Monthly Archives: November 2015

Stirling Literary Society

The Resident IT Consultant had been a couple of times, but I needed something special to tempt me out on a wet and dark Monday night, so it was my first time. Stirling Literary Society meet at The Smith [local museum] once a month, and the thing that got me out of the house was Scottish Children’s Literature. Dr Maureen Farrell from the University of Glasgow drove through floods to tell us about it.

When she realised that her degree didn’t cover any Scottish books Maureen decided to do her PhD on Scottish children’s literature, but was dissuaded because it was thought there wasn’t enough material for a doctorate… (I was unsure in the end if she went ahead with it anyway, or not. But whichever way, Maureen knows a few things about those non-existent children’s books.)

In the ‘beginning’ there were books, and some children read them. And there were chapbooks, sold by travelling chapmen. In the 18th century James Janeway published A Token for Children. Often books were written by puritans who wanted to educate, and needed to use language accessible to children. As early as 1744 there were ‘magazine giveaways’ with balls for boys and hoops for girls.

Then we had Sir Walter Scott. Naturally. He wrote a book for his grandson, but as a ‘very wordy writer’ it probably wasn’t all that easy to read. But he enjoyed it so much he wanted to give up writing adult books. The first proper children’s book in Scotland seems to have been Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House, where children played and were naughty.

Maureen Farrell’s criteria for what counts as Scottish literature are books by someone Scottish, set in Scotland or about Scottish people. If not, we couldn’t lay claim to J K Rowling or Julia Donaldson.

There wasn’t really time enough to talk even quite briefly about most Scottish authors. Maureen galloped past Treasure Island, The Light Princess, Peter Pan, and on to Theresa Breslin and Eric Linklater, explaining what the Carnegie Medal is (very elderly audience, but maybe not necessary?), Molly Hunter, Joan Lingard, and she showed us covers of lots of books, including The Wee Free Men.

She described the beginning chapter of Nicola Morgan’s Fleshmarket, and I decided I could possibly avoid fainting if I was lucky. Jackie Kay cropped up with both fiction and poetry, local author Rennie McOwan got some attention, as did Mairi Hedderwick and Debi Gliori.

And then there were the books in Scots, of which she had many to show us. I particularly liked Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which became The Eejits.

I reckon you can deduce that there’s enough for a PhD there, somewhere. We could have gone on for hours and only skimmed the surface. There was a lot I knew about, obviously, but there was also quite a bit I didn’t, because I was never a small Scottish child, unlike others in the audience who had strong and fond memories of many of the books mentioned.

Shetland Noir – the stories

They really went to town with their misused kitchen utensils. I’d say, never encourage a professional killer. They have enough horror to offer as it is.

I would like to say I enjoyed the little leaflet with the top three stories from the Shetland Noir writing competition. But enjoy isn’t quite the word I’d use.

Runners-up Matthew Wright and Marina Marinopoulos went for very bloody scenarios indeed. Kitchen utensils make you think kitchens, and from there it’s not far to food, and… Well, you get the picture.

Whereas winner Helen Grant was more restrained, if only by comparison. She has a gory corpse. She has made ‘good’ use of her kitchen utensil. I’ll say that for her. And I could sort of see where this story must go, which isn’t a bad thing. It built up the suspense quite nicely.

The Beach House, as her story is called, is all about death in a beautiful place. That makes it worse. I can visualise where the house is, and I can see the corpse, even though I’m trying not to. I’ll have to work on unseeing this at some point.


If Helen were to change paths and kill in the adult world from now on, I reckon she’d do it well.

Shetland Noir, only once removed

I’m the kind of witch who can recognise Denise Mina from behind, out of context (i.e. not at some book festival). On the other hand, my Shetland Noir representative, Helen Grant, had no idea who this ‘tremendously likeable’ woman was, gorgeous black furry boots and all. They travelled on the same plane, which despite it being Friday the 13th suffered no mishap, which is lucky for Scottish crime and its future. Helen did know the other crime writer at the airport, though, as she had been at Oxford with MJ McGrath.

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Helen was on her way to Shetland to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy for writing the winning short story – The Beach House – from, as it turned out, the very hands of Jimmy Perez, aka actor Doug Henshall. Not bad for a simple misuse of a kitchen utensil. (I can just see how he stands there muttering, ‘not the cheese grater. Please not the cheese grater!’)

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Strangely (!) Helen was quite keen to see a bit of beautiful Shetland while she was there, so apart from the grand reception and award thing on the Friday night, she ‘only’ went to two events, but they both sound really good. Also very female, because as we know, women scare and kill best. Just look at Helen herself.

