Tag Archives: Fiona Dunbar

Coffee, beer and a book launch

You’ll have to excuse me, but I saw so many authors on Thursday that I am unable to list them all here. Not because the list would be too long, but simply because I no longer recall absolutely everyone, nor did I necessarily see or recognise them in the first place. But if you were there, tell me and I will add you to the list.

I had crawled out of bed to go and have ‘coffee’ with Marnie Riches who was also in town. She’d been doing her own book related things the night before, and was now up for grabs while on her way to CrimeFest via Paddington. We chatted and drank ‘coffee’ and then I accompanied her to her train and made sure she got on it, to join her murderously minded colleagues in Bristol. (I provided her with a secret list of who to talk to there, but I doubt she’ll obey.)

After some admin and a good rest (because having ‘coffee’ is hard work…), I packed my going to do an interview and going to a book launch bag and went off to Hampstead in the rain.

Anthony McGowan's beer

First I did a recce at my second Waterstones in two days, before walking uphill (they have some surprisingly steep hills in Hampstead) to a very old pub suggested by Anthony McGowan as a suitable venue for me to grill him on all kinds of authorly secrets. He was right; it was a good place to go, even if there was a slight but steady drip of water from the skylight above me. Before leaving for the book launch we were going to, Tony took his t-shirt off, but that wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

He brought me along the scenic route to Waterstones, and we encountered new author Nicole Burstein in a café across the road, and she came along as well. And then everyone started the game of turning their books face out on the shelves. Nicole’s bookshop past also meant she had to tidy all the book piles on the tables, and I have to admit it’s hard to resist…

Caroline Green, Rachel Ward, Joy Court and Anthony McGowan at the Read Me Like a Book launch

Laura at the Read Me Like a Book launch

More and more authors kept arriving at the shop, and even a few ordinary people. Liz Kessler, whose launch it was – for Read Me Like a Book, arrived accompanied by her wife. Before long the upstairs at Waterstones was full of guests, and after a while it was just about too crowded to move about and take photos of people, because there was always someone else ‘in the way.’ But believe me when I say they were all there.

Read Me Like a Book launch

There were drinks, and there was the most enormous cake. And you can’t celebrate a novel like this without some speeches. Orion’s Fiona Kennedy spoke of her decision to publish Liz’s book; because she ‘didn’t want anyone else to have it.’

Read Me Like a Book launch

Liz herself talked about why she wrote Read Me Like a Book, and how things on the lgbt front have changed over the last twenty years or so. She thanked all the people in her life who had made the book possible, from her former English teacher, to her wonderful agent and her publisher, to her wife.

She read a chapter from the book, where Ashleigh stays behind to talk to her English teachers, just because she needs to.

Liz Kessler at the Read Me Like a Book launch

Finally there was a short speech from Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall. And I believe there was even a little time left for the buying and signing of books

Launching Shine

The custard creams made all the difference. They and the Coke. Halfway through the launch party for Candy Gourlay’s new book Shine, I was overcome by an urge to liberate ‘a few’ custard creams. They were looking lonely, sitting on a table at Archway Library. That sugar rush kept me going all night, more or less.

Archway Library

I arrived just in time for The Three Hundred Word Challenge. Candy read out as many entries as there was time for, and her collected authors pitched in with their thoughts. The advice was good. The fledgling stories were even better. It’s reassuring to find that young people still want to write, and that they know how.

Teri Terry, Candy Gourlay and Jane McLoughlin

While this was going on in front of an audience so numerous they ran out of chairs, people went about their business in the library, and there was a nice mix of festival special and ordinary library behaviour. (It was the first day of the first Archway With Words Festival.) The authors couldn’t always agree on their advice, which should go a long way to proving that there is no one correct way to write. (I thought they were going to come to blows. Which would have been exciting.)

Random's Clare, Simon Mason, Philippa Dickinson and Keren David

Once it was time for the launch proper, I had a job recognising people without the customary name badges. I managed some. I was discovered in my corner by Random’s Clare, who was almost on her own doorstep for this event.

