Sunday, November 28, 2010

SINT - my fave Christmas movie!

I have absolutely no pretensions to being a film critic - in cinematic terms I am like those people who say "I don't know anything about wine but I like what I like". I have never seen Gone with the wind and I didn't manage to watch the whole of Citizen Kane. I've even committed the heresy of preferring the American film The Ring to the Japanese original, Ringu. So I don't have the slightest critical credentials to boast of. I what I like.
Now that's out of the way, I just have to mention a film I saw yesterday, which I absolutely LOVED. It's SINT (Saint), by Dutch director Dick Maas. A Flemish friend of mine who knows a bit about my erratic taste in films told me about it, and from the moment I saw the trailer ( ) I was desperate to see it. Nor was I disappointed.
SINT is about Sinterklaas, better known to you and me as Santa Claus, or possibly Saint Nicholas. The story begins in 1492, with the original Bishop Nicholas revealed to be the evil head of a gang of plundering, murdering thugs. After he and his men visit a small village in the dead of winter and steal several children, the inhabitants take their revenge, setting fire to his ship and watching as Nicholas perishes in the flames. This is not the end of him, though; Sint has more lives than Freddy Krueger. Every 36 years, when the full moon falls on St.Nicholas' Eve (5th December) he returns to carry out a killing spree, murdering children and adults alike.
Fast forward to present-day Amsterdam, where the full moon is due to fall upon 5th December. Cute hero Frank and disgraced detective Goert battle to stop the latest wave of grisly murders, hampered by the fact that their appearance at many of the crime scenes puts them under suspicion.
I marvelled at the sheer outrageousness of this film. It was worth seeing it just to watch the scene in which Sinterklaas astride his traditional white horse gallops along the rooftops of Amsterdam, whilst the police give chase firing at him from the window of their police car. It's also certainly a new twist to the St.Nicholas legend to have him decapitating people with his crozier. Dick Maas, I salute you: you have one hell of an imagination!
SINT is currently in cinemas in Belgium; I hope there will be a dubbed English version in due course as it would be truly tragic to miss this film. Hell, watch it in Dutch if you have to! One word of warning: take the 12+ rating seriously. This isn't for younger kids!

Update: there is now a DVD version with English subtitles. 

Muy misterioso...

