Category Archives: Writing

Sitting pretty

It must be old age or something. I need my chairs to be softer these days, despite my built-in padding being quite well-padded. But on that basis, my old desk-chair was not up to it. Worked fine in most respects, but it was hard. Nothing soft about it at all.

I’d say I probably had it for 25 years. Hard to pinpoint exactly, because it looks – looked – much the same as the one before it, so the years blur a bit.

Had tried a new chair at IKEA when I was there last, like a year ago. Kept thinking about how comfortable it had been. So when Daughter drove me to shop a little, I tried the chair out again. It was still nice. But in the meantime, there was an even newer chair on offer, and it was even softer.

So I now have what I never thought I’d go for; a black leather desk-chair, on wheels. It is soft.

And ever so slightly lopsided. But by the time Daughter had built it for me – and it required a lot of building – we were hardly going to take it back, on the off-chance that the replacement would be straighter. And it would have needed building…

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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.

Cymera on the small screen

I have to confess I didn’t know there was going to be live coverage from Cymera on its Facebook page. But it was a nice thing to discover when my knees refused to go out this weekend. Had I known well in advance – about the filming, not so much the knees – I could have planned to make better use of it.

Thus it was that I did that time-wasting staring at Facebook post-cup-of-tea yesterday, and arrived just as Cymera started off on James Oswald, or JD as he was for the weekend, with his Sir Benfro hat on. Not that he wore a hat. But on the very small screen on my phone, the ‘camera eye’ unfortunately sat right on top of his head, leaving only the beard and the pink jacket visible. But I know what he looks like.

(Yes, the image was better on the computer. But it buffered an awful lot.)

JD Oswald and David Bishop

But anyway, I got to see James talking to David Bishop and that’s what I had wanted to do all this time, after discovering he was going to be there, and after reading the first Sir Benfro book.

Much of what he said has been covered in my own interview from four years ago, but I was struck by how James said he now has three books a year to write. Plus being a farmer. And then someone asked what he likes to read! As though the man would have time to read.

Actually, he does, and he listed a number of books, but like me, he forgets immediately, making it hard to recommend books. And he ‘cheats’ by reading audio books when out on his farming duties. It’s mostly fantasy. Seems he doesn’t like reading crime! (So before you send him yet more crime novels for a quote; don’t. Send him fantasy instead.)

There was a somewhat abrupt end to the filmed event, but it was far better than nothing!

Below is the ‘only good’ photo Clare Cain got of the Ghost event with Claire McFall, Rachel Burge and Helen Grant chatting to Sarah Broadley. I imagine they are hearing ghostly voices there. Or something.

Claire McFall, Rachel Burge, Helen Grant and Sarah Broadley, by Clare Cain

And even more below, is another stolen photo from Sunday morning’s event where Moira McPartlin chatted to Sarah Broadley [Sarah does seem to be everywhere, doesn’t she?].

Moira McPartlin and Sarah Broadley

Potions & Poisons

The programme self-destructed. Or so it seemed when I went back to double-check I had the right names and the title for the event. Because, you know, I am old, and I forget.

Tickets for Cymera

Anyway, for my first Cymera event on the first night, it was all potions and poisons, and they were far too cheerful about these dangerous substances. They were Melinda Salisbury and PM Freestone, talking to Laura Lam, and the rule for the evening was ‘no spoilers.’ Unfortunately, this rather cramped their style, as nearly everything they wanted to contribute could count as spoilers.

Apart from having to stop themselves from giving too much away, they seemed to get on very well, laughing like a group of friends out, chatting away about what they write about. I think the audience got what they wanted; they seemed to be knowledgeable about the same stuff, and as they filed into the Upper Hall, they looked like fans too. I know that sounds silly, but they did. Sometimes the, well, wrong people go to events.

I wondered what the bucket was for. One of the volunteer ushers carried around a bucket. Seems it was for money. (I sent mine by bank transfer…)

Pleasance, where the Cymera Festival is doing its thing this weekend was very pleasant. At least if you ignore the lift. I will never ever go in that lift again! Afterwards I was further alarmed when one of the very helpful and polite volunteers came up to me to say the lift was now activated..! I don’t think I want to know.

I arrived early. Again. Was ushered to the lanyard table, where I found Sarah Broadley and Lari Don, and also my nice orange badge. Came across one or two people I knew, including someone who also knew me, but we both agreed that while we had met, we had no idea where or when. LJ McWhirter sat in front of me at the ‘poisonous’ event and had much news to share.

The venue does look very good, nicely decorated, albeit with too many stairs. And that lift. Fashionable café and for the weekend a lovely bookshop stocked with all the science fiction, fantasy and horror you could want. Possibly more.

Crazier by the day

We might as well give up.

I ought to say I’m grateful to my friend who sent me the link to this article (which you really must read) in The Spectator, but considering how awful its subject matter is, am I really grateful? It’s an interesting read; I’ll say that much. But it seems YA literature is in as much of a pickle as world politics. (I hope things will get better, but probably not before it’s got a lot worse.)

