Hear, hear

I can barely admit it, but I sent the Resident IT Consultant to the tip with – nearly – all the audio books last week. He was reluctant, and it wasn’t because of the trip to the tip as such. It was the throwing away of books. It made him feel quite ill.

But by the time I put the boxes on the drive next to the car, my mind was made up and I felt fine. I suppose he just hadn’t got that far in his reasoning on whether or not this was an OK move.

This was yet another conundrum caused by the house move over three years ago. We are still clearing stuff, and doing well in the garage at the moment. Thank you for asking. But those boxes had to go.

No one has listened to any audio books for years. We will very soon have nothing on which to play them. Did I mention they are cassettes? Not CDs. For all we know the ribbons could have dried and withered and be completely unplayable anyway.

In a last-ditch attempt to feel better, the Resident IT Consultant phoned Oxfam. Whoever he talked to there had a hard time getting their thinking round to cassettes. And no, they don’t take them (we knew that) and could think of no one who does, but trying to be helpful suggested a competitor.

He then phoned the library, asking the same thing, i.e. does anyone anywhere have a use for cassettes? The person there found the idea of cassettes even weirder than Oxfam did.

And that’s it, really. Technology has moved so fast that what seemed perfectly normal less than twenty years ago, is now obsolete. It doesn’t matter that the books are good or how many we have or the amount of money they cost. They are no use.

So he went, and came back with an empty car. I assume the audio books are now in cassette heaven. Maybe someone could build motorways with them?

And should we want the books back most must be available in more up-to-date formats. ‘All’ it entails is spending money on the same books again, and hope that at some point technology will slow down enough for such an investment to make sense.

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The Cost of Living

Reading Rachel Ward’s first adult crime novel, The Cost of Living, brought home to me quite how middle or upper class crime novels tend to be. Even the ‘harder’ ones seem not to have such very normal characters as Ant and Bea in Rachel’s book.

Rachel Ward, The Cost of Living

In her early twenties, Bea works in the local supermarket at the checkouts. (I now know more than I ever knew I needed to learn about how supermarkets work…) Ant is slightly younger, and has bad history as far as work is concerned. He’s not sure he will last the [first] day. Bea has an agoraphobic mum and Ant comes from a family known for being trouble.

And the two don’t get on very well to begin with. But when a stalker attacks, and later on kills, young females in their little town, Bea starts sleuthing and Ant sort of helps.

The fear in the town is quite palpable, and I worried enormously whenever you could tell that something was about to happen. Or when Rachel wanted us to think there was danger round the corner.

I had a good idea of who the killer was. Just a shame I was wrong. But it goes to show that you can be bad in different ways, and that the obviously bad characters might not be so bad after all. Again, like normal people.

There are some unusual sexual pairings, which again makes the story stand out. Bea is a strong girl who not only works and solves crimes, but looks after her mum and also tries to make sure her customers are safe from abusive partners, and so on. What I won’t accept is that as a size 16 Bea is fat. She’s not.

Described as ‘an Ant & Bea mystery’ I wonder if this means there will be more? I wonder if their little town can take more crimes? But if there are more, then Bea is really well placed in her checkout, where life unfolds and she sees everything.

The 2017 Gothenburg Book Fair

Next week it’s time for this year’s book fair in Gothenburg. Maybe we should refer to it more as a Swedish book fair? Because it is the book fair, and it just happens to take place in Gothenburg. People travel there from Stockholm. In fact, perhaps they need an excuse to leave.

Before I out-festivalled myself this summer I was seriously tempted. It was as if the nine-year gap from 2007 to 2016 had not been. I was there last year and although I was exhausted from the word go, it still felt as if I should – would – be going. But we all get funny notions occasionally. I started with Philip Pullman, and ended with Meg Rosoff. Not sure what the fair would need to offer to rouse me this time.

The programme, which I perused carefully, has a lot going for it, and that was before I recollected that many authors are boycotting it this year, for permitting the far right to attend. And – this might gall them, if they actually read Bookwitch – I didn’t miss them in the programme. It looked interesting enough anyway.

My new ‘pal’ Christoffer Carlsson will be there on the Saturday. There are talks on subjects such as Arabic children’s literature today, and Are there too many children’s books being published? It bears thinking about. Black Lives Matter, on politics in teen books. Quality or Quantity? on children’s publishing. Read Yourself Well. Very important. Does the Swedish school system kill the creativity of its pupils? Chapter books vs YouTube.

