Category Archives: Writing

RED 10 Book Award 2015

As I was hinting earlier, I made it to Falkirk and its 10th book award, with badge and everything (And yes, I know it says 2015. They do these things out of sync.) I rather expected to just make my way in unnoticed, and having been before, I’d know where to go. But superwoman Yvonne Manning who runs this show, was there to welcome me, give me my badge and tell me I had to have a cup of tea. (Once she’d turned her back, I was able to ignore the tea.)

RED awards Falkirk, Keren David and Lari Don

I found all four shortlisted authors – Gill Arbuthnott, Keren David, Lari Don and Ria Frances – in the lounge part of fth, and chatted to Keren and Lari, who repeatedly checked with me whether I knew the other one. Introduced myself to Gill, and we decided we had actually spoken before. I even ended up talking to the Provost, who’s at the end of his second five year stint of provosting and attending book awards. Agents Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross had braved Gertrude to be there for their authors.

When it was time, Yvonne started things off, wearing tartan tights and red skirt and a special RED 10 t-shirt. Red noses were found under chairs and prizes handed out and more prizes promised. Ten schools in nine other countries had been sent the shortlisted books to read, and some of their comments were read out.

RED awards Falkirk, Ria Frances

And then, it was time for the dramatised presentations of the books, by the schools who had taken part. This involved the accidental dropping of a baby on its head (it was ‘only’ a baby doll). Much hilarity ensued and later I witnessed the doll actually being autographed…

The prizes for the best reviews were handed out, the overall winner’s review was read aloud, Yvonne swirled round in her magic red coat and Provost Reid hitched up his trouser legs to show us his red socks. So it was all quite serious stuff.

RED awards Falkirk

We had a coffee break (you need this when the award takes all day to be awarded). We discussed lukewarm hot drinks (don’t ask!), I let Lari use my very tiny Swiss Army scissors, and I returned to my seat to find the school behind me having ‘spilled’ their drinks on my row of seats. I think we can assume a good time was being had by all.

RED awards Falkirk, Keren David

The authors’ turn to entertain came next. They each had three minutes to say something profound. Gill said she made her character Jess to act braver than she was. Keren mentioned that she’d had a completely different end in mind for Salvage. Ria’s book got written at night, when she suffered from insomnia, and she told us about Albert Göring, who was a better guy than his brother. Lari explained how surprised she was to find herself writing a YA book, which she’d never expected to do.

We had a second round of dramatised books, and I decided on the spot that the one for Mind Blind was by far the best, and it had a lovely cardboard van for kidnapping characters in. There was at least one flying potato and an amusing kelpie.

To celebrate the past nine winners of the RED award, some schools had made designs for a quilt, which was then practically singlehandedly sewn by Anne Ngabia from Grangemouth High. The very beautiful quilt was held up for us to see by two extremely unreliable stagehands,  while Anne told us about the batch of 3000 books she has just packaged up for Kenya, and how helpful we’d all been. (You’re welcome.)

RED awards Falkirk, Anne Ngabia

Lunch came next, and I managed to sit with and chat to Keren and the Provost, with Lari and her agents joining us after a bit. I believe Lindsey had a dog to walk first. I learned a lot about Falkirk, and politics, from Provost Reid who, while proud of his town, could understand why my first time (in 1973) I took one look at the place and left again.

RED awards Falkirk, Ria Frances

After they’d eaten, the authors had books to sign, with long queues snaking in front of them. Even the Provost queued up.

RED awards Falkirk, Gill Arbuthnott and Provost Reid

RED awards Falkirk, Gill Arbuthnott

More prizes. Prize for best dramatisation, prizes for best red clothes. Apparently someone even wore red contact lenses. My favourite was the boy in the red tutu, but the Cat in the Hat girl was very well turned out too.

RED awards Falkirk

RED awards Falkirk

Q&A followed, with a rapid pace for questions, very ably controlled by two teachers (I think) with a nice line in comments about the pupils. Gill wants her readers sleepless as they wonder how the characters will fare, and she couldn’t give up writing. It would be like giving up eating. Ria started her career with some early praise from a teacher at school, and Lari says she absolutely must edit what she’s written. Keren reckons the first draft has to be rubbish or it can’t be edited to become really good. The beginning matters more than the ending. As for weird questions from other readers, Gill said she wants to be a cat, while Ria once went dressed as a mermaid, and Keren got asked what hair products she uses…

Getting closer to the big moment, but first Yvonne had to be thanked, so she ran away. (She is a bit crazy like that.) Provost Reid entered in his official – Father Christmas style – outfit, red all over, and flowers had to be handed over to Barbara Davidson who made the prize, and the press photographer also got flowers, and as the Provost waved the large red envelope around, he thanked the ‘shy and retiring’ Yvonne for her hard work. Organised stamping from the audience.

