Tag Archives: Scottish Reading

Best Scottish?

It came back to me, out of the blue, a few days ago. I had a Scottish Reading tag on Bookwitch. First, I had my one year Foreign Reading Challenge, which was tough enough. Not the doing, so much as the finding a new foreign published book every month for twelve months. And a different foreign every time.

Seemingly I wasn’t challenged enough, as I veered off onto a new tag, Scottish Reading. I believe I felt I should concentrate a bit more on a slightly ignored section of British books for children. But I just cannot remember what happened to it! The foreign challenge had rules; the Scottish was just supposed to happen.

Recently I have, for obvious reasons, read more Scottish again, but without tagging it or anything. My memory isn’t what it was.

The Resident IT Consultant pointed me in the direction of the the BBC’s 30 top Scottish books list the other day. It even made us argue a bit, en famille. What counts as a Scottish book? Who counts as having written one?

I had my opinion, he had his and Son turned up and said his bit. Can Harry Potter be Scottish? I think so, others are less sure. Does the author have to be Scottish, merely live in Scotland, write about Scottish topics or set their novel in Scotland?

England is full of wonderful authors who are American. But I think we tend to happily adopt these foreigners as homemade successes if they are successful. On that basis, English or American writers living in Scotland ought to qualify, whether or not they write about a wizard school that may or may not be in Scotland (never mind that the train there leaves from King’s Cross).

If a novel is set in outer space, what does that make it? If a Scottish born and bred author sets their novel in London or Cornwall, what then? In fact, it’s getting a bit Brexit. If anyone is supposed to go back to where they came from, the only true Scottish novel must be by a Scottish author, set in Scotland, featuring Scottish characters, who wouldn’t dream of stepping south of the border.

And that’s not right. Elizabeth Wein lives and writes in Scotland. Alex Nye likewise, entertaining us with what Sheriffmuir covered in snow is like. Helen Grant has so far killed the good people of Belgium from the comfort of her Scottish home. Philip Caveney has just joined the ladies here, after some frantic years commuting between Stockport and Scotland. The Scottish Book Trust have all four of these writers on their list of authors.

I have read three of the books on the BBC’s list, and watched another four on film. That’s not much at all, and the fault is all mine. I am overdue another Scottish Reading Challenge. Although it shouldn’t be a challenge at all.

The Spark Gap

Now might a suitable time for another Scottish book, with me barely returned from that lovely country. I’m feeling sad, because it’s the last of the books Julie Bertagna gave me last year, and what shall I read now?

The Spark Gap is the book Julie wrote for her school pupils, because there were so few Scottish books back then:

‘The setting was a big tower block that was right beside my school. I literally looked out my classroom window and there were these huge tower blocks. I was trying to get the children to read and write more. Couldn’t find anything that they wanted to read …  and I got them to tell me what kind of books they thought they’d want to read. They were saying “about people like us and places like ours.” I was very attached to them, they were scallywags, but some of them had really, really difficult lives – very loveable the lot of them. I wanted to take them all home for the weekend.’

Kerrie lives with her gran, because her mum isn’t quite as responsible as she should be. And then her gran dies, and Kerrie finds her mum is still as difficult as she remembered, and her mum’s boyfriend is no better than the ones she used to have.

Julie Bertagna, The Spark Gap

So she starts living rough, in the company of two other teenagers. At first it’s easy to think that this won’t last, but crazy as it seems, Kerrie really does go through with it. There is a lack of food, it’s cold, and she needs to stay hidden.

And then something happens to force the three of them away from Glasgow, and it’s a good change for one, but not for the others. And, I’m not sure how to understand this, but two of them stumble into some historical ghost-like scene, which I take to be both a catalyst for what happens afterwards, but also to teach Scottish readers about Scottish history.

It worked on me. It dealt with something I’ve often heard of, but never quite understood. I can imagine it would be like that for many young readers, as well. Exciting, and empowering. And ultimately leading to the ‘solution’ to Kerrie’s problems.