There were speeches. MDs Philippa Dickinson and Simon Mason came. David Fickling, on the other hand, did not. Replacing him, Philippa and Bella Pearson spoke, but they couldn’t quite manage David’s voice, so Candy had to help out.

Candy Gourlay with Philippa Dickinson and Bella Pearson

In her own speech, Candy told us of the long hard slog to get there. What’s three years between friends? Bella went on maternity leave, and came back. Candy said nice things about her editor Simon, even after he told her that her first attempt was no repair job.

Candy’s daughter Mia and friends sang a cappella. Absolutely lovely.

Candy Gourlay at Archway Library

Dave Cousins

We mingled. There were more authors than you could shake a stick at. (Not that I’d want to, I hasten to add.) Fiona Dunbar and I met where we always seem to meet. I met several facebook friends for real. (They exist!) Teri Terry was surrounded by young fans. Dave Cousins came.I recognised Jane McLoughlin but took ages to work out who she was. Missed Joe Friedman. Ruth Eastham was over from Italy, which was very nice. She introduced me to Sarah Mussi, whose book I just ‘happened’ to be reading, so I hauled it out for an autograph. (Very scary. The book. Not so much Sarah.)

Sarah McIntyre

The other Sarah (McIntyre) also ended up signing stuff, although not for me. Keren David said hello, and then goodbye. I chatted to Inbali Iserles and Savita Kalhan. I spoke to people I have emailed with, and to people I haven’t. Sam Hepburn.

Steve Hartley

And then Mr Gourlay went round saying it was time to go home. So we did. To the Gourley home, where the eldest junior Gourlay was looking after food and drink. There was a lot of it.

The Gourlays

They have the loveliest of gardens! Admittedly it was dark, but it was all lit up and the evening was balmy, and there was somewhere to sit. Not the trampoline for me. Spoke to DFB basement man Simon, and the kind Tilda who once bought me a sandwich. At some point I had to admit to a fondness for the Circle Line. (Yeah, well.)

The wine flowed (the recycling men were most impressed with the bottle collection the next morning) and there was cheese beginning with the letter c, and for the carnivores pork sausages on the barbecue, very ably operated by Mr G.

It was dark. As I said. So I gave up on the camera and simply enjoyed, which is why there are no scandalous shots of anyone. I think the man who hugged me before he left long past midnight might have been Cliff McNish, despite him being underwhelmed by my drinking.

Recommended crime to beautiful blonde, who was impressed with my recent meeting with Colin Bateman… When it got too cold we repaired to the inner regions. In the end most people went home, and Candy was left with a mere five houseguests. Eldest son politely gave up his bed for an old witch, and was banished to his godmother’s ‘vomiting room.’

In the morning I got up long after the six o’clock taxi guest had departed, and people had dispersed to school and jobs and things. I met my brand newest facebook friend (less than 24 hours) in her pyjamas. And then Candy made us breakfast and we gossiped about the great and the famous.

But I had a noon train to catch, so shouldered my nightie and toothbrush and walked up the hill to the tube station hidden in mist. Once I got to Euston I encountered the Poet Laureate on the escalators, going the opposite way. Bought some treats for the Resident IT Consultant to celebrate our first 31 years, and hopped on my train.

Tired library visitor

(I know how that doll feels.)

Thanks, Siobhan!

Siobhan Dowd NYC 80s-90s, by Helen Graves

Easter brought back my earliest memories of Siobhan Dowd, and of The London Eye Mystery. It was as we left the local bookshop just before Easter 2007 that Daughter grabbed the proof of this wonderful book, and once she had read it, she gave me permission to read it as well.

I’d like to think that this ‘illustrious’ blogging career of mine would have gone in much the same direction even without Siobhan and The London Eye Mystery. Hard to say. It made me do my fan email thing, which in turn meant Siobhan wrote back to me, opening up a more personal view of herself; one which I might never have encountered otherwise.

Looking back, it seems so dreadfully unreal that she would die just a few months later. And who would have thought that her work would just go on and on afterwards? I won’t be alone in blessing her strength, writing four novels in such a very short time, giving us her fantastic books to read after she was gone. And her trust, which she had time to plan, helping young people to read.

