Monthly Archives: September 2017

A Home Full of Friends

In times like these it’s more important than ever to set a good example. And doing good deeds is obviously also essential.

In Peter Bently’s story about Bramble Badger, with adorable illustrations by Charles Fuge, we meet a rather lonely badger. The weather is bad and he’s going home to feel more comfortable.

But the awful weather has the effect that some of his friends need to look for somewhere else to stay, and they invite themselves to Bramble’s house. He’s unable to refuse, which is good, but it worries him.

What about food and where will they sleep? He does what most of us do, and runs around trying to make his home a little tidier, with enough chairs and enough food. And then his visitors turn up with even more visitors!

But you know, there’s no need to fret. Together is better, and having friends is the best thing in life.

You share what you have.

Peter Bently and Charles Fuge, A Home Full of Friends

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Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist

When you’re at death’s door, life’s not expected to be much fun, even – or especially – when it’s the door to Room 9, the one with the smiley. But then you don’t know Connor. He’s fifteen and he’s got terminal cancer. Well, we’re all terminal, because as Connor keeps saying, ‘nadie deja este mundo vivo’ which means no one leaves this world alive.

Which is very true. I don’t like ‘cancer books’ and I hate bullies and irresponsible behaviour. But while Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist has all this, it also has a lot of charm and fun and happiness to offer the reader. And before anyone says ‘well that’s easy for the author to write,’ the very sad fact is that John Young wrote the book as his own child was dying. I can’t even begin to understand where he got his strength from.

John Young, Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist

At the beginning, Connor is getting another kicking from his bully Skeates. Well, he did put a dead bird in his dinner. So Connor might be small and weak, but he’s not one for hiding. He’s got one friend, a girl called Emma, or Emo.

But when things turn really weird, it is Skeates he ends up running away with – although not in a romantic way. Connor’s father is in jail, his mum temporarily ill, and his sister died years ago. And he has cancer. Skeates decides they should try and visit Connor’s dad in jail, so they embark on a truly crazy, but also inspirational, trip across the Scottish Highlands towards Glasgow.

Unfortunately Connor escapes Stornoway without his medicines, and he’s not sure he can trust Skeates. It’s a good thing he’s feeling adventurous and positive towards most of the often illegal suggestions Skeates makes.

At least the adult reader sits there knowing this will not, cannot, end well. But what kind of not well will it be? How soon might Connor die? Or will Skeates or the Glaswegian football supporters kill him before the cancer does? Or maybe the skiing in Aviemore, wearing unsuitable clothes? The joyriding?

And then, there really is no avoiding death’s door.

This is sweet (yes really, Skeates), incredibly funny, and tremendously exciting. And there is a smiley on the door to Room 9. As Connor waits, he thinks ahead to what sandwich fillings his mum might choose for the funeral.

Save the Rohingya

Looking back at my review from earlier this summer of Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, I was ashamed to see I didn’t even mention the Rohingya. Maybe I felt the name would be meaningless to most Westerners, or perhaps I decided it was the basics of the situation for the refugees in the book which mattered.

I can’t even remember. But I did remember the name Rohingya, so when it turned up in the news more recently, I realised it was more active as a problem again.

The young boy in Zana’s book is Rohingya, and as Zana describes it, they ‘are an ethnic Muslim minority living in a predominantly Buddhist majority in Myanmar.’ The United Nations and Amnesty International say the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted people on earth.

Did any of us know that?

The government of Myanmar is committing genocide, with the Rohingya being hunted into extinction. And governments all over the world know this. The Rohingya have been known to be forced onto boats, or killed if they refused.

That’s why Subhi and his family in The Bone Sparrow are in a refugee camp. As Zana says in her afterword, she wishes her ‘book had never needed to be written.’ How I wish that too.

And reading about how this is a known situation to people in power, it’s not surprising that no one much raised a finger when Hitler did what he did to the Jews 70 years ago. It might seem easier not to interfere. We used to blame this kind of thing on people not knowing. Now we have to look on as a formerly admired Nobel peace prize winner does nothing for the persecuted people in her own country. But she does know.

