Category Archives: Writing

Lari Don – aiming higher with every book.

She’s got some lovely fans, this author who wrote her first book in Primary 2. Lari Don has aimed to improve her next book ever since (although I’m sure the P2 book wasn’t all that bad). And I suppose because she remembers her own early start, Lari is quite happy to read what anyone in her audience has written, which is really generous. She even said she’d hand out her email address [the better to receive these works of fiction].

Lari was at Blackwells on Saturday to launch her second Spellchasers book, The Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away. I brought both my Photographer and the Resident IT Consultant. The latter was the first at Bookwitch Towers to read the first Spellchasers book, and he is currently ensconsed in his reading spot with the second.

Lari Don

But as I said, Lari didn’t have to rely on us oldies, as she had a lovely collection of nice girls who have read and loved her books and who had lots of opinions and questions. The perfect fan audience, in fact. She got quite a bit discussed as we waited for two o’clock, thanking the fans for choosing her over the park on such a nice day (of course they would!), finding out their favourite characters, and reminiscing about a school pupil, years ago, who was started on reading by an author’s visit to his/her school.

Lari Don

After an introduction by Ann Landmann, who reckoned we were the right kind of audience, liking the right kind of books, even more readers arrived and everyone had to squeeze in. Lari said she’d tell us about her writing process, and then she’d tell us a story, because Ann had asked her to.

She showed us her older books, including the embarrassing (to her own children) The Big Bottom Hunt. Lari likes novels the best, and after she had made the characters in the Fabled Beast Chronicles suffer enough, she started on Spellchasers. The trilogy will end with The Witch’s Guide to Magical Combat, which is out this autumn.

Lari Don

Lari read us the first page of it, which is still only in manuscript form [until later this week], and she had changed the odd thing over breakfast. Book two is about shapeshifting, so Lari asked the audience how they perceived this would look as it happens. They had a lot of ideas; eggs, smoke, eagles on top of bunk beds. That kind of thing.

As Lari began telling us the promised story, about a boy with a drum in Africa, I sort of rested my eyes a little, and the Resident IT Consultant looked as if he was asleep (I’m sure he wasn’t, really), but we both rallied when Lari requested snoring sounds, as though coming from the beast in her story… There was a monster who ate the boy’s parents and then vomited them out again. You get the idea.

Lari Don

After a brief reading from the second book, we had five minutes left for Q&A. I estimate those five minutes to have lasted about 15, so that was good value. The girls had a lot of questions, but I suppose it’s to be expected from people who know that eagles need to sit on bunk beds in order to see better.

She doesn’t want to think about how many hours she uses up on writing her books. One book takes about a year, but she’s always working and hours would be too scary to contemplate, in ‘the interest of sanity.’ A brief mention of the excellence of Speyside whisky, Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones, and then we found out that the pre-school Lari had been quite sneaky and faked reading in bed when she was actually ‘writing’ books. Unfortunately the squiggles she wrote back then are hard to read now and she doesn’t know what the books were about.

Lari Don

Ann Landmann finally put a stop to Lari and her fans (who simply continued talking over the book signing), after admitting she’d missed half her requested story because she’d had a customer to serve… As for us oldies, we had tea to drink in the café, and felt we really couldn’t compete for Lari’s attention with such ardent fans, anyway.

Where are the girls?

Well, mostly not in yesterday’s book, Kid Got Shot. It’s a pretty male book, and apart from Garvie’s mum and his teachers, the female part is played by the gorgeous Polish girl everyone – including Garvie – falls for.

As I believe I tried to suggest when telling you about Mother-of-witch last month, I was brought up in such a way that I never felt women were worth less or that you have to constantly count the sexes and make sure they are balanced.

Am I weird? No, don’t answer that!

I happily read about musketeers and anybody else offered in the books I came across. Thinking back, I wonder if I found it hard to identify with girls in books when they were not the kind of girl I was, and then I felt that if I’m not going to be like them, I might as well read about male characters. In the end it didn’t matter as long as it was a great story.

