Author Archives: bookwitch

Revenge of the Andes

‘Someone in Chile is holding Rosetta Girl’s parcel hostage’, Daughter announced last week. While not exactly the last thing I’d ever expected to hear, it was low on my list.

She had sent her friend Rosetta a parcel, containing nothing terribly exciting. A small item for Rosetta’s – by now – past birthday, and something for Christmas. It’s the thought that counts, and all that, and the shipping costs probably outran anything Daughter had spent on the gifts. She sent it FedEx, and we’d both been pleasantly surprised by the speed with which it took off from Scotland to Chile. Before we knew it, the parcel had got to Rosetta Girl’s apartment block.

Except then, it turned out to be like something from a thriller; ‘pay the ransom or the socks get it’ kind of situation. They tried to call it a fee, or even import duty, and it had to be paid in cash. Which Rosetta didn’t have.

It was clear that someone in the delivery chain, someone in the town, well past customs, was hoping to make a bit of money. Because most people are so excited by parcels arriving that they will do anything, even quite unreasonable things, to discover what they have been sent. Daughter tried to insist to her shipping company, that the fee was unreasonable, but if it was to be paid, she would pay it, thank you very much, and she’d do it cash free, with a receipt.

It’s a shame that some countries, and some companies, have this kind of bad reputation. And it’s probably not even the neediest people who are attempting to make some money on the side, which would have been almost all right. And I was under the impression FedEx was a proper company.

We can all be wrong.

Another of the items being held to ransom is Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. The paperback version. It’s set in the Himalayas, but as Michelle said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, she had intended to write about the mountains next to where Rosetta lives. I suspect this to be a case of Revenge of the Andes.

I’m hoping the parcel-napper understands quite how modest the contents are. You’d never pay that much for anything like this. But you might pay because getting the parcel means something to you.

Packed bags and passports

While I’m talking about Hadley Freeman, as I was yesterday, I’ll return to something she wrote in her Guardian column in the summer [about antisemitism]. She said ‘the stories about Jewishness I grew up with, at home and at Hebrew school, were all about persecution, keeping your bag packed by the door, just in case.’

Reading that sent chills through me, because it echoed what another Jewish author told me a few years ago, which was that as a Jew she couldn’t have too many passports.

And now, I’m thinking of both those statements, and finding myself closer to ‘packing a bag, just in case.’ As for passports, they have been greatly on my mind recently. Brexit – do you remember Brexit? – raised its ugly head and almost shoved Covid aside.

I thought, I need a new passport. Not immediately immediately, but pretty soon. Sooner than felt comfortable, as the borders of Europe closed again, and airlines cancelled the flights they had been happy to take your money for, and there were quarantine rules all over the place. I’m not saying I wanted to fly anywhere, or even to travel. But to have a passport is awfully handy when you live ‘somewhere else’, even when that is your home.

So not only were there fears about catching a bad illness, but before we knew it, those tiers started coming and we were not supposed to travel. Unless essential. Seems passports might be ‘essential’. Doesn’t mean you won’t catch anything, though. Travelling domestically or internationally both have drawbacks, as well as the odd advantage.

It’s very expensive, travelling within this country, to your ‘local capital city’. And the passports cost more. Going abroad would have been more cost effective, but not advisable.

My nearest honorary consul held a Zoom meeting this week, where we all discussed stuff like this. Many turned out not to know certain relevant things about continuing to live here in 2021. Many might be unable to afford a 600 mile return trip for a new passport, or feeling too old or feeble to undertake the journey.

I’m now so old that I have started thinking about pensions. While we’re in the grip of the virus, many will – possibly – have to go without their foreign pension, if they are unable to prove they are still alive. This, too, necessitates some travelling in many cases. The foreign authorities have said they’ll be somewhat patient, waiting for proof, but not for that incredibly long. If you’ve been declared dead, I’m guessing it’s hard to be ‘revived’ after travel restrictions are lifted. If ever.

So, we’ll see. Technically I’m not supposed to go and pick up my new passport, either.

