Category Archives: Horror

It’s coming for you

Yeah, I know. Book covers don’t necessarily try to get you. But this new novel by Helen Grant, Too Near the Dead, out on July 1st, is a bit, well, you know, disturbing.

It could be you enjoy reading while keeping a firm grip of the seat of your chair. Or not sleeping at night. In which case you have a countdown of 24 days until the day.

An evening with Dan Smith and Tom Palmer

I can’t be sure, but I think Tom Palmer might have been sitting on his desk. His fellow author Dan Smith sat next to the requisite bookshelves, and their Barrington Stoke ‘boss’ Ailsa Bathgate had shelves behind her desk.

Thursday evening’s event with Tom and Dan was a comfortable sort of affair, where a few friends sat around chatting about books and writing. It was well worth rearranging dinner plans for.

They talked dogs when Zoom opened its doors. I got the impression that someone had been so smitten by Tom’s dog in D-Day Dog that they had got themselves a dog… Not all dogs are the same and real ones are not like their fictional peers. Tom apologised, saying he didn’t know he was influencing anyone to get a dog. He made it up.

According to Ailsa, Tom has written something like 17 books for Barrington Stoke, while Dan is a relative newcomer with two, and a third on the way. Tom read us the first chapter from Arctic Star, and it was nice to hear his voice again.

Then Dan read from somewhere in the middle of his Beast of Harwood Forest, and as far as I’m concerned I never want to see those creepy dolls’ eyes hanging from the trees. Or was it the dolls that were hanging? Anyway, they had eyes. Dan writes for himself, both the adult and his younger self. He read us a letter he’d sent to his parents from boarding school at the age of seven, when he was very much into ghost stories.

Tom got the idea for Arctic Star from his wife, who used to work on the HMS Belfast. He also felt there’s very little children’s fiction about the navy. To make sure he gets his books right, he ‘tests them on children’ which tickled Dan’s sense of humour. Now that Tom’s own children are older, he sees things differently than when they were small.

He also asked Dan if he ever dissuades fans from buying one of his books if it’s aimed at a much older age. Tom apparently has done this, but maybe because they are about ‘real’ things. Whereas Dan’s books are made up, and children like creepy stuff, ‘being scared in a safe way’.

Dan likes writing dyslexia friendly books. It lets him skip the boring bits, as he put it. Now he finds he shortens his ‘normal’ fiction for another publisher as well. He enjoys reading Barrington Stokes books, too, and has a shelf for them.

Having been a late reader himself, Tom knows the importance of short chapters. His have been known to be one page long. As Dan agreed, children often ask how many chapters a book has, rather than how many pages.

The next books are another one from Dan set in Crooked Oak again, and Tom has plans for a girl in WWII. I can’t wait. While Dan doesn’t worry too much about getting his chapter one right, or so he said, Tom works at getting a James Bond style first chapter to catch the reader’s attention.

For inspiration Dan recommends walking in the woods, smelling it, and preferably being alone. (Not with those dolls’ eyes!) It’s not surprising he likes Stephen King. Tom was more for watching WWII films when he grew up, which he reckons is why he is obsessed with war stories. And he loves the research.

The decency boundary

I suppose we all know that the stories coming from the Brothers Grimm were really pretty grim on occasion. But after reading them as children, we can agree that they are not truly children’s stories, but more for adults. And that excuses the content.

I suppose.

I believe that Swedish children, today and back in my time, are exposed to more questionable literary content when they read. There is more gate-keeping in Britain.

I don’t really know what’s OK. I seem to be more delicate now than I ever was before.

Anyway, a few evenings ago Daughter read me another Swedish story. It was probably about the last eligible book we had, and to be honest, I had already sort of decided against it, on account of it being boring.

I misremembered. And Daughter is aghast. When she realised where Kattresan by Ivar Arosenius was heading, she couldn’t quite believe her eyes. And I suppose I didn’t help by pointing out that Arosenius wrote and illustrated the book for his own little girl, many years ago. 1909 seems to have been the date.

They were made of stronger stuff in those days.

In case it works as a spoiler, or you really are so tender-hearted that you don’t want to see what she saw, I will just leave the link – to Swedish Bookwitch – here. Then you can click on it and feast your eyes on what happened to the cat.

In fairness, the very young Bookwitch used to be somewhat disgusted/puzzled/disturbed as well.

🙂

The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne

Scarlett McCain is the kind of girl who wakes up ‘beside four dead men. Four! She hadn’t realized it had been so many. No wonder she felt stiff.’

You can tell already that Scarlett can look after herself. That’s more than can be said for Albert Browne, when she unexpectedly comes across him. He smiles and is polite and talks about time-wasting stuff and is a real physical weakling. So they should get on well.

This is Jonathan Stroud’s new series, The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne. Set in a dystopian future Britain – which, between you and me, we don’t want to live in – it is somewhat steampunky in a Wild West sort of way. In other words, it’s got the best of several worlds, and with Jonathan writing the story, you are in good hands.