Launching The Rasputin Dagger

I stood right next to the sign for Theresa Breslin’s book launch at Waterstones Sauchiehall Street as I asked a member of staff where it was going to be. Obviously, I only noticed as he’d very politely told me second floor. It’s not easy being an idiot.

After another turn round the lower ground floor just to show I was in no hurry, I got the lift up to the second floor, marvelling at the thickness of the floors, as well as feeling slightly ill. It’s a glass lift and you can see ‘everything.’ Seeing as I could see so much, I immediately noticed Alex Nye and a surprisingly soberly attired Kirkland Ciccone browsing crime fiction at – separate – tables, as though they were there separately.

Still feeling the shock of Denise Mina’s Bloody Scotland story, I unburdened myself to Alex, who just might have read a little in the shop’s copy to see what the fuss was about. Seems she’s a Thomas Hardy fan…

Anyway, both of them actually needed to buy books. I wonder how that feels?

Theresa Breslin at the Rasputin Dagger launch

When we were allowed to enter the events room I found Mr B, who did what he does so well; whipping out a fake beard, pretending he was Rasputin. I don’t mean he always tries to be a Russian monk, but that he enters into the spririt of his wife’s books. This time his personalised t-shirt had a dagger on the back. Better than in the back.

Cathy MacPhail and Kirkland Ciccone at The Rasputin Dagger launch

Cathy MacPhail and Moira Mcpartlin joined us and we sat down over drinks and crisps, although we gathered we were meant to stand up. I’m too old to stand up, so we rebelled. Also encountered Kathryn Ross and Kate Leiper, with Yvonne Manning, which was nice.

Moira McPartlin and Alex Nye at The Rasputin Dagger launch

It seems the events area is a new thing for Waterstones, and it looked good. I think more bookshops should have rooms for this kind of thing. After an introduction, Theresa spoke a little about the background to her book, and then she read, from chapter one, and the bit where Rasputin dies. She also mentioned that someone in the room knew someone who knew someone who’d met the Tsar.

The Rasputin Dagger launch

This probably wasn’t the rather young lady (granddaughter?) who ran up and hugged Theresa’s knees mid-read. But I imagine she might have found out that I favour the input from little ones at events like these, which could be why it seemed unfair to her when she was carried away again.

Theresa Breslin at the Rasputin Dagger launch

After chatting to the Waterstones host about the women’s demonstrations in Russia, Theresa mentioned their early right to vote, comparing this with Britain, and then they moved on to Argentina around fifteen years ago and the lack of food there, before we were invited to try the special cakes.

The Rasputin Dagger launch

To avoid being stuck in Waterstones all night, I left just before the pumpkin struck eight, and because the trains are back to being difficult (what would we do if the trains ran properly??), Kirkie and I walked down Sauchiehall Street; he to a bus and me to the last train. Moira gave Alex a lift for the same reason, and then it seems Alex got on my train in Stirling as I got off…

Bloody Scotland – the anthology

Bloody Scotland. What a – bloody – fantastic collection of crime stories! And what a gorgeous cover! It’s like blood dripping…

Bloody Scotland - the book

Although I have to admit to doubting the wisdom of going to bed so soon after finishing the last stories. How was I going to sleep after what Denise Mina put me through? Or Louise Welsh? She’d seemed like such a pleasant person when I got my book signed at the weekend. How could she?

Whereas Stuart MacBride, who usually is too dark for my general wellbeing, just entertained me, and almost made me laugh. Almost. I would like to see his crazy romp at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse with his insane characters made into a short film. I think. I might not be able to watch it, though. Crying out to be filmed, whether or not I am witch enough to view it.

This crime story collection with stories by twelve of Scotland’s best, was the brainchild of Historic Environment Scotland, or HES for short, in collaboration with Bloody Scotland. Why not have our professional killers write a story each, set in one or other of the many HES buildings or sites? Why not? Well, maybe in order not to scare people.