Jenny Colgan will be there, talking among other things about living in a castle. I didn’t know she did. How to use children’s books to talk about current affairs. And it seems Norway has never been hotter [in children’s books].

Perhaps there are fewer ‘names.’ I’m not sure. But then, it’s not necessarily the ‘names’ that make for a good event. We flock to see and hear our literary stars, but occasionally they can be less good at performing than other literary professionals.

YA in Icelandic; how about that? Or there’s M G Leonard and Frances Hardinge. And does educated = well read? I suspect there won’t be any cake in the Afternoon Tea event with Jenny Colgan and Sophie Kinsella. Or even tea. An event on how reading trash could be the start of good reading sounds just like my kind of thing.

In fact, right now I am wondering why I’m still at home. (I know why, but temptation is back.) David Lagercrantz talks about his Lisbeth Salander, with Christopher MacLehose. FYI I’m still only on Saturday. One more day.

Astrid Lindgren and Jane Austen. Not together, and not in the flesh, for obvious reasons. More Val McDermid. Some [Swedish] superstars like Sven-Bertil Taube and Tomas Ledin. It gets lighter as the weekend progresses. It’s a way to tempt the masses to come on the Sunday, and it’s a way for the masses to rub shoulders with stars.

There’s Arundhati Roy. Ten years ago I grew – almost – blasé about seeing Orhan Pamuk all over the place. It’s what it’s like.

I might go next year. But I’ll – probably – never again have constant access to my favourite author as I prowl those corridors.

Meg Rosoff at Vi Läser in Gothenburg

A Home Full of Friends

In times like these it’s more important than ever to set a good example. And doing good deeds is obviously also essential.

In Peter Bently’s story about Bramble Badger, with adorable illustrations by Charles Fuge, we meet a rather lonely badger. The weather is bad and he’s going home to feel more comfortable.

But the awful weather has the effect that some of his friends need to look for somewhere else to stay, and they invite themselves to Bramble’s house. He’s unable to refuse, which is good, but it worries him.

What about food and where will they sleep? He does what most of us do, and runs around trying to make his home a little tidier, with enough chairs and enough food. And then his visitors turn up with even more visitors!

But you know, there’s no need to fret. Together is better, and having friends is the best thing in life.

You share what you have.

Peter Bently and Charles Fuge, A Home Full of Friends

Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist

When you’re at death’s door, life’s not expected to be much fun, even – or especially – when it’s the door to Room 9, the one with the smiley. But then you don’t know Connor. He’s fifteen and he’s got terminal cancer. Well, we’re all terminal, because as Connor keeps saying, ‘nadie deja este mundo vivo’ which means no one leaves this world alive.

Which is very true. I don’t like ‘cancer books’ and I hate bullies and irresponsible behaviour. But while Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist has all this, it also has a lot of charm and fun and happiness to offer the reader. And before anyone says ‘well that’s easy for the author to write,’ the very sad fact is that John Young wrote the book as his own child was dying. I can’t even begin to understand where he got his strength from.

John Young, Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist

At the beginning, Connor is getting another kicking from his bully Skeates. Well, he did put a dead bird in his dinner. So Connor might be small and weak, but he’s not one for hiding. He’s got one friend, a girl called Emma, or Emo.

But when things turn really weird, it is Skeates he ends up running away with – although not in a romantic way. Connor’s father is in jail, his mum temporarily ill, and his sister died years ago. And he has cancer. Skeates decides they should try and visit Connor’s dad in jail, so they embark on a truly crazy, but also inspirational, trip across the Scottish Highlands towards Glasgow.

Unfortunately Connor escapes Stornoway without his medicines, and he’s not sure he can trust Skeates. It’s a good thing he’s feeling adventurous and positive towards most of the often illegal suggestions Skeates makes.

At least the adult reader sits there knowing this will not, cannot, end well. But what kind of not well will it be? How soon might Connor die? Or will Skeates or the Glaswegian football supporters kill him before the cancer does? Or maybe the skiing in Aviemore, wearing unsuitable clothes? The joyriding?

And then, there really is no avoiding death’s door.

