Saturday, 1 December 2012

done the Next Big Thing

So last week I got tagged by the most excellent David Barnett, sci-fi author and journalist and possibly the hardest-working man in Bradford, as part of the Next Big Thing meme. He explains it best: “There’s a thing going round the internet and it’s called the Next Big Thing, in which writers answer a series of set questions and then tag five other writers to do the same.” It’s not about those writers being the next big thing (though OF COURSE we all are – it’s about the next big thing we’re working on. Usually a novel.
It seems so far to have been restricted to sci-fi/fantasy writers, but David kindly busted out of genre and tagged me. (I also got a request a few days ago from YA author Julie Mayhew, whose debut Red Ink is coming out in 2013). It seems that now it’s leaping from genre to genre like wildfire, so like a literary Typhoid Mary, I’ll do my bit to spread it around my fellow authors in as many fields as I can. 
Here goes!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

travelled on Amtrak, the only way to fly

Amtrak trains are awesome – in both senses. These two-storey sleek silver monsters that ship the thrifty or plane-phobic across the vast distances of the States are rarely seen on the Hollywood screen, and yet to anyone who's spent time on the paltry, single-decker, narrow-seated, overcrowded excuses for trains we put up with in the UK, they are a complete revelation, and (IMO) much preferable as a mode of transport to small-plane domestic flights.
This is why they call it a Superliner.
Riding Amtrak has a lot in common with flying, except that there's plenty more to see and less security to get through. You're haunted throughout the journey by the mournful lowing of the train's horn, which sounds like it's warning ships off rocks in the fog, but is in fact making sure the locals clear the tracks – no level crossings here, just road, rail and where the two meet. Here's what it's like:

Thursday, 11 October 2012

been to Graceland

Despite this part of the trip having been marked as “Memphis” on Bex’s super-organised Excel spreadsheet, I can't honestly claim to have been to Memphis itself: we passed through the pretty standard-looking downtown area on the bus, it's true, but where we were really headed was several miles out of town: Elvis Presley's mansion, now a museum to the King, Graceland. Bex was erring on the side of taking a cab until we discovered that the bus right in front of us (the 43, fact fans) stopped there. A 40-minute journey and it cost $1.75/£1.20 (see what I mean about cheap travel)?

This also turned out to be one of the friendliest bus journeys I've been on. As usual, being blatant tourists in a strange place, we were initially slightly afraid of being robbed and killed, but everyone seemed in a good mood, perhaps because it was Friday night, and random strangers were chatting to each other all the way until we got off at Heartbreak Hotel.  

Friday, 28 September 2012

... been to Lynchburg, Tennessee

NB: If anyone's confused by the apparent sudden return to the States, a couple of weeks after I got home, don't be: over the next few days/weeks I will be posting the blogs I wrote but didn't upload on the trip, when Hurricane Isaac got rather t(r)opical and I posted about that instead.

23 August, 2012

So I'm typing this in the back of a hire car driven by a woman I met a couple of hours ago called Cecily, who is on an impromptu holiday around the south. The reason Bex isn't driving the car is that the car hire company at the airport refused to accept her debit card as security for our (prepaid) car. So we got a ride …

Cecily is a feisty fortysomething redhead with something of the younger Susan Sarandon about her – she's down from Rhode Island on an Elvis-themed fly-drive, and works as a speech pathologist. I had visions of  a CSI-style job, analysing the speech patterns of killers' telephone threats – but it turns out she's what we'd call a speech therapist. Still, she and Bex bond over their respective vocations, helping the young with their stutters (Cecily) and their ASBOs (Bex).

Our chauffeur for the day

Monday, 3 September 2012

... been to San Francisco

All set for summer in SF ...
The first thing you notice about San Francisco – especially if you're arriving from simmering post-hurricane NewOrleans – is that it's waaay colder than the rest of the States (Alaska possibly excepted) in August. The breeze and mist from the famous bay are the reason for the sudden drop in temperature: Bex and I arrived in our shorts and t-shirts and were shivering by the time we got to our hostel. It really is like going to a different country, climate-wise, and the wide range of cheap hoodies in the Union Square Walgreen's is testament to the foolish assumption of many tourists that America's always warm in summer.

