Wilson’s latest book, My Sister Jodie. Sentences number six to eight on p123 go something like this:

She kicked too hard and hurt her foot. “Ow!” she moaned, hopping on one leg. She wasn’t good at balancing on just one high heel and nearly toppled over.

This mad chain blog thingy could only have come from one place, Crime Always Pays. You silly man. Haven’t you got nappies to change and sleep to catch up on? Oh, well. But you people who I’m about to tag had better remember it’s nothing to do with me. The lucky victims are Lowebrow, Julie Bertagna, The Green Knight, Sara O’Leary and Jen Robinson.