Do you remember what I had to say about sensitivity readers a while back? It’s OK, I had no recollection of it myself until I went digging for those occasions when I am in agreement with Lionel Shriver. (Seems I’ve agreed at least twice.)

Apparently you have to be politically correct in fantasy writing, as much as you do in ‘normal’ fiction. If not, you’ll be accused of cultural appropriation. And much as I’d like authors – new and old – to have a spine, I suspect that’s a lot easier to say than to practise.

As for those publishers who withdraw or apologise for causing offence, they really should have more spine. Or at the very least, they could think three times as much before accepting a work for publication, if all that will happen is that braying idiots on Twitter will cause them to take far too many steps backwards.

Some years ago I was visited here by someone looking out for Native Americans. She had many unpleasant things to say about authors who dare write about them without being one of them. I gather she isn’t one herself.

Where to draw the line? Lionel felt that memoirs would be all that was left, but who’s to say that won’t cause offence as well?

I discussed this with the Resident IT Consultant, who brought up Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series. It turned out we had different ideas about where it might be set. If the books are set somewhere vaguely real, that is. But she writes about both black and white characters. So far, as I understand it, people have been pleased that they are about black characters, and written by someone black, too. I don’t think I’ve come across the idea that there should be no white characters in the book. I have no objection to any of the white people in the story.

But what do I know?

Angie Thomas, who has been praised for writing amazing YA books, with mostly black characters, does have white people in her stories as well. You sort of have to, don’t you? I have no experience of life in Mississippi, either as black or white. I have no objection to Angie’s white characters. She mentioned at her event in March that one of the girls was based on a ‘friend’ at school. I can believe that. Not all whites are like her, but some probably are.

The book I reviewed yesterday, Dreamwalker, is fantasy, and features dragons and humans. James Oswald is human. So the question is did he describe the dragons correctly? Does he even have the right to write about dragons?

In Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina we have mixed characters; half human, half dragon. Who, here, has the moral right to be offended for what Rachel did to one of them?

What many authors say to the common question – how do you know about xxx? – is to mention research, and ‘it’s fiction; I make it up.’

I don’t know where this will end, but I am ashamed of the YA bloggers, etc, who feel they have the right to ruin the lives of so many people by being so bloody rude. And insensitive. And other words I could list here but won’t.

Go home!

It seemed appropriate that Joe Dunthorne – an author I know nothing about, I’m afraid – should write in ‘Made in…’ for Saturday’s Guardian Review about setting books in Santiago de Compostela, Tokyo and Oaxaca, but that it wasn’t until he went home to Swansea that he was in the right place.

I once wrote one chapter of a novel set in Los Angeles. I was maybe thirteen. Still haven’t been to LA, but if I had, I don’t believe it would help. Not even if I could write fiction.

When Adrian McKinty returned to Carrickfergus and installed his detective Duffy in the house where he, Adrian, was born, his novels got even better. Nothing wrong with New York, or Colorado, or places you arrive in via a wormhole in space, but you can’t beat your home town.

This week I’ve been reading Christoffer Carlsson’s new crime novel. I won’t review Järtecken here yet, as it’s not out in English. But watch this space.

After four crime novels set in Stockholm, where he lives now, he’s gone home. Home to Halmstad and the woods just outside this town on the west coast of Sweden. And the difference is obvious.

St Nikolai, Halmstad

And, this has only just dawned on me, but I am home too. This is something that I’ve not been able to say about fiction in the past. I’ve never been this much home before. (There was a Henning Mankell where the detective lived near where I have also lived. That felt good. But the story was mostly set elsewhere.)

But now, I’m back in a place that I don’t share with very many friends. I think back to it, yes. Not so much reminiscing with anyone, though.

Sure, Christoffer is thirty years my junior, and he might very well have moved a bus route, lost a head prosecutor and perhaps uses slang that is too recent for the 1990s. But it’s still home.

Much as I dislike woods, I may have to traipse round to his and have a look around. And as one of the suspects says, it’s not very easy to say what you did on a specific date ten years earlier [except he can]. Christoffer has used a date for that conversation, where I can say exactly what I was doing. And so, I dare say, can most of the population of Sweden. That’s a clever way of doing things.

And it’s home. I hope there will be more.

The 2019 Yay! YA+

It was time for another instalment of Kirkland Ciccone’s vendetta against the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday.

Yay! YA+

Only joking. (But if you at first don’t get invited, start your own book festival.) This was the last time at the old Cumbernauld theatre, with great plans for what it’ll be like in the new one. Bistro. With chips. Or so I gather.

After introducing all his authors, Alex Nye, L J MacWhirter, Moira McPartlin, Philip Caveney/Danny Weston, Paul Murdoch and Ross Sayers, Kirkie sent the others off to their respective bars and dressing rooms, while he and Alex stayed in the main theatre for their longer performances.

