Tag Archives: Sophie McKenzie

Breaking the boundary

Linda Strachan ‘brought’ her arsonist and Sophie McKenzie a terrorist, and that’s just their most recent YA books. But I think that just goes to prove that younger readers don’t want fluffy bunnies more than the rest of us do.

Bloody Scotland

They were talking with Claire Squires from the University of Stirling, and one thing she wanted to know was if they consider themselves crime writers. I think in a way they don’t, even though they write about crimes, and Linda at least always has a policeman in there, somewhere.

I was glad Linda got an opportunity to explain her recent arsonist novel, Don’t Judge Me. I’d been worried it could be read as a recipe for ‘how to’ but she had actually checked with the fire brigade when she wrote it and they felt it was fine. (It’s probably like sex. Just because you put it in a book, doesn’t mean everyone will immediately go out and copy the behaviour of characters in a book.)

Split Second, which is Sophie’s brand new book, is about a terrorist, and begins with a bomb going off in a crowded place. A bomb planted by the brother of the main character. So that sounds more than exciting.

Her reasoning is to show consequences (the importance of showing, not telling), because we have all been at the stage where we think ‘oh, why did I do that?’

Both ladies read from their books, and I think anyone who hadn’t already, would want to grab a copy for themselves.

Linda Strachan and Sophie McKenzie

There are no taboo subjects. It’s what you do with them. Adults should remember their own teen years, and both Linda and Sophie do. They feel that the gatekeepers of young fiction believe – erroneously – that ‘if we tell teenagers that sex exists, they’ll want to go off and have it.’

Sophie goes no further than kisses, and does not want to put off boy readers by doing relationships in too much depth. They want them, but not too much. As for swearing, sticking to what you are allowed to say in front of your teacher seems a useful guideline.

While we are at school, both authors had only praise for school librarians, who do more than stamp dates in books or ban certain books from their libraries. They are the ones who know what book to offer each reader, and that’s how children and teens learn about what they might like. Librarians are to be appreciated.

Asked whether they’d be happy to hide their sex on book covers by going for initials, both seemed to think not. Linda has knives and stuff on her covers, which is cool enough. Sophie would rather not think she has ended up back in the 18th century, and won’t hide her ‘fluffy, feminine’ name for any reason.

This was a great start for Bloody Scotland.

A Bloody Scotland Saturday

Stirling Highland Hotel

Through the archway we went, studiously trying to remove ‘I wanna be like youuuu’ from rotating forever in our minds. My driver had a childish fondness for the archway at the Stirling Highland Hotel (one of the venues for Bloody Scotland), so was very pleased she could take me there. She unwisely confided in me that she had had the song from the Jungle Book running through her head all morning. That sort of thing is contagious, it is.

Stirling Highland Hotel

Anyway, I got my tickets, handed a few back as the good little witch I am, was given another by the kind Lisa, had a pre-event sandwich on a bench in the sunshine, watched authors coming and going, and couldn’t help noticing the twins we tend to see at every Scottish book event.

Stirling Highland Hotel

Went to hear Linda Strachan and Sophie McKenzie talk about ‘Breaking the Boundary,’ which was pretty good. Sex, arson, that kind of thing. (More of that later.) Briefly said hello while they were signing books afterwards, and then I had to run, due to this extra ticket which changed my whole afternoon.

Linda Strachan and Sophie McKenzie

It's all downhill

I hobbled downhill. With some difficulty, but you ‘always get down,’ don’t you? One way or another. Did I ever mention how steep it is around Stirling Castle? Made an assumption that Arne Dahl would still be signing at the Albert Halls after his event (which I missed), and I was right and he was, so I took more photos.

Arne Dahl

Left to go hunt for a salad or something in M&S, which I then ate sitting outside in the sunshine on another bench. Very nice. Went inside for some tea. Went outside again. Yes, I yo-yoed in that lift, up and down, up and down. It was so warm in the sun that my knees, which wore black jeans, almost self-ignited. Such a relief that the forecast for Sunday is rain and winds; ‘it was a dark and stormy Sunday…’

The Albert Halls

Went back in to buy a book. Yes, actually to buy a book. They didn’t have it. Got another instead. Chatted to Colin Bateman who’d just arrived, and apologised for not buying his first book, which they didn’t have. We worried a bit about his lost event partner, Eoin Colfer.

