Category Archives: Horror

The two Marys travel back in time

The two Marys, Hoffman and Hooper, have unravelled some more history for me in their new books for Barrington Stoke. Mary Hoffman writes about the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in 1571, and Mary Hooper visits plague-ridden London in 1665.

Both historical events are ones I ‘know’ of, especially the plague. But that doesn’t mean I know all that much, so I’m grateful for some fiction to help me learn.

Mary Hoffman, Angel of Venice

Angel of Venice features Luca who dreams of running off to war. But he’s in love, so can’t quite make his mind up, until it’s forcibly made up for him. And war is not at all as you tend to imagine, but hell on earth and he soon wishes he hadn’t gone.

Lovely romance and history lesson all in one. The Ottoman Empire is no longer as hazy to me as it was, and Venice with Mary is always good.

Mary Hooper, Ring of Roses

Ring of Roses is pretty scary. You imagine that ‘your’ character will be all right because it’s fiction and you can’t kill off the main character, can you?

Abby has come to London to look after a rich woman’s baby, and she stays well while the rest of London succumbs to the illness. Mary describes graphically what happens to the people in houses where someone dies of the plague and it’s not good.

Very realistic, and very informative.

The Marys do this so well, and I’m pleased they have written these dyslexia friendly books. They are much needed.

Demon rules and the Glasgow underground

Did you know there are rules for summoning demons? And that crime writers all refer to the same rules?

I trust I didn’t imagine this. Michael J Malone chaired the Bloody Scotland Sunday afternoon supernatural event, talking to Alexandra Sokoloff, Gordon Brown (the other one) and James Oswald. Actually, I don’t suppose the event was supernatural. It was the topic. Although, Alexandra was described as the daughter of Mary Shelley, so I don’t know.

After a ‘warm bloody welcome’ Michael asked the three to blame someone or something for what they are doing. Gordon Brown didn’t know he wanted to write crime, but worked out that he could do a lot of horrible things to people if he did. He described a Glasgow pub fight he’d witnessed once, where one man was sitting reading a book, completely oblivious to the fighting going on around him.

Alexandra Sokoloff

Alexandra said that although she had a past working with juvenile crime in Los Angeles (where she’s from), it was the Scottish who led her to crime. Hearing Denise Mina and Val McDermid talk at BoucherCon one year, she realised that crime writing was the best way to address social issues, tired of the endless slaughter of women in books, and she wanted to turn that around, writing about a female Jack Reacher type.

James blames (hey, that rhymes…) Stuart MacBride. James was writing his epic fantasy series when Stuart told him to stop doing that. So James wrote a few short stories to see if he could write crime, but he hasn’t been able to totally shake off the fantastic element. Hence the demons.

James Oswald

Is evil a noun or an adjective? It can be both, but James uses it as an adjective. And he says that publishers want something different, as long as it’s the same as everything else. Gordon has a plan for putting two politicians into the same room, having the First Minister murder another Minister…

Sex? Well, Gordon doesn’t think he could write it very successfully. And can you let your mother read it? James doesn’t believe the reader should know about the detective’s sex life. They can have one, but you don’t need the details. Whereas Alexandra likes sex and so do her characters. She wants the stories to have erotic suspense, and besides, the books go on for too long for the characters not to have sex. But James said he feels the suspense can still be there with clothes on.

Have they met evil people? Gordon said you can’t possibly know. Alexandra thinks you can, and she has encountered many evil people in the past. James has led a sheltered life, but has come across evil intent, even if people are not evil.

Gordon Brown

Gordon said that if something feels gratuitous, then it probably is. It’s better to imply than to describe. It’s harder, but better, to get inside people’s heads. Alexandra gave up screenwriting because she didn’t like the ‘torture porn’ she was expected to write. She writes about violence, but doesn’t like to read about extreme violence. Humour, according to James, is true to life, so you need it in a book. If there is none, it makes the book hard to read.

Writing series – Alexandra has written two books, and is working on the third, but doesn’t know how long she would continue. Feedback from readers is a good thing. Gordon will write more if he likes the characters, but if he tires of them it’s hard to make it fresh. James doesn’t know. He’s got a contract for six McLean novels, and since his detective doesn’t die at the end of book six, there is scope for more. He gets to know him better with each book, so could go on forever.