It’s rather nice.

And I like the fact that someone can put so much action into less than 200 pages.

The Kelpies Prize

Not all Scottish books for children feature a kilted man rowing across a loch. But it’s what it felt like to Theresa Breslin, many years ago as she contemplated what there was for Scottish children to read. She wanted something that was them, something which spoke their language.

Writer's Retreat

Theresa was at the Writer’s Retreat in Charlotte Square last night to present the Kelpies Prize to the 2012 winner. Floris Books support the prize, which is for unpublished manuscripts, aimed at boys and girls aged eight to twelve, and set in Scotland. The winner receives a cheque for £2000 and the promise to be published by Floris Books.

Winner's cheque

It was my first party at the book festival, so I was excited, but relieved it wasn’t me who was wondering if they’d win. I had a drink, looked at the nibbles, spoke to Vanessa Robertson of the Edinburgh Bookshop, and to Theresa, who later introduced me to Lari Don, a former winner of the prize.

Janis MacKay

Someone from Floris spoke about the history behind the award, and then Janis MacKay who won in 2009 read excerpts from all three shortlisted books, by Tracy Traynor, Rebecca Smith and Debbie Richardson.

Top Secret envelope

Then it was Theresa’s turn to speak (and she really didn’t need to say anything about me), which is when the kilted danger to literature was mentioned. As she spoke, I noticed a man creeping up towards the open door, and I wondered about gatecrashers, until I realised it was simply Mr B, wanting to enjoy his wife’s speech and to take photos of her. (I had been told he was engaged in something football related!)

Tracy Traynor

It’s always hard when you don’t win, but I am really pleased for Tracy Traynor who did, and I think she’s got a promising sounding book in Nicking Time. (I had been admiring her purple dress beforehand, so perhaps I sensed she was the one.)

Debbie Richardson and Lari Don

My photo-grapher was indisposed, and as you can see, so were my own photographic skills. But it was dark. And very red.

It was good to meet Benedicte and Chani from Floris, and they very kindly gave me a copy of Theresa’s new book called Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, which has been gorgeously illustrated by Kate Leiper.

(The runners-up were Debbie Richardson with Pick ‘n’ Mix Mums, and Rebecca Smith with Shadow Eyes.)

The Opposite of Chocolate

I seem to be destined to have a new favourite Julie Bertagna book each time I read something by her. Let me tell you about my most recent favourite.

There are many ways to write a novel about an unwanted teenage pregnancy. Julie Bertagna’s is by far the best I’ve come across. In The Opposite of Chocolate she writes about this topic in an unusual and mature manner, and yet so lightly that you barely see how she does it.

Although Sapphire is only 14 (which in itself is daring; ‘allowing’ someone so young to have a sex life, without preaching), the book mentions babies and pregnancies and abortion and parenthood and relationships as though the readers are all adults.

Julie Bertagna, The Opposite of Chocolate

They will be one day, and may well encounter Sapphire’s problem before they are. This novel will help them. Julie doesn’t say that one way is the right way. She manages to cover all the aspects of what a pregnant 14-year-old could find themselves facing. She looks at all the solutions, analysing what’s good and bad about each of them.

Sapphire’s parents have opposing ideas of how to solve their daughter’s predicament, and her sister has yet another. Everyone, from the family priest to the GP and the media have ideas, and no one remembers to listen to Sapphire herself.

At the same time, their suburb suffers arsonist attacks every night, and eventually the two meet, and lives change.

This is a short book, but Julie fits in descriptions of the lives of so many people that I felt several of them could do with books of their own, almost. All are different, and all have their own needs and problems. The Catholic church have their policy, and the GP has his. Even Sapphire’s seemingly perfect girl gang friend, who steals her boyfriend, has a ‘background.’ And not all old people are useless, and most of them were young once.

This is truly wonderful!