We're staying at the oldish and quirky Dakota Hostel on the corner of Taylor and Post, in a third-floor room with an amazing view (and soundtrack, especially at night) of some of SF's busiest streets. The room is largish, comfortable and old-fashioned, with a big cupboard and an ensuite containing a claw-foot bath (yes, really!). These advantages are compensated for by a massive old 80s cabinet TV which only has two channels – football and FX. Bex reckons it's a bit like somewhere Bukowski might have stayed: I think it's too nice for that, and am imagining a Boho Breakfast at Tiffany's-era Audrey Hepburn.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

... experienced a hurricane (Video links)

DISCLAIMER: This is a record of my personal experiences of Hurricane Isaac; I haven't had access to radio or TV news for a couple of days so cannot say whether it hit other areas of the city or other states much worse, but in our northern part of the French Quarter this is how it was on the ground, as it happened. Generally, the mood here now is relieved and cheerful that it wasn't a lot worse, and the clean-up's already well underway. Go NOLA :)

Tuesday was something of a washout: the storm was still playing hard to get (even though it had been predicted to hit around 4pm) and despite the fact that nothing much was going on, weather-wise, everything was still shut. It was dirty weather all day – heavy rain on and off and blustery winds; not the sort you'd want to be out in, admittedly – but the temperature outside was balmy, and the wind and rain were no worse than an English November (and a good deal warmer). Nonetheless, Bex and I were stuck at the hotel and pretty damn fed up. Little did we know how fed up and stuck we were yet to become …

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

... been to a hurricane party

Monday, 27th August 2012

The night before Isaac was due to hit, Bex and I were invited for drinks and dinner at the house of my friend Lander (whom I know through my very excellent ex Paul Eros – they studied together at Corpus Christi, when I was going out with Paul). Lander's family seat is in the Garden District, on Prytania Street – a good couple of miles west of our new billet at the Melrose Mansion, which is on the corner of Burgundy and Esplanade.

We weren't sure how easy it would be to get a taxi, but we had a mission to fulfil (we'd asked if we could bring anything to the party and Lander suggested gin) so we decided to walk west to Canal and look out for an off-licence on the way. We found a small general store with a wide range of booze, but no gin (it's not big in the South, which is odd, considering how refreshing a gin & tonic is – not to mention the medicinal properties of quinine).

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

... been to New Orleans

... and admittedly, the middle of hurricane season wasn't the brightest choice of a time to go. But NOLA was on our way, we wanted to see it, we had a friend there for goodness' sake - what could possibly go wrong?

Enter Hurricane Isaac ...
On Sunday, August 26th, at around 3.30pm, Bex and I arrived in New Orleans on the Amtrak train from Memphis (see separate blog post for the details of the nine-hour journey and the folk we met on it). The weather was fine; steaming hot, as is usual for the South in August, but not unbearable. There was not a breath of wind – the proverbial calm before the storm, in fact. There was no wi-fi and very little mobile phone reception on the journey, so we were effectively incommunicado for most of the day, having boarded the train just before 7am.

We heard scraps and rumours of a tropical storm heading through the Gulf on the journey but didn't pay much attention to it, concentrating on getting our stuff to the Hotel Royal (a lovely bijou boutique place on Royal Street, in the French Quarter) and planning our visit to the Big Easy. Oh, the swamp tours we would go on, the cemeteries we would visit! We wandered around the quarter taking pictures of all the gorgeous ramshackle Spanish Colonial houses – of which there are many – and doing a bit of souvenir shopping. We made it halfway down Bourbon Street, which is reminiscent of some of the nastier alleys in Soho, with its sex shows and drinking dives, before the smell of stale beer, sick and fermenting garbage drove us back.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

... been to Nashville

Friends, this is a sad day. I have a serious loss to report – and a serious indictment of Delta Airlines.

The Bad Thing Delta have done is give the misleading impression that Bex and I could check at least one bag each on every flight – including internal ones. But no, this turned out to be a terrible lie! Bad Delta! Checking bags is free on flights into and out of the US – but not within it. Then it costs $30 (£20) per bag. So obviously, we weren't doing that, especially as we hadn't been warned about the extra cost. Luckily, the extra Samsonite rolling case/backpack I bought in Boston apparently counts as a “personal item”, so I could take both that and my backpack on the plane. Me: 1, The Man: 0

Farewell, my useful pal. You will be missed.
Unluckily, I'd left my multi-tool gadget – the blade on which is about two inches long, but still counts as a knife – in my backpack, because I'd assumed I could put it in the hold every time we flew. Not so. BEEP BEEP went the X-ray machine, and the offending item was confiscated. The Man: 1, Me: 0.