And a bit more stamping. And the winner is: Lari Don, for Mind Blind. (Very worthy, if I may say so.)

RED awards Falkirk, Provost Reid, Lari Don, Gill Arbuthnott, Ria Frances and Keren David

Lari’s unprepared speech was admirably short and sweet, just the way we want it. Before the authors were spirited away, there was a lot of posing for photographs, with the prize, and the Provost, and the little red cardboard van.

RED awards Falkirk

I got on my broom and headed home.

He’s no Olaf

OK, so anyone, just about, could be called Olaf. In principle, anyway. But occasionally I feel there are more unfortunately named Olafs in non-Nordic language fiction than there are actual boys in Sweden, bearing that name.

Yes, Sweden. If you at least could make Olaf Norwegian. If you did, I wouldn’t even know what age he ought to be. (Although someone else would.)

There are skills in naming people. In your own language, or more narrowly, within your own area, you probably know who might be called what, and how old they are likely be.

I don’t know whether to blame Olof Palme. There are two main facts about this former prime minister. One, his name was Olof. Not Olaf. And he was ‘old’ even when he died, by which I mean a boy Olof would not be someone today. But there is a real fondness among authors for naming their Swedish characters Olaf. As they have every right to do.

The other thing that sets my teeth on edge is a surname ending in -[s]sen. Doesn’t matter if it’s single or double s. If the letter e follows, they are either Danish or Norwegian. Originally, I mean. I went to school with a Jensen, who was pretty Swedish, apart from his Danish passport.

Sweden has so very many -sson names that it’d be a shame not to use one of them. Johansson, Nilsson, Svensson, to list but a few of the very commonest. (This is why I can’t take Scarlett Johansson seriously.)

If in doubt, ask a Swede. Find a phone directory if possible. Try to avoid the immigrant names. I believe Philip Pullman found Serafina Pekkala in a phone book. Wise man, because it rings (pardon) true. At least to me, who will have to count as a foreigner in this matter.

Booked – Elizabeth Laird and Daniel Hahn

Booked

As Janet Smyth – who organises the children’s books programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – said yesterday, away from August and Charlotte Square it can be a lot of fun to revisit events and ideas in greater detail. So that’s what they are doing, with a programme under the [extremely clever] title Booked. What’s more, we are no longer suffering from bookfest fatigue.

The Bookwitch seat

I arrived at Assembly Roxy with plenty of time, and as the first one there (I know…) I was not only given the choice of best seat, but was more or less led to the most comfortable seat in the place, which happened to be a high-backed leather armchair [with just the right support for an ouchy back] which I sat down in and then simply never left. (Feel free to copy this idea at other venues.)

My back and I had come for Elizabeth Laird in conversation with Daniel Hahn, on the occasion of her nomination as the UK representative for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen award. This IBBY book award is a global one, which looks at an author’s whole body of work. Liz has written around 30 novels, translated into about 15 languages, and she has lived in several countries, including Malaysia, Palestine and Ethiopia.

Asked how she feels about her nomination, Liz said it’s ‘absolutely stunning!’ She spoke of having a couple of her books translated into Arabic, which led her and Daniel to talk about the way so many children’s books in English are translated into other languages, as witnessed by them at a big book festival in Tehran. And Daniel compared this to the relatively few foreign books that are translated into English.

Janet asked if you have to be dead to make it into translation, and he said yes, or you are Cornelia Funke. From his own childhood he knows that children don’t care (possibly don’t know) that books are foreign. He grew up with Moomin and Asterix, and feels that publishers worry too much about what you can put into a book, in case it doesn’t translate well, and this goes for the illustrations too. As for the difficulty of translating rhyming verse, he says that doesn’t seem to stop Julia Donaldson’s books from selling abroad.

Liz said we don’t want child characters who do what their parents say, and Daniel pointed out that’s why we have so many orphans in books. As an example he mentioned James and the Giant Peach, where the parents are killed by a rhinoceros on page one; presumably because Roald Dahl felt he had to get it over with.

Children will engage in a story, and offer hope, endurance, forgiveness and love. Liz likes happy endings, and said that she wants to write hopeful, if not happy, endings. Children’s books should be something to remember as an adult. These days we have emasculated stories, making Grimm and Noah into tame versions of the original stories, in order not to upset.

