Category Archives: Thriller

In the dark

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Well here you have four pictures. The first one shows you the lovely Helen Grant somewhere in some pleasant countryside, sunshine and all. What could possibly go wrong?

Helen Grant

The second picture is a bit darker, although you could be fooled by the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe this is the tunnel Helen has invited me to come and walk with her. Hah! As if I would, after all she’s put me through in Urban Legends. Could, even. She’d sit me down and tell me one of those legends, and then where would I be?

Helen Grant

You can see the other two, fleeing while Helen’s attention is on me. (If I was in there, in the first place. I’m not an idiot.)

Tunnel

Finally, we have the storyteller looking all atmospheric, getting ready to start on one of her legends. And it’s too late for me to leave. She’s looking right at me…

Helen Grant

Aarrgghh!!!

I’ll send the rest of the family in my place.

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

Urban Legends

It’s not so much the ease with which Helen Grant kills in Urban Legends that scares me. It’s more how she scares me while she scares me. As it says on the cover of the book, ‘no one is safe.’ You’d better believe it.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

I read slowly to begin with, because I was that scared. Really. What’s worst with this kind of plot* is when no one knows anything, when no one suspects or realises they need to look out. So, once Kris and Veerle are aware that De Jager – The Hunter – is once again after them and that he’d quite like to kill them, and probably slowly and painfully, you can half relax as they at least know what they are up against.

I say relax, but I don’t mean that. Readers have been forced to sleep with the lights on. Because Veerle and Kris understand De Jager, and will recognise him if they see him (apart from the fact they thought he’d died, twice). But all those others, who walk like lambs to slaughter, or who maybe suspect they’ve made a mistake but can’t do anything to escape? Yes, them.

The first two brilliant books in the trilogy were ‘merely’ about setting up this final (?) one. You see the point of every detail from those books when you get to Urban Legends. And you rather wish you didn’t. The urban legends; they are the tales told by one of the group of people who regularly meet in out-of-the-way places to explore and listen to stories, before someone departs for the afterlife in ways recently described in these ‘legends.’

It would be easy to ask why I read Urban Legends all the way to the end if I was that frightened. The answer is that Helen writes so perfectly, that you just can’t not read. She knows precisely how to play on all your inner fears, and then some. (You do need to get past p 38, however.)

*As if there could be an archetypal plot where Helen is concerned. Read, and shiver. But first close the blinds.

Shoot to Kill

This was just like the films! I must admit I have not read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I do seem to have watched ‘a few’ Bond films, however (when Offspring did, obviously), so I knew what to expect.

Steve Cole, Shoot to Kill

Steve Cole has got young Bond down perfectly. There is not a single break for the poor boy in the whole book. He jumps and climbs and runs and is shot at or otherwise attacked, and when he is not, James drives cars illegally (he is 15 years old), fights grown men and dallies with pretty females.

I wasn’t sure I’d like it, to be honest, but I do, I do. Shoot to Kill does what it says on the cover; with the shooting being both of the gun variety, as well as the film kind of shooting. Starting off at a new school for James, in Devon, he is soon stumbling over corpses and travelling on board a Zeppelin all the way to Hollywood, where there are a lot of bad guys. This is the heyday of bad guys, and power crazy, rich types have the support of rough men from Chicago and other bad places.

James does most of the tough guy stuff, but is ably assisted by a few new school friends, a couple of whom prove very worthy accomplices. One of them I’d love to meet again, so I hope Steve is on my wavelength here.

This is classic Hollywood gangster stuff, with cars to die for (or worse) and beautifully dressed, beautiful people with too much money. And there is James. Lovely boy.

The Dogs

Somehow there is nothing innocent about the title of Allan Stratton’s novel The Dogs. You just know they aren’t going to be cute, floppy-eared creatures, loved by everyone. And they’re not.

Allan Stratton, The Dogs

There’s a slow, menacing start to the story, and while it does pick up speed, it doesn’t become truly scary until closer to the end, when I defy anyone’s heart rate not to thump a lot faster.

