My Lockdown Books: Fifty Three

I met Brian Conaghan a few years ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  I was chairing a panel event he was part of.  We hit it off quite well and I did an in conversation event with him the following year when we discussed The Bombs That Brought Us Together.

Charlie lives in Little Town.  He’s always lived there; he knows how things work.  It’s home.  Pavel is from Old Country but it doesn’t feel like hime to him so he migrates to Little Town where he meets Charlie.  Against all odds (and all reason) they become friends.  But then the bombs start to fall and the rules of Little Town change.  Suddenly Charlie is not so sure it feels like home.

In preparation for the event I made notes.  One of the things I wrote down was that I felt that by the end of the book that it was hard to know who were the heroes and who the villains.  When is a terrorist not a terrorist?  And even if you’ve committed a crime, do you deserve to be treated fairly?  All of these are questions you will ponder when you read Brian’s thought-provoking and engaging book.

My Lockdown Books: Thirty Two

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.  I don’t think I can improve upon it.  

To the Edge of the World is set on the west coast, in the Hebrides and beyond. It’s the story of Jamie, recently returned to his mother’s island home, and of Mara, an incomer for whom the wild surroundings are everything. Jamie is afraid of the sea whilst Mara is afraid of losing it. In the course of the novel they both face their greatest fears. Will they survive the encounters?

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival I had the great pleasure of meeting Julia Green and chairing an event with her and Elizabeth Laird whom I have known and admired for some years. We were discussing their recent novels for young people, both set on the Scottish coast.

In the course of a long career working in libraries and interacting with authors I have never lost the excitement that comes with hearing a writer talk about her work. Listening to Julia chat about her book with Elizabeth and me brought its landscape into clear focus and her characters vividly to life. And the audience’s questions – along with Julia’s answers – made me think about different aspects of the novel.

The sea is a major player in the book. Julia’s descriptions of it in its many moods are perfect. She completely captures its capricious nature so that the reader feels as though it is there. And for me the descriptions of the sea, its vagaries and the characters’ responses to it were what the book was all about. I choose to live by the sea because I love it but I have seen and experienced how it can wreak devastation. I’m not an outdoors girl by any stretch of the imagination but I’ve lived away from the sea and been frantic for the sound and smell and taste of it. So I empathise with both Jamie and Mara and understand their opposing fears.

If all that To the Edge of the World had going for it was its depictions of the sea, I’d have been happy. But, of course, there’s more. There’s an interesting supporting cast, interwoven plot strands and a satisfying story to captivate the reader. Let that reader be you.

My Lockdown Books: Twenty One

I was an unofficial champion for this series right from the beginning as a friend of mine was then working for Nosy Crow, the hugely successful independent children’s publishing house.  I reviewed many of them because I genuinely enjoyed them myself as well as thinking that children would!

I’ve chosen Olivia’s Enchanted Summer, the fourth in the series because it’s set in Edinburgh where I had the very great pleasure of meeting Lyn Gardner.  I had a press ticket to her event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  That was quite strange.  I’m more used to being on the stage in conversation with authors and I don’t very often have time to sit in the audience.  Here’s what I said about the book in The Scotsman the previous autumn.

Edinburgh is the star of Olivia’s Enchanted Summer by Lyn Gardner. Set during the Festival, it vividly conveys the vitality and diversity of that season of the city’s life. The Swan Circus, featuring Olivia and her Dad Jack, is performing on the Fringe but there is more drama outside the Big Top than their audiences could ever guess at. Why are Olivia’s Dad and Grandmother arguing? Who does a young street magician remind Olivia of? And what is the mystery surrounding Evie and Tati? As Olivia’s summer unfolds it feels anything but enchanted. Lyn Gardner goes from strength to strength in this series full of complex and developing characters and believable but exciting storylines.

The Things That Will Not Stand by Michael Gerard Bauer

Last month Michael Gerard Bauer won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for his young adult novel, The Things That Will Not Stand.  I should clarify for those who aren’t aware that the Prime Minister in question is Australian.

Michael is known to me (and, as a result, any regular readers of this blog) through his wonderful Ishmael trilogy, books about a group of male friends moving through school in Australia.  I was fortunate enough to be given them to review by Templar Books and was delighted to meet Michael briefly at the Edinburgh International Book Festival some years ago.

Since then I’ve been following his blog and re-reading the books.  I’d read about The Things That Will Not Stand and was intrigued by it.  It’s set at a university open day and the entire action takes place over a matter of hours.  Like Ishmael, it’s funny and clever and heartbreaking, often at the same time.  Michael has a genius for creating believable characters who leap off the page.  If his characters were pictures they’d be lightning sketches, so quickly and clearly do they come to life in front of your eyes.

If things were different I’d be raving about this book and encouraging you to read it and buy it for all the teenagers you know.  But here’s the thing: it’s not available in the UK.  It seems to me that all you publishers out there are missing a trick. Happily for me, Michael generously sent me a copy which I devoured overnight.  Someone out there do the rest of the YA reading public a favour and get the UK rights sorted out.

In the meantime read about Ishmael.

Two from Barrington Stoke

Barrington Stoke never fails to impress me.  As a publishing house it is constant and consistent in its efforts to make great stories available to as many readers as possible.  It is known as the publisher for books supporting children and young people with dyslexia.  In my day job managing library services for this group, Barrington Stoke is my first thought when asked by anxious parents or teachers what I can suggest.  And the people who work for the company – both the permanent staff and their contracted authors – are passionate about what they produce.

