Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shetland Noir: some news!

As I've mentioned on my blog before, we spent our summer holiday in Sweden this year. I didn't know very much about Sweden before we went, but I love visiting new places, so I visited windmills and churches, shopped at Gekås Ullared AB, and tucked into kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) with merry glee. For a writer, no experience is ever wasted, and this proved to be the case once again because not long after we returned from Sweden I heard about a writing competition with a Nordic twist.

Organised by the Shetland Noir book festival, the competition was to write a piece of crime fiction of between 500 and 1000 words in length which included the following ingredients: at least one corpse, or part thereof; one darkened room; at least one Nordic reference; blood; the misuse of at least one kitchen utensil; a telephone that rings unanswered. I love a challenge, and I very much enjoyed trying to think up a story that could fit all of those things into 1000 words, but I was very grateful that I had spent my holidays in Sweden - otherwise I am not sure what my Nordic reference would have been! (An ABBA record playing in the background, perhaps...)

My main reason for entering the competition was that the first prize was travel to and from Shetland Noir. I didn't think the chances of my actually winning first prize were very high, but I really, really, wanted to go to the festival, and of course, if you don't try, you definitely don't get anywhere. So I got to work, and wove in a lot of memories from our holiday - the story is set in Haverdal, where we stayed, for example. I even gave my hero a kanelbulle to eat! (I'm envious.) The story is called The Beach House, and it is the first piece of adult crime writing I have ever done, although my novels, which are usually categorised as YA, have a strong adult readership too. I especially enjoyed thinking about "the misuse of at least one kitchen utensil" - so many gruesome possibilities!

Anyway, to cut a long story short: my story did win first prize. So I'm thrilled to say that I'll be going to Shetland Noir in a couple of weeks' time to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy - named, of course, after the hero of the well-known series of crime novels by Ann Cleves, who very kindly sponsored the prize. As well as attending some of the festival events, I'm really looking forward to visiting Shetland itself, as I've never been there before. In fact, I've never been that far north before - I think the furthest north I have ever been in my life is Moscow! So I'll be sure to take loads of photographs and try to see as much as I can. Who knows - perhaps further stories will suggest themselves when I'm there? I'm very often inspired by interesting locations.

If you're interested in attending Shetland Noir, it takes place on 13th-15th November 2015 (how very apt, to have a crime fiction festival beginning on Friday 13th!) and the full programme can be found here: Shetland Noir programme

(Above) The beach at Haverdal: scene of gruesome fictional events...

PS Since writing this, I've been asked by a few people when and where they can read The Beach House. I've been talking to the organisers of Shetland Noir about it, and the current plan is to produce a printed pamphlet for the festival, comprising my winning story and the two stories that won second and third place. I don't yet know whether this will be something that non-attendees can get hold of, but if not I will ensure that my story becomes more widely available in due course, either online or in print.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hallowe'en reading: YA authors recommend!

Only a few more sleeps until Hallowe'en! In honour of this interesting (and pumpkin infested) event, I decided to ask some of the YA authors I know to recommend some appropriate Hallowe'en reading. "A scary read," I suggested. After all, some of them have actually written some pretty scary stuff. Anything was up for grabs - kids' stories, YA, adult stuff too. Anyway, here's what they came up with!

Sally Nicholls recommends: the classic The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (adult). Published in 1959, the book has been filmed twice and adapted into a stage play too. (I've only seen the black and white 1963 version with Claire Bloom, and jolly scary it was too.) Author Caroline Green seconded this recommendation!
Sally is no stranger to scary books, having written one of her own: her YA novel Close your pretty eyes is based on a gruesome true life story, of baby farmer and murderess Amelia Dyer. Eleven year old Olivia is convinced that the remote house where she lives with her foster parents is haunted...

Bea Davenport recommends: Here Comes A Candle to Light You to Bed by Maggie Prince (YA). After her parents' divorce, Emily and her mother and brother have to move to a tiny old house in an undesirable part of London. It's a difficult adjustment for all of them, and made harder by the uncomfortable atmosphere of the house. Then Emily finds out that it was lived in by plague victims in the seventeenth century...
Bea has written some scary books for young people - The Serpent House and for younger readers, My Cousin Faustina

Eve Ainsworth recommends: A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd. A film version is out in 2016. "I just found it so raw and terrifying," she says. Eve is the author of YA novel Seven Days and the upcoming Crush.

