Eight I’ve read

At last. A list I’ve read. I’m beginning to like Daniel Hahn even more. Clearly great minds think alike.

For the Guardian Daniel has chosen eight of the best YA novels, suitable – indeed highly recommended – for adults. And I’ve read them all, which I suppose isn’t so strange, really. I thought when I saw the list that they were all recent books, but YA hasn’t been around all that long, so it’s understandable.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen exactly that list, but I could have.

And I realise I should never have absolved Daughter from having to read The White Darkness. She asked, only a week or so ago, whether she still had to read it, and I said no. It is such a tremendous book. (Is it too late to force her now?) Fancy Daniel picking Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick! Very good choice. Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan. That was a long time ago now, and I almost didn’t consider it a death/cancer novel, but I suppose it is.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, of course. The odd thing is that when I read it, I was – almost – not keen on Chris Riddell’s illustrations. I thought I preferred Dave McKean’s. Well, a witch can change her mind. Siobhan Dowd’s A Swift Pure Cry; the book I thought I might not like because I had set notions about that ‘kind of plot’… What an idiot I was. But it’s a testament to Siobhan’s writing skills that this ‘kind of plot’ can be marvellous.

Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond is the one book I remember less well. Possibly because at the time I read several of David’s books in quick succession. Patrick Ness gets three books in, as Chaos Walking is a trilogy, but you can’t have just the one part. For me they are books that have grown in stature over the years. And finally, Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. One of the best. And now there will be no more.

I know that I tend to preach to the converted here on Bookwitch, but I hope that a few of today’s readers are doubting adults, who would never dream of reading YA. Until today. Because this is such a good start to a new life of reading YA books.

Lucky you.

Through the cereal box

Well, it was a bit of a disappointment, even for those of us with sunshine, wasn’t it? I’m talking about the eclipse on Friday morning, which I had forgotten all about until I stumbled out of bed, having finally caught up on sleep. ‘Come and see the sun’ said the Resident IT Consultant.

So I did. He sat there in the sunny front room, holding two bits of former Weetabix box, waving them at me. I admired the baby crescent-shaped sun on the second Weetabix board, as the sun shone through the first bit of cardboard.

I went for my yoghurt and bran flakes, sitting down in our north facing ice cube, which was surprisingly warm. I thought I might remain there, as it seemed a good place from where not to accidentally stare at the sun, although it is always sunny even on that side of the house [when there are no clouds in the way].

But I popped back for some more Weetabix crescent just to see which side was best. And back to the ice cube. It got a little bit darker, yes, but to my mind it was still full daylight. And in the ice cube I didn’t have to listen to Brian Cox waffling on the television, or stare at the disappointed Australians who’d travelled to the Faroes, only to be faced with clouds.

OK, it was more exciting than in 1999, when we were on a Yorkshire walking holiday. Afterwards no one was sure what – if anything – had happened at all. These eclipses are overrated. But the Resident IT Consultant’s crescent had shifted to the other side, which I suppose was something.

Eclipse in St Andrews

I stole the above photo from my own Offspring, and it’s not rubbish. But it stands to reason the eclipse would look better right outside the Astronomy department of a renowned university, doesn’t it?

We’re all bookbugs

They invited me along to the Bookbug annual conference yesterday, at the George Hotel in Edinburgh. It was really quite nice and very enlightening in many ways. They are Scottish Book Trust, and the Bookbugs are the youngest readers. You might recall that in Scotland all babies are given a bag of books to encourage reading and help them interact with their parents.

Karyn McCluskey started off by being cheerful. They are quite cheerful here, I’ve noticed. There was the sunshine to make you smile, and and the fact that reading prevents murders (if that’s not too gruesome a thing to mention). Karyn introduced the acting Minister for Children and Young People, Fiona McLeod, who is only ‘acting’ because the ‘real’ minister has been packed off on maternity leave. It’s better to start reading early, rather than putting more people in prison later on.

Next up was Dr Kate McKay, senior medical officer, child health. She herself is a product of how going to the library as a child has led to professional success in adult life. She reckons that the use of digital books will change the pathways of the human brain. Kate is also a fan of the five Rs; reading, rhyming, routines, rewards and relationships. Chaos leads to stress, and early adversity in life causes bad health in adults.

It’s important for a baby to interact with its mother, and this is something which can’t happen if the mother is drunk or drugged. By supporting girls, they become good mothers, and this in turn is good for society. And laughing is healthy. Children laugh more with their parents, and laughing a lot makes for a longer life.

The morning session ended with Margaret Clark, senior health promotion officer in Lanarkshire. She talked about the book bags, and how if you start early you stay active for life. And if the Nordic countries can do it, so can Scotland.

Then the whole roomful of – mostly – bookish ladies fought for lunch, and plates of very sweet cakes, and I believe even the water dispenser ran dry. After which we quickly returned to the conference, because Nick Sharratt was there to talk to us about his books. Dressed in one of his signature stripey shirts [red and white], Nick charmed the socks off everyone. He claimed to be nervous because it was such a large room…

Nick Sharratt

He pointed out he doesn’t have children of his own, and that he’s never become an adult himself. There was a photo of a very young Nick on a swing, drawing. He still draws, just not on a swing. Showing us lots of illustrations from his hundreds of books, he then read a few to us. And he wore his purple wig and sunglasses, which was so 1970s.

One of the books was What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen, and that’s something I’ve often wondered myself. Nick feels we should learn to relax with picture books. They are not purely for the very young. When he started writing his own books, he began by rhyming and using very few words. Food is important in his books, as long as it’s not butterbeans.

