Knowing what you like

‘Who is this from, then?’ asked the Resident IT Consultant, holding out the envelope that clearly contained a Christmas card. The first this year.

And I did recognise the handwriting, so told him. Also pointed out that in this case he could have opened it and showed me the front of the Christmas card, and I could still have told him who sent it.

This is a lady who has sent us cards for 30 years, and it is always a lovely snow scene in the middle of a traditional English village, near the church, with a group of choristers singing away in full view of the village Christmas tree.

You get new versions of this in the shops all the time; they look the same while being slightly different. And I have to say, it’s good when someone knows their own mind, and these cards are always appreciated, because they sort of embody Christmas in a rather charming way. It’s become a tradition.

I say always, but I lie. One year it was a steam train pulling into a snow-covered old-style railway station. It was lovely, in a different way.

I believe she had been unwell, and her [now late] husband was allowed to do the Christmas cards.

The following year the choristers were back.

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10 10 10

On this tenth day of the tenth month in the tenth year of Bookwitch, I realise I’ve already been doing a lot of musing and looking back, and I keep telling you – even though no one asked for it – about all the good things the witchy work has brought me.

I appreciate all the comments you leave, offering some valuable thoughts that I have needed to hear.

There’s Fabio Geda’s smile when we met. I don’t tend to expect such reactions.

Can’t forget the Mars bar Terry Pratchett was hoping for when we first met, and I had nothing to offer him.

When we moved house, one of my goals in the house hunting was to find a garden like Candy Gourlay’s. Preferably with a house with similar vibes, too. It’s good to know what one wants.

I discovered that – occasionally – I can conduct interviews. This is an odd thing for someone quiet and unsociable.

Bookwitching led to some blogging for the Guardian. I’d never have thought that could be possible. I mean, not even Hallandsposten wanted me.

I now have pendant lamps in our newly built room inspired by the Edinburgh book festival’s lights in Charlotte Square.

There’s been a lot of interesting travelling, and some quite unusual event venues have been visited.

I was able to ask Derek Landy to leave a comment for a fervent fan who desperately wanted to hear from him.

And I’d like to think that my exploits have had a beneficial effect on the Bookwitch family.

Charlotte Square

That’s it. Not very scientific.

The ones I enjoyed the most

It suddenly struck me that perhaps it’s unwise to say anything about best books. Because this time of year I usually list the ones I liked the most, which isn’t the same thing.

And by the time December rolls round I often despair. Yes, I remember that marvellous book I read recently. This year that was La Belle Sauvage. Because it was recent. Longer ago and my memory blacks out, in much the same way as when someone asks what I did at the weekend…

No need to worry though. Out of the 137 books (2017 wasn’t the best year for finding reading time), the twelve that emerged more victorious than the rest, were closely followed by quite a few other excellent contenders.

Best of 2017

I’ve not picked a best of all, nor am I doing the alphabetical order.

Elizabeth Wein, The Pearl Thief

Sally Gardner, My Side of the Diamond

LA Weatherly, Black Moon

Joan Lennon, Walking Mountain

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

Joanna Nadin, The Incredible Billy Wild

Anthony McGowan, Rook

Phil Earle, Mind the Gap

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer’s Ape

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Patrick Ness, Release

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

And as you can see, the 2017 colour for book covers is primarily black with some blue and teal. Rather like last year, in fact. I appear to have picked six women and six men, which feels nice and equal.

There is only one translated book, but there are two dyslexia friendly books, plus one prequel, one equel, one end of a trilogy and one middle of a trilogy. And two Scottish books. All good.

Books like these are what makes it all worth it.

Of dung beetles and other creatures

I miss those dung beetles. And the dinners.

When I got in touch with Gill Lewis a few weeks ago, after having reviewed her most recent book, Gill said she’d just re-read my post about the dung beetles. And because I had reminisced about the Salford book award dinners shortly before it, I re-read the post as well. Had forgotten them, but never the man who suggested writing a novel about dung beetles; Jamie Thomson. Crazy, but lovely, man.

And that was the point; the reason I had been thinking about the dinners and missing the diners. Despite me wondering if I’d gone mad each time I set off to meet another batch of half unknown – to me – authors for dinner, after having emailed them out of the blue to suggest we meet up.

Those dinners were successful, perhaps because we were a bunch of ‘strangers’ getting together. We weren’t strangers afterwards. Strange, maybe. (Remember the dung beetles!) So in hindsight I’m really very grateful to the Salford book award organisers, for having no evening plans for their visiting authors.

It was one of the things I wanted to take with me when I moved. But around here most visiting authors are well looked after and don’t need a witch to make overtures and suggest meals out. Shame, really…

You can thank me when that bestseller about dung beetles appears.

Slaves for the Isabella

For entering a series by reading book five, I did quite well, I thought. In a way, time travel is time travel, and you can guess at things. At the same time, there were facts I didn’t know or understand, like why Joe wants to see Lucy so much.

Author Julia Edwards offered me the fifth and newest instalment of her educational, historical series The Scar Gatherer to read. If I understand it correctly, we have Joe, who travels in time with the aid of a St Christopher pendant. It – sometimes – takes him to somewhere in the past, and then he leaves it there, so that Lucy can call him back, in case he is returned to his own time. Until the last time, when he really does leave.

The thing about Joe’s time travels is that he meets the same people every time. They are different in the past and they are living in different pasts, but Lucy is Lucy and her parents are her parents. They don’t remember Joe, but he remembers them. The other characters are also recurring characters, but they play different roles each time. Except that Tobias is always a really unpleasant older boy.

