Category Archives: Bookshops

A twist on the cosy

And I’m afraid we all laughed at the memory of Catriona McPherson’s grandmother’s funeral. (But I’d say we were meant to.)

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Last night at the Golden Lion was one of the very best Bloody Scotland events I’ve known, and I’ve been to some good ones. As Vaseem Khan said, it was quality over quantity, referring to the fact that he and Catriona and Lynne Truss were competing with Ian Rankin and Nicola Sturgeon down the road. But really, who’d choose those two over these three, so ably chaired by Laura Wilson, who’s just as fun and capable as I remembered from CrimeFest eleven years ago?

Right, so it was a discussion on cosy crime with three authors and a select audience, which contained, among others, Catriona’s parents. I liked her parents and wouldn’t mind borrowing them.

But was it really cosy crime we were dealing with? No, it was more whether you can kill kittens, and about writing with humour. Which, as far as I’m concerned is the best. Well, perhaps not the kitten-killing.

Apparently all cats are psychopaths.

It was actually a fairly animal-centred discussion, ably led by Baby Ganesh, Vaseem’s little elephant. While it was his detective Chopra’s wife’s involvement with where to deposit your poo that got us onto this, it was Catriona’s question whether he never worried whether Ganesh might, well, deposit, something somewhere unsuitable as well, which took us straight to Blue Peter’s elephant poo memory. This made us laugh a lot.

(Here I have to insert an apology to Lynne. I am not at all sure I get my thats and whiches and anything else right. But that’s the way I am. I loved Eats Shoots and Leaves. I just didn’t learn anything.)

And let’s get the panda out of the way right now. Not allowed to say what Vaseem thinks about pandas. But he likes vultures. He gets mail from fans, warning him not to let anything bad happen to Ganesh. There is no great plan for his little elephant, since when he wrote the first book he didn’t expect to get published, or that there would be more books. Ganesh will obviously outlive Chopra.

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This makes dogs more suitable to your plots; they won’t live as long. But this thing with age is difficult. Apparently Catriona and her Dandy were the same age in 2002 when they started out, but now Dandy is four years younger than her.

Catriona wanted to write her period crime as though it was written back then, and the greatest praise she’s had was the comment that it was just like a novel you might encounter in a wet Norfolk cottage (and not in a good way). Or, Dan Brown meets Barbara Pym. Her problem is that the action happens in the shadow of WWI, while the reader knows what is to come.

Lynne’s novels are set in Brighton in 1957. She wanted to go back to a time when her parents were young, and while it’s easy enough to know what was in the cinema at the time, it’s harder to get people to act the way they did. Do you let them swear, or not? The criminals can’t be seen to swear, even if they would have.

And you certainly didn’t swear in the wet Norfolk cottage.

Murder on the other hand is fine. Even of kittens.

What all three authors were annoyed by is that cosy crime is seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’ and as not proper books, and you can’t be funny. This snobbery is so unfounded.

Police in Brighton were notoriously corrupt, and Lynne wanted to write about the ‘relentless idiocy’ of her stupid policemen. She quite enjoys the sexism from the 1950s, meaning the police can’t even imagine that a working class woman could be the villain. But Lynne doesn’t set out to scare people.

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This panel almost fought to chat to each other, and to ask questions, and it was all interesting and fun, and if I ever get one of those ‘who would you invite to dinner?’ opportunities, Catriona, Lynne and Vaseem will be the ones, along with Laura. And hopefully Catriona’s parents. Maybe their friends whom I eavesdropped on outside on the pavement afterwards.

Before that afterwards, there was the signing. I already had books by Vaseem and Catriona, but hurriedly bought Lynne’s book as well. It was that kind of event. Vaseem insisted on taking a selfie with me, even after looking dubiously at my [conventional] camera, realising that no selfies would be coming from that. He had a mobile to hand, and now I’m afraid the internet will explode once that goes on Twitter.

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Catriona remembered the Witch, even after so many months, after just the one review. I might have said I now need extra time in my life to be able to read all her books, but all she could offer was more books… Like the fourth in her trilogy. And she couldn’t speak to me until she’d written down the ‘just arrived’ idea for her new book title on the back of the Bloody Scotland programme.

