Dark & Dangerous Worlds

It was beginning to look like another embarrassing admission from me, that I knew nothing about one of the authors at last night’s event in Charlotte Square. I’d never heard of this M A Griffin* who was appearing with Theresa Breslin, talking about their dark new novels with Daniel Hahn. But I assumed she’d turn out to be absolutely fine. Being heard of by me is no guarantee of anything.

Theresa Breslin

Following a fruitful and pleasant chat with Mr B[reslin] outside the theatre, we went in and sat down, and after a while I looked at the stage and discovered that M A was actually a man. Another 30 seconds and I realised I knew him. It’s just that three years ago he went under the name of Fletcher Moss, like the park in Didsbury. And I vaguely recall that I managed to force his real name out of him at the time, but had half forgotten it again.

So that was nice; knowing all three people on stage quite well. Not that I’d read the books, though. That will be my next task, once I’ve unearthed some copies.

Both Martin’s Lifers and Theresa’s Caged sound terrific. Their covers matched too, as Daniel pointed out in his introduction of ‘two very very nice people.’ Gritty, contemporary page turners is what they are.

Martin Griffin

The background inspiration for Martin came when he was failing to teach a class some beautiful poetry, and one of his students happened to mention how she’d like to camp on the grass outside the classroom when she runs away from home. As you do. He also acquired the word ‘screb’ from a pupil. (What Martin will do for supplies in future, now that he’s left teaching, is another question.)

Theresa’s book began with seeing young people sleeping rough in London, and then she mixed that with cage fighting, which she came across elsewhere. While talking inspiration, Theresa mentioned another of her books, Name Games, which she wrote on a train journey after overhearing two girls complaining about their names. Again, as you do.

Apparently Martin has three middles of his book; one in the book and two at home which didn’t make it. His editor is great, and will ask things like ‘is this where you want to go?’ (I suspect the answer to that is always meant to be ‘now that you mention it, probably not.’)

They both read short excerpts from their books, which made them sound even more grittily intriguing. Martin has discovered that unlike in films where a fight scene can take forever, you can’t have eight chapters of fighting in a book. And Theresa asks young readers of the target age to read what she writes, because they won’t hesitate to say they ‘could have written it better’ themselves.

Decisions play an important part in really good stories. Fighting a dragon is not such a big deal, whereas having to chose between something dreadful happening to your best friend or to your girlfriend is quite chilling stuff. Theresa mentioned hearing about homeless people who steal wheelie bins to sleep in, because they are dry and possibly safer than just sleeping outside.

Afterwards it was the usual signing in the bookshop, and I managed to chat some more with the former Mr Moss, and discovered that the young lady at his side was the once much younger Miss Moss whose pushchair played a part in our first meeting. And this time Martin had practised his signature before he needed to use it…

Martin Griffin and Theresa Breslin

It’s nice when you find out you’re not as ignorant as you thought, and it’s great to meet people again. I tried suggesting that Scotland is a good place to move to, especially if you are no longer using your local park as your nom de plume. However, it seems I might have a long wait for the sequel to The Poison Boy.

*I suppose I could always try this thing called research…

Beck

Beck is a beautiful story, with a sad but beautiful background. Written mostly by Mal Peet, but finished by his dear friend Meg Rosoff after Mal’s far too early death in 2015, it is a collaboration between two of the best writers for Young Adults. I’ve heard of other writers who agree with a colleague and friend that if the worst should happen, the friend will finish their book for them. We don’t want this to happen, but if it does, it’s far better for a ‘chosen one’ to take over.

Set primarily in the 1920s, Beck is the result of a brief encounter between a poor Liverpool woman and a black sailor. Mal kills off his whole family in a sentence or two, and then our orphan is truly on his own, before he is shipped off to Canada at 14. Received there by the Catholic Brothers, the modern reader can’t help wondering if they will be good Brothers or wicked ones.

Mal Peet, and Meg Rosoff, Beck

Eventually most of the orphans are sent on to work on farms, and it’s not exactly Green Gables. Beck ends up in one place after another; not all bad, but he definitely doesn’t have an easy life.

I was wondering if I’d be able to tell where the join is, but reading part four you can tell a woman has taken over the story. It’s not necessarily easier for Beck, but it’s hard in a different way. A softer hard, so to speak.

This is a wonderful story about a young man battling adversity, and it offers a window on a Canada of almost a hundred years ago. It’s not the Depression, as it says in the blurb, but you can’t help thinking about what will happen to the people you have come to love, when the Depression does arrive.

