Monthly Archives: February 2019

Bookwitch bites #145

Books for teens? Not as popular as they were?

It’s tough for YA authors, and as is pointed out in this Guardian article, they are giving up. It’s no longer enough to have a burning ambition and plenty of ideas. You need to eat and pay the rent, too. With publishers not so active at promoting the books they publish, they sell less well. Not surprising. I practically have to drag both information and books out of their hands.

Kirkland Ciccone isn’t giving up, however. Next month he is back with another YA day in Cumbernauld. He’s lined up six – or seven – authors (it’s hard to know where you are with Philip Caveney and Danny Weston) to come and entertain students from local schools for a day. Yay! YA+

Last night I’d half hoped to attend Noir at the Bar in Edinburgh, had it not been for last minute builder issues. I’ve so far missed every one of these evenings, but am sure one day, evening, I will be there. I had been under the impression it was all noir [crime], but having had coffee with Moira McPartlin the same morning, and learned that she was there to be noir about her Star of Hope where there is a lot of death – cannibals, even? – she reckoned that you could noir pretty much about anything. (And she’s going to be in Cumbernauld for Yay! YA+…)

More good YA news for John Young, who has just won the Scottish Teenage Book Prize for Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist. Very good book.

The Carnegie/Kate Greenaway medal has only got as far as its longlist, but that’s good enough for me. I like seeing how right I was from the nominations, and also to see how many I’ve read. This year, more than expected. And I can’t name one I prefer, which is probably as it should be.

Yesterday’s top ‘news’ was the date for Philip Pullman’s second Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth, which will be with us in just over seven months! Put October 3rd in your diaries.

While you wait, buy a few YA novels to keep those authors going.


Sounding better

You might recall that I like interior magazines.

Recently there has been advice on soundproofing your home, and on what [expensive] speakers you could buy. It’s mind-boggling how much you might pay for speakers. Hopefully they are good, as well as good looking.

But not for me.

Nor, I thought, was the advice on removing unwanted echoes in rooms. The trend of having no curtains obviously makes rooms noisier. So they were suggesting throwing any number of textiles at these rooms instead.

I was aghast as I read about the thick rugs and carpets, the fluffy throws and the abundance of cushions I didn’t want. Thought to myself that I seem to be fine without them. I mean, my noises (sorry for mentioning them) seem to be not too troublesome.

But wait, what’s this? You could put bookcases – with books in them – into rooms. Apparently books deaden unwanted sounds. Who knew?

So, phew, and all that, but I am OK after all. I have books almost everywhere except in the bathroom.

It’s just a bit upsetting to see a suggestion that you’d not have books in the first place, but that you would put some in, as noise prevention.

The #24 profile – Moira McPartlin

Later this week Moira McPartlin’s Star of Hope, the third book in her Sun Song trilogy is published. I think it’s an exceptionally good title for a book, and I wish it and Moira all the best out in the big wide world.

As you can see, today I have cornered Moira for some questions and answers, but let me tell you right now that I have already emptied her bank account, so don’t even think about it!

Over to Moira:

Moira McPartlin

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

One.  It is called Torque and is about the strange love/hate/trust/jealousy relationship climbers have with their climbing partners. I sent submissions out to agents and publishers and received many, many rejections. Most saying they didn’t know where to place it in the market. I also received a free report from a Literary Agency which was pretty scathing so I buried Torque deep in my hard drive. One day I may dig it out again but it will need a full rewrite.

Best place for inspiration?

I can write just about anywhere but I know that my best work is written away from home. I spent many holidays in Applecross, a remote peninsula in the West Highlands and wrote some fine short stories there. I also wrote Ways of the Doomed, the first book in the Sun Song Trilogy, while living in Paris for a year.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I don’t write under a pseudonym because an agent once told me, before I was published, that Moira McPartlin is a great writer’s name. But I have toyed with the idea of using the name Agyness Foley if I ever wrote anything totally different. Agnes is my middle name (but the spelling is old fashioned) and Foley is my mother’s maiden name, although I probably shouldn’t have told you that because that’s a security question isn’t it?

What would you never write about?

