Category Archives: Blogs

A launch in the dark

I didn’t notice the flamingos in Santa hats as I arrived. Maybe they turned up while I was inside Dunblane library on Thursday evening helping launch Alex Nye’s new book Darker Ends? There would have been room for them as well, but only just. I rarely see libraries this full, so it made for a nice change.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

Despite it being a dark and rainy night, and despite Dunblane deciding to have its Christmas market on the very same evening, people flooded to the library. It was Alex’s third launch (for this book), after two large affairs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. And I believe she was planning yet another for the other Dunblane library yesterday.

There’s no stopping some people.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

After wine and crisps and things, and a kind of library quiz for the younger ones, we were plunged into darkness. I’d ‘reserved’ a comfortable seat early on, but many sat on the floor. They were mostly the sort of age where you can sit on the floor. There were a few beanbags as well.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

Alex talked about the iceberg of writing. At book festivals you see only the tip of the [author] iceberg, the success and the smiles and everything. Then there is all the bad stuff, the lack of confidence and the uncertainty, the hard work. She knew from a very early age that she wanted to be a writer, and she had a supportive family. But unlike with other jobs where it’s clear what route you have to take to get there, it’s not quite as simple for the wannabe author.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

She won a writing competition at 16 with a story titled A Mould of Flesh, and she still has the book it was printed in. Alex came to Edinburgh, found she loved Scottish history, and wrote a novel about Mary Queen of Scots, which no one wanted. (It is about to become her fourth published book, after Darker Ends.) After some travelling, she returned to Scotland, living on Sheriffmuir, which is where she set her first two novels, Chill and Shiver.

Accompanied by spooky sound effects, Alex talked about the inspiration for Darker Ends, and she read us a couple of excerpts, finishing just as Rory lost his balance in the window…

Alex does a good line in accompanying photos, from childhood pictures of her siblings and the dogs, to the photograph of her and her husband in Glencoe when she’d just discovered the setting for Darker Ends. (Although, if you ask me, they looked more like Daniel Craig and Judi Dench.)

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

Her publisher, Clare Cain, had a table groaning under copies of the book, which sold well, and judging by the happy crowds and the fact that they were able to ‘borrow’ the town’s official fireworks and everything, I’d say it went pretty well.

And the flamingos looked nice.

By the time it was too late I realised that I never took a picture of Alex herself, apart from the one in the dark. So you can have these tired guys instead. They had clearly been overwhelmed by all that reading and needed a rest.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

The new kids

When I first joined Facebook – and I must point out I only did it for literary reasons! – I was quickly introduced to lots more authors than those I already knew and corresponded with. It’s that automatic suggestion system thing they have, and before long I was awash in new – to me – authors of children’s books.

Some of them I’d barely heard of, and I had not read anything by them. But then I discovered a new category of people. I don’t want to call them wannabes, as that sounds childish, and as though you could become a published author if you only wish for it enough.

Hopefuls, maybe. Those fully intending to be out there with published books very soon. I was amazed at how they all seemed to know each other, too. I was under the impression that garrets were there for a reason, and when you weren’t even published, how could you know others who were also not published?

Seems there are groups for everything under the sun. They knew each other because they attended writing groups, or critiquing groups, or any other kind of authorial group. They supported each other. They were friends.

But I was always afraid that when they did get published, I ‘would have to read’ the books and that I wouldn’t like them.

Well, that was almost as silly as my other ignorant thoughts, because the books have all been great. Many of the ‘hopefuls’ were published around the same time, like Keren David and Candy Gourlay and Jon Mayhew. Teri Terry wasn’t far behind. But so far Kathryn Evans hasn’t joined them. Until now.

It’s almost more exciting, after such a long wait. Not everyone writes at the same speed, and of course, I never knew where in the process people might be when I first encountered them. And Kathryn has strawberries to grow, and bellydancing to do.

Kathryn Evans

Here she is, at the recent SCBWI conference, wearing purple hair and the covers of books being published by her SCBWI friends this year. (In other words, perfectly normal…) Kathryn’s own book – More of Me – will be published in February. I’m really looking forward to it.

Booked – Elizabeth Laird and Daniel Hahn


As Janet Smyth – who organises the children’s books programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – said yesterday, away from August and Charlotte Square it can be a lot of fun to revisit events and ideas in greater detail. So that’s what they are doing, with a programme under the [extremely clever] title Booked. What’s more, we are no longer suffering from bookfest fatigue.

The Bookwitch seat

I arrived at Assembly Roxy with plenty of time, and as the first one there (I know…) I was not only given the choice of best seat, but was more or less led to the most comfortable seat in the place, which happened to be a high-backed leather armchair [with just the right support for an ouchy back] which I sat down in and then simply never left. (Feel free to copy this idea at other venues.)

My back and I had come for Elizabeth Laird in conversation with Daniel Hahn, on the occasion of her nomination as the UK representative for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen award. This IBBY book award is a global one, which looks at an author’s whole body of work. Liz has written around 30 novels, translated into about 15 languages, and she has lived in several countries, including Malaysia, Palestine and Ethiopia.

