Category Archives: Blogs

Breakfast with Burns

There we were, a roomful of foreigners, invited by the Scottish Government to a Burns Breakfast. I looked around and found we all appeared boringly normal. With the exception of one splendid looking man wearing what I will call a Bavarian style outfit, there was nothing to point to our foreign-ness. And I suppose that’s the whole point. We are all the same, give or take the odd thing.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

The presence of quite so many press photographers became clear when Nicola Sturgeon entered the room. I should have guessed. After all, the venue was only divulged after registering. Ben Macpherson, Minister for Europe, Migration & International Development, kicked off with an introduction, and then it was time for the First Minister. It struck me that this was the first time I’d heard her speak, after so many encounters at the book festival. Basically, Scotland wants us here. We are welcome.

Thank you.

Nicola pointed out that Scots are good at having fun, even in deepest, darkest January. So before the first half ended, a young actor whose name I didn’t catch, talked about Robert Burns, and Robert’s strong belief in his own greatness, but thought the great poet might have been surprised to learn of the existence of vegan haggis. There was a most professional address to a haggis, followed by the piping in of a plateful of haggis canapés…

In the interval there was music, and Nicola Sturgeon walked round the room chatting to anyone who wanted to chat. I daresay she’d even have talked to me if I’d been able to come up with something sensible to say. She’s the mistress of selfies, and many many selfies were taken. (Daughter – via WhatsApp – demanded one of me with the FM, but I wriggled out of that by borrowing someone else’s big moment.) The thing about our First Minister is that she talks to people as though she’s a normal person. Not all politicians can.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

As we started the second half, Nicola was spirited away, and the rest of us were treated to more music by the trio from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They play very well, and the singer has the most beautiful voice. Starting with Auld Lang Syne, the audience perhaps displayed more of a foreign disposition by merely humming cautiously along, but I’d say that’s because we didn’t want to inflict our voices over that of the singer’s.

After several more wonderful songs, by the Burns chap again, Minister Macpherson thanked us, while apologising for the things Westminster is putting us through.

I had a final look at the information stalls, and helped myself to a blue and white pen. Very grip-friendly for elderly fingers, so one simply has to steal where one can.

And I never needed that book I’d brought.

The Fowl Twins

Would it work, this move from Artemis Fowl to his twin brothers Myles and Beckett? Could they be as charmingly bad as their big brother, and would we miss Butler, and what if Eoin Colfer had lost his touch? Yes, yes, yes and no.

They seem so young! Eleven is nothing. But the Artemis we first met was similarly young and just as crooked, and intelligent, calculating everything he did to suit him. Myles is a cold fish, not hesitating to hack Artemis’s security system to get things his way. And Beckett, well, a delight, but one who would quickly wear you out if you actually met. If he was actually real. Charming, and not quite as stupid as he makes you think he is.

Eoin Colfer, The Fowl Twins

Being twins they have that unspoken way of working well together, and the mere fact that Myles has prepped Beckett to do what needs doing, when it needs doing, is a testament to both their abilities. And they have NANNI, an AI minder (who can also be a little hacked).

We have fairies. (It’s an Irish story, after all.) One Barbie-sized troll, who is quite vicious, or would be, were he not encased in plastic. One small, but ancient, non-magic pixel (half pixie, half elf), who is less invisible than she thinks.

And we have baddies. A Spanish speaking nun and a Duke from Scilly, who is very old. Plus the requisite horde of stupid muscle.

Together they all make for a fun and fast paced reading adventure.

There is no point in me explaining anything that happens in this first book about the Fowl twins. It’s just one of those times when you sit down and read and enjoy the ride. I mean, maybe not when face-to-face with the shark. But otherwise it was – mostly – lots of fun. What am I saying? It was fun the whole time. Except maybe for the nits. And, er… yes. Fun.

Guilty

As I tossed another book (adult crime, since you ask) aside, and recycled the press release, I congratulated myself on how easy it was to decide not to even pretend to be interested in reading the book. No sense of guilt at all.

That’s because it was an unsolicited crime novel from a publicist I don’t know, and who has clearly inherited my name and address from someone. They must also have enough of a budget for doing this with little or no checking up on any resulting reviews.

(The book might be great, for all I know. If space was not an issue, I’d possibly stack it up for my future house arrest days. But I don’t suppose I can hope to live through that many years under house arrest, seeing I’m no longer a spring chicken.)

But the word guilt triggered, well, guilt. Because the rest of the time I feel it in respect of books I’d like to read, authors I know and like, and publicists I might have made promises to.

And I have a family who are so dutiful in their general behaviour that guilt is right there, often on a daily basis. It’s hard to banish, even when you know life’s too short, and all that. Plus the fact that guilt should be saved for graver situations.

So it was quite nice to have that fleeting insouciant no-guilt-here moment.

Prime fool

‘I seem to have accidentally got Amazon Prime,’ said the Resident IT Consultant some weeks before Christmas.

I tutted and offered to help him get out of it. I even thought I’d do a sample purchase to see where he ‘went wrong.’ But then he managed to extricate himself without assistance and all he had to suffer through was another 29 days of Prime membership.

Knowing how easy they make it to make the mistake, I still felt it was up to my savvy shopper to see the pit before he fell into it.

Then as I was tidying up my inbox at the weekend, I ‘dealt with’ the email from an author, telling me about his new books (because I’d asked), and decided to buy them. It felt too unlikely that I’d be able to ask for a review copy of even one of them at this late point.

And before I knew what hit me, I was also the lucky recipient of Amazon Prime.

Actually, I saw exactly what hit me. And as I thought ‘so that’s where he went wrong!’ I went wrong too. Well, I didn’t, because I had a choice of two buttons, the most tempting of which took me to Prime country, and the one below it was the get out free button. Which I selected. And it took me straight to the congratulations for having joined them page.