Therefore I am always eager to receive review copies of what they produce.  And in this they never let me down either!  Currently I have four of their titles on my desk.  Two, although they have a reading age of eight, are very definitely teenage books.  They are True Sisters by Keren David and Firebird by Elizabeth Wein.

I met Keren a few years ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  In preparation I read her books for the first time and enjoyed them.  So when I saw True Sisters I was very happy to have something else by her to read.  It’s Ruby’s story: of a complicated family set-up, an ever-changing household of foster siblings, a passion for performance and a secret hidden even from herself.  And it’s Clara’s story: of a troubled family, an unawareness of the world, fear and bewilderment and an entirely new way of living.  Somehow the girls each find a path through their lives, stumbling though it maybe and by the end of the book both feel there is hope in their lives.

I should have met Elizabeth two years ago at Edinburgh but instead I was flirting with death back home in Moray.  I was gutted to miss chairing her event.  In preparation I had traumatised myself reading The Pearl Thief and Codename Verity, both of which affected me deeply.  Firebird is completely different but no less powerful  It is Nastia’s story, the story of a young woman at war in a man’s world, a pilot fighting for the Motherland, the daughter of revolutionary parents.  It is also the story of a truth long hidden and its far-reaching consequences.

I’m whole-heartedly recommending both of these whether you’re a teenager or adult and whether or not you have any reading difficulties.  As you would expect from two such talented writers and a prestigious publisher they are excellent novels and deserve a place on library shelves and in private collections.



Tin by Padraig Kenny

I’ve been chairing events this week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  I missed last year due to illness so I’m particularly delighted to be back.  I’m now halfway through my events and I’ve loved them all and enjoyed all the books I’ve read in preparation.  It’s really tricky to pick out highlights and I expect that over the next few weeks I’ll write about any of the books I’ve been talking about with their authors.  But I have to start somewhere.

And I’ve chosen Tin by Padraig Kenny, partly because I met him for the first time today and enjoyed his company very much; and partly because I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  If I’m being honest, I would almost certainly not have chosen to read Tin if I’d had a completely free choice.  But that’s part of the joy of being involved in the EIBF.  Janet, the Children’s Programme Director, selects events for me to chair and I pretty much say yes to everything.  Then the books come through and I realise I have to read sci-fi and horror and fantasy as well as the kind of books I naturally gravitate towards.

Tin, I learned today, is set in an alternative 1930s England where child-sized mechanicals are created to carry out certain tasks.  These mechanicals (NOT robots!) live and move and have their being at the whim of the engineers who create them.  Christopher, however, is Proper, a real boy who works for an engineer but has a group of highly individual mechanicals as his friends.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you because I really think you should read this book.  It’s about friendship and wonder and loyalty and trust.  There’s a mystery and a quest and a bit of magic.  But mostly it’s about wonderful, wonderful characters, each with their own personality and motivation and traits.  And it is beautifully written, full of humour and sadness and confusion.

By now you’d have thought that I might have stopped judging books by their cover.  Thank goodness for the Edinburgh International Book Festival is all I can say.  I’d have hated to miss this new author and his debut novel.  Trust me.

Elizabeth Wein

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is drawing near and I am, once again, looking forward to introducing and chairing events. One of these is with Elizabeth Wein who has generously agreed to be in conversation with me.  We’re going to be considering her novel The Pearl Thief set in Perthshire in the summer of 1938.  It’s a very good book full of rounded jump-off-the-page characters living, moving and having their being in a landscape with which I am fairly familiar.

The heroine is Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart, only daughter of the Earl of Craigie and grand-daughter of the late Earl of Strathfearn. But think again if you’re expecting a story of the aristocracy at play.  Elizabeth’s event at Edinburgh is entitled A Very Scottish Mystery and that’s exactly what The Pearl Thief is.  Actually it’s a mystery spawning other mysteries and delving deep into the Scottish landscape.

The Strathfearn estate has been sold to a school and Julie, her grandmother, mother and assorted brothers are clearing and packing generations of family history while the local librarian and a visiting academic are cataloguing precious documents and artefacts. Then the academic disappears, Julie is attacked, some water pearls vanish and everything is blamed on the McEwens, a Travelling family well-known to Julie’s mother.

Julie plays many parts as the multiple mysteries are solved and she tries to discover who she is and navigate her way into adulthood. Like anyone else her journey is full of twists and turns, shocks, surprises and confusion.  She is an engaging, complex, human heroine full of passion for life and I was left wanting to know how her life developed.

Those of you who know Elizabeth’s books will be aware that we do know more of Julie’s story. The Pearl Thief, whilst being an absolutely complete book in its own right, is a prequel to the massively successful Code Name Verity.  Incredibly I failed to read it when it was published so I turned to it immediately after finishing The Pearl Thief.  And I couldn’t bear it.  I read it in the space of about eight hours, always thinking I’d have to stop but unable to put it down.  I knew enough about the book to know that it wouldn’t, couldn’t end well but, nonetheless, I kept hoping against hope.  However it all ended in tears – mine!

I don’t want to give anything away to those who haven’t yet read these novels. Because you must read them.  The dilemma now, though, is whether to read them chronologically by publishing date or internal dating.  And I don’t have an answer to that.  Whatever you choose your heart will break but Julie Beaufort-Stuart will stay with you.