So a lucky employee of Delta Security is currently having the pleasure of playing with the pliers, horseshoe-stone-remover, saw and mini file on my Swiss Army knockoff knife and I am extremely annoyed, because it was a good gadget, I'd had it for years, and I haven't a clue where to get another one (it wasn't actual Swiss Army – they're too expensive). All knife donations gratefully received – just don't send by airmail :/

Anyway, that little incident aside, the flight (via Detroit) was fairly hassle-free, and we were lucky enough to bump into some fellow UK travellers at the airport bus stop who were going to the very youth hostel we'd settled on (the Nashville Downtown Hostel, fact fans). The NDH, being another brand-new enterprise, and went further in creating an aura of mystery even than the HI Boston – forget not answering the phone, they didn't even have a listed number – just a website and an address. On the other hand, the rooms and beds were cheap and comfortable (£45/$70 for a double private room, £17/$25 for a bed in a four-person dorm) and the wifi worked a treat, so I was prepared to forgive them almost anything.

Revelling in the low low prices!
The everchanging trio of guys on reception were also delightful, individually and collectively: helpful, polite, great for recommendations etc. You had to make your own bed and hire towels (rather than their being supplied) and there was a kitchen/fridge arrangement rather than a breakfast laid on, but at these prices who was arguing?

The building, on First Avenue opposite the LP football stadium, used to be a law office, and its pedigree showed: all rooms (even the toilets)P were only accessible by keycard, the doors were three-inch slabs of walnut, and our first night was spent in the Aretha Franklin room, whose only window looked on to the corridor: all the dorms are in fact former offices or meeting rooms for the firm. 

Error 404: Room Not Found.
Odd to think that a law office could go out of business – or downsize, I suppose – and yet a hostel charging $25 a night could be a viable venture, but again, that's probably just one of the many symptoms of the recession – which does seem to be deeper and more serious than in the UK.

After a quick shower we met the three fellow Brits – James from Uxbridge, Tom from Guernsey and Millie from York – in the lobby, and commenced a relatively restrained bar-crawl. First we went to Jack's on Broadway (which is reminiscent of a mini Las Vegas strip, with its bars and neon signs, not to mention the 24/7 country blasting from every doorway and even public loudspeakers set into the sidewalk – really! The local nickname for it is Nashvegas). Jack's does a basic, unchanging menu – ribs, black beans, mac 'n' cheese, etc. every day from 10am to 9pm, but they do it well (apparently … we missed eating there because Bex and I had to go back and pick up my phone – but the others said it was good).

For drinks, we went to that exotic novelty, a bar where you could smoke! Inside!! *Faints* This was in stark contrast to Boston where you are meant to be 25 feet from any building entrance, which practically speaking means sparking up in the middle of the road. They also did the most ENORMOUS cocktails. The Kryptonite-'rita below (beers included for scale) cost the princely sum of $9.15 (about £6.50). Admittedly it was mostly sour mix, but I ain't complainin' …

After that we listened to some truly awesome live Western Swing at a bar called Robert's. Bex was convinced there was an Elvis impersonator sitting in front of us, but he never turned round. Still, there's a little Elvis in all of us .... The second night Bex and I went out for a drink, the Tennessee Titans were playing the Arizona Cardinals – the first game of the season, at the LP stadium across the way – and we could hear the cheers from our room. So we found a bar on Second Avenue (just behind the hostel), which was plastered with dollar bills, and crucially, was showing the game. I can't pretend to understand it (the four 15-minute quarters can take up to three hours to play because of all the stopping and starting) but it was entertaining white noise for the eyes while I sipped my JD and Coke.

A big stadium for a lot of very big men
There was also a late-opening cowboy boot shop which had the logic-defying offer of “Buy One Pair, Get Two Free” on all its boots – this was genuine, and loophole-free, but you had to be prepared to spend about $300 on the first pair. Bex agonised, but finally decided to get one amazing pair rather than three OK pairs, and invested her $300/£200 in the beauties below. This was a good choice, as literally not a day has passed since without some appreciative stranger hollering "nice boots"! I am actually pretty jealous, but the logical part of my brain insists that I don't need any more boots. Not even beautiful ones like these. 

