Category Archives: Authors

Kerb Stain Boys

If this wasn’t so real, it would be a lot more funny.

In Alex Wheatle’s new book for Barrington Stoke, we’re back in Crongton – his fictional part of London, where black young boys are not necessarily going towards a fantastic future.

Alex Wheatle, Kerb Stain Boys

Briggy and Terror come up with this really terrific idea to impress a girl, and to get some cash. They are going to rob a post office. Except, it’s not a great idea at all, and it was Terror’s plan and Briggy is worried about pulling out.

While learning what their lives at home and at school are like, and realising their dreams are pretty normal, you still know that robbing any post office, let alone one close to where you live, is not going to end well.

Boys will be boys, so ditching the plan isn’t likely. Besides, if the author stopped them from doing this silly thing, there would be no story. But if they do rob the post office, the boys don’t have much of a future.

I didn’t see the end coming. Can’t say more than that. Let’s hope the readers can work out they should not copy Terror and Briggy; not for any girl in the world. Especially a world in which a black boy carrying even a plastic toy weapon is a potentially lethal situation. This is something we tend to forget, if we have a different colour skin.

Advertisements

Rennie McOwan

Rennie McOwan died in early October. He was a children’s author who lived a few minutes away from us, whose Light on Dumyat was reissued a couple of years ago. If you recall, it’s a Famous Five style adventure, set on Dumyat, in the Ochils, above Stirling

I knew a little bit about him, both from the press release in 2016, and from the Resident IT Consultant, who was a fan. They even went walking together, a long time ago. And while I always hoped to run into Rennie in our neighbourhood, I don’t believe I did. Whereas the Resident IT Consultant found him in the library one morning. That’s the real man, not his book.

The Stirling Observer published a lovely obituary last week, telling me so much more about his life. He converted to Catholicism, met the Pope and was horrified to discover that the Vatican wrote its press releases in Latin.

It looks like most of the Scottish papers published ‘the same’ obituary, and I’m hoping the link to this one works. I always like finding out more about people, but wish it could have been while they were still alive. Good to know, though, that Rennie had such a long and interesting life, and that there was much more to him than his Dumyat adventure for children. The Swede in me highly approves of his efforts to make the right to roam in Scotland a legal right.

The funeral is today.

Rennie McOwan in the Stirling Observer

Stay a Little Longer

Set somewhere in or near Bali Rai’s Leicester, Aman has lost her dad. She misses him a lot, and she wishes she had given him the letter she wrote when he was ill.

Bali Rai, Stay a Little Longer

Wherever you live, there will be bullies, and being bereaved does not save you. In Aman’s case it’s a new neighbour who does. Gurnam, an elderly man who just moved into her street, comes to her assistance.

She and her mother befriend Gurnam, who becomes some sort of grandfather figure. But all is not well, and among more bullying, there is more sadness. It takes Aman some time to understand what is going on with Gurnam.

The question is whether her friendship will be enough for this troubled man. Society can be very harsh.

It’s good to read more about life in what I believe to be a predominantly Sikh area. There should be many more books like this.

Shell Game

That dreadful feeling you get when your whole existence might be at risk, because you’re a foreigner and something minor, or something not to do with you, has cropped up on someone’s horizon, and you are innocent, but can see your life, as you know it, ending. That.

In Shell Game, Sara Paretsky writes about this and much more. It’s about what her country has become. There are always unfortunate people needing help in her crime novels, but usually V I Warshawski can help them, and the law usually will allow this help to happen, sooner or later. Now though, she, and we, know there’s much less chance of this. Nothing is quite what it was, and that helplessness is masterfully described from the word go.

Sara Paretsky, Shell Game

There are always people doing the wrong thing for money or power in V I’s world, but this time there’s an edge to it we’ve not encountered before. People can be bought more easily, and Government employees perhaps have tick boxes of [bad] things that have to be ticked. Just because they can.

And that leaves the rest of us struggling.