But I recognise that not all girl readers have such belief in themselves, and they do need to see more female characters in books. In its article Balancing the bookshelves, the Guardian wrote about the need for more girls. It is not wrong, but I didn’t absolutely agree either.

When I think of the ‘new age’ of reading that to my mind began with Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, I don’t think of the sexes or any balancing. Yes, Lyra is a girl and a strong one, too. But her daemon is a boy. Harry is a boy who hangs out with best friends Hermione and Ron, making up that traditional fictional trio of two boys and one girl. The Famous Five are two of each, if you don’t count Timmy the dog, and you forget about George being George.

I’ve not really stopped to check whether there are more boy characters because more men write books. When it comes to children’s or YA I believe, without having counted, that there are more female authors. And many of them write about boys. I see no reason why they shouldn’t.

Looking at my three favourite books, we have [primarily] one girl, two girls, and then a boy. All three authors are women. But while Meg Rosoff has Daisy in How I Live Now, she has also written some wonderful male main characters. I don’t feel that is wrong. In fact, I assume the stories demanded it. Can male writers manage good female characters? Yes, they can. Look at Marcus Sedgwick’s girls! I’m guessing his books needed females.

I think it’s too easy to get worked up about the sex of a character. What we need is a society where all are equally valued, albeit not all identical. But obviously, if reading about a particular person in a book turns into a life-changing experience for a young reader, then I’m all for it.

YA? Or actually for old, proper adults?

When I read the two books by Michael Grant recently, Silver Stars and his WBD book Dead of Night, I thought – again – about what makes them YA. Why not just plain adult? After all, they are about adults. More or less. OK, his characters lie a bit to enlist, just like teenagers did in WWI. But they are to all intents adults, and with what happens in the stories, they definitely become adults pretty soon.

There’s a lot of bad stuff happening, and some of them die. The reader is treated to war scenes that can be quite upsetting, especially when you know they are based on reality. It’s not just something the author has made up to spice the book up a little.

There are relationships that are more grown-up than what you find in ‘high school’ stories. Some sex, as would be appropriate for what is being written about.

Take Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which is also about war and also about characters only just adult enough to do what they do in wartime. They are adult enough to appeal to the real adult reader, but not so old that they don’t suit teenagers.

At that age I used to read Nevil Shute, because there was no Elizabeth Wein or Michael Grant. His books were accessible enough, and often about the same kind of topics, but the characters were – generally – older, and their problems also a bit older.

But I think the main difference is still that there is hope. Yes, people die. It would be unrealistic for them not to in a war. But as Michael said in our first interview in 2010, ‘it’s always good to hope, don’t you think?’

While I’m going on about YA war books, we can mention Lee Weatherly’s Broken Sky dystopia, set in a world based fairly closely on WWII. Her characters are also adults, and behaving as such. And to me the books feel like YA, unless I’m thinking this because I know they are. Not having got to the end of the trilogy yet, I still hold out hope that the end will not be as bleak as an adult-only version could get away with.

And anyway, Debi Gliori told me years ago about signing her Pure Dead books for an adult reader, who refused to believe they were children’s books… After all, if you have them in your book club, that surely proves it?

‘I am Mary Queen of Scots’

Or so Alex Nye claimed, when she launched For My Sins at Blackwells last night. (She laughed when she said it. So she’s perhaps not entirely serious about it.) It’s her first adult novel, and it’s about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots

The real Mary was there too, and she was looking good for her age. Actually, on such a dark and stormy night when the rest of us were pretty drenched, I have to point out that Mary looked both dry and beautiful.

As I ran in, Tesco prawn sandwich in hand, Alex and her publisher Clare were already there, and Mary turned up soon after. She posed for photos like Royals tend to do, and I believe she even showed off what was under her skirt. Honestly. I ate my sandwich, turned down the offer of wine and was rescued from dying of thirst by the lovely Ann Landmann of Blackwells.

