Tag Archives: Anthony McGowan

A piccalilli pair of days

Sometimes I just need to go back in time.

My 2015 piccalilli trip to London, as I think of it, was full of serendipities. It began when Liz Kessler wrote to ask if I could make it to her London book launch. And I felt I could; having determined that something special was all I required to invest in train tickets. I’d obviously need to stay two nights, before and after, to make sure I was there for the main event.

And then I started looking to see what else might be on.

The Society of Authors had an event on the evening I arrived in London. It was ‘only’ Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively chatting to Daniel Hahn at Waterstones Piccadilly, but I was happy enough with that. 😉

Son bought me a ticket for the event, which I wasn’t supposed to use. So I bought another. When Anne Rooney realised she wanted to go but was too late to buy a ticket, wasn’t it handy that I just happened to have a Society of Authors member ticket? Yes it was. And her predictive texting gave me the piccalilli.

It was Celia Rees who had told me about the event, so she was around too. And then there was the sighting of Judith Kerr one row in front of mine. That wasn’t a half bad evening.

For the next morning I’d agreed to have coffee with Marnie Riches, who just happened to be in town, before leaving again. From there I almost had to run to get to my next meeting, having booked an interview with Anthony McGowan, seeing as I had so much time on my hands! Somewhere there must have been a brief opportunity to eat my lunch sandwich. I’ve forgotten. Although I can tell you that the Hampstead pub we met in could use a longer setting for the light in the Ladies. Good thing I have arms to wave.

Tony was also going to Liz’s launch, which is where we went next. And basically everyone was at the launch.

For my second morning I had arranged to do brunch with Candy Gourlay before hopping on a northbound train.

It’s amazing how many authors can be fitted into slightly less than 48 hours. I keep living in hope, but there has yet to be a repeat of this.

Who are the reviews for?

I realised I don’t actually know. It had always seemed that it was sort of obvious, but one day as I finished the Guardian Review, sighing over how few – or none – there were of children’s books, my mind turned to adult books. Because there were a ‘good’ number of them being reviewed.

But why would I read them? And what reason do other, proper adults, have for reading the reviews?

If I read a review of a book I most likely will not even consider getting or reading, it’s because it still sounds fairly interesting, but mostly because the review reads well.

So, I clearly read the reviews like anything else, which is to be entertained. Possibly informed, but what point is information if I don’t like the way it has been written?

Having got this far I realised that there was perhaps no difference to reviews of children’s books. They are not so much there to tell the reader to buy or borrow the book. It’s to entertain the adult as he or she reads the Guardian Review, or Bookwitch, or anything else like that. If so, it almost doesn’t matter how many, or which, books are reviewed.

Why do I review? Well, I like reading. And when I’ve read, and liked, I want to share my thoughts. That sharing is mostly done in the hope that the reader will enjoy it, and maybe take things further and buy or borrow the book. No, no maybe about it. That really excellent book I’ve just told you about; you simply must read it. And tell others.

Take the London Review of Books. To the best of my knowledge I’ve never read it. But my vivid imagination of it makes it into a magazine full of book reviews. It seems obvious. And then, in an article about its recently departed editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, someone wrote that Margaret Thatcher had been mentioned far more times than certain big literary names. And I thought, ‘why?’

She’s not all that literary, compared to old Shakespeare or new Amis, or any of all those famous writers in between. So first I learned that it’s not all reviews. Fine. But Thatcher makes it more into a political magazine [to my mind], and we have other ones for that.

This sent me back to Bookwitch. How often had I mentioned our former PM? Once. A year ago. And now, twice, counting this piece.

Back again to the Guardian Review, the children’s books bit. Had I been too naïve believing that the reviews are meant to send well-intentioned adults into bookshops to buy one of the recommended books for a little person in their life? Or, for themselves, perhaps, like when I discovered How I Live Now at the age of 48. I was then forced to look around for younger hands into which I could press copies of this marvellous book, so it mostly worked.