Following on from yesterday’s post on Bloody Scotland, here is a brief review of organiser Lin Anderson’s debut novel. I’ve been not reading her books for too long, but have enjoyed one or two short stories. Some years ago, when I learned that Son’s friend’s mother writes crime novels, I almost dismissed it as some sort of hobby. But I quickly realised Lin is a real author. It’s me who hobbies.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t enjoy the beginning of Driftnet. There was a bleakness that made both me and the main character, forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod, unhappy. I wanted to kick her, get her to react differently to her circumstances. I didn’t like her lover, Sean. Wasn’t sure what to make of her job or her colleagues, either.

But things ‘brightened up’ after a while, so I’m glad I continued. What do a paedophile ring or a few dead teenagers matter, in exchange for a determined heroine? The subject is horrendous and makes for difficult reading. What’s so awful is that this still goes on and probably always will.

You can tell the book is ‘old’ (2003) because the use of mobile phones is less widespread. People don’t always check their answerphone messages (in time). Computers and research worked differently, and they didn’t seem to go in for broadband.

Rhona has a complicated – and not always happy – past and it catches up with her and the case, when a young ‘rentboy’ is murdered. It looks like people in high places might be involved. It looks like things will be hushed up because of it.

This is a fascinating beginning to a series of crime novels, set in Glasgow, looking at the painstaking work behind the usual detective work.

If I can find the time, I will want to know what happens next to Rhona and those around her. Hopefully it won’t always be those nearest her who end up involved with the latest crime to solve. I read the first book, because Lin suggested that was a good place to start. And assuming some of the characters turn up again, it would have given the game away to read them in the wrong order.

The Daemon Parallel

Finding out your grandmother is crazy is never a good thing. Especially if you are living with her because your Dad has just died, and you don’t know her very well and she then offers to resurrect her dead son. In case you’re missing him.

Poor Cameron could have done with taking note of what it says on page one of The Daemon Parallel by Roy Gill. It might have saved on what he had to go through later. Or not. You never know with loopy grannies.

Or is she? Grandma Ives listens to jazz and she uses a cafetiere, so she’s hardly your average, really ancient, cosy granny. She could be cool.

Whatever. Grandma Ives shows Cameron that he and she are not quite like others, because they can see a parallel Edinburgh, populated by daemons. And with that they start collecting what they need to revive dead Dad.

Roy Gill,The Daemon Parallel

Cameron meets a werewolf, a poor little used servant girl and a fearsome old woman by the name of Mrs Ferguson. Maybe. And I wouldn’t mind betting that was Jenners department store Roy Gill did such interesting things to.

For a werewolf/daemon fantasy with a difference, set in Edinburgh, you can’t do better. In fact, I feel the Edinburgh settings are pretty good, despite me not being an expert. Creepy place, Edinburgh. Avoid Jenners at all costs. And Arthur’s seat.

This could be a standalone novel. Or I can see how it could be the start of more deamonish happenings. (What I mean is, Cameron is still alive at the end.)


I complain a lot. I know. But below is a perfect example of a contact email, offering me a book to read. I have taken the liberty of copying it here, shortening it very slightly. Even had I not been somewhat Badger-book deprived I’d have wanted a little look.

Badger the Mystical Mutt, a new illustrated children’s book for 5 – 9 year olds published by The Lunicorn Press. It’s now in its 2nd run of 1000 copies. We’ve been touring Waterstones in Scotland, visiting libraries, schools, Hamleys and we’re taking part in Aye Write, Glasgow’s Book Festival. We’ve decided to remain independent rather than seek a mainstream publisher because we want to be totally hands-on.

We also have a 6ft Badger Mutt character who accompanies us to all readings. Book two in the series will be out in May of this year. Feedback has been great, as has press coverage. There are lots of layers to Badger, there’s a bit of reiki, lots of healing, and the first book subtly addresses bullying. One reviewer said it was the message without the lecture, and kids seem to find it funny too, especially his strange travelling contraption – the wim-wim for the wowser.

He’s a big numptie, but a lovable one, and we hope he makes you smile. With badgical magical wishes, Lyn, Laura & Badger.’


