Category Archives: Horror

Stirling goings-on

The Bookbug Week‘s flagship event will this year take place only a mile or so away from Bookwitch Towers. Scottish Book Trust’s annual book week for young readers runs from May 16th for a week, kicking off at Bannockburn with a day of, I think, poetry and stuff.

Bookbug

The rest of the programme happens all over Scotland, and the theme this year is international. Songs and rhymes from around the world.

This tallies with what you find in the programme for Stirling’s own Off the Page where, surprisingly, they offer both a German Bookbug session, as well as a bilingual event or two.

You can also do colouring in and design your own coat of arms, along with attending a teddy bear’s picnic. At the other end of the age scale (or so I imagine) is a vintage reminiscence tea party, which sounds really very nice. Except I hope I am not old enough for that sort of thing yet.

Somewhere there are dragons.

In schools (they have all the luck!) you might find Chae Strathie, Janis Mackay, Kirkland Ciccone, Alex Nye, Ross MacKenzie and Mairi Hedderwick.

But despair not, Mairi Hedderwick is also doing a public event. Maybe even two. This ten-day long festival starts on May 6th, and other public children’s events offer Lari Don and Nick Sharratt.

Helen MacKinven, whom I met at Yay!YA+ last week is also doing an event. As are several of the big names in Scottish crime, such as Lin Anderson, Helen Fitzgerald, Denise Mina and Caro Ramsay.

There are many more events and many more authors. And much upset on my part because I will not be going to any of these… The more attractive the event, the less convenient the date (for me).

2016 Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

I swear I didn’t enter Cumbernauld Theatre yesterday morning, uttering the words ‘do you know who I am?’ I merely wondered if they needed to know who I am. You know, similar question.

(I suppose I should be grateful I arrived at all. The Resident IT Consultant was to give me a lift. What he’d omitted to consider was the amount of diesel a pumpkin likes to have in order to go all the way to Cumbernauld. It did. It even got him to the nearest petrol station after, so he could drive home.)

It’s interesting how the meaning of the term YA keeps slipping and sliding. Yesterday I suspected that what it meant was that the books were by young adults, and not just for them. In my mind I categorised the authors present as the teenagers, the debutantes (I know), the old hands (those with three published books) and the grand ‘old’ lady (sorry..!). Kirkland Ciccone had done his best to find authors I’d never heard of before.

Scotia Books at Yay!YA

And when Googling Kelpies Prize winner Alex McCall it is well nigh impossible to find anything that doesn’t suggest he’s an older man who has a lady detective in Botswana, but no, it’s not that one. The other Alex (Nye) also has a prestigious award under her belt, the Royal Mail Award. And organiser Kirkland won the Catalyst prize. Elizabeth Wein has won a number of awards, including the very valuable Bookwitch second best book ever.

Code Name Verity

I’m glad that’s the novel Elizabeth chose to talk about in her session in the bar. Not just because it’s such a favourite, but because I’d not heard her in an event about Code Name Verity before. She read a bit, down in her ‘cave,’ and then she showed the children her silk map, and mentioned that one author who inspires her is Hilary McKay. (Such a wise choice!)

Elizabeth Wein

If you’re wondering why the others have not won prizes, it’s because Victoria Gemmell and Martin Stewart have only just got their first books out (Martin’s not actually officially out, even), and Estelle Maskame is only 18. Not that that should stop anyone.

Estelle Maskame

Estelle was in one of the other bars, where she read the first chapter of what I will probably always call DIMLY, when it should be DIMILY, Did I Mention I Love You? She’s one of these online wonders with millions of hits who has gone on to be published ‘properly.’ Estelle began writing her first book (it’s a trilogy) when she was 13… It’s apparently very popular, and I can sort of see that I’d have liked it when I was 14. And as for becoming a role model for pupils barely younger than herself, I can see how that works.

Martin Stewart

In the third bar was Martin Stewart, more or less stuffed in a fireplace, who also read from his book, Riverkeep. It’s based on the Glasgow Humane Society, which seems to be about fishing people out of the river Clyde; either dead or alive. Martin is a former teacher, who gave up teaching when he was offered a book contract on the basis of a short story he’d written.

Kirkland Ciccone

That was my afternoon in three bars. The morning was spent in the theatre itself where Kirkland introduced Alex Nye, before ‘exiting’ – by that I mean standing just behind the rows of seats – and allowing himself to be interviewed very loudly, drowning out poor Alex and making the audience laugh.

Alex did much the same talk as she did in Dunblane in November, and I think it’s a good one, which works well for a secondary school audience. This time her spooky sound effects worked fine and added a certain something to her ghostly readings. I especially like her 007 and M photograph from Glencoe.

