Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Beach House: Jimmy Perez trophy winning short crime story

The Shetland Noir book festival held in Lerwick in November 2015 included a short story writing competition. Shetland Noir Writing Competition, the prize being the Jimmy Perez Trophy (with kind sponsorship by Ann Cleeves).

The competition rules stated:

To enter, submit one piece of crime fiction: 500-1000 words

Your piece must contain all of the following ingredients:
At least one corpse, or part thereof
One darkened room
At least one Nordic reference
The misuse of at least one kitchen utensil
A telephone that rings unanswered

THE BEACH HOUSE by Helen Grant, posted here and on Wattpad, was the winning story. The 2nd prize was won by Matthew Wright with AND THE HILLS SANG WITH BLOOD and the 3rd prize by Marina Marinopoulos with JUST DESERTS.

* * * * *


Too damn early. There was a flat bright quality to the early morning light that made his eyes hurt. All the black coffee in the world wasn’t going to help. He’d grabbed a kanelbulle, a cinnamon roll, as breakfast on the hoof, but it was sitting half-eaten in a bag on his lap as he drove. He’d taken one bite and lost interest. It was difficult to get pissed in Sweden with the cost of alcohol, but he’d managed it, and now the early sunshine made him feel as though his cranium were being x-rayed.
Shortly before the Haverdal turning, he tried phoning again; once he got to the crime scene, there’d be no chance. It rang a few times, then went to voicemail again. This time he left a message.
“Christina? It’s me, Alexander. Call me back. Please.” He paused, sighing. “I’m sorry, okay? I shouldn’t have pressurised you. Don’t tell him now, or not ever if you don’t want to. Just call me back. I love you.”
He forced himself to turn his thoughts to the call-out, to prepare himself mentally for what he was going to have to look at. It was incongruous somehow: violent death in such a quiet and affluent place. He drove past opulent villas that posed as simple beach houses with their corrugated walls painted white or blue or red ochre. Robotic lawn mowers moved in silent trajectories across their perfect lawns. 
The house he wanted overlooked the sea. There were other vehicles there already, including an ambulance waiting patiently, siren off. Alexander parked on the street. He put on his protective gear, wincing as he bent to pull on the shoe covers; when he leaned forward the throbbing in his head intensified to an excruciating extent. Then he ducked under the tape and walked up to the front door, which was guarded by a uniformed officer with a grim nauseated expression on his face.
A bad one, then.
Inside the house, hooded and overalled figures were at work, looking strangely out of place amongst the expensive and deliberately understated furnishings. Someone recognised him.
“Inspector Rasmusson.”
Alexander nodded, then followed the woman into a spacious living room. The activity at the other end told him that that was where the body lay. The taste of the black coffee was like ashes in his mouth. He delayed the inevitable viewing for a few moments by asking who had called the incident in.
“Nosy neighbour?” he asked, but the woman shook her head.
“Nothing to see from outside. The blinds were down at both ends of the room. It was dark. Even if someone had been able to peep in, they probably wouldn’t have seen anything.”
“Phone call, apparently. Guy said he’d killed his partner and was going to kill himself. Wouldn’t give any names.”
“Who does the place belong to? Do you know?”
“A couple in Stockholm. It’s not them. The place was being let out to holidaymakers. Someone’s trying to get hold of the agent to find out who.”
Alexander nodded. He didn’t want to think about this, didn’t want to look at the remains. He wanted to check his phone again, see whether Christina had tried to call him back or maybe left a text message. He wanted to tell her he’d been an idiot, and whatever fragment of her life she was prepared to give him, that would be enough. I love you, he wanted to tell her.
There was only one way to do that, though, and that was to get the job over. He went to the other end of the room, where two of those otherworldy-looking suited figures were kneeling by the body.
One look was enough.
Satans helvete,” he swore. So much blood – but that wasn’t the worst of it. The half of the cinnamon bun that he had eaten threatened to come up again. “What the hell did he do to her?”
“Stabbed her with a kitchen knife,” said one of the men, looking up. “The other injuries were probably post mortem.”
“How do you know?” asked Alexander queasily. He’d seen some pretty bad stuff before, but nothing like this.
“Would you lie there and let someone take off your face with a cheese grater?” asked the man.
“That was what he used?”
The man nodded. “And took off the hair with kitchen scissors. It’s like he wanted to obliterate her completely.”
It was a point of honour not to show nausea in front of the crime scene examiners, but as soon as he could get away, Alexander went out for some air. From outside the house, he could see the curve of the beach and the sparkling surface of the sea. It looked idyllic, a bizarre contrast with the bloody horror he had just seen. It made him want more urgently than ever to speak to Christina, to grasp what happiness he could. With shaking fingers he pulled up her number and pressed the green call button.
When he heard her phone begin to ring at the other end of the line, he heard simultaneously a ringing from inside the house. He might not have made anything of this – everyone carried mobiles, after all – except that as Christina’s phone went to Voicemail, the ringing from indoors stopped abruptly.
That was strange, Alexander said to himself, doing his best to disregard the cold churning in the pit of his stomach. He called Christina again. By the time he heard the second answering ring from the house, he was on his way back inside. Voicemail again. He called a third time, stumbling into the living room, barely taking in the faces that turned towards him, open-mouthed as they heard him screaming out a name, over and over. Christina, Christina.
And still the phone rang on unanswered, from the pocket of the body.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Every picture tells a story

