Gordon McGhie is a UofStirling alumnus and prolific book blogger and British Book Award 2021 judge. We spoke with Gordon on his passion for books, his popular blog, his experiences of judging and much, much more. Enjoy!
Where did it all begin – what sparked your interest in books and blogging?
I honestly cannot remember a time where I didn’t love books. I consider myself very fortunate that my parents made time to read to me as a child and one of my earliest book-related memories was a book of bedtime stories which had a different story or poem for every day of the year. I think we went through that two or three times before I was reading my own bedtime stories and the book was eventually passed on to my younger sister. I read every night, re-reading some books over and over again. My local library must have been sick of the sight of me.
When I was 14 my book-networking really got started. I got a Saturday job in the large bookshop in Inverness. It was my dream job and I worked there every weekend and through the school holidays and right through my Stirling Uni days. I got to see all the new books being released, I could chat to other readers and because Inverness was quite a small “big town” I got to know the familiar faces who visited the bookshop regularly. I would share recommendations with other readers and they would suggest books to me – that is book blogging without the blog.
Why did you choose your course, and the University of Stirling?
I didn’t initially plan to go into further education. When I was in my final year of school I spent a weekend pouring over brochures for universities and courses and decided I liked the sound of studying history or business studies. I applied to a few universities around Scotland and was invited to join courses at Stirling and St Andrews. I visited St Andrews first and knew it was not for me. The next week I was in Stirling to view the campus and I loved everything I saw, how could you not? History at the University of Stirling it was.
How did your course help to prepare you for your career?
A few weeks into my course I discovered History was not for me. I was loving being a Stirling student but the I realised my skills lay in working with numbers rather than reading! The irony of this is not lost on me today.
I was staying on campus in Geddes Court and some of my new friends in the rooms were doing Finance and Accounts, I had studied Accountancy at school and was able to help them with their coursework. A swift change of course later and I was an accounts student. Much happier from that point on and now I work in Financial Services so I know the decision to change course was ultimately the correct choice for me at the time.
What are your favourite memories of studying at the University of Stirling?
Lifelong friendships. When I was in Geddes Court I met a girl who was studying Environmental Science. She was the friend of a friend and we got chatting and eventually started going out. Eight years later we were back on campus for a walk through the grounds and I proposed. A couple of years later we married on the campus at the Management Centre under the shadow of the Wallace Monument (my wife’s family name is Wallace). It is safe to say I have some very happy memories of my time at Stirling.
I am also still in contact with a few of my neighbours from my first year in the halls of residence. On the 20th anniversary of our first arrival in Stirling we had a reunion weekend when we all returned from various corners of the UK to visit the campus and drink in a few of the pubs we frequented all those years before. During the last 12 months there have been a few Zoom meetings where we all check-in and catch up, it’s always good to know we are still there for each other.
Why did you set up your blog – Grab this book?
It was my wife’s idea. I love to talk about books and if I read a great book I want everyone else to know about it too. I would recommend my favourite books to friends and work colleagues but that had a limited reach. My wife suggested starting a blog and sharing my reviews online.
Initially I envisaged posting some reviews online and sharing the links to my blog on Twitter, beyond that I had no idea what else would come of it. But blogging was very much a hobby which grew beyond my expectations. I quickly grew to love engaging with authors and other readers and when I was first invited to read a book so I could share a review for a publicity tour (referred to as Blog Tours) I thought this was as good as it could get. At the heart of all the chat and blog posts I write I only want to share my love of great books.
How did you get involved in the British Book Awards 2021?
I am still not sure I know the answer to this! I have been blogging since 2014 but I am certainly not the most high profile or the most prolific book blogger. In 2017 I won the Hidden Gem award at the Bloggers Bash annual awards, it was the first real sign that people were enjoying the reviews I was writing.
In 2018 independent publishers Fahrenheit Press invited me to judge entries to their short story competition. Fahrenheit wanted to publish a collection of stories called “Noirville” so I joined a team of eight judges and we read and rated all the entries. Noirville was subsequently published and my contributions to the judging panel was acknowledged in the credits. It was a great project to be involved with and something I never anticipated I would ever have the opportunity to try.
