Category Archives: Bookshops

The other bookshop

Waterstones had been expecting me.

No, not really. But they might have. I was right; there were far more normal customers in this shop, browsing in a normal fashion.

Even I tried to behave normal.

As I slowly shuffled down to the children’s end, I was overtaken by a mother with a boy, perhaps three or a small four?

I was terribly disappointed when they passed me going the other way, both by how brief a time they’d spent and by the book the mother was clutching. Upside down, but I could easily tell it was by DW. ‘So, not for the boy himself,’ I thought.

Except, when I shared what I’d seen with Daughter, she had witnessed the other half of what was going on. The boy clutched £5 from Granny. He didn’t want to be in a bookshop. He didn’t want a book.

Sad, but ultimately fine.

The mother wanted him to want a book. The problem is you don’t get much for a fiver. I don’t think she knew this before forcing him into the wrong shop in which to spend Granny’s gift. Basically, they ended up with DW because of the price – is he really that cheap? – and because he’s in such plentiful supply you can’t but help see those books wherever you turn. And everyone’s heard of him.

That is not a recommendation.

But whatever else you think about this unwilling spend on a book, and the type of book the boy got, there is one more wrong thing here. He’s too young for DW.

He will end up even less keen on reading, having spent his fortune on the wrong book.

Resting on a bench outside Waterstones I pondered two things. Is it ever all right to tell someone they should leave DW’s books alone (unless, perhaps, if actively chosen by the young reader)? And what should I suggest they buy instead? Especially as a fiver won’t generally cover a picture book, or one of the better chapter books with illustrations aimed at pre-schoolers.

I had hoped they were speedy and chose that book because they were getting a birthday present for a cousin or a friend. Not wasting Granny’s money on turning someone off reading.

A Topping corner

You’ve probably seen them somewhere. University age or slightly older, very full of themselves, and in towns like St Andrews most often from across the Atlantic. They talk a lot, and they are oblivious to the rest of the world. They are so cool and intellectual, and no one else has ever been quite so cool, or clever.

I happened upon a pair of them yesterday, in Topping’s. This is a lovely shop, which looks just as you’d want a bookshop to look like. But it’s cramped, and the aisles are narrow. Very charming.

Being me, I obviously headed towards the children’s books corner, where the picture books got some attention before I turned to the older children’s books, and then the YA section. There were three people there, all in the way.

The one I minded the least was a member of staff, who moved off to do other shelving tasks when she saw me waiting to access the YA shelves. But those other two… There they were, standing right into the corner, chatting away in their earnest, intellectual, transatlantic way. They were so cool.

And they were standing in what they might have felt was the most unwanted corner of the shop. In which case they did have some awareness of other customers. Or they were simply standing. In my way.

I could wait. I’d had a little sit-down first, so had the strength to wait until they noticed me, apologised and moved off. Except they didn’t.

I pondered suggesting they could toddle off to the opposite corner, which was empty. Would that have been very rude? Anyway, I didn’t. I stood there until they finally left. I craned my neck this way, and that way, and did everything I could to indicate that I had not also accidentally taken up residence in the YA area.

This is the beauty of old age. One becomes invisible. And the wonderful thing is they have no idea that not only will they also grow old one day, but I am, or have been, at least as intellectual as them.

And my apologies to Topping’s, but I will head to Waterstones, which won’t be quite so highbrow and exciting.

A piccalilli pair of days

Sometimes I just need to go back in time.

My 2015 piccalilli trip to London, as I think of it, was full of serendipities. It began when Liz Kessler wrote to ask if I could make it to her London book launch. And I felt I could; having determined that something special was all I required to invest in train tickets. I’d obviously need to stay two nights, before and after, to make sure I was there for the main event.

And then I started looking to see what else might be on.

The Society of Authors had an event on the evening I arrived in London. It was ‘only’ Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively chatting to Daniel Hahn at Waterstones Piccadilly, but I was happy enough with that. 😉

Son bought me a ticket for the event, which I wasn’t supposed to use. So I bought another. When Anne Rooney realised she wanted to go but was too late to buy a ticket, wasn’t it handy that I just happened to have a Society of Authors member ticket? Yes it was. And her predictive texting gave me the piccalilli.