Alex Nye

This ‘failed’ waitress who still hasn’t got the red sports car she craves, got lots of good questions from the children, so now we know she writes accompanied by Kate Bush, and that she admires Marcus Sedgwick (that rather explains the spookiness). Her next book about Mary Queen of Scots will be out in July.

Then Kirkland himself took over and basically did half an hour of stand-up comedy, that no author in their right mind would want to appear after. Luckily there was no one else after the exploding houses of Cumbernauld or Kirkie’s older brother the Tesco robber. He did mention Meg & Mog and Winnie the Pooh, but only to follow with Stephen King and some seriously bad book covers.

He wore his leopard jacket again, and teamed it with failed black hair. Apparently he had been aiming for blue.

Kirkland Ciccone, Victoria Gemmell, Alex McCall, Elizabeth Wein, Martin Stewart

Lunch was nice, with lots of things I’d have liked to eat but couldn’t. Luckily the others made up for this, and Alex Nye did some heroic work on the macaroons. Victoria Gemmell had handbag trouble and spent quite some time jamming an enormous pair of scissors into the zip. I’m not sure if that helped. Kirkie said she ought to give me a copy of her book, but unfortunately Follow Me sold so well that it was decided she shouldn’t. (I gave Victoria my card.)

If you are thinking I’ve not reported on either her or Alex ‘not-Botswana’ McCall, you are correct. Kirkie stashed them down in the changing rooms, and whereas they both returned reassuringly unchanged, I vowed last year not to go down there again. (And after hearing one of the ushers telling me and Alex Nye about their resident ghosts, I feel less inclined still. Alex, on the other hand, looked ready to come back to investigate.)

Alex McCall

I had a little look at not-Botswana Alex’s award winning book Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens, as I’d understood it to be for much younger readers, but if that is the case, I have to consider myself younger. It looked quite promising. And I’d have loved to hear Alex speak. He still looked as young as he is (that makes sense, doesn’t it?), but seemed nice. Perhaps our paths will cross again.

Kirkland Ciccone

There was a sort of book signing at the end. Some of the small venues overran, and some schools had had to leave to get back on time, but there was still a throng of fans in the queue. I decided I was in the way, so escaped into the car park where I was recognised as ‘the witch from last year’ before my newly fed transport arrived for the second time in one day.

Elizabeth Wein

Scream Street – Uninvited Guests

Can’t quite decide whether it’s worse entering a house that is actually a live organism (and most likely not of the friendliest kind), or to have my body taken over by a crazy, and fairly dead, composer.

Let’s face it, neither is the most ideal thing to have happen to you.

But read Tommy Donbavand’s Scream Street, and this is what you might encounter. And if you are a young man, maybe lady, who likes horror mixed with humour (Scooby Doo with vampires, zombies and werewolves), then this should hit the right spot. Anyone with any sense has probably already found Scream Street on television, whereas I have to admit to having stopped watching children’s television with any regularity.

Tommy Donbavand, Scream Street

Apparently this book is based on the television programme, so I don’t know how much they differ from the original Scream Street books, but I don’t think that matters. It’s entertainment!

Scream Street is where ‘being a freak is totally normal’ and in Haunted House the gang of freaky children find a new house, sprung up overnight and – naturally – they enter it. In Wolf Gang it’s time for the music exam at school, and who better to improve a werewolf’s piano playing than Wolfgang van Mozhoven? Except he’d quite like a body, so he can compose a bit more music…

Give it a go! (Unless you are as easily scared as Mr Watson, father of the werewolf. I don’t think his nerves will last long. If he ever had any.)

When Philip met Danny

It’s all my fault. I wanted to ask Danny Weston a few questions on his winning the Scottish Children’s Book Award last week. But then I had this – I thought – brilliant idea. So I asked Philip Caveney if he’d have a go and do the interview. I might get better questions that way.

I’m so sorry.

“The brief was very straightforward. ‘Get an interview with Danny Weston,’ she said. ‘Go to his house and get him to talk.’ It sounded easy enough.

But it wasn’t as simple as I might have imagined. For a start, it wasn’t to be at his apartment in Tollcross; that would have been too easy. No, it was to be recorded at his ancestral home in the Highlands, a big rambling Victorian construction out in the sticks and the only way to get there was to hire a pony and trap at the local station. There followed a long, slow ride across the moors and the aged driver, a grey bearded fellow with a wizened face, clearly wasn’t in the mood to make polite conservation.