‘My Mom got me my job’

I’d like to think that Hadley Freeman and I are [almost] the same. She’s just more famous, and mostly gets to interview more famous people than I do, but we both do it for the same reason; to meet people we admire. So that’s why I simply had to attend Hadley’s event for Arvon at Home this evening.

She apologised in advance for any potential interruptions from her young children. There were none, but I’d say she was a little tense, just in case they’d decide to join us. I’d have liked it if they did, and I’m sure most of the others would too.

To start, Hadley read from the beginning of her latest book, House of Glass, about her French grandmother. I’d read about it in the Guardian, so knew it would be interesting, and almost enough to make me want to read something other than children’s books. Deauville is not like Cincinnati. And none of the elderly relatives five-year-old Hadley met on that holiday in France were the type to run around like she was used to doing with cousins.

Having spent something like twenty years on this book, after finding a shoebox at the back of her late Grandmother’s wardrobe, it was interesting to learn how she set about her research and the writing. Her American – but bilingual – father helped with some of the French, while the Polish was done by the wives of her Polish builders at the time.

For the structure of the whole thing, help came from all directions, and as I keep quoting others on, you should always ask your friends. Apart from different coloured files, which is always attractive, you should know your subject completely, but write only what’s interesting and what your readers will want to know. Like the interviews, in fact.

Hadley’s Grandmother and her siblings never spoke of what happened in the war, but they kept everything. It was there for Hadley to find and to read. It took her 18 months to write the book, and the way you achieve this with three children under five, is to have the right husband who does the parenting at weekends, leaving Sundays for writing.

For her second reading Hadley chose her 2015 book Life Moves Pretty Fast. I think it’s about her love for the 1980s, and in particular for 1980s films. And music. Apparently they are better than 1960s stuff, which I can almost believe. (Except for the music.) She herself was surprised to discover that her mother, being the kind who only gives you fruit for dessert, let her discover these movies at a young age.

But then, it was that same mother who sent an early interview to a competition, which Hadley went on to win, and which brought her to the attention of the Guardian, where she has been for the last twenty years. Mothers are good.

Questions, and compliments, from the audience seemed to surprise Hadley. I think it’s time she realises that quite a few of us admire her writing quite a lot. No, scratch that. It’s better she doesn’t, in case it goes to her head.

As you were, Hadley.

Launching Allie

You could tell it has been cold in Edinburgh. For the launch of his new book The Sins of Allie Lawrence on social media, Philip Caveney has walked, or been made to walk, all over the place to be filmed saying stuff about his book. This is good. I reckon authors should be made to work hard. And Philip looks reasonably handsome in a knitted hat, so that’s not the disaster it could have been.

He started by reading from this, his 54th, or maybe 55th, book. He’s been at it for 43 years (which fact made Helen Grant say something less well thought through), so that could be why he’s not counting so well. But at least the flowers in the background were not plastic. Kirkland Ciccone wondered about that.

As you can tell, this launch was well attended by quite a few of Philip’s peers, and it felt almost as if we were meeting in real life. Except there was no cake. Apparently I was meant to do the cake. Oops.

Philip took us round past Söderberg’s and round some fancy apartment near the Meadows, and at least two theatres, plus other Edinburgh sights. It made us all wish we were there.

Once this prancing around town was over, it was question time, with lots of people asking, both from before and also during the event, as well as some recorded questions from three child readers. He likes his covers. In fact, he seemed to have some of them framed on the wall behind him.

‘The ideas will come’, he said ominously regarding where he gets his ideas from. And he does like all his children, I mean books, because if he doesn’t, then how can he expect the rest of us to like them? Good question.

There will be at least three drafts of a book, taking two to three months to begin with. Philip quite fancies being picked by Netflix, and who wouldn’t? His alter ego, Danny Weston, was originally a character in one his early books, and someone he needs for the really creepy stuff. Like his most evil character, Mr Sparks, in the book dedicated to me. Such a relief to know that.

