Monthly Archives: January 2015


What to say when you meet someone for the first time? When they are an author, for instance.

The best thing is obviously to say ‘I loved your book’ and if you are not feeling too senile, it’s always possible to mention the title. If you can remember it. At worst I say, ‘I loved your book about the girl who swam the Channel.’ With a bit of luck they will then mention both the title and perhaps the girl’s name, which you had also forgotten, even though you loved the book.

Most of the time, however, I seem to wander up to authors to tell them I haven’t read anything they’ve written. They wince, and say that’s OK.

But my unappealing habit of telling them on a second meeting that I still haven’t read their book(s) is really something I must give up. (I just run out of things to say, though…)

On Wednesday I was at least able to introduce myself to one of the authors by mentioning who I am and to qualify that statement by saying I’d reviewed his book a while back.

Except, thinking it over, I realised this might come across as ‘I recently reviewed your book, and very favourably too. So be nice to me and appreciate what I did for you…’

In short, I don’t know what to say next time.


A Guide to Sisters

Quite frankly, I expected A Guide to Sisters to be a bit cute and a bit ordinary, the way so many picturebooks for little girls are. Cute is fine, but sometimes you want more.

And you know what? Paula Metcalf has written a very amusing and unusual book, which is nicely – but not too cutely – illustrated by Suzanne Barton.

Paula Metcalf and Suzanne Barton, A Guide to Sisters

There is a guide to tickling, which includes the tickliest body parts of your little sister (did I mention this guide is for the older sister?), as well as showing the reader how to be comfortable while having a good grip on that little sister as you tickle.

Little sisters are like a loaf of bread to begin with, but not one you are allowed to butter. Occasionally there are BOGOF sisters (=twins). They cry and poo and give you lovely kisses. And then they bite. Apparently you are not supposed to give them away, either.

You will always be better than your little sister. You can cheat her out of almost anything if you do things right; ‘one for you, two for me…’ And if you play your cards right, she will tidy your room for you.

But when all is said and done, they are not too bad, those little sisters.

RED in Falkirk

Yesterday the Bookwitchy feet touched Falkirk soil for the first time since that fateful day in 1973. She (I mean I) saw red even on the train (a woman wearing a lovely red coat, but who wasn’t actually going where I was going). My mind was on red things, as there was a sort of dress code for attending the RED Book Award in Falkirk, and I’d dug out the few red garments I own.

Cathy MacPhail

Ever since I knew we’d be moving to Scotland, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to attend the RED Book Award, and then it happened so fast I barely knew what I was doing (I had to ditch Daughter, and feed up the camera battery), but everything worked out in the end. I walked to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), which was teeming with people in red, and I found Falkirk librarian and organiser Yvonne Manning (a Geraldine McCaughrean look-alike if ever there was one), and she showed me to the front row, despite me mentioning how I’m a back row kind of witch. There was coffee, and there were authors. All four shortlisted authors were there; Cathy MacPhail, Alan Gibbons, Oisín McGann and Alex Woolf.

Alan Gibbons and interviewers

They were being interviewed by some of the participating schools’ pupils, and it was rather like speed dating. I chatted briefly to Cathy, who’d brought her daughter along, and who said how nice Alex Woolf had turned out to be. (She was right. He is.)

Alex Woolf and interviewers

Barbara Davidson and interviewers

I found a very red lady, who turned out to be sponsor Barbara Davidson, who makes the RED award, and whose wardrobe apparently is extremely red. I like people who know what they like in the way of colour. There were even helpers wearing red boilersuits.

Back in the front row, we were treated to Yvonne Manning entering dancing, wearing a short red kilt, spotty tights and red ribbons in her hair, and she got the popstar reception treatment. Apparently ‘timing is everything’ and she managed to steer the whole day to a tight schedule.

There was a prize for anyone who found a red nose under their seat. Obviously. Another prize was offered for the school that left their seats the tidiest. After short introductions for the authors, the schools had prepared short dramatised sketches of the shortlisted books.

Yvonne Manning

At this point the Mayor came and sat on my right. Sorry, I mean Provost. Mayors are Provosts up here. Same lovely necklaces, though. And Yvonne reappeared wearing an incredible red patchwork coat, well worthy of Joseph, and it earned her some appreciative whistling from the audience.

