Category Archives: Blogs

Launching the tenth anniversary Bloody Scotland

She notices things, does Lin Anderson. She’s very kind, and she came up to me to ask ‘did I want a chair?’ I did, and she gave me one. I asked how she knew, and it seems I was leaning on a stack of brown boxes. I was. I just hadn’t noticed.

So there I was, the only one sitting down. Very comfortable it was, too. My friend Helen Grant had to stand, but apparently she prefers that. She’s going to be at the tenth (?) Bloody Scotland in September. High time, if you ask me. She’s as scary as the rest of them.

Between me and the mail chimp I almost didn’t make it, but I was in a position to dash off to the Golden Lion at very short notice this morning, so I did.

You will have noticed my question mark above. I am sure they know what they are doing, but I am equally sure it’s not the tenth Bloody Scotland. One of us will be wrong.* But I was given a chair to sit on, so will not insist on being right.

After some suitable mingling, Bob kicked things off. He’s the boss. He then handed over to Citizen Kane, sorry, Councillor Kane, to talk about how much Stirling loves Bloody Scotland. Then it was back to Bob again, with more information about the sheer wonderfulness of what is to come. And there is a lot.

I was quite excited to find Sara Paretsky on the front cover of the programme, but cynical enough to realise she will Zoom in. So are some of the other grand crime writers. But most are coming here, and I already have a conundrum as to who to see and who to miss. Helen is appearing with ‘my old pal’ Stuart Neville, and new Swedish star David Lagercrantz will be on a panel with Simon Mason, David Fickling’s man in the basement.

Not going to list all the others. Look at the programme. It’s already live. And Crime at the Coo sold out instantly, so don’t even bother trying. Anyway, it’s on from 15th to 18th September, and if you are good with numbers you can see they have added a day.

As we left, Helen and I ended up behind everyone being photographed on the steps of the Golden Lion. I considered trying to look especially silly, but gave up. Having squeezed through, we then joined the throng on the pavement instead.

After which Helen bought me a baked potato across the road.

*That will be me. I’m a foreigner. There is a difference between anniversary and tenth event… Thank you again for the chair.

The Outlander Effect

It’s Jacobite blog tour time! Here’s Barbara Henderson with some Outlanderish thoughts:

‘The Americans are back’, my husband remarked drily on his return from Inverness High Street, ten minutes away from our home. Don’t get the wrong impression – this was no disapproving comment. It was dry humour, tinged with relief. He might as well have said ‘Things are finally getting back to normal’.
The devastating effect of the pandemic on international tourism in our area had been acutely felt, particularly as a certain franchise had previously supercharged the tourist economy in these parts. A book, film and fandom feat like no other (perhaps Harry Potter aside).

Can you hear it? The distant and mournful version of the Skye Boat Song, now a major theme tune? I am (of course!) talking about Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic time travel romance which features the Highlands during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

Why do some things catch on while others do not? I often find myself bemused by what hits the popularity jackpot. But speaking as an interested observer rather than an Outlander superfan, I can absolutely see the appeal here: standing stones and ancient cairns, a doomed cause, heroism and healing – it’s a compelling mix. As the phenomenon grew, the Highlands changed all around me. Tourist gift shops began to replace their usual stock with Outlander merchandise. Busloads and busloads of Outlander themed tours arrived at key locations like Culloden Battlefield. Fans found each other, both online and in person. Gaelic-learning became fashionable again, and consultant herbalists and craftspeople were hired for the television series. From time to time, adverts for extras would appear in the local papers. I recently attended a creative industries conference. Half a day was given over to figuring it out: How can we as artists and writers and heritage professionals tap into the Outlander Effect? It’s the million-dollar question! That way profit lies.

As a children’s writer, I was well aware of Gabaldon’s books and the huge success of the television series. However, I thought all this had very little to do with me. When I was lucky enough to be published for the first time with my Highland Clearances novel Fir for Luck, I realised: It had everything to do with me.

Let me introduce you to the InverOutlanders, a local Outlander fan organisation. Full of likeable ladies, I have grown very fond of the group. They have been wonderfully supportive of me and of other writers, too. After all, they have already read every word that Gabaldon has written – and they are interested in more Scottish history of that time period. Fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t seem to matter. It certainly didn’t seem to matter that mine was a children’s book – Scottish history, a time of peril – tell us no more, we’re in!