Having autonomy when he writes  might be the best thing about being an author. In fact, if no publisher were to be interested in his books, Philip would still write them. He said something about ‘howling into the void’ but mercifully I have already forgotten what that was about. Sounds desperate. And just think, if his then 10-year-old daughter hadn’t wanted to read his totally unsuitable adult novel, there might never have been these books to entertain, or scare, younger readers.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. He’s still not quite Ray Bradbury (but it can’t be long now), author of his favourite book, the book that changed his life. As to why Allie comes from Killiecrankie, Philip simply needed a ridiculous name. But not even this passed without argument (from a man closer to Killiecrankie than some of us).

That’s book launches for you. All sorts of people attend them.

OK with the UK

I read the book. Of course I did. But only once, with some second glances at certain parts. I’m talking about the book that prepares you for the Life in the UK Test. It’s got a lot of superfluous stuff in it, but stuff which you are encouraged to commit to heart.

Now, over a month later, I still know more about British history than I used to. I trust it will soon go [away]. There were too many years to learn, too many James and Edward and Henry and those others, with numbers after their names. Who killed whom, and what was their religion?

But there were other things I’d read, that helped a lot. Read, as in the past. Because much to my surprise the historical fiction, for children, that I’ve read in a fairly organic kind of way, turned out to be useful. I mean, not just enjoyable. And I remembered it, when I can more often than not even recall characters’ names after a bit.

Useful in that I suddenly came to have gut feelings as to when the Romans did that thing, or the Christians or the Vikings. And I have finally sussed the Marys. Some of them, at least. Bloody Mary Queen of Scots, for instance. Plus that other one. 🙂

So yes, I believe in reading. Not so much the test. Perhaps save people the agony at what is often a difficult time in their lives anyway, and just prescribe each of us a few good British background novels.

To start you off, I recommend Elen Caldecott’s The Short Knife. This book helped with several aspects of people who invaded this country in the past, as well as the people who were already here. Which, I suppose, makes it sound like there were some that could have done with sitting test back then, too.

Bookwitch bites #149

The other day I discovered a lone book on the coffee table. That is unusual. Mostly I have a pile of three or four, that are either queueing or are emergency spares if things take a turn for the worse. But there I was, with just the one book. It’s Philip Caveney’s latest, which he’s about to launch this week. I now stand a small chance of reading the book by then. The Sins of Allie Lawrence. I’m scared already.

The Costa shortlist, by which I obviously mean the children’s Costa shortlist, turned up in the paper this past week. I’d like to think it’s because newspapers always feel this is important stuff, and not that they are keen to fill pages easily. I’ve only read one of the shortlisted books, Meg Rosoff’s The Great Godden. But as I looked at the five author photos, I could count meeting three of the writers. Should I get a hobby?

I’ve got On the Cover of The Rolling Stone whirring around in my head. At the time – like in the early 1970s ? – I didn’t really know The Rolling Stone. But as Dr Hook sang so wistfully about it, I got that it was a big deal. Not sure what authors dream of, but I imagine that ending up on the cover of The Bookseller can’t be a totally bad thing to happen. Very happy for Liz Kessler whose new book, When the World Was Ours – out in January – is covering the latest Bookseller.

Travels From my Twilight Zone

You’ll remember Jeff Zycinski and his autobiographical The Red Light Zone, about his years as Head of Radio at BBC Scotland. It was very good, and as I said at the time – barely two years ago – you could remove the radio and you’d have excellent coverage of 25 years of life in Scotland.

Not only has Jeff now been seriously ill, while narrowly avoiding the dreaded virus of 2020, but he has written another autobiography, mostly about the years before the radio years. And it is an even better tale. ‘Morphine, memories and make-believe’ describes it perfectly.

We start with Jeff not being the slightest concerned that ‘it might be mouth cancer.’ Well, it was. So first we see him in his hospital bed, at the start of the year. And while he works on getting better, we read about his early life in Easterhouse, the seventh son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother.

