Category Archives: Reading

‘My Mom got me my job’

I’d like to think that Hadley Freeman and I are [almost] the same. She’s just more famous, and mostly gets to interview more famous people than I do, but we both do it for the same reason; to meet people we admire. So that’s why I simply had to attend Hadley’s event for Arvon at Home this evening.

She apologised in advance for any potential interruptions from her young children. There were none, but I’d say she was a little tense, just in case they’d decide to join us. I’d have liked it if they did, and I’m sure most of the others would too.

To start, Hadley read from the beginning of her latest book, House of Glass, about her French grandmother. I’d read about it in the Guardian, so knew it would be interesting, and almost enough to make me want to read something other than children’s books. Deauville is not like Cincinnati. And none of the elderly relatives five-year-old Hadley met on that holiday in France were the type to run around like she was used to doing with cousins.

Having spent something like twenty years on this book, after finding a shoebox at the back of her late Grandmother’s wardrobe, it was interesting to learn how she set about her research and the writing. Her American – but bilingual – father helped with some of the French, while the Polish was done by the wives of her Polish builders at the time.

For the structure of the whole thing, help came from all directions, and as I keep quoting others on, you should always ask your friends. Apart from different coloured files, which is always attractive, you should know your subject completely, but write only what’s interesting and what your readers will want to know. Like the interviews, in fact.

Hadley’s Grandmother and her siblings never spoke of what happened in the war, but they kept everything. It was there for Hadley to find and to read. It took her 18 months to write the book, and the way you achieve this with three children under five, is to have the right husband who does the parenting at weekends, leaving Sundays for writing.

For her second reading Hadley chose her 2015 book Life Moves Pretty Fast. I think it’s about her love for the 1980s, and in particular for 1980s films. And music. Apparently they are better than 1960s stuff, which I can almost believe. (Except for the music.) She herself was surprised to discover that her mother, being the kind who only gives you fruit for dessert, let her discover these movies at a young age.

But then, it was that same mother who sent an early interview to a competition, which Hadley went on to win, and which brought her to the attention of the Guardian, where she has been for the last twenty years. Mothers are good.

Questions, and compliments, from the audience seemed to surprise Hadley. I think it’s time she realises that quite a few of us admire her writing quite a lot. No, scratch that. It’s better she doesn’t, in case it goes to her head.

As you were, Hadley.

Launching Allie

You could tell it has been cold in Edinburgh. For the launch of his new book The Sins of Allie Lawrence on social media, Philip Caveney has walked, or been made to walk, all over the place to be filmed saying stuff about his book. This is good. I reckon authors should be made to work hard. And Philip looks reasonably handsome in a knitted hat, so that’s not the disaster it could have been.

He started by reading from this, his 54th, or maybe 55th, book. He’s been at it for 43 years (which fact made Helen Grant say something less well thought through), so that could be why he’s not counting so well. But at least the flowers in the background were not plastic. Kirkland Ciccone wondered about that.

As you can tell, this launch was well attended by quite a few of Philip’s peers, and it felt almost as if we were meeting in real life. Except there was no cake. Apparently I was meant to do the cake. Oops.

Philip took us round past Söderberg’s and round some fancy apartment near the Meadows, and at least two theatres, plus other Edinburgh sights. It made us all wish we were there.

Once this prancing around town was over, it was question time, with lots of people asking, both from before and also during the event, as well as some recorded questions from three child readers. He likes his covers. In fact, he seemed to have some of them framed on the wall behind him.

‘The ideas will come’, he said ominously regarding where he gets his ideas from. And he does like all his children, I mean books, because if he doesn’t, then how can he expect the rest of us to like them? Good question.

There will be at least three drafts of a book, taking two to three months to begin with. Philip quite fancies being picked by Netflix, and who wouldn’t? His alter ego, Danny Weston, was originally a character in one his early books, and someone he needs for the really creepy stuff. Like his most evil character, Mr Sparks, in the book dedicated to me. Such a relief to know that.

