Book review: GANGSTA GRANNY by David Walliams ★★★★

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(Originally, I was going to have a separate blog to post book reviews, but the idea never really took off. So, from time to time, I’m going to pick a book that I read recently and give it a full five star review here. The books won’t necessarily be new releases because I’m just going to follow my reading habits. Hopefully the reviews will still be of interest. Enjoy!)

Kudos to David Walliams for this fresh, funny book!

Style-wise, it channels a lot of Roald Dahl – but instead of wallowing in nostalgia, the author brings the format bang up to date, name-checking (or spoofing) modern British staples like Strictly Come Dancing, Heat magazine, “nail technicians”, and real life crime books. The result is a delightful blend of old and new: comforting and fresh at the same time.

To give a brief overview of the story, Ben hates having to visit his smelly, cabbage-obsessed Granny. All that changes when he discovers that she used to be an international jewel thief. Fascinated by her stories, he collaborates with her on a plot to pull off the most daring heist of all time.

Although it’s very good, it’s not quite perfect. The pace seems slightly slow at the beginning; there’s a major-seeming subplot about dancing (with lots of comic potential) that ultimately gets rushed out of the way; and while the flatulence humour is a fine example of the form, it won’t appeal to everyone.

However, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this. Without wanting to ruin the surprise, it also has an unexpected (but well-executed) bittersweet depth to it.

All in all, Gangsta Granny is a nice little gem (with spot-on illustrations from veteran Tony Ross) and I expect it to delight children and parents alike.

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Children’s books about witches (part three)

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In the excitement of getting (and blogging about!) our books in Waterstones, I completely forgot that I’d started a roundup of kids’ books about witches. So, nine months late, here’s part three.

First of all, I want to talk about a series that will (I think) be familiar to many Brits of my age – but not necessarily in print form! Simon and the Witch by Margaret Stuart Barry is about an unlikely pair of friends: a sensible schoolboy and a misbehaving witch. Despite her advanced years, the witch is clearly the more immature of the two. For instance, when she’s hospitalised with German measles, she commandeers the trolleys and gets the patients to compete in races.

She’s also an incurable show-off. When she makes the English Channel vanish, she only agrees to make it reappear on the proviso that she will be featured in the evening news. She also gatecrashes a Hallowe’en party with a posse of relatives, so they can introduce the fake witches to real magic.

The series stretched to at least eight books that I know of, including my own favourite, The Witch V.I.P.  In that late entry, the Witch took over Simon’s school, sending all the teachers home and ordering lunch at ten thirty.

Like many of my childhood favourites, Simon and the Witch is very episodic. Because of that, the stories transferred very well to the small screen. In 1985, a chapter was adapted for a BBC anthology series called Up Our Street – and two years later, Simon and the Witch got a series of their own, totalling twenty-five episodes.

I don’t have very clear memories of the TV show – but I do remember having a couple of the paperbacks, and they were very well-thumbed editions indeed! I hope fans of the show checked out the books, because I know that they gave me a lot of pleasure.

The second book I want to talk about is from a later era. The Witch Trade, by Michael Molloy, was published in 2001. It was one of the books I bought when I was rekindling my love of children’s literature. I made my choice based purely on the magical-sounding names in the blurb on the back: Captain Starlight – Benbow the albatross – and Sir Chadwick Street, flamboyant Master of the Light Witches!

The story opens in the seaside town of Speller. The only children there are Abby, who lives with her aunt and uncle, and her friend Spike, who was found abandoned on the beach as a baby. Their adventure starts when they learn that Speller is populated by Sea Witches, and that all the other children were kidnapped by evil Night Witches. Worse, the Night Witches have begun to devise a powerful weapon, which – the heroes fear – could prove decisive in their long-standing rivalry.

Unfortunately, the Illustrious Order of Light Witches aren’t the most dynamic bunch of heroes, as we learn at one of their quarterly meetings.

Excellent. First item on the agenda: financial report.”