And then there is the other kind of review. Years later I still relish the review by Anthony McGowan of, let’s say, some other children’s author’s debut novel. He didn’t keep it in. At all. Not having read more than a page or so of the book in question, I felt he was right [in his opinions], if a bit rude. It was a fun read. But it wouldn’t have been fun had it been my book. I understand that when a year or so after the two of them did an event together, the author was dignified and charming. Anyway, Tony is very kind. He just got carried away. In a national broadsheet.

So this is Christmas

The card.

It’s been a string-light kind of year. And the elk said he’d been ignored for too long. So there is that. The books are a Christmas-Winter combo. Hoping to read some more seasonal murder stories.

And some thoughts. There were three best books last year. One went on to win the Carnegie. I have good taste. One has been shortlisted for the Scottish Teenage Book Prize 2021. And one is here on the pile, to remind you that Sally Gardner’s book is the perfect Christmas read. With a bit of luck it won’t be too late to get your hands on a copy.

Wishing you a Safe Christmas and a Better 2021.

Medals for ‘my’ boys

It’s good to know the witch senses are working just fine. I could simply not see any other outcome regarding the Carnegie Medal than that Anthony McGowan would be awarded it for Lark. It could have happened sooner, but this way we got all four books of the trilogy in.

(And I’m saying this even keeping in mind the competition Tony was up against.)

For the Kate Greenaway medal it was Shaun Tan for his Tales From the Inner City (which I’ve yet to read). One of my most favourite illustrators, and I’m more than satisfied.

This year the proceedings were short and on Radio 4, on Front Row. They interviewed both Tony and Shaun and both read from their books, and explained the background to what they’d written. Tony got so excited he had to be interrupted in the middle of his ‘terrific’ answer…

According to Shaun ‘painting is really a way of exploring anxiety’. Plenty of that around.

Yep, very satisfied with this.

Anthony McGowan, Winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2020 from CILIP CKG Children’s Book Awards on Vimeo.

Genre?

By turning as French as I can – no mean feat for a non-French speaker – I have retrieved the ability to say ‘genre.’ Which is good, because one sometimes has to say it. Out loud, and so others can hear what you’re on about. It was while I interviewed Anthony McGowan about five years ago I discovered that for the life of me I couldn’t say the blasted word.

To get round this handicap, I’ve had to avoid using it, or to spell it.

When I was young, and tremendously foreign, I learned this word. Both what it meant, and how to ‘say it in Swedish.’ It involved saying it really wrong, in a kind of pidgin Swench. I don’t know whether Swedes now know better, or still say it like that.

As to its meaning, well, it stands for sub-categories of fiction, like crime, or romance, or sci-fi. All very nice categories. And useful if you want to specify what something is about. Because that’s what I took it to mean, a useful labelling tool. Not that it might indicate anything less worthy.

But that’s what it’s come to. At least in Britain. Maybe it was always thus. Maybe the term was invented, or adopted into the English language, in order to refer to rubbish fiction, on a completely different level than Literary Fiction.

A couple of months ago the word and its meaning came at me from two totally different directions at the same time. One was a question on a Swedish book newsletter site, where someone was asking ‘What does genre mean?’ Except they did it in Swedish. And I think the question was prompted by the discovery of the more British use of the word.

The other was on social media, where someone reported a programme they’d listened to, which went roughly like this:

(I asked permission to use it.) It’s not an exact quote or anything; more an idea of how people actually think, and are not ashamed to admit to in public. But basically, anything not very good is genre.

It’s very snobbish.

I read practically only genre fiction. By which I mean several genres, like children’s, or crime. It’s really good stuff. Sometimes I read Literary Fiction. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it isn’t and that’s when I remind myself why I prefer children’s books and crime. Although, some really Literary authors have been known to lower themselves to genre-writing. Quite often something seems to go wrong when they do.