It’s not every book character that bothers to sign emails, either. Although, funnily enough I encountered another badger (by name) mere days before I read Badger the Mystical Mutt.

OK, I didn’t totally get the wim-wim wowser thing, but I did enjoy the story. Badger, who I believe to be a dog and no badger, is a crazy but sweet dog, always looking out for others. He’s got a magical scarf which can sort almost anything out.

In this first book the subject is bullying. Or lonely dogs, if you prefer. Badger makes sure things improve, both for the bullied dog and for the bully. It’s funny, and it’s sweet.

Dogs can’t really do magic, though. Obviously… Or can they?

Hollow Earth

There is no absolute rule that because you are good at one thing – and successful and famous and stuff – that you can’t therefore also do something else, and even do a tolerable job of it. It’s just that we don’t like people who seem to be able to turn their hands at ‘everything.’ At least I don’t. I feel there should be a limit to how much any one person gets up to. Spread the talent. That kind of idea.

That’s why I thought it was a bit much when John Barrowman started his solo concert career. Can Captain Jack really sing? How embarrassing. Those were my personal moans. And now he’s written a children’s book. But I’ve learned my lesson, and the autobiography he co-wrote with his sister Carole a few years ago was quite readable. So why not a children’s adventure story?

Why not indeed? I raced through Hollow Earth pretty quickly, just to see how it would end. (Not clear-cut enough. There is more to come. Clever move.) I’ve no idea how Carole and John divided up the work between them, but it seems that the whole book just popped up on a long car journey and they had it all planned by the time they arrived. With his acting background I can just imagine John not being short of a crazy idea or two, and Carole has the writing credentials and can presumably sort out those ideas on paper.

John and Carole E Barrowman, Hollow Earth

Not surprisingly, this tale about twins Emily and Matt is set mostly in Scotland, on an island the Barrowman siblings made up. It sounds real enough, though. The twins are good at drawing and when they draw, they find they can make what’s in the picture real. Hence the surplus of water in the National Gallery, which caused some embarrassment.

This isn’t a safe skill to have, so the chase is on, with the twins taking refuge in Scotland, where more and more ‘life’ drawing takes place. There are plenty of baddies after the children, and they will stop at very little to get what they want. (Some) family and friends help the twins, but then you never know who to trust. My main complaint about the story would actually be that very fact. All the adults are fairly similar, so it wasn’t easy guessing who was good or bad. I’ve only got one right, so far.

The story begins in a monastery in the Middle Ages, when an artistic monk slips while working on a book illustration, very nearly letting a creature lose. That seems to be the background to what Emily and Matt experience, and we find the past and the present have close ties.

Apart from being a pacy adventure, Hollow Earth could be said to provide some art education for young readers. While John and Carole have made up the paintings included in he story, they are based on real and similar art. Let’s hope children will take a renewed interest in art galleries after reading this book.

And there’s always good old Scottish ice cream to be eaten in oh so typical Scottish sunshine.

(For more info, visit Hollow Earth. If you dare.)

A challenge too many

I don’t think I’ll do it again. At least not this way. My two challenges for 2011 went well, but were far too hard to stick with. I didn’t give up, and I suppose I knew I probably wouldn’t, since it’d make me look bad. It’s rather like announcing you’re going on a diet. You sort of have to avoid giving up.

The Ireland Reading Challenge, where I joined in with bloggers everywhere, and where my goal was to read six Irish books, seemed dead easy. It was. Or would have been, had it not been such a very busy year. I still have plenty of Irish books to read, but it was the fitting them in every two months that almost did it for me.

And I kept forgetting to link to my reviews and I kept forgetting how to link. So, it was fun to take part, but too prescriptive for me. I will continue to read Irish books because I love them. Not because I ‘went on a diet.’