I’m not sure I can say there is anything I would never write about although I would think twice about appropriating another person’s culture and race. My debut novel The Incomers is about a black West African woman, Ellie. I didn’t set out to write Ellie, she took over my story. I struggled hard before publication about whether I had the right to tell her story and it was only after a couple of black African men read The Incomers and approved that I felt relief. Having said that, one of the characters in my work in progress is an Arab male but that might change.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

 Just before I put the finishing touches to The Incomers I went to Africa for the first time. I felt it was my duty to get the feel of Africa. I went to the Gambia and took a local tour to a village where I met women and school children and learned a tiny bit about their lives. When I came home, my hairdresser put me in touch with a Gambian woman who lived in the next village to me. Ellie, my character’s story is set in 1966 Fife. Fatoumata lived in 2011 rural Stirlingshire. I was amazed to discover their stories were not that different.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

I think I’d to be Ishbel, the 21-year-old heroine of The Sun Song Trilogy. One reviewer described her as a post-apocalyptic Lara Croft. I like that description. When I created her I imagined her as a fresh-faced Nicole Kidman before the glam; tall, slim, red hair, amber eyes, in control. Yes, definitely Ishbel.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

I think it would be a great thing! I am a very visual person, so when I write I can picture every scene in my head. I think that is why readers tell me my books would make good films. The hardest thing for writers is getting their books discovered by readers, a film is a great way to make that happen.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

I was once asked what was the difference between storytelling and lying? I was running a workshop on creating future worlds and I handed out made-up newspaper headlines about their town and asked them to write the story. One girl took real offence to this and more or less called me a liar. It was a good question though and made me rethink my definition of storytelling

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I am very good at untangling: fishing line, which I’ve snagged up in the first place; my granddaughter’s silver chains; my granddaughter’s Rapunzel-like hair; my sewing threads.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

The Famous Five. I read quite a few when I was young. I didn’t discover Narnia until my boys were small. I read a couple to them but I only enjoyed the first book.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Henrik Johansson.  In 1998 I was part of a work transfer team to move finance jobs from Stockholm to Glasgow. Henrik was a young consultant and my boss. He’d always turn up for work late, with his shirt unironed and hanging out. He has a funny, crazy laugh. He married a friend of mine and now lives in Malmö but his in-laws live in Fintry, a small village near me, so we were able to catch up a couple of years ago when they were home for Christmas.

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

I have many bookcases and need more. I read both fiction and nonfiction so I have bookcases for specific genres. I have a small bookcase for books still to be read and a fiction only bookcase. These are both organized alphabetically. In my study I have a writing bookcase which includes writing craft, poetry, plays and literature criticism books. These are organised by subject, then alphabetically. In my husband’s study I have matching book cases for nonfiction, guidebooks and maps. These are a bit mixed up at the moment because we’ve recently moved but these too will be organised by subject then alphabetically.

I could go on forever about my book collection.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

My grandson is a reluctant reader. For his Christmas I gave him the Peter Bunzl trilogy and we are reading Cogheart, the first of that trilogy, just now. It is a steampunk book with airships and a mechanical fox. What more could a small boy want?

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

Reading. I can’t imagine ever not wanting to write but I know I could never give up reading.

How, erm, refreshing to have found a writer who has a normal person as their favourite Swede. It’s not even as if Henrik is Norwegian, or anything. And that agent was right, Moira McPartlin is a really good author name. 

What luck that Moira could just continue putting her ‘surplus’ books in her husband’s study! Although a woman who writes in [corpse-strewn] Applecross and in Paris clearly needs no study at all…

Iceland noir, with some colour

To get in the mood for Iceland I reread Ævar Þór Benediktsson’s short story about the librarian who finds her library empty of books one morning. And who then drops her Moomin mug.

No, I didn’t go to Iceland. Daughter did. (It was ‘on her way’ back from Baltimore…) And no, there has been no dropping of Moomin mugs at all. But I gather Reykjavik had all sorts of lovely things a person could buy. Including a shop window full of every colour Kånken backpack. (She gave me one for Christmas, so no need to shop for more. The backpack; not the shop window.)