Asked how she feels about her nomination, Liz said it’s ‘absolutely stunning!’ She spoke of having a couple of her books translated into Arabic, which led her and Daniel to talk about the way so many children’s books in English are translated into other languages, as witnessed by them at a big book festival in Tehran. And Daniel compared this to the relatively few foreign books that are translated into English.

Janet asked if you have to be dead to make it into translation, and he said yes, or you are Cornelia Funke. From his own childhood he knows that children don’t care (possibly don’t know) that books are foreign. He grew up with Moomin and Asterix, and feels that publishers worry too much about what you can put into a book, in case it doesn’t translate well, and this goes for the illustrations too. As for the difficulty of translating rhyming verse, he says that doesn’t seem to stop Julia Donaldson’s books from selling abroad.

Liz said we don’t want child characters who do what their parents say, and Daniel pointed out that’s why we have so many orphans in books. As an example he mentioned James and the Giant Peach, where the parents are killed by a rhinoceros on page one; presumably because Roald Dahl felt he had to get it over with.

Children will engage in a story, and offer hope, endurance, forgiveness and love. Liz likes happy endings, and said that she wants to write hopeful, if not happy, endings. Children’s books should be something to remember as an adult. These days we have emasculated stories, making Grimm and Noah into tame versions of the original stories, in order not to upset.

Daniel Hahn and Elizabeth Laird

When it came to the Q&A, no one knew what Hans Christian Andersen did when he visited Edinburgh. (Did any of you see him?) Daniel reckons this keen but neurotic traveller probably worried about losing his passport, and that he would have had a rope in his luggage, just in case. And he’d quite like to be able to read HCA in Danish.

Asked for a racy story, Liz told us her favourite about the beautiful girl and her silly husband, equally silly father, and hopelessly silly neighbour.

They talked about Liz’s book A Little Piece of Ground, which is about football in Palestine, and she finished by saying she’s not ‘holding her breath’ as regards winning the award.

I think she could. Should.

Elizabeth Laird

There was a signing afterwards, but not before Liz had rushed to put her warm coat on, as she must have been freezing up there on stage. I finally cornered Daniel with my copy of his Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, ‘this lethal weapon, a nightmare,’ and it has been duly signed.

Daniel Hahn

Bookwitch bites #131

Sally Nicholls, An Island of Our Own

David Almond scooped the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize on Thursday. Congratulations to him, and commiserations to young ‘Master Sally Nicholls,’ who at his very young age let his disappointment that Mummy didn’t win be known. I like a baby who can cry when the time is right. And apparently he was passed round like a – very valuable – parcel, so I’m quite jealous I wasn’t there.

Sally is also on the shortlist for the Costa, so perhaps the young Master will appear at another awards event soon. Because as he well knows, Mummy’s is one seriously good book, and he will read it as soon as he can.

Someone (Muckle Media. And you know, I blogged about muckle only the other day) has been looking into who is most popular on Twitter in Scotland. It seems J K Rowling does quite well with followers and such. And what’s fascinating is that I’ve never heard of some of the top names, although Ian Rankin and Val McDermid ring a bell. As do Bookwitch favourites like Gillian Philip, Nicola Morgan, Julie Bertagna and Helen Grant. Long may they tweet.

On Twitter (where else?) I learned that Teri Terry was interviewed when she was in Denmark recently. Her answers are perfectly easy to understand. For those of you who still don’t read Danish after all those Killings and Bridges, I can only suggest you guess what Teri is replying to, as the questions are in Danish.

Anne Rooney has been interviewed by the Society of Authors about non-fiction (I thought of it first!), and it makes for very interesting reading. Times are hard. Being interested in everything is good. Anne is good.

If all this feels like it’s getting on top of you, counselling is at hand. Nicola Morgan is now the proud owner of a Certificate of Counselling, part of her Diploma in Youth Counselling. She is so good at so many things. And I’d have happily unburdened myself to Nicola even before she was certified.

Shetland Noir, only once removed

I’m the kind of witch who can recognise Denise Mina from behind, out of context (i.e. not at some book festival). On the other hand, my Shetland Noir representative, Helen Grant, had no idea who this ‘tremendously likeable’ woman was, gorgeous black furry boots and all. They travelled on the same plane, which despite it being Friday the 13th suffered no mishap, which is lucky for Scottish crime and its future. Helen did know the other crime writer at the airport, though, as she had been at Oxford with MJ McGrath.

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Helen was on her way to Shetland to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy for writing the winning short story – The Beach House – from, as it turned out, the very hands of Jimmy Perez, aka actor Doug Henshall. Not bad for a simple misuse of a kitchen utensil. (I can just see how he stands there muttering, ‘not the cheese grater. Please not the cheese grater!’)

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Strangely (!) Helen was quite keen to see a bit of beautiful Shetland while she was there, so apart from the grand reception and award thing on the Friday night, she ‘only’ went to two events, but they both sound really good. Also very female, because as we know, women scare and kill best. Just look at Helen herself.