Then there was my own Bookwitch Foreign Reading Challenge, which I started in a fit to counter-balance someone else’s British challenge. At least it was my own. I set the rules and I didn’t have to do complicated links. And I did feel that one foreign book a month was doable. There are always masses of books being ignored by me every month, so one more, to give room for a stranger, surely wouldn’t hurt.

The end of the month came by far too early in certain months. I’m not sure how that happened. But it wasn’t time that was my greatest obstacle. It was finding books to read. I began by drawing up a list of likely countries. I contacted publishers to see if they had anything coming during the year. A surprising number said they didn’t. (Hence a real need for foreign challenges.)

I was surprised to find at the end that I had read no Australian* book and nothing from France. I had counted on those. On the other hand, I had not expected a Japanese novel, nor a Flemish one, to come my way.

In some instances I ended up reading something I might have avoided, had it not been for the fact that I needed another book from somewhere different. But none were bad, and most were as enjoyable as novels chosen in a more conventional way.

As with the Irish books, I will endeavour to read more imports, but without the strict framework of a challenge. I just wish publishers would take on more translations. I also wish more people knew more about what there is to read. I don’t want to be told that the children of a country read Harry Potter. That’s not what I asked. And I was sad to hear that there is very little besides imports somewhere like South Africa. And with Finland and Iceland, it’s the lack of translated books that prevented me. Although, I realised belatedly that Tove Jansson would have qualified for my challenge.

My Scottish challenge, which has no structure or rules whatsoever, will hopefully continue as and when I find suitable books. It’s mainly that I really want to read more writing from Scotland.

Other than the challenges, 2011 offered plenty of wonderful reads. I’m still hoping to find strength of character to read only the best, and to ignore some ‘average’ reads. Life is too short.

And life is too short to look at stats for the past year. Do feel free to go through all of Bookwitch 2011 and count the books for me! I’m often tempted to keep accounts as and when things happen, but I seriously doubt I will do it in 2012.

No New Year’s resolution is a good New Year’s resolution.

Fabio Geda: 'Yay! It's the Bookwitch!'

Above is Fabio Geda, the great surprise of the year. Italian book. Very unusual. Probably also the best on Bookwitch in 2011. So is Fabio’s smile.


* No sooner had I written this, and thought about it, than I realised I did read Australian books. At the time I just forgot they would fit in with the challenge. I kept remembering this and forgetting it again, several times. Like you do in dreams…

Enigma? Paradox?

Whatever. Anyone here ever heard of a guy called Panama Oxridge? Or a dame by the same name? (Wow, triple rhyme!) No, I haven’t either. But here she/he is, being reviewed for his/her book Justin Thyme. That’s also very witty. It’s a book featuring a time machine, among many more improbable things.

This book was brought to my attention when I carelessly mentioned I was going to have a go with some Scottish reading. The cover is covered in tartan, so is definitely the genuine article. But I have to say that despite the tartan and dear Panama and the cheesy title it is actually a very funny story.

Justin is a millionnaire. On his 13th birthday he receives a parcel that ticks, and as he is a bright boy, he knows it’s either a bomb or another blo*dy watch. It’s fair to say he doesn’t want either of them. He lives in a Scottish castle with his parents Sir Willoughby and Lady Henny, his older sister Robyn, who is a pain, and their little brother Albion. A tame gorilla called Eliza. There is a nanny, a tutor, a gardener, a housekeeper and eventually a butler and a cook. Naturally.

They have tea. It sounds heavenly.

And at some point Lady Henny is kidnapped and they need to sort out who did it. Also find her before it’s too late, obviously. The castle isn’t exactly short on suspects, and outside the castle walls there are a few more weird people. Justin is very intelligent. But he still starts to build a time machine to rescue his mother, as boys do.

Plenty of humour. I like the cook (‘ Having Off-Day. Plenty foods in my Panties.’) Adventure, lovely teas, romance, lost grandfathers and old spies. It’s both old-fashioned and quite up to date. The cast is interestingly similar to the Strega family in Pure Dead Magic, but who cares?

Slight quibble towards the end. There isn’t one. Possibly a time machine effect.