This is sweet (yes really, Skeates), incredibly funny, and tremendously exciting. And there is a smiley on the door to Room 9. As Connor waits, he thinks ahead to what sandwich fillings his mum might choose for the funeral.

Save the Rohingya

Looking back at my review from earlier this summer of Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, I was ashamed to see I didn’t even mention the Rohingya. Maybe I felt the name would be meaningless to most Westerners, or perhaps I decided it was the basics of the situation for the refugees in the book which mattered.

I can’t even remember. But I did remember the name Rohingya, so when it turned up in the news more recently, I realised it was more active as a problem again.

The young boy in Zana’s book is Rohingya, and as Zana describes it, they ‘are an ethnic Muslim minority living in a predominantly Buddhist majority in Myanmar.’ The United Nations and Amnesty International say the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted people on earth.

Did any of us know that?

The government of Myanmar is committing genocide, with the Rohingya being hunted into extinction. And governments all over the world know this. The Rohingya have been known to be forced onto boats, or killed if they refused.

That’s why Subhi and his family in The Bone Sparrow are in a refugee camp. As Zana says in her afterword, she wishes her ‘book had never needed to be written.’ How I wish that too.

And reading about how this is a known situation to people in power, it’s not surprising that no one much raised a finger when Hitler did what he did to the Jews 70 years ago. It might seem easier not to interfere. We used to blame this kind of thing on people not knowing. Now we have to look on as a formerly admired Nobel peace prize winner does nothing for the persecuted people in her own country. But she does know.

Launching The Rasputin Dagger

I stood right next to the sign for Theresa Breslin’s book launch at Waterstones Sauchiehall Street as I asked a member of staff where it was going to be. Obviously, I only noticed as he’d very politely told me second floor. It’s not easy being an idiot.

After another turn round the lower ground floor just to show I was in no hurry, I got the lift up to the second floor, marvelling at the thickness of the floors, as well as feeling slightly ill. It’s a glass lift and you can see ‘everything.’ Seeing as I could see so much, I immediately noticed Alex Nye and a surprisingly soberly attired Kirkland Ciccone browsing crime fiction at – separate – tables, as though they were there separately.

Still feeling the shock of Denise Mina’s Bloody Scotland story, I unburdened myself to Alex, who just might have read a little in the shop’s copy to see what the fuss was about. Seems she’s a Thomas Hardy fan…

Anyway, both of them actually needed to buy books. I wonder how that feels?

Theresa Breslin at the Rasputin Dagger launch

When we were allowed to enter the events room I found Mr B, who did what he does so well; whipping out a fake beard, pretending he was Rasputin. I don’t mean he always tries to be a Russian monk, but that he enters into the spririt of his wife’s books. This time his personalised t-shirt had a dagger on the back. Better than in the back.

Cathy MacPhail and Kirkland Ciccone at The Rasputin Dagger launch

Cathy MacPhail and Moira Mcpartlin joined us and we sat down over drinks and crisps, although we gathered we were meant to stand up. I’m too old to stand up, so we rebelled. Also encountered Kathryn Ross and Kate Leiper, with Yvonne Manning, which was nice.

Moira McPartlin and Alex Nye at The Rasputin Dagger launch

It seems the events area is a new thing for Waterstones, and it looked good. I think more bookshops should have rooms for this kind of thing. After an introduction, Theresa spoke a little about the background to her book, and then she read, from chapter one, and the bit where Rasputin dies. She also mentioned that someone in the room knew someone who knew someone who’d met the Tsar.

The Rasputin Dagger launch

This probably wasn’t the rather young lady (granddaughter?) who ran up and hugged Theresa’s knees mid-read. But I imagine she might have found out that I favour the input from little ones at events like these, which could be why it seemed unfair to her when she was carried away again.

Theresa Breslin at the Rasputin Dagger launch

After chatting to the Waterstones host about the women’s demonstrations in Russia, Theresa mentioned their early right to vote, comparing this with Britain, and then they moved on to Argentina around fifteen years ago and the lack of food there, before we were invited to try the special cakes.

The Rasputin Dagger launch

To avoid being stuck in Waterstones all night, I left just before the pumpkin struck eight, and because the trains are back to being difficult (what would we do if the trains ran properly??), Kirkie and I walked down Sauchiehall Street; he to a bus and me to the last train. Moira gave Alex a lift for the same reason, and then it seems Alex got on my train in Stirling as I got off…