Exam Attack

Yes, it will feel like that, at least to some of you. That those exams are out to get you. But mostly Nicola Morgan’s new book with the title Exam Attack is there to help you with your exams, and preparing for them.

Admittedly, in Scotland, the National 5 exams for 2021 have just been cancelled, which could set off a different kind of exam anxiety. But I reckon by reading Nicola’s excellent books with advice on just about everything, you can probably find something to help you with non-existent exams as well.

As ever, it feels like Nicola and I are on the same page, advice-wise. Without her book, I did the advising when Daughter had exams, but had we had a printed book to refer to, it might have been faster and easier.

It’s all common sense, but sometimes we need someone to spell out that sense, or we risk running around in circles like so many headless chickens.

If you’re lucky enough to have exams coming up, maybe check Nicola’s guide out. I am a great fan of self-help books. At least when they are sensible.

(I used to love exams. There was clearly something wrong with me.)

Just One of Those Days

One of those days when things go, not exactly wrong, perhaps, but not exactly right either. You know them. We all have them at times.

Jill Murphy’s new picture book about the Bear family shows you a scenario you’ve most likely experienced. You sleep badly and wake up late and get to work or school a bit later than you should have and once there, things are not as smooth as usual, or the way you’d rather they were.

But at the end of a day when something broke or got spilled, or someone else played with your dinosaur, maybe you can go home and change into pyjamas and sit down with pizza in front of the TV, and

you just start over tomorrow.

Daisy and the Unknown Warrior

I don’t know why I never thought of it before. Like so many other tourists, I have visited the grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. But I took it at face value, not considering what it stands for or how it came to be there. And as someone from a country that wasn’t at war, it somehow didn’t strike me as quite as important.

I am sorry.

Tony Bradman’s short book for Barrington Stoke, Daisy and the Unknown Warrior, tells the story of 11-year-old Daisy, who in autumn 1920 hears about the plans for burying an anonymous soldier at Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day. Her father never came back from the war, and the family don’t know where he’s buried. She immediately senses that the unknown warrior is her dad.

She vows to make her way there to see what happens to her father. And it seems that so did thousands of Londoners, to see their lost warrior.

After a while Daisy realises that not only does she feel better for having seen somebody’s coffin given this special treatment, but that this goes for everyone else there too. This Unknown Warrior really is the soldier these people have lost, every one of them.

Sir Tom

I should read more Tom Stoppard.

And I realise this is my second Sir Tom for the week, but you can’t have too many of them.

Enjoyed the Guardian’s online conversation between Tom Stoppard and his biographer Hermione Lee this evening. I gather her book about him is published tomorrow.

For all that he has been a favourite of mine for so long, I don’t believe I have heard him talk much, if at all. His plays and his opinions have been enough. I gather he’s gone more serious in later years, whereas it was the humour I was attracted to all those decades ago.

There were some slight technical problems to begin with. Hermione and Tom seemed not to be sure when to speak and spoke across each other. But it got better. Tom also seemed to have some woman escaping on the left hand side of the screen. Not as fun as toddlers in walkers, but nicely human.

And he smokes! I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. Someone has to, I suppose, even now when it’s become so unusual as to be a shock.

Mechanical tortoises featured. Apparently actors prefer them to live dogs. He couldn’t quite recall the title of a Shakespeare play that he admires. There has been a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead done with puppets…

Well.

I took no notes. This was purely an event intended for my enjoyment. And as I said, I might have to read a play or two.

When someone thought trains

Have I ever mentioned I receive quite a few books through the post?

Well, one gets used to these packets, as do Daughter and the Resident IT Consultant. Occasionally they too receive post, but never as much.

Last week there was a book parcel for the Resident IT Consultant. He sometimes buys weird books on maths, or Faraday, or maps. That kind of thing. This time it was a book about trains.

He likes trains a lot. But who would have sent him this? He knew about it. It’s brand new, and he’d read about its coming and felt it sounded interesting.

The question is, did he order a copy for himself? At the time, in advance of its release date? He can’t remember. Could have been an accidental press of a ‘buy’ button, perhaps.

Anyway, he’s enjoying the book. It was kind of whoever ordered it, knowingly or otherwise.