Have they researched the supernatural? Well, there seems to be some ground rules about demons. Alexandra has read up on the rules. James relies on Buffy, and Gordon talked about getting the Glasgow underground wrong. The trains might go round and round, but you could still be on the wrong platform.

Shadow of the Wolf

Robin Hood as you’ve never seen him before. Especially if the Robin you know best is a Disney fox.

Tim Hall has written a background for Robin that you couldn’t easily imagine without help. It’s even quite hard with what Tim has written. It is hard all over, in that the story is full of horror and cruelty. There was a point when I felt I’d had enough. The concept is interesting, to say the least, but I found the characters hard to like.

That will be why it was difficult to engage with all this, and I was disappointed, if not totally surprised, to discover that the last words are ‘to be continued.’

We meet a very young Robin and watch as he learns the ways of his world. There is a young Marian, and the most vicious Sheriff of Nottingham I have ever encountered. The story contains countless fantastical elements, which haven’t – yet – been explained, and which I felt were there to paper over some of the cracks caused by the plot developments.

The Sheriff behaves more and more irrationally and his cruelty seems endless. Robin is very skilled at what he does, but also still quite young. Marian is nothing like we have known before, and it would have been good to have seen a bit more of her, and perhaps a little less of Robin. The ‘Merry Men’ show some promise when at last they appear on the scene.

As I said, an interestingly different concept of something so familiar, and well written. Just hard to like.

Ghostly Tales

Eleanor Hawken, Curtis Jobling and Cathy MacPhail

But I didn’t. Back out, I mean. I entered with some determination, because I was there for ghosts with Cathy MacPhail and Eleanor Hawken and Curtis Jobling, which is no small thing. I had only read Eleanor’s Grey Girl, but am happy to take the word of others as to the ghostliness of Cathy and Curtis. Their books. Not them.

Cathy’s most recent title is Scarred to Death, which is a great play on words. Haunt, Dead Scared by Curtis is about a dead boy whose trainers are either intact or quite ruined, depending on whether you are dead or alive.

Eleanor Hawken

For all three the fondness for ghostly things began at an early age. Eleanor consumed two Point Horror books a day before going to a boarding school with a resident ghost at 13. Cathy liked ghosts ‘ever since she was a wee girl’ and then she came up with the idea of seeing your dead teacher in the queue at Tesco. Curtis has loved ghost stories ‘since he was a little girl as well’ – the remains of hurricane Bertha flapped the tent at this point, if it was Bertha – and has a past which includes flour and string, and a father who liked to scare his children.

Andrew Jamieson, who chaired the event, sensibly let the audience ask questions early on. It was a pretty ghostly minded audience – apart from the lovely baby who chewed on a green guest lanyard to avoid crying – and the answer to whether novels tend always to be autobiographical is yes.

Cathy MacPhail

Eleanor dreamed Grey Girl and Cathy also made a sleep related comment. She started work in the mill at 15, being too poor to stay on at school, and then began writing when her children were small, in the belief that one short story ought to be enough, and then discovering she was addicted. Mills & Boon found her attempts too humorous.

Curtis Jobling

Curtis reckons you should work hard at your hobbies, and you might find your hobby turns to work (yes, but we can’t all draw Bob the Builder!). He drew us a Were-Bob on the strategically placed flipchart next to him.

On what they like to read, Eleanor fell in love with Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials as a teenager. Cathy reads anything from Stephen King to Young Women, but not romance. (I suspect the M&B problem has just been explained.) All seem to be fans of Let the Right One In, which doesn’t reassure me one bit. Bite.

And do they believe in ghosts? Eleanor does. Curtis doesn’t. He said it was just the wind, since we’re in Scotland now. Cathy, well, maybe. She’s not scared, but… Have they seen a ghost? Eleanor has (the advantages of having attended the right school), while Curtis explained that he wakes his wife if he hears a noise in the night. Poor Mrs J.

If anyone is still not scared enough, Andrew mentioned that he quite likes Chris Priestley’s short stories.

Asked if they have plans for what they will do next; yes, they do.