This was the very beginning of my moving in literary circles, and I marvel at how I dared get on that train to Oxford for Siobhan’s memorial service in November. I met so many people there, who I would probably have met at some point, but not quite like that. Would I have known that Siobhan’s friend Fiona Dunbar would make the perfect Bookwitch Profile as seen here last month?

The London Eye Mystery made more magic later with the stage version. Again, lots of people met up, and for me a lasting pleasure was meeting her best friend Helen who came over from New York, and who provided the photo above. (You could ask why it’s important to meet the American friend of an author you never met. I don’t know. But it feels good.)

Siobhan Dowd and Helen Graves: friends at Blenhaim Palace spring 2006

When I think back to first meeting literary people – online or in person – I can link back to Siobhan surprisingly often. It’s not just Declan Burke of Irish crime fame who popped up. He brought with him all those Irish crime writers that I’d never heard of before. Other bloggers. And in turn, these writers have taken me further in many different directions. I find paths doubling back on themselves.

Rings on the water, is what it seems like. Once this idea had come to me, the rings just grew and grew. I am not going to bore you with long lists of authors and publishers (although the lovely David Fickling must be mentioned). I started counting how many facebook friends originated with Siobhan, but gave up…

There was something in the way my brief contact with Siobhan encouraged more mad behaviour on my part. It wasn’t only meeting people. It was learning other things I could do. Was allowed to do. I owe Siobhan a lot, and I hope she’s sitting up there looking down at all of us, having a bit of fun herself. Maybe with a fluffy dog by her side, and a glass of something.

(I know. This is very much a me, me kind of post. But whenever I think ‘how did that come about then?’ my inner detective notices footprints going all the way back to this great author and person.)

The #2 profile – Fiona Dunbar

Now, isn’t it clever of Fiona Dunbar to have her birthday on World Book Day? I’m very pleased to have persuaded her to answer my Bookwitch profile questions. I suspected she’d be quite good at it, and she is. Just the right blend of interesting and amusing.

Fiona Dunbar, by Candy Gourlay

Here she is, the birthday girl:

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

One. I was in my mid-twenties, and I made a full-colour dummy picture book called Phineas and Dan in Ice-Cream Land. Phineas was a bear and Dan was a rat. Ice Cream Land was a secret, Dahl-esque fantasy world, very hard to find. You had to meet a badger called Frank at a pub called the Duck & Orange, after which there’s something to do with lawnmowers and kite-flying. The book was full of awful puns like ‘Sundae is a very special day in Ice-Cream Land’. A family friend, writer and illustrator Wendy Smith, introduced me to Caroline Roberts, who was then commissioning editor at Hutchinson. She was very nice about Phineas & Dan, then suggested I write something else. When I did the something else (You’ll Never Guess), she took it on.

Best place for inspiration?

There’s this boring stretch of road between my house and where the shops are. Its magic is in its boringness. Walking to the shops is the thing I do when I get stuck, and it’s interesting how it’s always right around that spot that Stuff Happens. Also: bed. 3am.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I write under my real name. I would consider writing under a pseudonym, if circumstances dictated it. My alter-ego, Ona Bindfrau, is always on at me to have a go, but she’s a pain in the bum so I try to ignore her.

What would you never write about?

Dragons. I have nothing whatsoever to add to the canon of dragon-related literature. NOTHING.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

Well, Ed Miliband was a bit unexpected. I met him at the Doncaster Book Awards a few years ago, back when he was the ‘other brother’. I made small talk with him about kids and books and stuff, which in retrospect was a massive missed opportunity. I should have asked him how much he hated being the ‘other brother’, and did he have any plans to wreak his revenge?