Captain Tom Moore

Most adults will be aware of Captain Tom Moore who walked 100 laps round his garden for the NHS Charities Together. Some children will too. Here he is in one of the Little People, BIG DREAMS books by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Christophe Jacques.

Tom hoped to raise a couple of thousand pounds, but ended up raising £30 million. It’s the kind of story we all need, to help us through the next hurdles in life, or to cheer us up when life seems a little bad.

100 laps might not seem much, even for a man just short of his 100th birthday, but perhaps that is why he was so successful. Traipsing round your garden is something almost anyone can manage. Donating a few pounds is also a manageable task, and if enough people do it, there could eventually be a big sum of money.

This book provides a simple, sweet background to this man, who was knighted by the Queen and who was celebrated with a flyover by the RAF for his birthday. I was particularly taken by the  group of men he worked with in WWII, and with whom he had regular get-togethers for 65 years until in the end he was the only one left.

And then there is the photo of Sir Captain Tom Moore with the Queen; two old people who were both in the war, and who are still here today.

Some of the price of this book will go to Sir Tom’s NHS Charities Together.

Bookwitch bites #147

Sigh. It’s time to stay at home again. I mean, more so than the last two (?) months. We didn’t exactly go to town during this time, but went out a little bit. Even considered going out for a meal, but on careful consideration couldn’t really face it. We can cook. Or we can order delivery of either pizza or Indian. Not much else the three of us agree on, foodwise.

So we will heed this t-shirt advice again. We started back in March or April, but haven’t got to the end yet. And there is more Mandalorian to look forward to, with the baby Yoda.

This post will be full of borrowings and stealings.

Having said that, I am obviously heading straight to the Lowry theatre. Not really, but for someone who no longer pays too much attention to theatre news from the place I no longer live near, my eye was caught by the press release about the Nightingale Court, so I read on a bit. The Lowry is to host several court rooms so that trials that have lagged behind for too long this year, can start taking place. This means the theatre receives some welcome revenue, and the jury members get to sit in comfort in theatre boxes; one each. (I could almost be tempted…)

Temptation can go both ways. I’ve heard from a reliable (cough) source that Camilla Läckberg’s recent novel has a lot of sex in it. Don’t know if this is good or bad. But according to e-newsletter Boktugg, lots of people dislike Camilla. It can be hard feeling happy about someone else’s immense success. Suffering from the green monster isn’t much fun. One day I might read one of Camilla’s books, if only to irritate the person who told me so many bad and, I suspect untruthful, things about her.

So what do you know about volcanoes? Do you have a gut feeling for where you might find them? That is if you don’t actually know about eruptions or remember where some of them took place. I was intrigued when reading in the Observer that someone had been stranded by an ash cloud after a Finnish volcano stopped flights. I tried to imagine those pine trees going flying as the volcano volcanoed. I know the Nordic countries are ‘all the same’. But doesn’t Iceland stand out at least a little bit if we’re going volcanic?

And finally some nice normality. This week, the day before the renewed lockdown, Theresa Breslin came to town. She was here to sign books at the Tinkerbell Emporium, which is where we last saw her, just over a year ago. (Theresa is the one on the right!)

It would have been even lovelier if I’d been able to pop over to say hello…

Susanna Clarke was there

No, we would not sit at the back. For this event the teenage Son insisted we descend all the way to the bottom, and front, of the cake slice shaped auditorium at the Gothenburg Book Fair. Uncharacteristically I followed him and actually sat a long way from the door.

This was fifteen years ago. Perhaps not to the day, because the fair happens when it happens, and it just so happens that it begins today. The online 2020 Book Fair. Then, it was our first, and we’d come in search of Philip Pullman, but once he’d been dealt with, we had a list of others we wanted to see.

Susanna Clarke was one of them. The bookshop we used to frequent had a lovely, well-read girl working part time for them, and it was she who had suggested Son might like to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. He did, and he found it good. (I could never quite manage it.)

We both liked her event, and this was so new to us, and Son enjoyed being able to go up and chat to the various English-speaking authors as ‘one of them’. At the time I don’t believe we realised quite how exhausting the public event lifestyle is for an author.

I was made aware of how tired Susanna Clarke was in this Guardian interview the other week, when they spoke to her in connection with her next novel, Piranesi, which is out now. It’s been a long time, but I don’t blame her. Chronic fatigue is not much fun.