When I was in Spain this week, an interviewer asked me, "What is the real Helen Grant like?" This was a bit of a fast ball since nearly everyone asks me how long it takes to write a book, where I get my ideas, etc. However, having reviewed all my inner characteristics in a nanosecond and rejected the bits about Never Saying No To Chocolate, having dubious daydreams about Johnny Depp and Preferring Mess To Housework, I replied (truthfully) that I am a person with a very active imagination, and it colours the way I see the world. Well, "colours" is a nice way of saying "completely and utterly falsifies."
Take for example my Dutch class, which I have been attending for two and half years now. Nederlands 1 and 2 introduced us to Hagob (Armenian) and Dorjee (Tibetan) as well as Dalia (Syrian) and Monserrat (Phillipina). (There was nothing so pedestrian as a European amongst this cast of characters.) They were forever ringing each other up or "accidentally" meeting in the street and having seemingly innocuous conversations about the weather or proposed cinema trips. If I had taken all this at face value I would have died of boredom long before we got onto irregular Dutch past participles, so I used to create extravagant supplementary histories for the characters. Hagob and Dorjee were clearly desperate to find women, but hampered by their lack of Dutch fluency, hence the inane remarks about the weather; Dalia and Monserrat had rumbled their little game long ago and kept trying to pass them onto each other, hence the rash of introductions in the first chapter - it was nothing to do with learning Dutch social conventions and everything to do with offloading an unwanted suitor. And don't get me onto Geert in the pink polo shirt in the chapter about family trees - no need to ask why he's still single at 30...
Given this predilection for "enhancing reality", you can imagine how my imagination ran riot when I turned up at my hotel in Madrid to find it crawling with security. At least, I think that's what they were. I took the lift to the second floor to find two men in suits wearing earpieces sitting on chairs one either side of one of the doors. They didn't have any luggage with them so I don't think they were waiting to get into their room, and they didn't look friendly. No nodding, no Buenas dias, just a flat stare. I went to my room and let myself in, feeling slightly uncomfortable; looked back after unlocking the door and saw one of them staring back at me. Bodyguards, I decided. But whose? The hotel was very comfortable and modern, but it wasn't the sort of marble-and-crystal-chandeliers type of place that film stars hang out in. Or was someone slumming it, in the hopes of going unnoticed?
I went out for a couple of hours to look around Madrid and when I got back to the hotel, the men were still there on the landing, still staring and still not saying anything. In fact, when I looked, the whole hotel seemed to be crawling with men in suits wearing earpieces. There was one with a Mephistophelean beard; he was definitely up to no good. He was probably one of those people you get in films, who can kill you in two seconds with his bare hands.
I began to wish I was someone with no imagination at all; nasty thoughts kept occurring to me, eg. if someone on my corridor needed bodyguards, were they expecting an imminent attack? Wasn't it a bit dangerous being on the same floor? Was I going to end up as "collateral damage"? Feeling rather silly but distinctly unnerved, I put a chair up against the door before I went to bed. There; that should stop contract killers sneaking in, killing me silently and using my room as a base.
The next morning I opened the curtains to discover a police van parked opposite the hotel. Out on the landing, the two men were still at their posts - or was it another two men? Hard to tell. Downstairs in the lobby was another little huddle of men in suits; whilst I sat there waiting for my interpreter to turn up, a policeman came in and starting speaking to them. How I wished I had got past Lesson 1: El Campesino in Living Spanish. Then I might have been able to work out whether they were saying, "The target has been eliminated; the jump jet is waiting" or "Can you move your car, please, sir; it's obstructing a delivery entrance."
I didn't dare ask the hotel staff what it was all about, in case I either made myself look terminally stupid or very suspicious. I did find myself wondering afterwards however whether the two men on my hotel corridor had imaginations as active as mine. Did they watch me unlocking my door and wonder whether that wheeled bag concealed a balaclava, an abseil rope and an Uzi? Did they see me open the door to the room service guy and wonder whether I was really giving him a two euro tip or passing a microdot? Let's hope so, because otherwise they must have had a terribly boring night, poor things, with nothing to do expect watch the digital numbers on the lift door going up and down.

PS Later in the day, comfortably removed from the hotel, I asked my contacts at the publisher's if they had any idea what had been going on. They were as puzzled as I was - but someone suggested it may have been a diplomat or other bigwig since there was some sort of big event related to the Spanish royal family going on. So whoever was in the room with the men outside, it probably wasn't a film star. Shame; I was hoping for Johnny Depp.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bon dia Barcelona!

"Well," said my husband when I called him from Barcelona, "How are they treating you?"
"Truthfully?" I said. "It's how I'd always hoped to be treated!" I couldn't tell him anything else for a minute though, because he was too busy laughing at me...
Delusions of grandeur aside(!), I think any author who has slaved away for a year or more on a manuscript, not knowing whether anyone else will ever read it, would be thrilled with the promotional programme Planeta (my Spanish publisher) had organised. Fourteen interviews at last count (well, that's what someone told me, since I actually had lost count), lots of exciting dashes about Madrid and Barcelona in taxis, and some very tasty tapas (thanks, Maria!). I've been on the radio (second time ever) and TV (first time ever) as well as chatting to lots of journalists. The Planeta team asked me if I was getting tired of talking to people; I said (quite truthfully) that coming from a large and vociferous family I am very grateful if anyone listens to me at all!
I came away with a very positive impression of the Spanish media - it was wonderful to be asked so many interesting and intelligent questions - as well as some very original ones. "Do you believe in reincarnation?" and "Do you have a great soul?" asked one TV interviewer. (One of my friends asked me how on earth you reply to a question like that; I replied that you say, "That is a very interesting question indeed," and whilst you are saying that, you think frantically!)
One of the things which interested many interviewers was the book's title, El Imperturbable Hans ("Unshockable Hans"), which is of course very different to the British title, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Why was this? they wanted to know. If you are interested, this is the reason: Unshockable Hans was my original working title of the book. I called it that because in many ways I see the legendary figure of Hans as the hero of the story. For various reasons the eventual English-language title was changed - it was much less obvious from the working title what the book was about, for example, whereas The Vanishing... is a pretty good signpost! However, the Spanish team liked the working title and decided to go with it. I'm thrilled that they did, because it fits very well with the spooky, quirky cover art of the Spanish edition.
Finally, I managed a very, very quick visit to La Pedrera and La Sagrada Familia, two of Barcelona's most famous landmarks, both designed by the artistic genius Antoni Gaudi. We lived in Barcelona for a few months in 1999 when my daughter was a baby, and whilst my husband was out working, I made it a project of mine to visit every single Gaudi building, park, gate, etc in Barcelona and photograph the baby in front of them. So it was wonderful to relive those memories, even if briefly.
Now I'm back in Brussels, looking out of the window at grey skies and what appears to be (eek!) snow falling...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hola Madrid!