She did go to the library, though. They had an exhibition of photographs on, which to her surprise they charged for. Must be in case more Moomin mugs drop. She got her zeroes a bit wrong, too, having recently exposed herself to the Chilean peso, where it was quite reasonable to pay 15,000 for lunch. (I think, anyway.) 1000 krona in the library, however, was more than expected.

The day after Daughter’s arrival in Reykjavik, I noticed BBC Four had the new season of Icelandic noir Trapped on. I wasn’t entirely sure it was wise to watch the horrendous things that might happen in Iceland, but we did anyway. Seems the Resident IT Consultant had watched season one, while I hadn’t. I’d forgotten this.

It’s grim. I suppose if the weather was sunny, the noir would kind of fail, so maybe the grey drizzly surroundings are to be expected. I find the people – the fictional characters – unlikeable. I went to school with that girl. Didn’t like her then. Don’t like her now. The men are all the same as those who sit on Swedish park benches with a carrier bag next to them. And don’t drink the water in the stream, whatever you do!

The lit up town at night is pretty, though. And I almost understand some of what they say.

Guardians of the Wild Unicorns

Suddenly there are unicorns everywhere! And I thought they were extinct. I mean, not real. They are mythical creatures often found in fiction. As in Lindsay Littleson’s brand new book Guardians of the Wild Unicorns, where they are an endangered species. But real. Maybe.

Of course they are. Rhona and Lewis can see them clearly, starting when abseiling while on a week’s wildlife experience with school.

And when they find a .., well I can’t tell you what they find. But they know they have to do something and go looking for unicorns to save. In case they are real. Which they are.

Lindsay Littleson, Guardians of the Wild Unicorns

But there are bad people in this world, even in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and the two children know they need to act before it’s too late. It’s quite magical, but also very real and gritty.

Lewis is a loner who would rather do anything but be out there in the wilds. His only friend, Rhona, loves it, but then she has kept her home life a secret, meaning Lewis has no idea what she’s wanting to escape from. At least she’s nice and warm in the jacket from the school’s lost property box.

Together these two courageous, and occasionally scared, children meet magic in the woods. And their teachers have no idea!

What’s a novel?

What counts as a novel? I asked the Resident IT Consultant this over dinner, when I’d read an astounding – to me – headline in the Bookseller’s emailed newsletter.

It seems Quercus has bought the rights to Eoin Colfer’s first adult novel. I thought, ‘hang on, what first adult novel?’ I looked in my bookcase and found two, Screwed and Plugged. Signed, even, so one can assume Eoin has taken responsibility for them.

We discussed how you might remove the novel-ness from a crime, erm, novel. I didn’t think it was possible. I know some people look down on crime, as they do children’s books, but if it’s full length written fiction, it seems to me we are talking about a novel. And surely Quercus who have published so much excellent crime, would not sneer at it.

Eoin Colfer

But no, it appears we are talking about Eoin’s first adult fantasy novel. I was able to click on the article to read it (I have only limited access) and found that they might have lost the fantasy word in the newsletter.

From the description it could be a Carl Hiaasen type adventure, and I can think of no better author to do this than Eoin. ‘Highfire is described as the “violent, gripping tale of Vern who’s been hiding out in the Louisiana bayou, until Squib Moreau explodes into his life, hotly pursued by a corrupt policeman, and his peaceful existence disappears in a hail of high-velocity projectiles.” ‘

Promising, yeah? ‘Publisher Jo Fletcher said: ”I was doubly hooked the moment I met Vern, the vodka-drinking, Flashdance-loving dragon whose isolated life in the bayous of Louisiana is about to be interrupted by Squib Moreau, a swamp-wild, street-smart, dark-eyed, Cajun-blood tearaway looking to save his momma from the romantic attentions of a crooked constable.”’

So I forgive them their missing fantasy word. I might quite like this book – I mean novel – when it is published. January next year, so some patience will have to be found somewhere.

Summer of My German Soldier

It became necessary to take plenty of breaks. Usually this is a sign of a not very captivating book, but with Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier, it was imperative not to read too much in one go, and not because I wanted the book to last longer, either. It was ‘just’ too strong stuff. I needed to brace myself, somehow.

I’d already forgotten that that is what Lucy Mangan says in her Bookworm memoir; ‘when I reread it now, I have to put it down every few pages and walk around for a bit to let it all bed down before I am ready for the next chapter.’ Because it was on her recommendation that I bought a second hand copy of the book.

