Category Archives: Writing

1947

I love the cover of 1947. This ‘literary scrapbook of the year’ by Elisabeth Åsbrink consists of a somewhat odd collection of facts from the year ‘when now begins’ as it says on that attractive cover.

Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947

Maybe it’s true that life as we recognise it came into being two years after WWII ended. I don’t know. I began reading 1947 with the expectation of finding out; discovering some startling proof. But the book is mainly a series of unrelated stuff happening to people or countries during that year. I was waiting for a reason why George Orwell was in there, and what the significance of Simone de Beauvoir’s romantic interlude with some man in America might be for me.

There are flying saucers. I like flying saucers, but why were they in there? About the most interesting fact – to me – was the possible background to the disappearance of Dagmar Hagelin in Argentina in the 1970s. That was part of my growing up.

Elisabeth appears to have grabbed facts as she found them, putting them in for artistic effect. It feels a rather Swedish thing to be doing at the moment. For that’s what this is, the latest ‘historical’ offering from a woman whose own father escaped Hungary after the war. But that doesn’t explain all the rest; the UN, Palestine, Mahatma Gandhi, Christian Dior, Swedish nazis and fleeing nazi war survivors.

I was hoping it would be fascinating, that it would teach me something new. Instead it was a return to the Emperor’s New Clothes, all over again.

It’ll be fun to see how the rest of the world receives 1947. I found the English translation by Fiona Graham good enough to make me forget I was reading in the ‘wrong’ language.

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The power of words

Here we go again.

A parent (note, not her child) was upset by Mary Hoffman’s use of the word Paki in a book suggested by the child’s school. The parent complained to the school, and now the book – Deadly Letter – has been removed.

If only it were that easy to remove racist bullying, or worse, from schools, or even from life.

Whereas I’m really pleased that the school took notice of what the parent had to say, there are times when the ‘customer’ isn’t always right. The word was in the book to teach the reader something. The book was presumably in the school, and being suggested as a suitable read, for the same reason. It’s a book by one of the most decent authors I know, and published by Barrington Stoke, who are not exactly slapdash or careless in their publishing.

Mary Hoffman, Deadly Letter

One parent, interviewed by the Mirror, said ‘I think kids of ten or 11 need to be taught racism but young kids should be protected.’ Apart from the – hopefully unintended – suggestion that older children need to be taught racism, I am amazed at the belief that younger ones need protecting. Not that they don’t need protecting, but that they somehow are slipping happily through life with no experience of racism, or bullying and name-calling.

They know. They probably also know the swear words these parents wouldn’t tell a six-year-old off for using (because they don’t know any better…). And that is why, not having been told off earlier, they go on to much more sophisticated bad behaviour when they are older. You can tell them off, but if the teaching of what’s right and what isn’t, doesn’t start in time, what hope do we have?

But at least this parent got a couple of lovely photos of herself in the paper, while Mary Hoffman was forced to re-direct time and energy she had planned to use on other things, to defend herself to the press, for a book published years ago, with all the best intentions. And as she says, she has had to deal with racism herself, as her husband and children are not white.

It’s time for schools to learn to stand up to parents, once in a while.

Ferryman goes to Hollywood

‘I bought her a cookie,’ said Daughter when informed about Claire McFall’s new film deal for her Ferryman books. This – the cookie incident – happened during our interview with Claire in August.

Claire McFall

And now Hollywood wants to make her books into films for both the western world and for China, where I imagine there could be ‘a few’ fans wanting to see the film version of their favourite Scottish novel.

I’m not surprised by this, and I’m sure neither are you, as I’ve been busy telling you about Claire and her romantic Ferryman since then.

Successes like this are far too rare, and I’m just very pleased for her. Besides, it’s not every YA author who ends up as a page three girl, even if it was in the Guardian. Much more respectable, and the photo was by Murdo Macleod, which is a bit of an honour.

Although I’m grateful I didn’t know Tristan was a Leonardo DiCaprio sort of boy [when I read the book]. In my mind he was much more handsome!

Time flies

I used to be a big fan of Emily Barr’s. I’ve not necessarily stopped; it’s just that life changes and you simply end up doing different stuff.

For instance, I could have sworn that Emily wrote her travel column (which is what I enjoyed so much) for the Guardian maybe a little over ten years ago. But it does seem like time has flown somewhat, without me noticing.