Split page books allow for plenty of interaction between adult and child, as well as offering many combinations of crazy things. Nick showed us similar books made by child fans, and they are truly inspirational. At the end of his hour long session we had a coffee break and people queued up to have their books signed. I couldn’t help wondering which would prove to be the longest; the coffee break or the queue.

The queue won and was eventually shown the door so we could get on with the panel discussion on digital books. Chaired by Tam Baillie, the speakers were Tom Bonnick from Nosy Crow, Lydia Plowman and Andrew Manches from the University of Edinburgh, and Jim McCormick.

On the whole the panel were in favour of digital even for the very young, and according to Lydia a surprising percentage of pre-schoolers have tablets; often an older hand-me-down. She reckons not to worry about it, though, and to remember that the adult is still boss, and that the adult is a role model, so cut down on the continual staring at your own phone or other screen.

Other thoughts include how easy it is to share digital material, in a positive sense. The quality of teachers is important and so is the relationship between school and home.

I had somehow expected to hear that digital would make it easier to access reading, but the debate seemed to go in a different direction. We had a Q&A session, and for the first time during the whole day we could hear a few small squeaks from the conference’s youngest participant, a – very – young man [I’m guessing from the pale blue] who mostly enjoyed being breastfed and playing with finger puppets. Lovely baby!

Tam Baillie let us finish with a song; Three Craws. The Scots are as crazy as the Nordics they admire so much…

Devil You Know

Phew! What a story. My first proper Cathy MacPhail novel, and I have to say that Devil You Know has more twists than even I had imagined. I’ve always been a little scared of what Cathy might do in a book. It’s the way she looks at you and you think ‘I daren’t find out!’ and then you chicken out.

Cathy MacPhail, Devil You Know

This is the story about Logan who has just moved to a Glasgow estate, to get away from some un-named unpleasantness in his home town Aberdeen. He’s got this new friend called Baz, who is everything you as a parent would not look for in a friend for your child. But of course, Logan’s mum and stepdad ‘don’t understand’ him.

Baz’s three friends don’t seem to like Logan much, but put up with him. In fact, they don’t seem to like Baz much, either. He always leads them into trouble, and he always laughs it off, and shrugs off any responsibility for anything that has happened.

And things do happen. It goes from bad to worse and soon the boys are desperately scared of the consequences of what they’ve been a party to. All except Baz. This is more serious than youthful gangs and fights. They are up against the real deal here. And were it not for Baz, they might have done the decent, and sensible, thing, and been all right.

This book is exactly what should get young teenagers reading. You can’t fault the way Cathy knows what their lives are like, or might be like. (That’s probably why she scares me so.)

I could guess most of what would happen, apart from that final twist which I really didn’t see coming.

Will you?

Yellow, more yellow and black

The 2015 Carnegie medal shortlist is mostly yellow [book covers] and black. I trust that this is a coincidence, although fashion in cover design might be involved here. I’ve not checked to see what the books that didn’t make it have on their covers. Possibly more yellow.

Out of the eight, I’ve read three and they’re all potential worthy winners. Sally Gardner and Patrick Ness have won before. Some of the ones I’ve not read I have wanted to read, but they didn’t turn up in the post and it’s the usual problem of lack of time to chase, and sometimes lack of information that the book exists in the first place. Which is the case with the ones I’ve not read because I’d not heard of them.

If publishers do put together lists of what they intend to publish, it would cost them very little to email that list to ‘everyone.’ I keep hearing how overworked publicity departments are, and I realise that writing press releases and [personalised] letters and printing and posting them takes more time and will cost money. But you surely can’t run a company without listing what products you are about to offer the general public to buy, and if you have the list, please share it.

There have been other shortlists and longlists over the last few months. It is getting increasingly hard to keep up with the titles, let alone read them. But perhaps it’s not a bad thing for me not to have read as high a proportion of the chosen ones as I used to. I still read as many books, and that might mean I read and review ones that don’t even get close to the limelight of an award.

On the Carnegie longlist there are five books I would have liked to see make it, and several more ‘glaring omissions’ on the nominations list. As for the shortlist, I’d have liked to read Geraldine McCaughrean’s book and Elizabeth Laird’s, but as it is, I will root for Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier.

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

The Nowhere Emporium

The blurb on the back of Ross MacKenzie’s The Nowhere Emporium – and what a gorgeous cover this book has! – suggests it’s for fans of Pullman, Funke and Gaiman. I think it’s more Harry Potter than any of those, though I obviously won’t rule out that others will also enjoy The Nowhere Emporium. Simplified Harry Potter, I hasten to add, but you can tell that Ross has been influenced by JK, as she in turn had been influenced by a few others.

Ross MacKenzie, The Nowhere Emporium

This Tardis-like emporium is nowhere, in that it moves about. It changes where it is, and also when it is. Daniel Holmes is an orphan, and his life could be better. One day when chased yet again by some bullies, he finds a shop to escape into, which is where he encounters the mysterious Mr Silver who runs it.

He goes back a second time, and Mr Silver is rather surprised to find Daniel can remember his first visit. You’re not supposed to. His emporium is intended to entertain people, but he also makes sure he arranges for some suitable memory loss as they leave.

Daniel is clearly different, so Mr Silver lets him stay, just as when he was a young boy, he had a mysterious ‘benefactor’ who took him in and taught him magic. This was a very long time ago.

Soon after Daniel is apprenticed, things begin to change. Mr Silver seems different and then he disappears. Another mysterious man turns up instead and it’s for Daniel to try and sort things out and make emporium life normal again. If he’s got enough magic in him to do so.

Well, what do you think?