And Lynne, well, her book on the pitfalls on grammar and punctuation has put her forever in my, erm, good books. It’s like talking to royalty. Her next book will be the impressively titled Murder by Milk Bottle.

Talking about the future, Vaseem clearly has too much time on his hands, as Chopra and Ganesh will be joined by a new series, about a female Indian detective in the 1950s.

I really will need that extra time.

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Women in Gangland

That’s Manchester’s finest, plus a contribution from Lanarkshire. Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller come from Manchester’s troubled north and troubled south respectively, and I have realised I was right to be scared of Marnie when I first met her. Anna Smith – with no exotic name – came more from poverty than the violence the other two were used to.

Mandasue Heller, Brutal

Gently guided through the finer details of gangs by Jacky Collins – no not that Jacky Collins – we spent an hour learning about the seedier side of life. Mandasue came to writing after a life as a singer, after having been attacked in her flat, along with her ten-week-old baby, and feeling fed up with the bad treatment she got from the police afterwards.

Marnie was so bored at work that she decided to write some children’s books, before realising that her language is ‘too foulmouthed and dirty’ for children, and she reckoned that what dead Stieg Larsson could do, alive Marnie Riches could do as well. And she has, with her George McKenzie books followed by her Manchester ones and now more crime on her home ground in and near Hale – ‘where the orange people roam’ – with Tightrope.

It was Anna’s publisher who suggested she try gangland crime, and having read one Martina Cole novel, she decided to have a go. Her character can be described as a ‘much more exciting me.’

An expert on Nordic Noir, Jacky found the books by these three women an eye-opener. They were really dirty and draining; ‘so raw.’

Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller

Referring to Mandasue as the gangland queen, Marnie described her own childhood and how she ended up as the angry teenager from the council estate when she made it to the posh school, and from there to Cambridge. I learned more about her mother, too, and she sounds like quite a woman.

Mandasue started life in Warrington, before moving to Manchester at twenty, and she loves it! Anna knows about the poverty in Glasgow through her work.

Tightrope and Fightback

The way to write about bad characters who do really awful things, is to use humour. In fact, many of the bad people they have met are quite amusing. Sometimes the women are worse than the men. Marnie mentioned two girls everyone was scared of where she used to live.

The first question from the audience was how they felt about women being murdered [in books] and the short answer seems to be that since this really happens, it’s very real. Marnie has also murdered many men (fictionally) and while Anna likes men, she makes bad things happen to them.

Another question was if it’s possible to write about bad men with no redeeming features, and make it work. Admitting to being someone who used to have a massive crush on Darth Vader, Marnie said she writes about serial killers, and that she feels the continuity with their back story is important. She’s afraid someone will ‘recognise’ themselves in her books, and then she told the story of her builders, their criminal past and what you might do with a wood chipper.

Mandasue never writes about real people, but they do come up to her and ask if that was them. One criminal came to an event and said he liked her book, and how realistic it was. As did the undercover cops who used to work where she lived. She said her move away from the city in her latest book, Brutal, was not intentional; she just wrote what was in her thoughts.

She’s been a bit of a serial starter of books, and she described how her changing one line in the prologue, meant that the whole [of her next] book changed. Urged on by her agent, Marnie said she was supposed to mention that the Kindle version of Tightrope is available for 99p. And the next book is Backlash, out in January.

Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller

Unlike last year when Jacky overran, it seems to have helped that she had no watch today, and we started and ended just when we were meant to. This was definitely worth missing the sunshine for.

Icelandic books

I might have mentioned that my Photographer went off to Iceland at a most inopportune time in the book festival period. But, that’s the way it is.

Round about the same time I saw a link to something about Icelandic publishers abandoning covering their books in plastic. I was quite proud of myself for guessing this much (but obviously checked by running the article through Google translate).

Yes, it seems Icelandic books have been appearing covered in plastic, the way I scornfully mentioned in connection with a London bookshop once, who did this covering to make the books collector’s items. (They didn’t appreciate my opinions.)

