Monthly Archives: May 2014

Scotland for your holidays

Yeah, I know. It’s not as appropriate as it was.

But as we were packing our interim stuff, I said to the Resident IT Consultant, ‘let’s take it, in case we need entertainment.’ The ‘it’ being the jigsaw you see here. I gave it to him for his birthday last year, and although favourably received (or is he getting better at pretending?) it didn’t even come out at Christmas, which tends to be when we need something for the family to gather round.

Forth Rail Bridge jigsaw

We arrived to find a half made jigsaw puzzle on the puzzle board, and eventually it was finished. At that point the Grandmother complained she didn’t have another, so we looked at each other and he brought out his present for her. She thought the picture was ugly, but she did need a jigsaw, so got going, dividing up the 1000 pieces into edges and red bits and what-have-you.

Good thing it was ignored at Christmas. There wouldn’t have been the time. Turns out this Forth Rail Bridge holiday poster was more complicated than I’d imagined. She complained a bit, but soldiered on.

And after a little over two weeks of slaving over that bridge it was done. Funnily enough it was the Resident IT Consultant’s birthday when it happened. I decided it could be his present, since I had nothing else for him. Not that I’d helped, but I don’t mind taking credit for other people’s hard work.

I did buy it, after all.

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Craig Robertson and ‘the grandad rap’

I know only one author in Stirling, and that’s Craig Robertson. He had the decency to launch his brand new crime novel yesterday, right here ‘at home’ and he had even tweaked his usual Glaswegian crime, to offer up a Faroese murder in its place. (I suspect he just wants to be one of these fantastically rich Nordic crime writers…)

Craig Robertson

The launch of The Last Refuge took place at The Mediterranéa restaurant (obviously some compass malfunction here, but I’d much rather attend a tapas bar than a dead whale kind of restaurant, or fried puffin place) and the Resident IT Consultant and I made our way there to rub shoulders with other local literary types. In the end it was the Faroese connection that persuaded him.

Craig received the news of our recent move with surprising calm and almost seemed to think it was a good thing. He had asked my ex-Bloody Scotland blogging colleague – and crime writer – Michael J Malone to come and talk to him about his new book. They were both rather fascinated with the traditional Faroese whale slaughter, the word for which I didn’t catch, but which Michael’s spellchecker suggested could be ‘grandad rap.’

Craig Robertson

After some mingling and Faroese music and pretty photos of the islands, Craig read a wee excerpt from the first chapter, where his hero John Callum wakes up dead drunk in the harbour, with a bloody whale knife in his possession. And there has been a murder…

Apparently the islands had not had a murder for 26 years, but soon after Craig’s visit there was one. It was probably not his fault.

Craig had initially wanted to set a novel in Tallinn, but was beaten to it, so went to Torshavn instead. He found his female main character in a bar one night, and soon learned to say ‘thank you’ and ‘beer’ in Faroese. He also realised you should never get drunk with the leader of the Faroese Hell’s Angels.

They have no forensics on the islands, so when – if – there is a murder they have to send for someone from Copenhagen. And speaking of Denmark, Craig couldn’t afford to buy the Sarah Lund jumper someone asked him to get, and he wouldn’t mind a Danish film being made of The Last Refuge. The book will also be translated into Danish for any islander who happens not to understand English (which seems pretty unlikely).

He missed the opportunity of joining a whale slaughter, which he would have liked (!) because it would be so interesting to see people’s faces as they do this dreadful (my word) deed. Craig thinks that – in theory – it would be good for a crime writer to have a go at this kind of killing…

Craig Robertson

The Q&A session that followed was fun, but possibly not taken as seriously as they sometimes are. The Mediterranéa was just about full, which is great going for this kind of event. There were tapas to eat and free drinks, and anyone brave enough was invited to try some of Craig’s 50% Faroese akvavit (although I believe he soon regretted having some himself), illegal to make, but not drink, in the Faroe Islands.

The tapas

We’d planned to stay and have a meal afterwards, but ‘unfortunately’ there was so much free food on offer that we were too full to do so. We will have to go back some day when we actually feel hungry.

Instead we did that thing we hardly ever do. We paid for a book.

Craig Robertson

The Demons of Ghent

You know that feeling you have when you’re climbing about on the rooftops of Ghent, with Death right behind you? That’s The Demons of Ghent, the second of Helen Grant’s Flemish trilogy. It’s that strange thing, the perfect book, both extremely soothing and calm (I suspect it’s the Flemish aspect), and heart-stoppingly scary.

Climbing to the top of buildings and walking across whole city blocks is frightening enough on its own, without adding a stalking monster who kills people. Someone you might encounter as you run along some vertigo-inducing parapet or other narrow strip of roof. Add rain or darkness, and it’s almost heaven. (If you’ve been good. If not, it will be the other place.)

Helen Grant, Demons of Ghent

Veerle has had to move from the small village that she loved and knew so well, and is forced to live with her father and his new – pregnant – wife, who resents her presence. Not happy at school, Veerle bunks off, and meets Bram, another desirable young man (Kris seems to have dropped out of sight, to begin with), who is into rooftops.

People are dying, though. ‘Suicides’ jumping off houses. And Ghent natives are seeing ‘demons’ on the rooftops at night. As an outsider Veerle finds this rather odd.

Until the day she comes across someone whom she thought was dead and it all goes horribly wrong. It’s tough being wanted by two handsome young men all at once, as well as having Death turn up wherever you go.

I’m wondering if we will ever have an explanation, or if Veerle will keep putting herself in danger until it’s too late? Are the odd things that happen to her connected, or is she just prone to meeting new monsters at every new turn?