It's been a bizarre day. I'm here in Spain to help publicise the launch of El Imperturbable Hans, the Spanish translation of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, having missed (by a whisker) the email that arrived telling me the plans.
At Madrid airport there was a taxi driver waiting with a placard with my name on it. I had spent the two hour flight from Brussels frantically reading Living Spanish and trying to remember irregular verbs, however, my Spanish vocabulary has more holes in it than a lace mantilla, and if the taxi driver spoke any English he wasn't telling. I managed to ask him whether we were going to the publisher's or the hotel and established that it was the hotel, but that was about it.
Arrived at the hotel, went up to the desk and said "Tengo una reserva", after which the staff took pity on me and switched to English. They had my reservation all right; so far so good. I left my mobile phone number with Reception in case anyone called wanting me for anything, and then went out on foot to look at Madrid.
There wasn't time to take in a museum etc so instead I just wandered about for a bit soaking up the atmosphere as dusk fell. I've only ever been in Madrid once before, for a single day, and didn't manage to see anything then either. My main impression is of staggering buildings. Quite a lot of them have turrets and statues on top. I particularly liked a statue of someone driving a chariot, outlined against the evening sky.
Browsed in a fabulous shop called Lala; done out all in white and mirrors, it was a paradise of Gothic jewellery - purple or black diamante spiders on chains, huge dangly earrings and gorgeous scarlet and black pendants. Restrained myself with difficulty - I really don't have any occasion on which I could wear a tarantula on a string - but bought some black and turquoise glass and foil earrings in another boutique.
When I got back to the hotel, there was an envelope waiting for me. It contained the schedule for tomorrow, and a train ticket to Barcelona for tomorrow night. I am starting to feel like the girl in Beauty and the Beast, who kept waking up to find stuff had been done in the night by invisible servants. Will an actual person appear at some point, or shall I follow a trail of clues and notes...?
No idea whether I will be able to get at a Wifi connection in Barcelona; the train doesn't even arrive there until 21.43 so I may be too tired even if there is Wifi on every street corner. If I can get online, I'll be back to relate how I got on.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Greenlight for Girls 2

Just picked my daughter up - she was utterly thrilled with the whole day. She has her own personalised lab coat and some of her own DNA in a test tube!!! (She says she was glad they let her bring that home because she didn't want anyone cloning her on the sly.) She says the best workshop of all was making a comet out of dry ice, water, baking powder, cornflower and kitchen spray - she's dying to try it out at home.
Judging by the excited faces coming out of the last session, everyone had a fabulous and inspiring time. Let's hope they run something like this again!

Greenlight for girls

There are not many things which make me want to get up at 06.00 on a Saturday morning, but today I added one to the list (the others include climbing Ben Lomond, scuba diving off Weymouth and nabbing a turn at the only tap on an Indian campsite before anyone else got up, if you must know). I have just taken my daughter to a science day for girls being held at the International School of Brussels, which opened at 08.00, hence the horrendously early start, since we live half an hour's drive away.

The day is being run by Greenlight for Girls, an International NGO with the mission to encourage girls to consider a future in maths, science, engineering and technology by introducing them to the world of science in fun and exciting ways. It's a fabulous opportunity for girls to meet high-achieving women (and men) working in science, and to try out a variety of workshops and experiments. It's a whole-day event including lunch and amazingly, thanks to the organisation's sponsors, it's entirely free.