I began to see them at some of my events. When my own Jacobite novel was ready to submit to publishers, I didn’t have to explain to the publishing world what this Jacobite rebellion was. They already knew. I began to pitch the novel as ‘Outlander for kids’ which was a convenient shortcut to what the book was about.

When The Reluctant Rebel was published on 18th May, the InverOutlanders were first to the microphone, shouting to their 14.6k followers about my book. I can never thank them enough.

I don’t know if I’ll ever meet Diana Gabaldon in real life. But if I do, I am determined to thank her for creating millions of readers who are now interested in Scottish history, culture and heritage. She didn’t mean to, but in some small way, the author of the mighty Outlander series has put my books on the map too.

Catching Fire: A Translation Diary

This is the most wonderful book! And it’s not even fiction. At least, I don’t believe it is. Daniel Hahn’s online diary on his work translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire – as it became – from [the] Spanish into English (I’ll go without the ‘the’ there.)

You will remember – yes, you will – that I wrote about the diary last year as it was actually happening.

So, why would I read the same thing all over again, in book form? Well, because another translator I happen to know sent it to me. And it was pure luck I hadn’t already bought it myself. Because I wanted to read it again. Not so much as the companion piece to Never Did the Fire, but because this is like sitting down with a dear friend; someone who is funny and intelligent and you just want to spend more time with them and you want to be entertained by their thoughts, and they have a fun and different way with language.

Daniel is modest about his abilities. (Maybe.) He doesn’t mind mentioning all that he doesn’t know [yet], or musing on how he might solve another stumbling stone he’s stumbled across. I think I hadn’t quite understood that a professional translator might read a book they are about to work on, knowing only half the words or not understanding what the author meant, like the 13-year-old witch read Agatha Christie in English. You are propelled forward by a wish to get somewhere, and you learn as you go. Though I have to say that Daniel being equipped with a Chilean stepfather is a very handy thing. Under the circumstances.

I was also amused to learn Daniel has lots of incomprehensible gaps in his manuscript, once he’s ‘written’ the first translation. It’s what I have when transcribing an interview, having no idea what my victim just said there. But my advantage is that I can cut out the worst. I imagine Daniel needed to keep what was in Diamela’s book; ‘Plugging the gaps makes what looked like sheer linguistic carnage begin to resemble a piece of continuous text’.

So, this is my random meander through a really fun diary.* And I’d say that unlike with some books, this one got even funner** on a second reading. Daniel talks directly to the reader. He also chats to himself.

I could read it again, again.

I have to say: read this book! Even if your friends aren’t in it, or if you know nothing about languages. It’s like having the loveliest of friends pop in for a visit.

*He doesn’t really favour footnotes. But they are amusing. He also very kindly put me in one. Or did he? No, he didn’t. But still. It’s one of my favouritest footnote tales. And he mentions people I know.

**Channelling Daniel’s style of making words up.

The witches have flown

When I woke on Good Friday I discovered the storage in the sky was full. It’s not worried me unduly, and for the last few years I have chipped away at the far too full email account. But clearly I’d not gone far enough. Have you any idea of how many emails a Witch gets?

So my Långfredag as it is called in Sweden became rather long, with my emptying away from breakfast onwards. If this had been a desk, and the email piles of paper, I’d have been looking at a considerable bonfire by now.

Which is quite appropriate as Easter Saturday is when those Swedes light bonfires, to cook their sausages over, and to move those pesky witches on. The sky used to be full of smoke and of witches on broomsticks.

If you’ve been here a very long time I congratulate you for persisting with Bookwitch, and you might possibly remember reading about this before. The sausages and the witches; not the email situation. There was also some disagreement in the comments section as someone discovered they had been missing out on the sausages all these years.

My Bookwitch folder is no longer full of obsolete press releases and awards longlists and my storage in the sky is feeling less bloated. Not so myself, who had to fly away filled with a generous vegan burger. (We discovered we didn’t have much in the way of sausages, so decided burgers were the next best thing for a ravenous witch.)