Having autonomy when he writes  might be the best thing about being an author. In fact, if no publisher were to be interested in his books, Philip would still write them. He said something about ‘howling into the void’ but mercifully I have already forgotten what that was about. Sounds desperate. And just think, if his then 10-year-old daughter hadn’t wanted to read his totally unsuitable adult novel, there might never have been these books to entertain, or scare, younger readers.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. He’s still not quite Ray Bradbury (but it can’t be long now), author of his favourite book, the book that changed his life. As to why Allie comes from Killiecrankie, Philip simply needed a ridiculous name. But not even this passed without argument (from a man closer to Killiecrankie than some of us).

That’s book launches for you. All sorts of people attend them.

OK with the UK

I read the book. Of course I did. But only once, with some second glances at certain parts. I’m talking about the book that prepares you for the Life in the UK Test. It’s got a lot of superfluous stuff in it, but stuff which you are encouraged to commit to heart.

Now, over a month later, I still know more about British history than I used to. I trust it will soon go [away]. There were too many years to learn, too many James and Edward and Henry and those others, with numbers after their names. Who killed whom, and what was their religion?

But there were other things I’d read, that helped a lot. Read, as in the past. Because much to my surprise the historical fiction, for children, that I’ve read in a fairly organic kind of way, turned out to be useful. I mean, not just enjoyable. And I remembered it, when I can more often than not even recall characters’ names after a bit.

Useful in that I suddenly came to have gut feelings as to when the Romans did that thing, or the Christians or the Vikings. And I have finally sussed the Marys. Some of them, at least. Bloody Mary Queen of Scots, for instance. Plus that other one. 🙂

So yes, I believe in reading. Not so much the test. Perhaps save people the agony at what is often a difficult time in their lives anyway, and just prescribe each of us a few good British background novels.

To start you off, I recommend Elen Caldecott’s The Short Knife. This book helped with several aspects of people who invaded this country in the past, as well as the people who were already here. Which, I suppose, makes it sound like there were some that could have done with sitting test back then, too.

Travels From my Twilight Zone

You’ll remember Jeff Zycinski and his autobiographical The Red Light Zone, about his years as Head of Radio at BBC Scotland. It was very good, and as I said at the time – barely two years ago – you could remove the radio and you’d have excellent coverage of 25 years of life in Scotland.

Not only has Jeff now been seriously ill, while narrowly avoiding the dreaded virus of 2020, but he has written another autobiography, mostly about the years before the radio years. And it is an even better tale. ‘Morphine, memories and make-believe’ describes it perfectly.

We start with Jeff not being the slightest concerned that ‘it might be mouth cancer.’ Well, it was. So first we see him in his hospital bed, at the start of the year. And while he works on getting better, we read about his early life in Easterhouse, the seventh son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother.

It has completely changed my outsider’s view of Easterhouse, and it has reinforced my feeling that we are all mostly the same. A few years younger than me, and a Catholic boy in Glasgow, it still seems as if Jeff had a childhood I can relate to. It is fascinating in its ordinariness.

He tells it so well, and I’m beginning to believe he could tell me absolutely anything, and I’d believe it, and have fun. So, yes please, go on!

The second part of the book is fiction. Probably. The first story about the man not far from Loch Ness reminded me of Jeff. So, about that money..? All super stories, really enjoyable, and just that bit different from many other stories.

Then we return to Jeff’s health – please stay well! – before he takes us on a trip round Scotland, outlining the best of the places mentioned in the biographical first half. And I hope he has been allowed to hug his children again. Even if they are adults now.

Murder in Midwinter

I do like a good anthology of themed short stories. Especially Christmas themed. There is no murder so lovely as a Christmas one… Hang on, that doesn’t sound right. But you know what I mean.

I hung on to this Murder in Midwinter collection, edited by Cecily Gayford, until I felt Christmassy enough. The stories weren’t all absolutely set at Christmas, but at least in the colder, snowier part of the year. Some are quite old, others a little more recent.

We have some nice blackmail in the family, cunningly devious husbands, as well as the problem with dustbins and strikes. There is the rather sweet – and exciting – story about a boy in care, and then there was the Margery Allingham that made me forget everything and which, while I could sort of guess the direction the mystery was going, I didn’t quite see the last bit coming. That woman was a master of funny, caring, intelligent crime stories, be they long or short.

