Monthly Archives: August 2020

A Fantastical Escape

This was a great event to end the book festival with! Eoin Colfer is always fun, and he was complemented by Cressida Cowell and Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and kept in some sort of order by Mairi Kidd. There were many laughs and if you hadn’t read all the books yet, you’d want to by the end. Mairi was hoping there were some in the audience who still had this to discover.

Despite ‘promises’ there was no dog, sleeping or otherwise, nor a rear end of cat. But we had a past – Irish – laureate, and the current children’s laureate, and maybe a future one? Cressida was in her kitchen, Kiran in her Oxford office and Eoin was delighted to be anywhere, even in Dublin.

He was feeling smug, having written a picture book and a drama during lockdown. There was ‘nothing he could teach his sons that they’d want to know’ so he mostly ‘read books’ [on Netflix]. So did Kiran, but as she’s married to her illustrator she needed to get some work finished. And Cressida had read her books on YouTube, loving her own jokes, long forgotten.

People with a high IQ are more easily disturbed by noisy chewing. This is a fact. Apparently. Eoin wore his glasses to improve his high IQ look, and to seem more trustworthy as he talked about his fraternal, con-joined twins…

Kiran, who at a young age was traumatised by the tunnel in Eoin’s The Wish List, always has strong ideas of what her characters look like, but can’t draw them. Cressida might be an artist, but has bad visual memory, citing a pear with the stalk at the wrong end.

Eoin regrets the fact that children grow too old to dare write fiction, believing they must do it in a certain way. Kiran used to write as a child, but had forgotten this, until her mother reminded her of it, and reckons that’s 15 lost years where she’s not been ‘using it’ to make it stronger.

At this point Eoin disappeared. Broadband issues? (When he popped up again he blamed Brexit. Something about a hard border.) He’s scared by public speaking. Who’d have thought? After 25 years he’s less worried. His worst experience was doing a parachute jump. Not his choice. It was a gift from his wife… And the cords tangled.

Kiran likes the adrenaline pumping, and bungee jumps are her thing. Caving, not so much, But she got out eventually, that time, and she didn’t drown the time she wasn’t waving at her dad, either.

‘Not usually an issues guy’, Eoin is most pleased with his book Illegal. Although in Ireland you are not supposed to be proud of your own work, but as this is a collaboration, it might be OK. Cressida always likes her latest book best, and she’s always proud. With barely a minute to go, Kiran said her book titles are so long she didn’t have time to list one. Maybe the most recent book.


Sensory Stories and Crafts

I reckoned I was old enough to dispense with the dish cloth and lidded saucepan, as I settled down to listen to Ailie Finlay tell stories, and watch Kate Leiper illustrate them. This was a rather different event, with storytelling, rather than reading from a book. Ailie clearly has a lot of experience doing this, as I discovered by her lack of [picture] focus. She was so into her telling the story about the old woman who went berry picking, that she waved and blurred and smiled all over the place.

Kate, on the other hand, was calm itself with her red lentil path and ‘swishy’ grass as she showed the audience how they too could make a book to go with Ailie’s story. You can do a lot with lentils, and bark and kitchen foil, and if you have no large stapler you can stitch your pages together.

The next tale was about their recent trip to the beach, going barefoot, collecting shells and seagull feathers. And Ailie sent her fast runner, a teddy called Wilf, over to Kate’s house with some shells she’d forgotten to give her.

That teddy got a lot of exercise, because later on he had to take a pie up to Kate. Not only had they eaten ice cream, but they’d made pie with the old woman’s berries. Ailie eats hers with cream but Kate prefers custard.

And perhaps viewers could make a special memory book after seeing this inspiring event. Possibly making it a concertina book, where you can see everything at once, should you want to. Tactile books can be fun.

At least if not too many red lentils end up on the floor, crunching as you walk.

On your marks

I own far too many bookmarks.

But still, I felt ridiculously pleased at the sight of this bookmark, when it arrived in the company of three books I’d bought. I was quite pleased at the sight of the books too, obviously.

It – the bookmark – is pretend vintage plus it reminds me of Oxford; the place where I first came across Blackwells. Now you get Blackwellses all over the place, but at the beginning of time it was special. (It was so special I seem to recall I bought an LP on my first visit. A literary LP, of course.)

And I have to say, now that I have just about overcome my reluctance to paying for books, I feel really excited with my recent order. And my other recents, which in this case were from actual shops. And I don’t mean Tesco.

Although, where I’m going to get enough reading time from I have no idea. Perhaps order some of that, too?

Retelling Tales

This afternoon it was all ‘debauchery’ and giving classic characters new stories. Well, newer stories. Juno Dawson’s Wonderland is a sort of Alice tale, Kiran Millwood Hargrave has written about the brides of Dracula in The Deathless Girls, and Joseph Coelho tackles Ovid’s Daphne* as a latchkey girl who finds a hidden forest in the library. As you do.

And he should know, since according to moderator Philippa Cochrane he has joined every library in the country.

