The Edinburgh International Book Festival – review

The Book Festival Of My Heart

Before I get properly into my review of this year’s events I have to admit how much I truly adore the festival. I have been going to the Book Festival for as long as I can remember. Mum and dad even used to take us to the children’s book festival when it was held in Inverleith Park.

Books have always been a huge part of my life; were such a huge part of my childhood. Now that I’m I guess a real writer; going to the festival has gained new importance. Not only do I get to see my favourite authors as a reader I get to see industry professionals talk about being successful in a career I’m hoping to succeed in myself. This year I went to panel discussions about writing craft, about publishing and even about getting kids interested in reading (regardless of whether it’s reading poems and rap lyrics or huge classic tomes.)

I knew going in, that year was going to be a bit different. It was the first year without quite a few of my writer friends around (as a lot of them have been searching out of interesting non-Scottish climes); it wasn’t the first year dealing with MS but I had, quite recently been discharged after a month, bedbound in hospital. Well I got home in late June but as anyone with a chronic illness or spent a long time in hospital can attest – you don’t get home and suddenly everything is back to normal the next day. Recovery takes a long, exhausting time (more on this later.) But I was still determined to do as much as I could and to enjoy it to the max. (Having been stuck in hospital, facing those same four hospital walls for so long I was just super excited to be enjoying all the books.)

I went to an interesting mix of events this year – without really focusing on the times and dates (which was probably a bit stupid) I more just signed up to anything that sounded interesting.

To The Events!

The first event I went to was with my friend (and development editor extraordinaire) Sam. Since my diagnosis last year I found out I could get priority booked seating at all the events – which meant we ended up in the very front row (and into DeRay McKesson’s Instagram stories!).

This event was with DeRay McKesson who wrote On The Other Side of Freedom – and who was one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter protest movement.

It’s been 5 years since the killing of Michael Brown led to huge protests and activities in Ferguson, Missouri and his book/memoir covers the killing and the creation of the movement. At once harrowing and aggravating (not DeRay himself, just the situations he described) it was a really incredible event to start my time at the festival and one of my favourite events overall. He was funny, empowering and very passionate.

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The next day I then persuaded my mum to join me seeing MG writer Robert Muchamore with his newest book Arctic Zoo. I hadn’t really heard of Robert Muchamore before, I just thought the listing seemed like something I’d like to see. With an event title like “Change The World” I was kind of expecting politics and possible dystopias but I was surprised to find that his new book, set both in London and Lagos it deals – instead of the apocalypse – with mental health; sexuality and identity*

I don’t read much MG, but this was quite an interesting event and – of course – I bought the book, so it’s another one to add to my tbr pile**

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That night I went to my third event (I actually managed two events in a day; three defeated me but more on that later) again with Sam. This was the only graphic novel event I made it to this year but it was really awesome. Again I hadn’t really heard of the authors before and I was excited to find some new graphic novels for my shelves. This was Rachael Ball and Jon McNaught discussing Families in Graphic Novels.

Both Ball and McNaught have completely different styles but also ways of working it was so cool to see how different artists can work with the same theme. I’ve been fascinated by graphic novels for a long time – even to the point where I took a writing graphic novels module on my MA; but I’ve never felt the courage to be able to write and also draw my own graphic novels. Writing the scripts feels a bit safer and gives a sense of distance that you can also get with screenwriting. (Something else I fell in love with at undergraduate level.)

Jon McNaught – who was clearly nervous about appearing in front of a large crowd (that made me feel better about my own anxiety) – focused on the dullness but odd magic of a family holiday to a costal caravan park somewhere in England. In his book Kingdom he managed to capture so many moments that are so familiar and common for everyone – well for me at least. Having spent a few different summer holidays in a small town caravan bought by my grandmother for the purpose of family holidays; I could understand the atmosphere he managed to achieve through the novel.

I have to say, I haven’t yet managed to read either Ball or McNaught’s novels yet but through their event they did discuss a lot of the story, process and art of each. So while I haven’t read them to completion yet, I did get to see some of the story in the event.

Rachael Ball’s Wolf deals with the theme of family in a completely different way. She focuses on the loss of a parent and the grief that follows. The book suddenly becomes a story of attempted time-travel and rescue of a loved one; it also follows the creation of new, supportive relationships. Her art is all done by hand – black and white pencil sketches. So gorgeous.

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I then had a day to rest on the Tuesday – which was nice, after a couple of days at the festival I was coming to realise how exhausting being out the world again was – I can’t quite remember what I did but I’m pretty sure a lot of sleep was involved.