Shortlisted, and short in general

The Carnegie Medal shortlist turned up on ‘our doorsteps’ last week. Perhaps it didn’t get as much attention as it usually does, or deserves, due to other things in the news.

It’s a good one, though. And I say that having only read three of the eight; Anthony McGowan, Angie Thomas and Annet Schaap. (Clearly I went for the As.)

What is sad, is that whoever wins the medal, there won’t – in all likelihood – be an awards ceremony. I’ve never been, and regret it. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to know that even though you’re on the shortlist, you won’t be experiencing the celebration of the Carnegie.

On a more general basis, it’s the way it is for those students, who are now not taking GCSEs, A-Levels or a university degree this spring/summer. Students on other levels, will presumably, hopefully, be able to celebrate theirs next year or the year after, with only a longish pause in the studying.

I’m not sure I believe they should try to be a school at home. In my last year of compulsory education, we had a five week hiatus after our teachers were locked out in a strike action scenario. I have a horrible suspicion I was the only one who tried to study at home. And for what? Anything of importance had to be covered by teachers when we returned to school.

Missing your prom, or graduation, or anything else, is disappointing. But so is being dead.

Very good in 2019

To be perfectly frank with you, I’ve not known what to do. So, yes, it’s the 19th today, and it’s 2019 and my task is to give you some idea of the books I liked the best.

I started the list a couple of weeks ago. But there are simply too many books on it. That’s obviously good, as it indicates there were many books to be enjoyed. And I did.

Many of my favourites are Barrington Stoke’s dyslexia friendly books. This is especially great, meaning there are now loads of grownup books short in length, full on story, and easy for anyone to tackle. So I pondered making 2019 a dyslexia year.

But that would leave others, equally worthy. Some of the best books were part of trilogies or series. That doesn’t make them more, or less, good. Less of a surprise, perhaps, if one already knows their siblings. Should I not mention them?

Perhaps just go for the normal standalones?

Or, you know, make it a long 2019 shortlist? Maybe pick 19 books?

I colour-coded really nicely. Got quite confused when some books seemed to be in more than one category. And – I can hear you say ‘get on with it, witch!’ – then I plumped for three. Three that tingled inside. Me, that is. I went for non-series, and as you can see, only one of the three is part of a series, so that counts more or less as a success.

Wein, McGowan, Gardner

Elizabeth Wein, Anthony McGowan and Sally Gardner. Very good in 2019.

Tough Teens

As Daniel Hahn and I agreed afterwards, we had forgotten the event a couple of Augusts ago, which he had chaired and where Anthony McGowan turned himself into the bad voice re YA. But we remembered the night fondly, because last night’s event with Tony and Alex Wheatle was also a really good one.

Tough Teens, it was called. Chaired by Mairi Kidd – who had ‘mothered’ Tony’s fictional boys into being – this was a great conversation. In fact, it’s one of very few where the authors involved got so caught up that they talked to each other, in earnest, about writing, [almost] forgetting the chair and the audience.

Yes, the audience. It wasn’t the biggest I’ve known, but it was Monday night when the schools had just gone back. But it was the right audience. It was nearly all teenagers, mostly boys, with a few token adults like me and Daniel, and Kwame Alexander. This is how it should be.

Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan

So, the talk was right, and the audience was right. The questions were great, and far better for me staying out of things (someone had wanted me to ask the first question…).

And jail, well, it can turn a man into a reader, and then into an author. The young Alex met his ‘mentor’ in a jail cell; someone who told him he’d nothing better to do in there so he might as well read. And now with his personal experience of living in care, Alex has written a book about a girl in care. He had to force his own daughter to tell him what girls talk about, to get it right. He was a bit shocked at what he discovered.

Tony, on the other hand, returned to Sherburn in Elmet outside Leeds, where he grew up, to write about two brothers in the four-book Brock trilogy. It’s a place for boredom, and with a bacon factory. Not as exciting as London.