Donald Anderson, Jacky Collins, Mari Hannah, Denise Mina, Ann Cleeves and Alexandra Sokoloff

There was a panel on the benefits and pitfalls of screen adaptations, with Alexandra Sokoloff, Ann Cleeves, Denise Mina and Mari Hannah, chaired by Jacky Collins. It’s apparently a bit like adopting a baby, and learning to step away. Ann Cleeves had Vera Stanhope adapted after the producer picked up a copy of her book in Oxfam.

According to Alexandra, who has a past as a screenwriter, in America television does sell books, whereas Ann recognises that viewers might not be readers. Denise has had a very successful adaptation made from her book, totally authentic down to the 1980s Irn Bru sign on Central Station.  And on the benefits of adapting a book, Denise said that we love books – ‘That’s why we’re all dweebing out when there’s a perfectly good craft fair on.’ The book is the real connection with another human being.

Jake Kerridge, Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar

The cheerfully named Killer Women is a London-based group of female (obviously) crime writers, which started as a social group, but now meet to discuss murder as well. In Lerwick Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar spoke to Jake Kerridge about women in crime, both as writers, detectives and victims. Apparently if the victim is male he must suffer as a spy or at war, and not in a domestic setting.

MJ McGrath enjoys turning things round, like having a female detective instead of just as the sidekick. Her male detective breeds lemmings, in order to replace those who jump off cliffs… Louise Millar has interviewed people affected by crime, several years afterwards, to learn of the long term effects. And MJ interviewed some Hell’s Angels after a murder. She felt that being a woman was an advantage in that situation: ‘Either they want to impress you or they don’t take you seriously.’

Women are ‘equal opportunities readers’ and will read books by both women and men, but men are more likely to read men. Helen Giltrow, who works in a male dominated sector, espionage, has been told ‘you write like a man.’ MJ commented that ‘I have been told with great sincerity and as a compliment, I write like a brunette!’

On sex and violence Laura said that she has heard male writers say that women can go further because if a man writes about sexual violence people will think that he is a pervert who really wants to do it! Louise added that there is also the issue of having to write ‘likeable’ women, which is very constraining.

(I’ve never noticed any ‘constraining’…)

On the gossip front the latest news from Ann Cleeves seems to be a non-crime (I’m guessing non-fiction) book about Shetland. Because she loves it. Alex Gray is incredibly nice, and she and Helen talked about Bloody Scotland. Valerie Laws’ sleep was not helped by waves breaking against the hotel wall right beneath her window. (At least the sea stayed on the outside.) Marsali Taylor wins [Helen’s] prize for best dressed crime writer, with a stunning fuchsia silk fitted dress with gold embroidery and matching trousers.

After a weekend like this, Helen can almost see herself having more of a go at adult crime. It was ‘inspiring.’ And next time she flies to Shetland, her woolly hat will be in her hand luggage.

Doug Henshall and Helen Grant, by Dale Smith

The other prize

Confusingly, there are two Astrid Lindgren literary prizes. Actually, there could be more than that. I only happen to know of two. This is about the smaller, less famous, but older Astrid Lindgren prize.

Mårten Sandén, about whom I’ve written here a few times, has just been awarded this prize, which as he puts it, means he’s now in the company of the children’s authors who inspired him to read when he was a little boy. And I think that’s quite nice.

The prize is for 50,000 kronor, which is just under £5000, and thus rather less than the ALMA, which is five million kronor. That one is a life changing kind of award, or so I imagine, whereas what Mårten has been given is more of a pat on the head, saying ‘well done,’ while also letting the winner join a select group of writers.

I reviewed one of Mårten’s recent books a few weeks ago, despite the fact that it’s not been translated into English yet. I simply felt I had to mention it anyway. And for his nameday almost exactly two years ago, I published his profile on Bookwitch. Never let it be said I don’t appreciate the best.

Mog lives again

Would you buy your brussels sprouts in a supermarket you don’t normally frequent just because it revived Mog?

I fail to see how normal people could be swayed by this. It’s one thing to advertise sweets and toys at children, or for that matter, wine and discounted sofas at adults. That way you are being sold a particular item that you might not need, but will develop a craving for.