Please form an orderly queue to worship
On our last morning in Nashville we wandered up Printer's Alley (which boasted the almost certainly inauthentic – especially since it wasn't open at 11 in the morning - Fleet Street “English” Pub) and got breakfast on our way to catch the Megabus to Memphis (of which more later). Passing the War Memorial, we noticed that the plaza it was on was extremely palatial and done in the classical style – this wasn't the famous 1:1 replica of the Parthenon (built to celebrate, or perhaps consolidate, Nashville's status as "the Athens of the South") but it sure as hell looked like the same guy had commissioned it. It was hard to tell whether the actual buildings were ornamental and empty, or contained windowless offices, but it was an impressive sight. (Sadly my camera ran out of battery around this point, so pix will follow when & if I work out how to upload them from my phone). 

Not an English pub
The Megabus was 40 minutes late (a car wreck on the motorway, apparently) and the driver seemed somewhat competence-challenged – he never came round to check anyone's tickets, and managed to lose a wing mirror halfway there, as well as setting off 20 minutes late from the rest stop – but we arrived in one piece in Memphis, only an hour behind schedule, and had a damn comfy (and wi-fi enabled) ride. Basically the journey was fine (mirror incidents aside) once we got going: but the aircon was off for twenty minutes before we left so we were all slowly broiling in the Tennessee heat, especially on the top deck. Still (said one of the group of African-American teachers who were sitting at the back) “think what Rosa (Parks) went through ...”. Indeed.

Why can't you go both ways?
I wrote some verses of a lamenting country song while we were waiting though, to amuse Facebook, so my time wasn't wasted. Or perhaps it was.

Ohhh the Megabus to Memphis got me steamin'
Steamin' just like cattle in a pen
And now I'm spending all this goddam journey schemin'
How to never ride the Meg-a-bus again ...

Well the Megabus to Memphis showed up tardy
We was waitin' forty minutes in the sun
When we got to Memphis we was gonna party
But now we're tuckered, stick-a-fork-in-me-I'm-done

Oh the driver ain't so good at speakin' English
And he lost a mirror halfway down the road
And the wireless connectivity is rubbish 
All in all, we're lucky we ain't gettin' towed ...

Next stop: Memphis! (obviously) - then on to New Orleans! See y'all there!

PS: Here's a little video I made of the stadium and the river - tell me if it doesn't work.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

... been to Boston

Boston has a reputation – in the US at least – for being a city Europeans feel comfortable in (perhaps because of its inhabitants' other reputation as being rude and standoffish). The first reputation, I can report, is well-deserved; because it's a pre-car city (unlike, say, Las Vegas or most of LA) it's built on a human scale as far as distance is concerned: it's also known as “the walking city”. The town centre is small and a bit higgledy-piggledy – not the ramrod gridlines of midtown New York (or indeed Nashville, of which more later) and many of the 18th and 19th century buildings have been preserved: in short, it feels a bit like home.

State House (1700s) with skyscrapers
The second reputation, however, is quite undeserved: Bostonians are just as friendly as any other Americans (and friendlier than nearby New Yorkers) – even though they don't indulge in the slightly alarming Southern habit of touching your arm when giving directions/advice. The people are ever so happy to help (yes, even tourists) and the general have-a-nice-day quotient is pretty high.

One of the most important things to do in Boston is find somewhere decent to stay: it's an expensive city and accommodation is at a premium. Bex did the best she could with the Rough Guide info she had, but unfortunately our youth hostel at 40 Berkeley Street was both pretty expensive ($135/about £90 for a two-bed private room per night) and a little … prisony (see below).
One night's hard labour, no parole.
Holloway-tastic! A Travelodge – if they existed over here – would have been cheaper and better, but that's Boston for you. Also, their promised wifi was down, which sent me into a spiral of withdrawal symptoms complicated by jetlag on the first night, resulting in a bout of extreme sulking: if Bex weren't used to dealing with problem teens she probably would have lamped me. Luckily we found a rather better place for the second night for only $30 (about £10 each) more.

This was the recently relocated Hostelling International Boston, a place so hip and exclusive that they didn't answer the phone and their website had no details of what they offered, room pics, facilites etc. - only a booking form. But we were pretty desperate to escape Berketraz so we booked the last room and humped our stuff half a mile across town. This is what the bedroom and ensuite bathroom looked like (it was communal bathrooms at Berketraz, before you ask):
Map of Boston tube on shower curtain!

Wow! Nice beds, a desk and a telly! Our cup runneth over ...

Swipe me! A sexy lobby full of pretty people (and Bex)
Now that's more like it. HI Boston had working wifi, a TV in the room, sleeping space for three(!) and was five minutes from downtown – the theatre district, the cinemas, and, crucially, the trolleybuses. I can highly recommend it for anyone visiting Boston with about £50/$80 per night to spend on accommodation: it's basically a hip, minimalist hotel ... although if you want bacon & eggs in the morning you'll have to go out, because the breakfast is pretty basic; self-service bread, bagels, cereal & yoghurt.

