Category Archives: Books

Star by Star

This was a book worth waiting for. It’s the one Sheena Wilkinson talked about in Oxford three years ago, on the topic of suffragettes. She also talked about the Spanish flu and WWI.

And now, a little over one hundred years after those times, we have our own pandemic and if I hadn’t known Sheena wrote Star by Star before Covid, I’d have nodded as she describes what measures they take and how people worry. As if she knew. I mean, she presumably did, because there is such a thing as research, but now we all know.

This book is about women, and for women. The heroine, the aptly named Stella, has travelled from her home in Manchester to Northern Ireland to live with her aunt after her mother very suddenly dies of the flu. Both fervent suffragettes, they had worked hard for the cause.

And now, a month after the end of the war, there is an election, and women – albeit only those over 30 and property owners – are allowed to vote for the first time. As are men of all ages, for the first time. It’s both a gender and a political issue, especially in Ireland.

Stella is only fifteen, but she has been trained well by her mother, and she thinks of the cause before anything else. This is just the right book for International Women’s Day. And it’s yet another reminder of how hard women worked for the right to have their say, which far too many are willing to ignore today.

I’ve got it covered #2

While I’m at it, I will continue with David Dean’s book covers. And this one is actually blue.

I didn’t even read a proof of Candy Gourlay’s debut Tall Story. It was a typed manuscript for me. Is that why I have two copies of the book here? Maybe. I thought a while back that I’d declutter and keep just the one. But ‘unfortunately’ there was something special about both the hardback and the paperback and I was unable to follow through…

It was also a story that turned a corner for me, and it has a special place in my heart, even were it not for David’s artwork.

As with The London Eye Mystery, it has been a while since Candy’s book was published. If you missed it eleven years ago, now is a good time to unmiss it, whether with hard or soft covers. It also made for best book of 2010 on Bookwitch. It was a year of such excellence, and not just any old book gets to be pronounced best.

Talking about excellence, it brought me into the excellent Philippine Embassy, which is a something that doesn’t always happen. Or other embassies, for that matter.

I quite like this linking to old stories of mine, so here is one where the Siobhan Dowd book cover meets Candy’s, so to speak. It describes so well the way everything blends together and everyone is everywhere.

Have now read through half a dozen marvellous memories from 2010, and I can’t keep linking or you would be here all day. But, you know, these books and their covers have taken me to so many places to meet so many people!

Debi draws

I drew quite a passable rabbit, if I say so myself.

Thursday to Saturday this week Stirling libraries had a little online book festival, Smallprint 2021. You can find it on Facebook. That’s also where you can find (I don’t know how long for, possibly forever) the videos where several of our best author/illustrators showed off their skills, and read books to young fans.

Debi Gliori welcomed us to her International Shedquarters, just outside Edinburgh. She likes rabbits. So do I, as long as they leave my garden alone. Debi showed us all her rabbit books, and then she showed us her sketches of inspagination (her word) for rabbits, one of which went from being Alfie to being Pip, in The Scariest Thing of All.

Pip is so afraid that he makes long lists of everything that scares him. Debi read the whole book about Pip and the new big thing that scared him.

After that she showed us how to draw our own rabbit, and I absolutely aced it. And after that, Debi wanted us to draw our own very scariest thing, using our own items from around the house. She showed us her scariest, which was two pairs of scissors, the four-legged pest of Corona. Complete with eyeballs.

She finished off by reminding us that it’s the insides of our heads that are scariest of all.

Being rather professional, Debi had prepared proper end of movie slides, including the camera person’s name. By witchy coincidence I had been thinking of Katie Rose just the other day.

These two will go far.

What’s missing?

I have been dreaming events. Book events. Real ones. Except if they are dreams they are not quite as real as I’d like them to be.

Yes, I know I ‘attended’ an event just two days ago, but Kazuo Ishiguro was online. It is nice, and I obviously don’t have to sit too close to anyone else and all that. No trains to catch after, and I can eat my dinner should I feel like it.

But even an unsociable witch is beginning to feel there are some things she just misses. Events. The people and the books in them. Exotic venues. The fact that someone always says something really funny or does something really crazy, and then I can write about that.

They seem so real, too. Daniel Hahn’s been, and Moira Mcpartlin was involved in one. The biggest and best was when ‘the David Fickling team’ arrived halfway through and pushed their way in, the way the really important people do in films.

Anyway, you can see how my mind works.

(In one of our private pub quizzes at Bookwitch Towers the name of David Jason came up. Daughter asked ‘who is he?’ All I could say was ‘actor, and we were at the same party once’.)

But I’ve not been dreaming celebrities; just the nice, normal people I miss. And Kirkland Ciccone.

