Category Archives: Bookshops

Spending in my time

I was feeling a little bit smug. Just a little, because that sense of witchiness I wrote about the other day, stops me from complete, outright smugness. I know about karma and how quickly it arrives.

As a foreigner, I’ve never been quite sure what it means when friends, or strangers for that matter, ask if I’ve done all my Christmas shopping yet. I mean, what counts as Christmas shopping? Is it any buying before The Day, or does it have to be Christmassy, or do they mean the presents? I tend to play it safe by muttering something indistinct and look as if I’m in pain. (Just like any other day.)

So I thought about the possibility of being asked this some time soon and felt I could reply ‘yes’ to the question. There were going to be few presents and I wasn’t unprepared. And I’d more or less decided no one wants to know if I’ve got my Brussels sprouts in yet.

This is where karma in the shape of Dodo struck. She and Son are hosting Christmas, and by the sound of the preparations – yes, we can hear them all the way here – they are doing great. Which will be why there were instructions about presents.

Which will be why the very next day I headed into town to shop till I dropped. It was all right, really. Very clear and sensible instructions left me scooping ‘stuff’ into a basket in next to no time. I even went home and wrapped it all.

Which will be why I feel I’ve almost bypassed the karma and can yet again reply ‘yes.’ Should I be asked.

I also popped into Waterstones for a little look. Was gratified to queue behind a lady who had brought a copy of the Guardian Review, folded to reveal the crime review page, from which she requested various books, carefully spelling out any odd names. Very sensible.

Also in that shop, I discovered Harry Potter rucksacks. There was a nice red one from Gryffindor, and a black one for Hogwarts. I am relieved that I am both sensible and not in need of more rucksacks, so I was – mostly – safe. They were cheap, by which I mean they cost nowhere near the price of a real Kånken rucksack from Fjällräven, the style of which they were sort of copying.

I saw a similar copy in St Andrews earlier this year at the Students’ Union shop, so if you’re not going for a real Kånken, the thing to have is clearly a fake. I have used the real thing for about forty years, and have gone through a great many of them in that time.

This is where I get confused about my behaviour. Because I’ve been nowhere. I looked at bags in John Lewis a week ago. I saw how much they cost now – the same as in 1980 plus lots and lots of inflation and currency exchange rates. And soon after (last week, I mean, not 1980) I told my companion about the price, as we stood looking at someone carrying a Kånken. Who promptly turned round and looked at us and my whispering. But who was I with? I’ve not been anywhere, and not in company…

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Killing me

I don’t know if you noticed me mentioning Fleshmarket Close last week, and how I avoided walking down it with Helen Grant? It pays to be careful around someone like her. Helen likes horror, and kills quite a few people – characters – in her writing.

Some time last year, I think, I might have moaned a bit on social media. I wasn’t bad, but Helen must have thought I felt worse than I did. Which was kind of her. To notice, I mean. And she then asked if I’d ‘feel better’ if she put me in the short story she was writing just then. Which was kind of her.

Not one to turn down an opportunity to feature in fiction, I agreed. Helen made it quite clear I wasn’t going to survive.

Rosemary Pardoe, A Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror

Well, last week Helen handed me my own copy of the anthology where her story is published. It’s called A Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror, edited by Rosemary Pardoe. That’s why I felt that avoiding dangerous-sounding narrow alleys in the dark might be at least a little sensible. Just in case.

There are many more stories in this anthology, but I dived straight in to read ‘mine’ first. And I feel it needs to be mentioned separately.

The Valley of Achor is of course not about me. It is far more about Helen herself, or someone like her. Someone who likes old ruins and who doesn’t mind crawling about in the cold and the mist, actually touching ancient stones and other weird things.

The only thing I’m sure about is that I have stayed in the B&B where ‘I’ stay in the story. Minus the whisky, of course.

And just like you should never walk up those deserted stairs in that haunted house when you’ve heard an odd sound in the night, then I’d not have…

Oh. No.

Reaching their destinations

Rachel Ward’s back where I first met her, in Edinburgh, nearly ten years on. She has left behind her ‘hideously dark’ YA novels, and is enjoying cosy, humorous crime for adults. Rachel was doing an event at Blackwell’s last night, but first she met up for coffee with your witch, after a walk in Princes’ Street Gardens in the morning darkness, visiting the Royal Yacht Britannia, and going to Waterstones for [leftover] wine with Ceris from Sandstone Press, ferrying two boxes of the stuff on the bus to the other bookshop in town. That’s dedication.

The event –  Examining the Crime Scene: Three Crime Writers in Conversation – was with fellow Sandstone Press authors Lesley Kelly and William McIntyre, and I can’t tell you how good it is to ‘meet’ two authors I didn’t know at all and discovering they are fun and interesting and that I might not be totally opposed to reading their books.