But anyway, back to the trolleybuses. These are a staple of the Boston tourist scene, and are so popular that there are three rival companies competing for your custom: OldTown Tours (wooden seats, old-timey-looking buses, Top Deck (two-storey open coaches with fully padded seats for the more comfort-seeking/obese tourist) and another one I forget. All tours are narrated by the drivers, with varying degrees of humour and success; all also include some freebies.
Inside of the trolleybus

Outside (with waving idiots)
Old Town are the most expensive at $42 per (two day) ticket – and also, be warned, they don't go to Harvard, though they do cross the Charles River into Cambridge and show you MIT. But their driver-guides were great and their service is the most frequent – every 15 minutes, which is useful if you intend to use the trolleys as a sort of supplementary public transport (Boston also has a swift and efficient five-line underground system called the T). Unlike normal buses and the T, the trolleys only go clockwise around the city, but if you're not in a hurry this won't be a problem … and you'll get to see Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox for whom Babe Ruth played), the Christian Science HQ (a mahusive domed church), the eighteenth-century State House, Boston Common (beautiful public park) and its swan boats, the Cheers bar (outside only) and more.

The Old Town ticket also includes a 45-minute tour of the inner Boston Harbour – which was great, as you can hop off to visit the USS Constitution – built in 1797, it's the oldest continuous-service warship in history – and poke around (admission's free, though security is a bit of a pain). Finally, you get into the State House (see above), from the balcony of which the Declaration of Independence was first read.
Where everybody knows you're a tourist ...

Hancock's togs
Squee! It only takes about 30 minutes to go round as it's so small, but it's a lovely Georgian building with a great gift shop and you get to see John Hancock's coat and Bible.But enough of history and culture! What about the food? Well, for that I'm going to need a whole separate blog post, so hold your horses – in the meanwhile I give you ...

Dunkin' Donuts is BIG in Boston. I mean really big – their slogan is “America runs on Dunkin'” and if you lived in Boston, where there is literally one on every street, you'd believe it. (It's less evident in the South – Nashville didn't have a branch that I saw). The great thing about Dunkin' Donuts is that it does more than just do(ugh)nuts: it does decent-strength coffee (with syrups which I LOVE) and it has the best vegetarian selection of any major chain: veggie burritos, egg and cheese muffins, egg white flatbreads and Texas Toast Grilled Cheese are all on the menu.

If you're a vegan you're pretty screwed, but that's true of much of the US. The only thing you could eat – potentially – would be the spinach and artichoke dip which appears on almost every bar menu and seems to be a local speciality. But I'm pretty sure they put cheese in that :/

Next stop: Nashville, Tennessee, where we go bar-hoppin', drive to Jack Daniel's distillery, discover why you should always carry a credit card, and Bex buys some cowboy boots. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

... been on an American road trip

So here's the thing: I haven't updated this blog for a while (mea culpa - been busy promoting the book and writing the next one ... and the Olympics ... and blah blah fishcakes excuses ...)


Me and my sister Bex - well, actually more her, because she's extremely organised, and can drive - are about to realise a long-held dream of taking a road-trip across America!

We'll be flying, driving and possibly coaching or training to some of the best bits of the USA - many of which neither of us have ever visited before - including Boston, Nashville, Memphis (she's an Elvis fan), New Orleans, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, LA and finally New York - where I'm going to attend my very first Liars' League New York City event, having been a silent partner across the waves since its inception.

We are both unreasonably excited, and have probably packed far too much. But the deal is that if she drives, I'll blog the trip (with photos and everything) - so watch this space ...


Saturday, 11 February 2012

.... published a book 3: Launch

Part One: My life (so far) in launches

The first book launch I ever went to was at the age of 22. It was in Kensington somewhere – a long, high, white room full of tall posh people. I'd been invited by my ex-boyfriend, a poet who was launching his latest collection; my chief memory of the event is of his brother, an actor, introducing himself and, seeing me with a glass of wine in one hand and no book in the other, challenging me somewhat aggressively as to whether I'd bought a copy yet. No, I replied testily, thinking that if anything I deserved a dedicated freebie – especially considering one of the poems was about me. I was naïve in the politics of launches, then – even the exes (perhaps especially they) are expected, if invited, to fork out and get a copy signed. But it's not all hard sell – if you work them right, book launches can actually be a lot of fun. (See Part 2). 