Then it was time for prizes for the best book reviews, and the winning one was read out (after the break, after Yvonne had apologised for forgetting this important thing). She’s sweet, but also hard. The authors were given four minutes each to talk about their books; ‘speak briefly!’ They spoke about where they get ideas from. Oisín stared at people until it got ‘creepy enough.’ Cathy had found out about a real vampire in Glasgow in the 1950s, and still regrets she couldn’t have ‘It Walks Among Us’ as the title for Mosi’s War…

Alan Gibbons

Alex described how his Soul Shadows came about, which involved him writing one chapter a week, and then offering his readers several options on how to continue and they voted on which they preferred. Alan could well believe in Glaswegian vampires, and mentioned meeting Taggart once. Football is his passion. Alan’s. Not Taggart’s.

We had more dramatised books and then we listened to the woman who is the answer to my prayers. Anne Ngabia is the librarian at Grangemouth High School, and in the past she has set up little libraries in Kenya. The RED Book Award is even being shadowed by a school in Nairobi, and she showed us pictures from her libraries, as well as a short film based on Mosi’s War that they’d made.

Oisín McGann

After a very nice lunch, where I just might have offered to sue the Provost as I got him to test the veggieness of the food (if he got it wrong, I mean), the authors signed masses of books and many other things as well. The pupils thronged so much that it was hard to move for the sheer excitement of it.

Back to business again (the people of Falkirk don’t believe in half measures when they do their book awards), and we learned that the dramatised books we’d seen would tempt most people to read Alex’s book, Soul Shadows. They do believe in prizes too, so next to be rewarded were the red clothes, etc. I’d tried to bribe the judge over lunch, but it seems the prize wasn’t for old people. He turned out to be quite good at rap. Something along the lines of Red Hot. (If you want to win, I reckon wigs or pyjamas is the way to go.)

RED clothes winners

With ‘no time for fun’ the authors were then seated in two blue velvet sofas (they got the colour wrong there, didn’t they?) and the Q&A session kicked off. Good questions, and lots of them, so I won’t go into detail here. Halfway through Oisín was asked to do a drawing, and Yvonne magicked up a flipchart out of nowhere and while the others laboured over more answers, Oisín drew a fabulous picture of, well, of something.

Oisín McGann

Provost Reid, Barbara Davidson, Alan Gibbons and pupil from Denny HS

Finally, the time came to announce the winner. Provost Reid – in his beautiful red gown – made everyone stamp their feet to sound like a drumroll, and I rather hoped the ‘terraces’ behind me wouldn’t collapse under all that vigour. He told us how much he likes books, and then it was over to a fez-wearing pupil from Denny to open the red envelope and tell us the winner was

Alan Gibbons. His thank you speech was on the topic of ‘ you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that could be libraries, or it could be your life. We complain too much in our comfortable lives, compared to those readers in Kenya we met earlier.

There were prizes, naturally, for the runners-up. And photos. Lots and lots of them. Cathy commandeered her handbag to be brought and she pondered taking a selfie, but in the end she went for a conventional picture of her and her pals.

Cathy MacPhail, Alex Woolf, Alan Gibbons, Provost Reid and Oisín McGann

Cathy MacPhail and Alex Woolf

Us old ones chatted over mugs of tea before going our separate ways. And some of the helpers and I have vowed to wear much warmer clothes next time (that is, if I’m ever allowed back).

A big thank you from me, to Yvonne for inviting me when I dropped a heavy hint, and to her helpers for helping so well, the schools for their magnificent work, and to Cathy, Alan, Oisín and Alex for writing the books that caused us all to be there, at fth.

And the prize for tidiest row of seats? The prize was Oisín’s picture. And I can assure you it won’t go to us on the front row. Cough.

The Door That Led To Where

Whenever there is a new Sally Gardner book out, I just know it’s the best she has written. Same this time, with The Door That Led To Where, which features time travel, and is set in the part of London where Sally grew up. Thanks to the time travelling, she also manages to fit in almost-Dickensian London, which is something she knows a lot about.

Both these factors explain why the novel works so beautifully, on so many levels.

It begins with, if not bullying at home, then some serious discord between poor AJ and his single mum. He has achieved exactly one GCSE (but at least he got an A*) and his mum is fed up and sends him out to get a job. And what a job! He ends up as baby clerk at a law firm in Gray’s Inn.

Sally Gardner, The Door That Led To Where

And that’s where the trouble starts; AJ discovers a key with his name on, and it leads to London in 1830, and it’s a fascinating place. Dangerous, but no more so than AJ’s modern London. He and his two best friends are forever getting into serious scrapes with people, and being able to escape to an older London seems ideal.

Except, that also has its problems. The three of them need to decide where to stay, and they must sort out some time travelling problems that have escalated over the centuries.