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

Gosh, I don’t think I want to be any of them, really. They all have a bit of a hard time – certainly all my main protagonists do. I think probably Kitty Slade is the one I’d least like to be: I’d hate it if I saw ghosts wherever I went. I would actually go insane. I suppose I’d quite like to be Elsie Silk – a grown-up version. Elsie knows exactly what she wants and she goes for it. She isn’t intimidated by anyone or anything, and she’s extremely creative. She’s way more assertive than I’ve ever been. She has real chutzpah.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

Well, that would depend on who made it. It would have to be someone who ‘gets’ me. Lots of my readers have told me they think the Silk Sisters trilogy would make an awesome movie, and I have to say I agree with them. Visually, it would be spectacular, and I think it would be an interesting project because it’s a bit like a kids’ version of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror TV series – there is actually direct overlap in some of our ideas. Then as well as the dystopian aspect there’s the fantasy one, with Rorie morphing into other people. So it wouldn’t be cheap to make, but it would be awesome, if I do say so myself. Three books, one film: opposite of The Hobbit. Also, the book I’m writing at the moment *is* a film, as well as a novel. I feel so strongly about this, I’m doing the screenplay as well. I want Gurinder Chadha to direct it.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

“What car do you drive?” That’s probably quite a common one – sorry. Can’t think of anything outlandish.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I’m an amazing dancer. I probably look absurd at my age, throwing myself around to Nirvana, James Brown, Fatboy Slim… Don’t care. I LOVE to dance. I do it all by myself if I feel like it. I’m like a Whirling Dervish – I reach another spiritual plane when I dance. It’s a shame more people my age don’t do it, really.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Ooh, that is a hard one! The obvious answer would be Famous Five, because I’ve cited that as an influence for the Kitty Slade stories. But…oh! Narnia! In literary terms there is no comparison. I think ultimately I would have to choose Narnia, because of the imaginative scope. I don’t think the characters are much more interesting that Blyton’s, but I do think I have been more influenced by Lewis’s stories overall. And the imagery!

Who is your most favourite Swede?

(Quickly Googles ‘famous Swedes’…) Well, it would be too obvious to say Astrid Lindgren, so I won’t – and in any case, much as I love Pippi Longstocking, those weren’t formative stories in my childhood as, alas, no one ever gave them to me. And I haven’t read her other books. So I’ll go for film director Lasse Hallström – mainly on the basis of My Life As A Dog, which I absolutely love. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is superb as well. Unfortunately not all his ventures have been so successful (some very so-so novel adaptations, though I applaud his choices) and he can be a bit sentimental. But it was either him or Bergman, and the latter’s a bit heavy-going for me. Although can I please have Max von Sydow as my Second Favourite Swede? Or even joint first? He’s magnificent. And incredibly, has stayed exactly the same age for about thirty years.

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

Alphabetically, but also in categories: fiction (adult novels), fiction (kids’), short stories, non-fiction (art), non-fiction (history/politics), mythology, poetry, plays, my books, books by friends. There is, um, some overlap in there. And to be honest it’s mainly the adult novels I keep in strict alphabetical order. I think I would disappear up my own backside if I tried to do the same with all the others. DON’T understand people who organize them by colour of the spines. I mean, really, is there anyone outside of Elle Decoration magazine who actually does that?? Oh, and most of my books live upstairs; the living room is a social space. I love being an enigma to people who feel the need to judge you by the books you have on your shelves.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum, Captain Underpants, or anything by Jeremy Strong. But I would also tell his parents to stop fretting; my own son didn’t choose to entertain himself with book-reading at that age, and now (at 16) he’s reading everything, including some pretty challenging stuff. People attach too much importance to milestones.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

Oh, come on! You can’t do that! *Sigh*. OK, I guess it would have to be reading. I could make up stories in my head. I could memorise them and pass them on orally. But really, in the great scheme of things, what do my stories amount to, when there are all those amazing books out there? Not a lot. Nope: couldn’t get by without reading. I’d shrivel up and waste away.

Well, I look forward to the dragon trilogy by Ona Bindfrau. They will be the dragon books to out-dragon all others. And I suppose we can allow an extra helping of Swede. Max von Sydow is magnificent, and exactly the same age he’s always been.

Bookwitch bites #101

Who wants books when they can have videos? You do?

OK, I will let you have book related video clips, then. With real live authors. Who to start with? I know it’s usually ladies first, but let’s get the boys out of the way. Just to get them out of the way.

That Lemony Snicket chap hasn’t given up yet. He has more weird books coming our way, and someone is about to tell you as little as possible about the next one. It’s what’s known as a leak. (No, not that kind of leak!)