This weekend I was in Newcastle for the Books on Tyne book festival, where I did an illustrated talk about Mystery Fiction for Young Adults at the impressive City Library (pictured left). A very big thankyou to those who attended, and also to the library staff, who were super friendly and very welcoming. The library is altogther an amazing place and has a very nice cafe too. I can vouch for the high quality of the hot chocolate!

I hadn't visited Newcastle for a very long time - decades, I think. This is not very surprising since we lived abroad for quite a while. Anyway, I was very keen to see something of the city while we were there. I went down to the quayside and photographed the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, and went up to the frankly terrifying glass viewing box on the fifth floor of the Baltic arts centre. We also did some shopping and drank mulled wine at the Christmas market. I think, however, the thing that I enjoyed the very most was visiting the Laing Art Gallery, which is very close to the City Library.

I visit art galleries fairly often with my art-loving teenage daughter, who has made me stand in front of all sorts of surrealist, cubist, conceptual and expressionist art. Personally I like older stuff, so I was thrilled to see that the Laing gallery has an "18th and 19th century" room. I made a bee line for it. It did not disappoint - there was a brilliant selection of paintings, the most famous of which is probably William Holman Hunt's gorgeously ominous Isabella and the pot of basil. 

I very much liked this painting, by John Martin, entitled The Bard.

According to the notice on the wall next to it, the painting shows the destruction of the Welsh bards by King Edward I. You can see the last remaining bard defiantly poised on a cliff top, clutching his harp.

Here's a close up of that bard:

I was unreasonably fascinated by this painting. Why would anyone want to wipe out all the bards? It seems to me that that is taking "not really being into the Arts" to extremes. Before anyone writes in to explain exactly why King Edward I did this, I am going to look it up. I am just enjoying speculating a bit first. I'm guessing the bards were peddling subversive songs or something. I quite like to imagine them standing under King Edward's bedroom window strumming on their harps and launching into "There was a young fellow named Eddie" or similar, until he lost his kingly temper. 

Anyway, I did eventually manage to tear myself away from The Bard and look at the other paintings in the room, and it was then that I came upon this one:

It's called The Unknown and it's by John Charles Dollman. There was also an information panel for this painting, which talked about mythology and symbolism, but however you dress it up, it's a topless woman giving a lesson to chimps. I absolutely love this painting. Aside from the breezily confident lunacy of the subject matter, it absolutely begs the viewer to make up their own story about what is happening. In fact, some of my friends did make up their own stories, after I posted the painting on Facebook: 

I put it on Twitter, too (you can never see a picture of chimps having a lesson too many times) and fellow author Kate Wiseman surmised:

Then, of course, you have to wonder why that one particular chimp has gone off, while the others are still listening. Is that the chimp who is going to become the leader of the new chimp civilisation? Or is that the chimp who can't be bothered, and has gone off to see if there are any bananas, leaving the others to construct a democratic chimp state by themselves? So many questions. 

That's the beauty of a really striking painting. It fills our heads with new stories. If you have any ideas about what's going on, feel free to share! And in the meantime, if you find yourself in Newcastle (or need an excuse to go) do visit the Laing Gallery. The chimps await. 

"Pah, I'm not listening to any more of this. Planet of the Apes is on the telly."