The bonfires looked glorious from up above!

Wished

OK, I need to start by mentioning that 65[ish] is not all that old. But I can see that the three children in Wished by Lissa Evans think so. We can even appear a bit boring, and who’d want to spend their half-term at the house of an ‘old’ neighbour? Well, she might be under the impression that WiFi is a type of biscuit, but she is so kind as to want to supply them with their wished-for biscuit.

And there is that word, wished-for, which is what this whole, wonderful book is about. That, and a very smelly cat. I loved Wished, and I don’t even like cats that much.

It’s when you hit your [reading] rock bottom and feel that nothing truly good will ever come your way again, and then a story like Wished arrives and it’s all you can do to not swallow it whole, in one sitting (which would leave you with not so much to read again), because you simply must.

Birthday cake candles. They can be wished on. Did you know that?

Here we have siblings Ed and Roo, needing to be removed from their own house for the week, and then there is Elastico, aka Willard, from the house behind Miss Filey’s. She’s the one with the biscuits.

It takes virtually no time at all for the children to somehow light a candle – because it’s what you do in a strange house, isn’t it? – and discover that wishes come true, if only for ten seconds. And then you need to organise yourselves a bit so that wishes are handled carefully, and at some point you need to explain to adult people why the sofa looks as if someone set fire to it. And the cat smells. Did I mention that?

What can I say? Except to quote the last sentence of chapter one; ‘What happened at Miss Filey’s house was beyond imagination’. I feel so happy just saying that. I could read the book all over again.

Miss Filey is not boring, even if she doesn’t know about WiFi. But the cat does smell. And the world can be quite wonderful sometimes. Like this book.

Last night’s dream

People’s dreams are rarely worth hearing about, second hand and jumbled as they often are. So last night I immediately came to the conclusion that you wouldn’t hear mine. Yet, here we are.

In fact, I don’t know where I was, except it was bookish, and I’d temporarily left one room to go somewhere else, when I spied Philip Pullman sitting where he had been sitting last time I saw him as well. Decided to go in and speak to him. Then decided not to, because what could I say, except maybe to hurry up with the last Book of Dust? Then decided I would walk up to him anyway and I was sure something would come to me during those ten seconds.

And when I got to his seat, he was no longer there.

(So far, so fascinating?)

Then I woke up ‘properly’ and started the day with some small screen time, aka looking at emails on my phone. There was one [forwarded] from the Society of Authors, telling me Philip had just resigned as its president.

So that’s clearly what the dream meant. He was there, and then he wasn’t. And it would have been rude for me to have chased him about Dust.

It was probably a wise decision to resign, all things considered. But wrong all the same. He shouldn’t have to. Philip wasn’t running the Society; he was ‘merely’ its figurehead. But it seems – like the Queen – that he’s not meant to have own opinions. Or at least, not to voice them.

I would like to think that his resignation will feel like freedom from being the face of writing and books. Even a presidential role must take its toll. He’s now looking forward to being allowed opinions again.

That set me thinking, because I was especially disturbed by the hounding of their president by a large group of society members, back when it all ‘went wrong’ last year. And although I ‘know’ quite a few of them, there is only one face I see when I think back to this ‘we’ll show him he’s wrong and force him out’ mentality. Sort of the ‘poster person’ for the attack on someone who believed he was entitled to say what he said (and entitled to be wrong, too).

The writers who fought to get rid of Philip, were obviously entitled to say what they thought (even if it was a bit too much playground baying for blood for my liking). But then, why wasn’t he? Those who went on the attack were doing it for the good reputation of their society. It seems that such behaviour could be excused on those grounds.

But I know that my ‘poster person’ has ruined my opinion of them for a very long time to come. And I’d have liked for the society to distance itself from this campaign, too, just as it was forced to step away from Philip after his tweets.

Mayhem and muffins

It was mayhem. Daughter and I had driven to Fallin to extricate Barbara Henderson from the school there, where she’s doing literary things with the Primary 5 pupils. That’s good, obviously, but you know, we’d overlooked how impossible it is to move near any school at home time, and especially in a smallish, cramped ex-mining village.