Anyway, this made Daughter – yes, it was her – pop into a Reykjavik bookshop to check up on the plastic situation. She reported that some, but not all, books were indeed covered.

But her main comment was how expensive the books were. I tried to suggest that Iceland probably is as expensive as Geneva, and for a good reason, but she reckoned it was worse even than Switzerland. It seems that the books just inside the doors were the most expensive, with the cheaper books further in.

What shocked her was that people (=tourists) were buying, what I thought she described as ‘books about sh*tty puffins.’ But my hearing isn’t what it was, and the ‘phone line’ across the North Sea* might not have been at its best. I imagine they were lovely puffin books. Albeit expensive.

Which apparently also went for the Marimekko socks I presumably won’t be getting for Christmas.

Perhaps it was due to the sheer number of prime ministers she came across. All the Nordic ones were there, causing the conference elevators to be out of use, and so was Frau Merkel. There. Not out of use. Whether they shopped for socks or puffin books or anything else I couldn’t say.

*It’s the Atlantic, isn’t it?

The difficulty of buying books

I went to Waterstones. I even went upstairs, despite me saying I wouldn’t (because of the crazy lift). I walked up. And down again.

It was a choice between spending my money on the High Street or online, so I went to the physical shop, stairs and all. I had about six or seven books on my list.

After trying not to fall over the outstretched legs of the family sitting in the armchairs upstairs, in the children’s department, I eventually found Malorie Blackman’s Crossfire. It had a ‘second book half price’ sticker, so I thought ‘Great!’ Because I was buying several books.

But there was no other book from my list.

I hobbled downstairs again and looked for the adult books on the list. Good Omens is not shelved under Pratchett, and after a bit I discovered it under Gaiman. Then I saw one with a nicer cover on one of the tables.

After which I found no more books [from my list].

I know. I could have ordered them online, to pick up in the shop. I just didn’t think I’d have to. They were all new novels by big names. To be fair, they had every single Skulduggery Pleasant book except for the new one. And that was the one I needed.

My next solution was to look for the books in the Charlotte Square festival bookshop. And three of them were available. I deemed one too expensive. It’s a hardback, which I hadn’t counted on. The other two were also hardbacks and so huge I came to the conclusion there was no way I’d walk round carrying them along with my daily burden.

All this makes online shopping quite attractive. I haven’t decided what I’ll do yet.

Farewell to EIBF 2019

Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

This may surprise you, but I occasionally wonder if I’m doing the right thing. In this case the ‘thing’ is children’s books and their authors. But the event honouring Judith Kerr this week, proved to me I was in the right place, and not even crime – the fictional kind – can hope to reach such heights, pleasant though it it.

George Street

There was such a perfect feeling of how good it can be, and I suspect that this is hard to achieve away from children’s books.

And chatting to Chris Close about Judith, I was pleased to find that he too had special memories of her. I was also a little surprised to discover that while he couldn’t instantly recall Daniel Hahn’s name when he walked past, he knows perfectly well what t-shirt Daniel wore in 2010. As you do.

What I was really wanting was to talk to Chris about his photo of Sheila Kanani [in Space], and I like the way he remembers virtually all the people he has shot in his spot in Yurt Gardens. Apparently most of Space this time was made up of St Abb’s Head, which I suppose is the photographer’s ‘bottle of washing up liquid’ in using whatever comes to hand.

Sheila Kanani by Chris Close

When it doesn’t rain, the new style Yurt Gardens is a good place to hang, as proven by the gang of crime writers just round the corner from my sandwich spot. There’s ducks, Chris, and the passing through of many people, who either are very famous, or carrying trays of food. All are important. (Though no ‘Kevin Costner’ this year…)

Ian Rankin and Phill Jupitus

What’s always good in the festival’s second week are all the school children. They have come for the same thing as I have, and often getting the most exciting events combos. I even spied a few teens wearing the authorial blue lanyards the other day. Made me green with envy, that did.