It’s not easy deciding whether an interrupted book should be continued by another writer, but I often think of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and how I wondered what was meant to happen, and whether I should make up my own [happy] ending, or not. And if I’d get it right.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to read all of Beck.

Monday, Mounties, Metaphrog and the Makar

On my walk from Haymarket to Charlotte Square on Monday I was overtaken by a Mountie. This doesn’t happen often, and as this one was a fake, it might not even count. But still. That’s Edinburgh in August. Thank you kindly.

Just before the entrance to the book festival, I came across our new Makar, Jackie Kay, being photographed by a fan. On my way to a reception in the Party Pavilion, I first stopped by the signing tent to see who I could find. I had missed Philippa Gregory, but caught Dominic Hinde with his last fan. He’s written a book about Sweden, which I’ve not read, but is why I sort of knew he’d be there.

Dominic Hinde

Got to the party just as it was beginning, finding Debi Gliori in the queue by the door and had the nerve to ask her why she’d been invited… (For a good reason, I may add.) She was debating the impossibilty of removing more garments in the somewhat unexpected heat. It’s hard when you are down to your last cover.

Janet Smyth

We were there to eat scones and dainty sandwiches, and to hear about the book festival’s new-ish venture outside Charlotte Square and August, Book-ed. Janet Smyth introduced the speakers, who told us what had been happening, or was about to happen, in their home areas, primarily half a dozen new towns, including Irvine, Glenrothes and Cumbernauld. It seems that having the EIBF behind you means any venture stands a much better chance of success, so I believe we can look forward to many more little festivals here and there.

A wealthy Bookwitch would have offered to sponsor something on the spot, but in this case she merely had another piece of rather nice cake. Met a crime colleague, who was able to tell me what I did last August, which is something I increasingly need help with. To make the most of my invited status, I sat outside on the decking for a while, enjoying the sunshine.

Charlotte Square

It was going to be an afternoon of bookshop signing photos, and I hurried over to catch Nicola Davies and Petr Horáček (for a while I lost Petr’s lovely accents, which was worrying, but they have now been found again), who had so many young fans I didn’t stop to talk.

Nicola Davies

Petr Horacek

The really great thing about Charlotte Square is that someone built it near a good shoeshop, making it possible to pop out for new shoes whenever a gap presents itself. I found such a gap on Monday.

Richard Byrne

Back for Richard Byrne, who seems to be a very nice man, with a whole lot of lovely little fans. And then I crossed the square for Jackie Kay and Zaffar Kunial, checked out the sandwich situation, and went and had a chat with Sarah from Walker Books.

Zaffar Kunial

Jackie Kay

Refreshed from my brief rest, I braved the world of Harry Potter. Jim Kay, who is illustrating the books about the famous wizard, had a sold out event, which then filled the children’s bookshop. Although I couldn’t help noticing that those first in line were really quite old. I chatted to Jim’s chair, Daniel Hahn, who is so relaxed about travelling that he’d only just got off the train.

Jim Kay

After a little sit-down in the reading corner I was ready for Ross MacKenzie and Robin Jarvis. The latter had brought a skull. And with all three signings happening side by side, there was quite a crush. On the left side of the queue I encountered Ann Landmann, who told me she was feeling stupid. When she’d told me why, I also felt stupid, so it must have been an Ann thing. (We should have brought our copies of A Monster Calls. And we didn’t.)

Ross MacKenzie

Skull

My sandwich required eating, and I repaired to the yurt, before going zombie-hunting. Darren Shan was signing his Zom-B Goddess (and I can’t tell you how relieved I am I haven’t really started on his – undoubtedly excellent – books). His hair was extremely neatly combed. I liked the way Darren allowed time for chatting with his fans, initiating a discussion if they seemed shy. I can’t see how he’d have time to do it with all of them, but maybe he feels that those who’d waited to be first in line deserved a bit of extra attention.

Darren Shan

Over in the children’s bookshop I found Metaphrog still signing, and was pleased to see they look nice and normal. The name has always worried me a little…

Metaphrog

And then all I had left to do was get ready for Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans, which you’ve already read about. Listening to others in the queue, I got the impression, as with Michael Grant on Saturday, that many people buy tickets on the day for an event that sounds reasonably suitable, but might be with an author they’d not heard of before. I like that. It’s good to know you can discover a new favourite out of the blue.

Unusual and Unexpected

It helps to have authors who are former actors, or just plain crazy. Last night’s brilliant performance – that is the only word for it – by Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans was really something. The bright spark who put them together is either quite cunning or someone simply got lucky. Jo and Kathryn felt they were mismatched, what with not writing for the same age group, and I’d had the same thought, but they are friends and they worked out what to do. Or so they claimed.