The Last Hawk

I forced myself to take reading breaks so that Elizabeth Wein’s third book with Barrington Stoke, featuring female pilots during WWII, would last a little longer. The Last Hawk is really something; the same exciting flying war stories as we’ve come to expect, but as seen from inside Germany.

Ingrid is a 17-year-old German glider pilot. And she stutters. So not only is she at risk from the war in general, and flying in particular, but she faces having ‘her own’ turn on her, because she stutters. Faulty citizens are not something Hitler wanted to keep.

This is so chilling, even when in many ways it’s not news [to me], and it would have felt good to be able to look back to this time and know that it would never happen again. But we know this is not the case, don’t we?

Ingrid is recruited as an assistant to test pilot Hanna Reitsch, to show future Luftwaffe pilots how to fly. Plus some other, less attractive, tasks, which worries her. She needs to work out what to do, and if she has the courage to do it.

Perfect reading material for teenagers today. Enjoy the mix of fiction and real facts, and learn from it before it’s too late.

Kazuo Ishiguro – wanting to go electric and get booed, just like Dylan

He’s got his grey world of hitchhikers, possibly stuck off the M5, on a roundabout in Cumbria. But there is no plot. Yet.

I suspect that geographically the above doesn’t make any sense, but who cares? This is Kazuo Ishiguro who made up his own Japan as a child, based on what his mother told him, the comics his grandparents sent, and sheer speculation. It had little bearing on the real place, which he left at the age of five.

This makes a lot of sense to someone who knows what it’s like to belong in two places where you don’t necessarily belong. He was 20 when he realised this Japan perhaps didn’t exist, and by leaving it alone, it has faded away. It gave him a sense of liberation when by his third novel there was no Japan in it.

Tuesday evening’s Guardian event with Kazuo talking to Alex Clark, and with thousands of us listening in, was the first in a virtual book tour to launch Klara and the Sun, his new book. He promised to give us all the best stuff.

Although, there wasn’t as much about the new novel, about AI friends for lonely teenagers, as you might expect. There was so much else to talk about. Kazuo’s daughter Naomi had prevented him from making this a children’s book, saying they’d be traumatised. It is now a much more optimistic novel for adults…

Kazuo likes testing new genres, a bit like we might try some new food. He also reckons he could easily move the plots of his books into other settings, should he be legally required to do so.

Alex Clark called him bonkers, then apologised, but Kazuo said ‘bonkers is good’ and ‘I am not a professional writer, but quite limited in what I do’. He meant he can only write what he can write. And with a Nobel prize behind him, that writing isn’t all that bad.

The organisers had planted famous people, like Bernardine Evaristo, to ask particularly good questions. His pal David Mitchell wondered about the frequent mentions of Worcestershire, which appear to be some kind of cameos, coming from a hotel stay in Minneapolis.

Emma Thompson wanted to know whether films of books can reach the depths the books do, and it seems that if she writes the script, they can. She sported pandemic hair, and had also had time to paint her walls the same colour as her jumper. Kazuo did point out, though, that an actor only ever has to learn to be one character in a book, whereas the author needs to know everything.

Kazuo always knows the endings of his books; he knows where he has to land. ‘You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say’.

He refused to commit to an opinion of how the pandemic might influence his writing. It is too early and too many people have died. It would feel wrong to escape into his world, ‘where my work sits in the word’. He has many great worlds with no story, and great titles without a story to go with it. The worlds and settings in his head wait for ‘the play’ to come.

You will not be surprised to learn that the event overran. But that’s what you get from an author who dares to presume he knows about butlers, giving his readers an ultra-English novel, even mishandling the port. Foreigners, eh?

Down Memory Lane

I’ve been concerned with getting too grumpy. And I don’t want to be. So I thought I’d look out photos from the past; pictures that make me happy remembering what I was doing and who I was with.

In our first year of the Edinburgh International Book Festival we met lots of people, old [to us] and new. One event I was simply not going to miss was Anne Fine and Melvin Burgess, and those of you with good memories will know why I thought this could be especially interesting. The third author with them was going to be newbie Rachel Ward, whom I didn’t know anything about. I just felt a bit sorry for anyone caught in the crossfire.

Well, Melvin was Melvin and Anne was dignified and calm and they didn’t fight. And Rachel was all right. Both from the crossfire aspect, but also because she was a rewarding new author to meet. With good taste in necklaces.

Almost twelve years on and Rachel is someone  I ‘see’ just about every day – on social media – and she keeps us going with her photographs and her art. Lovely pictures from near her home, adorable dogs, and fun photos of her grandkittens.

And her art! I have a couple of Rachel’s paintings on my walls, and if I were to be miraculously furnished with plenty more walls, I know exactly what I’d hang on them. You can see some of her stuff on Instagram if you like (rachelwardart).

So that is a sunny memory.

I’ve got it covered #1

It was always going to be The London Eye Mystery.