Eleanor Hawken, Curtis Jobling, Cathy MacPhail, next to David Roberts and Alan MacDonald

At this point we’d run over in time, and as we were ‘thrown out’ I glanced at the bookshop’s signing area and decided they’d have their work cut out to fit three more authors in, next to the two who were still there. And that while they did, I’d have time for a super fast comfort stop.

As I re-emerged, I found that Curtis had had the same idea, so we walked back to the bookshop together, where there was just space for him between the ladies. There were queues everywhere, and people wanted all kinds of things signed. Curtis even got to ‘deface’ someone’s notebook.

Wish I’d thought of that!

A moving account

This is your second-hand witch speaking to you. (Blogging, really, but you knew that.)

We moved in yesterday. Well, the furniture moved in, and when it had done so there was no room for us, so we are biding our time until such a moment that we have cut a path through the house.

And because of this, as you already know very well, I am not swanning around the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. The lovely people there have their own blog and you can read what they get up too. They have said I can borrow their photos, so I shall jolly well do so, and here are some of them. Doesn’t it look like they are having a good time?

Curtis Jobling started off the whole book festival and I can see he’s up to his normal tricks, cartooning away. He looks a little hairier than last time, but the man does write werewolf books.

Author of the Wereworld Series and Illustrator of Bob the Builder Sketches a Bob-the-Builder-Turned-Werewolf

These two people I always ‘manage to avoid.’ No matter how many festivals they and I go to, we never coincide. I’m in despair, actually. Who wouldn’t want to be dazzled by the very pretty Sarah McIntyre, and the almost as pretty Philip Reeve?

Authors of 'Oliver and the Seawigs' - Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre and the Sea Monkeys

As for avoiding, you can see what the green bear is doing, can’t you? He’s got James Draper on his blind side, which in effect must mean James wasn’t there at all.

Festival Director James Draper and Humphrey the Hospital Bear

Iris Feindt and Livi Michael look like they think it’s their festival. That they can play on the furniture. (Oh, I suppose it’s all right.)

P1030176

And my blogging colleague Kevin with – the to me – unknown lady passenger is having a fun time, too.

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Kaye and Claudia are posing with two lovely St John Ambulance men (the Resident IT Consultant was also unavailable, for the same reason as the witch). I do hope they weren’t needed. SJA, not Kaye and Claudia. They are always needed.

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That path I mentioned before? I reckon the best thing would be to burn all the books. There can be no earthly reason for us keeping all those books. The boys from Tillicoultry clearly thought so, as they staggered in with thousands of book boxes. (I swear – pardon – they must have been breeding in storage. The books. Not the Tillicoultry boys.)

(I – probably – didn’t mean that. I am just in a jealous mood, festival-wise, and wishing I could see my new house for boxes full of books. My heart is in Manchester. Which is an odd phrase, but why not?)

Theory of battle

We arrived in the run-up to the Battle of Bannockburn 700th celebrations, which kick off big time today. The Resident IT Consultant has understandably been more excited than me. He is the historian of us, and the native. But I thought I’d be reasonably OK with going along to the new visitors’ centre to experience the battle.

Maybe I’d have been less underwhelmed if I’d studied the website in detail before going. I didn’t look at it at all, because in general I’d expect anywhere like that to be possible to negotiate without an instruction manual.

It was complicated, as well as dark and confusing and it involved standing up at all times, which pales rather when you’ve signed up for nearly two hours of battle. (I know. It was worse back in 1314. I shouldn’t moan.) I don’t take in unexpected oral instructions very quickly, and I feel if a venue has to send you off into battle with a written booklet (there wasn’t one) they have missed out in the design of the whole place.

I suspect what it is, is a lack of theory of mind on their behalf. They know how it works, because they built it and/or work there. I’d be a lot better on a second visit, but at £11 a pop it’s not something people will do (unless a member of the Scottish – or English – National Trust), or can’t do if they are visiting from elsewhere.

You start off with 3D glasses which put you straight into the path of battle. We discovered we were in direct line between the arrows being fired and their goal. We had soldiers impaled by horrible weapons right next to us, and horses riding by an inch away. That was very instructive.

Next you can meet and chat to a dozen or so people involved in the battle, from both sides. Technically it veered between very easy to impossible to get your hand-waves hit the right spot. But like the first bit, it was quite interesting and helps you understand war of any kind.