Our second boy is less secretive. We can actually see what Neil Gaiman looks like as he talks about his new book (October in this case) Fortunately, The Milk… which is a book about milk, as well as many other silly things. Third boy, Chris Riddell, is doing wonderful illustrations of interstellar dinosaurs to go with the milk.

Moving on to the girls, we have Julia Skott, who will have her first book published later this year (and it has just struck me I don’t know in what language…). It’s non-fiction and it’s about bodies and health. Julia is the daughter of a Swedish journalist and a Russian academic, which is why she sounds like this when she speaks:


Someone who sounds pretty English and also pretty involved with saving libraries, is Fiona Dunbar, being grilled by someone on Sky News (who seems a little anti-library). Very brave of Fiona to venture into a television studio like this. Some of us would have seized up completely…

Finally to our last girls, who are not on video. There is a brand new blog featuring the life and works of Joan Aiken, run by her daughter Lizza. I wasn’t surprised to find a very early story by Joan on there, in facsimile. She clearly had the story-telling gene working right from the start. It’s about a teapot, and Satan. Obvious choice, really.

Joan also has a facebook page now. Please like!

Raven Hearts

Kitty Slade has moved on since Divine Freaks, almost two years ago (that’s in Bookwitch time), and here she is, in deepest Yorkshire, where they don’t speak in the same way.

Fiona Dunbar, Raven Hearts

Some things never change, though, like the ghosts which Kitty sees every day. Think Yorkshire Moors and ghosts, and you have a most interesting set-up. Kitty and Sam and Flossie and their unusual, and very Greek, granny are travelling the country, as they stop off for some Yorkshire ghosts on their way to Scotland.

But the funny thing is that for all the reported and unexpected deaths in the area, Kitty sees surprisingly few ghosts. Are people simply not as dead as they could be?

She has to investigate, and some things go well, and others not so. Kitty also acquires a new ‘best friend’ and she shows off her ‘London ways’ to the astonished natives. There is a sinister looking black bird following Kitty around. What does it want, and is she in danger? And what about the dogs in the night?

As always with Fiona Dunbar, this is an intelligently written, humorous book. It’s the kind of story I imagine any young reader of a certain age would love, and we don’t see enough of them. And I’d like to think we could find out what adventures the intrepid quartet will encounter in Scotland, but I understand the six books featuring Kitty Slade have shrunk to four, and Raven Hearts is the fourth, so that’s it. We’ll simply have to conjure up our own Scottish ghosts.

We just won’t do it so well.

Bookwitch bites #75

If I’d known about it I would have wanted to be there. Here is a short video from when some other people spoke up for libraries, with Alan Gibbons at the forefront ‘as usual.’ The others are, in no particular order, Lucy Coats, Candy Gourlay, Philip Ardagh, Gillian Cross, Fiona Dunbar, Chris Priestley, Pat Walsh and the librarian of librarians, Ferelith Hordern. And probably some others I didn’t catch enough of a glimpse of to be able to identify them.

It’s easy for us to take libraries and the whole idea of them for granted. I had no idea that when Candy grew up in the Philippines there weren’t any libraries. And the elderly gentleman in the video who talked so passionately about borrowing books to read… well, it makes me want to cry.

Charlie Brown had access to a library. Probably even Snoopy had a library, unless it was ‘no dogs allowed.’ It can be easy to lose or forget a library book, but as long as you don’t ‘spill coffee’ on a book on purpose, you might be forgiven.

Charlie Brown library cartoon

The coffee spilling was a technique I learned about at work, back in the olden days. Not very honest, and not something I have ever practised.

Finally, here is a link to a radio programme on Monday 26th March, about Scandinavian children’s books, presented by Mariella Frostrup as ‘always.’ Let’s hope it won’t be only the same old stuff, despite the description. I am particularly interested, because I was party to a request for contributions to the programme from the Scandinavian church in Liverpool. Nice that they asked, but not sure who they hoped to find there. (Having said that, I will clearly be faced with all my friends at Gustav Adolf…)

The second day

Here we are again. How did you get on yesterday? Did you have to queue for the toilets? No, I didn’t, either. Nor did I wear Lucy Coats’s pyjamas all day. (Not even part of the day, I’ll have you know.)