Going back a page or two didn’t undo the damage, so I bought my two books, which already had free postage, for free. And then I went to the help page and clicked on the ‘get me out of here’ button, and I was out again.

As the Resident IT Consultant had said, escape was really easy. But so was the trap. I’d say, it was unavoidable, as I can’t see how choosing the right button should get me the result of the wrong button.

The whole thing is even more ridiculous, because I had for some time pondered joining. I’d been seduced by the films and television shows Daughter was enjoying with hers. The main thing preventing me was that a year ago I was stupid enough to buy a television that doesn’t do Prime…

But, had I not been tricked, it’s not inconceivable I’d have given them my money. Willingly.

The Good Thieves

‘What do you think of Katherine Rundell?’ I was asked in an email, chatting to one of ‘my’ authors, some time last year. My response was that I didn’t think, really, as I’d not read any of her books, but that her new one, The Good Thieves, looked very promising. Except I’d not been sent a copy, and when I checked in the shops it was a hardback and a bit pricey.

Katherine Rundell, The Good Thieves

But I had gathered that Katherine Rundell is an author of interest in the business. So she and her book went on my Christmas wish list, and here we are. (Father Christmas took pity on me.) I’ve had a most enjoyable read of this children’s ‘light crime’ novel, set in New York in the 1920s. It’s not just the cover that is gorgeous.

The pace is slow to begin with, detailing the arrival in New York of Vita and her mother, on a journey of mercy to rescue her bereaved grandfather. But she has plans, and accidentally coming across three unusually talented children, she plans another kind of rescue than the one her mother is working on, with lawyers, etc.

Vita wants to restore her grandfather’s lost castle to him, and throws herself and her three new accomplices into a minor war with a mafia style group of vicious men. They may be powerful and cruel, but they’ve not counted on Vita, or Silk, Arkady and Samuel. Each has very useful skills.

The plot as such isn’t necessarily all that original. What makes The Good Thieves such a special tale is the way this plot is executed. There are little surprises here and there, and there is so much warmth, and courage.

I’d have been quite happy for the book to be longer. But on the other hand I wouldn’t have wanted to inflict more pain and injury on our young heroes. And I suppose I can always run away and join a circus.

(My thoughts on Katherine Rundell are that she’s a very good thing. I might have a need to read more of her books.)

The Lammisters

I suspect Declan Burke’s new novel would make a good film. In fact, I have no way of knowing that it’s not already happening. Set in Hollywood, slightly under a hundred years ago, it would be appropriate. And I do enjoy humorous films.

The Lammisters is completely different from Declan’s other crime novels, which – mostly – take place in Ireland, featuring inept and sometimes bad characters, but usually also very funny ones. If they talk too much, it’s because they are Irish.*

Here, though, is a narrator who uses a lot of words. Long words. Fancy words. Complicated sentences. Footnotes. That sort of thing.

Not being as well read – or educated – as the Guardian’s Laura Wilson, I don’t know Laurence Sterne, although I have heard of him. I gather it is his style that Declan has gone for. The review in the Guardian was very positive, which is well deserved. To my mind, all his books ought to have got a mention there.

It’s a period I like a lot, and coincidentally it’s the second of two crime novels set in that period that I had lined up over Christmas; one on each side of the US. (More about that tomorrow.) And the cover is fabulous.

Declan Burke, The Lammisters

* Apologies for the stereotyping…

Audible?

For her current commute, Daughter needs audio books. They will keep her sane and entertained during the 25 minutes on the S-Bahn and the 5 to 10 on the bus. Twice a day, five days a week. I understand that’s about the equivalent of The Hunger Games. (Not that I applaud her choice.)

Now, I have to admit here that I have not studied the finer details of having an Audible membership. Daughter has, and while she’s not thrilled with the cost, she hasn’t come up with anything better. There probably isn’t anything better, i.e. cheaper per hour.

When they were still cassette tapes I used to buy a lot. They were expensive, but I felt the benefits outweighed the cost, and there were four of us who would potentially listen, one at a time. Son wore out our copy of Kim, so bought a more hardwearing version of this Kipling story when he got older but still wanted to re-listen. As for Harry Potter, I winced when paying, but knew it was worth it.

I also frequented the mobile library when it stopped down the road, and borrowed a lot of audio cassettes, mostly for Son. That’s how I discovered children weren’t meant to read Terry Pratchett… Or Agatha Christie.

Thinking back to this time, I remembered that I must have contacted the library service at some point, about audio books for Daughter, who at that time really needed them to access literature at all. Somebody very nice provided her with a library card that allowed her free audio books, and I proceeded to request books from the mobile library, and every time they came, they would wave their latest haul at me. It was great.

Until the time we lost the nice and friendly crew and the replacement librarian got fed up with looking out for my requests, and told me so in no uncertain terms.

So that was that. Daughter learned to read for pleasure, mainly thanks to Nick Sharratt. But on her commute she prefers sound to paper. If only it wasn’t so expensive!

I recalled the event in Edinburgh in August where Sally Gardner ‘suggested to someone in the audience that if they can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.’ That’s probably similar to what I arranged for Daughter 15 to 20 years ago. I don’t know what would happen today.

Discovered from one author that the seemingly fair free exchange of a book if you don’t like it, can be abused. Readers listen to one book and then return it and read another for the same cost. Not surprisingly that money doesn’t then benefit either the author of the book or the narrator.

We looked at the audio books in the sale over Christmas, but there wasn’t much to her tastes. I went through my library and suggested really good books, that it would be worth paying for. Most of them weren’t available on audio…