The treasurer stood up and said, “Our finances are much the same, Master.” He reached into the pocket of his overcoat and placed a few bank notes and two handfuls of loose change on the table. “At this precise moment we have about seven pounds and twenty-eight pence in our possession.”

The Master leaned forward. “And how do you think the Night Witches are doing?”

“We estimate they had a good three months, Master.”

“How good?”

“I understand they made more than two billion pounds.

The resulting story is a tale of secret caverns, fantastical submarines and Antarctic adventure, with excellent illustrations by David Wyatt throughout. The book was published by The Chicken House, which was founded by the man who signed JK Rowling. Molloy’s work is cut from a lighter kind of cloth than Harry Potter was, and it isn’t as believable – partly, I think, because it’s such an imaginative tour de force that you can feel the author having fun with you – but it’s a funny and colourful example of the genre. If you or your children enjoy it, you’ll be pleased to hear that it spawned two sequels: The Time Witches and The Wild West Witches.

Well, that’s it for my series on witches. I hope you get chance to check some of these titles out!

Folk fiction?

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I had an interesting conversation with a friend today. He was complaining about the use of the word “folk” to describe modern bands like Mumford & Sons or Dry the River.

To him, “folk” meant more than a style or vibe. It meant a body of traditional music that belongs to all of us. He felt that describing modern copyrighted songs as “folk” – even if they evoked the sound of years gone by – cheapened the very concept of it.

I asked him what kind of modern music he would consider folk, and after considering – then dismissing – the idea of only using traditional songs, he came up with something that (on the surface) sounded quite clever: a folk license for music.

Under this scheme, folk enthusiasts would write a new song, and release only the vocal melody and basic chord progression straight into the public domain. At the same time, they would keep the copyright on their own recording and specific arrangement of the song. For instance, if they had a fiddle playing a distinctive melody between verses, you wouldn’t be able to copy it if you were recording your own version.

We’re not lawyers (or composers), so neither of us can really say whether this is a good or even feasible idea. But it did seem like an interesting one. We liked the thought of new songs going viral and joining the communal stock. Surely, such a scene would be an authentic successor to traditional folk? Just as anyone can record a version of Lavender Blue, so too could anyone do a brand new folk song written yesterday.

But what has this got to do with books, you might wonder?

Well, it gave me an idea. Could there be such a thing as folk fiction?

Consider how Dracula and Sherlock Holmes belong to all of us – just as surely as the old folk songs do. Anyone can write a book about either. Those characters, and others such as Frankenstein’s Monster and Tarzan, are no longer intellectual property. They have lapsed from copyright and are now part of our shared mythology.

Perhaps in a hundred years, characters like Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins will be part of that same pantheon. For a while at least, they will be private property – only to be used under license. The passage of time, as much as authorly genius, is required to make a Sherlock Holmes.

Considering how much work goes into a novel, it would be too much to ask writers to release their work directly into the public domain. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Under a folk fiction license, a writer might keep copyright on her novel, but invite others to write stories using the same characters, or set in the same universe (I suppose a good example of folk fiction would be the circle of writers who built on the “Cthulhu Mythos” created by cosmic horror author HP Lovecraft – insofar as they didn’t have to wait for the copyright to expire before they got stuck in).

At the moment, this is just an idea sloshing around in my head, and it will be a while before it comes to fruition. But I’d love for Falcon Berger (in partnership with willing authors) to pioneer new, more flexible forms of licensing. Imagine picking up a fantasy novel, and finding a copyright page that said, “The contents and characters of this book are copyright, but the author invites you to use the same fantasy races and locations in your own writing, either for fun or profit.”

One for me to think about…

Check out the Falcon Berger diary at Diary.com!

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It’s been a slow month for the project, but we’re excited to see that our journal of quotes and images has gone public, courtesy of Diary.com.