Daniel Hahn and Elizabeth Laird

When it came to the Q&A, no one knew what Hans Christian Andersen did when he visited Edinburgh. (Did any of you see him?) Daniel reckons this keen but neurotic traveller probably worried about losing his passport, and that he would have had a rope in his luggage, just in case. And he’d quite like to be able to read HCA in Danish.

Asked for a racy story, Liz told us her favourite about the beautiful girl and her silly husband, equally silly father, and hopelessly silly neighbour.

They talked about Liz’s book A Little Piece of Ground, which is about football in Palestine, and she finished by saying she’s not ‘holding her breath’ as regards winning the award.

I think she could. Should.

Elizabeth Laird

There was a signing afterwards, but not before Liz had rushed to put her warm coat on, as she must have been freezing up there on stage. I finally cornered Daniel with my copy of his Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, ‘this lethal weapon, a nightmare,’ and it has been duly signed.

Daniel Hahn

Stirling Literary Society

The Resident IT Consultant had been a couple of times, but I needed something special to tempt me out on a wet and dark Monday night, so it was my first time. Stirling Literary Society meet at The Smith [local museum] once a month, and the thing that got me out of the house was Scottish Children’s Literature. Dr Maureen Farrell from the University of Glasgow drove through floods to tell us about it.

When she realised that her degree didn’t cover any Scottish books Maureen decided to do her PhD on Scottish children’s literature, but was dissuaded because it was thought there wasn’t enough material for a doctorate… (I was unsure in the end if she went ahead with it anyway, or not. But whichever way, Maureen knows a few things about those non-existent children’s books.)

In the ‘beginning’ there were books, and some children read them. And there were chapbooks, sold by travelling chapmen. In the 18th century James Janeway published A Token for Children. Often books were written by puritans who wanted to educate, and needed to use language accessible to children. As early as 1744 there were ‘magazine giveaways’ with balls for boys and hoops for girls.

Then we had Sir Walter Scott. Naturally. He wrote a book for his grandson, but as a ‘very wordy writer’ it probably wasn’t all that easy to read. But he enjoyed it so much he wanted to give up writing adult books. The first proper children’s book in Scotland seems to have been Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House, where children played and were naughty.

Maureen Farrell’s criteria for what counts as Scottish literature are books by someone Scottish, set in Scotland or about Scottish people. If not, we couldn’t lay claim to J K Rowling or Julia Donaldson.

There wasn’t really time enough to talk even quite briefly about most Scottish authors. Maureen galloped past Treasure Island, The Light Princess, Peter Pan, and on to Theresa Breslin and Eric Linklater, explaining what the Carnegie Medal is (very elderly audience, but maybe not necessary?), Molly Hunter, Joan Lingard, and she showed us covers of lots of books, including The Wee Free Men.

She described the beginning chapter of Nicola Morgan’s Fleshmarket, and I decided I could possibly avoid fainting if I was lucky. Jackie Kay cropped up with both fiction and poetry, local author Rennie McOwan got some attention, as did Mairi Hedderwick and Debi Gliori.

And then there were the books in Scots, of which she had many to show us. I particularly liked Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which became The Eejits.

I reckon you can deduce that there’s enough for a PhD there, somewhere. We could have gone on for hours and only skimmed the surface. There was a lot I knew about, obviously, but there was also quite a bit I didn’t, because I was never a small Scottish child, unlike others in the audience who had strong and fond memories of many of the books mentioned.

Shetland Noir – the stories

They really went to town with their misused kitchen utensils. I’d say, never encourage a professional killer. They have enough horror to offer as it is.

I would like to say I enjoyed the little leaflet with the top three stories from the Shetland Noir writing competition. But enjoy isn’t quite the word I’d use.

Runners-up Matthew Wright and Marina Marinopoulos went for very bloody scenarios indeed. Kitchen utensils make you think kitchens, and from there it’s not far to food, and… Well, you get the picture.

Whereas winner Helen Grant was more restrained, if only by comparison. She has a gory corpse. She has made ‘good’ use of her kitchen utensil. I’ll say that for her. And I could sort of see where this story must go, which isn’t a bad thing. It built up the suspense quite nicely.

The Beach House, as her story is called, is all about death in a beautiful place. That makes it worse. I can visualise where the house is, and I can see the corpse, even though I’m trying not to. I’ll have to work on unseeing this at some point.

DSC_0869

If Helen were to change paths and kill in the adult world from now on, I reckon she’d do it well.

Shetland Noir, only once removed

I’m the kind of witch who can recognise Denise Mina from behind, out of context (i.e. not at some book festival). On the other hand, my Shetland Noir representative, Helen Grant, had no idea who this ‘tremendously likeable’ woman was, gorgeous black furry boots and all. They travelled on the same plane, which despite it being Friday the 13th suffered no mishap, which is lucky for Scottish crime and its future. Helen did know the other crime writer at the airport, though, as she had been at Oxford with MJ McGrath.