‘Do you know Mr Weston?’ I asked him and he gave me a long, withering look.

‘Aye, I know him,’ he said darkly, and spoke no more.

When we finally arrived at the house, I asked the driver if he’d wait for me but he simply shook his head and set off back in the direction from which we had come, whipping up the horses into a near gallop. Charming, I thought. The ancient front door of the house was ajar. I pushed it open and stepped into the hallway. There were no lights on within and the place smelled of decay and neglect. I shouted Weston’s name and my voice seemed to echo throughout the house but there was no reply.

I was obliged to wander disconsolately from room to room until I finally found him sitting in what looked like a library, surrounded by shelves of mouldering books. ‘What kept you?’ he snarled and indicated a vacant seat in front of him. There was no offer of refreshment after my long journey so I settled myself down, thinking what a poor host this man was. Perhaps everything I’d heard about him was true.

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I switched on my voice recorder. ‘You must be pleased,’ I ventured. ‘After winning the Scottish Book Award and everything.’

‘Delirious,’ he said, but his expression remained grave.

‘But it must be nice, surely? After all, this is your first attempt at a novel…’

There was no reaction to that, so I decided to dispense with the niceties and asked him a few questions about his childhood. I was amazed to discover that the two of us had rather a lot in common – both of us had fathers in the Royal Air Force, we had spent much of our childhoods in boarding schools and both of us acquired the overpowering urge to write in our teens. Astonishingly, we were inspired by the very same book, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. ‘I’m not always banging on about it like you, though,’ he muttered ungraciously. I let that one go.

‘So what attracts you to such dark stories?’ I asked.

He looked annoyed at the question. ‘Your stories aren’t exactly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,’ he growled.

Fair point, I admitted, but… a vengeful ghost haunting two young evacuees on Romney Marsh? And the new book, Mr Sparks… a twisted ventriloquist’s dummy who outlives his operators? Where do these strange ideas come from?

He gave me a scornful look as though he thought I should have known better than to ask that question.

‘Is there anything new in the pipeline?’ I asked. I was floundering here.

‘There will be a new story along in September,’ he said. ‘The Haunting of Jessop Rise…’

‘See, right there,’ I interrupted him. ‘That’s clearly not going to be a laugh riot.’

‘Young readers love to be scared,’ he assured me. ‘And little wonder! What are the very first stories we give them? Little Red Riding Hood… Hansel and Gretel… These are horror stories and they are of course, thrilled by them, as soon as they’re old enough to understand words.’ He gestured to a shelf of books to his left. ‘It’s not as though you’re unfamiliar with the idea yourself, after all.’

I was astonished to see a whole row of my old titles residing there. ‘What about your Edinburgh trilogy?’ he asked me. ‘As I said before, your books are not all sweetness and light are they? In Crow Boy you deal with the bubonic plague. And Seventeen Coffins features the serial killers, Burke and Hare.’

I was frankly astonished. ‘I had no idea you were familiar with my work,’ I said.

‘My dear fellow, you are one of my biggest influences,’ he assured me. ‘After all, we have so much in common.’

‘Some of my books are lighter in tone,’ I protested. ‘The new book, The Calling, for instance, that’s about all the statues in Edinburgh, coming to life for one night a year. It’s quite funny in places…’

‘… and also features a brutal kidnapping,’ he interrupted. He raised his eyebrows. ‘The publishers sent me a proof copy,’ he added by way of explanation. Then his expression changed to one of annoyance. ‘Isn’t this supposed to be about me?’ he snapped.

‘Oh, er… yes. So… Jessop Rise. Tell me a bit about that.’

‘It features all my favourite things,’ he said, looking animated for the first time. ‘Ghosts. Children terrorized by things that go bump in the night. An ancient supernatural being. Oh yes, and a really cruel villain.’ He smirked. ‘There’s one scene where…’ He leaned closer and whispered something into my ear. I blanched. I’ve been writing for something like 40 years but that…. that was going too far.

He grinned at me, his face ghoulish in the already fading light. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked me. ‘Have I offended you? Are you shocked?’

‘Not at all,’ I said but I was beginning to feel distinctly nervous. I was uncomfortably aware that it was already getting late and I had no transport arranged. I glanced at my watch.’ ‘I er…. really should be getting back,’ I murmured. ‘I was wondering if you had a phone number for the coachman at the station.’

He smiled grimly, shook his head. ‘There are no phones in this house,’ he said. ‘And even if there were, the old man wouldn’t come all the way out here this late in the day. Not after what happened last time.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to walk back. Unless of course, you’d like to stay in the guest room for the night? The sheets haven’t been changed in several years and there’s been an invasion of slugs, but if you’d prefer to…’

‘No thanks,’ I said, a little too quickly. ‘I’ll walk. I… could do with the exercise.’

