Monthly Archives: June 2014

Looking at the Stars

Instead of trying – and maybe failing – to write a true story from a real war torn country, it’s possible to do what Jo Cotterill has done. She made up her own troubled country, somewhere hot. It’s probably Afghanistan. Or Iran. Iraq. The main thing is she won’t have got it wrong.

Jo Cotterill, Looking at the Stars

In fact, she has got it very right, as long as you can overlook the horrors of war and sudden death and refugee camps and starvation. Not suitable for the very youngest readers, it is still – I think – aimed at fairly young children. The two main characters, Mini and Jenna are 13 and 14, but I think you’d want to read this younger. Sort of Jacqueline Wilson meets the Taliban.

Except here they are the Kwana, and they are harsh rulers, making people’s lives worse every week. Jenna and Mini are not allowed to go to school, nor is their much younger sister Vivie. It’s only their brother Ruman who goes to school, and their father Potta who teaches – what he is allowed to teach – at the university. He and their Mamie works hard to keep the family safe.

But one day the foreign soldiers come, and Ruman disappears; possibly to work under ground. Neighbours grow suspicious of each other and making a living gets harder every day, until the unspeakable night when this family is split up in the cruellest of ways.

In the end Mini and Jenna have to escape, as they try to make sense of the situation. They end up in a refugee camp where conditions are far worse than either they or the reader could have imagined.

Jenna is the kind one, and Mini survives by telling stories. They continue looking for the others. They make friends among the other camp dwellers, and they grow up very quickly.

I don’t want to say what happens, but it is bleak, albeit somewhat hopeful. Jo has written a fantastic story, which is easy to read, or would be were it not for the awful conditions people suffer. This book will hopefully help young readers to understand what they hear about in the news.

Barnaby and the new Stephen Booth

It would have been Mother-of-witch’s 90th birthday today. It’s not something I go round thinking about, but I happened to notice the date and I realised it was an ‘even’ year. The neighbour downstairs from the temporary Bookwitch Towers celebrated his 99th yesterday and I stood in the window and looked at the cake from a distance.

I suppose it put me in a celebratory, cake-y kind of mood.

No time to bake right now, but there is nothing wrong with offering a photo of Stephen Booth’s cat Barnaby. Apparently fans object if Stephen doesn’t have a new picture of Barnaby in every newsletter. It’s understandable. What’s a new book, when you can look at a cat?


I admire Stephen for managing to get Barnaby to pose with the new book like this. (Between you and me I reckon Barnaby feels tricked. It wasn’t meant to happen like this.)

And as it’s a birthday, how about you try and win a book? Or something else?

“There are lots of prizes on offer this month, including several signed hardback 1st editions of the 13th Cooper & Fry novel ALREADY DEAD, signed copies of standalone TOP HARD, and a number of ALREADY DEAD mugs, notebooks and key rings, along with lots of Stephen Booth bookmarks and pens. Some of these could be winging your way, if you can answer the question below correctly:

What is the name of the stately home owned by Earl Manby in THE CORPSE BRIDGE?

Just send your answer in an email with the subject ‘Newsletter competition’ to”


Old, and not much fun

I unsubscribed a publisher’s monthly email not long ago. I surprised even me by doing that. I thought long and hard about it and then decided that I stand to lose very little. They don’t send me much based on those emails, because I rarely find anything I want to ask for. They either send me books anyway, or I email specifically regarding a book I have heard about some other way.

Most publishers have moved to ‘blogger newsletters’ of some kind. Some are still reasonably nice and normal, but many now look like what I’m copying and pasting below. And I feel I’m too old for this. I’m wondering whether to unsubscribe more of them.

There is nothing wrong in just emailing lists of new books, with instructions on how to request copies. I don’t need competitions, where ‘us bloggers’ fight each other for the number of review copies set aside for ‘bloggers.’ (We are too numerous. I quite understand.)

“Helllooo Bloggers! Attennnntion xxx fans! …is finallllyyy here… unputedownable (sic)  And it’s a whole lotta book!  …which I shall send your way sooonn!”

(Apologies to the publicist whose oeuvre I have borrowed. You are not alone, nor the worst. Just the most recent, so I had it to hand.)