Wednesday was again a day of double events. In the morning I went to see the panel event What Is Home? With my wonderful friend Vita (who also took one of Lexi’s kittens last year). The event was chaired by Val McDermid; who hosted Leila Aboulela, Robin Robertson and Linda Grant. This was one of the very few events where I didn’t buy any books to be signed but I really enjoyed this event regardless. Home was one of the themes of this year’s festival and it was a really interesting discussion on what home means to a variety of authors – some of whom are first or second generation immigrants. How did they define home when two cultures clash in their hearts? I even managed to surprise myself by asking a question during the audience participation section. It’s one of the first and only times I’ve ever had the courage to ask a question at the festival.

Later that day I attended an event with my dad with the author and historian Richard J Evans. It’s a tradition with my dad that we will attend at least one thing together during the Book Festival, some years he chooses some years I do, and sometimes we find a something that were both really interested in. Last year we ended up going to quite a few YA events so it made sense of that this year we would go to something that more grown-up and a bit more in-depth or intellectual I suppose. I’d never really heard of Richard J Evans but he is well known and well respected historian, he is perhaps best known for his work on the Third Reich. He was at the festival this year to discuss his most recent work which is our biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm. Although I didn’t buy any book to be signed I actually found the discussion extremely interesting and getting to spend time with my dad in our Book Festival tradition.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday were spent resting and trying to build up my energy reserves for the last week of events – I was almost successful.

On Sunday I had booked to see 3 events. This wasn’t completely intentional; when deciding what I wanted to see it wasn’t until after I had booked, paid and received my tickets that I actually looked at the dates and times. This was the only day to have 3 events and there was roughly 2 or 2 and half hours between each event so I thought: that’s plenty of time to recover and regenerate between events, I had my tablet with me to do some writing and easy access to books if all I wanted to do was read and relax.  But the day didn’t end amazingly well. And so begins the tale of my Sunday at the Book Festival…

First, I went to see Jason Reynolds, Kwame Alexander and Sarah Crossan. I ended up going to this event on my own as none of my friends were able to make it but I still loved the event. The event was on Writing Rhythm – writing books and stories in verse. It was also a discussion on how verse novels can actually attract reluctant readers. It is much less daunting to read a novel that is only 60 pages long, and feels like a poem than a big 80 or 100k novel with wall-to-wall text. I have to say I absolutely love Jason Reynolds – after seeing him at the festival with dad last year I was excited to see that he had about 3 different events on this year. I only went to two of them but I love not only his attitude to writing but the writing itself. His recent verse letter For Every One filled me with such positivity without it feeling preachy or too “inspirational”.

The signing was a bit chaotic – the bookshop was really busy and I was distracted by having 3 different people sign at the same time without a proper chance to engage with the author (which, after years of embarrassing myself, I am getting better at).

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Then I had a break – it was the longest break of the day and my plan had been to head for the giant Waterstones on Princes’ Street; get set up with food at the café and write for the remaining hour or so until my next event.

Then I got to Waterstones and made a stupid mistake. For those of you unfamiliar with the shop it’s a huge 4 floor building (5 if you count the basement) with the café on the top most floor (amazing views of Princes’ Street Gardens and the castle). When I arrived, I saw a sign that told us the lifts were out of order. They apologised for the any inconvenience and said if you needed any help, just ask and a member of staff would try to assist.

You may think I would first re-think staying there for lunch, and instead find somewhere accessible to eat and relax. If only…

As I mentioned before, I had only about 6 weeks before been discharged from hospital, after a month of not being able to stand then barely being able to walk. I had also only just made it make onto my crutches rather than a wheelchair or rollator. But I had recently made progress and managed to go up and down the stairs at home, at least once unaccompanied.

I am naturally stubborn and shy away from asking for assistance in a lot of situations; so when I saw the four flights of stairs, I thought: well I can manage stairs now, how bad can it be?

I also questioned how much help a shop assistant could offer in this situation. Would they just bring my lunch down four flights of stairs, setting me up with a little table hidden out of the way on the ground floor? It seemed pointless to even ask (or so I told myself.)

I made it up to the café – eventually – with weak legs and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. But I figured all I needed was some lunch and a seat to rest my aching bones.

I had lunch, and even managed to get some writing done. I didn’t end up staying the full 2 hours, thinking that by the time I made it down the stairs and back to the festival again I would need time to recover again, before the event.

I made it back to the festival; despite being wobbly and exhausted by then. My next event was with Brian Conaghan and Lisa Williamson at quarter to 3. I had seen Brian Conaghan last year at a panel event with Jason Reynolds and Steven Camden, so I was excited to see him again. (I hadn’t yet read his book The Weight of a Thousand Feathers from last year yet but again, more on that later!) This was another event I was going to on my own so I wasn’t waiting on anyone but with 15 minutes left before the event I realised that I wasn’t going to last much longer.

I made it into the event – again with reserved seating so I was in the front row – which made surreptitiously attempting to text my mum and arrange an earlier pick up a bit challenging. I also sadly had to cancel on my friend for the 3rd event that day. We were due to meet for an event at 7pm with Katie Hale and Rita Indiana, which I knew even by 4pm that I wouldn’t make it to.

