Category Archives: Bookshops

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!

Was happiness wasted on him?

We ‘went’ to Kirkland Ciccone’s book launch this evening. By which I mean we attended the online launch, happening on Facebook, and which Daughter cast to the television, for us to sit in comfort and enjoy.

Well, after some ‘casting around’ for the actual event, we found it, but immediately discarded it, since it was clearly a mistake, what with mad fuzzy lines in colour and then there was some maniac who muttered curses, and fairly loudly too.

Turned out it was the real thing. Very psychedelic, it was. But once our dear host had been messaged to mute his sound, we could actually make out what was being said in his interview with Gillian Hunt at Cumbernauld Library. Well, some of it… And the rest was taken care of by some of the most inspired subtitles I’ve come across in my life. ‘Hommage’ turned into ‘a mash.’ And why not? Kirkie mentioned that he would usually launch his books at Waterstones in Argyle Street, which became ‘our street.’ That too.

He read the haircut episode from the book.

Did I mention the new book? It’s for adults. Hah. It’s called Happiness Is Wasted On Me.

And then he was at home again, Kirkie. He wasn’t sure we could hear or see him, when we could actually do both. Sort of. He kept breaking up, and laughing so much that we decided he’d overdosed on IrnBru. But he was very Kirkie.

He has a playlist that goes with the book, somehow. Daughter warned me never to try listening to it. (As if I would.)

Kirkie is very popular. The event was well attended and we all love him. But next time I’ll insist he takes Daughter’s advice on the technical stuff.

Autumn

I have to say it! I reckon Ali Smith writes almost as well as Meg Rosoff. (Whose birthday it is today. Meg’s, not Ali’s.) It was a piece Ali wrote for the Guardian, probably just before Summer was published, that had me reach towards the buy button, and I ordered Autumn, feeling curious and actively wanting to read some literary adult fiction.

This hardly ever happens.

I felt I should start at the beginning, so Autumn it was. (Winter is already standing by.)

I really, really liked it. Elisabeth is a most interesting heroine, and her passport application is to die for. I wish I could be like her. There is a mother, who at first seemed less attractive, but who grew on me. There is a friendship with Daniel, a much older man, who was great from the start. There are many thoughts about a lot of things.

The whole book, and I say whole, but it’s admirably short, really, is full of fragments, maybe jigsaw pieces, that eventually mostly fit together. There was one piece that didn’t join up, but having cheated and read a description of a later book, I know that my feeling that it would be important, was correct.

I can’t wait.

Except I might. Winter is coming, as I said, but perhaps I will keep Spring and Summer for later. Or not. As the Resident IT Consultant says, it can be sensible to get on the train standing at the platform now. Just in case.

Susanna Clarke was there

No, we would not sit at the back. For this event the teenage Son insisted we descend all the way to the bottom, and front, of the cake slice shaped auditorium at the Gothenburg Book Fair. Uncharacteristically I followed him and actually sat a long way from the door.

This was fifteen years ago. Perhaps not to the day, because the fair happens when it happens, and it just so happens that it begins today. The online 2020 Book Fair. Then, it was our first, and we’d come in search of Philip Pullman, but once he’d been dealt with, we had a list of others we wanted to see.

Susanna Clarke was one of them. The bookshop we used to frequent had a lovely, well-read girl working part time for them, and it was she who had suggested Son might like to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. He did, and he found it good. (I could never quite manage it.)

We both liked her event, and this was so new to us, and Son enjoyed being able to go up and chat to the various English-speaking authors as ‘one of them’. At the time I don’t believe we realised quite how exhausting the public event lifestyle is for an author.

I was made aware of how tired Susanna Clarke was in this Guardian interview the other week, when they spoke to her in connection with her next novel, Piranesi, which is out now. It’s been a long time, but I don’t blame her. Chronic fatigue is not much fun.

So what was the start of a book world whirlwind future for us, was perhaps the beginning of an essential period of rest for Susanna. I’m glad she’s found her way back. I hope the Gothenburg Book Fair does all right, and that we will all meet again at some other live event or book festival, but that we will also take it easy and not overdo things. None of us is getting any younger.

(I almost said older, which proves how tired and confused I am.)