Luisa Plaja recommends: Monster by C.J.Skuse (YA). "As a blizzard rages outside, strange things are afoot in the school’s hallways, and legends of the mysterious Beast of Bathory – a big cat rumoured to room the moors outside the school – run wild..."
Has Luisa written anything scary herself? "Um...well, I wrote about an evil sprout for the e-book anthology Girls Heart Christmas edited by Jo Cotterill and Julie Sykes," she says. "That's mildly scary in a not-very-scary-at-all kind of way..."
Girls Heart Christmas is aimed at readers aged 8-12. Most of the 8-12 year olds I know have fairly strong nerves, but all the same, sprouts are pretty scary, lurking there on the plate looking green and unappetising...

Tamsyn Murray recommends: Lockwood & Co (YA) by Jonathan Stroud. "Just read the first one and adored it."
Tamsyn is the author of My So-Called Afterlife, a ghost story with a difference. The ghost is 15-year-old Lucy Shaw, and you won't believe the place she has to haunt...! I've read this one myself and really enjoyed it - it's not scary so much as darkly humorous, and very engaging.

Rhian Ivory recommends: The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich (also YA). "Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn gets the night." Brrr. Rhian's debut YA novel The Boy Who Drew The Future has some scary moments too!

Emma Pass recommends: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough (YA). It's "seriously scary", she says. I must admit I fancy reading this one myself, because I've always thought the legend of Long Lankin was spectacularly nasty!
Emma's own book The Fearless (also YA) would appeal to those who like their thrills and scares from zombies and the walking dead!

Kendra Leighton recommends: "A favourite scary read of mine is Uncle Montague's Tales Of Terror by Chris Priestley—a collection of spooky short stories which cleverly link together at the end of the book. The stories feature terrible things happening to naughty children, and read like a cross between M.R. James and Tim Burton. Macabre illustrations are the cherry (pumpkin?) on top."‬
Kendra's YA novel Glimpse is "a ghost story, a love story, and a story of a girl fighting for her future by confronting her terrible past."

Coincidentally (perhaps even spookily?!) I have a recommendation from Chris too!

Chris Priestley recommends: "Robert Aickman - the scariest author I know." (adult) I'm an Aickman fan too - his story The Inner Room is one of my very favourite scary stories ever - so I enjoyed asking Chris for his favourites. "I love The Inner Room. Cold Hand in Mine maybe - as a collection," he suggested. "And Ringing the Changes is another cracker of a story."
Chris' latest book is Anything That Isn't This - "a Kafka-esque nightmare of a story... about love."

And finally....

Helen Grant recommends: Sleep No More by L.T.C.Rolt (adult). As anyone who reads my blog will know, I'm a massive fan of ghost story writer M.R.James, so you might have expected me to recommend him. However, I've gone on about MRJ's stories for so long now that I think anyone who isn't convinced just can't be helped! L.T.C.Rolt deserves a mention because his work is less well known but extremely creepy! Some of his stories - The Garside Fell Disaster, for example, or Bosworth Summit Pound - give me the creeps just thinking about them, even when the sun is shining.
Of my own books, the most Hallowe'en appropriate is probably Wish Me Dead - because it is about a long-dead witch who is seemingly able to grant wishes from beyond the grave...with unforseen consequences for my heroine, Steffi.

Those are our recommendations - I'd love to hear yours!

PS Check out more scary Hallowe'en reading recommendations on Kendra Leighton's blog: Spooky YA Hallowe'en Reads!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Nosferatu rises again!

In spite of the fact that this started out as an author's blog, I seem to end up blogging about films rather a lot! A good story is a good story whatever the format, I guess.

Anyway, I'm back on the topic of films again today, because I'm very excited about an upcoming event - the premiere of Dmytro Morykit's new score for Murnau's 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu.

Back in November 2014, I attended a performance of Dmytro's score for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, at the Strathearn Artspace in Crieff - I blogged about it here: Metropolis

I'm thrilled that Dmytro chose to write a score for Nosferatu this time (and as he lives in Perthshire, as we do, there has been plenty of opportunity for prying and nagging on this particular point!). I've seen Nosferatu twice before and it's a splendidly creepy film. I can't help being reminded of a point made by Professor Aaron Worth at the recent M.R.James conference - that we find superannuated media forms frightening (haunted video tape, anyone?). Nosferatu is a case in point; its antiquity makes it all the more creepy. It deserves a musical background worthy of it - and what better than a live performance, to really "bring it to life"?