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With my sly texting out of the way and my mum on her way to pick me up I was able to enjoy the event. Brian Conaghan’s new novel The M Word sounded exactly the kind of thing I love to read. Despite the fact that I’m currently writing a future dystopia I do really love reading contemporary novels – I don’t know how successful I would be at writing one though. Like Jason Reynolds, I find listening to Brian Conaghan extremely inspiring, again both in terms of his attitude towards writing (He made the point that he is in fact a 45 year old man writing 17 year old female protagonists – it’s less about the age and more about the emotions of the characters) and his attitude towards readers and the act of actually creating these characters and worlds for people to fall into.

Like a lot of the writers I’ve seen at the festival I had never read anything by Lisa Williamson but I found her really interesting and I’m now really looking forward reading more of her stuff.

One of the biggest problems with seeing all these new authors and finding (ok buying) all the new books is that I never know which one to read next – I also end up with so many awesome book hangovers that it still takes me a few days to recover between books.

Anyway, I’d arranged with my mum to be picked up after the event and signing – I know that signing doesn’t add any value to the books but I love being able to have even the briefest connection with the author. Getting my book signed allows for that tiny amount of time and personal interaction.

First was Brian Conaghan. This is where I still get a bit teary and star struck. I decided to mention to him that I’d seen him last year but I still hadn’t plucked up the courage to read The Weight of a Thousand Feathers. The story revolves around a young guy called Bobby who is a young carer for his mum who has MS.

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It was a surprise last year, sitting in the audience with my dad to listen to him read an extract from the book and for it to hit me full force in the chest that I almost started crying right there in the event.

Despite it being over a year since I was diagnosed it was only this summer after getting out of hospital that I finally felt O.K. enough to read a fictionalised account of someone with MS In S.K. Ali’s Love From A to Z.

Anyway I told him this and he asked me about why, I tried to explain that I haven’t really come to terms with my own diagnosis yet (especially given my recent hospital stay) so reading about characters battling the same thing feels incredibly difficult. The he did the sweetest thing.

He told me to read the book and then gave me his email address. He told me to read the book and then tell him what I think about it.

It makes me tearful because it was really sweet, but also I felt seen in a way – a writer wanted to know the feelings of someone with the illness he had researched and written so carefully about.

It also makes me slightly star struck because oh my god an actual famous, successful real published author gave me his email address; he actually told me to contact him. Yea it felt strange and really nice.

After that I made my way to where mum was now waiting. The tears on the way home were partly due to pain and exhaustion, partly due to how kind and sweet Brian Conaghan had just been to me.

So luckily, after my overconfidence on the Sunday I didn’t have any other events books until Tuesday 20th with another Jason Reynolds event. This time I was able to persuade my dad to come with me so I had someone to make sure I didn’t overdo it. This time he was with Nikesh Shukla and they were talking about the use of sport in their novels to address some pretty difficult themes but also to encourage reluctant readers (If you haven’t guessed getting people into reading is a fairly common theme for me.)

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I wasn’t sure completely what to expect in terms of this event. No one has ever described me as sporty in really any way but as it turned out that didn’t matter. The discussion was more about the community Nikesh Shukla found in boxing – the sense of support after a horrific racist attack (which was used in the novel too) For Jason Reynolds it was running – which really hit me, I used to walk so much, especially when I lived in Edinburgh and I walked everywhere.

This time I didn’t have time to get any book signed as when the event finished I was due at the other end of George Street to meet Sam again for our final event together called Cracking the Reading Code. It was a panel discussion about, you guessed it, getting reluctant readers into reading and loving books. The publishing company Barrington Stoke hosted the event with authors Sally Gardner, Alex Wheatle and Tom Palmer. Each author has struggled separately with issues of dyslexia and other reading issues as they grew up so each felt how important it is to have accessible books for young and Middle Grade readers.

The discussion was actually quite fascinating and I discovered the company Barrington Stoke who specialises in accessible and very readable books for young readers. Every book is an approachable length, the text is printed in a special dyslexia font, with the words and paragraphs spaced evenly to make reading each letter easier. The books are even printed on special thick and coloured paper to avoid the “ghost” where the words of the page overleaf shine through onto the page you’re reading.

While I didn’t buy any books by these authors to be signed I did buy Juno Dawson’s Grave Matters at another point in the festival which was published by Barrington Stoke.

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So then we reached Thursday 22nd and the penultimate day of the festival for me. This festival was a struggle for all sorts of reasons some physical, some emotional but I am so happy that I was overall well enough (and finally out of hospital) to be able to enjoy it.

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Thursday was the event with C.A. Fletcher and Marcus Sedgwick. I was very excited by this event after finding out (and buying) that Marcus Sedgwick had written a book based on Mary Shelley’s experience writing Frankenstein.

