Enough research? The right research?

Complaining is such a satisfying thing to do. Sometimes, anyway. I caught the tail end of something Lucy Coats said on Facebook, and which I feel entitled to mention here as she tweeted it at TES, making it public. Lucy was dissatisfied with their list of recommended books for children.

Keeping in mind my own moan a few months ago, on a similar topic, I read all the comments, feeling quite enraged. Then I read what school librarian and children’s author Dawn Finch said about it on her blog, including her own list of suitable books. Many great books, and I couldn’t agree more.

Finally (yes I know, I should have started there) I had a look at the offending list the TES had put together. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared, especially considering the list had been compiled by asking teachers. I suppose the TES could hardly go around asking accountants for their recommendations, so the question I have is why ask teachers?

Why not the school librarians, while they are still not totally extinct? Is it that teachers are supposed to know more? Or was it to see how little they are aware of books?

The thing is, as I’ve said on other occasions, by asking fewer experts and more people in general, you end up with the same general lists, because that’s the kind of knowledge we have on things we don’t specialise in.

As I said, the list was nowhere near as bad as it might have been. But if the purpose of the listmaking was to guide adults guide children, then they should have asked the librarians.

One of the first things I was involved with at Offspring’s secondary school library, was the voting for favourite books. Admittedly it was probably mostly the keen readers who responded. But it was illuminating for me, who thought I knew it all. Among boys, the two books that stood out were the Guinness Book of Records, and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called ‘It’ and both surprised me. Had it not been for the school library, I’d have assumed the winner would be one of the well known novels for children. If not Harry Potter, then one of the others that we adults ‘have all heard of.’

The Smile

Don’t you just hate babies? I mean, younger siblings. They get all the attention and they are allowed to make noise and keep you awake all night.

Michelle Magorian’s The Smile (a Little Gem) with lovely pictures by Sam Usher is about a young boy called Josh. He has a new baby brother called Charlie, and as if it’s not enough to have your mum stolen away by this noisy newcomer, he’s also had to move house, and his new room has pink and yellow wallpaper which is so bright you need sunglasses to cope.

And here is poor Josh, all alone in his floral jail, while Charlie has the attention of both parents and gets to sleep in their room. His mum even seemed to like the idea that Charlie was going to be with them for years and years.

But being a mum she knows what to do. She cunningly makes sure Josh is in a position where he has to get to know this little pest better.

Or maybe she really did need a shower.

This is a sweet new-baby-rivalry story for the slightly older than the traditional picture book reader.

Q&A with Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky allowed herself to be pinned down by a mix of my usual profile questions and some more bespoke Sara-questions. When it comes to certain things in life, if in doubt, I tend to ask myself what Sara would think about it.

Sara Paretsky

The first time we spoke was seven years ago, and you were – I think – cautiously optimistic about Obama as your next President. ‘Things will be better, but it will not be fabulous.’ How do you feel now, looking ahead to 2016?

I think I was right about Obama – things are better, but not fabulous. Looking ahead to 2016, though, I‘m terrified.

You also talked about women crime writers, getting fewer hardback books published, leading to fewer reviews, and I assume, smaller sales and less income. Is it still as bad?

I think almost everyone is having a rough ride in today’s publishing world and we’re all trying to sort out how we find readers and what medium we want to publish in. As President of Mystery Writers of America, I’m learning that the writers most seriously affected by contracts in the industry are writers of colour. I’ve written about this in detail in an essay for the US trade publication Book List and the essay is on my website.

Do you ever think about retiring from writing about V I? (Please tell me you’re not. Except I can understand if you do.) Does it ever feel as if you’ve got a tiger by the tail and can’t let go?

I can’t imagine retiring from V I although I know there will be other books in other voices I will want to write. It’s not having the tiger by the tail – V I is an intimate part of my creative mind.

Is there anything you would never write about?

I shall never give graphic descriptions of serial killers’ work, or rape or dismemberment.

What’s the most unexpected thing that has happened to you through your writing?

I haven’t expected anything that is happening to me! It is often a slow, but amazing journey.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I make the best cappuccinos on the south side of Chicago – and I am a very still sleeper as I don’t toss and turn at night!

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Dag Hammarskjöld.

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

I stack books around my bed – like a wall – as I read them. Everyone now and then I’ll shelve them. I read three or four at a time and if I wake up in the night, I just reach out for one.

Please tell us about your new dog.

Chiara has two speeds – zero and 120 mph. In the home she mostly sleeps and outside she is in motion all the time … and she is a love bug.

Do you still love the Chicago Cubs?

It’s no longer the passionate relationship – it’s more the quiet contentment of long-standing love.

OK, moving on to the important stuff; what do you reckon really happened at the end of this season of NCIS? What would you prefer to have happened?

I was horrified when Gibbs was shot and that should never have happened. However, too many of the dead major players have been either female, black or gay… so from a PC standpoint it was good to have a straight, white, male take a few knocks!

And could you write an episode of NCIS?

Curiously, although I love the show, I never imagine myself into it, so I think the answer must be no …

I had to go and watch that ending again. I think we can resurrect Gibbs, even with a different scriptwriter than Sara Paretsky. And from one still sleeper to another, I wasn’t in the least surprised by Sara’s choice of Swede. Respect.

The memorial service

They didn’t go in for children’s books so much in the 1930s and 40s. That will be why the Grandmother, when she learned to read all those years ago, read Dickens and Scott for fun by the age of eight. And that’s why Daughter did a reading of the end of The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott at her Grandmother’s memorial service on Wednesday.