And give me a snowy, retro kind of cover picture, and I’m yours.

The Wolf’s Secret

The Wolf’s Secret by Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard, beautifully illustrated in autumnal colours by Júlia Sarda, is a romantically traditional tale.

It’s about love, and loss, and about being different. There is a wolf who isn’t exactly like wolves are meant to be, and we find out how he changes when he sees a beautiful young woman in the woods.

He can think about nothing but her singing. Then the day comes when she no longer sings, and he knows he has to do something. But what if she might be scared of him?

Well, you know the drill, something magical helps our wolf to get close, and eventually they both see each other for what they are.

Happiness Is Wasted On Me

Kirkland Ciccone has done that thing which is so often a good move for an author. He has gone home. To Cumbernauld, in fact. Not that he ever left, but in writing his new – adult* – novel, Happiness Is Wasted On Me, he has re-visited his own life. I don’t care how much he says he’s not Walter. This book is home. None of the crazy aliens or the poisoned porridge or exploding schools from previous books.

This story is so simple and so normal, told with less of the fanfare from before, and just getting on with telling the life of Walter Wedgeworth from the day he as an 11-year-old finds a dead baby in a cardboard box, and for the next ten years or so.

Writing fiction by writing what is mostly straight from life makes for very satisfying reading. Walter’s life is horrendously bleak, but it relaxed me, and I don’t even like that kind of thing.

Growing up with his four siblings and a hardworking mother and a scumbag of a father in Cumbernauld, it doesn’t really help to be rather odd as well. His older brother is a delinquent, and his oldest sister finds herself a scumbag boyfriend, the next sister understands Walter best, and then there is his little brother, so much wiser than Walter.

Apart from the dead baby, and the odd murder and lots of drugs and other crime, not much happens. It’s simply life. Walter watches those around him, but is happiest when reading books and drinking tea. If only I’d understood properly this deep fondness for tea.

I can’t recommend Kirkland’s book enough. And I’m not even being polite.

I’ll put the kettle on. (The lockdown must surely end at some point.)

*While possibly not of interest to children, it is in no way so adult that any normal teenager wouldn’t enjoy it. At least the odd ones.

Books? Or beans?

It shouldn’t have to be either or. It needs to be both.

A Facebook friend drew my attention to the Glasgow Giving Tree, where a child has asked for beans on toast, in order not to be hungry. It’s not all right that any child should have to ask for food because they don’t get enough. But it’s especially not all right that it happens so close to home. This is supposed to be a wealthy country. Or so they say.

Well, we know how that discussion went.

And then there’s the new Scottish Book Trust appeal for books to families in need, through food banks such as Cyrenians Fareshare. We need books and we need reading. But we obviously also need food. Both are good for your health.

Several publishers are joining in with gifts of books, which is as it should be. But one can always use more help, more funds. Please consider making a small donation. I just did.

Scottish Book Trust Christmas 2020 Launch at FareShare / Cyrenians, Leith, Edinburgh, 09/11/2020:
Photography for Scottish Book Trust from: Colin Hattersley Photography – http://www.colinhattersley.comcphattersley@gmail.com – 07974 957 388.

‘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!

The Robin and the Reindeer

The time has come to mention books for Christmas. I’ve been sitting on this one for some time, and it is Very Sweet. The Robin and the Reindeer by Rosa Bailey and illustrated by Carmen Saldaña is the very thing you need if you want to feel good about the approaching festive season.

A young reindeer is moving through her first snow with the herd with all the other reindeer, heading south before the weather gets too cold. It’s a bit Bambi, in a way, except mother stays alive and the large male lead reindeer is not her father, but the feeling is quite similar.

She gets lost. But she stays safe because she actually remembers what her mother told her. And then she meets a friendly robin. He is very red, and he agrees to show her the way, and does so by sitting on her nose, shining in a tremendously red sort of way.

Is it real? Or does our little reindeer magically turn into a temporary Rudolf?

Anyway, our reindeer finds her herd again and all is fine. Lovely and wintery and will lead the way to Christmas.