‘As you wish.’ He picked up an oil lamp from the table and handed it to me. ‘You’ll need this,’ he said. ‘To light your way. But a word of warning. Whatever you do, stay on the track. And make sure you keep your gaze fixed on the way ahead…’

It took me hours to get back to the station, by which time it was dark and the moon was up. The place was absolutely deserted. Sitting alone in the ancient waiting room by the light of the failing oil lamp, I wondered if I had got enough from Weston to actually write up the interview. I took out my recorder to listen back to what was on there.

There was nothing. Not a single word – only a deep rasping chuckle. And then, without any warning, the lamp went out.”

2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards

I encountered Elizabeth Wein at Stirling station as I caught the train to Glasgow yesterday morning. We were both heading to the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘I missed my train,’ she replied, which might have been true, but I wanted to know why she missed it in Stirling, seeing as Elizabeth has her own perfectly good railway station from which to miss trains. I met ‘Mr Wein’ who is very nice, but unfortunately I gave him the wet handshake. Sorry! I wasn’t expecting to be socialising that early.

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We made it to the Glasgow Central Hotel, along with 1000 children and most of the shortlisted authors for this year’s award. Not having missed ‘my’ train, I arrived just in time for the photoshoot, where school children posed with their favourite authors. We were only a little bit in the way of hotel staff and their drinks trolleys and things, and there was an umbrella in my way and my camera stopped working for a bit, and someone mistook Elizabeth’s lovely book for photographic support…

Black Dove, White Raven - 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

I repaired to the Green Room, managing to lose most of my marbles on the way. Apologies to anyone subjected to my complete lack of conversational skills. (Age and sleep deprivation, I reckon.) Chatted to ‘Mrs Danny Weston’ and Lindsey Fraser, who was there representing Joan Lingard. I turned down the kind offer of exclusive interviews in place of informal gossip. And not every event has someone whose job it is to go round hunting for The Blue Feather. (Never discovered if it was found.)

Refreshed by a cup of tea, I went to the awards ceremony for the Older Readers, where Danny talked of [non-pc] battleaxes, and of wanting to terrorise children, which he did very nicely with a picture of ‘those dolls.’ Elizabeth impressed the audience with a photo of herself on top of an airborne plane. Lindsey took a photo of us to show Joan, and described how Joan uses an iPad for all her research.

Two students did an interview with the authors and there was a Q&A session, which revealed how Danny runs after his characters with a notebook in his hand, to see what they will do, and Elizabeth said she always has to tell her book cover artist that they’ve got the wrong plane… There were prizes for best book reviews (they won an author!), and then there was the Scottish Children’s Book Award which went to Danny Weston for The Piper. He thanked his wife, his editor Charlie Sheppard and his ‘friend’ Philip Caveney who taught him everything he knows.

Elizabeth Wein at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

Having brought loads – well, five – books to be signed, I joined the queues and was given a model plane to make by Elizabeth. Danny’s queue was too long so I went for lunch instead. Found Gillian Philip tackling the sandwiches, and we talked about motherhood and kelpies. Elizabeth Laird asked who I was, so I explained that I’m the one who always emails her after every event. She wondered if she ever writes back, and I assured her she always does.

The other morning session, which I had to miss, was for the [youngest] Bookbug Readers, and the winners were Simon Puttock and Ali Pye. Simon will be carrying his prize around for a couple of days, until he gets home. While ‘Mrs Weston’ secured sandwiches for her hubby I went and joined his queue, which had shrunk a little. Elizabeth Wein was interviewed on camera by someone, and I had the pleasure of witnessing another wet handshake, so at least I’m not the only one.

Danny Weston at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

The Younger Readers award session started after lunch, with host Fergus introducing Gillian Philip, Liz Laird and Ross MacKenzie. When Fergus said they were going to read to us, they rebelled and said they were not. They’d decided to do things differently. (Good for them!)

Gillian talked about island holidays, cliffhangers, Saturday cinema and had a photo of the cutest puppy in a teacup. Her – very – early work consisted of many three-page books. Liz talked about Ethiopia and the running everyone does there, and mentioned the Emperor’s lion in 1968, and said she wasn’t guilty of that murder she was accused of. She also writes her books on the backs of used paper. (My kind of woman.) Ross described how you can find magic shops almost anywhere if you just look closely, and said an early reading memory was The Witches at school.