The details of the premiere are as follows:

27th October 2015, 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm
Royal Spa Centre
Newbold Terrace
Leamington Spa, CV32 4HN
Box Office: 01926 334418

30th October 2015. 8:45 pm - 10:15 pm
The Guildhall, Leicester
Guildhall Lane
Leicester,  LE1 5FQ
Box Office: 0116 253 2569

After the premieres, Nosferatu will also be performed at: Strathearn Artspace, Crieff on 30th January 2016;
The Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 6th February;
The Waterside Theatre, Derry on 1st April;
and The MAC, Belfast on 2nd April.

I plan to attend the performance at Strathearn Artspace in January so I'll no doubt be blogging about it afterwards! I'll also be posting an interview with Dmytro Morykit on this blog in the near future so look out for that. Finally, if you're near any of the performance venues, do go - judging by Metropolis, this is going to be a thrilling and vivid experience!

Nosferatu: dead good. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Visiting Crimson Peak

There are very few things that would make me get out of bed at 5.30am. The house being on fire, perhaps. Or the very first local showing of a new Del Toro film.
Someone asked me yesterday why I had to get up so very early to see Crimson Peak. The showing was at 9.20am, after all, and only 23 miles away from where we live. Unfortunately, Grant family logistics are regularly complicated by the fact that we have one car, and most of the time I don't have it. The only way to get to the cinema was to hitch a lift with my husband, and as it happens, he had a conference call with India scheduled for the same morning, at a poisonously early hour. Of course, I could have gone to a later showing of Crimson Peak, but it wouldn't have been quite the same. A new Guillermo Del Toro film is worth getting up early for.

So I, my husband and my teen daughter found ourselves setting off in darkness, and as we drove across the landscape we saw the sun coming up over the hills. We dropped off my husband at work, and as we then had some time to kill, the teen and I had breakfast in the town, to see what caffeine and carbs could do with the pair of us (answer: not very much. We still looked like the Walking Dead).
We arrived at the cinema to find that besides ourselves, there were six people in the auditorium, three of them students of Gothic Studies at the local university. I was slightly shocked that there wasn't a better turnout, even for an early showing, but secretly delighted that we had the film mostly to ourselves; when I went to see The Woman In Black it was pretty much ruined by groups of people screaming and switching on their smartphones as a kind of security blanket.
So, what did I think of the film?
The first thing I'd say is that it is one of the most visually sumptuous films I have ever seen. I'm going to see it again next week and I fully expect to notice many new things at a second viewing; in fact you could probably watch it a dozen times and pick out new and wonderful details. The costumes are simply stunning - especially the dresses of a single colour, such as the deep blue and scarlet ones worn by Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and the brilliant yellow dress worn by Edith (Mia Wasikowska). Even more impressive, though, is the backdrop to the main action of the story: Allerdale Hall, located on the "Crimson Peak" of the title, so named for its blood-red clay soil. Allerdale Hall is in some ways the hero of the story; at once grand, decayed and ominous, it is crammed with beautiful and sinister decorations, including Gothic arches that bristle with dark wooden spikes like fangs. It is  gorgeously and richly ornate, and in places disgustingly neglected (the inhabitants seem extraordinarily laissez-faire about leaving the doors open to let in the weather).
Some people who go to see the film may be expecting a "horror film" but that is not what Crimson Peak is at all; it is really a Gothic romance in the tradition of Ann Radcliffe etc. It features ghosts and some wincingly brutal moments of violence, but the film is not "about" those undeniable moments of horror. The plot covers some familiar ground: wealthy young woman is courted by a mysterious and penniless aristocrat and taken off to his remote and sinister looking mansion, where we increasingly suspect that he is up to no good. I did see one early review daring to use the word "predictable" about this, but I think that is unfair; the story is conforming to the Gothic tradition, and bringing it to brilliant life.
I thought the ghosts were excellent, although I would not have expected anything less; having seen Pacific Rim it's obvious that Del Toro is very fussy about his CGI. I never had any of those uncomfortable moments you sometimes get when it is poorly done, and you can somehow tell that what you are seeing is computer generated, even if you can't put your finger on quite why. These ghosts were convincing, sinister, and occasionally beautiful. There was also one moment in the film that was deeply M.R.Jamesian.
A friend asked me whether I thought Crimson Peak was "as good as" The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth. I'm hard put to answer that question. The Devil's Backbone is one of my very favourite films of all time, of any type or genre. But Crimson Peak is a visual feast; I've rarely seen anything like it. Do go and see it!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

My mad week

I think there is probably a general perception that we authors get around a lot, on endless book tours and a giddy round of literary festivals and school events. "Are you coming to John O'Groats/Land's End/the Isle of Wight?" people sometimes ask me. Sadly, the answer is usually no. I don't do all that many events, and I'm always a bit amazed when another author pops up on social media saying "My two hundredth book event of the year, phew!" or some such thing. I mostly divide my time between actual writing, and messing about on social media while pretending to write (the other 10% of my time is spent letting the cat in and out of the French windows).

