Category Archives: Bookshops

A report from the pavement

I spent quite a bit of my Bloody Scotland weekend trying to hunt Elly Griffiths down. This entailed looking into bars; a thing I don’t normally do. I wanted her to sign a book, but by the time I had the book, Elly was nowhere to be found.

She was one of the crime writers taking part in Vaseem and Abir’s Red Hot Night of a Million Games. It was a very silly night, but a lot of fun, and it cheered both Daughter and me up. We’ll go next year too if it’s on. Daughter’s favourite was Luca Veste singing Hit Me Baby One More Time. Again. We got to wave our lit-up mobiles in the air and everything. Elly did some good moves with her maracas. Helen Fitzgerald played a convincing corpse on the floor. There was much cheating.

And when all’s said and done, it has very little to do with crime fiction, except that these authors are fun to spend time with.

In Houses From Hell, all I wanted to do was move the furniture on the stage around. Lovely, tartan armchairs, but Helen Grant, Lesley Thomson and Stuart Neville didn’t get to interact enough, because they were not seated in a convenient semi-circle. (Please take note!) Besides that, between you and me, they are quite creepy people. No, that’s not right. They have creepy interests and they put all sorts into their books. Helen even managed to scare her own husband.

When the programme for Bloody Scotland came I wanted to go to so many events. But I know my [lack of] strength, so decided to pace myself, and opted for four, thinking I could add to them later. When the time came, however, four seemed like really quite enough.

After many years of not meeting Martin Edwards in person, there was no way I was going to miss his Cosy Makes a Comeback event. I think of him as a cosy writer. And then he started off by saying he prefers traditional; not cosy. Conveniently enough both the other participants, Jonathan Whitelaw and S J Bennett, as well as the audience, were quick to adapt and the word traditional got a lot of airing. Big audience, too, so I have to say that we are many who like cosy crime. Pardon, traditional.

Hadn’t been sure how the death of the Queen was going to influence the discussion, seeing as S J’s detective actually is the Queen. But she has many plans, and always lets fictional characters do the actual deeds, so this may well continue working. Martin’s excellence at editing [other people’s] vintage crime got a mention, with very many of us being big fans and wanting to know that there will be more from the British Library. He’d initially expected to edit two. There are now over a hundred, so that clearly exceeded expectations.

At the cosy event (sorry!) I said hello to Lizzy Siddal, who I now recognised, and was introduced to her companion Marina Sofia. This turned out to be serendipitous since Marina bore down on me outside the room for the evening event about Detective Duos. We exchanged cards, the way civilised people do, and talked. A lot. For obvious reasons we were able to talk about funny foreigners. Marina is a publisher of translated crime. When Son arrived, in his role as translator of David Lagercrantz’s book, I introduced them, and it turned out they knew about each other already, and a lot more conversation took place.

The Detective Duos event was interesting, and I was pleased to finally come across Ayo Onatade who chaired it. Must have been aware of her for ten years at least. And I had thought it was her I saw down at the Albert Halls the previous night. It obviously was.

One day I’ll have to explain to David Lagercrantz about spoilers. Like not mentioning them too much at events… I liked new-to-me author Ajay Chowdhury, who is a Bloody Scotland-made success, having won a competition to write new crime. Having decided against buying his book before the event on the grounds that it was a hardback, I hurried out afterwards to hand over my money, and still make it to be first in the signing queue.

Simon Mason talked about his two DI R Wilkinses, and if I’d not already read and loved his book, I’d have bought that too. At the end Ayo put them all on the spot, and David agonised at great length before giving up on answering. (In case you want to know what it was about, I’m afraid I can’t remember.) When asked about their personal favourite detective duos, I was very pleased that Ajay chose Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Haven’t heard those names mentioned in a long time.