Then came the ‘shows’ we had time booked tickets for. I’d assumed sitting down. I’d assumed slightly bigger venue. Finding it was tiny and standing up, and nowhere near interesting enough (to me) to remove the claustrophobia from being foremost on my mind, I spent five minutes picking up the courage to leave the room. As I’d suspected, the doors were not easy to open, and required the help of the person running the battle show, which rather removed any hoped for inconspicuousness on my part.

Once out, I didn’t mind ‘losing out’ or having to wait for my historian to stand through the whole thing. Although, the only choices for sitting down (I had over an hour to wait) was the wall by the car park or in the café. I tried both. Outside was cold, and inside I found out exactly how uncomfortable those trendy Tolix chairs can be.

When I had also witnessed other visitors being unable to identify the correct door to the toilets and overheard a member of staff saying they were badly signposted, I could only conclude someone has forgotten that first-time – and possibly once-only – visitors need clarity, and in more ways than one.

It’s like starting a new school. You know nothing to begin with, but learn by returning every day. You won’t be going to Bannockburn quite as frequently as that.

But, all in all, a lovely concept. I liked finding out what it might have been like standing in that field 700 years ago. I would have appreciated more information beforehand, but then so would the soldiers back in 1314, I imagine.

If you are not phobic, do go. But watch out for the arrows!

Launching demons in Edinburgh

From the ‘dark underbelly of Crieff’ emerged two fabulous ladies to chat about The Demons of Ghent. I’m – almost – not sure who I liked best; author Helen Grant or her ‘chair’ Suzy McPhee. It’s a rare thing when two people sit in front of lots of other people and it’s both fun and interesting. (On the way back to Waverley I wondered why I felt so hungry and realised I’d forgotten about food. That’s how much I enjoyed it.)

Helen launched her new book at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh – or Thins, as the Resident IT Consultant prefers to call it – and for me who’d never been before (sorry) it made for a nice experience. I had enticed Son and Dodo to join us (Son used to work there…) so it was a family affair, with only Daughter missing, which is why the photos are not what they should be.

Demons of Ghent launch

I’ve obviously been around some authors too much when I recognise their parents even when I’ve never met them before. Their children. Their facebook friends. Nicola Morgan was there, a week early. Presumably to do a practise run before her launch next week.

The place was full, and the wine flowed. I found a most comfortable sofa to sit on. It was a bit difficult to get up from it again, but it was good while it lasted. The youngest there was 7 (and a half) weeks old. Didn’t ask how old the oldest one was.

Suzy McPhee and Helen Grant with Ann Landmann

Blackwell’s events organiser made one of the best introductions I’ve heard at an event like this. Admittedly there are a few words Ann Landmann actually can’t say, but we only found out one last night. (So we’ll have to return for more…)

Suzy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen described her British rustiness, which is why she writes about Germans and Belgians. She and Suzy had some difficulty in finding spoiler safe topics, but settled for the famous altar piece, which plays such an important part in The Demons of Ghent. There was something else Suzy wanted to ask, but which met with a resounding ‘no’ after some whispered negotiations behind hands.

Helen Grant

Helen never set out to write YA books, but just wrote what she wanted to write. There is no need to ‘write down’ to younger readers, and they can always look things up on Google if necessary. Suzy described how she had needed to look up rorschach tests, and proceeded to test Helen on some inkblots she’d printed out and brought along. (See, not all people in her position would think to do such a thing.) I will await the results of the ‘dead chicken’ interpretation with interest.

Without the internet Helen reckons it’d be impossibly expensive for her to get research right. She’d need to travel to Ghent to find out how high the pavement is in the spot she needs for something to happen. And making sure Veerle eats the right kind of waffles, and not simply any old waffle. She doesn’t want it to be ‘Britain dressed up.’

She’s now eyeing up parts of Scotland for future books, and described her happiness after finding a hidden church in a churchyard, when all she’d expected were more old tomb stones.

Helen Grant

In the end there was no time for a reading and Ann craftily suggested we should (buy, and) read the book ourselves. Someone wanted Helen’s phone number to call for a private reading, but she hastily offered to put a chapter up on her blog. So I suppose that will have to tide us over while we wait for Urban Legends.

And there was time for more wine.