Diary.com was originally a web app to track your things-to-do lists, but they’re currently relaunching themselves as a (to be honest more exciting) space to journal thoughts and images.  You can upload your own text and pics (and add Instagram-style vintage filters) or “curate” images that you find and like online.  Your growing diary is then presented like a sort of online scrapbook, with older items flying into view as you scroll down the page.

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The feature to publish and share your journal has only just gone live, but in anticipation of this, I’ve been beavering away in private, updating a diary relating to Falcon Berger books and children’s books in general.  I hope you’ll get chance to visit it and see what I’ve collected.  You can also explore some of the other public diaries right here, and sign up to have your own.

It’s early days for the site – in fact, you might still be able to baggsy your first name as a vanity url – but the developers are currently working on new social features, so members will soon be able to follow each other’s diaries and like individual items.

I enjoy Diary.com and hope it goes the distance.  It’s not often I find a social app that does something new for me, but as far as sharing goes, I think this occupies a nice middle ground between Tweets and full blog posts.  It’s concise, but also very visual. It has elements of microblogging – I’ve collected a lot of quotes that I like – and scrapbooking too.

So, that’s Diary.com.  Have a look!

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Festival!

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What a nice week it’s been! Despite the lousy weather, the UK was in a jubilant mood for the Diamond Jubilee, with Union Flags all over the place. My personal highlight was seeing Madness perform their best known song, “Our House”, on the roof of Buckingham Palace – which (thanks to an extraordinary light show) was transformed from a stately residence into a row of lively animated houses.

Even nicer than the Jubilee, however, was seeing our books in the children’s literature tent at the Wychwood festival, courtesy of our brilliant friends at Waterstones (thanks all). We’re getting pretty good at doing the promotional materials, as you can see from the following pics.

You can see the giant Trumblebuggins cover peeping out in the background, as well as our A5 fliers (I bought A5 paper this time!) and the legendary free Falcon Berger bookmarks.

It’s a bit humbling to see our titles in such illustrious company.

The Waterstones staff brought an enormous polystyrene “W” for all the authors to sign, and I’m delighted to say that the signatures of Harry Ladd and Philip Threadneedle are on there, mere inches from that of literary legend Philip Ardagh. I’m informed that the giant W is to be raffled for a good cause.

Harry also did a reading, which went down very well, and then got the children – who were very imaginative! – brainstorming ideas for a brand new story. Philip was taking notes throughout, and the resulting story – which will feature a two-headed alien (!) causing havoc at school – will be posted online for everyone to enjoy.

Well, that’s all for now. After an exciting week, it’s back to normal tomorrow. Boooo! Here’s hoping the rest of 2012 is as fun.

Waterstones, a week on…

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Seven days ago, Philip Threadneedle and Harry Ladd did their joint signing at a local Waterstones.  This is just a quick blog to let everyone know how it went.

The setting looked fantastic, thanks largely to the staff for making such good use of our promotional materials, and also to the Falcon Berger elves for making said materials.  We had books on display, free bookmarks, children’s activity sheets – which were variously filled in and/or scribbled over – and an overflowing bowl of free sweeties.  We also had a whole family of posters and fliers in the odd-numbered “A” series of paper sizes.  Framed book covers, which were A1; glossy posters on the wall, which were A3; and two piles of A5 fliers.  Tragically, due to a last minute shopping list malfunction, the Falcon Berger elves had to make the A5 paper themselves, by guillotining spare A4 in half.  I like to think the slightly irregular shapes and sizes gave the handouts a homemade “indie” feel (note to self: buy A5 paper).

The Trumblebuggins sold very well (in fact, I think they sold out).  The Astronaut’s Apprentice also did very well, with just a few left in store as signed copies.  It was definitely exciting to see casual browsers stopping to look at our stock, and we got some great responses from the younger customers.  The staff at Waterstones recognised that the event had gone very well, and invited both authors to do a similar “double bill” in the children’s literature tent at a local festival!

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The famous round black sticker!