Bette Greene, Summer of My German Soldier

And if I only have one of her favourites, this has to be the one. Rarely have I come across anything quite like this WWII story about a 12-year-old Jewish girl in Arkansas, who ends up sheltering an escaped German soldier.

Patty is an unusual girl, not loved by her family, but very intelligent, except perhaps when it comes to understanding when not to say some things. Beaten often by her father, it’s hardly surprising she laps up the kindness and politeness Anton Reiker has to offer. They have intellectual conversations and Patty learns about his home in Göttingen.

You know this can’t end well, and it doesn’t. But this must be the best really bad ending to a children’s novel I’ve ever read. Whether I could have coped with reading it in my early teens is another question entirely. Probably not, would be my guess.

Written thirty years after it’s set, I don’t know if Bette describes the American south correctly, but it does feel like it. German soldiers were obviously bad. So were Jews, and also all black people, whose job it was to clean and cook for everyone else. There is unexpected goodness in places, but otherwise this is harsh.

If it was difficult to read for any length of time, then it is harder still to work out what to read next.

I suppose I could reread it…

Death of a bookshop

From now on it will be a lot easier to describe where I’m going, if I’m going into our holiday town to buy books. I’ll be going to the bookshop. There will no longer be two of them, the ‘antique’ names of which I still cling to, in order to tell them apart. Meijels Bokhandel and Larssons Bokhandel.

Now Halmstad Bokhandel (my Meijels) has been declared bankrupt. It has operated under that name for thirty years, and before that it was Meijels for 27 years. Which means that there was a time in my life when that shop on the corner of Brogatan and Hantverksgatan was not a bookshop, but I don’t remember that. (Back in those days we only went to Larssons, where Mother-of-witch had one of her students. The ‘middle Larsson,’ I believe.)

But Meijels is ‘mine,’ because it’s where I once had a holiday job, and it has always been the place I go to first when I needed a book or stationery.

It is obviously a case of death by cyberspace bookshops. While Amazon has barely got its teeth into Sweden, there have been several internet based bookshops, selling books cheaper, and faster.

Apparently the 83-year-old owner of Halmstad Bokhandel has – more recently – worked in the shop himself, along with his two sons, to keep costs down. But they have to eat too.

I don’t mourn just the death of a bookshop. It’s the fact that soon Halmstad will be nothing but pharmacies and bars and kebab places. They are all lovely, of course, but a town needs a bit of normal shopping as well.

Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur

Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur

I’ve come to the end of Joan Aiken’s short books about Mortimer, the slightly naughty raven, and his Arabel Jones. As I have probably said before, these books are a lovely piece of time travel, back to that underestimated period that was the 1970s. It shows that anything you write about ‘now’ will one day mean travelling back in history, if you are only truthful enough about what it’s like now.

I suppose the title gives it away somewhat, but this is a story with an Arthurian flavour. Mortimer shows an unsuitable amount of enthusiasm for the neighbour’s lawnmower, and that is pretty much it. I can see where Arabel’s mother, Mrs Jones, gets annoyed with the family’s pet raven.

Arabel herself is being ‘threatened’ with a new dress. Pink. What’s so fascinating about that is that this is how it was; the making your own clothes, and how you made them, showing Joan Aiken knew a bit about dressmaking, which is now rather a lost art.

As for that sword, well…

(Mortimer-ish illustrations by Quentin Blake)

Seeing clearly – Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy

I was sorry to see Andrea Levy has died. She was my age, which makes it feel so much worse.

Never having read any of her books, I still have that opportunity. An author leaves so much behind. But I don’t know why I didn’t before. There was time before I got caught up with non-stop children’s books.

Actually, I might know. There is a difference in how the press writes about a living person and how they are portrayed after death. I keep saying it’d be nice – for everyone – to read more about someone now, rather than save so much for when it feels too late.

I ‘met’ her once in Edinburgh, and having revisited that day just now, I do remember how appalled I was at the way the press officer held her glasses while the photographers did their thing.

Andrea Levy

But I suppose there are worse things in life than grubby lenses.