This is a story about family. Lotty Herschel’s great nephew Felix is suspected of murder, and V I gives him her support. Then her nieces Harmony and Reno – through V I’s ex-husband – turn out to be in dire need of help as well. By adding sexual abuse and a general fear of terrorists because of people newly arrived from Syria, we have everything that is currently deemed to be bad.

V I has to work harder than ever. But she’s V I, so you know you can trust her. Mr Contreras is by her side as ever, but this time I was struck by our changing world, and how mentioning his Anzio war history could very soon appear meaningless in a world that has moved on, with a new generation running it.

It’s hard to come to terms with, but I trust V I, and Sara. Someone has to write about this, and we need to read it. I imagine that even people with all the paperwork in the world to prove their right to live in their own country, could become a bit nervous on reading Shell Game.

The question is what they – we – can do.

Christoffer Carlsson – neither pink nor fluffy

Here is what you’ve all wanted to read; my little chat with Christoffer Carlsson, where we talk far more about schools and immigration, than we do crime novels. But it’s not every day ‘a boy from home’ comes to Stirling.

Having successfully caught the last coffee cup in the Bloody Scotland green room, Christoffer apologises, but I point out he’s better to have it than I am, since I don’t drink coffee. Anyway, he’s the guest.

It’s very noisy in the green room, after three events have come to an end and people have gathered, chattering away. In fact, Christoffer has had quite a conversation with Denise Mina, who didn’t run away as fast as I’d expected, seeing as she was in a hurry.

Christoffer Carlsson

Promising to talk loudly into my recording device, he bends his head halfway down to the table. I ask about his new, Swedish book, which he mentioned during his morning event. I’ve been wishing for something set in or around Halmstad, and now it seems he has already written it. ‘It will be published in the spring,’ he says, ‘but I’ve not started talking about it yet.’ He’s been afraid that the place he’s from won’t be considered interesting enough, for a novel. It’s the hardest book he’s written. It took two years to write, and when I ask where it’s set, I get a very exact description, which I won’t burden you with here. I know. That’s enough.

It’s close to where he grew up, where he and his brother used to play. And then, halfway through writing the book, his parents sold up and moved away from his childhood home, moving into a flat in town, enjoying their new life on the 13th floor with marvellous views. ‘The novel became some sort of farewell. It was pretty hard. It’s as if part of my past has moved out of reach.’

From his parents’ high rise, to the ones Christoffer wrote about in Salem, the Stockholm suburb in the Leo Junker series, I wonder if he knew enough about that kind of existence, after such a rural childhood. He giggles. He’s lived in various parts of Stockholm, including Hagsätra, which is his fictional Salem. He tells me about a smash and grab at a pawnshop, saying that the crimes in the more disadvantaged areas are different from those in the posher parts of the city. To be honest, he felt more at home there, enjoying being recognised as a regular in the newsagent’s. He felt he belonged.

My next question is about schools, as he and I attended schools in small-town Sweden, whereas Leo went to a troubled school in one of the capital’s suburbs. Christoffer’s primary school was Snöstorpsskolan; which had one non-white pupil and no library, in a cute and quiet area on the outskirts of Halmstad. Secondary school was Östergårdsskolan where, thirty years after I should have gone there but didn’t, immigrants made up 50%, which Christoffer and his Snöstorp friends loved. Not so much the parents. It was a well integrated school, where the white pupils only noticed that the cool kids from Andersberg were good at football, or that someone had a great collection of [ice] hockey cards. Christoffer reckons this background helped with his writing.

Christoffer Carlsson

I ask about the many immigrant names in his books. I’m not used to this. There are obviously still a lot of Carlssons, but they have company now. Christoffer mentions the books by Arne Dahl. ‘They are bloody interesting,’ he says. His A Unit was pretty homogenous at the outset, but as society changed, so did the group. ‘There are still more -sson names, numerically.’ In his new book the names come from former Yugoslavia. It was the mid-1990s, and the war meant people came to Sweden. Now it is people from North Africa. ‘But they go from being refugees and immigrants, and ten years on they have ordinary jobs.’ I mention my childhood immigrants; one from Hungary and one from Finland, and he grins. ‘How exciting.’