Late last year I was approached by The Bookseller (the UK’s definitive book industry magazine) and asked if I would interested in joining the British Book Awards judging panel. I was thrilled to be asked and immediately agreed, my mind already spinning ahead to the prospect of reading the best Crime and Thriller books of the year. It was only when I looked at the panel of judges from 2020 I became aware I would be contributing my opinions alongside some hugely influential people.
What have you enjoyed most about being a British Book Award 2021 judge?
It has actually been quite humbling. When I first shared the news I was joining the Crime and Thriller judging panel I received many lovely messages of congratulations and encouragement from bloggers, authors and publishers. My blog visits for the day of the announcement eclipsed the number of visits I could expect to receive in a single year so I can only assume people were looking to see what Grab This Book offered.
Today I am reading the best books from the last 12 months to a very tight deadline. It’s what I love and I can’t wait share my thoughts with the other judges. Only one book can win and that’s quite a responsibility so I want to ensure I do this to the best of my ability.
What authors do you admire and what have you read most recently that stood out?
I am in awe of anyone who has the confidence to sit down and write a book. When you ask which authors I admire I would initially say “all of them”. But that doesn’t really answer your question so I have to look to my bookshelves.
Terry Pratchett has been a favourite since I was in high school. His Discworld stories have put me through every emotion over the years and I revisit my favourite Pratchett books on a regular basis.
I also have huge admiration for Lee Child who most definitely has “cracked it”. His books are essential reading and always bring me pleasure. I read Killing Floor (the first Jack Reacher novel) in the year it first released and each new book cannot come soon enough. He has recently released The Sentinel which is the 25th book in the series so for a quarter of a century I have been a Lee Child fan.
For a (currently) less well known recommendation there is a series of books by Matt Wesolowski called Six Stories. The books are published by independent publisher, Orenda Books, and each book in the series is written as a series of six podcast interviews. The podcast host Scott King attempts to uncover the truth behind an unsolved crime or unexplained mystery – they are dark, frequently chilling and compelling. There is a Stirling connection here too as Matt first met his publisher at the Bloody Scotland crime festival which is based in Stirling. Matt presented his book to a panel of judges in the Pitch Perfect competition – his publisher snapped him up after hearing him discussing his book.
What book do you most often recommend/gift to others?
It changes so often. I prefer to chat to someone first to understand what they like before I make a recommendation. If someone likes a cosy crime story then I will not encourage them to read a dark and violent thriller.
If you haven’t read a Terry Pratchett book but know the story of Macbeth then you get a copy of Wyrd Sisters. If you like legal drama then Steve Cavanagh’s Thirteen and if you want a murder story with a body on the Stirling University campus grounds then you get The Point of No Return by Neil Broadfoot.
This year’s World Book Day theme is ‘share a story’ – how would you encourage students to share stories, particularly this year within lockdown restrictions?
I go back to where it all started for me. Read to children, give them a love for books. This may not be something you can do immediately but one-to-one reading time is a great way to share a story.
I would also recommend everyone take some time away from the coursebooks and read for pleasure. Discover a new story, learn about a period of history which fascinates you or read about places far away you may wish to visit one day. If you enjoyed a book tell someone else – they may like it too.
It is also extremely important for authors to have reviews left online. Take a few seconds to leave a review on Amazon or Kobo or on a bookshop’s website – even a one word “excellent” could make a real difference.
If you could give current Stirling students, who are thinking of pursuing a similar path to yours, one piece of advice what would it be?
Stirling has a vast range of courses available, significantly more today than were offered in the early 1990s when I was there. I signed up for a course which I soon realised was not right for me. I didn’t want to leave Stirling and the University were brilliant at helping me to change my focus and let me study something I enjoyed. Nobody’s path is set and cannot be changed, make sure you take any opportunities which come your way.
I now work in Financial Services as an independent contractor, I take short term roles and have to adapt to working with different products and within different companies on a fairly regular basis. I try to take a positive attitude into every position I hold and to ensure each employer gets my best efforts – I rely upon being considered a safe pair of hands.
I also try to take a positive approach to my book blogging. Not every book is going to be a perfect match for every reader. If I don’t enjoy a story I don’t leave negative reviews or tell people a book was rubbish – I look for positives in a story and focus on those.
When I started at Stirling I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Almost thirty years later I still don’t know but over the years I have found there are always going to be opportunities to try new things. Keep positive, ask for help when you need to and always try to make some time in the day for something you enjoy.