I suspect there must be another kind of mailing list, with a somewhat modified newsletter sent out to ‘real reviewers.’ I will not grovel any more and ask to be allowed to be part of that list. I have tried in the past and it got me nowhere.

I’m not a party girl at heart, or anywhere else, for that matter. And when it comes to this kind of thing, I strongly believe I am not a ‘blogger’ either. I’m not sure what I am, apart from old and really very boring.

Blog pooper.

Bread sticks and brain sticks

Being attacked by a goose isn’t as bad as it might seem at first. It sets off your adrenaline and a few other chemicals and makes the required jump across a really high gate possible. It’s only if you then dwell on the constant possibility of further goose attacks that you might feel stressed in the wrong way. And that’s not good.

Nicola Morgan's shoes

Last night I went to the launch of Nicola Morgan’s new book, The Teenage Guide to Stress. I always forget how interesting Nicola is and how well she talks at events like these. There was absolutely no need at all for her to walk round persuading people they needed more wine before she began, but she did anyway. And there were bread sticks. Three kinds.

Nicola Morgan

The room at Blackwell’s – we really must stop seeing each other like this – was full. Nicola was wearing gorgeous shoes, and pink trousers I could have killed for, if I thought I could wear pink trousers. Even I, as a relative newcomer, knew a few people there, which is always nice. Nicola tried threatening us at the back with special treatment if we didn’t move to the front, but soon all seats were taken, so she couldn’t actually do anything about us. Me, especially.

She had stuff to offer. Free posters, rolled up, which looked just right to hit people with. Nicola introduced her brain sticks, which are USBs filled with useful material on brains, and which she has spent 1000 hours on producing. There were three tea-towels to win.

Nicola Morgan

People who say they never suffered from stress when they were young are wrong. They suffer from amnesia, which is a coping strategy. It helps you forget the bad stuff. Before, there was not a single book for teenagers on stress. Now there is one. And this is important, because teen stress is different from that suffered by adults.

It’s the constant, low level, kind of stress that won’t go away, which is so bad for you. It is constantly having to ‘perform at things you are not good at’ which makes the teen years such hell. It leaves less ‘bandwidth’ for other things. The two main bad things are exams and the internet. Teenagers don’t have the life experience we oldies have, and they tend to believe they are alone in their suffering. Adults are generally able to stop doing what they are bad at; in Nicola’s case maths and singing.

Nicola Morgan

With her book Nicola hopes to settle minds. That’s what people need. The book has three parts. The first is what stress is. The second what the stress is about. And the third how to deal with it.

She has looked into the research on whether chocolate alleviates stress and it appears it doesn’t. However Nicola feels there are more ways to look at this, and urged us to do more research. Generosity is good, which is why she offered us all some 70% dark chocolate.

Nicola Morgan

And speaking of generosity; you know what had to happen. I won a tea-towel. I already have one, so didn’t feel I needed to win, but as I stood there looking at the tickets in the envelope, I knew* that no matter which ticket I picked, it’d be the winning one. And it was. So I gave the tea-towel to the man behind me, scooped up some chocolate I can’t eat and took it home and gave to the Resident IT Consultant to see if generosity is as good as Nicola suggested.

I suppose it is.

*I’m a witch. I feel these things.

Nicola Morgan


It really shouldn’t matter one bit what an author is like. I might have said this before. But whereas it’s pretty common for authors to be both nice and good-looking without it ruining their writing or their books, it is not strictly speaking essential.

I’ve come to hate it when publishers point out how easy this author will be to sell. It’s their books that have to sell. Not the author as such.

Vango, which I reviewed yesterday, was written by someone I’d never heard of and whose looks I only accidentally found out about while checking something on Wikipedia. Even had Timothée looked like an ogre, I’d have loved his book. Perhaps he does look like an ogre and hired a stuntman for the photography session. I don’t know.

I have here on the Grandmother’s kitchen table a book I was sent recently. It actually looks quite decent, and despite first thinking it sounded ridiculous, I half came round and thought I could read it. Maybe. If there’s time.

But then came the words on the back of the proof; ‘written by highly-promotable young author … pitched for radio coverage … debut author slots.’ That was the death knell as far as I’m concerned. I will, as a matter of principle, not read it now. My time and attention will move on to something written by someone old and ugly.

