Sophie Hannah on her second Poirot

Despite Edinburgh’s trams trying really very hard to keep me from Sophie Hannah’s event at Blackwell’s on Thursday evening, they failed. I steamed in just as Ann Landmann was pressuring everyone to move closer, saying there – probably – wasn’t going to be any audience participation to worry about. I was just pleased to be so late but still find someone had kept Bookwitch’s corner on the leather sofa for me. That’s all I cared about.

Ann at Blackwell's

Ann was busy stroking Sophie’s new Poirot novel, Closed Casket, suggesting what a good Christmas present this lovely, shiny book would make, hint, hint. (And it would, were I the kind of person who gives people presents.) The rest of you, pay attention! Buy Closed Casket for everyone.

I have heard the background to how Sophie was given the lovely task of becoming the new Agatha Christie before. I was interested to see how much she’d be able to vary it. It was about half and half; some the same, some new.

She put most of the blame on her crazy agent, who doesn’t do reassurance terribly well, and thinks it’s OK to tell her she is ‘brilliant, etc’ when she needs to be comforted. (As an aside I reckon Adèle Geras [Sophie’s mother] was quite correct in feeling her daughter should have been made head girl at school. Sophie is a very head girl-y kind of person.)

Basically Sophie got the job (Agatha Christie, not head girl) through good timing, and also by having plenty of experience of Dragon’s Den. Whatever that is. And you ‘can’t say no to Agatha Christie’s grandson.’

Sophie Hannah

The idea for Closed Casket, which incidentally is another four-word idea [like Murder on the Orient Express], describing how the novel ends, came when she had an argument with her sister. As Sophie now ‘blames’ her Christie fixation on her father Norm’s cricket book collection, I feel we have much to thank the Geras family for.

She doesn’t know if her book is any good, but she does know that her idea is. It’s the best and simplest idea ever, and she is very fond of this book. It has an Enid Blyton style character in it, and if the first chapter is anything to go by, I can see this will be a fun book to read.

Sophie doesn’t write chronologically, and in this case she was so tired that she began with the easiest chapter. Chapter 23. The house where the murder takes place was found by extensive time spent on Rightmove until she happened upon a house in Ireland that fitted the bill. So no, nothing to do with Irish politics in 1929.

Sophie Hannah

As she doesn’t know how many Poirot books there might be, Sophie is eking out the years between 1928 and 1932, not letting much time pass between her first two mysteries, just in case. Hitherto every generation has discovered the world of Agatha Christie, but not the current one. That’s partly the reason the Christie family needed something new to offer potential readers, and the idea appears to have been successful, with fresh interest in Poirot.

No, writing Poirot is not difficult. It has ‘instantly become the thing she most wants to do.’ Even if she does have to share the profits with the Christie family. Sophie does not want to write any Miss Marple stories, if only to prevent herself from believing she actually is Agatha. She’s already half expecting them to turn over Agatha’s house Greenway to her…

Sophie Hannah

How, erm, very Nobel

Bob Dylan eh?

I like it. I mean, I’m not a particular fan of Dylan’s, but I’m not not a fan either. He’s just Dylan.

It’s funny though. Yesterday morning on Facebook people were discussing who it might be, who they wanted it to be, and so on, mentioning names I’d either heard of, or ones I really didn’t know much about. My only comment was that surely the Swedish Academy could only pick someone no one – but them – had ever come across.

Peter Englund

Can’t you just picture it, The Eighteen sitting around pondering who they could possibly find that would enable them to hold their heads up high. And then some bright spark (that could be absolutely any one of them, obviously) came up with the complete opposite to the ‘never heard of him’ conundrum. ‘Let’s go for Bob Dylan! We just need to think up some clever way of saying why we chose him. But we can do that.’

And Peter Englund – probably – said that even the Bookwitch will know Dylan. Problem solved.

(Yes, I know. Peter is no longer their permanent secretary. But I have a photo of him I can use. And he might ‘know’ me. OK, I have photos of two more members, and I have met one, but not so he would remember.)

It has the surprise factor, and the Swedish Academy never disappoint. They just ‘never disappoint’ in different ways every time.

Bob Dylan… This is Swedish protest at its best. (That rhymed. I’m quite pleased with my phrase. Witty. And rhyme, all at the same time. Yes, I know. That rhymed too, but it was totally unintentional.)

Because, it can’t be because some of those old fogeys want to hang out with Dylan? Or that the King said he wouldn’t mind hanging with Bob?

I wonder what Joan Baez is thinking?

A view of the laureate

If I’d known he’d one day be the children’s laureate, I’d never have addressed Chris Riddell as deluded the first time I emailed him. But I didn’t know, and I did.

Although, he started it, by contacting me and wondering if he might be deluded. I suppose he didn’t have the slightest inkling about any laureateships either.

Now, however, I always feel I must be on my best behaviour around Chris, and that’s a thought I have until I see him, and realise – yet again – what a nice and normal person he is. Not deluded, and just the right amount of stately to carry off the fancy title.

Anyway, enough with the musings about whether one has to be extra polite or not. Here is the interview, and it only took me a month to get it ready. (Never travel or have the builders in when you have a laureate interview to transcribe.)

Chris Riddell with questions box

Reckless 1 – The Petrified Flesh

When asked whether they rewrite their novels, authors generally say no. They might no longer like what they once wrote, but a book stays the way it is. With Reckless, the first book, Cornelia Funke has rewritten a lot, according to her. Something on every page. And it’s true, if she really felt that she hadn’t done the best she could for various characters, especially as viewed from the sequel, that could be reason enough to ‘tamper’ with the previous one.

So, this is a review of the second version of Reckless, The Petrified Flesh. I like it. I might, of course, have liked the older version too.