I then proceeded to confuse everyone by chatting to Simon and David at more or less the same time at the signing table, about different things in two different languages. I think maybe I won’t do that again. But it was nice to reminisce a little with Simon, and good to introduce myself as the mother of you-know-who to David, who got quite carried away. And he finally got to meet his translator. So I suppose that was all good.

Afterwards Son and Dodo and the Resident IT Consultant went for a beer somewhere. Probably not where I was looking for Elly. Instead I hugged an author and talked about cows with another while I waited outside on the pavement for Daughter to pick me up. It’s quite nice this, finding yourself right next to some favourite writers on the pavement (where many of them go to smoke. But not these two!).

As you may have guessed the cow conversation was with James Oswald, which in turn started Vaseem Khan on the Scots use of the word coo. I worked out later that they might have been on their way to Crime at the Coo. Talked elephants with Vaseem. Obviously. And said what fun we’d had the previous night. Soon after the hug Daughter turned up and she tried to invite him round for chilli. Vaseem turned us down very nicely. But we can try again next year.

So, as I said, you find a lot of authors milling about both in and out of the Golden Lion. And when the ticket table remained unstaffed for rather longer than it should have, Gordon Brown came to the rescue.

Handy to be alive

It is. And we are so grateful that Michael Rosen came out of Covid almost as good as new. I’d forgotten quite how much of a performer he is. Not for Michael this sitting down in one of the book fest’s trendy armchairs and chat quietly to a chairperson like Daniel Hahn. No. He allowed himself to be introduced, and then it was full speed ahead with an hour of absolute comedy.

Comedy mixed with serious stuff, because nearly dying, or being from the stone age, isn’t all fun. But it’s possible to talk about it entertainingly, and in such a way that a roomful of very young children don’t get bored. Michael told us about being ‘put to sleep’ by the NHS, and how hard it was to wake up after forty days, and how his resourceful wife brought in a mobile phone and had his children chat to him and getting him talking (and now he can’t stop).

He had to relearn how to walk and talk. The first with the help of Sticky McStickstick, who assisted Michael all the way to the toilet and back. The talking by learning to sing Frère Jacques by making the somewhat rude noise that sounds a bit like farts (and he had the audience doing just that…). I couldn’t help thinking of the aerosol effect when so many people blow/sing raspberries.

Anyway, he now walks and talks. About pasta, for instance. There was much said about pasta, and Rigatoni the pasta cat. Although Michael prefers fusilli, with bolognese – with mushrooms – sticking to every little fold.

His current favourite [own] book is the as yet unpublished Gaston le dog. This led to a lot of French being bandied about, and coming on top of Frère Jacques and also Daniel’s translation thing, it was a very French sort of day.

Born in 1946, and not the stone age (he lied), Michael and his brother were very naughty boys. And noisy. This brought back the story of how their father used to deal with noise. He would put his hand to the side of his face (see Bookwitch archive photo of Michael demonstrating this in 2012) and simply utter the words ‘The Noise’.

Which coincidentally is how it sounds to people in the rest of the world when Michael says the word ‘nice’. It’s tricky. So is not breathing, which seems to have been something that happened at school, but which was alleviated by flapping the lid of your [ancient style] school desk lid, and breathing behind it. This saved several lives in Michael’s school.

Of course, it could be that he just made all this up.

And because this was about poetry, and because Michael is a poet, he told us some poems, making the audience repeat them.

His favourite pudding is blackcurrant sorbet, or cassis.

After an hour of fun it was Daniel’s thankless task to tell us it had to come to an end.

Two weeks on, back at the book festival

With migraines rampaging quietly around Bookwitch Towers on Saturday morning, I decided to risk it and still travel through to Edinburgh where Daniel Hahn ‘was waiting’. Drugged and with enough nice sandwiches to last the afternoon, but perhaps not enough water, I got to the Edinburgh College of Art, and found Albertina’s where I interrupted Daniel mid-chat with director Nick Barley himself. He handed over the ‘goods’ and I left again.