I dropped my daughter off at the registration desk, where she received her programme for the day and disappeared off to get herself a lab coat. Since my sole scientific qualifications are two ancient 'O'levels in Maths and Biology, I'm rather an outsider to the world of science. The only time I see a lab coat is at the doctor's or the pharmacy, so it made a very strong visual impression on me, seeing so many women and girls wearing them. Let's hope it's a uniform many of today's participants will continue to wear in the future.
I'll post again later when I've heard how my daughter got on!
You can read about the event and about Greenlight for Girls on their website, here:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Glass Demon rights sold in Turkey!

I'm delighted to report that the Turkish rights to The Glass Demon have been sold to Derin Kitap! Details in due course.

Book signing, 6th November 2010

A big thank you to Octavia and Jo and everyone at Waterstone's in Cirencester for organising my book signing event last Saturday. Thanks also to William Bond for producing the super publicity material. A special mention too for Ben, one of my oldest friends, who travelled from London specially!
To everyone who attended and bought signed books - or just stopped to chat - it was great to see you.

Visit to St. Mary's Church, Fairford.

As my long-suffering family and friends will testify, I have a bit of a "thing" about Renaissance stained glass. Whenever we are travelling about and I spot an interesting-looking church, I am prone to stopping the car and begging everyone else for "just five minutes" whilst I look to see whether there is any original glass left. Nine times out of ten I come out again looking disgusted (plain glass or some horrible later replacement) but now and again there is something really beautiful to see.
I became interested in the subject after researching the stained glass of Steinfeld Abbey (featured in the English ghost story "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" by M.R.James). Up until that point I had no idea how little glass of that period (1500s) survives. It is also very rare to see it in its original setting. The Steinfeld glass, and the equally gorgeous Mariawald glass, are now mostly the inmates of museums.
It was therefore a rare and fabulous treat for me to visit St. Mary's Church in Fairford, Gloucestershire, last week whilst I was in England. The Fairford glass is of the same period as the Steinfeld glass but amazingly, it is still in its original setting and virtually undamaged (a few windows were damaged by a storm in the early 1700s but most of the windows are perfect). The great west window includes one of the most stunning Last Judgement scenes I have ever seen, complete with demons.
A big vote of thanks to William Bond for taking me to Fairford, and also for taking a brilliant set of photographs of the glass for use in the upcoming book trailer for The Glass Demon. As the Fairford glass is of exactly the same period as the fictional Allerheiligen glass in my book, it was ideal - there is even a fire-belching "Bonschariant". If you are ever in the area, take a look - a unique chance to see real glass demons!

Friday, November 5, 2010

CILIP Carnegie Medal 2011

I'm very pleased to say that The Glass Demon has been nominated for the 2011 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Here's the longlist:

Congratulations to everyone including FB friends Meg Rosoff and Keren David, and fellow Penguin YA writer Alex Scarrow!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Wish Me Dead

I'm delighted to report that I finished revisions on my third novel, Wish Me Dead, this week. In fact I sent it to Penguin Books on Sunday evening. There may be some further (hopefully small) revisions plus there's all the normal copyediting stuff, but basically the book is finished. I've also seen some fabulous cover artwork which I hope to be able to post here soon.

Wish Me Dead is my third book set in the Eifel region of Germany, and it's a return to Bad M√ľnstereifel, the setting of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. The story is about a group of friends, who decide to have a bit of slightly drunken fun one evening by going to the ruins of a witch's house in the woods near the town. They attempt to ask the long-dead witch to do their bidding. They wish someone dead - and the person really dies. That's just the beginning...

Anyone who has a particularly good memory for detail might remember that the Nett family have a VERY fleeting reference made to them in The Vanishing. It was that detail that inspired Wish Me Dead - that, plus the real-life history of witch-finding in the Eifel. A few other familiar Bad M√ľnstereifel characters from my first two novels also make a reappearance in this book. It's not a "sequel" to either of the previous books but it still ties up a few loose ends!

Publication of Wish Me Dead is currently planned for June 2011 in the UK.

Signing event in Cirencester this week

On Saturday 6th November I'll be at Waterstone's in Cirencester (Gloucestershire) signing copies of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and The Glass Demon, from 11am to 1pm and 2-4pm. All welcome - I'd love to see you.
This is not part of a tour or anything - I simply happen to be in the UK anyway because it's my mum's birthday this week, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to do a signing in the area. Any excuse to spend hours and hours in a bookshop!