It has completely changed my outsider’s view of Easterhouse, and it has reinforced my feeling that we are all mostly the same. A few years younger than me, and a Catholic boy in Glasgow, it still seems as if Jeff had a childhood I can relate to. It is fascinating in its ordinariness.

He tells it so well, and I’m beginning to believe he could tell me absolutely anything, and I’d believe it, and have fun. So, yes please, go on!

The second part of the book is fiction. Probably. The first story about the man not far from Loch Ness reminded me of Jeff. So, about that money..? All super stories, really enjoyable, and just that bit different from many other stories.

Then we return to Jeff’s health – please stay well! – before he takes us on a trip round Scotland, outlining the best of the places mentioned in the biographical first half. And I hope he has been allowed to hug his children again. Even if they are adults now.

Winningly Irish

Last night I attended the Irish Book Awards – presented by Evelyn O’Rourke – for the first time. As you can no doubt understand, that’s because it was all online and anyone could go. It seems quite a few people did, so that’s all good. For the first time for some years I hadn’t voted. That’s not due to any lack of interest. Just that I’ve not had a single one of the books come my way.

I sharpened my ears when the children’s award was mentioned, and then I reflected that the shortlisted books were all rather young. This became clearer when there was an older children’s book award too. Not to mention that they then offered a YA prize.

So, there were three lucky winners, and since the winning books all had two people involved, the night had six children’s books winners in all.

The presenter had mentioned that there were very many hopeful authors waiting to hear if they had won. Well, the odd thing was that every winner already had their decorative bit of glass that is to go on the mantelpiece… Either they did know (perish the thought), or, well, this is Ireland. Perhaps one of those fairies we hear of, instantaneously magicked the glass contraption to the winners? Yes, that will be it.

The ‘youngest’ winner was The Great Irish Farm Book, written by Darragh McCullough, and illustrated by Sally Caulwell.

Next came the senior children’s winner, Break the Mould by Sinéad Burke, with illustrations by Natalie Byrne.

And finally the YA book, which was Deirdre Sullivan’s Savage Her Reply, illustrated by Karen Vaughan. I have, at least, seen Deirdre live, so feel I know a little about her, even if this was not the book she talked about in Edinburgh last year. And, her Christmas tree is already up!

It was nice to hear people talk about their books, and good to be able to attend. But let’s hope for a physical event next year!

All wound up

We believe in light. The more the merrier. Almost.

So one recent evening I watched as Daughter wound. After all, it’s her room. Although, I have to admit, the books are mine. They have to live somewhere!

These replaced some other lights that were multicoloured, and definitely not mine. But their owner grew tired of them. So that was that.

And this is this. Hopefully longer lasting than mere Christmas lights. (We’re saving the reindeer for outside.)

Catching up on season one of His Dark Materials

That’s before season two. And no, that’s not me doing it.

As I might have mentioned, neither Daughter nor I were convinced by the first season of His Dark Materials on the BBC. As I suggested at the time, for me to continue watching after the first two episodes seemed fairly unlikely. And I didn’t, so when the time came two weeks ago to settle down with season two, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.

In fact, it was almost an afterthought that made me mention it to the Resident IT Consultant, seeing as he did sit through all of last autumn’s. He’s more open-minded, it seems. So he has by now watched the first three episodes, and is reasonably happy.

But Daughter, who decided to catch up on season one, on the minute off-chance that she’d watch the new one live, has been anything but happy. As a serial audio book listener, she knows the story inside out. And believe me, BBC, that does not make for satisfaction right now. There have been little – and not so little – screams over every wrong thing.

We both understand and accept that for film technical reasons you need to adapt, abridge, and so on. But writing a new story and changing the characters when you have a perfectly good story already?

No.

I get that this version looks good. But it could have looked good while sticking to the original story too.

I suspect that the nice people I know who actually like it, are those who have not nerded over HDM for the last two decades. Perhaps they read the books, liked them, and promptly forgot any details, and thus the BBC series comes as a new thing of beauty.

Perhaps.