Category Archives: Bookshops

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

Fife farmer tours Scotland!

Attention please! James Oswald’s fifth crime novel, Prayer for the Dead, is out today. And no, I’ve not read it. Yet.

But I was happy to see that James will be doing a whirlwind tour round Scotland to meet the fans. He blogged the dates, and I happened to see the link on facebook. Now, I would have liked more notice for the launch in Edinburgh this evening. I don’t believe I will be able to make it. Probably. But it’s good to know that James will cover a decent number of Waterstones all over Scotland.

One of his facebook friends pointed out that there are bookshops in London too. There obviously are. But I’m really glad that the list is Scotland only, and not because I want to deprive anyone. I just feel it’s useful for Londoners to see that there is literary life up north. And that James isn’t being flown in to appear at Waterstones Piccadilly, or anything. They have enough going on as it is.

And as James points out on his website, he actually needs to do some farming as well. Those animals don’t look after themselves, or at least, I don’t think they do. I’m guessing they want feeding and watering, or whatever it is sheep and cattle require.

At Bookwitch Towers we are busy catching up. The Resident IT Consultant was unpacking my books (yeah, I know I already mentioned this), when he got to the ominously labelled Last Books box. What that means is they are the books I read as we were packing last March/April, which didn’t make it into the other boxes.

I’d already forbidden him from reading James’s third Tony McLean novel, because he hadn’t actually read the second, and I said the spoilers were such he’d thank me for it. But recently he was finally able to tackle The Book of Souls as it was unpacked along with most of the adult fiction. Number three only emerged yesterday, so I rewarded the Resident IT Consultant for his hard work on children’s fiction by saying he could read The Hangman’s Song now.

Meanwhile, I hurriedly claimed Dead Men’s Bones, number four, for myself, in case he has designs on reading it before me. And then, before I even got started, I found out about number five…

This post was brought to you by the letter F.

RED in Falkirk

Yesterday the Bookwitchy feet touched Falkirk soil for the first time since that fateful day in 1973. She (I mean I) saw red even on the train (a woman wearing a lovely red coat, but who wasn’t actually going where I was going). My mind was on red things, as there was a sort of dress code for attending the RED Book Award in Falkirk, and I’d dug out the few red garments I own.

Cathy MacPhail

Ever since I knew we’d be moving to Scotland, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to attend the RED Book Award, and then it happened so fast I barely knew what I was doing (I had to ditch Daughter, and feed up the camera battery), but everything worked out in the end. I walked to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), which was teeming with people in red, and I found Falkirk librarian and organiser Yvonne Manning (a Geraldine McCaughrean look-alike if ever there was one), and she showed me to the front row, despite me mentioning how I’m a back row kind of witch. There was coffee, and there were authors. All four shortlisted authors were there; Cathy MacPhail, Alan Gibbons, Oisín McGann and Alex Woolf.

Alan Gibbons and interviewers

They were being interviewed by some of the participating schools’ pupils, and it was rather like speed dating. I chatted briefly to Cathy, who’d brought her daughter along, and who said how nice Alex Woolf had turned out to be. (She was right. He is.)

Alex Woolf and interviewers

Barbara Davidson and interviewers

I found a very red lady, who turned out to be sponsor Barbara Davidson, who makes the RED award, and whose wardrobe apparently is extremely red. I like people who know what they like in the way of colour. There were even helpers wearing red boilersuits.

Back in the front row, we were treated to Yvonne Manning entering dancing, wearing a short red kilt, spotty tights and red ribbons in her hair, and she got the popstar reception treatment. Apparently ‘timing is everything’ and she managed to steer the whole day to a tight schedule.

There was a prize for anyone who found a red nose under their seat. Obviously. Another prize was offered for the school that left their seats the tidiest. After short introductions for the authors, the schools had prepared short dramatised sketches of the shortlisted books.

Yvonne Manning

At this point the Mayor came and sat on my right. Sorry, I mean Provost. Mayors are Provosts up here. Same lovely necklaces, though. And Yvonne reappeared wearing an incredible red patchwork coat, well worthy of Joseph, and it earned her some appreciative whistling from the audience.

Then it was time for prizes for the best book reviews, and the winning one was read out (after the break, after Yvonne had apologised for forgetting this important thing). She’s sweet, but also hard. The authors were given four minutes each to talk about their books; ‘speak briefly!’ They spoke about where they get ideas from. Oisín stared at people until it got ‘creepy enough.’ Cathy had found out about a real vampire in Glasgow in the 1950s, and still regrets she couldn’t have ‘It Walks Among Us’ as the title for Mosi’s War…

Alan Gibbons

Alex described how his Soul Shadows came about, which involved him writing one chapter a week, and then offering his readers several options on how to continue and they voted on which they preferred. Alan could well believe in Glaswegian vampires, and mentioned meeting Taggart once. Football is his passion. Alan’s. Not Taggart’s.

We had more dramatised books and then we listened to the woman who is the answer to my prayers. Anne Ngabia is the librarian at Grangemouth High School, and in the past she has set up little libraries in Kenya. The RED Book Award is even being shadowed by a school in Nairobi, and she showed us pictures from her libraries, as well as a short film based on Mosi’s War that they’d made.

