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 Six

In Welcome to Nowhere Elizabeth Laird tells Omar’s story. Omar is a twelve-year-old from a fairly average Syrian family who hates school and has great dreams for the future. As the novel unfolds so does the civil war and slowly, gradually life as Omar knows it begins to unravel. Elizabeth is unsurpassed in her ability to personalise stories of global catastrophe, causing her readers to empathise with, and therefore, understand the situations to a greater degree. Without ever going to extremes, she is both truthful and hopeful in her account of the struggles of Omar and his family. Based on her own experiences working in Syrian refugee camps her novel is powerful, heart-breaking and compelling. This is a book not to be missed.

That’s what I said in The Scotsman on the book’s publication and I don’t think I can better it.  I certainly haven’t changed my mind about the book.  If you enjoy this, you might like to read its companion piece A House Without Walls.  It’s equally as insightful.

5th December

Of all the children’s authors I collect, Dorita Fairlie Bruce is my favourite. In a large part I think it’s because she’s a Scot and so writes sensibly about my country and its people.  Whatever you might have read in children’s books of the twentieth century, we’re not all red-haired lasses from Glasgow or shy Highlanders!  Nancy Calls the Tune is the almost obligatory final book in a school story series where the heroine is now grown up and embarking on adult life.  For Nancy that means becoming a Church organist!  It’s not a perfect story and other people have pointed out that there are inaccuracies. But it is a story after all, not a factual account of life during the Second World War.  What it does have is a strong sense of community and wonderful camaraderie.  Being a small-town girl myself, I can relate to life in Easterbraes (almost certainly Blairgowrie in real life) and, to a daughter of the manse, the Church setting is extremely familiar and the characters completely believable.  And I like Angus – even though I’ve spent my adult life making sure not to get involved with divinity students or ministers…

My personal favourite of Elizabeth Laird’s many wonderful books is probably still The Garbage King (although I could be swayed in favour of her recent book Welcome to Nowhere, set in a refugee camp…).  It’s one of her many books to have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, having been shortlisted a few years ago.  Set in Ethiopia, it tells the story of two boys from very different backgrounds who find themselves living on the streets.  It’s powerful and moving and heart-breaking and life-enhancing – and it stayed with me long after I’d finished reading.  One of its major strengths, something it shares with many of Liz’s books, is that it doesn’t have an unrealistically happy-ever-after ending but it does have hope.

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It’s no great secret that I hold Elizabeth Laird’s books in very high esteem.  She’s a talented writer, a superb storyteller and also a humanitarian.  In an environment where fantasy and dystopia vie for shelf space, Macmillan should also be congratulated for continuing to publish her books which are not easy reads although they are hugely rewarding.

In Welcome to Nowhere  Elizabeth tells Omar’s story.  Omar is a twelve-year-old from a fairly average Syrian family who hates school and has great dreams for the future.  As the novel unfolds so does the civil war and slowly, gradually life as Omar knows it begins to unravel. Elizabeth is unsurpassed in her ability to personalise stories of global catastrophe, causing her readers to empathise with, and therefore, understand the situations to a greater degree. Without ever going to extremes, she is both truthful and hopeful in her account of the struggles of Omar and his family.  Based on her own experiences working in Syrian refugee camps her novel is powerful, heart-breaking and compelling.  This is a book not to be missed.  And surely the Carnegie judges will finally award Liz the Medal she so richly deserves.


The Prince who Walked with Lions

This is Elizabeth Laird’s latest novel and it’s excellent as you would expect.  The story is based on actual events in Abyssinia and England and tells of Alamayu whose father dies in a battle with British troops.  The young prince is taken to England where he is befriended by Queen Victoria and sent to Rugby.  The events are seen through Alamayu’s eyes as he lies in bed in the school sickbay. 

Interestingly there are no chapter divisions, something I thought I was going to be annoyed by.  The book is split into sections and I think this has the effect of keeping the reader going on.  The sections are generally quite short and I, at least, kept thinking that I would read just one more until I realised I was almost at the end of the book!  Much of the action is seen in retrospect which allows for comment on events.

I’m not specially interested in African history and I probably wouldn’t have read this had it not been written by Elizabeth Laird.  And that would have been a mistake as this is an engrossing, poignant story.

Too Busy Reading to Blog!

It’s true!  I seem to have been reading non-stop all summer: for The Scotsman, for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and for our own book festival.  I’ve read lots of things I really don’t want to see again but I’ve also read some stuff that was a pleasant surprise.  I’d include Mean Streets – the Chicago Caper by Graham Marks in the latter category.  I was chairing his session in Edinburgh and I had fun doing that as well as reading the book.  I also chaired Cliff McNish’s session and enjoyed it.  I was scared stiff by his book, The Hunting Ground, though!