Jo Cotterill

It was fun! We could have had much more of this electric stuff. Literally.

Debut author Kathryn Evans (who is up for the First Book Award at the festival, so vote for her!) started off, and now that I’ve seen her childhood photographs and learned more about aphids, I completely see where she was coming from when writing about her set of girls in More of Me.

Kathryn Evans

Who knew you could get ideas for fiction when farming strawberries? I mean, from the actual farming, rather than just idly thinking as you farm. Creatures eating creatures eating plants. I think. Inside every aphid is another aphid. Apparently. And being given sets of Russian dolls by your Eastern European workers will also set the ball rolling.

Books by Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans

After both of them had agreed that being an embarrassing mother is essential, Jo Cotterill used the audience to build atoms, to explain how her Electrigirl came to be. There is audience participation and then there’s audience participation. First Jo built one atom and then a second atom, using every available electron in the tent, with Kathryn as the battery, channelling her enthusiastic PE teacher persona to the limit. (As we were in one of the smaller theatres, most of the audience got used up for this.)

Jo Cotterill

They had questions for each other, and we learned that Kathryn was surprised we all came, and Jo has been surprised to find fans believe characters are real. (They are!?) Jo once poured a pot of tea over herself (ouch!) and Kathryn wasn’t totally truthful with her agent about progress on book two. Oops, sorry. I think that was a secret meant to stay in the tent. And the book features a frozen heroine.

Then it was the turn of the audience to ask questions, and they were far better than average. Kathryn once wanted to work in a sweetshop, because she fancied a boy there. Jo was an actress and a teacher, before becoming a writer. She reckons she could let her heroine explode in book three… That might also have been a secret.

When the time came to be first in the signing queue, I witnessed some proper running. The girls were dead keen, and those who had come only knowing one of these fun – but crazy – authors were completely charmed by the other one as well. And let’s face it; how could you resist a sexy strawberry farmer with pink hair, wearing a silver grey fifties dress and uncomfortable shoes, or the ex-actress in lime green leggings and a skirt straight out of a comic, with specially painted Converse to match her book cover?

Kathryn Evans

I joined the queue, wearing both my fan girl hat and my photographer hat. Kathryn had a blue, retro Polaroid camera, and after sort of kissing me across the signing table she made me pose with her. I never do this. Never. She had a library date stamp to play with as well. In fact, I suspect neither Jo nor Kathryn were treating this very seriously…

Kathryn Evans and Jo Cotterill

After sensibly declining drinks, I got out my old person’s bus pass for the two stops to Waverley station, making sure I voted for Kathryn’s book before leaving Charlotte Square.

Princes Street was surprisingly pleasant for a Saturday night, I thought, until I remembered it was Monday.

On the Front Line with Michael Grant

We were given permission to call him whatever we wanted. This man who recently lay down under a tank in the Ardennes, in case he would need to know what it looks like from down there. Michael Grant was back in Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon, converting a tentful of teenagers, some younger ones and a whole lot of older people who were unable to resist. (Although I have a few words to offer the adult who told her child companion to put Gone back on the shelf in the shop. That he wanted it was testament to Michael’s ability to make children want to read [his books].)

Michael Grant

Michael threatened horrible pictures (I hope he didn’t have me in mind) and suggested some of us might want to leave there and then. It wasn’t so bad. Barbara Cartland was very pink, and I suspect Michael will never look like that, despite his past in romantic formula novels. Luckily he gave them up before he had to hang himself in the shower.

This is the man who left school after 10th grade because he arrived for school lunch through the exit door and was told to go out and come back in the right way. The one who surreptitiously gave the finger in an old family photo. Someone who has a past as a burglar of cheap diners. They got him in to inspire us, and he said he’d see what he could do.

Genghis Khan was worse than Hitler, and I almost believe him after hearing what happened in Kiev. And then there was the Chichijima incident, which gave us George Bush for President.

Anyway, Michael was here to talk about WWII and his latest book, Front Lines. He sought inspiration in books, and particularly praised Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which he told everyone to read. He had done the Private Ryan Package at a rifle range, just so he could try lots of rifles out, despite hating guns.

He wasn’t sure how open he could be, either in the book, or with the audience, but feels that children can cope with the truth. And he only writes something if he thinks he will have fun with it.

Michael Grant, Front Lines

There were two things Michael changed in his book. One was giving women the draft, as he wanted to have them in the story. He also made black soldiers more integrated, earlier than in real life. The war had a good effect for black soldiers, because after fighting Hitler, they returned home less afraid than they’d been before.