Well, I did cast a quick look at the Spectacular Translation Machine Daniel was running with Sarah Ardizzone, asking non-French speakers to translate a picture book from French into English. Because that is so easy. I’ve seen them trying to trick people like this before.

Clutching my chairperson’s ticket for the day’s event [with Michael Rosen], I went over to the signing tent where I hoped to find most of the relevant books I’d been after. With hindsight I might have bought too few, but three are better than two. Or one. Ran into blogger Lizzy Siddall, Daniel’s ‘other stalker’ and we chatted a bit, about chairs* – as you do – and how to get rid of books.

Clutching my new ones, I went and sat in the ‘car park’ again, having developed a fondness for somewhere to picnic that’s level. Should have refilled my water bottle too, seeing as I was sitting right next to the tap.

After my sandwiches, it was time for Michael Rosen and his chair, Daniel Hahn. More about that tomorrow…

*Ones you sit on.

Low-hanging books

Having feared a long and slow decline in in-coming books, I have been relieved to find that I seem to be coming to a mostly natural end. I expect the postman would agree.

It’s been a freeing experience to buy my own. In a way. If I know I would like the new – or, for that matter, old – book by A N Author, I can get it online. But when I don’t know, I tell myself that what I need is a good browse; see what looks promising. If there are any three for two offers, maybe.

The next step is deciding I’ll pop into Waterstones to see what they’ve got. And once I’ve visualised myself there, I remember the upstairs aspect of children’s books. And then I see myself in the lift, and recall what it was like the last time and how I stepped out of it once the lift-woman’s voice had stopped being downright crazy, allowing me to exit [without having moved upwards].

Never again, I thought. And as the stairs are many and high, they are also a ‘never again’ if I can help it. This is why I have been happy to visit St Andrews, where they have a couple of normal bookshops with only a downstairs. On the other hand, travelling fifty miles there and then fifty miles back, seems like taking this book buying a bit far. Fifty miles, in fact.

There are other places a witch could go. Edinburgh, for instance. But both the obvious shops involve sharing a train with others, getting on a bus for a bit, and then there are stairs or lifts as well. Children’s books will probably never be the category to be found right inside the door. A bit like shoe shops back in the day when I wielded a pushchair and children’s feet at the same time.

So… Whereas I couldn’t buy adult shoes instead, these days I have turned to crime. Crime is adult and can be found somewhere the crazy lift-woman is not needed.

The Translator’s Craft and Graft

He’d found a pair of jeans in time for his first event on Sunday. No more need for Daniel Hahn to shiver in the relative ‘chill’ Edinburgh offered him. He was here to talk about his book Catching Fire, about translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, because you can never have enough books about other books.

It was one of those events I like so much. The book is fabulous and Daniel is always so [seemingly] relaxed when chatting in public like this. He started off with the regular crossed legs, but towards the end I noticed he’d sort of crept up in his armchair the way you do when sitting reading in the comfort of your own home.

Chaired by his publisher Sam McDowell of Charco Press, the two of them chatted about the sorts of things the large audience liked. Daniel is the kind of person who thinks carefully about what word to use in a particular place, and also the kind of son to accept an OBE ‘because he’s got parents.’ It made them happy. He also felt that an OBE is good for the general business of translating, no matter which translator is honoured.

Xenophobia is growing, so we need those foreign books. Without foreign language skills, we need someone to translate those books for us.

Something I’d never thought of is that Daniel’s English is not the same as other people’s; it all depends on how and where and with whom you grow up. So any translation will rely on the language that particular translator has. It’s very interesting.

He read a few pages from his book, and as ever it was entertaining both for what it was and how Daniel reads. It just made me want to reread Catching Fire again.

After this event in the Northside Theatre, we all mostly trooped over to the signing tent where I was happy to note I wasn’t at the end of the queue. Having acquired a post-it with my name on so he’d know who I was 😊.

He put it to the side as he wrote a nice long message, after which I felt it prudent to retrieve my post-it before he signed all the books after me to Ann. Nice enough name, but it’d be confusing.