In the end Daughter opted for not running over any children and to sit patiently in the car until most of them had left for home with their grown-ups, and I’d got out and found our visitor, and then she did clever things in that small space and got us out of there again. Barbara was surprised we’d never been to Fallin before, but as I said, there’s never been a reason to.

Once back at Bookwitch Towers, there were muffins waiting for us. It’s about the only thing I trust myself to make these days, and I’d made several ‘flavours’ – but not mushroom – in case of issues. No issues, and ‘more than one’ muffin and coffee later, and much gossip, the Resident IT Consultant drove Barbara to her train home. It seems he hadn’t startled her too much by launching into a rant about zoo pens almost before introductions were made.

It was a real tonic spending time with a real person again. At home. With chat and so much laughter that Daughter who had withdrawn needed to know why we laughed so much. Apart from the horizontal wallpaper, I’m not sure. I forget so fast. Oh yes, there might have been a mention of Jacobite bullets.

Fifteen and counting

Apart from a few years in my late teens, when I erroneously believed I had to read grown-up books – because I could, and because others did – I have not been too concerned with worthiness. I mean the worth others, who are not as wise as they think they are, put on certain books.

I read because I want to read, and I read what I want to read. Mostly.

One of the things I get to read these days is The Bookseller, which arrives second-hand in a pink envelope every week. A month ago I was struck by what Philip Jones said in his editor’s letter, in regard to The Official UK Top 50 list, which they published that week. He wrote ‘to view the Top 50 is to witness the trade as it is, rather than how it would like to be seen’.

The trade, and maybe us readers, like to think of this book business as something much worthier than some people might think of this Top 50 as being. But it is what it is. People buy books and the fifty most bought ones are the Top 50. The list is full of titles and authors I, and many other people, or so I imagine, have heard of. It’s not a list of inaccessible works. It’s light and fun, and I say this despite a certain DW having two books in the top 15. Because it’s what people buy.

Richard Osman tops the list, and somewhere towards the bottom we find Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, but as this is a list of everything, there is no shame in that.

In fact, if we can move on to the Top 30 Children’s Illustrators of 2021, also in the Bookseller, I was pleased to see that Axel Scheffler tops it, with Tony Ross merely in second place. Now, I don’t mind Tony at all. It’s just the company he keeps, which is why I’d rather see Axel selling better.

It’s quite interesting really, as the list has many illustrators I know [of], but also a few I don’t. And many of them are classics, so not exactly new for 2021, but proving that a good picture book will sell and sell.

That’s what we like here at Bookwitch Towers. I was given a picture book for Christmas. I have read very few of the Top 50, but I believe I can say I have a relationship with a good number of the books and their authors, one way or another. And I’m in good company. Lots of people bought these books, despite snobs wanting us to want other books.

It’s February 6th again. Bookwitch continues slowly on her way. She’s fifteen today, and unlike that other teenager she was many years ago, she knows what she likes.

And, this is quite embarrassing; I knew I needed cream for something today – which caused some concern when Waitrose turned out to have no cream whatsoever on Saturday – but I couldn’t remember why. I do now. It was for a celebratory something or other on this birthday. It will taste better with cream. Luckily M&S had some.

New Year’s MBE

You know how people talk about feeling old when the policemen start looking young? Or their GP? Or anyone whose business it ought to be to look ‘old.’

I was about to say ‘how about when your friends start getting MBEs and OBEs and that sort of thing?’ But I realised that this has already happened. What I actually – probably – mean is when it’s your child’s peers who achieve this. (I still haven’t quite got over the idea that Daughter’s pal from school flies commercial passenger planes.)

But as I was idly flicking through social media while waiting for 2022 to strike last night, I discovered that Daughter’s mentor from Space School – Sheila Kanani (now Pearson) – has been made an MBE for her services to educating young people about space and physics (those might not be the precise words, but you get the idea). This is a good thing. Both the teaching of STEM subjects and enticing children to take an interest in them, and for the person doing this to be formally rewarded.

Look at my own ‘child’, who was interested and who followed in Sheila’s footsteps. After seeing Sheila in action in Edinburgh a few years ago, I’d like to take similar footsteps too, because she was that much fun and made it all look easy.

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].