Kirkland Ciccone at Yay! YA+

Considering that many of the school children who came, are less used to reading and book festivals, it was good to hear Kirkie talk about his own humble background. We got the lot; the exploding council house, his mother’s ‘apple juice’ and his older brother, Scotland’s worst armed robber. Yes, he mentioned the lamp post incident, Kev. And going to collect the benefits Kirkie discovered the library in Cumbernauld and it changed his life, starting with Meg&Mog.

The only reason Roald Dahl didn’t adopt him, despite his repeated entreaties, was that Dahl was already dead. After Dahl and Matilda we quickly covered Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Point Horror, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Robert Cormier, Harry Potter and Twilight and Stephen King. All these were somehow responsible for Kirkland’s own books that have since been released into the wild.

Alex Nye’s turn next, where she took us back to the morning of the roof of Cumbernauld Castle falling down and how Mary Queen of Scots helped tidy up afterwards. Then we were in the snow on Sheriffmuir, in the ghostly tales of Chill and Shiver, before moving on to Glen Coe and Darker Ends.

Alex Nye at Yay! YA+

She bemoaned the fact that not enough Scottish history is taught in Scottish schools, and that it’s more British history. Mentioning the new film about Mary she said it was good, but featured a fake meeting between Mary and Elizabeth I and some laundry. This year Alex has two new books out, one about Mary Shelley and another about children from Syria.

When Kirkie turned up again to tell me that lunch was ready, I ordered him to assist Alex in coming to an end, so that the entire lunch break wasn’t taken up with questions from the audience.

Moira McPartlin and Alex Nye at Yay! YA+

Over lunch I was struck by the fact that out of the eight of us sitting round the table, three had a past in Stockport. Bit of a coincidence. Four if Danny Weston counts as a person… We ate fruit, and discussed the latest phenomenon of how to eat a pineapple. And when the children came with books to sign, the authors were surprisingly badly equipped with pens!

Alex Nye and LJ McWhirter at Yay! YA+

Photos and selfies were taken and books got bought, before everyone was herded back to their bars and dressing rooms for the afternoon. Having sworn never to return to the nether regions of the theatre, I’m afraid I missed Paul Murdoch and Ross Sayers, which was a double shame as they were the ones new to me.

L J McWhirter at Yay! YA+

I began in the bar where L J MacWhirter had music and candles and string lights to help her talk about her book featuring dreams back in the 1500s. She talked about the characters in the novel that took her 15 years to write. L J read to us, until the bell went and it was time to up and change to another author in another bar.

I went to hear Moira in ‘the Fireplace’ where she had bluetacked photos of her inspirations for her characters; Nicole Kidman and Sheila Hancock among them. Moira had purple badges with Celtic knots to hand out, and she told us how she got started writing, being bored when travelling on business. Then she was a runner up in a story competition, where Gillian Philip was a judge, and she told her this was material for a full novel. So she wrote a book.

Moira McPartlin at Yay! YA+

Moira read a piece from the first book in her trilogy, and it sounded pretty good, I have to say. With time for just one question, it was lucky it was an excellent one, about technology in her future. Good children, who paid attention.

Moving to the next bar where Philip/Danny was, I stayed for two talks, seeing as he alternated between his two personalities, and I didn’t want to miss one of them. Danny was born out of necessity, when Philip wanted to go darker in his writing, and the publisher wished to avoid upsetting his fans. And is there anything scarier than a ventriloquist’s dummy? Hence Mr Sparks, which he read in a variety of accents.

Danny Weston at Yay! YA+

By the time Danny became Philip again, he complained his voice was going, but ‘I don’t know where.’ He read from The Slithers, and it was no less disgusting than when I read the book. He reckons that writing fiction is ‘one time in your life you have autonomy.’ There were good questions, and Philip also had a great technique for dealing with the not so good ones, not to mention a way to force unwilling children to come up with questions. This was clearly not his first time out.

Yay! YA+ bookshop

At this point I discovered the bookshop was closed, which was a slight disappointment. I went back into the main theatre and listened to the end of Alex’s talk again, before all the authors congregated down ‘in the pit’ to answer the odd question – very odd, in fact – from Kirkie and the children. Someone wanted to know why they were all so ‘dark.’ It seems it’s what makes writing interesting, so I suspect the time for happily ever after is long gone.

Alex Nye, Ross Sayers, Philip Caveney, L J McWhirter, Paul Murdoch, Moira McPartlin and Kirkland Ciccone at Yay! YA+

The seven/eight signed books and exercise books and bits of paper, and were photographed with ever bolder fans. I saw at least one boy clutching three books, and it gladdened my heart. I will now imagine him sitting at home reading.

Yay! YA+

Carrot topping was discussed at least twice, and I for one am glad Alex still has all her fingers. And then L J went and mentioned Macbeth. In a theatre.

To be on the safe side, Moira drove L J and Philip/Danny to their train and then she gave me a lift home. Let’s hope for the best.