Then I spied Arne Dahl again, and went over to introduce myself. As you do. (We had already facebooked a little, so I wasn’t totally out of the blue.) ‘Do you fancy..?’ he said. ‘Yes, I do fancy. But I no longer have time for anything,’ I replied. So that was that. Nice while it lasted.

Colin Bateman

By then it was time for Good Craic (which I will never be able to pronounce properly!) with Colin and Eoin’s replacement James Oswald, which was great fun. (More of which later.) At the signing after the event I asked Colin if he had more of those books that came from under the table. He did. And then he did that very nice thing and said I could have a copy for free for being such a lovely witch. (Actually, that’s not how he described me, but it was very kind of him. Jolly good thing he writes crime and not romances.) Colin had read from his Dublin Express, so I knew I wanted to read it. James did some of his signing standing up, which looked polite, but uncomfortable.

James Oswald

Val McDermid

I swigged some water and then it was time for Craig Robertson to keep Val McDermid and Stuart MacBride in order in The Great, the Good and the Gory. It was most enjoyable, but not in the slightest orderly. (You know the drill by now; more about this later.) Caught them at their signing afterwards, before I elbowed my way into the room for one final Saturday sitting; the Jo Nesbø event.

Stuart MacBride

Daring to Thrill, where Jo chatted to Peter Guttridge, was planned to be the highlight of the day, and they even used the balcony for people to sit to fit them all in. After which I had a family dinner to go to, because the Hungarian Accountant was in town, so I never got the opportunity to see if I could have sneaked in to hear who won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year at the fancy dinner they had. I couldn’t quite fork out £40 to eat with these lovely, but murderous, people, but would not have been averse to the odd bit of sneaking.

Peter Guttridge and Jo Nesbø

And as I’ve said, there will be more details of the day as soon as I have recovered. See you later!

Bateman, Dublin Express

The Cathy Hopkins interview

I’m really not sure why I waited three years to nail Cathy Hopkins down. When I set up this blogging industry, Cathy was one of my top choices for an interview. Could be it’s like you never go to the art gallery in your home town, while visiting every gallery you come to on your travels.

But with Cathy’s new series just starting, and her doing several events near me, I felt it was time to strike the hot iron. Luckily Cathy thought so too, so we met up on the borders of Wilmslow and Alderley Edge. Cathy looked like she belonged there, whereas I’m fairly sure I didn’t. Football is not my thing.

We talked about Sophie McKenzie while I fiddled with the recording equipment, because she was also around somewhere that day. Cathy was having dinner with Sophie later. As we were talking, the photographer discovered a fancy car coming through those gates we had had such trouble negotiating. ‘Oh I got brought in one of those. Felt like a real celebrity,’ Cathy said, laughing.

It’s not every author that invites me to see their bedroom afterwards…

Dare I recommend a book?

Well. Do I?

Some discussion broke out the other day after my review of Losing It. I was halfway to sending an email to a young reader of my acquaintance, suggesting he/she read Losing It, when I came to my senses and thought I might have to ask permission from the parents first. And my next thought was that they’d think ‘there goes that tiresome woman again’. So I didn’t.

Steve Augarde left comments saying he thought recommendations were fine, but even he felt he’d prefer it to come to him rather than directly at any child of his. I brought the subject up with some visitors to our house yesterday. They also felt recommendations were OK, but they too would like any ‘sexy’ recommendation to come via them.

So we’re back to my old complaint about school libraries where they are afraid of parents turning to the press if any child comes home with a dubious book.

I could position myself in a bookshop near the shelf that hopefully houses Losing It and point it out to prospective readers. How long until they kick me out? I know it can work a treat with ‘ordinary topic’ novels, but probably not with sex. And as I said the other day, there is really very little of it in Losing It.