Sally deals with both modern social problems and 19th century crime as though she was born to it. And that’s the thing. She is the most wonderful of storytellers, and she spins fantastic yarns and makes it all appear totally plausible. I believe I’ve finally worked out how she does it; Sally is a time traveller. She has been to old London, as well as living in the city we know now. It’s the only explanation.

This is one of the best books I’ve read.

And the cover in its simplicity is fiendishly clever and attractive.

Noah’s Ark

This beautiful pop-up book by Francesca Crespi would have made for the perfect Christmas present (except I ran out of review time in the run-up to the big day). But if – like me – you have a birthday child in January, now is good too. And if you haven’t, I have to say that any day would be a good day.

I don’t often see pop-up books these days, so that might be why I feel a bit excited. It was always such a treat to ‘read’ one to Offspring back in the day. You could open up those pages so many times, and it never got boring. The main threat was always that the popping-up aspect would die a violent death at some point.

Francesca Crespi, Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark begins with God despairing over the ways of the world, and that is still far too true. So Noah builds a boat (there’s even a ‘working’ saw!). And then he collects the animals.

And it rains. It rains some more. When it’s finally dry, the ark has run aground and is sitting on top of a mountain. After which they all live happily ever after.

(Although, I reckon the time has come for some more ark-building…)

Jane of Lantern Hill

Bullying is always bad, but I particularly dislike bullying within the home. Home should be safe. Strangers may be horrible to you, but not your ‘nearest and dearest.’

There is some quite ‘refined’ bullying happening at 60 Gay (yes, really) in L M Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill. 11-year-old Jane is not loved by her fearsome grandmother. Presumably because her father was the wrong kind of father. Jane’s mother loves her, but is unable to stand up to her own mother, and is actually bullied herself, by this unpleasant, rich woman who rules over them all.

L M Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill

Having believed her father is dead, it is quite a shock to find he is not, and more so when her father sends for her to come and spend the summer on Prince Edward Island. Despite being so unhappy at home, Jane desperately wants to avoid going. But as soon as she arrives on PEI, the story turns into – more or less – Anne of Green Gables.

Her new Aunt Irene proves to be a meddlesome woman, second only to grandmother in being cruel while calling Jane ‘lovey’ and pretending she adores her. But the minute Jane meets her dad, she loves him and they are kindred spirits and everything is sweet, in that well known PEI way.

Set in the early 1930s, it’s more modern than Anne, with cars and phones, but still very rural and basic. After a wonderful three months, Jane has to return to Toronto and 60 Gay, where the people are as bad as they always were, but Jane herself has changed and can – almost – deal with it.

I find it difficult understanding Jane’s mother, while it’s easier to see where the grandmother is coming from. And reading this from the cynical 21st century, it’s a little hard to shake off another interpretation of Jane’s dad’s behaviour. You do know though, that being an L M Montgomery story it will be – mostly – fine.

This is a tale about home and love. It’s about the perfect house, and loving people, and how it is so much easier to love when you are not constantly put down, but surrounded by kind people who like you. People who believe in giving you snacks to ‘line your stomach’ with. In case you get hungry between meals.

And it was a treat to be introduced to another L M Montgomery, after all these years. Although I don’t suppose I can ask her about a detail that I wondered about…


So what are you doing in the way of New Year’s resolutions? Losing weight? Going to the gym (more often)?

I know I should. But I’m so mature I know there is no point in resoluting. Still hope that one day I will surprise myself – in a positive way.

Starting a blog feels a funny* NY resolution, but I suspect it’s a fairly common one. And once people have done this, they look for other blogs to follow. Like this excellent one I’ve heard so much about; Bookwitch.

Every day my inbox tells me about more new followers. As I delete the messages I catch a glimpse of who they are. Or at least, seem to be, judging by their blogging names and the sample blog posts these emails list.

What strikes me is how little we appear to have in common. But then I don’t suppose ‘my biggest fans’ need to be into books at all. Exercise and diet and religion and philosophy is fine. Nice to meet you!

There could, of course, be an ulterior motive for the followings. The belief, or hope, that they will become visible here and will automatically gain my readers (which I reckon would only work if we are quite similar) for their own. Or that I will reciprocate. I know, somewhere in blogging etiquette it says you should. But with every Tom, Dick and Harry having New Year’s resolutions, politeness has to take a step back. I barely have time to follow my old favourites.

If it’s a good blog, I hope it works better than the diet. Or the jogging.

*By that I mean that it’s as though blogging is something you do because it’d be good for you. Not for fun, or to satisfy some urge to write. It has been fun for me, which is more than you can say for the diets.