Cornelia Funke, Reckless 1 - The Petrified Flesh

Jacob has found a way through to another world; the world of fairy tales, but not a cutesy one. In fact, it’s really pretty tough and gruesome a lot of the time, with dangerous plants and strange animals and even stranger ‘people.’ He’s happy there, until his younger brother Will follows him through and gets cursed and is about to turn into stone.

He has to help him and he has to try and stop this if at all possible. We meet many of the people Jacob has got to know over the years, and some new ones, and all are pretty difficult. But as with all magic, some things are harder, but you can also do some quite handy stuff with it.

Will’s girlfriend Clara wants to help save him, and Jacob’s, well, girlfriend, Fox who is a shapeshifter, is forced to look on as Jacob puts himself in danger yet again. It’s exciting, and excrutiatingly tiring, reading about what they have to do in this odd world. It’s enough to cure you of any fairy tale hankerings you may suffer from.

Reading at this stage, where you know there is both a sequel and a soon to be published third instalment, you know that if things can be sorted out it can only be temporary. Besides, in fairy tales there is so much more that needs to happen. Because it can. Because you want it to.

The Night the Stars Went Out

I’ve been waiting months to tell you about this picture book! The Night the Stars Went Out is just so beautiful and has such a heart warming message at its core, that you have to love it.

Suz Hughes, The Night the Stars Went Out

Suz Hughes has been published before, but this is her first picture book as both author and illustrator. The story is about Alien who looks after the stars, and that is a huge job. And then one night all the stars go out. It is pitch black and Alien doesn’t know what to do.

Luckily he has the Star Helpline, and they point him in the direction of Earth, and off he goes.

You can learn a lot from unexpected trips and the people you meet. And that’s what Alien finds, too. Cooperation and friendship are both very important. Feeling happy. Remember this, and long may your stars shine.

(I never believed in those cleaning products anyway.)

Saga’s saga

Never underestimate the entertainment value of history, and especially not the history all around you, where you live. I hinted earlier at having read the manuscript of a children’s book, written by a friend. That sort of thing can be quite awkward, as they could turn out to have written something really appalling. But I felt safe with Ingrid (Magnusson Rading) because not only is she both interesting and intelligent, but she had already written a gorgeous coffee table book about our shared summer paradise. So I knew she could write.

And unlike the young witch who used to imagine herself writing a Famous Five type book set in Haverdal, because there were so many intriguing settings all over the place, where villains could roam and all that, Ingrid not only stopped dreaming and set to work, but she chose a much superior format; a quiet fantasy adventure set in today’s Haverdal with time travelling to the past, using much of the research she did for her other book.

Jättastuans hemlighet – as it is currently called – is about a girl called Saga, who just might be Ingrid’s as yet unborn granddaughter. Saga’s gran bears a suspicious resemblance to someone I know, as does her grandfather and the cottage where she’s come to stay for a week. Jättastuan is a sort of cave near the beach, and Saga’s gran shares a secret with her on that first day.


And before you know it, Saga has been transported to the 17th century, where life was pretty hard. Instead of your normal time travel, Saga actually becomes Ellika, a girl who lived back then, and we see the family’s struggle to survive bad winters and failing crops. Learning about history like this brings it to life and makes it relevant in a way that pure facts never do.

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with some hilarious descriptions of life today, as observed by someone from five hundred years ago. And when the reader has loved, and suffered with, Ellika’s family, we meet some much more recent historical characters from about a hundred years ago, set in and around the quarry that covers much of the area. So that’s more people to love and identify with, and more facts that come alive.

I think any middle grade reader would love this book. I’d have liked it when I was ten. I certainly enjoyed it now. And I wouldn’t mind more of the same (I believe Ingrid has ideas for another period or two from the past). If children still learn about their local area for history at school, Jättastuans hemlighet [The Secret of Jättastuan] would be a fantastic resource for teachers. And what could be better, education and fun all in one go?

Very local children would also enjoy knowing exactly where Saga goes, as I did. It’s an added bonus, but not essential. But as has been said recently, we like to find ourselves in books, and this will firmly place Haverdal children in literature.

The graphic Northern Lights

I must admit I didn’t expect to be enthralled by Northern Lights, The Graphic Novel, volume two (what happened to volume one?), by Philip Pullman. Also by Stéphane Melchior and Clément Oubrerie, who have adapted and illustrated, respectively. And finally Philip Pullman again, and Annie Eaton, who have translated it back from the French.

I did like it. Happily I know the story well, so starting on volume two was no disaster. The graphics are great, especially scenery such as the north where Lyra meets Iorek, and the hauntingly beautiful but scary setting of Bolvangar. It is quite illuminating being able to see the characters with their daemons. It sort of brings home the closeness in a way the book didn’t, nor the film.

Northern Lights, the graphic novel, volume two

Otherwise it is rather like a film adaptation of a book in that the book is so long and you have to cut and edit to make sense in a smaller format. To some extent it suffers, as all such adaptations do, but it also gains something, and I guess that a graphic novel like this will make His Dark Materials more accessible to less confident readers. As in films, I was surprised by how the characters look, as this is different from how they are in my mind.

But yes, here we meet Lyra and the others as they arrive in Trollesund, and we stay with them until they fly off in Lee Scoresby’s balloon. The harrowing scene showing poor little Tim with his fish replacement for his lost daemon is still as upsetting. Lyra’s spirits are there for all to see, and we are more aware of how angry and scary Iorek was when Lyra first encountered him.

Knowing little about the background to this graphic novel, I assume Stéphane and Clément are fans, like so many others, and that this is why they have begun such a mammoth task. That’s the kind of spirit I approve of!