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Murder in the DIY store...

I've not done very much writing in the last couple of weeks. Not much creative writing, anyway. I've been at Shetland Noir, and since then I've been busy with a freelance project that falls into the editing category rather than the story writing category. Maybe the lack of lavish description and Byzantine plotting opportunities has been getting to me, because I've been having ideas in the strangest places.

Today we had to take the car to be serviced, which is one of the boringest jobs in the world, and unpleasant too, because you get the same car back at the end of it, plus a huge bill. The job was going to take a couple of hours, so my husband and I went into a nearby DIY store to while away some of the time.

The DIY store was not my idea. I know household jobs have to be done, but they don't fill me with a zealous passion to grout tiles or stick rawl plugs into walls. I don't know how any retail experience can be quite so horrifically dull as a DIY store. I mean, we are talking about a huge shop here, one it would take you several minutes to jog the length of, were you so inclined. There are shelves and shelves of things you can buy, and all of them are boring. The stuff is mostly beige or grey, for goodness' sake. The only thing likely to make your pulse quicken is the pricing. £380 for a toilet!

I'll admit I did complain quite a bit for the first few minutes. But then I started to think: I wonder if you could stage a murder story in here? (I think the chain of thought went something like: I'm dying of boredom > death > murder.) So I tuned out of the thrilling (not) conversation my husband was having with the shop assistant about tongue-and-groove flooring, and tried to think about murder instead.

I have to say that I think the Christmas grotto had definite murder scene potential. Imagine the pathos! How poignant to find a corpse amongst the glittering baubles, the white tinsel Christmas trees and the light-up penguins! Even better if there is Christmas muzak playing in the background - Santa Baby would probably cover the sounds of last gurgles and death rattles very nicely.

Aha, you may say, but isn't a DIY store a rather public place to commit a murder? You'd be caught on CCTV for sure, assuming one of those friendly assistants in their distinctive polo shirts didn't see you first. No problem, say I. See this rack of handy masks with dust filters? Pop one of those on and you've covered your face very nicely.

Now for the murder weapon. I lingered for a while by the power drills. They were all out on display, begging to be picked up and examined. On buttons were begging to be pushed. "What are you doing over there?" asked my husband. I put the drill down. "Er, seeing whether they were charged up or not. I guess not..." So that's one plotline thwarted. I guess it would have to be one of the other, blunter instruments. Which one? Use your imagination. If I can put a cheese grater into a crime story, you can think of a use for that stainless steel toilet roll & brush holder.

Finally: the victim. Well, that's an easy one. Whoever dragged you into the DIY store in the first place...

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

German traditions make me cry

I realised this morning that it is Saint Martin's Day (11th November). I couldn't believe I hadn't thought about it until now. 

We lived in Bad Münstereifel in Germany for seven wonderful years while the children were small, and we took part in the Saint Martin's festivities many times. I liked Karneval, with its costume parades and sweetie-throwing, very much indeed, but Saint Martin was my favourite event of the German calendar. The centrepiece of the celebration was always a torch-lit procession around the town, which was an unbelievably picturesque event, what with the dancing flames and the beautiful old half-timbered houses. For several weeks before the procession, all the kindergarten and primary school children would be feverishly at work making lanterns to carry. In the olden days, these would have had actual flames inside, but modern ones have a little light bulb. Everyone would gather in the Klosterplatz, a square near the church, and there was always a brass band playing the traditional St. Martin songs, such as Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind and Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne. I still can't hear those tunes without welling up! Then "Saint Martin" would ride into the square on a horse - a very calm, good-natured horse, considering all the lights and loud noises. He would lead the procession around the town centre and all the children would follow with their lanterns. The brass band would play and we would all sing the songs as we walked. When we got back to the square, there would be a huge bonfire attended by the local fire brigade (just in case). Then "Saint Martin" and an actor dressed as a beggar would act out the legend of the saint, a Roman soldier who took pity on a beggarman freezing in the snow and gave him half his warm cloak to wear. The children always loved the bit where Saint Martin took out his sword and cut the cloak in half. Afterwards, all the children got a bun with big chunks of sugar on it. 