For those less feeble-minded than your witch, this is a marvellous memento of your visit to a HES site. It’s marvellous even if you never go, and after you’ve waded through some bloodbaths you might have second thoughts. So visit first, then buy, and read last. After which you either go back to look at the place again (I know your type..!), or your next visit will be to a place where Bloody Scotland has not murdered anyone.

Yet. I feel there should be more of these. Obviously not to be read at bedtime.

It’s not all blood and gore and devastation however. Chris Brookmyre is suitably fun and lighthearted, and Gordon Brown’s character has a lesson to learn. A couple of authors have gone for revenge, which was most satisfying. Or history, such as Lin Anderson’s visit to the distant past, or E S Thomson’s industrial history drama.

I’ve already mentioned how pleased Doug Johnstone was about my reaction to his tale about the Forth Bridge. And if I don’t mention Val McDermid, Sara Sheridan, Craig Robertson or Ann Cleeves next to their stories, it’s to avoid spoilers.

You don’t want to know when to beware the narrator/main character, or when they are as innocent as you want/expect them to be. Or people close to them. There’s a lot of bad people out there.

But as I said, once the sleep problems have been dealt with, I can’t but want more of this. I can think of authors not yet asked to kill for HES, or places to visit that have not yet been, well, ‘visited.’

Let the blood flow and your nerves take a beating. Won’t be the only thing to take a beating, I can promise you.

Bloody Scotland blog tour

Series – to abandon or not to abandon

That is the question.

As has become clear over the Bloody Scotland weekend, there are series everywhere. Not only do the long – and medium – established writers have series. The debut authors are also planning several books. Even the unpublished ones pitching their first novel, spoke of series.

If you are free to read whatever you like, whenever you can, with no blog commitments, you can probably keep up with lots of series.

I no longer know what to do. I tend to wait and see what happens. Because I can’t actually make the decision. It has to be made for me. I will – temporarily – abandon a series of books I love, if there is something else, equally loveable out there. Maybe something that is noisier when looking for attention.

And that first abandoning was never intentional. It just happened. It’s not you; it’s me.

In the last maybe fifteen years I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the crime novels by Kate Ellis and Stephen Booth. I read every one up to a certain point. I read about Mma Ramotswe. I read these usually in the right order, moving backwards to catch the odd earlier book, and then waited in real time for the next one to be published. It seemed like a long wait, until it wasn’t so bad, and then until the next two books were here and I didn’t know how to fit them in.

I discovered Sara Paretsky, whose books I still read when a new one comes along, and slowly reading the older ones.

Among my new people, as you know, are James Oswald and Vaseem Khan. I don’t know how long I can keep going. I want to. But I wanted to with the others as well.

With Sophie Hannah I grew too scared to continue, so that was an easier decison to make. And thankfully we have the new Poirots.

Or there is Harry Potter, but we knew how many books to expect. Knew there would be an end. As we did with Skulduggery Pleasant, at least until Derek Landy decided to keep going a bit longer. With Lockwood you might not have known for certain, but unless something changed, the characters would eventually be unable to do what they did because of their [lack of] years.

Which books do you keep? Will I ever reread the abandoned series? Will I restart one day? Which ones will I regret once I have ditched my copies? When we moved, we parted with about half our Dorothy Sayers. That seemed OK. Many of Agatha Christie’s books I’ve never owned as I borrowed them from the library.

And then I looked at my shelves for inspiration, and considered Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Those books I read slowly over a long time, and I don’t claim to have read all. But the thought that I might get rid of the books made me want to cry. They are staying. Campion is like a crazy older brother, and Alleyn some benevolent uncle. Yes, I know I have now bypassed them in age, as far as most of the stories are concerned.

So what to do about those just starting out? Not read at all, just in case? Read one and be hooked? Have nervous breakdown?

Getting rid of the bodies – Bloody Scotland

Yes, I am aware I made this year’s Bloody Scotland the beginners’ festival, but James Oswald is my new crime writer. When he turned up four years ago to take the place of Eoin Colfer, I was disappointed, but only for about three minutes. And anyone who can, if not exactly replace our favourite Irishman, be just as good but in a different way is, well, good. Yes, I know I just said that. Besides James was given the extra handicap of having to read after Colin Bateman.