We compare sixth form colleges. Christoffer says mine was old and posh, so I point out it was brand new in my day. He retorts that the teachers had all moved from the town’s posh school. He cackles some more when I mention that my head teacher was considered rather infra dig by the other teachers.

We talk about the Chileans, some of whom come to sticky ends in his books. ‘A bit sad,’ Christoffer admits, but tries to reassure me that most of the Chileans did fine. One of his professors at university comes from Chile. ‘The young are in a vulnerable situation, looking for excitement.’

And you miss the new integration in more expensive areas, because the newcomers simply can’t afford to live there. ‘People just want to survive. They are neither potential terrorists or angels. They are just like us. Some are idiots, some are good. They are just people.’ Christoffer reckons crime novels have a role to play in showing us this. 

‘Why did you write your YA novel?’

He laughs. ‘The truth, the truth, Ann, is so bloody banal,’ he almost chokes on his coffee. ‘Book three about Leo Junker was so hard to write. It’s the longest, and in the middle of it I just said “I’ll do something different now.” So I went from writing about a middle aged man to a female teenager. Writing about crimes from a 16-year-old’s point of view, I didn’t want it to be too Kalle Blomkvist (an Astrid Lindgren child detective). I was, “what is it about? Is she staying put, or getting out?” Get out, or get stuck. It’s her choice.’

Christoffer Carlsson

‘Then when it was written I wondered what to do with it. The publisher felt I was in the middle of a series, so maybe make it a YA novel. I wrote it for myself; what I would have wanted when I was a teenager.’ There weren’t many changes, other than perhaps shortening the sentences. He was challenged on the flashbacks, that they might be too hard for young readers. ‘They’re into Game of Thrones! They see flashbacks all the time!’

‘So, Stirling High School, where you went yesterday. Did they really let you in?’ He giggles. ‘Yes, of course. They were great.’

Our conversation moves to October is the Coldest Month; his UK publisher Scribe calling it ‘almost transgressive fiction,’ while the Norwegians, the French, the Spanish and the Italians said the violence was sort of OK, but asked if he could ‘make the sex more pink and fluffy.’ Christoffer refused, and he asks, ‘pink and fluffy, what does it even mean?’

He isn’t sure what role fiction has today, but when he was young, fiction shouldn’t lie, there should be no whitewashing, and it shouldn’t be doing your parents’ job. Young readers can tell very easily.

‘But, in short, I was allowed to go there, and they were fantastic. We talked about books, about what they read, which is everything from Rankin to John Green to Virginia Woolf.’ Asking if people tell them what to read, Christoffer advised that they should decide for themselves. ‘Maybe not the best thing to say in a library…’ After a quick aside from me regarding Melvin Burgess once being asked to leave a school, we both say, ‘but you’re/I’m so kind and sweet looking!’ He reckons his image is really ‘sweet’ and I suggest perhaps he’s quite horrible, behind that innocent facade, and he cackles again, slapping his thighs. ‘Exactly, it’s what I’ve got going for me, I’m so kind and sweet.’

Christoffer Carlsson

Anyway, it had been good, and the students stayed to chat after the bell went. He moans that school periods are too short. He’d have liked to get there earlier, to talk for longer, but is grateful he was able to go at all.

When abroad he usually says ‘you either take me to a school, or you take me to a prison.’ And it works. Apparently it’s much harder to get into prisons in Sweden. (Although I can think of one way…) He’s been in the UK twice now, including when we first met in Edinburgh last year. He hopes to attend Newcastle Noir in the spring, with Jacky Collins, and if Scribe agree, Christoffer would like to visit a prison there. ‘Are there any?’ he asks, and I admit to not being an expert on prisons. More cackling.

We decide we’ve been sitting in the green room for quite long enough. It’s now very quiet, or would be, if it weren’t for us. Leaving the Golden Lion, Christoffer goes up the hill to his hotel and an evening of working on his book, and I go the opposite way, ‘promising’ to look him up in Newcastle if I end up missing him too much.