Roy Gill, Kirkland Ciccone and Mary Queen of Scots

We admired the book, which has unusually nice looking pages. I know this sounds strange, but it does. Several other authors turned up to celebrate, among them Kirkland Ciccone wearing a rather loud outfit, Roy Gill who looked suitably handsome, Gill Arbuthnott, Philip Caveney (or was it Danny Weston? They look so alike…) with Lady Caveney, and then Kate Leiper came and sat next to me again.

Alex talked about her love of Scottish history, and for Mary, about her research, and walking round Edinburgh for two years (that must have been tiring) to see the places Mary went, and visiting all her castles. And 28 years on, the book is finally here.

Alex Nye and Mary Queen of Scots

Luckily Alex has managed to get hold of Mary’s diary from her time ‘in jail,’ which must be considered a bit of a royal scoop.

Kate Leiper, Gill Arbuthnott, Kirkland Ciccone and Roy Gill

There was a signing afterwards, and much literary gossip. It was almost a shame some of us had to go home, but I couldn’t leave my chauffeur in the Park&Ride all night.

Alex Nye

I’m just over halfway through the book so far, and I have a dreadful feeling this isn’t going to end well.

Tom, George and the others

A long time ago, when the New Librarian had just left school, she came and stayed with us, doing some unpaid work in the local bookshop. One day she came home and mentioned she’d been out on a school visit with some actor who’d written a book. I asked who. She’d clearly not had a lot of interest in an older man she’d never heard of, so the name was some time coming, but once I’d established it was George Layton – and I’d had no idea he was visiting! – I turned green [with envy].

It was so unfair that she’d met him, when I’d ‘always loved him’ and I wanted to stomp my foot.

Luckily, George came back, and more than once. So I did get to meet him (see about lunch here), and I bought his short story collections and got his autograph, and… Well, at the time I liked the stories. I don’t know if I still would.

Same bookshop, slightly later, another of my younger days’ favourites turned up. Tom Conti, who’s even more handsome than George. I know that in book terms this is irrelevant, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. He came because he’d written a novel, and I bought a copy. Obviously.

I sort of wish I hadn’t. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. These days I’d start by assuming it to be just another celebrity book, but then I was more naïve. Besides, it had been written [I hope it had, anyway] by my kind of celebrity. But yeah, I wouldn’t mind if I’d not read it.

The celebrity avalanche is just getting worse and worse. Someone on social media was saying how the latest announcement of a celebrity book [by someone I don’t know] was so welcome, because it had to have been at least 48 hours since the one before it.

The most recent one I received in the post I put to the side immediately. I felt slightly rotten doing it, but if someone is already famous – even when I don’t have any idea who they are – and are getting a good financial deal from the publisher, then they don’t need a review from me. I can’t help them on their way to greater greatness.

I’m very happy to have met Tom Conti and only slightly annoyed that he didn’t sign the book I then went on to not like (there is a farcical story about the non-signing of his books, involving a train). But I got closer than the 20-year-old me would ever have thought possible.

Likewise with George Layton. As I watched Doctor in the House in pre-historic times, I simply didn’t believe that one day I’d meet him. Or that the first thing he’d say was that he needed to pee.

Czech this

Oddly enough, until yesterday I never really looked into Tom Stoppard’s past. I mean, no more than what seems to be generally known, like him having been born in Czechoslovakia, and writing highly amusing drama. It’s odd, because he was my favourite dramatist when I was at university, and it was only my tutor’s perception that Tom lacked depth that meant I never ‘did’ anything about him in an academic way.

Perhaps it was the lack of Google and Wikipedia? Although, I did have a volume on British dramatists where I could look people up. Or maybe I simply felt that Tom’s work spoke for him?

I used to think he was awfully clever; to have been born a foreigner and still be able to write the way he did. Yeah, I know. I sound almost xenophobic, but that’s not what I meant. I believed that if a language was not your native one, then there would always be something that you couldn’t do with it. I knew I couldn’t.

And it seems that Tom agreed with me in some way. I found this quote on Wikipedia: ‘His stepfather believed strongly that “to be born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life” – a quote from Cecil Rhodes – telling his small stepson: “Don’t you realise that I made you British?” setting up Stoppard’s desire as a child to become “an honorary Englishman”. “I fairly often find I’m with people who forget I don’t quite belong in the world we’re in”, he says. “I find I put a foot wrong – it could be pronunciation, an arcane bit of English history – and suddenly I’m there naked, as someone with a pass, a press ticket.’