Opening the Edinburgh International Book Festival

They must have guessed how much I’d like to sit in their garden, in the dark, under the tree lights, with a drink in my hand and feeling relaxed. Or else it was pure coincidence that the book festival invited me to their opening party last night, even allowing the Resident IT Consultant to join me there.

All I can say is I recommend it. And I don’t think you need a party; you can just go along one evening, preferably when it’s not raining, and sit down and relax, enjoying the string lights. And the literary aspects of hanging out at a book festival. Let’s not forget the books.

Fresh off the train I went over to claim my special badge, only to discover that press officer Frances has retired. I don’t blame her. Summers are nice to enjoy without working hard at running a press team. But how am I to Bookwitch without her? It’s quite a shock I tell you. Sarah who has taken over is excellent. But I am an old witch. Really old.

Anyway, I encountered my second favourite translator – Daniel Hahn – outside the bookshop, and we chatted. He was brave enough to be wearing shorts, on the grounds that it was warmer down south. Also happened across two of Son’s [other] friends, but didn’t dare throw myself on them. Mothers can be an embarrassment.

On my second foray into the book festival village I found Kate Leiper and Vivian French loitering outside, waiting to join the party. We picked up our free drinks tokens and after finding some seats in the ‘car park’ I sent the Resident IT Consultant over to the bar.

And then we sat. It was very comfortable. And whenever I saw someone I recognised, I had to tell him. Or at least the people he might reasonably be expected to know who they were. Ian Rankin. Julia Donaldson.

When we’d done enough sitting we tottered back to our hotel. (This can’t happen often. But once in a blue moon a hotel across the road is terribly useful.)

Neither Goblet nor Prisoner

I didn’t read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire this morning either. Had a date across town at the ungodly hour of eight, with a plumber, and on the basis of needing entertainment should I become stuck over there, the fourth HP struck me might well suffice. Daughter will have felt vindicated, just as she did after our short weekend out of town, when for a one night away I packed not only the last fifty pages of The Prisoner of Azkaban, but also The Goblet of Fire. Just in case. She told me I was crazy. I merely felt I was exercising foresight.

She was right, of course.

We went to Fife, to celebrate Dodo’s birthday, and to take much of our junk to her parents’ ‘new’ house. Son had booked us in for lunch at the East Pier, which was as good as he’d made us believe. But cold. It was one of the hottest days of the summer, and we’d been frying ourselves next to the sea. But out of the sun it was cold enough to wish we’d brought jumpers.

Oh well. But on the short stroll over, I at least had the pleasure of encountering Val McDermid. So that was the book-y aspect of the day taken care of. (Son was also childishly pleased to recognise the man who does all the property video walk-throughs in Fife…)

The next day, after I had read not a single word of Harry Potter or anything else, we went shopping. I was going for shoes, scones and books, but it turned out to be more books and Aloe Vera. With that special knack I have, we had taken ourselves to St Andrews for the first day of The Open. The 150th, at that. But since we’d entered town from the ‘wrong’ direction, we had no problems, and left as soon as we could, meeting all the incoming cars.

Post-crack-of-dawn plumbers, I am now several chapters into HP4.

Launching the tenth anniversary Bloody Scotland

She notices things, does Lin Anderson. She’s very kind, and she came up to me to ask ‘did I want a chair?’ I did, and she gave me one. I asked how she knew, and it seems I was leaning on a stack of brown boxes. I was. I just hadn’t noticed.

So there I was, the only one sitting down. Very comfortable it was, too. My friend Helen Grant had to stand, but apparently she prefers that. She’s going to be at the tenth (?) Bloody Scotland in September. High time, if you ask me. She’s as scary as the rest of them.

Between me and the mail chimp I almost didn’t make it, but I was in a position to dash off to the Golden Lion at very short notice this morning, so I did.