Juno described Wonderland as ‘trippy and strange’ and said that Alice wasn’t trans to begin with, but she was encouraged to go in that direction, and for Juno it was like therapy. For Joseph it was a case of the ‘characters telling you’ what to write; and how Daphne is fixed in grief. Kiran wanted better for her twin characters, but the ‘story had already been written’. She let the girl with ‘no sense of self’ rely on a best friend.

Philippa warned that none of these novels pulls any punches (but that’s what YA fiction is, surely?). Kiran reckons it is stronger to stay tender, and there is good more than there is bad. Juno said she can’t think of anything worse than Glastonbury, and Wonderland is a bit like it. Joseph laughed and blamed everything on Daphne, who ‘told him to write it’. You can get through difficult situations, and friends and family can help.

Joseph asked the others about their writing habits. For Kiran self care is important. She writes best when healthy, and she needs to get away from her desk regularly, even when the writing tries to keep her there. ‘You matter more’. Juno discovered she needed a job to go to, to see people, to have the commute, after working from her flat in London. It made her crazy. She now has an office in Brighton, but before that she was the monster with the MacBook who sat in cafés, scowling at children.

This was another live event, and one audience question was how much they left of the original stories, and another whether the myths still have any relevance. Also, what characterises a book as YA, and not wider age appeal? We’ve all been teenagers, as Juno said, while both Joseph and Kiran mentioned ‘voice’, and you recognise things, you have lived it, it’s intense.

Kiran really wanted to know which movie the other two would choose if they were to retell a film, saying she herself would pick Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Joseph chose The Thing, and Juno Single White Female.

Philippa hoped publishers were listening, because we could all want to read those books. And said that she had been cheered up on this dreich day in Edinburgh. I think we all had, dreich or not. Great stuff!

(*Joseph’s book, The Girl Who Became a Tree, isn’t out yet, but is available from the festival bookshop.)

Shine On

Thursday’s event with Dean Atta and George Lester was the happiest and smiliest event I’ve ever attended. People have been happy in the past, but this was truly gay in every respect of the word, and their dentists will have been proud. What smiles! And along with moderator Erica Gillingham they all wore stripes.

I suppose sequins would have been too much? Even for the ‘sisterhood’?

This was about drag queens in verse, with all three of them sitting in front of bookshelves with books on them. Well, obviously. But they all displayed the two books for the event, Black Flamingo, and Boy Queen. Plus one rainbow and a Moomin.

Perhaps the most important fact to come out of this chat was how far LGBT fiction in YA has come in less than ten years. Where once you would have been lucky to have a queer best friend in a book, here you have not only the main character, but there are several, lots, of them! This is what readers, and not only gay ones, need in YA literature.

George and Dean fan-boyed each other, saying very similar things, to the extent that they could be hard to tell apart. The importance of mixed friend groups in the books, and good manners in having a ‘token straight boy’. George mentioned his mother and how he couldn’t avoid a Gilmore Girls moment…

‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’ as Dean put it. George is ‘making up for lost time’, adding bigger hair and sparklier clothes. ‘Write what you need’ he says. And Dean wants ‘more trans stories.’ George mentioned discovering David Levithan, in a book which allowed the queer character to be happy, without any need to be dying, and how he sent David a long, embarrassing fan email afterwards.

The final question from listeners was their choice of alien drag queens [should the need arise], and that’s not one of your average event questions. Plus I have really been very innocent and unaware of Canada’s Drag Race…

The final final treat was Dean reading his poem from the end of Black Flamingo about being gay and how and when and why to come out, leaving no eyes dry.

Madam, won’t talk

In case you missed it, and it’s a wonder I didn’t, since I never listen to the radio: Radio 4, Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? part one today, second part next Sunday.

It was bliss, even at the halfway mark. I’m never sure I will be able to tell the characters’ voices apart on radio, but this worked fine. And their David is perfect. As is Mr Byron/Coleridge/Shelley/Wordsworth.

Over eleven years since I reviewed the new edition of Mary Stewart’s best book, and many many years since I first read it. Obviously. That review revealed that I now know lots of fans of this gorgeous romantic thriller, but I note that we still haven’t gone on that group trip to Stewart settings.

On track, or not

I’ve hit a bit of a slump.

While I’ve ‘blessed’ the fact that I can attend bookfest events with no travelling or early gettings-out-of-bed, I suddenly realised something else. Had this not been the year of Covid with no live events, I’d still not have been going to Edinburgh for the festival.

Because there are no trains. Well, there are, but not all the way. You will no doubt have heard of the dreadful train accident near Stonehaven, near Aberdeen last week. The same night there were plenty of floods elsewhere in Scotland, including one causing a ‘hole in the ground’ near Polmont, which is exactly halfway to/from Edinburgh for me.

This will apparently take two months to fix.

So, no through trains. Yes, one can get to Edinburgh by car – so far – but that only works because there is no festival, with no tourists to clog up every available road or parking space.

Between the virus and the weather; there really wasn’t going to be any live bookfesting for me this year.

Voices from the Past

Wednesday’s YA event was live, which meant that the audience could email questions. Chaired by Hannah Lavery, we met Patrice Lawrence and Bali Rai, both sitting at home in their respective houses.