Not surprisingly, this weekend is shaping up to be a much quieter affair.  I think I’ll just potter around Falcon Berger towers, picking guillotine trimmings off the carpet.  In my next blog post, I hope to return to my neglected series on children’s books about witches.  Until then, have fun!

Our books have hit the local Waterstones!

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For the benefit of overseas readers, Waterstones is the major book vendor on the UK high street, with almost 300 shops across the country.  As of yesterday, one of them is stocking and selling all three of our titles.  Not only that, but instead of burying them on the shelves, they’ve got them out on display.  They’re even hosting Philip Threadneedle and Harry Ladd for a “double header” signing on 12 May.

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Posters!

As a tiny imprint with only three titles, this is a pretty big deal for us.  Admittedly, it’s a single Cotswold branch rather than the whole fleet, but it’s a foot in the door, and hopefully we can persuade other local branches to take us on in future.  Here’s a shot of all three titles in a cardboard book stand:

Three Falcon Berger titles on display in Waterstones

Books!

One day, when we have a few more titles, we would like to “professionalise” our supply chain and market/distribute our books nationally like any other publisher.  Until then, opportunities to partner with individual bookshops are extremely exciting.  Watch this space for more news!

Random nostalgic blog: fizzy chews and the new Friends Reunited

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Now I know what you’re thinking.  What do retro sweets and vintage social networking sites have to do with children’s books?

Well, not a lot.  I haven’t said much about my publishing project lately, because I didn’t want to jinx the particular thing we have in the pipeline (but fingers crossed I’ll be able to announce it soon!).  Having said which – if this is your first visit to the blog, may I take this opportunity to clumsily recommend our books?  They are the The Astronaut’s Apprentice, by Philip Threadneedle, which follows a normal boy on an out-of-this-world adventure; City of Meteors, which continues the story; and a Dahl-esque romp called The Trumblebuggins, by anarchic author Harry Ladd.

Anyway.  Since I’d gone quiet, I thought I might as well blog about something that’s been occupying my mind lately.  I want to talk about nostalgia.  Given my great love of children’s books, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m into nostalgia!

Nostalgia is only sad when something is gone.  I think it’s wonderful when you look up something iconic from your childhood, only to find that it’s still alive and well.  A great example is the Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy, which began in 1974.  Years can elapse between books, but the sixth one came out as recently as 2007, and the characters and illustrations are as delightful as ever. Imagine how pleased I was when I looked up the books as a young adult, fearing they would be out of print, and found some brand new stories to get stuck into.

Another example is how much I enjoyed finding the website for Swizzels Matlow, who made many of the iconic sweets of my childhood.  Any thirty-something British schoolboy will know what I mean.  Refresher Bars and Love Hearts…  chewy Drum Stick lollies and Fruity Pops…  “Double Dip” bags of orange and lemon sherbet, and a fizzy dipping stick to eat them with!

I say “made”, but of course, I was pleased to find the site because it turns out they’re still making them.  I’ve since been to the sweetie aisle in my local supermarket, and had a nostalgic evening chomping my way through a variety bag of their products.  Who says nostalgia ain’t what it used to be?

Now the big news in the world of nostalgia is the relaunch of Friends Reunited. Friends Reunited was a pioneering UK social network, launched long before Facebook with the aim of putting old schoolmates back in touch.  At one point it was wildly successful – in the UK at least – but it was replaced by more famous juggernauts like MySpace, Bebo, and Facebook.

This month, they relaunched it.  Rather than trying to compete with Facebook, they’ve reinvented themselves (in partnership with the British Library and others) as a nostalgia-themed site, with about half a million photos and videos. Users can connect with each other by uploading their own content, as well as “keeping” and commenting on stuff that’s already there.  You can also “follow” other users (I’m not sure it’s called that) and private message them.

I’ll be very interested to see if it takes off.  It’s funny that the internet is old enough for there to be “retro” web brands, but in the UK at least, Friends Reunited is the biggie.  There seems to be a steady stream of people “keeping” things on the new site (175 people have “kept” Anglo Bubbly Gum so far), so hopefully they’ll strike up some conversations and start uploading/connecting around their own content.