When I read Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden a few weeks ago, I was struck by how sensitively, but graphically, she wrote about the taboo lovemaking. It made me compare it with William Nicholson’s Rich and Mad, which the press have written about a lot more. Presumably because that lovemaking is OK, where incest isn’t.

I’m doing a lot of remembering all of a sudden, wondering why old people believe that young readers will copy any behaviour they read about in a book. Someone I knew had a son aged fourteen at the time Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now was published, and she felt that if her son was allowed to read HILN, he would automatically assume that sex between young cousins is perfectly all right, and go ahead and do it. Why would he? Reading such a marvellous novel won’t instantly change your intelligent child into someone with no sense at all.

Let’s face it. Do young readers even want old people to recommend books with a potentially sexy content? We’re embarrassing.

And did Son clear reading Doing It by Melvin Burgess with me? He felt a strong need to vet it. You can’t let a mother read just anything, can you?

Losing It

There is a certain irony finding Anne Fine and Melvin Burgess sharing an anthology on the subject of losing your virginity. It shows they have both moved on from their little spat seven years ago. Or it’s simply that Keith Gray who has edited Losing It is good at persuading people to contribute. Keith has chosen well, with all eight authors approaching this topic in their own different way.

I hope I don’t sound like some sex-crazed old woman if I say that I really enjoyed all eight stories tremendously. I’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again; the short story is a very good medium, and we don’t get enough of them.

Losing It

Although losing your virginity sounds as if it’s only about sex, the truth is that there is surprisingly little sex in this collection. So any old people thinking they can’t possibly be responsible for supplying a book of this kind to their young ones should think again.

The reader sees the issue of virginity from the point of view of the ‘traditional’ teenager of today, and there is an ‘older’ person – two, actually – and there is the historical angle as well as the Asian immigrant’s. And then there is the gay experience, which I found very moving and enlightening, and I hope Patrick Ness will write something longer one day, incorporating this side of love and sex. There isn’t just the one gay character, but interestingly the reader can’t be quite sure who is and who isn’t. Much like in real life.

And I loved Jenny Valentine’s story about the embarrassing old relative at Sunday dinner. It had absolutely everything, and so much humour and warmth. I won’t forget Danny in a hurry, nor Finn, the narrator. (I really must read more of Jenny’s books.)

I’m not sure where on the scale of things Losing It belongs. It’s actually quite close to Doing It, with the exception that it’s a collection of shorter stories instead of a full novel. And it’s got Anne Fine’s contribution, which ought to guarantee its proper credentials. Buy it for a young teenager if you have one, or for yourself whether you are fourteen or 73.

Does blood matter?

We’re getting a little ‘Sophie McKenzie-heavy’ over here right now. But I thought I could squeeze in reading her Girl, Missing, while I was about to see her in Preston. So I did. And to my neighbour who found me at my local railway station clutching the book, who said he hoped it was a worthy read, I can say that it was. Though he was suitably impressed to hear I was about to meet the author.

I could have called this blog post Blood Ties, but I seem to recall that I just used that for a post about Sophie’s other book, which bears that title. Girl, Missing is also a romantic thriller, which deals with family ties and what’s important.

Many of us don’t realise, or don’t stop to think about, the differences or the similarities between blood relations and ‘other’ people. It’s not so much whether you are related to someone by blood that matters. It’s how you live with them, in the widest sense of the word. One parent only is fine, but so are six, should you be lucky enough to have that many. As long as they love you.

Most of us shudder when we hear about the babies who were switched at birth, and who are switched back. How can anyone face something like that? Some adopted people desperately need to meet their biological family. We all think that the alternative to what we have must be so much better.

Girl, Missing deals with Lauren, who discovers she wasn’t just adopted, but most likely abducted, as a young child. She seeks the truth, and discovers nothing is easy or simple. And you can’t go back.

Witch goes to County Hall

‘What kept you?’ said Daughter when we found each other at Preston’s very grand County Hall on Saturday morning. Well, it was Tabitha Suzuma, who sort of got mislaid for ten or fifteen minutes as we were setting off. I was busy composing a story about a lost author, when Tabitha appeared, and all was well. So, nothing to do with me. I had simply enjoyed breakfast with Adèle Geras and ‘the shortlist’. (Now, that could be the name of a rock group!) I could really get used to chatting to interesting people at breakfast. I missed the Weetabix, but one day without won’t be harmful.