Two years ago I’d have found that amusing. Now I don’t.

It’s noteworthy that his stepfather was happy to marry a foreigner, and to take on two little foreign boys as his sons. But what’s more, Mr Stoppard appears to have believed that the act of doing so made these little foreigners British. How many people – who matter – share his thoughts today?

As for the pronunciation, the arcane history, or being naked; I’ve been there too. At least I share something with Sir Tom.

So, as I was saying, I adored his humour back then. I must have read almost every single play he wrote, up until the mid 1980s when I moved on to other reading material. But I always wanted to be able to write like Tom Stoppard, even if he ‘lacked depth.’

I had a bit of an epiphany thinking about my tutor’s comment. I’d like to think she has changed her mind over the years, and with hindsight I see that humorous drama like Tom’s could very well be viewed like children’s books, or crime; not quite properly grown-up.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have everything you could want.

The very same tutor was terribly ambitious, so after I teased the group with my frequent trips to London, going to the theatre to see new and exciting plays, she organised a drama week for us. She bought tickets for about eight plays in six days and charmed a lot of money from someone at some party or conference, which meant that we could all have a week in London for next to no cost.

And one of those plays was a Stoppard, Night and Day, starring John Thaw, but sadly not Diana Rigg.

Where am I going with this? Not sure. But Sir Tom is clearly an immigrant, with a refugee past, a Jew, who made it in Britain. Made it to Britain. And he dares to be clever with the language spoken here. Whether he has stopped feeling inadequate I have no idea. And I suspect he won’t be one of the first to be forced to leave when Brexit really gets going.

Bookwitch bites #139

At last! The tail is gone and the tale might be with us later this year. Philip Pullman has had a haircut – unless that BBC interview yesterday was recorded years ago – and there are claims that the first part of The Book of Dust will be available on Philip’s birthday in October. Well.

Philip Pullman

It’s been ten years since Son and I were in Oxford, when Philip and David Fickling reckoned Dust would be ready in 2009. What I didn’t know is that Dust would be a trilogy. No wonder Philip’s been so long in writing it, especially as it sounds like the second part is also complete. That just leaves the ending of this equel to His Dark Materials to be written.

The Branford Boase longlist has been announced. I haven’t read a single book on the list, and to the best of my knowledge I have not been offered any of them either. Would quite like to read Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy, which is the only one I’ve heard of. I would probably like to read a few of the others, too. Maybe I’ll be spurred into action when the shortlist comes.

I have just been followed on Twitter by Jacqueline Wilson. Well, not her personally, as I believe Jacqueline is sensible enough not to waste time on social media, but someone doing it for her. I’m hardly ever on there, so I won’t be taking up too much of anyone’s time.

Both Philip and Jacky have been the big draw names at the Branford Boase award evenings. Celebrities, perhaps, but celebrities in the book world; not in the book world because they are celebrities.

Chris Priestley has been quoted in recent discussions on celebrity authors. It’s mainly the crazy aspect of how some very good writers still have to have a day job to feed themselves, while a lot of book sales go to those who need it less, and whose books just might not be of quite the same calibre as those by authors holding down two jobs. After all, if you are doing two jobs, it means you are pretty keen to write, and you are likely to do a better job of it.

Juno Dawson does her job pretty well as far as I understand. She writes books teenagers want to read, and she knows how teenagers feel. Juno was recently booked to talk at a school, when they decided to uninvite her at the last moment. It was deemed ‘inappropriate’, it seems. As the school back-pedalled, they said it had nothing to do with Juno being transgender. Oh no, not at all.

Most books are important and worthwhile. Hilary McKay – who claims not to mind if her books are turned into motorways – sent me this link to an article about how books are being rescued from becoming landfill. Better World Books collect unwanted books in Fife and sell them online, raising funds for literacy and libraries. Books not becoming Dust, so to speak.