13-year-old Cameron has to keep moving house when his mother suspects that his father is on their tracks yet again. He was abusive (although when Cameron thinks back, he makes excuses for his father, deciding that maybe he wasn’t all that bad) and fearing for their lives, Cameron’s mother keeps moving them to new places.

This time the new house is a decrepit farmhouse, somewhere that feels like the American Midwest, although it never says. You know the kind of place; flat farmland, weird neighbours, nearby town with the standard American services and some suspicious people. It was made for thrillers.

Cameron discovers there are dogs near the farm. He sees, or senses, the presence of a boy his own age. There is a mystery, somewhere, and he needs to work out what it is. The former owner was eaten by his dogs. No one else sees the boy and Cameron worries he’s going crazy. His mother wonders if he’s turning out just like his father.

So yeah, there are things to worry about. Who’ll be dog food next? Will the townspeople chase them out? Who is that boy, and what happened to him and his family, and did their landlord have anything to do with it?

Montmorency on the Rocks

The second of Eleanor Updale’s novels about Montmorency begins five years later, which means there are definitely no young people in it, apart from a few incidental babies. Much more of a 39 Steps setting, this book appears to be about drug use, and how to get off the drugs if you’ve been stupid enough to start.

Eleanor Updale, Montmorency on the Rocks

And it’s our hero, Montmorency, who is the addict, and it is horrible to behold. Perhaps that’s the idea. His aristocratic pal George does his best to help, even when he doesn’t want to be helped. They go to Scotland to recover, narrowly missing a bomb at King’s Cross. (This is the late 19th century, but it feels much like today in some ways.)

In Scotland another mystery introduces itself, which seems to be totally separate from the bomb. Both mysteries only get tackled by our heroes after some time, but it certainly gets exciting.

The drug problem, the poverty and the violence could be part of life anywhere, but maybe not the seemingly charmed existence led by the titled and the rich. It’s very wrong, but so charming and thrilling at the same time.

I’ll be interested to see where Montmorency will go from here. He’s not all nice, and he is clearly not getting younger. Or more law-abiding.

RED in Falkirk

Yesterday the Bookwitchy feet touched Falkirk soil for the first time since that fateful day in 1973. She (I mean I) saw red even on the train (a woman wearing a lovely red coat, but who wasn’t actually going where I was going). My mind was on red things, as there was a sort of dress code for attending the RED Book Award in Falkirk, and I’d dug out the few red garments I own.

Cathy MacPhail

Ever since I knew we’d be moving to Scotland, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to attend the RED Book Award, and then it happened so fast I barely knew what I was doing (I had to ditch Daughter, and feed up the camera battery), but everything worked out in the end. I walked to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), which was teeming with people in red, and I found Falkirk librarian and organiser Yvonne Manning (a Geraldine McCaughrean look-alike if ever there was one), and she showed me to the front row, despite me mentioning how I’m a back row kind of witch. There was coffee, and there were authors. All four shortlisted authors were there; Cathy MacPhail, Alan Gibbons, Oisín McGann and Alex Woolf.

Alan Gibbons and interviewers

They were being interviewed by some of the participating schools’ pupils, and it was rather like speed dating. I chatted briefly to Cathy, who’d brought her daughter along, and who said how nice Alex Woolf had turned out to be. (She was right. He is.)

Alex Woolf and interviewers

Barbara Davidson and interviewers

I found a very red lady, who turned out to be sponsor Barbara Davidson, who makes the RED award, and whose wardrobe apparently is extremely red. I like people who know what they like in the way of colour. There were even helpers wearing red boilersuits.

Back in the front row, we were treated to Yvonne Manning entering dancing, wearing a short red kilt, spotty tights and red ribbons in her hair, and she got the popstar reception treatment. Apparently ‘timing is everything’ and she managed to steer the whole day to a tight schedule.

There was a prize for anyone who found a red nose under their seat. Obviously. Another prize was offered for the school that left their seats the tidiest. After short introductions for the authors, the schools had prepared short dramatised sketches of the shortlisted books.

