Monthly Archives: September 2017

The 2017 Gothenburg Book Fair

Next week it’s time for this year’s book fair in Gothenburg. Maybe we should refer to it more as a Swedish book fair? Because it is the book fair, and it just happens to take place in Gothenburg. People travel there from Stockholm. In fact, perhaps they need an excuse to leave.

Before I out-festivalled myself this summer I was seriously tempted. It was as if the nine-year gap from 2007 to 2016 had not been. I was there last year and although I was exhausted from the word go, it still felt as if I should – would – be going. But we all get funny notions occasionally. I started with Philip Pullman, and ended with Meg Rosoff. Not sure what the fair would need to offer to rouse me this time.

The programme, which I perused carefully, has a lot going for it, and that was before I recollected that many authors are boycotting it this year, for permitting the far right to attend. And – this might gall them, if they actually read Bookwitch – I didn’t miss them in the programme. It looked interesting enough anyway.

My new ‘pal’ Christoffer Carlsson will be there on the Saturday. There are talks on subjects such as Arabic children’s literature today, and Are there too many children’s books being published? It bears thinking about. Black Lives Matter, on politics in teen books. Quality or Quantity? on children’s publishing. Read Yourself Well. Very important. Does the Swedish school system kill the creativity of its pupils? Chapter books vs YouTube.

Jenny Colgan will be there, talking among other things about living in a castle. I didn’t know she did. How to use children’s books to talk about current affairs. And it seems Norway has never been hotter [in children’s books].

Perhaps there are fewer ‘names.’ I’m not sure. But then, it’s not necessarily the ‘names’ that make for a good event. We flock to see and hear our literary stars, but occasionally they can be less good at performing than other literary professionals.

YA in Icelandic; how about that? Or there’s M G Leonard and Frances Hardinge. And does educated = well read? I suspect there won’t be any cake in the Afternoon Tea event with Jenny Colgan and Sophie Kinsella. Or even tea. An event on how reading trash could be the start of good reading sounds just like my kind of thing.

In fact, right now I am wondering why I’m still at home. (I know why, but temptation is back.) David Lagercrantz talks about his Lisbeth Salander, with Christopher MacLehose. FYI I’m still only on Saturday. One more day.

Astrid Lindgren and Jane Austen. Not together, and not in the flesh, for obvious reasons. More Val McDermid. Some [Swedish] superstars like Sven-Bertil Taube and Tomas Ledin. It gets lighter as the weekend progresses. It’s a way to tempt the masses to come on the Sunday, and it’s a way for the masses to rub shoulders with stars.

There’s Arundhati Roy. Ten years ago I grew – almost – blasé about seeing Orhan Pamuk all over the place. It’s what it’s like.

I might go next year. But I’ll – probably – never again have constant access to my favourite author as I prowl those corridors.

Meg Rosoff at Vi Läser in Gothenburg

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

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…

Pitch Perfect at Bloody Scotland

Had they even written those books they worked so hard to pitch?

I ask only because last year’s winner of Pitch Perfect apparently hadn’t. She pitched. She won. She got contract. And then she wrote. Or I hope she did, as the book is coming out in the spring.

I don’t know why I’ve never gone to one of these sessions before. Well, I do. They sounded too intimate, for some reason. A moment between hopeful writer and stern publishing person. Could be embarrassing to witness.

Pitch perfect

Except it wasn’t. Eight – slightly vetted – hopefuls using their three minutes as wisely as possible, trying to charm the four professionals, who in turn had three minutes per applicant to give their verdict.

The first pitch was really good, I thought. I liked the person, I liked his performance and I thought the book sounded promising. But maybe they’d all be like that.

Well, some were, in some respects, and others weren’t. Most were interesting in some way. But what fascinated me was that while what I liked best, the professionals also liked. I think. But they seemed to like what I didn’t go for, even more. Very illuminating. As far as the publishing world goes, I mean.

And the thing is, a personable potential author does not guarantee a good book, or sales. A good pitch still does not mean it’s going to be a cracking novel. And so on. Those publishing people could be wrong. Maybe?

Or rather, they know very well what is likely to work. But it doesn’t mean they pick the best story to work with. The choose what will fit in best with their business. And it’s from this readers get to pick what they might enjoy. I noticed how one of the panel was impressed by an idea that I at my age felt was anything but original, because I’ve been around for longer.

Pitch perfect

They liked the person who could say who her expected readers might be. Except she had young people in mind, and that makes it YA (the horror of it!), and young people don’t spend money. Probably right. What they overlooked – perhaps – was that authors are often mistaken about who will love what they have written. It’s a judgement better done by someone else.