We all have our own special memories of the Saint Martin's procession. This is my favourite: one year when our son was too tiny to walk around, my husband carried him. When we got to the Catholic old people's home, a number of the old people were at the door watching, and with them was a small group of nuns. On impulse I whispered to my son that he should blow them a kiss. He was, I must say, a remarkably good-humoured toddler, so he did as he was asked, and I was amused to see all the nuns sighing over his adorable cuteness! I bet he hates to be reminded of that, now he's a whopping great teenager... 

My daughter's keenest memory is quite different. The year she was in the German fourth grade, the top year of primary school, I gave her her first mobile phone to take with her on the procession, in case she got lost or couldn't find us afterwards. She was thrilled. In fact I doubt the beggarman was more thrilled with his half-a-cloak. 

When we left Germany, I always swore that I would go back for Saint Martin's Day. But in 7 years I have only ever managed it once, mainly because of the cost of flying everyone back. It has gradually ceased to loom so large in my mental calendar, while Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes Night have become more prominent. But whenever I think about it, I still wish I could be there, walking over the worn cobblestones and singing along with the brass band. I listened to some of the traditional songs this morning on YouTube and found myself crying a bit, just from nostalgia. 

I always knew we would have to leave Bad Münstereifel one day. We went there for 2 years, after all, and stayed for 7, but there was no way of stringing it out forever! But I'm pleased to say that like so many of the other aspects of our life there, the Saint Martin's procession is described in my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Of course, I've added a dark twist to it - someone vanishes during the procession! But it's all there, right down to the fact that if you walk right behind the horse you have to watch where you step...

Here's a short excerpt:

It was almost time for the procession to begin. The local brass band, resplendent in hunting-green uniforms and peaked caps, were assembling at the corner of the square, hoisting trombones and trumpets and horns, which glittered in the light of the lanterns and torches. Someone tried out the opening notes of one of the songs, a song so familiar that the words formed themselves inside my head as I listened: Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind . . . It finished with a squeak which sent a ripple of laughter through the crowd.
Someone from the council had climbed the steps at the side of the square and was talking inaudibly into a loudhailer. Then we heard a clatter of hooves on the cobblestones and St Martin rode into the square.
Of course, all of the spectators except the very youngest knew that St Martin was really someone from the town, dressed up in a red velvet cloak and Roman helmet; in fact my parents even knew the family who lent the horse. But there was always something magical about St Martin; he was real in a way that Sankt Nikolaus and the Easter Bunny weren’t. For one thing, he was undeniably solid, and so was the horse: if you followed too closely behind it you had to look where you stepped.
As we watched, St Martin wheeled the horse round and began to ride slowly out of the south side of the square, the crimson cloak undulating on the horse’s hindquarters as it moved, the torchlight making the great golden helmet glitter. The band fell in behind him, and struck up with the first bars of ‘Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne’, the signal for the schoolchildren to follow. As the rest of us surged forward, I could see Frau Eichen counting the children again.
‘Can I go on ahead?’ I asked my mother hopefully, seeing that she was making woefully slow progress with Sebastian in his buggy. I was afraid we would be stuck right at the back, where we could hardly hear the band, and we would be last back into the square to see the bonfire.
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Pia.’ I didn’t bother to ask why.
‘I’ll go with her,’ said my father, turning up his collar. He looked at me sternly. ‘And stay where I can see you, Pia. No running off.’
‘Yes, Papa.’
I fell into step beside him; with his long legs we made good progress, and were soon pushing our way further up the procession. First it wound up the Heisterbacher Strasse and past our front door, then it followed the line of the medieval defensive walls west towards the great gate, the Orchheimer Tor. I looked about me at the excited faces, the flickering torches and glowing lanterns, and the ancient stones of the walls, interspersed with arrow slits. We could have been back in the Middle Ages, on our way to a coronation – or a witch-burning...

Above: no witches burning - just a bonfire! 

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! 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A series of fortunate events...

It's been a busy time and it's going to get busier, which is why I haven't had much time to blog recently. Anyway, here I am, lurking indoors on a lovely sunny morning in time-honoured writerly fashion, with a cup of tea and my laptop powered up, all ready to catch up.