While Scarlett robs banks, because she needs the money, we wonder about Albert. What does he do? Except chatter too much. We wonder what they are running away from, and it is almost easier to understand where Albert is coming from, than Scarlett. But give it time. There are the people chasing them, and the people they meet while being chased. About the latter I am still wondering if we will see them again.

In this dystopian country you are not safe anywhere. Maybe in some of the Surviving Towns, unless you are a deviant of some kind. They don’t like those. But the countryside surrounding these few towns; it’s full of dangerous creatures, both ‘humans’ and outsize animals of the kind we don’t fear today, but there is clearly no knowing what might happen one day.

It’s a nice, thrilling adventure, as long as you don’t believe me when I say nice. But you’ll want to read it for the thrills and the growing working relationship between a murderous, thieving girl, and this seemingly useless boy. They could go far. Unless the otters get them first.

When the World Was Ours

Her new novel, When the World Was Ours, is Liz Kessler’s best work. It stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s not saying a little.

I had heard about the background to this story set before and during WWII for several years, and always found the tale of Liz’s grandparents’ serendipitous encounter with a British couple on holiday in Europe, spine-tingling and hair-raising and all those other things you feel when something truly special happens. So I had been waiting for this book. Really waiting.

I have also, more recently, heard that many young people today don’t believe in WWII; don’t believe that it really happened. They need to read When the World Was Ours.

This story about how one young Jewish boy and his parents managed to escape from Hitler’s annexing of neighbouring countries before 1939, shares many aspects of what you can find in other children’s books set in the same period, most notably Lisa Tetzner’s Die Kinder aus Nr. 67. But I don’t believe I have seen the persecution of the Jews and the transport to the concentration camps, or the way someone might join the Hitler Jugend, from the inside, the same way as in this book.

Leo, Elsa and Max are three close friends in Vienna in the mid-1930s. We follow them from Leo’s ninth birthday until just after the end of the war. It starts in an idyllic enough fashion, but little by little, bad things enter their lives, and their relationship. Leo and Elsa are Jewish. Max is not.

This is realistic. It will not be a happy ever after for all of them. It can’t be, because that’s not how it was. But while reading about Leo’s route to England, based on Liz’s dad’s, we also learn much about what it was like if you were left in a Europe where things were quickly turning very serious.

As a hardened soul, I only cried towards the very end. But you can start much earlier if you want to. You will probably have to.

You will hopefully also want to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. I hope it’s not too late.

Romancing the ghost

Were it not for this Bookwitching business, I’d never have ended up on the front cover of a novel in Romania. Admittedly, someone else’s novel, but still. I’ve even said something in Romanian.

Let me see what it might have been. ‘A Beautiful book. Not that I would have expected anything else from Helen Grant.’ As you can tell from the top of the book cover, she is the author of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Or that other title, the way it looks when it’s been translated into Romanian.

Which, as you well know, is a Romance language, and therefore ought to look more comprehensible than this is doing right now. Maybe it’s just that I’m old and tired. It’s mostly me being incomprehensible.

The cover is gorgeous, in all its spookiness. And Fantoma sounds scarier than Ghost. But I dare say Helen’s characters behave just as badly, I mean well, as in the original. May they live happily ever after…

But, you know, this kind of thing I did not expect.

Packed bags and passports

While I’m talking about Hadley Freeman, as I was yesterday, I’ll return to something she wrote in her Guardian column in the summer [about antisemitism]. She said ‘the stories about Jewishness I grew up with, at home and at Hebrew school, were all about persecution, keeping your bag packed by the door, just in case.’

Reading that sent chills through me, because it echoed what another Jewish author told me a few years ago, which was that as a Jew she couldn’t have too many passports.

And now, I’m thinking of both those statements, and finding myself closer to ‘packing a bag, just in case.’ As for passports, they have been greatly on my mind recently. Brexit – do you remember Brexit? – raised its ugly head and almost shoved Covid aside.

I thought, I need a new passport. Not immediately immediately, but pretty soon. Sooner than felt comfortable, as the borders of Europe closed again, and airlines cancelled the flights they had been happy to take your money for, and there were quarantine rules all over the place. I’m not saying I wanted to fly anywhere, or even to travel. But to have a passport is awfully handy when you live ‘somewhere else’, even when that is your home.

So not only were there fears about catching a bad illness, but before we knew it, those tiers started coming and we were not supposed to travel. Unless essential. Seems passports might be ‘essential’. Doesn’t mean you won’t catch anything, though. Travelling domestically or internationally both have drawbacks, as well as the odd advantage.

It’s very expensive, travelling within this country, to your ‘local capital city’. And the passports cost more. Going abroad would have been more cost effective, but not advisable.

My nearest honorary consul held a Zoom meeting this week, where we all discussed stuff like this. Many turned out not to know certain relevant things about continuing to live here in 2021. Many might be unable to afford a 600 mile return trip for a new passport, or feeling too old or feeble to undertake the journey.