At our book festival, I had the joy of working with Elizabeth Laird.  I’ve read all her novels but I re-read Red Sky in the Morning.  What an excellent book it is!  And what a great writer she is.  We sold out of The Witching Hour and I think had only six of her other books left after two sessions so it seems I’m not alone in my views.

Book Festivals and Book Launches

Over the last few weeks I’ve met and listened to about as many authors as I could cope with!  Without exception they’ve been lovely people and have had interesting books to talk about but I have to say that, when Friday came and went, I was glad to think that I had a whole week before I had another book event to attend.  It seems you can have too much of a genuinely good thing!

The main reason for my being authored out is the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  On my own account I heard a whole raft of great authors.  Some of them (whisper it!) were even talking about books written for adults.  Alexander McCall Smith was as seemingly random and entertaining as ever although I suspect his performance was more planned that it appeared.  Menzies Campbell was Raj Persaud’s guest – and a fine one he was too.  A politician with opinions he was willing to share, no less.  Waving my chair’s pass, I sneaked in to hear Margaret Drabble.  I have to confess that I’ve never read any of her work but she was fascinating.  And, trying to keep up my knowledge of Norwegian culture, I went to hear Lars Saabye Christensen, talking about Beatles.  One of the most popular Norwegian books of the last quarter century, it’s just been translated into English. 

And then there were all the children’s authors.   I was chairing some events which meant I heard people I might not have chosen myself.  And what a good thing that was!  I enjoyed all the events I was involved in but I have to make special mention of two.  I was delighted to be chairing Elizabeth Laird.  As I’ve said before I have a very high opinion of her books.  It was a joy to hear her talk about The Witching Hour and to listen to all the questions the young people had.  The other mention goes to Michelle Paver, author of The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.  I had read the first book, Wolf Brother, when it came out about five years ago but hadn’t bothered to read the rest of the series.  However, before meeting her in Edinburgh, I read Ghost Hunter, the final book.  I’m still not hugely interested in the historical setting but I found myself engrossed by the book and involved with the characters.  And Michelle really brought the books to life in her excellent session where she expertly fielded some inspired questions.  Both of these authors signed copies of their books for ages afterwards and I stayed around to talk to the young people as they queued.  So-called experts who love to suggest that young people don’t read anything (worthwhile) these days should have been there.  A special mention here to the staff and pupils from Nairn Academy who left at 5.30am to be at the festival.

I chose to go and hear some children’s authors too.  I’ve heard Keith Gray speak a number of times but always at events I’ve organised so it was a pleasure to hear him in Edinburgh where, whatever happened, it wasn’t my responsibility.  He was as funny and interesting as ever, although I have had to take him to task for suggesting that librarians and dragons might appear in the same sentence!  I’ve been reading Joan Lingard’s books for thirty years and enjoying them for as long.  Her latest book was launched at this year’s festival.  What to Do about Holly is a good read and somehow reminded me of the Maggie quartet.  The story is completely different so it must be the atmosphere that is reminiscent.  The Maggie books remain my favourite of Joan’s and I was pleased to have a faint echo of them as I read about Holly.  I’ve saved the best till last, though.  I mean no disrespect to the other authors I heard when I say that this year’s Edinburgh book festival was made for me by the appearance of Judith Kerr.  As a child, I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and loved it.  When I was older, I read the other two books in the trilogy and, for me, these are her best books.  Yes, The Tiger who Came to Tea is good fun and Mog is a lovely cat but there is something special about Pink Rabbit.  Please go and read it if you haven’t already.  When I heard that Judith was appearing at the festival, I got very excited and bought a ticket as soon as they were available.  And she didn’t disappoint.  I am so pleased to have met her.

My last book event was on Friday evening when I went to the launch of The Keepers’ Daughter by Gill Arbuthnot.  I’d been sent a copy of the book by Gill’s agent, Kathryn Ross of Fraser Ross Associates, and I’m grateful for that as it was a great book.  It’s a sort of fantasy but set in a world which is completely recognisable.  The characters step immediately off the page and are people whose fate I can care about.  And in my head I have a map of the islands on which much of the action takes place.  Altogther this is a book I can heartly recommend.

So that’s it: my book-filled three weeks.  Actually, there was one other event but more of that later.  Ahead of me (less than a week ahead) is Stirling Council Libraries’ book festival, Off the Page.  Being responsible for the children’s programme, I’m approaching it with more trepidation than anticipation but I’m sure the authors at it will be just as good as those I’ve heard recently.  Full details can be found at but just let me mention here that we have this year’s winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal appearing – Catherine Rayner.  Now there’s a coup!