My last blog post was about this year's Crieff Arts Festival, which took place two weeks ago. I took part in an event called Writers Live, hosted by the Strathearn Artspace. Writers Live featured a number of authors local to Crieff, who read from their work and took questions from the audience. At the end of the session, there was an interactive talk about publishing by Helen Lewis-McPhee, who works for Canongate, and Gonzalo Mazzei of Grace Note Publications. Writers Live was very well-attended with an enthusiastic audience. I live-tweeted the whole five hours(!) on behalf of Crieff Arts Festival, so if you would like to see photographs etc do follow the Festival on https://twitter.com/CrieffArtsFest. I am sorry to say however that there are no photographs of me doing my bit because I was the one taking all the pictures! Writers Live was followed by Crieff Community Band performing traditional Scots music and song, with support from Nigel's All-Stars (pictured in the black and white photo). So it was altogether a lively day and lots of fun, although by the end I was gasping for a nice cup of tea...

Also in August, I went to a party at the National Museum of Scotland for ALCS, who (if you haven't heard of them) are the people who organise PLR payments, ie, every time someone borrows an author's book from the library, the author gets about 6p. PLR is a brilliant thing. Although authors get used to jokey remarks about being "the next J.K.Rowling", most of us aren't rich beyond our wildest dreams (sadly) and so PLR payments can be a very helpful and welcome windfall. I'd also like to point out that I have occasionally heard people justify downloading pirate copies of books for free on the basis that borrowing them from the library would also be free. Well, yes, free to the borrower, but actually the author does get a tiny payment. So please do support your library!

More recently, I was at a party organised at the Central Reference Library in Edinburgh by Teen Titles, the book review magazine written by and for teenagers. The event was attended by teen reviewers from ten Edinburgh secondary schools, and many YA writers including Cat Clarke and Teri Terry, pictured with me (left). Teen Titles has outlasted many other publications, and has now been running for so long that apparently its original teen reviewers must now be in their middle 30s! It was great to meet so many enthusiastic readers, and it was also lovely to meet so many other authors. Writing is a solitary business, so it is great to get out and meet people for a change...

Anyway, after the excitement of two parties in one month (which virtually never happens!), September looks a bit quiet, but I'm glad to say that in October I shall be attending the second ever UKYA Extravaganza, in Nottingham. The first Extravaganza took place last year in Birmingham and was the brainchild of YA authors Kerry Drewery and Emma Pass. The idea of holding an Extravaganza is to get lots of YA authors together in one place to meet readers and bloggers. The fab thing about the Extravaganzas is that they are (and will be) regional. Not everyone (particularly not teen readers with limited cash) can afford to travel to London for events. UKYA Extravaganza takes the authors to where their fans are. Here's the line-up for the Nottingham event, which is on October 10th, with ticket sales starting on Monday (7th September):

NB If you'd like to attend, book early, because the last Extravaganza was a sell-out!

Right. Now I think it's time for another cup of tea...

Friday, August 14, 2015

This August, expose yourself to Art!

Not long ago, I blogged about the upcoming Crieff Arts Festival 2015, which takes place on 22nd and 23rd August. The Festival will include art exhibitions, live music, literary events, arts and crafts workshops, street theatre and a display of traditional weaving. Over the last few days, a top secret squad of artists whose identities I could not possibly reveal *cough* descended on the empty Drummond Hotel and created a colourful display of butterflies (see pic) to hint at the arty delights to come.

If you're within travelling distance of Crieff and fancy coming along to join the fun, you can find the Festival programme here: programme - it's still a work-in-progress with events being added and times being amended to fit in as much as possible, so if you are interested in a specific event, do check back for updates.

In my previous blog post about the Festival, I mentioned the author event at Strathearn Artspace, and I'm now able to give a few more details about this. The event title is Writers Live. It kicks off at 10am with John Bray and his children's book Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams. John will be followed by local authors Peggy Hewitt and Margaret Bennett. After a break for lunch, Hazel Buchan Cameron will read from her new book Just go in: from council estate to country estate. Hazel will be followed by poet Patricia Ace. I have attended one of Patricia's previous events and can say that it was excellent!
I am scheduled to appear at 1.45pm to read from my Forbidden Spaces trilogy of urbex thrillers set in Flanders.

The final item in the Writers Live event is the talk about publishing that I mentioned in my previous blog post about the Festival. This is the bit that should interest anyone who has an unpublished manuscript sitting in a drawer at home, and is wondering what to do with it. I was originally intending to do this talk myself, but the amazing Helen Lewis McPhee has offered to speak on the topic so I am very happy to be in the audience instead. Helen Lewis McPhee has worked with Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communications, and, currently, Canongate Books and Gonzalo Menez, so she has lots of professional experience and expertise to offer. This is your chance to come and ask questions, so don't miss it!!