And he survived! After a few years of coming back to Stirling, and being part of panels of three or four, here he was, practically on his own, and in a full Albert Halls at that. Yes, I know he appeared with Sue Black, the famous forensic anthropologist dame, but I usually think of her as being paired with Val McDermid, so this was definitely a step up, or two [for James]. And Lin Anderson was there to keep order as they talked corpses and what to do with them.

Lin actually insinuated that we in the audience were somewhat suspect, as though we all had dead bodies we needed advice on disposing of.

James Oswald books

They spoke mostly about James’s latest Tony McLean novel, Written in Bones, and where he put his corpse and what could be done with it after. That’s up a tree in the Meadows (just outside Lin’s flat, I gather), and the trick is how you remove a body without it deteriorating or ending up all over people and roads and that kind of thing.

Sue told us about different injuries to bodies, ante mortem, peri mortem, and post mortem. James apparently got the idea for using a cherry picker from a friend, but when asked if she’d like to go up in one to look at a dead body, Sue replied ‘God no!’

James admitted that Tony McLean is a bit him. He has given Tony most of his own hang-ups. And he does actually own three Alfa Romeos, albeit only one that works and lives in the garage. The other two are in the cowshed. Despite making Tony’s grandmother such an integral part of the books, James never knew either of his; only his maternal grandfather.

James Oswald

Sue said that her grandmother was her best friend, and talked about how tough it was for her teenage self to discover that her grandmother’s sixty-a-day habit was about to kill her. ‘Oh, she was a wicked woman!’ Sue said about her best friend. It seems her grandmother consoled her by explaining that she’d never leave her; that she would be sitting on her left shoulder, where ‘that bloody woman’ has witnessed all that Sue has done. If you’re wondering, the right shoulder’s for the angel.

Sue Black

Sue didn’t enjoy counting dead fruit flies at university, so switched courses at some point. She also had a gruesome tale about a barbecue where you first had to choose your meat, while it was still a living animal… It could be that Sue really doesn’t know what to do when she grows up, but meanwhile she is Professor at the University of Dundee, where she raised half of the two million pounds needed for a new, bigger and better mortuary.

That’s where Val McDermid came in, bringing her crime writing friends in to raise money, for what is now the McDermid Mortuary, after its largest donor. The various tanks in the mortuary were named after other authors, but Lee Child said they couldn’t have a Child tank, so it’s now named after Jack Reacher. Somewhere in the tale of raising money, there is a cookbook, which Sue said was perhaps not the best thing for when you’re involved in disposing of bodies. And beware Sue’s husband’s margaritas. Have one, or possibly two, but after the third you’ll ‘never walk again.’

Talking about the bodies donated for research, they have an annual memorial service for these people, because it’s important to remember who they were . On the other hand, Sue doesn’t approve of ‘body farms’ and after hearing what they do, neither do I. And because we are all experts now, after watching CSI, people like Sue can never hope to compete in court, so juries are less impressed.

James said that on one occasion he made Tony travel outside Edinburgh, to victims discovered near James’s own farm, and when Tony needs to clear his head by going for a walk, he is chased by James’s highland cows. As for himself, he’s so shy he has never asked the police about procedure, afraid he’d be arrested if he did. For him the touchstone is whether what he’s writing is plausible, and he will rewrite if worried. His first bit of fan mail came from a retired policeman who was so impressed he wanted to know who his source was, because he could almost guess.

James Oswald

On the subject of fan input, the most James has had is about Mrs McCutcheon’s cat. ‘Is it all right?’ ‘Don’t hurt it!’ Someone wanted a book about the cat, and James reckons he might manage a short story about Mrs McCutcheon’s cat.

There wasn’t much time for questions, but a member of the audience said they’d done a tour of the mortuary, and it was wonderful. Sue said ‘there is no fear in death,’ but James pointed out he’s really sqeamish and has never actually been to a mortuary…