Category Archives: Bookshops

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.

Seven books and a smell

For a few panicky seconds on Christmas Eve as the presents were being handed out, I was afraid we were going to do a Mr and Mrs Hilary Mantel thing. I’d read how last year they gave each other the same book. This comes of knowing perfectly well what the other one would like.

At Bookwitch Towers Daughter is good at knowing this (the Resident IT Consultant follows the list given to him), and when I found myself staring at a British Library Christmas crime anthology edited by Martin Edwards, I hurriedly tried to recall what I’d got the Resident IT Consultant. Two collections edited by Martin, but which ones? And how did they differ from the ones last year?

In the end they turned out to be different collections, but Daughter and I had clearly studied the list of crime stories edited by our Mr Edwards, and then made our separate choices. This was a problem I’d not even seen coming!

As you can see I am looking at a varied reading diet for the near future. Eoin Colfer and Shaun Tan were by request, so to speak, while the Literary Almanac was the result of individual thinking by the Resident IT Consultant. So, Silent Nights from Daughter, and also two Mary Westmacotts, chosen without even the prompting of Sophie Hannah’s suggestion in the Guardian during the year. Very perceptive. And at last I have got my Glamorgan sausages back! I’ve been going on about Michael Barry all year, after realising that parting with his cookbooks from the olden days might have been somewhat premature. I just couldn’t find his Glamorgan sausages online. But here they are. Someone paid attention to her mother, and then went secondhand book shopping.

That’s the seven books. The final gift was a scented candle from ‘an author’, smelling of old bookshop. The candle. Not the author. I’d have thought Bookwitch Towers might almost manage that smell on its own, but now we’ll leave nothing to chance.

I wish my hairdresser could see me now. I mean, when I unwrapped my books. Earlier in the week he’d asked if I thought the Resident IT Consultant would surprise me with a really special Christmas present. I’m afraid I laughed. I came home and told the other two, and the Resident IT Consultant said that it really would be a surprise if he were to do that. But I felt fairly safe from any development in that direction.

In return I surprised the hairdresser. Twice. Seven years on he discovered I have a Son. Who is not a scientist. And who does not translate for the police. He’s also into books. Son, I mean. And the hairdresser does read, so I decided to combine the two, and went back a few days later and gave him one of Son’s.

Goodbye Wilbur

I met Wilbur Smith in the very early Bookwitch days. I have still not read anything by him. Suspect I’ve felt he wasn’t my style, and there were so many other books.

But over the years he’s stood out as one of the greats, and it was fun to come across him at what was then my local bookshop. Handy. As you can see below, a lot of fans had come a long way, with their rucksacks full of books not bought at that bookshop. I think it’s the type of fan that tells me about an author whom I don’t know well, or at all.

And now he’s dead. But 88 is a good age, and it seems he wasn’t ill, but died with his boots on, so to speak.

Some EIBF thoughts at the end

It might not be the end, of course. For me and the book festival, I mean. There are events galore that I want to see, so will carry on when I can. I just didn’t feel up to more consorting with strangers on trains. That situation may well improve at some point.

Some people have been negative about the new ways. But in this instance ‘we’ have to try new ways to survive. One day they might feel like the old ways.

All the photos I’ve since seen from the Art College suggest that people came and they sat and they enjoyed. Maybe on a smaller scale. But they came. Some authors also came. It would have been nice to see more of them actually there, but the way it was done, the ‘menu’ had scope to be more exotic.

Perhaps the days of seeing Garth Nix in the flesh are over. (Just picking an Oz author at random here.) And if they are, then so be it. I had the opportunity of seeing him live live, and will be able to live on memories. Soon people will not have this kind of expectation when the new becomes the norm. A Garth on a screen is still a Garth.

The authors – and the audiences – have not been not travelling just because of Covid. It is also a greener thing to not travel, and the planet might last a little longer if we refrain from frying it too much. I’m sure some authors have enjoyed traversing the globe for events, but am equally sure some have hated it, or at least the accompanying exhaustion.

So here’s to a few more years of trialling the next ‘old ways’ of bookfesting. Garth on a screen, and Bookwitch at her desk. Both of us dreaming of the olden days. Or not.