Anyway.  Looking at the books we’ve published so far, I think nostalgia – in a healthy, positive sense – connects everyone involved with the Falcon Berger project.  Our current writers are very different, and I’d say that each writes with a modern funny style – but equally, each has a personal timeline of influences stretching deep into the Twentieth Century.  Roald Dahl, The Little Prince, The Beano, Doctors Who and Dolittle, A Voyage to the Moon, and so on.  Philip Threadneedle often talks about his own influences as a “space fantasist” in his blog, Books for Kids.

Well, that’s it for today.  I suppose it ended up being semi-relevant after all! Hope you all enjoy the long weekend (if you’re having one) and get some good downtime with a book.

Children’s books about witches (part two)

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Well, after a whiter-than-white January, what an incredible contrast February has been!

I’m not to going to lie: it’s been disgusting.  I actually had takeaway ten nights on the trot.  Big takeaway, too.  The gentleman who does deliveries for the Imperial Dragon could scarcely disguise his contempt after I summoned him for the fourth time in as many nights, and our relationship has only got worse since then.

Well, March is going to be another January.  Brown rice and chicken breast, and lots of fresh salad.  Mark my words!

Anyway.  It’s a good few weeks since I posted here.  In my last post, I started a series on children’s books about witches, beginning with The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy and Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson.  Tonight, I want to rave about The Chimney Witches by Victoria Whitehead and – pairing an obscure gem with a dearly loved classic – The Witches by Roald Dahl.

The Chimney Witches is the story of Ellen, who discovers that a witch, Weird Hannah, is living in her chimney.  Hannah’s son is a would-be wizard called Rufus, who’s lost his Uncle Whizoon’s magic medallion.  When Ellen offers to help find it, she gets drawn into a world of magic that co-exists with our own.

This book was originally published in the late Eighties, and I remember it was one I read and re-read as a child.  It’s a very magical and vivid book, and it’s a crying shame that it’s now out of print.  If nothing else, as well as being brilliant in its own right, it could have easily found a new audience during the height of Pottermania.  The most memorable part of the book is a witty sequence set in the Land of Nightmares, which I would definitely shortlist for my all time top five.  I see second-hand copies of The Chimney Witches sell online from time to time, and really recommend you grab a copy and give it a read.

Now, Roald Dahl’s The Witches doesn’t really need much of an introduction, but I think we can sometimes forget what a great book it is.  We’re probably all familiar with the plot, but I just want to quickly highlight what I love about it.

Firstly, the witches are everywhere, but you can spot them.  Stepping aside from witches for a second, I think children love vampires because you can guard against them with lore.  Garlic – the sign of the cross – sunlight – a stake through the heart.  It’s a heady mix.  We’re both terrified and fascinated.  Equally, in Roald Dahl’s hands, the witches have the same appeal.  It’s not just morbid fascination.  You’re swotting up in the name of self-preservation.  The chapters where we learn about the witches are among the most compelling in all of children’s literature.

Oh if only there were a way of telling for sure whether a woman was a witch or not, then we could round them all up and put them in the meat-grinder. Unhappily, there is no such way. But there ARE a number of little signals you can look out for, little quirky habits that all witches have in common, and if you know about these, if you remember them always, then you might just possibly manage to escape from being squelched before you are very much older.

What child could read a para like that, and not sit up to pay attention?

Secondly, having set such a grim tone, the author doesn’t chicken out at the last minute.  The Witches is doubly delightful for being so bittersweet.  The poor hero (although he puts a brave face on it) pays dearly for outwitting the witches, and has to spend the rest of his short life in the body of a mouse.

Love it.

Well, that’s it for today’s post.  I haven’t decided what to cover next time, but I’ll update this post as soon as I do!

New year’s resolutions – plus, some children’s books about witches (part one)

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Before I get onto the witches, I just want to say that life is good.  Very good.