However, it would appear that book events are like buses; none come along for ages and then you get a clutch of them all at once. This last week has been very busy, with only one day at home (Wednesday) to frantically wash my favourite dress and check I have the right train tickets before zooming off again.

It kicked off with the brilliant Morley Arts Festival in Morley, near Leeds. I travelled down on Sunday 4th because I had an early start on Monday, and stayed in a Travelodge. There was unlimited tea and coffee but I had to go next door to the Toby Carvery for something more substantial. I'd never eaten in one of those before (my not-getting-out-much extends to not-eating-out-much too) but I can report that they have the biggest Yorkshire puddings I've ever seen in my life, which is apt, since Morley is in Yorkshire. I don't really like eating out alone either, but I took the Dexter novel I was reading along with me, and stuck my nose in that while shovelling in roast potatoes with my free hand. It was just as well I had sustained myself with a roast dinner, because Monday was a busy day.

I had two talks in the morning at Morley Academy, and two in the afternoon at Woodkirk Academy, ably shepherded about between the two by the lovely Jill Hepworth, one of the festival organisers.
Here is a picture of me signing books at Morley Academy, taken by Rory O'Connor of the excellent Orinoco Books - I must add that I don't always look as serious as that! I was probably concentrating on how to spell the recipient's name. I live in terror of spelling a name incorrectly and ruining a book, especially since another author once told me they became so glazed after a long signing session that they accidentally wrote "Happy Birthday" in one of the books...

One important observation I have about the day is that school dinners have come a long way since I was at school. I remember when I was at primary school in the 1970s, there was an urban legend going around that one of the boys had hidden a toy soldier in the leftover mashed potato to see whether there was any truth in the rumour that the dinner ladies just recycled the stuff in the "pig bins" - sure enough, the soldier turned up a few days later... 

Anyway, the school dinner at Woodkirk Academy looked like this:

That is mango salad you see there. It was completely delicious, and restaurant standard if you ask me. Very tasty and enough to make me want to go back and retake my A levels.

I got home very late on Monday night, and the following morning I was up bright and early, and off into Edinburgh for the media launch of Book Week Scotland at the Fruitmarket Gallery. I was delighted to see some familiar faces there, including author Keith Gray and blogger The Bookwitch. Amongst other speakers, we heard Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs, speak about the value of books and reading and her own childhood love of the Narnia series. 

Book Week Scotland 2015 will take place from Monday 23rd to Sunday 29th November and this year’s programme of events, projects and activities has a central theme of transformation. If you're in Scotland, do check it out as there are sure to be interesting events near you - and even if you're not in Scotland, look out for Book Week Scotland online with features such as the opportunity to #ThankBooks for what they have brought into your life! 

Like Cinderella leaving the ball, I had to slip away from the media launch a few minutes early, so that I could visit Broughton High School, where I gave an illustrated talk about the locations that have inspired my books. I was also interviewed for Teen Titles so I'm looking forward to seeing the piece when it appears in the magazine. 

Wednesday was my "free" day, although I spent most of it organising and packing for the rest of the week. On Thursday I was up early again for a long journey down to London for the launch of Hilary Freeman's new book When I Was Me. I've known Hilary for a while on Facebook, but I'd never actually met her in the flesh before. Also at the launch were a number of other people I'd only met on social media before, such as Catherine Johnson and Sophia Bennett. Altogether this made for a rather surreal experience, as though my entire Facebook Timeline had suddenly come to life!

Hilary Freeman (on the right)

Also at the event were Hilary's partner Mickael and her baby daughter Sidonie, who was beautifully behaved. I had to laugh a little at this photograph taken of me by author Jo Cotterill:

I think I look like the Bad Fairy at the christening of the Baby Princess!!! That is admiration in my eyes, honestly, in spite of the serious expression! At any rate, Sidonie doesn't seem concerned...

I can't wait to read When I Was Me, which sounds like a truly original and unusual book. Here's what it's about:

One girl, two lives. Which is real?