I’m now so old that I have started thinking about pensions. While we’re in the grip of the virus, many will – possibly – have to go without their foreign pension, if they are unable to prove they are still alive. This, too, necessitates some travelling in many cases. The foreign authorities have said they’ll be somewhat patient, waiting for proof, but not for that incredibly long. If you’ve been declared dead, I’m guessing it’s hard to be ‘revived’ after travel restrictions are lifted. If ever.

So, we’ll see. Technically I’m not supposed to go and pick up my new passport, either.

Launching Allie

You could tell it has been cold in Edinburgh. For the launch of his new book The Sins of Allie Lawrence on social media, Philip Caveney has walked, or been made to walk, all over the place to be filmed saying stuff about his book. This is good. I reckon authors should be made to work hard. And Philip looks reasonably handsome in a knitted hat, so that’s not the disaster it could have been.

He started by reading from this, his 54th, or maybe 55th, book. He’s been at it for 43 years (which fact made Helen Grant say something less well thought through), so that could be why he’s not counting so well. But at least the flowers in the background were not plastic. Kirkland Ciccone wondered about that.

As you can tell, this launch was well attended by quite a few of Philip’s peers, and it felt almost as if we were meeting in real life. Except there was no cake. Apparently I was meant to do the cake. Oops.

Philip took us round past Söderberg’s and round some fancy apartment near the Meadows, and at least two theatres, plus other Edinburgh sights. It made us all wish we were there.

Once this prancing around town was over, it was question time, with lots of people asking, both from before and also during the event, as well as some recorded questions from three child readers. He likes his covers. In fact, he seemed to have some of them framed on the wall behind him.

‘The ideas will come’, he said ominously regarding where he gets his ideas from. And he does like all his children, I mean books, because if he doesn’t, then how can he expect the rest of us to like them? Good question.

There will be at least three drafts of a book, taking two to three months to begin with. Philip quite fancies being picked by Netflix, and who wouldn’t? His alter ego, Danny Weston, was originally a character in one his early books, and someone he needs for the really creepy stuff. Like his most evil character, Mr Sparks, in the book dedicated to me. Such a relief to know that.

Having autonomy when he writes  might be the best thing about being an author. In fact, if no publisher were to be interested in his books, Philip would still write them. He said something about ‘howling into the void’ but mercifully I have already forgotten what that was about. Sounds desperate. And just think, if his then 10-year-old daughter hadn’t wanted to read his totally unsuitable adult novel, there might never have been these books to entertain, or scare, younger readers.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. He’s still not quite Ray Bradbury (but it can’t be long now), author of his favourite book, the book that changed his life. As to why Allie comes from Killiecrankie, Philip simply needed a ridiculous name. But not even this passed without argument (from a man closer to Killiecrankie than some of us).

That’s book launches for you. All sorts of people attend them.

Ships, and paradise

It was the ‘Ship with no harbour‘ I thought of first. Was it last month? Time is strange right now. But anyway, those cruise ships that weren’t allowed to put into harbour in the Far East because of the contagion on board.

I felt there were many parallels with Lisa Tetzner’s novel set in the late 1930s, where poor, and ill, Europeans tried to start a new life in South America. But no country wanted them so they sailed on. And on.

Closer to home [Scotland] we have Teri Terry’s Contagion from three years ago. That was pretty terrible. I’m not even going to mention percentages here. I was only able to like it because it was so very fictional.

And that witchy feeling I had about the current Bookwitch Towers? I wasn’t sure what bad stuff I was expecting until Brexit happened. Then I ‘knew.’ That’s what was going to forcibly remove me from here. Maybe.

Then there’s the television drama from 2003, Virus au Paradis. I loved it at the time. It, too, was fictional. It was, wasn’t it? But I feel a lot worse about it now.

At the moment, I can only read nice fluffy books. I can only bear watching nice fluffy films. Before long I’ll be nothing but nice and fluffy.

Remember them

At the back of The Missing Michael Rosen recommends many excellent books, both fiction and non-fiction, mostly on WWII related topics, but also books in a similar vein from later on. Because we never learn, and someone, somewhere is always doing something bad to another human being.

I thought I’d mention a few books here too, before we start forgetting again. It’s anything but an exhaustive list, and I have tried to choose books that are seen more from the German or European side of the war, and actually during the war.

One I share with Michael is The Children of Willesden Lane, by Mona Golabek with Lee Cohen. Admittedly, this one is set in London, but not being fiction it shows the fates of unaccompanied German minors.

The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monika Hesse. This is about the resistance in Amsterdam.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik, begins in Poland and then turns into that awful kind of forced transport of innocent people to somewhere a long way away.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which features Ravensbrück as seen from the inside.

Once, Then, Now, After, Soon, Maybe, Always. All by Morris Gleitzman. All – probably – wonderful. I say probably, because I’ve not managed to keep up with the last ones. But there are ways of remedying that.