Adèle Geras

We mingled. And Tabitha’s Mum had a go at Adèle with a hairbrush. It was with the best intentions, but the fluff wouldn’t go away. No harm done, as I felt everyone looked stunning, with or without fluff. Post-mingling, we filed into the Council Chamber, which is much more impressive than Chester Crown Court, and the seats were so comfortable. I’ll be a councillor in my next life. I sat on the Labour side and Daughter accidentally turned into a Conservative…

The important people were sitting in front, facing us, and they were eight children from the judging panel.  The award winner Sophie McKenzie and facilitator Adèle and three grown men sat alongside them. Lots of beautiful speeches, especially from the young people, and before long the awaited hanky moment arrived. One charming young man said how Sophie McKenzie was a ‘worthy winner, even if Sarah Wray’s The Trap is better’. How can you beat our future adults telling it as it is?

Lancashire book award judges

The judges have discovered reading, or they have discovered new ways of looking at books and reading, and they all seem to have changed – for the better, I hope – while on the job. Boys have discovered it’s possible to read books with pink covers and survive. Girls similarly found they could read a book featuring an exploding plane, and still enjoy it. One young lady pointed out that as someone who loves books and has lots of opinions on things, this was the perfect task.

Craig Simpson

Joseph Delaney

The schedule did extremely well until Sophie got up to talk about her writing. I suspect it was the live story telling about banana-eating gorillas that did for the time table, but it was fun. There were flowers for Adèle, a large check – in more ways than one – for Sophie, and masses of books for the judges. As an extra bonus local author Joseph Delaney had been called in to hand out even more books. His own, I believe. But at least there was no need for the intricate red and green light system the county councillors have to adhere to. No speech longer than five minutes!

Sophie McKenzie signing

More mingling followed, and then there was the usual book signing and some good photo opportunities. Craig Simpson is still thinking about what he’d like to look like, so we’ll have to get back to that subject. I stuck my nose into the bags the authors had been given. 

Tabitha Suzuma and fan

Sophie McKenzie and the dessert table

After so much fun the lovely Lancastrians could have been forgiven for turfing us all out, but instead there followed the most delicious lunch in the County Mess. It looked fine to me; no mess at all. Lancashire specialities like Bhajias, spring rolls and Pavlovas all tasted great. Words fail me when it comes to the Lancashire Lancashire cheese. I usually love it. This time it was way beyond my wildest dreams. I’ll be back. If you’ll have me.

I can’t go without mentioning Alison and Jean and Jake. Thank you! (I do realise there are more people who should be listed, but I just don’t know everyone’s names. You know who you are, I hope.)

(Photos H Giles)

Lancashire reads

You’ve all heard the joke about the traveller who jumps into a taxi and demands to be taken to his hotel, and is refused. The hotel turns out to be just across the road. I thought my taxi driver looked a little less keen than I’d have expected. It wasn’t quite across the road, but let’s say the meter didn’t have to tick for long. I’ll consult google maps next time I go somewhere, though Haggis-knee was quite happy to be driven.

Sophie McKenzie

First things first, so it was lunch in the company of shortlisted authors and library staff. Before much time had passed, we were given advance notice of one of the young readers, a boy who has taken part in the Lancashire Book Awards. He sounds just like my kind of person. The Lancashire awards people are very nice and friendly. There is literally room at the inn, even for bookwitches.

Craig Simpson and Sarah Wray

Not all the shortlisted authors could come, but here in Preston we’ve got Craig Simpson, who writes about things Norwegian; Sarah Wray, who sounds very Northern Irish – to me – for someone coming from England; this year’s winner, Sophie McKenzie; and Tabitha Suzuma, who’s brought her Mum.