Both authors dealt with the end of the world – or close to it. C.A. Fletcher looked at the importance of pets in terms of friendships and family while living after a man-made apocalypse. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World looks to be a really heart-wrenching but sweet read – I’m hoping that it doesn’t end with the death of his dog, because I think the book hangover would be more than I could bear right now.

Marcus Sedgwick’s newest work Snowflake, AZ deals with chronic sickness in a world that’s being destroyed my climate change – essentially it is a contemporary novel and focuses on sickness and people’s willingness to be blissfully ignorant when it comes to medical diagnoses and how difficult it can be to be believed when it comes to being sick. The phrase “it’s all in your head” is such a common one – the simple answer to that is so what? That doesn’t make your experience of your sickness any less real.

Marcus Sedgwick’s book is actually based on his own experiences of being disbelieved and finally diagnosed with a chronic illness. I found his experience incredibly interesting because he said that it has taken him six years from the date of his diagnosis to feel able to write about his illness, or have a sick protagonist. This struck a chord with me – which I’ll go into more detail with in another blog post – as much as I value diverse voices in literature and the need for visibly disabled protagonists I often feel guilty that I’m not yet able to write disabled protagonists or able to write about my own illness.

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The End Is Nigh

So now we’ve reached the final day of the festival – thanks if you’ve stuck with me for this long, I know I tend to ramble, especially when it comes to books.

I had 2 final events on Friday. The first was with both mum and dad as we went to see our friend and much respected historian and lecturer at Edinburgh University Talat Ahmed. She was at the festival to discuss her new book, a very in depth biography and discussion of Ghandi Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience

Although we’ve been friends with Talat for a long time before this I’ve never really read anything about Ghandi – I’ve never really known anything except what the casual observer tends to know. Ashamedly, I know very little about Indian politics and the partition in 1947 apart from the British Colonial Powers were horrible (not a surprise really) so I found the entire discussion really interesting. While I didn’t get a copy of the book signed that day, I’m sure I could convince Talat to sign a copy for me in private another time.

So we come to the final event of the festival for me. This time I got to see my friend (and extremely talented author in her own right) Laura. We decided to go to a panel discussion called How To Be A Writer For Life with David Almond and another of Laura’s friends the wonderful Lauren James.

This was a panel discussion aimed at young adults and writers; and discussed how both Lauren James and David Almond got into writing and became published authors. There wasn’t much new information – given I follow a lot of writers and agents on twitter this wasn’t a surprise. But it was nice to be reminded that I’m not alone; that every writer has ups and downs and if I really want to be serious about writing as a career I need to come to terms with the idea of diversifying. It can’t all be about sitting in front of a computer writing thousands and thousands of words; it can be about teaching; workshops; events and talks. It can be so many things related to writing. This is really encouraging because after completing the teaching module on my MA and reading a lot of the work of Lev Vygotsky and Paulo Freire I realised how much I really like the idea of getting involved in teaching and workshops, of getting involved in encouraging others in creative writing.

Laura was meeting up with some friends after the event for dinner and invited me but to be honest, by that point I was starting to fade and the exhaustion of the past month was really catching up with me so I had to say no. I did get a chance to meet her friends quickly at the signing though (I didn’t actually get anything signed this time, but we did chat to Lauren James) despite Laura telling me they were both YA authors, and seeing that one actually had an event on at the festival I didn’t really understand who they were until later. The two awesome people who were simply introduced as Tom and Peta turned out to be Tom Pollock and P.M. Freestone – two pretty big names in the UK YA scene. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that when chatting to them I was kind of more star struck by the fact that Tom knew – and had text conversations with – China Miéville. Who, as anyone who’s read my previous blog posts will know, I’m kind of in love with (and have successfully completely embarrassed myself in front of every time we’ve previously met.)

With that we come to the end of this year’s Book Festival adventures. I did go home and sleep afterwards – maybe not for a full month but I had some very long naps and late mornings in the days that followed. Although this year wasn’t without its struggles, both emotionally and physically (I promise not to attempt another 4 flights of stairs anytime soon.) I had such a great time. I got to go to a couple of events with my dad – keeping our tradition alive and well; I got to see some friends I hadn’t seen in ages and I got to find out about a lot of awesome new authors – and catch up with some cool old faces.

I had originally started this post at the end of August – but as usual life got in the way. So here we are, almost a month later and I’ve only just finished it!

I do have some fun plans for October though, a few book reviews waiting in the wings and some changes afoot with Wednesday’s Child as a whole but until then…

See you in the future! ♥

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*ok, yes a lot of dystopias also focus on these issues but the point is, this is a contemporary novel and I was expecting a speculative one.

** Honestly, the book festival has destroyed my to-be-read pile. So many books; so little time.

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