And that’s it. Let’s hope we can find him a prison…

Why, why, why?

Why do they do it? Why do authors even bother to get out of bed before the crack of dawn, to travel for hours, possibly with trains breaking down or getting cancelled, or driving hundreds of miles in their own cars. This is before they even stand up in front of school children in classrooms, talking about books, writing, reading, to audiences maybe not terribly interested. Possibly they will be told off by teachers for drinking coffee from the wrong mug in the staff room. And then they go home again, always assuming their transport works. Or they stay overnight, in dubious hotels, eating badly, before repeating the whole thing the next day.

Yes, there is – can be – money in it. Authors need to eat too. Their books will get better known. And [some of] the children will benefit from the visit by a real, live author.

But it must be so tiring.

This whole subject came up on Facebook, again, the other week. A few of those who know what it’s like, gathered to discuss travel – and other – disasters, again. Barry Hutchison told us about one of his first author outings, quite a few years ago, and I’m reproducing it here with Barry’s permission:

Barry Hutchison

“When I was just starting out, I went on a tour with HarperCollins, where myself and a few other authors visited schools around London.

One school we went to really shocked me. The teachers openly admitted they couldn’t teach the kids, and were basically just containing them until they were old enough to leave. The police were called in most days. None of the teachers had the faintest idea why we had bothered to come to the school, and told us we were wasting our time. They laughed when someone from Waterstones turned up with books to sell.

We were split up into different classes. The kids I spoke to were around 14 to 15 – older than the target audience of the one book I had out. They talked among themselves during my talk. A few of them took time out to look me up and down, whisper something to their mates, then burst out laughing.

I had 30 minutes to talk to them. After 20, I was so thrown-off by everything that I ran out of things to say. I asked if anyone had any questions. Someone said, ‘Is you a paedo, sir?’ and everyone laughed.

The teacher said nothing.

I had maybe a minute left. I asked if anyone enjoyed writing stories, and one boy down the front, who had been staring at his desk the whole time, saying nothing, raised the tip of a finger.

‘Oh!’ I said. ‘You like writing?’

All eyes turned to him. His hand went down. He told me that, no, he hated it, but his mum sometimes made him do it as a punishment.

I said no more about it.

At lunchtime, we brave authors sat at a signing table, swapping horror stories, books piled up around us that nobody was going to buy.

After 10 minutes or so, Waterstones started packing up. We were just about to leave when the boy who’d raised his hand came up, looked around nervously, then took a copy of my book out of his jacket and asked me to sign it.

I signed it and handed it back to him. He leaned closer, whispered, ‘I’ve never told anyone I like writing stories before,’ and then about-turned and hurried off.

On the way out, I found out from the librarian that he’d asked her to borrow the money for the book. She knew she’d never see the money again, so made him a deal – she’d buy him a copy if he came to her book group to discuss it. He reluctantly agreed.

She emailed me four months later to say he was still going to the book group. It consisted of him and her.

I have no idea where that kid is now, but the thought of him has seen me through some pretty abysmal school events over the years.”

Those of us following this conversation that day all admitted to reaching for a tissue when we got to those last paragraphs. Perhaps that is why they do all this stuff. And librarians, eh?

Thank you.

The lost diary of Sami Star

We don’t always know what others want, and sometimes not even what we ourselves need. And parents want what they believe might be best; not what would be best.

Karen McCombie, The lost diary of Sami Star

Hannah wants peace and quiet at home, and isn’t getting it, because her parents ‘know best’ regarding her older sister and her future. Her friends seem to have lost interest in what Hannah needs. Then, one day she finds a diary in the park, and reading it – to see if she can find out whose it is – she discovers someone really interesting. Someone cool, but also sad.

A bit of detective work sends Hannah and her sister Victoria to a spot where maybe she’ll find Sami Star. We all need each other, and that’s something the girls discover.

Great little story by Karen McCombie about friendship and learning what’s important in life. And that goes for parents too.