Library tie

They don’t skimp on the festivities up here, so Friday afternoon offered a Q&A session with a hundred and thirty readers from participating schools. The award is sponsored by the University of Central Lancashire, and that’s really good to see. Keep it up! I like a librarian with good taste in ties, and they have one here. (Btw, if anyone finds a dried cherry in the lecture hall; it’s mine, but I don’t need it back. I noticed food was banned, so nibbled on the quiet. Just happened to drop one.)

Tabitha Suzuma

I have discovered an unexpected fondness for Johnny Depp among the authors gathered here. And I think that taking up writing books as an antidote to too much football at home, is a most sensible thing to do. As is considering a career as a reader. But I will have to disagree with Tabitha; I positively crave happy endings, and according to her Mum the book I have read is the happiest of the lot…

Friday evening it was time for a grand dinner. It’s a hard life, but someone has to go to events like these, and I’m glad it was me. How many authors can you fit into the back seat of a small pink car? Two, plus one mother, in this case. Plenty of hilarity over seat belts, with conversation along the lines of ‘I’ll do yours, if you do mine’ and much giggling. Almost a shame the drive was even shorter than my taxi ride.

I think I could just about get used to dining with a live string quartet in the background. Plenty of speeches, from adults (politicians, librarians, that kind of thing) and from children. The young speakers were all astoundingly accomplished, and a hanky wouldn’t have been entirely out of place. I was especially taken with Leesa from my table, who may have been very nervous, but who spoke un-scripted and exceedingly well. The mayor type chap with the fancy necklace seemed to be in agreement with the witch on this.

They are a little wrong about stuff like Lancashire being the centre of the Universe, however. Actually, no, maybe they are right. I’d love to come again, folks. (I know, I know. I was seriously under-dressed, but that can be remedied. I’ll get out the family heirlooms.)

A little disappointed that ‘facilitator’ Adèle Geras never got as far as singing, but that is a pleasure still to come, I hope.

Blood Ties

I’ll make a sexist remark here. Sophie McKenzie’s Blood Ties is the kind of book I’d expect to have been written by a man. Not that women can’t write this sort of thing; but they tend not to. I’ve tried to think of a similar novel written by a female author, but am not getting anywhere. No doubt you will be able to correct me.

It’s very good, and I’m not in the slightest surprised that Sophie keeps winning awards. It’s got almost everything – action and adventure, romance, sci-fi and normal teen life – so my prediction is that Sophie may have to put up with travelling round the country to pick up prizes. Other writers may want to look into having her banned. (Only joking!)

Genetic engineering is the background to the story about Theo and Rachel. They don’t know each other, until they suddenly find themselves in the middle of genetic engineering terrorism. Their lives go from almost normal to seriously strange and full of danger and action.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Theo’s and Rachel’s points of view, so you get to see how they both see the same series of events.

I’m very pleased to find a book with a slightly fat and unpopular heroine, although in true fiction style Rachel improves herself surprisingly fast.

The only thing I found difficult to take in, is why people would be quite so terrifyingly organised against genetic engineering. Some of the attacks are reminiscent of anti-abortion groups, except these people take things a lot further. And I’m not sure why.

Blood Ties is a great, fast paced read, and probably better geared towards girl readers than some other action style fiction, while still being right for boy readers.

Red House Children’s Book Award 2009

Red faces at witch headquarters for still not having got round to reading anything at all by Sophie McKenzie. She seems to be winning almost every award these days, so she’s doing something absolutely right. I have a Sophie fan under my roof, so I know what a keen McKenzie reader is like. We own two books by Sophie, and I will just have to do what every self-respecting fourteen-year-old in the country is already doing: Sophie, you’re coming on holiday with me!

My own fan got started when another of her favourites, Caroline Lawrence, simply sent us a book by Sophie. I remember staring at the book as it popped out of the jiffybag, thinking that I can understand authors sending people their own books, but posting out work by others? That’s friendship, for you.

As all my intelligent regulars will have guessed, Sophie has just won the Red House Children’s Book Award for Blood Ties. I have a special affinity for Red House, having had a past (long ago, though) hosting book parties. They relieved me and my friends of a fair bit of money, but then my local rep was a very lovely sales lady.

Congratulations Sophie!