Will I regret it? Might this be the next big thing? Probably not, because those tend to take us by surprise. It will possibly do well. I hope so, even if s/he is young and highly-promotable (I’d not come across this word before, hyphenated and everything, so I can’t stop typing it).

The fact that the book arrived accompanied by the kind of contract I loathe didn’t help.

Some of the best books I’ve read have been written by handsome people. Some of the best books I’ve read have been written by the kind of person who would most likely not be described as highly-promotable. Some of the best books I’ve read have been written by individuals I have no idea what they look like or anything else.

It doesn’t matter as long as the book is good.

In fairness, I suspect the description of the author is mainly aimed at bookshops, who just might want to know that the media will love this author, so will provide lots of free publicity, and that if the author were to visit their bookshop, s/he will not disgrace them by smelling or burping or being hard on the eye.

But I’d like to think that if I ever wrote a book, its acceptance and subsequent promotion wouldn’t be hindered by my rather un-lovely appearance or an age that not much can be done about. Nor even any reluctance to appear in public at all.


Timothée de Fombelle’s Vango, Book 1 – Between Sky and Earth is the kind of book that makes your hair stand on end. It’s the sheer unexpectedness of finding something new and marvellous, as well as ‘simply’ getting a reading experience which is pretty special. I’d never heard of Timothée or Vango until the second book arrived, but it looked so good I requested the first book so I could enjoy both.

Timothée de Fombelle, Vango, Book 1 - Between Sky and Earth

Set primarily in the 1930s, Vango could be David’s – from I Am David – older brother. A displaced boy with a mystery, one who speaks several languages, is hard working, popular and good at many things. Born in 1915, Vango is 19 when we meet him, and then the action moves back and forth from when he was three until early 1936. Set mainly in Europe, we move from Paris to Italy to Germany and Scotland during the exciting fictional 1930s that we love so much.

Vango can climb. Anything. There are Zeppelins, repercussions from the war as well as a slow romance going on. It’s very exciting. Very lovely. Perhaps because people are not talking about this book as much as they should, because it’s French. A translation, by the capable Sarah Ardizzone. It’s a typical example of how you lose out through xenophobia. Admittedly, Timothée’s idea of Scotland is based more on England, but who cares? It’s fun. It has a flavour of The Thirty-Nine Steps, with some Jules Verne thrown in.

Having decided to take a – very short – break before reading book 2, I can’t entirely say where Vango is going. But trust me, it’s worth reading. This is the kind of discovery you want to make, rather than more of the same, whether wizzards or vampires. You get Vango, and countless more colourful characters that you want to get to know better. That’s more than enough.

EIBF and me, 2014

It is here. The programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Book festival. And I’m sorry, but all I can think of is that Sara Paretsky will be there. It’s been three years, and she is finally coming in the summer rather than freezing her nether regions off in February/March. Which is so sensible.

OK, there must be a few other authors scheduled for the two and a bit weeks. Think, witch, think!

There are some very interesting looking events where authors one admires talk about authors one admires. I’m going to have to see if I can catch one of those, because they look like tickets might sell out fast (small tent). Then there is Patrick Ness who will give the Siobhan Dowd talk and Val McDermid will pretend to be Jane Austen.

Wendy Meddour is coming and there is a lovely pairing of Francesca Simon and Irving Finkel. Another interesting pair is Caroline Lawrence with Geraldine McCaughrean. Elizabeths Laird and Wein will cooperate, and Gill Lewis is also making an appearance.

Many more excellent authors like Sophie Hannah and Arne Dahl, Tommy Donbavand and Liz Kessler will be at the festival. I have to admit to paying less attention to the ‘grown-up’ authors again, in favour of my ‘little ones.’ Those who are given orange juice instead of wine (although I am sure not at EIBF!) because they write for children.

Have to admit that many of my hoped for events are school events. I am glad that some of the best looking events are for schools, because it means someone thinks school children deserve the best. I want to be a school child on a very temporary basis at the end of August.

Deck chair

I’m hoping for plenty of stamina on my part. I have planned a number of full or nearly full days, for about two thirds of the festival. (I was thinking of having a holiday at some point.) The event I am fairly certain I won’t be able to go to but wish I could, is Eleanor Updale talking about Vera Brittain. That would be really something.

Perhaps I will see you in Charlotte Square? (If my eyes are – temporarily – closed, just give me a gentle nudge.)