But Sainsbury’s are not flogging a dead cat, however adorable and Christmassy. Well, they are. I understand that you can go to the supermarket and buy Judith Kerr’s latest book about Mog. (Anyone reading this, feel free to get me a copy..!) Other than that, though, they are either ‘merely’ hoping to win the Christmas television commercial war, or possibly also hoping that you will pop into one of their branches for your Christmas food. Whether or not you are already a customer.

So as a part time customer, I feel neither more or less of an urge to let them supply me with sprouts after the Mog ad.

It’s lovely, though. More so for those of us who have got used to the idea of Mog being dead and not expecting to see our darling cat again. But that little film of Mog’s nightmare and subsequent crazy accidental frenzied exit from the house has had many of us old cynics laugh and cry at the same time. And that is a most welcome feeling.

Thank you Judith Kerr for giving us some more Mog. And thank you Sainsbury’s for making Mog come to life again, in such a spectacular way. (I might be in later for sprouts. Or I might go to Lidl. I’ll see.)

Hopefully not ditched

This is the Shetland Noir weekend. It could have picked better weather. Storm Abigail is upon us, and my own Ice Cube is bad enough, for being battered by winds and heavy rain.

I’m very grateful not to have been travelling to Shetland with Abigail. As far as I know, the authors who had to get there in time for the crime festival did manage to travel. Brave people who think nothing of throwing up in small planes or on choppy ferries in the service of literature.

But as I was thinking of these poor souls, in my relatively warm and cosy home, I could visualise the scenario of these people being stranded together. Either in some airport, with no planes taking off, or, well, in some rather more dire situation. You know, a whole plane load of professional killers.

Just imagine what they could get up to.

(Feel free to use this idea for a book, or a short story. I’ll settle for 10%.)

Diversest of them all?

OK, I’ll stick my head out again. Not as much as some, but at least a token.

I was surprised two weeks ago by the reaction to my blog post about the storm surrounding Meg Rosoff and her feeling that she preferred to write the books she wants to write and not the ones that others feel must be written. But then that is the whole point of a – relatively – free society. We are allowed to think differently.

Before that I had read Michael Grant’s piece on how he feels he’s the most diverse YA author around. It was a bold statement, which I admire him for. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’d say from what I know that he’s at least partially right. I am very fond of Edilio in Gone. Lots of us are. He’s an immigrant. He’s not white. And he’s gay. And that all seems perfectly normal. He is hopefully not in there to be a token character, but simply to be himself.

Michael Grant

Now it seems Michael is being accused by ‘fans of diversity… [who] are enraged that I’ve done what they claim they want everyone to do.’ While that sounds a little outrageous, it also has the ring of truth to it. Many people with an agenda will get annoyed by almost anything, even when it doesn’t make sense. Because it’s being annoyed that is so satisfying.

Michael is no scaredy-cat who will hide behind bland words. On the contrary, he goes right out there and says what he thinks and feels. He looks like a tough guy, but I’m sure he’s like the rest of us on the inside. We can all feel hurt and baffled, but many of us retreat and say nothing when things go wrong. Not so Michael.

I’m glad he says it out loud. Someone needs to say it. Some mornings the emperor really does forget to dress.

It was better before

I suppose at some point I will take up knitting when on Skype with Daughter. You sort of feel you need to do something other than sit there saying increasingly interesting things to your screen. Even if said screen talks back [in more ways than one].

For quite some time I have been pruning my Photos while also having a conversation. I have A LOT of them. Photos. They use up all these megabytes, whatever those are. I mean, a witch does need lots of nice photos of lovely booky people, but it can be enough to have one of someone posing with outstretched arm, and one when they wave that arm, and one when they… You don’t need a dozen of each. That’s how those MBs grow.

But I’m getting close to being done with the Photos, so have turned my attention to my Mail. I don’t think it takes up any actual space on my computer, but it’s an untidy mess, even with folders mostly correctly used, and with far too many unimportant emails. You know, better to scroll through 3000 blog related emails than 5000. Maybe.

To prune you have to cast a quick glance to see what it’s about and to/from whom. And I’ve been struck by two things. One is that some of the book titles I was clearly desperate to receive and read and review, and actually did, I cannot for the life of me remember. Not in the slightest.

The other is that the emails were longer and friendlier back at the beginning. Before ‘bloggers’ inundated the book publicity scene, when publicists had time to write a few personal sentences in each message. When we had time to almost get to know each other. When they had time to read the blogs they knew about, every day.

I find I miss those emails and the relationships, if I may call them that. I must try and return to my old standards. I suppose I’ve become too jaded, not to mention rushed. As are the publicists. They don’t have the time to be nice to the same extent as they did.