It’s not only old age and feebleness that determines when I attend. Trains have a lot to do with it. They were better this year; partly to do with the new electric rolling stock (pardon me for getting nerdy), and partly because I tried to avoid the worst hours of the day. But when the doors refused to open as we got to Haymarket one day, I learned from the guard that it’s all down to computers now. I wish I didn’t know that!

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

We mentioned teeth in connection with Mog’s nightmares. I haven’t been able to ignore the fact that so many authors also have teeth. Well, I suppose most people do, but I am always struck by the wide smiles, full of perfect teeth. And not just the Americans, either. I’ll be spending this winter practising smiling in front of the mirror, but am not hopeful.

Here’s to EIBF 2020, when we will see more clearly?

Jim Al-Khalili

(Most photos by Helen Giles)

Writing Rhythm

It’s odd. First, I don’t read that much poetry, or go to poetry events. And then in quick succession I found myself in the Spark theatre for poetry, two events running. Also, out of five poets, three are American. But they explained that poetry is big in the US, in a way it’s not in the UK.

Jason Reynolds and Amy McKay

Chaired by Amy McKay, whose flamingo skirt I couldn’t help noticing at the first event (about flamingos), she’d moved on to an equally stunning daisy skirt. And as she said in her introduction of Sarah Crossan, Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds; ‘we are really spoiling you this afternoon.’ They really were. She also knew not to waste time on listing all the great stuff the three have done.

Kwame Alexander

For some reason I’d not realised Kwame wasn’t British, but he’d just moved to London six days earlier, so I was almost right. Brixton has changed in 28 years, apparently. He read his new ‘picture book’ The Undefeated to us, showing the audience the illustrations while he recited his own poems by heart.

This impressed Sarah Crossan, the current Irish Laureate na nÓg, because she can’t remember hers. Maybe it depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re from. She chose to read about Marla and Toffee, the young and the old, and no one listens to either.

Sarah Crossan

And I finally got to ‘meet’ Jason Reynolds, whom I’d not heard of two years ago when I met someone who enthused about him a great deal. At first he gave a fair impression of a sullen teenager while the other two spoke, but once it was his turn,  he sprang to life and you could see why people admire him so much. He mentioned the weather [in the tent], before moving on to gun violence, and talking about how we ‘strap monikers to children so we won’t have to call them children.’

Jason Reynolds

So, anyway, poems are cool in America. Sarah was in luck, writing her first novel while living in the US. According to Kwame poetry is big, but he reckons the publishers don’t know much. He mentioned the impact of Walter Dean Myers, the hero in Love That Dog. Verse novels is quite a new thing, but ‘the kids were already there.’

Sarah is ‘impressed by myself’ and keeps anything she’s written, but edited out, in case she can slot poems in where they are needed. Kwame had many nice poems, but they didn’t go together, so he rewrote.

Jason said ‘it’s my job to keep the rhythm,’ and according to Kwame ‘when it works, the reader forgets it is poetry.’ And he told Sarah that she needs to learn to ‘own her own work.’ She felt that sounded like therapy, and very American.

Sarah Crossan

Kwame went on to mention the American ‘call and response’ to poetry, which is clearly what Elizabeth Acevedo was busy doing a couple of days before, when Dean Atta read from his book. Sarah doesn’t want to manipulate the readers, but Kwame is ‘totally into manipulating’ them… You need to make the world better, and it’s his responsibility to make you feel something. Jason said he’s somewhere between the other two, and manipulation is a dangerous word. ‘I just wanna bear witness.’

Someone in the audience mentioned that with verse novels you don’t have to write the boring bits, which made Kwame quote a secondary school pupil who had described it as ‘the right words in the right order.’

Jason Reynolds

Jason pointed out that writing poetry is like painting with only half a palette, which is harder; ‘really difficult.’ Sarah feels that writing is very democratic, and you only need pen and paper. And it helps if you don’t go to the cinema, don’t have any friends and if you work hard.

Kwame, ‘I steal a lot. Mature writers steal.’

And that was it. The main problem with the event was that it was too short. We could have done with at least another hour. Maybe two. It’s all that poetry, with so few words.

Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if the can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.