Goodbye Cathy

Cathy MacPhail has died. She had been ill for several years, and I often thought of her, but felt I mustn’t keep asking her family for news.

We met over ten years ago, in a [Stockport] hotel bar. The first thing Cathy did was demand I take her necklace off, so I gave it my best shot, but I must be quite a bad necklace-taker-offer. Luckily Rachel Ward arrived soon after, so I introduced them to each other, and then Rachel had a rather more successful go at removing her new friend’s necklace. (The necklace in the photo below is not that necklace. It’s the one Cathy replaced it with for the awards ceremony. Very glam.)

From then on I came across Cathy in various places, and mostly in her native Scotland. Always cheerful, always supportive of people. And always very much admired by everyone. Children liked her books. Adults, authors, liked her books. I think I especially admired the way this selfmade woman had achieved so much, and I used to enjoy thinking of her in her waterside home in Greenock, watching the large cruise ships cruise by.

When I came up with my crazy idea of inviting my dear children’s authors to lunch at Bookwitch Towers, she was the first to volunteer. Admittedly, she was about the last to arrive, because she got a wee bit lost between Greenock and Stirling. In the end I sent the Resident IT Consultant out with my mobile phone, to try and find Cathy before she turned her nice big car round to go home again.

She even returned the next year, and I do admire (there’s that word again) the way she’d get into her car and drive to all sorts of places just because people wanted to see her.

We’d meet at the RED book awards, where she’d be accompanied by one of her daughters.

The last time I saw Cathy was at the Glasgow launch of Theresa Breslin’s book about Rasputin, almost four years ago. There was a group of us who sat down where we were not supposed to sit, to have a nice gossip about the kinds of things a person needs to gossip about.

It was after another book launch, in Edinburgh, that Kirkland Ciccone asked me about Cathy’s health. He’d heard rumours about her being ill, but didn’t feel he had the right to start asking questions. I made enquiries. Sadly he was right; Cathy was ill. We kept hoping for the best, and hopefully the best is what Cathy’s family got over the last few years.

The first day

Today was the first day of the rest of its life, for the new Edinburgh International Book Festival. I had to be there. It’s now in the Edinburgh College of Art in Lauriston Place. It’s different, but not that different. As the Photographer and I dithered near the entrance, the first person we encountered was Ian Rankin. Rather like on our first ever EIBF in 2009. This was clearly a good omen.

The next thing for us was to find the press yurt, looking smaller than ever, but still our press yurt. It still had Frances Sutton and were it not for current circumstances we could have hugged her. We all agreed we had missed this very much; this getting together in the same place, especially with people who had not Zoomed endlessly during the last year and a bit.

The ducks were in situ, which was a relief for us and them. However, the badge for my Photographer was classier than mine. Just saying.

We saw one of the crew (I’m never quite sure what he does, but we’ve seen him every year), who still had Covid hair. Very fetching.

Walked around the courtyard of the college, getting our bearings. It’s smallish, and very green. It’s got a lot of decking, because although small, it’s ‘hilly’. Trees and tent coverings have my favourite little string lights. I’ll have to come back in the dark. There are picnic tables and several mobile bars serving stuff, as well as the college café which does hot food. Play tent for the young and first aid tent for the unfortunate.

Didn’t think much of the bookshop. Few books and looked more like the old signing tent.*

There is a large, but not too large, screen in the middle of all this. We arrived in time for the live event with Zoë Wicomb, talking to Stuart Kelly (another stalwart of the festival, who is always there), and this was something I liked. It was a free event to enjoy from wherever you might be sitting, resting, eating lunch, or whatever. Good quality picture and decent sound. I’d never heard of Zoë, and for that reason would never have bought a ticket to see her, but this was good. I dipped in and out of their chat, feeling it personified the general sentiment of the bookfest.

Saw two gentlemen wearing top hats and tails, and felt they looked a bit familiar. Decided they were Macastory, whose job it was to do live talks and walks on the Meadows. So there were a few familiar faces, at this new hybrid affair of books. Missed Daniel Hahn whose recorded event with Jenny Erpenbeck was done closer to [his] home than previously advertised. I only cried a little into my cups over that, but they were Moomin cups, so…

Having brought with us foreign food to eat, just in case, we then made the sacrifice of road testing the college café as well. Just to be sure. It was very pleasant. I could go back. (At least if the train journey wasn’t quite so hot and crowded.)