Patrice’s book, Diver’s Daughter: A Tudor Story, was, as you may have guessed, set in Tudor times. You might think there would have been no black people in Britain back then, but you’d be wrong. Patrice’s main character is the daughter of a former slave from Mozambique, and she’s done a lot of research. Some of that appears to have been started by her own mother, who learned to drive, and then took her family round stately homes all over southern England. Patrice read a chapter about a dangerous crossing of the Thames by boat. And she told us how the Tudors would have cleaned their porridge pans without the help of Brillo pads. That’s the kind of thing we want to know.

Bali’s book, Now or Never: A Dunkirk Story, features a young boy from Rawalpindi, who having lied about his age, came over with the donkeys needed to help shift stuff in the mud in Flanders. Or possibly France. Bali wanted to let the world know that there were non-whites in WWII, unlike some claims he came across when young. He read chapter two, which mentioned a real person, John Ashdown, father of Paddy Ashdown, and who seems to have been rather special. Plus there was Tommy Smith, a communist from Tooting, whose task it was to show that the war wasn’t only fought by white upper class soldiers.

Both Patrice and Bali reckoned they’d never been properly taught about the war. They didn’t know that people like them had also been part of the history of WWII. They had even been told that this had not been the case. Besides, ‘all our ancestors came from somewhere’, as Bali pointed out. People don’t just happen. And people always change things. Patrice regretted not having known about Mary Seacole when she was young.

Asked who they’d like to write about in future, Bali said Bob Marley as a child. Patrice looks up old cases from the Old Bailey online, and is fascinated by the voices of women in Georgian times.

There’s a question about deep diving for Patrice, who says she can’t even swim. Bali talks about the second lockdown in his part of Leicester, and Patrice has fun with the exhausted Italian dogs, expected to exercise with several ‘owners’. It was reading Leicester’s Sue Townsend, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that made Bali a writer. And he discovered Fleur Hitchcock’s books in the darkest corner of a bookshop, and continues to recommend them to everyone.

A final question from Ferelith – who can only be the Ferelith so well known in book circles – and Bali says he’s planning a sequel to City of Ghosts. So, we’re looking forward to that!

Having live questions really made a difference. (If only I’d watched live…)

Midnight at Malabar House

Vaseem Khan has left his baby elephant and moved back in time to New Year’s Eve 1949 where Persis Wadia is India’s first female police detective in a new crime series. Persis is on night duty at Malabar House when called to the scene of the murder of a British diplomat.

It’s not easy being a woman in such a role where most people want to speak to ‘the man’. Persis is not afraid, however, and as the mystery unravelled she struck me as quite possibly being autistic. If so, it helps her persist in doing a good job, but also alienates others, including potential suitors. Not that she needs a boyfriend. She has a job.

Set soon after Partition, this is an fascinating period to learn more about, regardless of the crime solving. Admittedly, Vaseem isn’t old enough to have been there at the time, nor is he a woman. But he writes his female detective surprisingly well. And he gives her a sidekick in the shape of a white English male; someone who seems to suit Persis really well.

I suppose it’s unavoidable that this is still a pretty white [British] story, with lots of strings being pulled from London. I liked learning more about this side of India; the established Indians and their British counterparts, rather than poverty-stricken villages and people hoping to emigrate.

Persis and her sidekick show a lot of promise. As does the young nation. Hopefully we’ll see more of them.

Formidable Females

There was a lot of the letter ‘f’ in the event with Lari Don and Eilidh Muldoon on Tuesday morning. Formidable females, which might have referred to Lari and Eilidh. Or it could have been their new book, Fierce, Fearless and Free. Which also featured formidable females. The Fs have it.

Lari started off by talking about how she writes, how she likes old stories the best, and how she’s been looking to find traditional tales with strong girls in them. Girls who don’t need rescuing by a boy, or needing to find nice clothes to be seen in. Lari did find some old stories about girls, and one of her favourites came to her from Ecuador via Aberdeen. She also reads her stories to audiences to find out what works best. Her stories are for everyone, about girls.

Eilidh did the illustrations for the book, and this was a particular favourite of hers. Because she only needed to do one illustration for each story, she had to work out what would describe every story best. So in the end that’s why there are no lions or bears. She showed us her sketchbook where she tries out ideas as she reads.

The story we heard was A Siberian Legend, about a man who was very unfortunate because he had no sons, at all, and only one daughter, who could do nothing that pleased him. While Lari read about the girl’s bravery, Eilidh drew. She usually does this very slowly, on a smaller scale, and never when watched. But this worked too.

I am beginning to see a pattern here, because Eilidh challenged viewers to draw their own fierce female characters, and Lari asked for new stories, maybe featuring the ‘most unlikely baddie’, or talking animals granting favours, which is something she likes. And it is much more exciting when things go wrong.

Because they couldn’t hear all our questions, they sat down and interviewed each other instead. There was a lace dragon, and someone who liked temples. And Eilidh does not care for hippos, or at least, not to draw. Lari draws a bit too, but only where her characters are, never the characters themselves. They are in her head.

And here they ran out of time.