Yvonne Manning

At this point the Mayor came and sat on my right. Sorry, I mean Provost. Mayors are Provosts up here. Same lovely necklaces, though. And Yvonne reappeared wearing an incredible red patchwork coat, well worthy of Joseph, and it earned her some appreciative whistling from the audience.

Then it was time for prizes for the best book reviews, and the winning one was read out (after the break, after Yvonne had apologised for forgetting this important thing). She’s sweet, but also hard. The authors were given four minutes each to talk about their books; ‘speak briefly!’ They spoke about where they get ideas from. Oisín stared at people until it got ‘creepy enough.’ Cathy had found out about a real vampire in Glasgow in the 1950s, and still regrets she couldn’t have ‘It Walks Among Us’ as the title for Mosi’s War…

Alan Gibbons

Alex described how his Soul Shadows came about, which involved him writing one chapter a week, and then offering his readers several options on how to continue and they voted on which they preferred. Alan could well believe in Glaswegian vampires, and mentioned meeting Taggart once. Football is his passion. Alan’s. Not Taggart’s.

We had more dramatised books and then we listened to the woman who is the answer to my prayers. Anne Ngabia is the librarian at Grangemouth High School, and in the past she has set up little libraries in Kenya. The RED Book Award is even being shadowed by a school in Nairobi, and she showed us pictures from her libraries, as well as a short film based on Mosi’s War that they’d made.

Oisín McGann

After a very nice lunch, where I just might have offered to sue the Provost as I got him to test the veggieness of the food (if he got it wrong, I mean), the authors signed masses of books and many other things as well. The pupils thronged so much that it was hard to move for the sheer excitement of it.

Back to business again (the people of Falkirk don’t believe in half measures when they do their book awards), and we learned that the dramatised books we’d seen would tempt most people to read Alex’s book, Soul Shadows. They do believe in prizes too, so next to be rewarded were the red clothes, etc. I’d tried to bribe the judge over lunch, but it seems the prize wasn’t for old people. He turned out to be quite good at rap. Something along the lines of Red Hot. (If you want to win, I reckon wigs or pyjamas is the way to go.)

RED clothes winners

With ‘no time for fun’ the authors were then seated in two blue velvet sofas (they got the colour wrong there, didn’t they?) and the Q&A session kicked off. Good questions, and lots of them, so I won’t go into detail here. Halfway through Oisín was asked to do a drawing, and Yvonne magicked up a flipchart out of nowhere and while the others laboured over more answers, Oisín drew a fabulous picture of, well, of something.

Oisín McGann

Provost Reid, Barbara Davidson, Alan Gibbons and pupil from Denny HS

Finally, the time came to announce the winner. Provost Reid – in his beautiful red gown – made everyone stamp their feet to sound like a drumroll, and I rather hoped the ‘terraces’ behind me wouldn’t collapse under all that vigour. He told us how much he likes books, and then it was over to a fez-wearing pupil from Denny to open the red envelope and tell us the winner was

Alan Gibbons. His thank you speech was on the topic of ‘ you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that could be libraries, or it could be your life. We complain too much in our comfortable lives, compared to those readers in Kenya we met earlier.

There were prizes, naturally, for the runners-up. And photos. Lots and lots of them. Cathy commandeered her handbag to be brought and she pondered taking a selfie, but in the end she went for a conventional picture of her and her pals.

Cathy MacPhail, Alex Woolf, Alan Gibbons, Provost Reid and Oisín McGann

Cathy MacPhail and Alex Woolf

Us old ones chatted over mugs of tea before going our separate ways. And some of the helpers and I have vowed to wear much warmer clothes next time (that is, if I’m ever allowed back).

A big thank you from me, to Yvonne for inviting me when I dropped a heavy hint, and to her helpers for helping so well, the schools for their magnificent work, and to Cathy, Alan, Oisín and Alex for writing the books that caused us all to be there, at fth.

And the prize for tidiest row of seats? The prize was Oisín’s picture. And I can assure you it won’t go to us on the front row. Cough.