Whenever I thought of revisiting to best book covers, Siobhan Dowd’s crime novel about a young autistic detective was top of my list, because not only is it a wonderful story, but the cover is one of my favourites.

So there was that. I always think of it as pale blue. As you can see, it’s not in the slightest blue, pale or otherwise. (That was the plain cover of the proof…)

When I wrote about the illustrator’s lot in life a few weeks ago, David Dean kindly popped in to say a few things. So I looked him up. Liked what I saw. And by the time my brain kicked in properly, I knew that I knew him, and that David had been praised by me before, and that I’d noticed quite a few of his book covers. And that he’d done The London Eye Mystery.

In short, I like David Dean’s work. Like I like Siobhan Dowd’s writing. And since it’s actually been very nearly 14 years since this book came out, it could be that some of you don’t know it, or never got round to reading it. I’d recommend doing so.

Who are the reviews for?

I realised I don’t actually know. It had always seemed that it was sort of obvious, but one day as I finished the Guardian Review, sighing over how few – or none – there were of children’s books, my mind turned to adult books. Because there were a ‘good’ number of them being reviewed.

But why would I read them? And what reason do other, proper adults, have for reading the reviews?

If I read a review of a book I most likely will not even consider getting or reading, it’s because it still sounds fairly interesting, but mostly because the review reads well.

So, I clearly read the reviews like anything else, which is to be entertained. Possibly informed, but what point is information if I don’t like the way it has been written?

Having got this far I realised that there was perhaps no difference to reviews of children’s books. They are not so much there to tell the reader to buy or borrow the book. It’s to entertain the adult as he or she reads the Guardian Review, or Bookwitch, or anything else like that. If so, it almost doesn’t matter how many, or which, books are reviewed.

Why do I review? Well, I like reading. And when I’ve read, and liked, I want to share my thoughts. That sharing is mostly done in the hope that the reader will enjoy it, and maybe take things further and buy or borrow the book. No, no maybe about it. That really excellent book I’ve just told you about; you simply must read it. And tell others.

Take the London Review of Books. To the best of my knowledge I’ve never read it. But my vivid imagination of it makes it into a magazine full of book reviews. It seems obvious. And then, in an article about its recently departed editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, someone wrote that Margaret Thatcher had been mentioned far more times than certain big literary names. And I thought, ‘why?’

She’s not all that literary, compared to old Shakespeare or new Amis, or any of all those famous writers in between. So first I learned that it’s not all reviews. Fine. But Thatcher makes it more into a political magazine [to my mind], and we have other ones for that.

This sent me back to Bookwitch. How often had I mentioned our former PM? Once. A year ago. And now, twice, counting this piece.

Back again to the Guardian Review, the children’s books bit. Had I been too naïve believing that the reviews are meant to send well-intentioned adults into bookshops to buy one of the recommended books for a little person in their life? Or, for themselves, perhaps, like when I discovered How I Live Now at the age of 48. I was then forced to look around for younger hands into which I could press copies of this marvellous book, so it mostly worked.

And then there is the other kind of review. Years later I still relish the review by Anthony McGowan of, let’s say, some other children’s author’s debut novel. He didn’t keep it in. At all. Not having read more than a page or so of the book in question, I felt he was right [in his opinions], if a bit rude. It was a fun read. But it wouldn’t have been fun had it been my book. I understand that when a year or so after the two of them did an event together, the author was dignified and charming. Anyway, Tony is very kind. He just got carried away. In a national broadsheet.

Kat Wolfe On Thin Ice

It was with some dismay I realised I’d missed the second Kat Wolfe mystery. But here, for both you and me, is Kat’s third adventure, Kat Wolfe On Thin Ice.

Kat and her co-detective Harper Lamb are on their way to the Adirondacks (I will never be able to say that right) for half term, along with Harper’s dad and Kat’s mother. And on the basis that parents always need to be lost before the fun starts, they mislay Professor Lamb before they even get on the plane, and Dr Wolfe somewhat later but also before they really arrive where they are going.

They learn there has been a diamond heist in New York, and the trial of the 91-year-old thief is about to start. The star witness for the trial manages to disappear near their Adirondack cabin, and Kat and Harper start detecting. There is a snow storm on the way, and there are huskies. And a raccoon. But that’s just fine because Kat is missing her pet leopard.

Harper misses the internet and computers, but she still manages to do some research for their detecting. And it’s quite astounding what the girls come up with, and how they tackle every problem. Because as I said, the parents are long gone, and what with the storm and everything…

Very exciting, just as I had hoped and expected. And maybe this is a little farfetched, but it’s so well plotted and researched that every step of the way seems believable. They even cook, which is just as well because that is one hungry raccoon.

The solution to the jewel heist mystery is just that bit different to what you might have thought, too.