When Ella wakes up one Monday morning, she discovers that she is not herself and that her life is not her own. She looks different, her friends are no longer her friends and her existence has been erased from the internet. Even worse, years of her history appear to have been rewritten overnight. And yet, nobody else thinks that anything weird has happened. Desperate to cling on to her identity and to piece her life back together, Ella attempts to uncover what has happened to her. Does she have amnesia? Is she losing her mind? Or is she the victim of something more sinister?

A tense and dark psychological thriller full of unexpected twists and turns about the random events and decisions that make us who we are. If you can't trust your own memories, then who can you trust?

I'll be posting a review of the book in due course - probably on Goodreads - and I'd like to urge anyone else who reads and enjoys it to post one too (the same goes if you've read a book of mine you've liked, cough). It's always very much appreciated. 

I stayed over on Thursday night with fellow YA author Keren David, whose Amsterdam-set book This Is Not A Love Story is a YA favourite of mine. On Friday morning, Keren took me out for breakfast at The Haberdashery in Crouch End:

For a further, and probably excessive, quantity of photographs from The Haberdashery, see my Instagram account. It was probably sad of me to wander around the place snapping away with my iPod, but it's the sort of eaterie that cries out to be Instagrammed. There are vintage teacups! There's an ancient sewing machine! 

Anyway, fortified by this huge breakfast, I caught a train to Birmingham where my sister Sarah met me and whisked me away to her place. We had a few free hours together so naturally we spent it here:

Clearly, Sarah and I share quite a few tastes because we spent that evening watching the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Her husband cooked a fabulous jambalaya and their cat, Travis, curled up on my lap for a bit. I think Travis actually likes me more than our own cat, Poppy, does (she thinks I'm just there to open doors and tins of cat food).

On Saturday it was up with the lark again, to catch a train to Nottingham for the second ever UKYA Extravaganza. I'm not going to write about it at length here, because I've done a report on it that is going to appear later this week on the Bookwitch's blog. However, if you're not familiar with UKYA Extravaganza, it's an initiative by authors Emma Pass and Kerry Drewery, to set up a series of regional UKYA (UK Young Adult book) events bringing lots of authors to bloggers and readers all over Britain. I think it's a tremendous project, not least because it is genuinely democratic - there are no "star authors", all the featured authors get the same amount of coverage and time to speak, and the regional locations make the events more accessible. Do follow the Extravaganza on Twitter at @UKYAX for news of future events. 

Above: here I am with blogger Chelley Toy, another person I have known for some time on social media and finally got to meet for the first time this week! Chelley runs the blog called Tales of Yesterday. It was brilliant to meet her, and the other bloggers, readers and authors at the event. 

After the Extravaganza, I took a train back to Sarah's - I hadn't quite got my geography sorted out when I arranged the trip because her place, being on the other side of Birmingham, isn't particularly close to Nottingham(!), but it was worth it to spend some time together. I'm just glad that I wasn't flying home, since that evening she made me watch Alive, the story of the Andes survivors...

On Sunday I took three different trains back to Perthshire. I'd come down the east side of England and now I went back up the west side, passing through Wigan and Preston, etc. I was in a "quiet carriage" most of the way, although it wasn't really very quiet, as it was also occupied by a boisterous group of mature ladies who cheered very loudly when we crossed the border into Scotland! By this time I'd finished the Dexter novel I'd been reading and read most of the following one, and I'd probably consumed my own weight in sandwiches and those little tubs of mango pieces you always seem to get in the "snacks" section of the chiller cabinet. 

Trains to England always seem to charge for wifi connection so I was dying to get onto the final Scotrail train, as Scotrail usually offer free wifi. As ill luck would have it, I was on the only Scotrail train I have used in the last two or three years that didn't have wifi. Undaunted, I logged on every time we stopped at a station that did, such as Stirling, so that I could check my messages. God bless Scotrail. 

Finally, I arrived home around 8pm. Everyone seemed to have got on fine in my absence, although I noticed they had eaten most of the chocolate and oven chips and none of the apples... 

A big thank you to everyone who invited me to events, let me stay over at their place, drove me around, made me cups of tea and all the other things! Very, very much appreciated. 

Poppy the cat: "Have you been away? I thought the service levels had been poorer than usual."

UPDATE 15/10/15: My report on the UKYA Extravaganza is now live on the Bookwitch's blog: https://bookwitch.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/ukya-extravaganza-comes-to-nottingham/ - do check it out!