Oisín McGann

After a very nice lunch, where I just might have offered to sue the Provost as I got him to test the veggieness of the food (if he got it wrong, I mean), the authors signed masses of books and many other things as well. The pupils thronged so much that it was hard to move for the sheer excitement of it.

Back to business again (the people of Falkirk don’t believe in half measures when they do their book awards), and we learned that the dramatised books we’d seen would tempt most people to read Alex’s book, Soul Shadows. They do believe in prizes too, so next to be rewarded were the red clothes, etc. I’d tried to bribe the judge over lunch, but it seems the prize wasn’t for old people. He turned out to be quite good at rap. Something along the lines of Red Hot. (If you want to win, I reckon wigs or pyjamas is the way to go.)

RED clothes winners

With ‘no time for fun’ the authors were then seated in two blue velvet sofas (they got the colour wrong there, didn’t they?) and the Q&A session kicked off. Good questions, and lots of them, so I won’t go into detail here. Halfway through Oisín was asked to do a drawing, and Yvonne magicked up a flipchart out of nowhere and while the others laboured over more answers, Oisín drew a fabulous picture of, well, of something.

Oisín McGann

Provost Reid, Barbara Davidson, Alan Gibbons and pupil from Denny HS

Finally, the time came to announce the winner. Provost Reid – in his beautiful red gown – made everyone stamp their feet to sound like a drumroll, and I rather hoped the ‘terraces’ behind me wouldn’t collapse under all that vigour. He told us how much he likes books, and then it was over to a fez-wearing pupil from Denny to open the red envelope and tell us the winner was

Alan Gibbons. His thank you speech was on the topic of ‘ you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that could be libraries, or it could be your life. We complain too much in our comfortable lives, compared to those readers in Kenya we met earlier.

There were prizes, naturally, for the runners-up. And photos. Lots and lots of them. Cathy commandeered her handbag to be brought and she pondered taking a selfie, but in the end she went for a conventional picture of her and her pals.

Cathy MacPhail, Alex Woolf, Alan Gibbons, Provost Reid and Oisín McGann

Cathy MacPhail and Alex Woolf

Us old ones chatted over mugs of tea before going our separate ways. And some of the helpers and I have vowed to wear much warmer clothes next time (that is, if I’m ever allowed back).

A big thank you from me, to Yvonne for inviting me when I dropped a heavy hint, and to her helpers for helping so well, the schools for their magnificent work, and to Cathy, Alan, Oisín and Alex for writing the books that caused us all to be there, at fth.

And the prize for tidiest row of seats? The prize was Oisín’s picture. And I can assure you it won’t go to us on the front row. Cough.

The Lure of Elizabeth Laird

It might have been a dreich November night, but my route through Edinburgh from Waverley to Blackwell’s took me through the Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens to the Scottish National Gallery (no I was not lost) and up the hill past the charming St Bookwitch Street and St Bookwitch Cathedral, and slightly down again (such a waste of the uphill!) to my event with Elizabeth Laird. To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten what it was to be about, but that doesn’t matter when it’s Liz. It will be good. And it was.

The event was for adults, which was lucky, because last night Elizabeth used rather more adult language, if you know what I mean. You also needed to know your Bible well, so I was on slightly shaky ground.

Elizabeth Laird

I was early (no surprise there) so was able to hog a corner of the sofa, and when I remembered I’d forgotten to eat my sandwich on the way, I asked for and was granted permission to eat. There were mainly women in the audience. Perhaps that’s as it should be, since Elizabeth reckoned it was the women in Ethiopia who had the best stories to tell.

She said that she was going to ‘drone on about Ethiopia’ and we should interrupt if necessary. Her book The Lure of the Honeybird, began when Elizabeth returned to Ethiopia in 1996, after thirty years away. There was an encounter with an ‘ant motorway,’ and a farmer telling her a marvellous story about ants.

Elizabeth Laird

Elizabeth promptly forgot how the story went, but she came up with an idea, and she talked to the British Council and demanded a Landrover and an interpreter so she could travel and learn new stories and write two books. This was deemed to be such a good idea that a demand for 24 books was made, and Elizabeth found herself travelling round the mud and the bureaucracy with a driver and an interpreter.

Many of the stories people told her had a lot in common with the Bible. She reckons they didn’t come from that famous book, though, but believes that the Bible most likely borrowed its stories from ancient Ethiopia. The same thing goes for Aesop, who by all accounts cleaned up the story about the hare and the tortoise. And there was a funny story about the beautiful girl who gets married, and the three ridiculous men in her life…

Because the thing is, Elizabeth told us these stories. She didn’t just talk about how she went about finding them, but showed us her photos, described the people she met, and which of them had an interesting story to share. And she can definitely tell a story!

Elizabeth Laird

Was it worth risking the lives of her driver, her interpreter and herself for these stories? Yes, she believes it was. Now. Walking through tall grass with pythons and lions on either side wasn’t quite such fun at the time. Nor was driving along a road where only the day before people had been kidnapped and killed.