Donald Anderson, Jacky Collins, Mari Hannah, Denise Mina, Ann Cleeves and Alexandra Sokoloff

There was a panel on the benefits and pitfalls of screen adaptations, with Alexandra Sokoloff, Ann Cleeves, Denise Mina and Mari Hannah, chaired by Jacky Collins. It’s apparently a bit like adopting a baby, and learning to step away. Ann Cleeves had Vera Stanhope adapted after the producer picked up a copy of her book in Oxfam.

According to Alexandra, who has a past as a screenwriter, in America television does sell books, whereas Ann recognises that viewers might not be readers. Denise has had a very successful adaptation made from her book, totally authentic down to the 1980s Irn Bru sign on Central Station.  And on the benefits of adapting a book, Denise said that we love books – ‘That’s why we’re all dweebing out when there’s a perfectly good craft fair on.’ The book is the real connection with another human being.

Jake Kerridge, Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar

The cheerfully named Killer Women is a London-based group of female (obviously) crime writers, which started as a social group, but now meet to discuss murder as well. In Lerwick Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar spoke to Jake Kerridge about women in crime, both as writers, detectives and victims. Apparently if the victim is male he must suffer as a spy or at war, and not in a domestic setting.

MJ McGrath enjoys turning things round, like having a female detective instead of just as the sidekick. Her male detective breeds lemmings, in order to replace those who jump off cliffs… Louise Millar has interviewed people affected by crime, several years afterwards, to learn of the long term effects. And MJ interviewed some Hell’s Angels after a murder. She felt that being a woman was an advantage in that situation: ‘Either they want to impress you or they don’t take you seriously.’

Women are ‘equal opportunities readers’ and will read books by both women and men, but men are more likely to read men. Helen Giltrow, who works in a male dominated sector, espionage, has been told ‘you write like a man.’ MJ commented that ‘I have been told with great sincerity and as a compliment, I write like a brunette!’

On sex and violence Laura said that she has heard male writers say that women can go further because if a man writes about sexual violence people will think that he is a pervert who really wants to do it! Louise added that there is also the issue of having to write ‘likeable’ women, which is very constraining.

(I’ve never noticed any ‘constraining’…)

On the gossip front the latest news from Ann Cleeves seems to be a non-crime (I’m guessing non-fiction) book about Shetland. Because she loves it. Alex Gray is incredibly nice, and she and Helen talked about Bloody Scotland. Valerie Laws’ sleep was not helped by waves breaking against the hotel wall right beneath her window. (At least the sea stayed on the outside.) Marsali Taylor wins [Helen’s] prize for best dressed crime writer, with a stunning fuchsia silk fitted dress with gold embroidery and matching trousers.

After a weekend like this, Helen can almost see herself having more of a go at adult crime. It was ‘inspiring.’ And next time she flies to Shetland, her woolly hat will be in her hand luggage.

Doug Henshall and Helen Grant, by Dale Smith

Hopefully not ditched

This is the Shetland Noir weekend. It could have picked better weather. Storm Abigail is upon us, and my own Ice Cube is bad enough, for being battered by winds and heavy rain.

I’m very grateful not to have been travelling to Shetland with Abigail. As far as I know, the authors who had to get there in time for the crime festival did manage to travel. Brave people who think nothing of throwing up in small planes or on choppy ferries in the service of literature.

But as I was thinking of these poor souls, in my relatively warm and cosy home, I could visualise the scenario of these people being stranded together. Either in some airport, with no planes taking off, or, well, in some rather more dire situation. You know, a whole plane load of professional killers.

Just imagine what they could get up to.

(Feel free to use this idea for a book, or a short story. I’ll settle for 10%.)

Diversest of them all?

OK, I’ll stick my head out again. Not as much as some, but at least a token.

I was surprised two weeks ago by the reaction to my blog post about the storm surrounding Meg Rosoff and her feeling that she preferred to write the books she wants to write and not the ones that others feel must be written. But then that is the whole point of a – relatively – free society. We are allowed to think differently.

Before that I had read Michael Grant’s piece on how he feels he’s the most diverse YA author around. It was a bold statement, which I admire him for. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’d say from what I know that he’s at least partially right. I am very fond of Edilio in Gone. Lots of us are. He’s an immigrant. He’s not white. And he’s gay. And that all seems perfectly normal. He is hopefully not in there to be a token character, but simply to be himself.

Michael Grant

Now it seems Michael is being accused by ‘fans of diversity… [who] are enraged that I’ve done what they claim they want everyone to do.’ While that sounds a little outrageous, it also has the ring of truth to it. Many people with an agenda will get annoyed by almost anything, even when it doesn’t make sense. Because it’s being annoyed that is so satisfying.

Michael is no scaredy-cat who will hide behind bland words. On the contrary, he goes right out there and says what he thinks and feels. He looks like a tough guy, but I’m sure he’s like the rest of us on the inside. We can all feel hurt and baffled, but many of us retreat and say nothing when things go wrong. Not so Michael.

I’m glad he says it out loud. Someone needs to say it. Some mornings the emperor really does forget to dress.