A chunk of my New Year’s resolutions were to do with health and fitness.  Not being a glutton for punishment, I resolved only to do them for one super-healthy month.  The plan was to trim off a bit of festive flab.  I’m not interested in getting a whole new lifestyle.

Well I kept my promise – and tomorrow it ends!  People keep asking whether I feel better, what with cutting out the beer and all the cardio I’ve been doing.  The answer is no.  I’ve been miserable.  January 2012 has been about post-Christmas penance.  I have no long term plans to become a better person.  I am a man whose dearest pastimes include not doing cardio.

Tomorrow at midnight, I will open a single can of beer – my first drink of 2012 – and toast a very meaningless success, whereby I managed to do exactly what I set out to do without learning anything.  And then it’s back to business as usual.

Anyway – you didn’t come here to read about New Year’s resolutions.  You came to read about witches.

For the less-than-princely sum of 20p, I managed to pick up a book I’d never read by an author I admire: Not Just a Witch by Eva Ibbotson.  Ibbotson is sadly no longer with us, but she was an exceptional fantasist.  Her most famous novel was probably The Secret of Platform 13, which used a train station in the same way that Harry Potter did three years later.  Ibbotson wasn’t remotely bothered by the similarity and said she’d like to shake J.K. Rowling by the hand.

I can’t wait to get stuck into my purchase, but until then – as a sort of amuse-bouche to the main course – I want to start a round-up of the best children’s novels about witches.   I want to cover each one properly, so instead of trying to do them all in one go, I’m going to spread six titles over three blog posts.

Also, I’ve been quite strict about what constitutes a book about witches.  I’m sure Hermione Granger is a witch, but to keep the list as focussed as possible, I’ve only included books that actually have the word “witch” in the title.

Anyway.  Here’s part one.

My first pick is The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy.  This charming but sparse series – sparse in the sense of just six books between 1974 and 2007 – is a sort of proto-Harry Potter, albeit with the genders reversed.  Mildred Hubble, the “worst witch” of the title, attends a school for witches, where she is aided by her two goofy friends.  Her lessons include potions and flying.  There is one very strict teacher, an obnoxious classmate from a more privileged background, and a kindly headmistress.  Can you see what I mean by “proto-Harry Potter”?

The series is aimed at younger readers, so it doesn’t have the same kind of grand mythology as a Goblet of Fire.  Mixed in with the text, each book has fantastic illustrations by the author herself (I think my first crush actually might have been on Mildred Hubble).  The series has spawned one or two spin-offs, including a TV movie with a young Fairuza Baulk as Mildred.

The books are truly wonderful.  Younger readers will love the Cackle Academy for Witches, even if they aren’t quite ready for Hogwarts.  It’s basically the same kind of setting, but without all the dense myth and cinematic crescendos (I’m not calling out Harry Potter, by the way – I’m a huge fan – but it’s like the difference between a delicious gloopy stew and a light tasty salad).

So, that’s The Worst Witch.

My second and very different pick is Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson.  It’s the tale of a dark wizard – the deliciously-named Arriman the Awful – who needs to pick a wife.  Rather than getting on JDate like the rest of us, he offers himself as a competition prize.  The witch who can perform the most horrible spell will get to be his wife.

Predictably, most of the witches are revolting.  The only exception is the white witch Belladonna, who is disadvantaged by the fact that she can’t actually do any black magic.  Aided by an orphan called Terrence, she is pitted against the vile Olympia, whose signature spell is a terrifying performance known as the Symphony of Death.

This is a really witty and lovable book.  The ghastliness of the other witches, the sheer absurdity of the competition, and the very unconventional plot make it a delight to read and re-read.  It’s a shame that we won’t get any more gems out of Eva Ibbotson, but she’s at least left some really brilliant books for her legacy.

That’s all for today’s blog post.  In my next one, I’ll cover The Witches by Roald Dahl and The Chimney Witches by Victoria Whitehead.