So what was the start of a book world whirlwind future for us, was perhaps the beginning of an essential period of rest for Susanna. I’m glad she’s found her way back. I hope the Gothenburg Book Fair does all right, and that we will all meet again at some other live event or book festival, but that we will also take it easy and not overdo things. None of us is getting any younger.

(I almost said older, which proves how tired and confused I am.)

And I like Susanna’s thought that ‘one day, there will be the wardrobe’.

The greats on a Sunday

Sunday nights are generally for some of the best, kept until last. The pattern seemed to hold, with Mark Billingham talking to John Connolly, followed by Val McDermid with Lee Child, and I settled in for some fun.

The first two talked football, at Bloody Scotland and elsewhere. John wants to play for Scotland if he ever makes it to Stirling. Mark thought he’d be made welcome. They moved on to fashion and women’s tights, dwarfs, Snow White, and acting.

I like Mark and adore John, but really, they sounded like – almost – any pair of men, getting together talking about stuff that is no more interesting for having been uttered by a famous crime writer. I switched off.

Once dinner was over, I turned my attention to Val and Lee. It was Wyoming vs New York, 10 miles to the mailbox, long winters, Stetson hats and four-wheel drives. Lee has opinions on these vehicles, but also pointed out he has a different one ‘at his English place’.

There’s a problem with Tom Cruise, but not when he gives you a ride to the football in his helicopter. Other actors have the wrong accent, are too thin, too good looking, and so on. ‘The Reacher Guy’ hasn’t got it easy.

They most likely will not be writing about the virus, although Val had written a drama about plague when Covid started. One of those weird coincidences. Mrs Child had read a novel written in the past, set in 2060, and something viral having happened forty years earlier. The Spanish flu was not very visible in fiction, or so they said.

Lee admires Angela Merkel, and Bill Clinton. When Val had the temerity to mention Barack Obama, we learned that he hasn’t read Lee’s books. If that was me, I’d be reasonably proud to have met the man for long enough to be told he hadn’t read anything I’d written. In fact, I’d prefer for him not to be frittering away his time on my words, when there is a world to look after.

I like Val, and previously when I’ve seen her talking to women, she’s not needed to be quite so much ‘one of the boys’. Lee was pretty much the way he was 15 years ago. Authors only need to write great books. It’s a bonus if they are fun and witty and intelligent, but there is absolutely no need for them to be important, rich or cool.

So that was the 2020 Bloody Scotland. It was convenient to be able to ‘meet’ people at home, but it was nowhere near as much fun as in real life. For me personally, the main gain was not having to fight for the seat I want; the one at the back, nearest the door.

The never-ending panel

I was going to dip in and out. Not miss Barry Hutchison. Nor Catriona McPherson. But in the end, there I was, taking in every minute of the four hours of crime writers coming and going. Possibly attending less diligently when slurping the soup Daughter so kindly carried to my desk, but continuing all the same.

So one advantage of Bloody Scotland going online was that you can have a couple of dozen authors from anywhere in the world pop into your Sunday panel to chat to their friends for a bit, before going off, leaving their chair to someone else.

To start, Lin Anderson looked after the first hour, discussing pets with Stuart MacBride, moving on to stovies (apparently everyone in Scotland knows what they are, but I am only hazy about them, except that I don’t want any on my plate) and from there seamlessly to vodka, with the help of Hania Allen, and how one can speak fluent Polish after drinking some.

Then, James Oswald with the hair. It was long, but mostly because he is antisocial, and not so much lockdown. The question there was how to tell his calves apart. (Coos, not lower legs.) Easy with Daphne, otherwise hairy ears make for problems. Andrew James Greig, former Bloody Scotland crew, added rotary dryers, and I’m not sure if you can kill with those or not. He didn’t recognise Hugh McIlvanney when they met – ‘which one of you is …?’ It’s not what you say to big names.

James – with the coos – spoke about the Bloody Scotland family. He was joined by Neil Broadfoot, who murders in Stirling, and who almost left when Lin handed over to Morgan Cry, aka Gordon Brown, non-PM. Some people plot, others don’t. Let’s leave it at that. But it can be so boring knowing what is about to happen that the writer might not want to go on.