Lesley Kelly, William McIntyre, Ceris Jones and Rachel Ward

I will have to get used to events no longer run by Ann Landmann, who has left, but I dare say that will be possible. I was introduced to her replacement. I immediately forgot his name. Completely my fault. It’s my age. But I do have to say he had arranged things very nicely. Differently, but almost, well, better… Except for ‘my’ sofa, which I surreptitiously shoved a little.

Helen Grant arrived in the nick of time, having struggled with the travelling-to-Blackwell’s-for-an-event-and-trains-running-late problem. Chair Ceris allowed her authors to cheat, by showing them her questions in advance… And I didn’t get the memo, but it seems that white spots on navy or black is the way to dress. The size of the audience worried our host, because why were we all out on a Monday night, being so interested in crime?

William McIntyre

William, who seems to kill people in Linlithgow – which I find an admirable thing – believes that you should commit the crime before speaking to a lawyer. He borrows freely from his day job in the legal business and puts it all in his books, which are either nine, or four, depending on whether you count his self-published novels. It saves on research. And he says he only uses already publicly known facts.

Lesley Kelly

Lesley has a policeman father, but she wished she’d spoken before William, as she’s ‘not as interesting’. She used to be a stand-up comedian, and finds the two-year wait for laughs when writing a book rather long. You never know what readers want, but in her next book she kills a lot of civil servants.

Rachel Ward

And then we have Rachel, who based her detectives on ‘a life of food shopping.’ This is a fine thing, and you can listen to and observe people in the supermarket. Everyone shops for food. The humour in her dialogue wasn’t intentional, but when she sent her husband a chapter at a time to read, she liked hearing him laugh.

None of the three authors write about sex. Well, Rachel does, a little. There was a question as to whether you have to be a bit drunk when writing about sex.

Asked whether they plot in advance, William described how you need only know some, because as long as you can see into the near distance if you are driving in fog, you will be able to reach your destination. A little at a time, and that works for writing as well. Rachel has realised that ‘plot is quite important’ and Lesley plots because she doesn’t want to get lost.

Then there was some discussion about Tom Cruise, and I’ve forgotten how many of them want him in the film of their book. Potentially all three.

And then we got to the end. Helen and I both went up to ‘Mr Ward’ and chatted. I reckon Rachel will want to lock him up, but it was nice to meet him at last.

Spoke briefly to a book fan from Chile, as well as more formally meeting blogger Kelly, who apparently reads Bookwitch. Hello!!

Realised that Sandstone Press, and Ceris, are not from Perth. They are in Dingwall, and that is a very long way north. Very very.

Chatted some more with William and urged him to really let go in Linlithgow, without telling him the whole story. Tried to be professional, handing out business cards to him and Lesley. Just hope they’re not going to turn up outside my door..!

Then I grabbed Helen Grant, and carefully avoiding Fleshmarket Close, we walked to the station where we got our train home, and one of us almost told the guard he was too loud.

(Photos by Helen Grant)

On walking and reading

So, I have already told you I read a bit when on the trains to Vienna last week. Didn’t read a single word when actually in Vienna. Instead I walked until I ached. The disadvantage with Daughter being in possession of one of those fitbit things is that I found out how many steps I had [most likely] walked as well.

Shocking.

Glen Coe

But the week before that, that was very different. I allowed the Resident IT Consultant to convey us both to Glen Coe, where we spent a few days at the HF walking centre. For those who’d like to know, HF stands for Husbands Found. (It worked for the Grandmother, many decades ago.)

The Resident IT Consultant went there to walk. I went to read. A full two days plus an afternoon in which to sit and do nothing but read. No dishwashers to empty, no blog posts to write. It was lovely.

HF Glen Coe

The only drawback to me channeling my inner Lucy Mangan in this way, was that it’s such a friendly set-up. In the morning people ask where you are thinking of going that day. ‘Over to that sofa to read,’ is not what they expect to hear. In the evening they ask where one went that day. ‘Absolutely nowhere,’ is not what they expect to hear.

But it was the rest – to my soul – that I required.

For the return drive home, the Resident IT Consultant almost forgot himself and offered me an outing somewhere. On realising this wasn’t what he was supposed to say, he Googled a bit (in the olden days they didn’t even have television there!), and found a café with a bookshop in the exact spot where you’d need something like that for your elevenses. So that’s where we went.

Ben Lora café and bookshop

Most civilised it was. The Ben Lora café and bookshop in Benderloch has the best of both worlds; books and newly baked scones. First we ate the scones and then we looked at their books.