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Helen was on her way to Shetland to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy for writing the winning short story – The Beach House – from, as it turned out, the very hands of Jimmy Perez, aka actor Doug Henshall. Not bad for a simple misuse of a kitchen utensil. (I can just see how he stands there muttering, ‘not the cheese grater. Please not the cheese grater!’)

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Strangely (!) Helen was quite keen to see a bit of beautiful Shetland while she was there, so apart from the grand reception and award thing on the Friday night, she ‘only’ went to two events, but they both sound really good. Also very female, because as we know, women scare and kill best. Just look at Helen herself.

Donald Anderson, Jacky Collins, Mari Hannah, Denise Mina, Ann Cleeves and Alexandra Sokoloff

There was a panel on the benefits and pitfalls of screen adaptations, with Alexandra Sokoloff, Ann Cleeves, Denise Mina and Mari Hannah, chaired by Jacky Collins. It’s apparently a bit like adopting a baby, and learning to step away. Ann Cleeves had Vera Stanhope adapted after the producer picked up a copy of her book in Oxfam.

According to Alexandra, who has a past as a screenwriter, in America television does sell books, whereas Ann recognises that viewers might not be readers. Denise has had a very successful adaptation made from her book, totally authentic down to the 1980s Irn Bru sign on Central Station.  And on the benefits of adapting a book, Denise said that we love books – ‘That’s why we’re all dweebing out when there’s a perfectly good craft fair on.’ The book is the real connection with another human being.

Jake Kerridge, Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar

The cheerfully named Killer Women is a London-based group of female (obviously) crime writers, which started as a social group, but now meet to discuss murder as well. In Lerwick Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar spoke to Jake Kerridge about women in crime, both as writers, detectives and victims. Apparently if the victim is male he must suffer as a spy or at war, and not in a domestic setting.

MJ McGrath enjoys turning things round, like having a female detective instead of just as the sidekick. Her male detective breeds lemmings, in order to replace those who jump off cliffs… Louise Millar has interviewed people affected by crime, several years afterwards, to learn of the long term effects. And MJ interviewed some Hell’s Angels after a murder. She felt that being a woman was an advantage in that situation: ‘Either they want to impress you or they don’t take you seriously.’

Women are ‘equal opportunities readers’ and will read books by both women and men, but men are more likely to read men. Helen Giltrow, who works in a male dominated sector, espionage, has been told ‘you write like a man.’ MJ commented that ‘I have been told with great sincerity and as a compliment, I write like a brunette!’

On sex and violence Laura said that she has heard male writers say that women can go further because if a man writes about sexual violence people will think that he is a pervert who really wants to do it! Louise added that there is also the issue of having to write ‘likeable’ women, which is very constraining.

(I’ve never noticed any ‘constraining’…)

On the gossip front the latest news from Ann Cleeves seems to be a non-crime (I’m guessing non-fiction) book about Shetland. Because she loves it. Alex Gray is incredibly nice, and she and Helen talked about Bloody Scotland. Valerie Laws’ sleep was not helped by waves breaking against the hotel wall right beneath her window. (At least the sea stayed on the outside.) Marsali Taylor wins [Helen’s] prize for best dressed crime writer, with a stunning fuchsia silk fitted dress with gold embroidery and matching trousers.

After a weekend like this, Helen can almost see herself having more of a go at adult crime. It was ‘inspiring.’ And next time she flies to Shetland, her woolly hat will be in her hand luggage.

Doug Henshall and Helen Grant, by Dale Smith

The other prize

Confusingly, there are two Astrid Lindgren literary prizes. Actually, there could be more than that. I only happen to know of two. This is about the smaller, less famous, but older Astrid Lindgren prize.

Mårten Sandén, about whom I’ve written here a few times, has just been awarded this prize, which as he puts it, means he’s now in the company of the children’s authors who inspired him to read when he was a little boy. And I think that’s quite nice.

The prize is for 50,000 kronor, which is just under £5000, and thus rather less than the ALMA, which is five million kronor. That one is a life changing kind of award, or so I imagine, whereas what Mårten has been given is more of a pat on the head, saying ‘well done,’ while also letting the winner join a select group of writers.

I reviewed one of Mårten’s recent books a few weeks ago, despite the fact that it’s not been translated into English yet. I simply felt I had to mention it anyway. And for his nameday almost exactly two years ago, I published his profile on Bookwitch. Never let it be said I don’t appreciate the best.