*That would be because it was the signing tent. As we left, turning the corner to go find a train home, we came across the real bookshop. It was bigger, with more books. And it has seating outside if you are overcome by some urge to read what you bought.

Purged

We rolled up our sleeves and started chucking books at the sofa. Although first Daughter and Hetty dusted off the very worst, and let me tell you, the worst was pretty bad. Maybe dusting twice a year isn’t often enough?

There were books I felt really could go, because if I’m not getting any younger, I probably won’t reread them. And another thing about age; we find we don’t see so well when we [try to] read the classic Penguin Classics. The print is very small, isn’t it? The Resident IT Consultant is a firm believer in the e-reader, and the fact that if the author is long enough dead, then financially it makes sense – and sensibility – to go for the classic ebook experience. Out went Austen and Brontë. Gaskell is still here, but she can leave next time.

But yeah, we can both carry the complete works of – insert name of old author here – in our pockets. All at once.

And Daughter says we haven’t got rid of nearly enough books, but as I said, there can be a next time, or so I hope.

The odd thing about all this is that for all the books on the sofa – now in carrier bags for the charity shop – the gaps on the shelves are nowhere near as large as one would expect…

(And with the Edinburgh International Book Festival opening its doors tomorrow morning, I am rubbing my hands in anticipation of the bookshop experience I might have there!)

Whine, anybody?

Has it been long enough since I whined, so I can whine again?

Someone emailed me the other day, saying they were done with the toxic world of YA books (this is an author, btw).

I believe her/him. I just haven’t got the experience of behind the scenes to know all that they refer to.

Currently I have some unsolicited – by me – books hoping for a review.* Simultaneously, I have a wish list for books to read and review. But they’re not going to come, are they?

* So it can’t be that they hate me, or that they can’t afford to send books out. (I was about to say that I would understand. But then I remembered the figures I happened to read in The Bookseller with my breakfast. They are doing all right financially.)

I’ll go shopping.

Down #6 Memory Lane

I was going to go with a male author this time, having gone down Memory Lane with mostly girls so far. But as it said in the Guardian at the weekend, men don’t read books by women to the same extent women do books by male authors. Although, as you will see below, there is a male reader involved here.

Having met Sara Paretsky quite a few times by now, I was recently reminded of the second time, and how surprised I was by the attitude of the bookshop owners, who provided the venue for our meeting, and subsequent interview.

Offspring and I talked to Sara in Gothenburg in 2006, when Son was able to ask his standing question (which we seem to have lost by now), which was her opinion of Philip Pullman. We took for granted that she’d be a fan, and Sara did not disappoint. She was very graceful, saying good things about another author, in what was her own signing queue.

And then came the second time. I’d seen she was coming to Manchester, so spruced up my interview hat and asked for an interview. All properly done through her publicist. I suggested we meet in the local bookshop, believing it’d be great for all of us, including the bookshop who’d get a major crime writer come to them.

I was so naïve.

They didn’t say no, but neither did they in any noticeable way advertise her coming. I don’t think it was that they disliked her. I reckon they just had no idea what a big name Sara was. And, yes, I had invited her. So clearly she was no one special.

The day arrived. Sara arrived, chauffeur-driven, in the company of her publicist Kerry. I was beginning to worry that no one would turn up. Luckily, some people did, and it being a small shop, the small crowd looked bigger than it was. What pleased me the most, apart from getting my interview, was that the bookshop’s customers knew what a great deal it was, even if the owners didn’t. And one man, whose favourite author Sara was, had just come for his Saturday coffee, not knowing she was there, right then. This lovely surprise for one fan, outweighed the rest, as far as I was concerned.

From then on we have met in more sympathetic bookshops and at book festivals. Always with the assistance of Kerry. Some publicists are very special. Our next meeting in Nottingham, on a snowy Sunday is one of my best memories, complete with my half-eaten sandwich and discovering how ‘all’ involved were fans of NCIS.