This workaholic told us how he met his wife, Katherine Applegate, and how they eventually began writing books in order to quit their cleaning jobs. How they made a fortune with Animorphs (‘we’re going to need some aliens’) and then lived it all up, meaning they had to start again.

Michael Grant

That’s when Michael had the idea for Gone, told his wife about it, and she told him to drop everything and write it. Being a well trained husband he always does what his wife tells him to do.

After Michael had worn out one microphone and moved on to the next, it was time for us to skip over to the bookshop to have our books signed. I must have lost my touch, because I was nowhere near the front of the queue. I blame the photographer who required the buying of her own copy of Front Lines (that’s how inspiring Michael was). And then I tried to convert the young boy who wanted to read Gone and wasn’t allowed…

Michael Grant

I have received complaints for messing up the last photo my photographer was going to take of a very happy looking Michael. I retorted that he doesn’t do happy, but actually, I see that he does. Even with other women readers. So here’s to a smiley Michael. It wouldn’t be Edinburgh without him.

And we’re back at Charlotte Square again

Some of the ducks are new. I’m sure of it. The Edinburgh International Book Festival opened yesterday, and my photographer and I joined them for a few hours. Not too long, and not too short. We have learned to pace ourselves in my old age.

Chris Close

We had fortified ourselves with some meze before collecting our press passes, rudely interrupting press boss Frances Sutton’s lunch in the process. Photographer Chris Close was yet again stationed outside the yurt with his camera, and some new boxes, which I genuinely hope he’s not going to ask any authors to balance on. There was new fake grass for the ducks.

Cathy Cassidy

Cathy Cassidy was our first prey, signing after her event, resplendent in her favourite green and with what looked suspiciously like a tub of cookies next to her. Well, signings can take time. And for her they did, as we could see Cathy still signing away an hour later. She had time for a hug before starting, and we talked about how I now live in Scotland and she doesn’t. And her latest book – Broken Heart Club – looks good enough to eat. (I have a thing for such very pink book covers.) Great to see her publicist Tania again, too.

Cathy Cassidy, Broken Heart Club

Came across Michael Grant being interviewed next to the ducks, and was told he’d been looking for me. Gratifying, but unlikely, I say. I was pleased to actually recognise Alice, his publicist, now that I am increasingly losing my marbles and generally failing at things. Michael got the Chris Close treatment, and then we grabbed him for a photo session of our own. We discussed how much money he spent on his daughter’s hair this last year. (Looking on the bright side, he must save on his own.)

Michael Grant

Before going to Michael’s event – which you will be able to read about tomorrow –  we caught illustrator Kes Gray in the children’s bookshop. I’d hoped to chat, but he had a long queue of young fans wanting their copies of Oi Dog! signed. I should have brought mine… Glimpsed his publicist Rebecca before she disappeared, and watched as Falkirk librarian Yvonne Manning did post-its duty along the queue.

Kes Gray

We hobbled off to catch our train home, grabbing seats by the skin of our teeth. This travelling is getting worse every year. In order not to look at all those who had to stand all the way, we buried ourselves in a book each. Lovely, life-saving things, books.

Get Coding!

‘That’s quite advanced!’ said the Resident IT Consultant, pointing at my ‘picture book’ shelf. By that I mean picture sized books, more than that they are for toddlers. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if toddlers will ‘get’ coding quicker than me, because I don’t really get it.

To be honest, I didn’t know if young people needed to be taught coding through books, or if they are born knowing this kind of thing these days.

The Resident IT Consultant did stuff like that at university, and possibly before, when he would have been a normal school geek. I don’t know. At the time I was so far removed from computers that I knew nothing.

Now I know a little, by which I mean I gather that Daughter codes her work. It must mean she is very clever, because I don’t get it. Apparently Python is good, but I’d rather not think about it.

Get Coding!

In this book, Get Coding!, readers learn HTML, CSS and JavaScript, and they are instructed on how to build websites and apps and games. I still find it hard to grasp what an app actually is, but I do get close up with a little HTML when I insert pictures into my blog posts, but that’s quite enough for me. I don’t understand that either.

This review is the kind I normally frown on, as I’ve not really read the book. There would be no point. Not because it’s not good. I’m sure it’s excellent, which is why I’m sitting here pretending I know about some computery things. But because I wouldn’t get it. If I was twenty years younger, I just might sit down and see if it would get me somewhere interesting, but I’ll stick with my old-fashioned skills of baking and talking to houseplants.

I like the pictures.