You will have noticed my question mark above. I am sure they know what they are doing, but I am equally sure it’s not the tenth Bloody Scotland. One of us will be wrong.* But I was given a chair to sit on, so will not insist on being right.

After some suitable mingling, Bob kicked things off. He’s the boss. He then handed over to Citizen Kane, sorry, Councillor Kane, to talk about how much Stirling loves Bloody Scotland. Then it was back to Bob again, with more information about the sheer wonderfulness of what is to come. And there is a lot.

I was quite excited to find Sara Paretsky on the front cover of the programme, but cynical enough to realise she will Zoom in. So are some of the other grand crime writers. But most are coming here, and I already have a conundrum as to who to see and who to miss. Helen is appearing with ‘my old pal’ Stuart Neville, and new Swedish star David Lagercrantz will be on a panel with Simon Mason, David Fickling’s man in the basement.

Not going to list all the others. Look at the programme. It’s already live. And Crime at the Coo sold out instantly, so don’t even bother trying. Anyway, it’s on from 15th to 18th September, and if you are good with numbers you can see they have added a day.

As we left, Helen and I ended up behind everyone being photographed on the steps of the Golden Lion. I considered trying to look especially silly, but gave up. Having squeezed through, we then joined the throng on the pavement instead.

After which Helen bought me a baked potato across the road.

*That will be me. I’m a foreigner. There is a difference between anniversary and tenth event… Thank you again for the chair.

The 16th RED award

It was the Resident IT Consultant’s birthday, and as a special treat he was commanded out of bed and reminded he was giving me a lift to the RED book award 2022. (But it was a nice drive through the countryside, and I’m sure he didn’t mind.) We even got there before the coaches bearing children, so there was no dodging about in the car park.

I can’t tell you how great it was to be out and going to an event and to almost be back to a little normality! Well, actually, I can and I’m about to.

I swanned in as the seasoned Witch I am, spying Ross MacKenzie having a coffee. So I accosted him, since we’d never met before. He took it reasonably well. Before long we were joined by Manjeet Mann, who’d come all the way from Folkestone. Unfortunately neither Melinda Salisbury or Elle McNicoll were able to be there. Coughs are unfortunate, and I suppose weddings are allowed to happen too. But it was a shame.

The front row was waiting for me, and I had the most welcome aisle seat, where I could enjoy librarian boss Yvonne Manning dancing to ABBA as she entered. As usual the children got to introduce their authors, followed by digital presentations of the shortlisted books, two schools per book. I particularly liked Bowness Academy for Melinda Salisbury, and voted for that. But the others were all good too.

No Provost for me to sit next to, however.

Ross and Manjeet introduced themselves, with Ross rather too tall for the microphone, but Manjeet compensated by being a little shorter. So that worked out fine. This encouraged Yvonne to do a rap, so she jumped up on the stage and demanded meatballs. (On reflection, I believe it was something else. You know, the background beat that goes with rap?) As Yvonne rapped what sounded like Little Red Riding Hood, a boy – let’s call him ‘Rob’ – ran up to the aforementioned microphone and meatballed steadfastly through the whole thing. Apparently it was not pre-arranged. I like the Falkirk young readers who step up so well. The rest of the audience had to stand up every time Yvonne said ‘red’. Which was often.

Coffee came next, and after a while the authors were spirited away to sign books. And a boxing glove. I chatted a bit to Yvonne, and then discovered that not only were my clothes red, as per order, but even my emergency snack was red [grapes]. Totally accidentally.

And did you know, technology is now so advanced that my phone takes better pictures than my special witch camera?? (You even get people waving. But I’ve not quite understood this yet.)

Back to the theatre Yvonne had donned her act two red wig. That’s red as in really red. There was more dancing, before Yvonne led most of the 300 children in a sort of conga line round the whole place. Ross looked baffled as he stood in the doorway. I suspect not all book awards do this. But it does wake you up if you are flagging.