And I like Susanna’s thought that ‘one day, there will be the wardrobe’.

The book’s Böll, Heinrich Böll

Guardian reader Wendy, on the paper’s letters page, pointed me in the direction of Adrian Chiles and his column on bookshelves last week, which I had missed. Because we mostly don’t buy a paper on a Thursday. But that’s what the internet is for, discovering what I missed.

It’s yet another article/post/column on how some of us have too many books, and we don’t mind displaying our groaning shelves to the world via Zoom. Adrian now claims he’s going to get rid of, or actually read, some of his ignored volumes.

Easy for him to say. He’s probably not got a book blog to feed.

But, yeah, it seems his books are not even ones he doesn’t like the look of. And this is true of mine as well. I can comfortably ignore books I really wanted, maybe even bought. In fact, just the other day I was congratulating myself for having a more attractive tbr pile right now, basing it on having bought books, rather than it being only review copies of books soon to be published.

Then there are the books you acquire because someone recommended them, or worse, shamed you into feeling you should read them. That’s where Heinrich Böll comes in. Back in 1972, in my German class at school, one of the boys (we only had three, so they kind of stood out) said he’d had an inkling Böll would get the Nobel Prize, so he’d got a few of the man’s books out from the library to read in preparation.

So, of course, I did the same, only for me it was after the award was made public. But still. I dutifully read quite a few of Böll’s novels, and I’m fairly certain I didn’t enjoy any of them.

I have none of them here. Possibly one or two got left on the shelves belonging to Mother-of-Witch, but again, maybe not. Perhaps I borrowed from the library.

There will have been a few other Nobel laureates whose books I’ve read, but not many. I am cured of needing to keep up with boys in classrooms. And let’s face it, I can prune heavily and still have a most respectable looking set of shelves behind me on Zoom.

Lockdown escapes

So, the other day I moaned about – by which I mean ‘mentioned casually’ – the unlikeliness of seeing authors the way things are. Or even normal people.

The always-willing-to-try new-things Helen Grant offered to come and sit in my garden, and I went as far as to wipe the table and chairs free from bird poo.

I also got my Moomin mugs out, although I seem to need more. We were one short. And I am not saying this in order to make anyone other than me go shopping!

A couple of days ago Kirkland Ciccone – dressed to the nines – went to Oxfam. (When I found out, it was too late to entice him to come and sit in the garden.)

What I particularly like are the bibles. As a background to Kirkie, that is. He was in the ‘Grandmother’s branch’ of Oxfam, and they always do a roaring trade in bibles.

I mean, I’m sure it’s him. It’s a bit of an incognito style. Not everyone can get away with an outfit like that.

Booking a holiday

Maybe you noticed me sneaking off on holiday in August? Or not. Service has been poor, so no difference there.

With no Swedish sea and sand to be had – for me – this was replaced with the beaches of St Andrews and plenty of the famous Scottish sunshine. So that was fine. It was a no-frills home-from-home kind of week. It was right opposite my favourite shoe shop and a few doors down from Waterstones, and not far to the other bookshops or the cheese shop, where it’s possible to spend a minor fortune on cheese. Might have spent a little bit on shoes, too. It just happened, like.

Toppings have too many books, if you know what I mean. It looks gorgeous and the books go all the way to the ceiling, but it’s kind of hard to browse. No room to turn and I don’t bend well – so had to instruct Daughter to bend for me and search among the crime paperbacks right under the table. When I sat down in one of their armchairs, someone came up and offered me tea or coffee within seconds. And I only needed to rest a little…

Didn’t go very deep into the children’s books corner, as I wanted to keep my distance from the mother and child already in there, reading books. Who wants to look at children’s books, anyway? Bought a few adult books, by which I mean non-children’s, not adult adult. Picked ones I could see and reach, so choice was what it was.

In Waterstones I picked a few more, including one standing face-out on a display shelf. Kicked myself afterwards for not having replaced it with a book of my choice, but leaving the empty space empty. Oh, well. Had wanted to browse a few more books, including a look at a second book of a series I wrote about some weeks ago, to see what it was like, but they didn’t have it. In fact, neither shop had what was on my mental list to physically look at when in a real shop.