This time the pendant takes Joe to Bristol during the slave trade era in the early 1790s, after the abolishment of slavery. The fact that Britain agreed not to trade in slaves, meant only that they didn’t trade new slaves. Lucy’s family are wealthy [this time] and depend on slaves and sugar plantations. Joe pops ‘ back home’ once or twice, and has the opportunity of learning more historical facts, which he then takes with him as he sees Lucy again.

Primarily, this is a way for middle grade readers to have fun as they learn about history. I learned a few new things myself, and that’s really the point about time travel.

I’m guessing that Joe travels in chronological order, as he’s been further into the past before, and I imagine he will meet Lucy again in a less distant past next time.

Putting people in their place

Black or fat. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be put in that special group. The one that shows that white people – or thin people – are feeling inclusive. They will let you have what they have ‘always’ had, but only because the winds are such that it appears best to allow ‘minorities’ to do what everyone should have the right to do, be it write books and have them published, or buy and wear clothes that look nice and actually fit.

Thank you. It is most kind.

The Guardian Review on Saturday had a long article about how things have almost got a little better [fairer] for dark people in the publishing business.

I was struck by two things. First is that authors who are somehow different get their own imprint, as witnessed by the hiring of Sharmaine Lovegrove as publisher of Dialogue Books, a new ‘inclusive’ imprint at Little, Brown. (Ironic, isn’t it?)

As the Guardian says, ‘but why does inclusivity have to have its own ring-fenced imprint? Shouldn’t it be part of every imprint rather than becoming its own distinctive brand?’

This, incidentally, reminded me of what I wrote earlier this year, “there is always something that can be done, putting people in their place. Quoting Wikipedia, Tamarind Books ‘was founded in 1987 as a small independent publisher specialising in picture books, fiction and non-fiction featuring black and Asian children and children with disabilities, with the mission of redressing the balance of diversity in children’s publishing.’ This is very worthy and I have the highest opinion of Tamarind. But now that it is also an imprint within a much larger organisation, has it become the place to stash away the slightly foreign authors? You know, ‘you will be happier next to your own kind’ sort of thought.”

I know someone who ended up being put there after a publishing house reshuffle. He/she was both offended and pleased. Offended because colour of skin suddenly made this the right place for him/her. Pleased because Tamarind have really keen publicists, which ought to be good for sales.

And second, a comment by Abir Mukherjee, part of a ‘dynamic new circle of British Asian crime novelists.’ Abir* has been told ‘his work is not “authentically Asian enough” because his debut A Rising Man is about a white, British detective in India.

So, the whites get to tell the ‘minority’ writers what to write. We’re back to the situation where you can only ever write about what you are; i.e. for my part a novel about a short, fat girl in southwest Sweden.

Which brings me to one of my fondest gripes, clothes for fat people. Don’t design especially ugly and different clothes ranges for us. It’s enough – well, preferable, actually – if you make larger sizes of the same as everyone else gets. This should have several benefits. No need to design twice. The fat customers will be happier. Happy customers buy more, thus providing more income.

And let’s face it; if you don’t make it, we won’t buy. We can’t suddenly use smaller clothes, just because you think that’s the best. So that’s a loss of revenue to you.

Something similar must surely happen in the book trade. Publish good books about anything at all, and we will buy. Doesn’t matter what colour skin the author is, or their accent, or if they were born in a different place than where they live now.

Yes, unlike the jeans that are too tight, if one book has not been written or published, a keen reader can buy another book. But there must still be a certain loss of potential income. To some extent publishers can and will tell someone what ought to be in a book [for it to sell], and sometimes they will even be right. But to limit Asian writers to write about Asians, or for that matter, to prevent a Muggle author from writing about wizards, is just silly.

In fact, I recently read a crime novel by Vaseem Khan, featuring his Mumbai detective as usual. Lovely book. But what makes that different from, say, Alexander McCall Smith’s lovely books about a female detective in Botswana? Is he female? Is he black? Is he a detective?

Neither Vaseem nor Alexander have been ring-fenced into an imprint suitable for their colour. Why should anyone else?


*When xenophobia is at its worst, immigrants are often told they need to adopt the same values and behaviour as the British. While I happen to think that this is wrong, I feel that it is precisely what someone like Abir has done. He has assimilated, which, considering he was born here, is fairly natural. And also what the real natives want. Except when they want their foreigners to be a little more authentically foreign.

It’s not easy.

Celebrating Muriel Spark

It’s rather nice now that the Edinburgh International Book Festival offers special events throughout the year. Somehow you feel so much more ready for an event when there aren’t hundreds more, right before and after.

Muriel Spark and Alan Taylor - Edinburgh International Book Festival

To celebrate the centenary of the birth of Dame Muriel Spark, there is a special event at the Usher Hall on January 31st. It will be presented by Alan Taylor, who I understand is a friend of Muriel Spark’s (I know him as the chap in the press yurt every summer…), and Rosemary Goring. To help them, people like Ian Rankin will share their own memories of the city’s famous author.

So, that sounds really quite interesting.

‘Plus, for the first time since 1963, Spark’s play Doctors of Philosophy will be presented on stage through performed extracts.’ The evening is only planned to last 90 minutes, but it looks like they are going to put a lot into that hour and a half.

The thing I’m most excited about, however, is the signing afterwards. I’m not sure whether signing is the new word for selling books, or if the book festival organisers know something I don’t.