The incoming authors kept coming, ringing the doorbell and being visible on screen to the world. Just not to the hosts. Might need to work on that. Sara Sheridan spoke of 1950s fashions, and appearing inappropriately dressed on her husband’s Zoom meetings, because it’s how she writes books.

Finally it was time for Barry, who was addressed as Barry despite being there as JD Kirk. I think he wins the book count. 140, of which most are children’s books, but the adult crime has grown by around 40 books in four years. He explained his quantity over quality theory, and spending 06.30 to 11.30 writing, before doing admin and then playing with the children.

His school librarian had lured him into the library with piles of The Beano until he entered voluntarily, with offers like ‘come with me to the monster section’. When the library failed to have ninja books, he was told to write one himself, which he did, aged nine, and it was duly entered into the library catalogue.

Mary Paulson-Ellis, who likes paperwork, and is a top LGBTQ writer according to Val McDermid, was next, along with Caro Ramsay who knows everyone hates her, but ‘that’s fine’. SJI [Susi] Holliday was accused of having jinxed Covid into being. (This was the soup episode, so I didn’t note everything down.)

Doug Johnstone was back, even after all that singing on Saturday, and the host changed into Craig Robertson. He had done no prep so told the group to talk as much as possible. Both parts of Ambrose Parry were present, and we learned that Chris Brookmyre is now letting wife Marisa ‘do a bit more’ in their shared writing. She sounded so useful that Susi said she wanted a Marisa as well.

Where Doug goes for walks to get ideas, Susi gets them in the car, where she can’t jot them down. Ambrose Parry enjoyed getting ideas after Covid-walks on the local golf course. Caro’s dog knows more than she does. They all said to trust your instincts.

Jackie Baldwin might have upped the body count in Portobello, having moved crime from Dumfries, and Susi pedestrianised somewhere that badly needed it. Chloroform belongs in Edinburgh, just so you know. Radio’s Theresa Talbot arrived with wine glass in hand and explained that with no traffic to talk about on the radio, she was now a garden expert.

Jackie is used to being in prison, due to being a criminal lawyer (which I hope is more innocent than it sounds). Theresa is a Glaswegian by heart, and when she sent her detective to Loch Lomond to please the fans, she couldn’t think of anything for her to do, so she returned to the city again.

Alan Parks sticks to the 1970s, which neatly avoids mobile phones and CCTV. Alex Gray had just been on a trip to Ballachulish, because she simply couldn’t cope with not going places. Alan’s fan emails are from bus enthusiasts who know more than he does. And that man in the pub he made up? He’s still alive, you know.

Our last host, Abir Mukherjee arrived from the Green Room, to discover Theresa discussing a question from an event on ‘how hard it had been to find a husband at her age’. Alan had once been coerced into an impromptu lecture in Sweden, where after much hard work, the first question was whether he owns a kilt.

When asked for their weirdest way of killing people, they only had stabbings, poisoned sandwiches, strangulation by harp wire and stabbing someone in the eye with a pencil, to offer. And, erm, elephants. Ben McPherson joined us from Oslo with many thoughts on how hard it can be to fit in, in a nice country, when you don’t really belong. (I know.) But at least his doorbell moment worked.

In Norway they have huts, and warm(-ish) beaches. Abir was 25 when he discovered you could go to the beach and not wear a jacket (in Goa). Both Alex and Alan prefer living in the Hufflepuff that is Scotland. Lisa Gray has experience of writing about a place she doesn’t belong to, and Ben discussed the feeling of living somewhere but not speaking the language, when disaster strikes.

Nicola White, originally from Dublin, writes about that city, as it was in the 1980s when she left. Many of us only know somewhere from a long time ago. The last two panellists, Catriona McPherson and Alex Knight (aka Mason Cross and Gavin…) joined the conversation. I stared at Alex’s familiar face, until I finally placed him as Luke in Gilmore Girls. (Not really, but same face.) If you’re going for a pen name, it’s worth picking one that people everywhere can pronounce, like when Alex went to Starbucks as Mason and turned into Basin.

The most important thing to becoming a novelist is to finish writing what you want to write. Reward yourself with a visit to the toilet after writing some words. Alex believes in a daily 500 words, which he feels is manageable.

To finish, the talk turned to reviews, and you should obviously never read the online ones. Unless three stars for fitting perfectly under that wonky table leg will make you happy.