The panel obviously wanted to tick boxes. It’s how business works. And the digital publisher understandably had different needs from traditional publishing.

That’s why they eventually picked two winners; one for a possible digital future, and one traditional. The latter was the one I liked best, the first one. Look out for crimes in 1930s Singapore!

Bloody India at Bloody Scotland

There were so many things I had no idea I needed to know about Kolkata!

Bloody India was my first event on Sunday morning, and it was even better than I had expected. Jenny Brown was there to usher the others in, and they were ‘needs no introduction, she’s great, obviously’ Lin Anderson and ‘little’ Doug Johnstone, whose jobs were to introduce Monabi Mitra, all the way from Kolkata, and Abir Mukherjee, from his mum’s house ‘down the road,’ but who usually lives in London.

Monabi Mitra

Chance – and the British Council – had sent Lin and Doug, and oh, Jenny too, to the Kolkata Literary Festival in February, where they met lots of people (they get something like 2,500,000 visitors there…), including, I believe, Monabi. Such numbers will explain why Scotland wants to make it on the Indian litscene. Just imagine how many books they could sell to so many fervent fans of reading! They are planning special Indian editions of Scottish crime, and expect to return there in February 2018.

Lin and Doug entered Indian immigration successfully, but there had been some doubt about whether Jenny should be let through. Or so they claimed. But when they were all safely in, and wondering what could have happened to their luggage, they discovered that people from [the plane?] had kept their bags company in the now deserted airport.

Doug said that it wasn’t until he went to India that he understood what culture shock means. And people are so cultural, in a place where readers rioted because the book fair closed early… According to Abir the words on the airport ceiling are from Tagore’s works. Watching an eight-year-old boy choosing a book to buy, they were flabberghasted to find it was a copy of Ivanhoe.

Anyway, as Lin said, we hadn’t come to hear her and Doug speak.

Monabi Mitra, The Final Report

Monabi Mitra is a professor of English literature, and she is married to a detective inspector, which might explain why she started writing crime fiction. She said there’s a duality in her life, with literature on one side and the dangerous world of the police on the other. Mentioning her own experience of being present at an autopsy, she feels there must be one in each book.

Indian autopsies are quite different from the Western kind we’ve got used to from CSI. Monabi read an excerpt from her novel, about a shockingly different autopsy. It’s fast, and careless, and there are rats, and it’s always smelly.

Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee reckons he is the only Scottish-Indian crime writer, and if there’s anyone else, he’ll have to kill them. He recounted the old tale of how in parts of Scotland people want to know if you are Catholic or Protestant, and when saying he’s Hindu, they want to know if he’s a Catholic Hindu or a Protestant Hindu.

Kolkata is practically a Scottish city, built by Scots, and it’s not all that old. Bengalis are very much like Scots, but without the alcohol. The period between 1919 and 1947 is an important one.

Abir Mukherjee, A Rising Man

Reading from A Rising Man, Abir chose a passage about a visit to a church (because we were in a church). His detective is a Scot who has gone to live in Kolakata after being widowed, and it was ‘slightly preferable to suicide.’ A sad background, but Abir’s writing is humorous and his book sounds like a great read. There is apparently a shared gallow’s humour between Scotland and Bengal.

Monabi mentioned the works of H R F Keating and his Inspector Ghote. As homage to this man who wrote about an India he’d not visited, she named her detective Inspector Ghosh. She pointed out that in India you don’t tend to hire a PI, unless you are ‘in deep shit.’

Monabi Mitra

When asked, she said that she thinks in English, although she speaks two other languages. She described her Saturday at Bloody Scotland, the sunshine (!) and what a great invention queueing is. Kolkata is not orderly. It’s wonderful here, and the events were real eye-openers.

But on the other hand, Kolkata used fingerprinting before Britain, and Ronald Ross discovered what causes malaria (admittedly by experimenting on the servants…). Kolkata was very cosmopolitan between the two world wars, and in the past ‘its greatness was greater.’

Abir said that the reason he writes is he read some popular crime novels and felt they were so badly written that he could do better. Despite his Indian background he said he didn’t feel he could write from a Bengal point of view, which is why he chose a Scot in Kolkata.

Abir Mukherjee and Doug Johnstone

His first book is set in 1919, and he said that whereas what happened in Amritsar that year had an impact on Kolkata as well, news travelled so slowly, that he had to make up faster news for his story, so that they knew the day after.

When time was up, there was a bit of a scramble to be first to the books for sale [as there could have been more copies]. I admit to buying a book by each of the visiting authors, which is something that hardly ever happens. I spoke a little to both of them, and Monabi told be about the number of Scots who have not only moved to Kolkata, but have aquired nationality, because it’s the best place to live.

After this event I can sort of see why.