Helen writes so naturally that you can’t really see how she pulls it off. And although the reader screams at Veerle not to do whatever she has in mind to try next, it makes for surprisingly comfortable reading. Yes, Death and vertigo are both scary, but there is an intrinsic calm to this Flemish life.

Comfy horror. I love it!

In the bag

‘I’d be lynched if I went shopping with that bag’ said the Resident IT Consultant about the ‘English Apples’ shopping bag.

I suppose he’s – almost – right. Lynching seems a wee bit OTT, but maybe a more discreetly logoed bag would be better for Scottish shopping, even when the shop is Lidl, and thereby German. In actual fact, the bag of apples he brought back recently said Tafel Äpfel, which isn’t so terribly Scottish either.

So the English apple bag is skulking in the wardrobe for the time being.

Stockport Libraries Book Bag

Perhaps that’s why the Resident IT Consultant brought me this gift after his trip back to the old neighbourhood – which involved carefully studying what the new owners had put in the skip outside the former Bookwitch Towers. (The bath, since you asked.) He’d taken his last (?) books back to the library, and been persuaded to buy a bag from them in return.

The Garden of Eden bag became storage for finished-with books, before I off-loaded them onto the unsuspecting current owner of the future Bookwitch Towers. People who have three children of the right ages need to proceed with great care. I may even swap some picture books for the soon-to-be new patio outside the Grandmother’s flat. (It’s all happening here.)

Nicola Morgan, Blame My Brain

Bags. Yes. I’m using a variety of them for organising the admin in my temporary headquarters, and they are doing a good job. I have a black witch bag. Obviously. I also had cause to compliment Nicola Morgan on the sheer usefulness of her writer’s bag and her teen brain bag. I may never need a proper desk again.

Actually, I’m sure I will. But for temporary perfection this is pretty good, and no one is going to be lynched.

Childhood stones

I hadn’t actually thought about it. Whereas I know my childhood can never become a British one, I have always felt I like Britain so much and find it so beautiful, that I didn’t stop to think about how you see a place differently if you grew up there.

There are two spots in Sweden where I always feel a strange tug of the heart and decide that it doesn’t get better than this. And neither of them were part of my childhood, but they look and feel just like places that were. One is the grass next to my Swedish letterbox, the way it looks when I go out to collect the newspaper early-ish on a sunny summer morning. The other is the thought of walking barefoot outside the ice cream kiosk near the beach.

The latter is almost as good as remembering the concrete floor in the grocer’s across the road from Favourite Aunt’s summer cottage in the 1950s and early 1960s. Yes, I know that’s weird, but I do wish I could go back there. Bare feet on a cool floor, and that special smell.

But then I read a magazine article about how you need the place you knew as a child, and how nowhere can replace it. They quoted the famous poem by Verner von Heidenstam about longing for the stones where he played as a child (only a bit more poetically) and I finally understood it.

Sweden also has a popular Greek author in its midst. Theodor Kallifatides moved to Sweden in his twenties, and started writing novels not long after. We sort of take him for granted. He was quoted as saying that for 30 years whenever he heard the word tree, he thought ‘olive tree.’ And then he found himself thinking ‘birch.’ (I think it was birch. Doesn’t matter, though. Some kind of foreign tree, if you are Greek.)

Much as I find Britain very wonderful, I am not sure I have reached my ‘birch’ moment yet. And walking barefoot isn’t terribly safe in most areas.

(I have to admit to being a bit fond of the smell in the ladies toilets of our favourite bar in St Andrews. It must be what they clean it with. The same product – or just the same smell – was something I encountered in the hotel in Henley where we stayed when I was ten. Very exotic, it was. And as I was a child then, I suppose it’s the closest I will get. Smells in toilets.

Let’s not get me started on the privy…)

Hurling oneself off towers

Is never a good idea. We took the day off for the Resident IT Consultant’s birthday yesterday and looked at a ruin. Not me, but a really big and even older one.

Cambuskenneth Abbey

I’m in the middle of reading Helen Grant’s Demons of Ghent and am feeling distinctly anti-tower at the moment. Which will be why I suggested we go and look at Cambuskenneth Abbey – ruin of – yesterday morning. It is primarily a tower, off which you can’t really hurl yourself, as they have closed the door to the staircase.

Cambuskenneth Abbey

So it’s mostly a nice tower and ruined Abbey walls and some old graves. An old King – James III, I believe – is buried there. He’s got a nice view, in his old age. Pretty grassy meadow and the river, and some nettles, and the Ochils in the background.

Cambuskenneth Abbey

So we looked around and took a circular stroll round the village, and all I had with me was a mobile phone on which to take photos. (Took me hours to work out how to squeeze them off the phone and onto the computer and then to the blog. I hope you appreciate it.)

After this ‘taxing’ stroll we had scones and tea in a nearby (-ish) farm café. They also sold local stuff such as bananas and genuine vegetable pakoras.

(Helen Grant has a lot to answer for, starting me off on visiting graves and ruins like this.)

Revisiting Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart died last week. I’m sure you knew that. It’s sad that she’s gone, but I’m grateful we had her for as long as we did, and that she wrote all those wonderful books. That’s cause for celebration.

I’ll just post the links to my reviews from a few years ago, when her books were last re-issued. You can’t have too much Mary Stewart. That’s why I even looked for her settings on my holidays.

Mary Stewart, Madam, Will You Talk?

Madam, Will You Talk? began my trip down memory lane, in May 2011. It was followed by Wildfire at Midnight, and after that The Moonspinners and This Rough Magic. And last but not least, My Brother Michael.

I even tried asking for an interview, simply because I was so happy Mary was still alive, and I would have loved meeting a long time favourite author. The publishers – very sensibly – said no. Mary felt she was too old for interviews. (You can’t be too old for Bookwitches, but I knew what they meant.)