Michael Palin

As for some of the photos… with some of them I stare at the face of some author or other and I have no clue who they are. I tell myself those are the photos taken by my photographers when I wasn’t present, and the authors probably are ‘grown-up’ authors whose books I don’t know.

(I do know that’s Michael Palin on the left. But I found he posed so well that I just had no need for a hundred different Palin poses. And he’s never emailed me, as far as I recall.)

The Secrets of the Wild Wood

Today is Tonke Dragt’s 85th birthday, and here is the Resident IT Consultant with a review of another of her fantastic books:

The Secrets of the Wild Wood by Tonke Dragt is the sequel to her prize-winning story, The Letter for the King. Originally published in Dutch as De geheimen van het Wilde Woud, it is now, for the first time, available in an English translation by Laura Watkinson, published by Pushkin Children’s.

Tonke Dragt, The Secrets of the Wild Wood

The story carries on from the end of The Letter for the King. Tiuri, now Sir Tiuri, has returned from Unauwen and is waiting with his squire, Piak, for the return of the knight-errant, Sir Ristridin, who was last heard of leading a small band of knights into the mysterious Wild Wood in pursuit of the secrets it contained. That was autumn. It is now spring, and nothing has been heard of Ristridin for many months.

Rumours abound. Risitridin has sworn to punish the Black Knight with the Red Shield for the murder of his friend Edwinem. Has Ristridin himself been killed? Has he ridden to Deltaland? If so, why did he not first come to Castle Ristridin? Tiuri and Piak decide to seek news of Ristridin at Castle Islan on the very fringes of the Wild Wood.

‘There won’t be anything of interest happening there,’ says Sir Bendu. He couldn’t be more wrong. Tiuri and Piak are embarking on an adventure which will see Tiuri captured and Piak battling to free him. Who are the Men in Green and what is the secret of the Unholy Hills? On the way to solving these questions Tiuri and Piak meet the beguiling Isadoro and encounter two old friends from the first book, Lavinia, daughter of the Lord of Mistrinaut, who still preserves her romantic feelings towards Tiuri and Marcus, the Fool in the Forest. And Tiuri plays a fateful game of chess against the Black Knight himself.

I especially enjoyed the book’s description of the natural world. Dragt (or is it the translator?) seems to have a knack for conveying the interplay of the seasons, weather, the countryside and man. I found myself, especially in the early chapters, reminded of the winter landscapes of Breugel. The language feels very natural and straightforward. There is none of the affectation in dialogue which sometimes accompanies history or fantasy.

I was intrigued to discover that Dragt only read The Lord of the Rings after she had written The Letter for the King. Apparently, she was afraid to write anything for six month afterwards for fear of being influenced by Tolkien. There’s an obvious Arthurian influence but, on the whole, I think the fantasy in the two books benefits from Dragt not having had the opportunity to study Beowulf.

I thoroughly recommend this book. The Letter for the King is recognised as the best children’s book ever in Dutch. I believe The Secrets of the Wild Wood is just as good. It’s just a pity that we’ve had to wait fifty years to be able to read it in English.


Why did I never read Kipper to Offspring? This 25-year-old is very appealing, and the mother of Offspring’s friends down the road swore by Mick Inkpen. If he had anything to do with a book, she’d buy it for her little darlings. This was back when we organised bookselling parties, inviting the same parents over and over again to come and buy more and more books.

Kipper did invite me to his 18th birthday bash seven years ago. But still I didn’t really read.

Now that he is 25 there have been some re-issued older picture books, and even to me it’s like meeting up with old friends again. In Kipper’s Little Friends he learns he’s not a doglet or dogling, but a puppy. There are many other little animals who are -lets and -lings, though, and very cute they are too. And it’s not only the froglets and the ducklings that make me want to hug the book.

In Kipper’s Toybox his beloved Sock Thing appears to be at risk and he moves into his toybox to make sure all his little friends are safe [making me just want to hug the whole toybox…]. The answer is mice. Two to begin with and quite a few more after a while. And less toybox.

How well I remember wanting to collect cereal box freebies, as someone who wasn’t allowed to eat the most exciting cereal. Kipper finds a beach ball with his in Kipper’s Beach Ball. It smells nice and plasticky. And it suffers from being played with, the way inflatable toys generally do. And no matter how much cereal Kipper gets, he only ever finds the other, more boring, toys to collect.

But we did have fun, both with the ball while it lasted and the live and toy friends. Hugs all round!

Mick Inkpen, Kipper