It was Celia Rees who had told me about the event, so she was around too. And then there was the sighting of Judith Kerr one row in front of mine. That wasn’t a half bad evening.

For the next morning I’d agreed to have coffee with Marnie Riches, who just happened to be in town, before leaving again. From there I almost had to run to get to my next meeting, having booked an interview with Anthony McGowan, seeing as I had so much time on my hands! Somewhere there must have been a brief opportunity to eat my lunch sandwich. I’ve forgotten. Although I can tell you that the Hampstead pub we met in could use a longer setting for the light in the Ladies. Good thing I have arms to wave.

Tony was also going to Liz’s launch, which is where we went next. And basically everyone was at the launch.

For my second morning I had arranged to do brunch with Candy Gourlay before hopping on a northbound train.

It’s amazing how many authors can be fitted into slightly less than 48 hours. I keep living in hope, but there has yet to be a repeat of this.

A little light night listening

I don’t know what to think. Well, I do know that when I see Daughter loading up yet one more listen to The Hunger Games for her bedtime audiobook experience, that it really doesn’t sound cheerful. I mean, really.

She prefers audiobooks that she has previously read as a book. If she were to – god forbid! – nod off while listening, it helps to know the story. Has to be long books/series, so they last. Hence The Hunger Games. Also Anne of Green Gables. His Dark Materials. A decade or more of Harry Potter.

But she’d quite like to listen to Michael Grant’s Front Lines trilogy. It’s been read and it has been enjoyed. And it’s far better than The Hunger Games.

It appears to exist.

But it also appears not to be possible to buy or otherwise access from the UK. This seems nonsensical, as surely both the publisher and the audiobook company should want to sell their products.

You know me. I went to the source and asked Michael. Did he know why, and could he push, or something?

His response was that Daughter has excellent taste. I know that. So he can’t quite understand why there is no audiobook of Front Lines.

You see what happened there? Michael believes there is no audiobook.

And still, what are we to make of this:

Success ahead

So, two weeks later another one gets ahead to the number one spot for ebooks.

This week it is J D Kirk’s Ahead of the Game, which sold better than the others, including his pal Alex Smith who has been ‘relegated’ to fourth place with his Paper Girls. (But fourth is still really good.)

I’ll probably tire of this, but so far I am enjoying the successes of ‘my’ former children’s books authors. And J D – or Barry, as I call him – shot to the top on the very day his tenth DCI Logan novel was published. Without my assistance, because I wasn’t going to buy book ten* when I have all those other single digit books to get through, was I?

But 14,501 fans did buy. Well done.

*And I hear book 11 is due in May. Doing better than trains and buses, being both regular and on time.

Best

I’d like to think that they all did what I had done. I bought Alex Smith’s first* crime novel, Paper Girls, as an ebook a few weeks ago, a little before Alex – or Gordon as I call him – announced that his was the best selling ebook that week. I’m afraid I didn’t entirely believe him. Sometimes people are top of some smaller category, which is still nice, but easier to achieve.

But no. Alex was first. Or so The Bookseller told me some days later. Or would have, had I not got stuck the wrong side of the paywall. But you can eventually find out what they would have said.

So Paper Girls really did sell more than others, and what pleased me especially was that Alex did better than that charming Danish woman, Jo Nesbø.

I will now have to read Alex’s book. No, I didn’t mean that the way it came out; I bought it to be able to see what it’s like, as soon as I am able to fit in more adult crime from my growing list of children’s authors who have gone over to the other side. A side where they are selling really well.

And, surely, the world was aware of what I’d done, and decided to follow suit. Follow that Witch!

*There are five in total. Unless there are even more by now…

A new home for the Edinburgh International Book Festival

‘What sort of place is this meant to be?’ said one Swede to the other, as the four of them settled down with coffees at my table in Charlotte Square one August. ‘I think it’s some sort of book fair’, said the second person. They all looked around and seemed to find it wanting (because it wasn’t exactly the Gothenburg Book Fair, was it?). I refrained from letting on that I could understand what they were saying and didn’t rise in defence of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I suspected they wouldn’t get it.