As we had already done both the jigsaw puzzles in the flat, Daughter bought another one; a Vincent van Gogh. It looked easy enough, but by the end I almost grew to hate it, and it’s long been one of my favourites. Also played Jenga, which didn’t do  much for my blood pressure. What if the whole thing toppled???

There were books in the flat. Not many, but some. Pocket walking guides. Nigella and Jamie and Gordon. I suppose in case guests were wanting to know how to cook dinner.

We watched one film. Casino Royale. The old one. We love it and that’s why it was chosen, but oh dear, how un-pc it has become. I also only read one book, a fairly short one. Seating was a bit uncomfortable, and the lack of reading lamps not good for old witches. I’ll bring one, next time, if only to keep the coffee machine company.

The week ticked all the boxes; sea, sand, sun, ice cream, books, cheese, shoes, strolls through town. The Resident IT Consultant walked a lot more properly, and felt sorry for us, but each to their own, I say. He too came across some books when out.

Zooming in on Caerlaverock

I sat right at the front at the launch of Barbara Henderson’s new book, The Siege of Caerlaverock. Not like me at all, you might think, but I was in front of my laptop, with people zooming in from all over Scotland. Mostly Scotland, I think. The beauty of these online events is that anyone can attend, and I doubt that half of us would have made the trek to Inverness for a traditional bookshop launch.

I could see most of the others, but due to me eating my way through salad and bread and cheese, I kept my camera off. More dignified that way. There seemed to be 33 of us, which is pretty good for a bookshop gathering.

Introduced by Cranachan’s Anne Glennie, we had Lindsay Littleson interviewing Barbara, and Anne shared photos of everything from the ancient tower in Germany near where Barbara grew up, to pictures of Caerlaverock castle where the story happened in real life, in 1300.

Barbara described how she – almost by accident – forced her family to visit the castle on a short holiday, and how she was bewitched by the story of the siege, and photographed every inch of the surrounding area as well as the displays in the museum. She was especially happy when she discovered there could be a female lead, both in the laundress girl Ada, but also the Lady of the castle because the Lord was away. (Did you know castle cooks were always men?)

She created the really evil villain, and perhaps there were one or two spoilers, but luckily I had read past the relevant bits. Just in case you’d rather not hear, I won’t tell you how Barbara redesigned the castle…

Barbara read to us from chapter one, and a bit about the villain, and she knows just when to stop!

After some questions from the audience, it was time for us to gather up our salad bowls and put our slippers back on, taking the lead from Anne. And they won’t mind at all if anyone who reads the book leaves a review on ‘you-know-where’.

The 2020 Edinburgh International Book Festival Programme

I have kept my diary clear. Not knowing what to expect from this year’s online EdBookFest, I felt it was my duty to be prepared, for everything and anything. And there is certainly a lot going on during the usual period at the end of August. 140 online events is very good.

One big difference I am sensing, is that the online aspect means they have perhaps been able to put together a different kind of programme from what we are used to. Now any author from anywhere in the world can take part with few considerations as to travel arrangements, visas and the general cost of going places. So for some that must mean they are able to participate in something that might otherwise not have been possible.

There are not as many children’s and YA events as I’d have liked, but I can see that this is a group of readers who would be less likely to hang out in cyber space for this sort of thing. It’s different if you can actually be there. But I look forward to what there is.

Trying to understand how their promised signings with selected authors will work, but no doubt that will become clearer. Not sure I have the courage to go for an actual chat with an author, so will leave that to the diehard fans of those who will be doing this.

The other kind of chat that is often so nice is when you strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, and in order for that not to be the Resident IT Consultant [in my case] they are organising chatrooms before events. (I’m more used to standing in line in the bookshops, encouraging young readers that they really want to get that book by A Author, at the same time as their accompanying adult is feeling disinclined to let them…)

There was a photo session with Nick Barley, in the actual Charlotte Square this morning. My Photographer was invited, but understandably she didn’t crawl out of bed to be in Edinburgh that early, needing to avoid train travel, and suspecting that parking a car conveniently close was going to be impossible.

So here is a shot of Nick Barley we ‘prepared’ earlier; doing what he seems so good at, which is hanging out with famous people.