When she met a group of naked women, far away from anywhere else, she found it difficult to get them to understand what she wanted to hear, so as an example she told them about Little Red Riding Hood (the unexpurgated version) and they all agreed about the unsuitability of walking alone in the woods, and of talking to the wrong man.

Elizabeth Laird

Elizabeth told us many stories from Ethiopia last night. If you want more you can read The Lure of the Honeybird, or you could try these websites, recently set up by Elizabeth: ethiopianfolktales.com and ethiopianenglishreaders.com. Both have been financed with the help of one of her students from the 1960s, whom she just happened to meet in London one day. He’s now a fund giver, which is nice, since so many of Elizabeth’s other students are dead, having turned revolutionaries while attending university, instead of becoming teachers as they were meant to.

You’ll wish you’d been there. Elizabeth Laird is a fantastic storyteller. And she may well have been scared when out collecting the stories, but it’s only the brave who do this kind of thing, and who don’t mind admitting to being frightened. She’s also a beautiful woman, and I have yet again failed to take photos that do her justice. You will have to take my word for it.

Topping & Company Booksellers

So, two days after Kirkland Ciccone’s crazy bookshop tour, saw your Bookwitch in St Andrews, in the brand new branch of Topping & Company Booksellers (to call them by their long and proper name; from now on Topping’s). I, too, am crazy like that. I had a[nother] Christmas tree to deliver, so decided to kill both tree and new bookshop with the one stone.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

You might recall I had pressed my nose against the shop window during my bookshop crawl on my last visit. Now I didn’t dare, as the shop was nice and done and open and I’m certain the window was lovely and clean.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Instead I went in, followed by the Resident IT Consultant and Daughter, on standby to catch me if I looked like I might get my wallet out (my sincere apologies to Topping’s). And let me tell you, the shop is so wonderful that any wallet is at great risk. Even mine. (It actually broke yesterday…)

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

This was my first visit to a Topping’s, and I can quite see what all the fuss is about. I’m most grateful to my favourite Hodder publicist, who was the one to tell me this new shop was on the cards. If I leave my wallet at home, I can see I might be allowed to return to this haven.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

The place was full of people. Much fuller than the photos suggest, as I tried to avoid people so you can see the books and the shelves and the ladders and the chairs and tables, and the woodburning stove and anything else. Sofas. Little rooms at the back. Window overlooking some local wilderness. And all this just round the corner from the Students’ Union.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Charming children’s books corner, containing what you’d want and expect, plus rather a lot more. Pleased to see Nicola Morgan’s Stress on the reference shelf.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

They have a lot of signed first editions, including Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, which is quite a feat I feel.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

I located a man who looked like he might be Mr Topping himself, and he was. It seems that one reason behind the new branch is that he has done what the Bookwitch just did; moved to Scotland. He will be running the St Andrews shop.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

I suppose all this is what you can expect from a man who was sacked by Waterstones for selling too many books.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Kirkie goes to St Andrews

At five past nine yesterday morning, Waterstones in St Andrews had still to discover what lay in store (pardon, that was a little wittier than intended). That’s because Kirkland Ciccone and his travelling mate Theresa Talbot, along with their publisher Keith Charters, were running a wee bit late.

Kirkland Ciccone

Hardly surprising, considering their 6.30 start (from Glasgow, I’m guessing) to drive to all the Waterstones in the country in one weekend. Now, I know you will say that’s impossible, and it is. First, the country is Scotland, not the UK, and second, I don’t think they meant quite all the Waterstoneses. My branch, and that of some of the larger towns were not part of it. We get our share later. Apparently. More far flung branches may well remain unvisited, at least for some time.

But anyway, on Saturday they went to ten shops, in Fife, as far west as Falkirk and to all those branches in Edinburgh. In fact, had Son not very wisely decided to visit the old people over the weekend, he’d have been mere minutes away from this gang. As it was, it was only Daughter who went near the crazy travellers, and she was the one who found that they were already running late for their first shop.

Kirkland Ciccone and Theresa Talbot

I don’t think we can blame the authors. It’s that Keith who hatches insane plans. He’s done this before, because I have hazy recollections of other people being conveyed cross-country in this manner. But it’s good; it introduces authors to lots of shops in two fell swoops.

Kirkland has – as all my faithful readers will know – written Endless Empress, his second YA novel. Theresa Talbot – about whom I knew nothing a few weeks ago – is famous off the radio and has written about her life, so far, in This Is What I Look Like (because on the radio no one can see you). And Keith is the one who made the books.

Kirkland Ciccone and Theresa Talbot

I gather they turned up at 9.15 or something, and Daughter chatted and took pictures, and Kirkland totally charmed her. I had suspected this might happen. Behind the Kurt Cobain lunchbox is a kind and friendly person. Crazy, but those other things as well.

He appears to have worn his delightful little leopard number again, and it was a close call as to who was the most beautiful in that bookshop. Which might never be the same again.

Theresa Talbot and Kirkland Ciccone

So there you are, madness on the road. And while you read this as part of your peaceful Sunday, spare a thought for the six Waterstones in the Glasgow area who are about to be visited today.