Her new YA book, The Truth and Lies of Ella Black – out next week – is something like her 13th book! Back when she was travelling and telling Guardian readers about it, she was single and childfree and had written no books (that I know of).

Now, Emily has a family, and a dozen books behind her. I remember hearing about her first novel being published, and I’ve read the odd article about her over the last ‘ten’ years, but I still wasn’t allowing for the twenty years it must have been…

Anyway, here are my tulips bowing to her latest book.

Emily Barr, The Truth and Lies of Ella Black

What (not) to buy in 2018?

It was the Resident IT Consultant who mentioned it first. He noted that that David Walliams seemed to be everywhere in the top 100 books sold in 2017. I wasn’t surprised, but wish I had been. I’ve not counted the DW books on the list. Daughter did, but reckoned I probably didn’t want to hear how many.

I am pleased that a children’s book came second on that list. (Also pleased that it was – considerably – outsold by Jamie Oliver.) But I really would have wanted it to be a different book. I know; it’s good that children read. Or at least that someone is buying the books, whether or not they get read.

If it was any other book, I’d also be happy for the author who was financially rewarded, along with his or her publisher.

To return to my previously mentioned lesson learned from Random House, we should be grateful these books make money, because they help publish other books that simply don’t sell in great numbers. Well, all I can say is that on the strength of the DW sales, HarperCollins should be able to support an awful lot of ‘smaller’ books. Children’s books at that.

I don’t know this, but how much of such revenue goes to happy shareholders? Instead of being re-invested in more book products. I’m aware that DW has a past of doing charitable things, even if that was a stunt requiring other people to cough up the cash. Does he support any worthy causes with the income from his books?

In the same Guardian there was an article about a businessman who has received rather a large bonus, an amount of money that it was suggested could do a lot of good if used to solve the sad state of the homeless. My guess is he won’t do this. (Although, think of how he’d be remembered for all time – in a positive way – if he did!)

So, DW and publisher: Is there any likelihood of you doing this kind of good deed? We only require so much money for our own needs.

But back to the list. I’ve not read much on it. This is usually the case, as most of the big sellers are generally adult novels I don’t have time for, or recipe books and biographies of or by people I’ve barely heard of.

This year Philip Pullman is in tenth place and I’ve read his book. Of older books there’s obviously Harry Potter, and I have at some point looked at a Where’s Wally and the Wimpy Kids books.

The usual suspects such as Lee Child, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Dan Brown, are there; but interspersed with countless DW titles. Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson, often the biggest contributors to children’s books on the list of bestsellers, are at the bottom end. There is Wonder, which presumably has reappeared because of the recent film.

While horrified in general, I am hoping that this willingness to buy lots of children’s books will continue. And I’m hoping for more diverse purchases, which will be made possible only when publishers don’t only push celebrity titles. I’d like for there to be more excellent children’s titles, but the truth is that there are countless terrific books already in existence. They ‘merely’ need to be sold to the buyers of books. Use some of that money on telling the world about your other writers.

I’d like to mention a few recent HarperCollins books here as examples, but I’ve not been told about many. The new Oliver Jeffers book was ‘sold’ to me. I asked about the Skulduggery Pleasant book myself when I discovered its existence. I was offered an adult crime novel on the suggestion by the author. And someone emailed me to say she was leaving the company. This is not to say there weren’t heaps and heaps of great books. Just that there was no publicity coming my way, and possibly not going to others either.

Happy New Reading in 2018!!!

Putting people in their place

Black or fat. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be put in that special group. The one that shows that white people – or thin people – are feeling inclusive. They will let you have what they have ‘always’ had, but only because the winds are such that it appears best to allow ‘minorities’ to do what everyone should have the right to do, be it write books and have them published, or buy and wear clothes that look nice and actually fit.

Thank you. It is most kind.

The Guardian Review on Saturday had a long article about how things have almost got a little better [fairer] for dark people in the publishing business.

I was struck by two things. First is that authors who are somehow different get their own imprint, as witnessed by the hiring of Sharmaine Lovegrove as publisher of Dialogue Books, a new ‘inclusive’ imprint at Little, Brown. (Ironic, isn’t it?)

As the Guardian says, ‘but why does inclusivity have to have its own ring-fenced imprint? Shouldn’t it be part of every imprint rather than becoming its own distinctive brand?’