What did I do? I watched Mary Hoffman and Anne Rooney drink coffee. (It’s the personal touch that makes festivals such fun.) I watched Lucy Coats reading to three dogs.

And Sam Mills was interviewed by Tyger Drew (whoever he might be), and then she interviewed him back. I’m unsure of what Sam said to make Tyger want to poke his eye out, but there you are.

Tyger Drew and Sam Mills, ABBA festival

I entered competitions to win things. I never do, but then I seem to own most of the books on offer, so I’m best to let others, more needy than myself, win.

And here’s today’s programme for the ABBA online blog festival.

ABBA festival Sunday

I’ve got all my books ready to be signed today. It has to work!

And at least they aren’t starting too frightfully early. I might make it down to the kitchen for 10.30.

Divine Freaks

Kitty Slade might see ghosts, but that’s not really the main theme of Fiona Dunbar’s latest book. It’s more of a humorous crime caper, with the odd – occasionally very odd – ghost thrown in. It runs in the family, apparently. Kitty’s dead Mum saw ghosts, but luckily there is some rule which prevents Kitty seeing her Mum as a ghost. Which, on the whole, is probably for the best.

And if you wonder how we know this, it’s because Kitty’s cool – and Greek – granny knows all the rules, and tells Kitty about them once she has encountered her first ghost. It happened in her biology class, where suitably enough a weird man appeared, attempting to murder a rat. That’s biology for you.

Fiona Dunbar, Divine Freaks

Once the shock has sort of worn off, the mysteries start. Like why does their landlady suddenly sell off their flat to the horrible man in the antiques shop? What can they do to save their home?

Kitty and her brother Sam with the formerly broken leg, and their sister Flossie live with their grandma Maro, above horrible man’s antique shop. And unusually (well, I think so) they get on. That’s nice, because ghosts and criminals are quite enough to deal with, without having family quarrels as well.

So Kitty and Sam and Flossie cooperate nicely while trying to solve their almost lost home problem.

I’m not going to tell you any more, actually. Read the book. Find out why ghost number one had it in for the rat. See what the stupid biology teacher did. But above all; don’t try most of these things at home. You’re not in a book and all is most likely not going to end well if you do.

Bookwitch bites #25

Author-wise it was a busy Wednesday over at the local bookshop. Not only did Cathy Cassidy do her friendship thing for younger readers, but she had barely left when it was time for Adèle Geras and Sophie Hannah to do their event. In fact, she hadn’t left, as Adèle arrived too early and caught her as she was running for her train. It was admiration all round, as they are fans of each other’s books. Adèle read from Dido, and Sophie read from her latest crime novel, A Room Swept White.

Another criminally minded lady is Donna Moore, who can now add the job title Writer In Virtual Residence at the schools in the Kuspuk School District in Alaska. Donna was last there in the spring, yoyo-ing between schools, talking to the students about writing. When we saw Donna in Charlotte Square in August, she was saying how she hoped this would happen, but wasn’t sure they’d want her! Of course they want her. I think she’ll be really good for these children in the middle of ‘nowhere’.

And as I almost mentioned last week, Fiona Dunbar has a new series of books for 8-12s about a girl called Kitty Slade who develops ‘phantorama’, the ability to see ghosts. Each story contains a mystery that she solves with the aid of her phantorama. Fiona started out wanting to do a sort of Famous Five for the 21st century, but ended up with something more like Ghost Whisperer for kids. The first title is Divine Freaks and it’s out next spring.

To avoid this being an all ladies affair, I’ll round off with Alan Garner, over in Alderley Edge. It’s not far, but I don’t go very often. I mainly dream of the date loaf from the baker’s. It’s fifty years since The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was first published, and there is a new special edition, along with the paperback of The Moons of Gomrath. Alan Garner is the kind of author everyone admires tremendously. Coming to his stories as an adult, I may not have the same feelings for them as those who grew up reading Alan’s books. We used to listen to them in the car, and I have to admit to never having quite understood The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Lots of running around in tunnels under the Edge. I think.