2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

After a very successful game of Consequences (it’s funny how funny those little stories always are), it was time for more prizes for reviews (another author), as well as a prize for best book trailer (most professional). And then Ross MacKenzie went and won his category of the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards for The Nowhere Emporium. He did the usual, thanking his parents and his wife and his children and all those other people he might have forgotten.

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The children queued up to have books signed, and I went to find a train to take me home. Which means I didn’t take any more of my failed photos of Liz. I suppose there’s always next time.

A launch in the dark

I didn’t notice the flamingos in Santa hats as I arrived. Maybe they turned up while I was inside Dunblane library on Thursday evening helping launch Alex Nye’s new book Darker Ends? There would have been room for them as well, but only just. I rarely see libraries this full, so it made for a nice change.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

Despite it being a dark and rainy night, and despite Dunblane deciding to have its Christmas market on the very same evening, people flooded to the library. It was Alex’s third launch (for this book), after two large affairs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. And I believe she was planning yet another for the other Dunblane library yesterday.

There’s no stopping some people.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

After wine and crisps and things, and a kind of library quiz for the younger ones, we were plunged into darkness. I’d ‘reserved’ a comfortable seat early on, but many sat on the floor. They were mostly the sort of age where you can sit on the floor. There were a few beanbags as well.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

Alex talked about the iceberg of writing. At book festivals you see only the tip of the [author] iceberg, the success and the smiles and everything. Then there is all the bad stuff, the lack of confidence and the uncertainty, the hard work. She knew from a very early age that she wanted to be a writer, and she had a supportive family. But unlike with other jobs where it’s clear what route you have to take to get there, it’s not quite as simple for the wannabe author.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

She won a writing competition at 16 with a story titled A Mould of Flesh, and she still has the book it was printed in. Alex came to Edinburgh, found she loved Scottish history, and wrote a novel about Mary Queen of Scots, which no one wanted. (It is about to become her fourth published book, after Darker Ends.) After some travelling, she returned to Scotland, living on Sheriffmuir, which is where she set her first two novels, Chill and Shiver.

Accompanied by spooky sound effects, Alex talked about the inspiration for Darker Ends, and she read us a couple of excerpts, finishing just as Rory lost his balance in the window…

Alex does a good line in accompanying photos, from childhood pictures of her siblings and the dogs, to the photograph of her and her husband in Glencoe when she’d just discovered the setting for Darker Ends. (Although, if you ask me, they looked more like Daniel Craig and Judi Dench.)

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

Her publisher, Clare Cain, had a table groaning under copies of the book, which sold well, and judging by the happy crowds and the fact that they were able to ‘borrow’ the town’s official fireworks and everything, I’d say it went pretty well.

And the flamingos looked nice.

By the time it was too late I realised that I never took a picture of Alex herself, apart from the one in the dark. So you can have these tired guys instead. They had clearly been overwhelmed by all that reading and needed a rest.

Alex Nye book launch at Dunblane Library

W.A.R.P. – The Forever Man

That FBI. It gets everywhere, including the 17th century. But that explains a lot, actually. And it’s lucky they wear those fetching overalls, with the letters on the back, so you will know it’s them. And there is always one more wormhole through which any combination of characters can fall, to some time other than their own. Quantum foam. Hah.

Yes. So Eoin Colfer thought it’d be more normal to write about time travelling FBI agents than leprechauns. It’s easy peasy getting your head round tunnelling dwarves and foil-clad centaurs, but my head always gets confused when it tries to think about time travel. Like, if so-and-so did this then something would/would not happen. And you mustn’t meet yourself.

Eoin Colfer, The Forever Man

I enjoyed The Forever Man, which is the last instalment of Eoin’s W.A.R.P., the time travel-based witness protection scheme which put people safely in Victorian London. I wasn’t sure I would, as the time travel slipped back to Cromwell’s days – which I’m not keen on – and Riley’s old boss was going to reappear. I’d really hoped to have seen the last of him. But that strange thing happened; where you find yourself almost fond of the baddie, because you go a long way back and familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.

So – the now unkillable – Garrick is back, and his latest hobby is to burn witches at the stake. And he decides Agent Chevie is a witch. Riley needs to free her, but the trouble is that he and Garrick know each other so well, that it’s almost impossible for one to trick the other. Luckily the FBI has one or two tricks up its sleeves, and not everyone in this witch-hunting village believes that burning witches is a marvellous idea.

This is exciting, and romantic – yes – and funny. It even restored my faith in the FBI.

Eoin; please consult me if you need more timetravelling Swedish bores. Sorry, boars. Or similar. Especially if they are to be called Olaf.