I have had ten lovely years in Charlotte Square, missing it badly last August, but certain we’d all be back one day. And we will be. Though from summer 2021 it will be a togetherness somewhere else. They are moving house, so to speak. From the open square to an actual building; the Edinburgh College of Art.

We discussed this at Bookwitch Towers when the news reached us yesterday, and I believe we are all in favour. I carefully went over every book festival or fair I’ve frequented over the years, and came to the conclusion that indoors is good. At least if there can be a little bit of outdoors when you are overcome by the beautiful, balmy evening and want to sit out under the string lights and talk about literature with nice people. (Daughter says I am crazy, but I will request the lights specially.)

There will be less need to worry about one’s outfit; will it rain, or will it be too hot? Less need for wellies. I imagine the seats in a building will be somewhat comfier than in the tents, and there will be fewer screeching buses going round and round. The toilets may be of the more permanent kind.

But then, where will I be? And where will the authors be? We’ll find out. Will there be a good photo corner for the paparazzi? And can the ducks come?

It will be different. It will be fine. I just have to find out which bus I need to get there.

If there is to be any getting this year. I hope so. But if there isn’t, they will broadcast online events from their new home, which is better equipped to do that sort of stuff. After which it will be the next year again. I hope.

‘I’m discovering things about daemons all the time’

We could see the writing on the wall. Literally. Blackwell’s Thursday event with Philip Pullman took us to his study, where words appeared to be hovering above his head. It was a quote in Spanish, which he claimed to have mostly forgotten about. Something along the lines of you should find out about everything, and then keep the best.

Philip was speaking to Sian Cain, although at one point a bearded man also appeared, waving, as though this would make him go away. Zoom is nearly always interesting.

There was much talk about splitting from your daemon and how it feels. There was quite a bit of mention of the third Book of Dust, ‘which hasn’t happened yet’. Well, it should. Just saying, in case other fans haven’t already. Philip is not a short story person. So maybe stop writing these little extras? Write more on Dust?

He loves Mrs Coulter, who has no inhibitions. But it seems he loves Lee Scoresby the most. I like an author who can have favourites! And Lee was a wise choice. We love Lee.

Philip does not travel for research. It’s far too uncomfortable. The Bodleian does just fine. He points out he is old, and ill. (Which is when Daughter shouted ‘finish your book!’) He also claims to like the BBC version of His Dark Materials, which caused more shouting at our end. But he’d not wanted to write the script; there is too much time wasted on talking when you are involved with filming.

There were questions. The Lord of the Rings would ‘impress an Edwardian schoolboy’. And Narnia lacked Christian charity. He loves Michael Sheen as narrator of his books. (Well, who doesn’t?)

The good news is Philip wants to return to writing about Sally Lockhart. Although, that’s what he said in 2005 as well…

Now that we’ve seen his study, we know what it’s like, and we will urge Philip on to finish the writing. First Dust. Then maybe Sally.

On writing about robotic cats among the lilacs

It was strictly BYO cupcakes for the launch of Sheila Averbuch’s debut novel Friend Me. But we didn’t know that. Ah well. Nor did all of us know how to find ‘the way in’ for this online launch party. Quite a few of us bumbled along on virtual darkened pavements before the door magically sprang open.

So, I might have missed a bit.

Sheila was talking to her pal and fellow writer Louise Kelly about those 17 years when she was trying hard to write a novel someone would want to publish. It’s good to know that it’s not always plain sailing for everyone else in life, but 17 years is a long time. A long time to keep working towards a goal. But she did it!

You should always show your work to writer friends. And early rather than late, because they will give you the best advice and help you on your way. As did Sheila’s two teenagers who had much to say about her book, including the ‘missing’ last three pages.

Starting up a local SCBWI group helped too, and having Keith Gray come and lecture on how to write made a huge difference. When nerves got too frayed Sheila decamped to some lilac bushes in her gorgeous garden, which seems like a great place to write. The same can be said about Moniack Moor where she was able to spend some writing time, thanks to financial help through Scottish Book Trust.