More presentations followed, and then we sang Happy Birthday. Twice. None of them for the Resident IT Consultant, but it does seem to be a popular day to be born. Manjeet and Ross were invited to sit on the temporary red sofas. (They are usually blue, but always sofas.) Questions were asked and answered, with the help of what I had taken to be rolled up socks. Turns out they were mobile microphones…

Prizes for alternative book endings, book cover art and redness of dress were all handed out.

And then it was time for the actual award. And you know the irritating way they pause in Eurovision before reading out the points? Well, Yvonne beat them hands down. She had left the red envelope in her car (!) and ran off to get it, telling the young ones to come up with something to say during the wait. Before one of them told a really bad joke – or it might have been a good one – the elegant looking woman sitting next to me, who was not the Provost, jumped up to assist with this unexpected interval. She was the hander-over of the award, so this made sense.

Yvonne ran back in, gave the envelope to the young announcer who never got to tell her joke, and the RED award went to Elle McNicoll! They had one of those ‘one we made earlier’ videos, where Elle coughed her way through heartfelt thanks, and said how much she loves Falkirk.

And that was mostly it. Anne Ngabia of the African libraries and patchwork quilts had made another one, featuring all sixteen winning books from over the years. ‘Us three photographers’ took more pictures, for you, for RED and for the Falkirk Herald.

The way to the station had not changed too much during the long hiatus of live awards, so I hobbled successfully to my train home, as did Manjeet – not hobbling, and also heading for the other platform. And luckily the Resident IT Consultant had followed instructions and bought himself a birthday cake. The one I had been too busy to bake. But there was no singing. Twice in one day is quite enough.

Oh, how good it felt to have been ‘normal’ again.

Fifteen and counting

Apart from a few years in my late teens, when I erroneously believed I had to read grown-up books – because I could, and because others did – I have not been too concerned with worthiness. I mean the worth others, who are not as wise as they think they are, put on certain books.

I read because I want to read, and I read what I want to read. Mostly.

One of the things I get to read these days is The Bookseller, which arrives second-hand in a pink envelope every week. A month ago I was struck by what Philip Jones said in his editor’s letter, in regard to The Official UK Top 50 list, which they published that week. He wrote ‘to view the Top 50 is to witness the trade as it is, rather than how it would like to be seen’.

The trade, and maybe us readers, like to think of this book business as something much worthier than some people might think of this Top 50 as being. But it is what it is. People buy books and the fifty most bought ones are the Top 50. The list is full of titles and authors I, and many other people, or so I imagine, have heard of. It’s not a list of inaccessible works. It’s light and fun, and I say this despite a certain DW having two books in the top 15. Because it’s what people buy.

Richard Osman tops the list, and somewhere towards the bottom we find Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, but as this is a list of everything, there is no shame in that.

In fact, if we can move on to the Top 30 Children’s Illustrators of 2021, also in the Bookseller, I was pleased to see that Axel Scheffler tops it, with Tony Ross merely in second place. Now, I don’t mind Tony at all. It’s just the company he keeps, which is why I’d rather see Axel selling better.

It’s quite interesting really, as the list has many illustrators I know [of], but also a few I don’t. And many of them are classics, so not exactly new for 2021, but proving that a good picture book will sell and sell.

That’s what we like here at Bookwitch Towers. I was given a picture book for Christmas. I have read very few of the Top 50, but I believe I can say I have a relationship with a good number of the books and their authors, one way or another. And I’m in good company. Lots of people bought these books, despite snobs wanting us to want other books.

It’s February 6th again. Bookwitch continues slowly on her way. She’s fifteen today, and unlike that other teenager she was many years ago, she knows what she likes.

And, this is quite embarrassing; I knew I needed cream for something today – which caused some concern when Waitrose turned out to have no cream whatsoever on Saturday – but I couldn’t remember why. I do now. It was for a celebratory something or other on this birthday. It will taste better with cream. Luckily M&S had some.