Ben Lora café and bookshop

Nice selection of Scottish books, and only slightly disconcerting to find many of them were by people who have lunched at Bookwitch Towers.

Ben Lora café and bookshop

When we could manage no more scones we continued the drive home. It’s the kind of café where people come in to buy scones to take out. I would if I lived there. They had so many flavours!

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.

A brand new and fresh Gothenburg Book Fair

This time it’s Son’s turn to haunt the Gothenburg Book Fair. Thirteen years after he and I first went – because I had a silly brainwave – we have both developed into people who can use this gathering more professionally.

And, I don’t know many people. I mean, over there, still, after all these years. So the accidental bumping into them shouldn’t happen so much, except it does a bit, because it’s a small country and a big fair.

But online? I was intrigued earlier in the summer when the fair’s organisers sent out yet another jolly email about booking in time and all that stuff. They had chosen a couple of photographs to illustrate quite how good a time you will have there if you go.

bok o bibliotek

And I thought ‘that looks a little like Motala Boy’ and then, seeing the person next to him, ‘that looks a lot like his wife, Once New Librarian.’ So there they were, tucking into their lunch and studying the map of the fair, to see where to go next.

It is a small world, even if a librarian was involved, and her library assistant other half. I imagine Son might bump into them. Or Pizzabella, School Friend, or his Cousin once removed. And obviously all the people he has arranged to meet for professional reasons.

I don’t envy him the exhaustion that is about to set in. Other than that, it will be fun!

The Kiwis are coming!

I’ve got news for you. They were already there. Here. At Bloody Scotland. Except as with the Swedes, they had to fake it just a bit. Craig Sisterson, the chair, is from New Zealand, and so is Paul Cleave. Fiona Sussman has lived in New Zealand for thirty years, but is still from South Africa. Liam McIlvanney is Scottish, but has a New Zealand passport in his sights after ten years in the country. Denise Mina was the honorary Kiwi, based on her having visited twice.

Glad we’ve got that sorted out.

Denise mentioned ‘bleck hends’ which I understand to actually be black hands. Whatever that is. (To which I can offer the wisdom that blood is ‘rid.’) There is a perceived link between New Zealand and the Nordic countries – to which Scotland possibly belongs. They are all dark places.

Paul Cleave, Denise Mina, Liam McIlvanney, Fiona Sussman and Craig Sisterson

Paul comes from Crimechurch; sorry, Christchurch, and he claims to have an alibi for the earthquake. The quake still has much impact on people’s lives, and Paul reckons that in twenty years’ time, someone will write a crime novel about the murder of an insurance agent; so strong are the feelings on how they’ve been treated.

Fiona feels crime fiction is primarily a social commentary, and Denise added that it summarises what’s happened during the last year or two; the time it takes for a novel to be written and published.

Denise is inspired by real life, and there are some things you can’t make up, whereas Paul does not borrow anything and makes everything up, as he doesn’t want to be seen to be making money from real crimes. Denise informed him where he was wrong, and would most likely have taken Paul outside to make him see things her way, if she could have. You’re ‘doing it for the money.’

Craig mentioned that Paul was the one who’d travelled the furthest to get to Bloody Scotland, because Fiona lives further north. Scotland and New Zealand have in common that they are small countries with a larger English-speaking neighbour.

According to Paul everyone, but him, wants to live in New Zealand; this ‘dull, hygienic, social democracy…’ Fiona is still worried about being thrown out of her adoptive country for what she writes. And Liam has bad experience of criticising the country’s cheese. Apparently you mustn’t.

Paul is always bumping into people in Crimechurch, but never anywhere else. It’s small enough. He has some advice on what to do about bad reviews. This involves a lawyer, so he hasn’t read any reviews in five years. (At this point it looked like Paul and Denise needed separating, as they couldn’t see eye-to-eye on anything…)

Denise Mina, Paul Cleave, Liam McIlvanney, Fiona Sussman and Craig Sisterson

Fiona loves VW Beetles, and has had a lot of experience of them. But when she wrote about one in a book, it still passed both her own and her husband’s reading, before an editor mentioned that its engine is not in the front of the car! (Well, you can’t remember everything.)

This event also over-ran, and we finished with a semi-heated discussion on audiobooks and who is best at reading them. It seems no one. With one little exception in Fiona’s case, none of them have recognised their characters in the actor reading their books. It’s always the wrong voice. Paul, needing to be the ‘worst’ again mentioned the time he was offered a choice of eight American potential readers, all with very fake New Zealand accents.

(I’m afraid time constraints meant I wasn’t able to take any worthwhile photos of our quintet. And Denise had to run. But it was fun anyway.)

Paul Cleave, Liam McIlvanney and Fiona Sussman