It was quite a nice service, if I do say so myself. We persuaded Son to be our MC, and he introduced the Resident IT Consultant’s eulogy, which was fairly amusing in places. The Grandmother had once been too young to sign the Official Secrets Act (while having cause to do so). And she used a cardboard box for the Resident IT Consultant to sleep in.

Odd sleeping habits must have run in the family, as her sister reminisced about the three or four years the two of them slept in the understairs cupboard, like some early Harry Potters.

At the crematorium before the memorial Son had the pleasure of hearing ‘Paul Temple’ reading William Penn, and this piece was repeated by Daughter in the next session.

We’re not exactly in the habit of organising this kind of thing, but we knew what we wanted. It was the knowing where to get hold of the right people that was hard. (Many thanks to the Scottish children’s author who didn’t object to questions about suitable musicians.)

In the end we were lucky, as Paul Temple introduced us to a 16-year-old local girl who played Schubert and Stradella on the cello, before charming everyone by singing Mononoke Hime – in Japanese – a cappella. Even an old witch can shed a tear over such perfection.

Initially we’d asked a local church if we could use it as our venue, but we were found too God-less, which meant that we actually ended up somewhere quite perfect in its place. Cowane’s Hospital was just right; the right size, nice and old, beautiful acoustics, situated next to the castle, and generally feeling like our kind of place.

Stirling Highland Hotel

Afterwards we wandered downhill a little – literally – for afternoon tea at the Stirling Highland Hotel, where I normally go to hear about gruesome murders during Bloody Scotland. It couldn’t have been nicer. And no funeral tea is complete without a quick trip upstairs to the Old High School Telescope. The Resident IT Consultant helped paint it, decades ago.

I’ve got it covered #2

Kodnamn Verity. You can tell what book it is, can’t you? My second favourite book ever, Code Name Verity. In Swedish. It’s – not surprisingly – very good in translation (by Carina Jansson) as well. I could easily have slipped and spent all night reading it again.

Just like my friend Pippi did recently. When she visited earlier this year, she asked what she should read. Because she was in Stirling, and in Scotland, and because I used to live in Stockport, where she had also visited, I suggested Code Name Verity. Not necessarily believing she’d obey or remember. But it seems she did.

Pippi emailed me to say she’d been kept awake reading until half past two. That’s the sort of thing I like to hear.

Elizabeth Wein, Kodnamn Verity

I thought Elizabeth Wein might like to hear it too, so I made sure she did. Because I leave no one in peace. What’s more, Elizabeth sent me a copy of Kodnamn Verity, so that I can enjoy this marvellous book in more than one language.

The cover is great. I’d seen it online before, but it’s actually much nicer in the flesh. The whole book has a nice feel to it. When I’ve finished stroking it, I might put it away. Or I could always have an accident and…

In my taxi

You hear taxi drivers boasting about who’s been in their taxi.

And in my former post office job a long time ago I would ponder if I’d had any famous people in my queue. I did, a couple. A major Swedish actor and singer and celebrity in general, who none of you will have heard of. Also a local singer songwriter who none of you will have heard of. One of them knew exactly what he was doing, while the other one hadn’t got a clue and shouldn’t have been there at all.

But in my taxi, I mean, in my queue on Bookwitch; who have I had?

Who haven’t I had? So many lovely and more or less famous people in the book trade have popped in, either once, or regularly. I imagine even the Queen reads Bookwitch, but she never leaves comments, so this is hard to prove.

Two lovely ladies who are no longer with us, are Siobhan Dowd and Dina Rabinovitch. I’m very pleased they made it on here.

I was surprised to find Sharon Creech on the premises, as it were, but then again, why not? Edwina Currie. I definitely didn’t see her coming.

In a way it wasn’t surprising that Jacqueline Wilson popped by to comment. It’s just that you need to have an email address to do it, and she didn’t (then) do email, which means a bit more effort had to go into the commenting. It was kind of her.

I feel that you are in very good company when you visit Bookwitch. You just don’t know who you might have a conversation with.

Brush Back

You have to admire the ageing gymnastics Sara Paretsky does to keep some of her characters younger than they possibly can be, while others move a little faster through life, and letting V I Warshawski’s darling dogs stay as they are.

Sara Paretsky, Brush Back

Brush Back is the story Sara wrote because she wanted to place a crime under Wrigley Field, and in the end she had to hurry as they started a major overhaul of the Cubs’ home ground. She also had to make things up, as they never replied to her emails asking to come and have a look around.

Just as well, since this way Sara could do what she liked, and what she likes is always tough on V I, but eventually ends OK for most of them. I could see two people as being in the danger zone – apart from V I herself, of course – and knew one of them would ultimately be OK, but worried that the other one wouldn’t be.

V I’s dead cousin Boom-Boom is back, so to speak. A childhood friend of his – and V I’s some time boyfriend – Frank comes asking for help when his mother is released from jail for having killed her daughter thirty years earlier. It’s not totally obvious to V I what Frank wants her to do, but being V I she starts digging anyway, and soon unearths lots of shady dealings and people who suddenly want to harm her.

She has a new young and spirited protegé from Canada living with her, which is good for Mr Contreras. V I upsets old boyfriend Conrad Rawlings again, although I’d say he’s mellowing a little. Plenty of baseball, icehockey and lawbreaking – and not all of it by V I – feature in Brush Back. Plus a small cameo by NCIS. (Keep them coming!)

It’s good to be back in Chicago, and it’s good to be back with old friends. Sara knows how to grab her readers.