Alex’s fictional Crongton can be London, but it could also be almost anywhere else. He knows about detentions, and remembering how he wanted to impress a girl he met there, it all went into Kerb Stain Boys. His reading from the book revealed a lot about his made up slang and accents.

When it was Tony’s turn to read, I thought he was trying to get out of it, but a member of the audience lent him her reading glasses, so all was fine. He needs to pace around when he reads, and we all enjoyed the story about swimming across the ‘bacon pond’ in the nude.

Winning awards is nice, and it opens doors. But, they feel shortchanged by the media. Asked if they get fan mail, it seems that teens are too cool to write; it’s mostly younger ones who do. Mental health is a big thing in their books, as is life for young carers.

They recognise their own teen years when they do school visits, but reckon mobile phones have changed how pressured children are today. Tony remembers everything from his teens, but not what he did last week. Alex is the hopeful guy who wants to date the beautiful girl, who already has a more exciting boyfriend.

Anthony McGowan

And on that happy note we all congregated in the bookshop. Well, Tony got there a little late, but he got there. Kwame chatted to Alex and got a book signed. Even I remembered after a bit that I had books that wanted signing. (I’m the one without an ‘e’ at the end, btw.) Tony discussed tonality with a fan, and did his best to sign in Chinese.

Alex Wheatle and Kwame Alexander

As I said earlier, it’s great when authors simply get on with it and talk about writing. It’s also great when their peers come to the event, along with the appropriate age readers.

We want more of this.

A somewhat abridged day in Charlotte Square

The decorator was coming to Bookwitch Towers. So I cancelled my first Monday events. The decorator did not come. My rather shortened day in Edinburgh ended up being just the one event, with Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan. Plus a photocall with the First Minister and Arundhati Roy.

Waiting

You can [almost] see the excitement amongst the assembled photographers as they wait. And wait. And wait a bit more. I’d been about to get out my cheese sandwich when I woke up to the fact that they all seemed to be waiting and I thought Nicola Sturgeon and Arundhati might be early. After ten years I ought to know that there was plenty of time for Brie and bread, as well as trips to the Ladies’. But it’s all good.

Nicola Sturgeon and Arundhati Roy

Although I did cause a major jinx in the process, and I really must learn not to use my powers in this way.

Alex Wheatle

Finally met Alex Wheatle after discovering him in the middle of ‘Yurt Gardens.’ Had already shaken hands with and been air-kissed [twice] by his events partner Tony McGowan. Chatted to Sarah Broadley as her charges were given the Chris Close treatment.

And hopefully Candy Gourlay and Michelle Paver experienced good events even without me in the audience. I’m sure it must be possible.

Towards the end of my event, I could hear loud applause and other happy noises, which I assume came from the Main Theatre where the First Minister and Arundhati would have come to the end of their conversation..

Lark

I, well, by the last page of Lark I needed to remove my glasses. They got spattered by some wet substance, most likely caused by Anthony McGowan’s writing. (I continued blubbing – not all that silently – for some time.)

We’ve reached the last of the four books about Nicky and Kenny; some of the loveliest stories about two disadvantaged Yorkshire boys as you’ll ever read. Yes, I know they are dyslexia-friendly, but that’s not why you read them. They are really very grown-up YA books. Just short. No wasted words.

I was surprised by Brock, keen to continue when Pike was published and very happy to get to Rook. With Lark I didn’t know what to expect, except something exceptional. There was a suggestion that not everyone would be alive at the end.

And now I’m crying again.

Anthony McGowan, Lark

This time Nicky and Kenny go for a walk, hoping to find a lark where their dad suggests they might see one. But they are young, and Nicky is only a boy, charged with looking after his big brother Kenny. It might be spring, but out on the moors the weather gets worse, and rain turns to snow.

There is some youthful carelessness, and it is so easy to see how similar stories you find in the press could have happened in real life. But there is also bravery, and so much love.

Barrington Stoke sent out a packet of tissues with the book, but has anyone got a really large hanky??