This, incidentally, reminded me of what I wrote earlier this year, “there is always something that can be done, putting people in their place. Quoting Wikipedia, Tamarind Books ‘was founded in 1987 as a small independent publisher specialising in picture books, fiction and non-fiction featuring black and Asian children and children with disabilities, with the mission of redressing the balance of diversity in children’s publishing.’ This is very worthy and I have the highest opinion of Tamarind. But now that it is also an imprint within a much larger organisation, has it become the place to stash away the slightly foreign authors? You know, ‘you will be happier next to your own kind’ sort of thought.”

I know someone who ended up being put there after a publishing house reshuffle. He/she was both offended and pleased. Offended because colour of skin suddenly made this the right place for him/her. Pleased because Tamarind have really keen publicists, which ought to be good for sales.

And second, a comment by Abir Mukherjee, part of a ‘dynamic new circle of British Asian crime novelists.’ Abir* has been told ‘his work is not “authentically Asian enough” because his debut A Rising Man is about a white, British detective in India.

So, the whites get to tell the ‘minority’ writers what to write. We’re back to the situation where you can only ever write about what you are; i.e. for my part a novel about a short, fat girl in southwest Sweden.

Which brings me to one of my fondest gripes, clothes for fat people. Don’t design especially ugly and different clothes ranges for us. It’s enough – well, preferable, actually – if you make larger sizes of the same as everyone else gets. This should have several benefits. No need to design twice. The fat customers will be happier. Happy customers buy more, thus providing more income.

And let’s face it; if you don’t make it, we won’t buy. We can’t suddenly use smaller clothes, just because you think that’s the best. So that’s a loss of revenue to you.

Something similar must surely happen in the book trade. Publish good books about anything at all, and we will buy. Doesn’t matter what colour skin the author is, or their accent, or if they were born in a different place than where they live now.

Yes, unlike the jeans that are too tight, if one book has not been written or published, a keen reader can buy another book. But there must still be a certain loss of potential income. To some extent publishers can and will tell someone what ought to be in a book [for it to sell], and sometimes they will even be right. But to limit Asian writers to write about Asians, or for that matter, to prevent a Muggle author from writing about wizards, is just silly.

In fact, I recently read a crime novel by Vaseem Khan, featuring his Mumbai detective as usual. Lovely book. But what makes that different from, say, Alexander McCall Smith’s lovely books about a female detective in Botswana? Is he female? Is he black? Is he a detective?

Neither Vaseem nor Alexander have been ring-fenced into an imprint suitable for their colour. Why should anyone else?


*When xenophobia is at its worst, immigrants are often told they need to adopt the same values and behaviour as the British. While I happen to think that this is wrong, I feel that it is precisely what someone like Abir has done. He has assimilated, which, considering he was born here, is fairly natural. And also what the real natives want. Except when they want their foreigners to be a little more authentically foreign.

It’s not easy.

Starting young

If I’d stopped to think about it, I suppose I’d half expect the child of an author [whose work] I like to turn into a competent writer as well.

One day. Just not yet.

I may have mentioned this before. One of my very first contacts among fellow blog people was Declan Burke. This author and compiler of Irish crime – on his blog Crime Always Pays – has introduced me to countless lovely people, writers and non-writers. (Thank you, Siobhan Dowd!)

Back in 2007 I believe he’d just got married. I mention this because the next year he became a father. So that’s nine years ago.

Last year Declan’s daughter Lily wrote me an email to thank me for the Christmas e-cards I have sent them over the years (she’s been keeping count…), which was lovely of her.

And this year she has written something else, which I recommend you read. I won’t borrow, so you have to pop over to her dad’s blog to read it. It seems Lily is a Jacqueline Wilson fan. Well, who isn’t? And it seems there’s been a competition to write a historical letter, where the winner would appear in Jacqueline’s next book. So Lily obviously wrote a letter.

No, she didn’t win. I imagine there will have been ‘a few’ entries to such a competition. But ever the proud father, Declan put her letter on Crime Always Pays, and that’s where you can read it.

I’m having two thoughts here; 1) Jacqueline Wilson really inspires her fans, 2) we have to stop thinking that young children are too young. I would never have expected a nine-year-old to write quite what Lily wrote. But if she can think such grown-up thoughts, then surely there are more girls like her?

In fact, the really great thing about Jacqueline’s books is that even the ‘older’ stories are quite simply written, which means that her younger fans can access the teen books, and they like them, and understand them. And they go forth and write their own.

Lily gives me hope.