You can drop in to hear specific authors at Writers Live, or you can stay for the whole event, which is expected to finish at 3.15pm. If you then fancy relaxing and listening to some live music, Writers Live is followed at 3.30pm by a concert by Crieff Community Band offering traditional Scots music and song, with support from Nigel's All-Stars.

Above: the Festival programme on display on the Drummond Arms, 
newly decorated with butterflies!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sinister Sweden

This summer, we went to Sweden for our holidays.

Before we went, I have to admit that I knew very little about Sweden, and what I did know was mostly gleaned from the books of John Ajvide Linqvist (Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead) and the TV series The Bridge, both of which tend to suggest that Sweden is a country littered with corpses as opposed to interesting tourist attractions. There was also M.R.James' fabulously scary story Count Magnus, about the unfortunate fate of unwary antiquarian traveller Mr. Wraxall.

Rosemary Pardoe, editor of Ghosts and Scholars, the M.R.James journal, wrote a very interesting article in 2001 titled Who was Count Magnus? which you can read online here. It includes some discussion of the possible location of the story, seemingly somewhere in southern Sweden, although M.R.James muddied the waters very much by naming his fictional estate Råbäck after a real-life one he had visited, and then saying that this was not the real name of the place! At any rate, my travels this time did not take me to Varnhem, Skara or Råbäck. I did however take an interest in the environment and landscape in general, and in Swedish churches in particular, hoping to soak up a bit of Jamesian atmosphere along the way.

Family holidays (especially for families who are weary from office work and exams) are not the ideal situation for antiquarian exploring. So I decided that I would have to be selective about the places I visited, to avoid trespassing on the patience and goodwill of everyone else too much. I wanted to see an older church - preferably mediaeval - and for preference, something a little like the church in M.R.James's story, which had white walls, a copper roof and an onion shaped dome on the mausoleum adjoining it. A little research on Google turned up Slättåkra church (pictured above) which has the white walls and copper roof and surrounding trees; there was no adjoining mausoleum but the tower had a vaguely dome-shaped apex!

In the ghost stories of M.R.James there is often a handy sacristan or other useful local person about to give directions or let the hero into the church. Luckily for me, this actually happened at Slättåkra. I did not realise until afterwards, when I read a friend's blog posts about her attempts to visit some churches in that same part of Sweden, that the majority are kept locked, so the most you can expect to get on a casual visit is photographs of the outside. When we rolled up at Slättåkra and tried the church door, it was indeed locked, but there was a gardener working in the graveyard, and she very kindly agreed to let us in.

The interior of the church was very charming. It did indeed have a "handsome old organ, gaily painted, and with silver pipes" (although not as old as the one in the story would have been; this is only about sixty years old in its current format!):

The ceiling was painted, although not with a "strange and hideous ‘Last Judgement'" as in the story; instead there were more peaceful scenes such as this one of the Ascension, a rather droll depiction showing only the legs of Jesus vanishing into the clouds:

The story also says that "the pulpit was like a doll’s-house covered with little painted wooden cherubs and saints" and the one in Slättåkra church was certainly very much like that:

There was no mausoleum adjoining the church, although there was this strange little building near the churchyard gate:

I had a peep through one of those side windows, although I wasn't expecting to see "fine marble effigies and sarcophagi of copper, and a wealth of armorial ornament" in anything so modern. Inside there was a bier, clearly for the storage of coffins prior to burial. The bier was not in use(!) but all the same I didn't wait around to see if there would be any mysterious clangs, nor did I chant “Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?” under my breath...

As a codicil to this church visit, a day or two later we went to the open air museum in nearby Halmstad. The museum is located on the Galgberget or "gallows hill" and comprises a number of very old buildings including a windmill and a nineteenth century schoolhouse. We toured these, and inside the schoolhouse we saw this, a monk's costume:

I was irresistibly reminded of the cloaked figure who haunts poor Mr. Wraxall in Count Magnus, sometimes appearing as a traveller in a dark cloak, sometimes taken for a Catholic priest in a cassock.  Perhaps Count Magnus was pursuing me after all...

With kind thanks to Ing-Marie Abrahamsson and Ann Giles.