Reading a lot helped as well. (When I first met Sheila she asked me for recommendations, and I was most taken by her seriousness in writing it down.) Reading soothes when you are stressed, and reading other books will give you ideas and inspiration.

I’m less sure where the spooky robotic cat came into it all. I believe it features in the plot, but above everything else, Sheila has one, right there. She stroked it as we all watched and it purred and miaowed, and I’m not sure what we felt. But the cat seemed happy enough.

Chatting to the Irish actor who is doing the audio book of Friend Me, she had experienced the exact same ‘washing powder incident’ as the character in the book. (I suspect I have, too.)

There were questions from the literally hundreds of guests, there was a giveaway, with free books on bullying, and we learned that Sheila has favourite chapters in the book. She mostly aimed the novel at the US market because, as she said, it’s where her own middle grade reading happened.

Before we all parted, going in search of cupcakes in our respective freezers, Sheila wanted to thank her mother. It’s what you do, and her mother has been really supportive. So we toasted mother McDonald. (No, not that kind of toast.)

It was lucky in a way that the launch party had to take place online. All those friends who turned up would have made for a very cramped bookshop in real life. And the cupcakes would definitely have run out.

‘Her election book’

It was gratifying to discover an online book event, shared with the US, where I was still awake enough to attend. But I suppose with Elizabeth Wein sitting not too many miles north of Bookwitch Towers, it needed to be early enough, while still permitting Carole Barrowman, somewhere in the US Midwest, to have got past her morning coffee.

They met up at the end of a week filled with online events for Elizabeth’s war time book The Enigma Game, recently published in her home country America. Carole gave us all of one sentence in a Scottish accent before switching back to her American one. I wish she’d said more! It’s strange really, how she’s over there and Elizabeth is over here.

The above quote is Carole’s who, having started reading the book on election night and loving it, now felt it was her ‘election book’; the one which made her week endurable. (I just want to know why she waited so long.)

Anyway, there we were, and I suddenly realised I was sitting next to two of my former interview subjects, which felt a bit weird. But nice. And fun. Because Carole is good at this interviewing thing, and Elizabeth has just the right books to be interviewed about, even if, as she said, she’s no good at elevator pitches. After an extended pitch, Elizabeth read us an early chapter about the German and the grammophone.

For this book she learned Morse code. Of course she did. Apparently it’s easy to learn, but hard to understand when it comes at you, so to speak. It was a suitable thing for young girls to learn, giving them something to do.

As Carole pointed out, everyone in The Enigma Game has something to hide, or they are hiding, like being a traveller, or a German refugee, or in the case of Louisa, someone who can’t hide her darker skin. Elizabeth said she always has someone like her in her books, a stranger, and she thinks it’s because she has never quite belonged where she’s lived.

During the conversation Elizabeth even began mixing herself up with Louisa, which proves the point. As a child in Jamaica she spoke fluent Jamaican patois, which she quickly had to shed when moving to the US. Carole compared that with her and her brother John’s needs when they moved from Scotland to America, quickly having to fit in.

Carole kept discovering more and more of Elizabeth’s books, and made notes on what else to read. The Enigma Game was going straight to her parents. She had actually read the Star Wars book, Cobolt Squadron, which Elizabeth described as her practice for Enigma, saying ‘how much fun is it to write an air battle?’ (Quite fun, I’d say.)

She’d got the railway line up the east coast somewhat confused, which means she forgot it had to be allowed for. So the northeast of Scotland was slightly altered by Elizabeth. Her fictional airbase is based on Montrose airfield.

Slightly behind her deadline for the next book, which she is not allowed to tell us about, is a kind of Biggles for girls, set in the 1930s. That’s good enough for me! And then Carole read out my question! I never ask questions in Zoom events. But I’d really like more books about the three characters in Enigma. No pressure, but yes.

As always when you have fun, this event came to an end. But it was good, and this was a perfect pairing of people to chat about a perfect book. Like Carole said, read The Enigma Game!