Monday, 23 January 2012

... read Harry Potter

SPOILER WARNING: the following blog post contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. But then again, so does the entire internet.

It was in 2008, when I stood blinking and nervous before a classroom of American teenagers, as part of my summer school teaching duties for Oxbridge Programs, that I was first made aware of a massive lacuna in my literary education. Yes, despite having completed an English degree at Oxford, read or seen all of Shakespeare's plays, and waded through Beowulf and Chaucer in the original, along with hundreds of other “canon” authors – I had never read Harry Potter.

My students simply could not believe it: to them, the Potter cycle was synonymous with childhood; for some, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorceror's Stone was the first book they could remember reading – and I, an educated person, an adult, a Brit, standing not 200 metres from Christ Church (where the Great Hall sequences are filmed) – I hadn't read a word of any of the books! Was it possible? How had I missed them? How could anyone survive adolescence without them? Was I even a person, or some sort of soulless English replicant, recently thawed after fifty years' dormancy in tundral ice?

Not my childhood.
 I was 21 years old when the first Potter was published, and well into my quarter-century by the time this series of children's books became such a cultural phenomenon that adults were allowed – even expected – to read them. Harsh though it is, I grew up without Harry Potter. I am of a pre-Rowling generation: my childhood classics were Blyton, Carroll, E. Nesbit, Tolkien, Diana Wynne Jones (to whom Rowling owes an acknowledged debt) and lots and lots of Golden Age sci-fi.

I'm sure I would have loved all seven Potter novels had they been available when I was 13, but I don't feel that my early life was a barren wasteland deprived of their magic. There, I've said it. Over the years, I've absorbed a bit of general knowledge about Harry and Hogwarts by osmosis (cultural references in other media, plus accidentally catching the second half of Goblet of Fire on TV – twice), but basically, I'm a Potter virgin. And to be honest, unless I was in front of a class of gobsmacked Americans, this hasn't bothered me unduly.

However, when there's a lot of fuss about something it's always worth setting aside the hype to experience it for yourself, so this week I've been reading the first in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and here's my book report.

Length and depth: 7/10
The first unexpected element is the length of the thing. Having been under the impression that most of Rowling's output requires a sturdy Bag for Life and gym-honed Yummy Mummy biceps to drag back from the bookshop, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Book One in the series comes in at only 223 (fairly closely-printed) pages. It's slim, slight, svelte; easy to drop into a bag or pocket and carry around to read on the bus. I thoroughly approved of this (apparently the long-windedness only sets in around Book Four) because it meant I could race through it in a couple of days (mostly, yes, on the bus), leaving plenty of time to think and write about it.

Secondly – well, although much has been made of the darker, adult elements of the later books, the first one really is for kids, isn't it? The first fifty pages or so, which are all about Harry's improbably miserable life living in the cupboard under the stairs at the home of the Dursleys, his improbably horrible uncle and aunt, certainly are. Lucky Harry also has an improbably spoilt cousin called Dudley, a fat bully who picks on him, and all in all you know you're in fantasy-land because in the real world a Surrey social worker would almost certainly have prosecuted Harry's guardians for improbable cruelty years ago. It's all pretty cartoonish, down to the names (Aunt Petunia) – and yet it's nominally set in our own world – the world of Muggle (non-magical) folk.

Cool shit happens to orphans: 9/10
But hey, that's children's literature for you: you can't be a protagonist unless you're an orphan, and the Law of Fairytale states that any parental substitute (evil stepmother, wicked uncle, etc.) will be at best inadequate, and at worst actively plotting to kill you. The Dursleys' neglect and beastliness stems from the fact that they know (as does the reader, of course) although Harry doesn't, that he is special: a wizard, in fact. So far, so back-jacket blurb. Mysterious letters start arriving for Harry and despite his uncle's desperate attempts to stop him learning what's in them, Harry's eventually informed he has a place at Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and whisked away to London by magical man-mountain Hagrid. Thank goodness for that.

This is, basically, where the slightly painful set-up melts away and the good stuff kicks in  (Chapter 5, Diagon Alley) and if you're pushed for time this is where you should start reading. Once in this secret, magical street, with a shedload of gold from Gringotts goblin bank, Harry is living the eleven-year-old's wet dream: he's rich, parentless, a sort of wizarding celebrity, and has piles of cash to spend on cool shit. Cue a montage of robe, cauldron, owl and wand-buying, a quick canter through the history of the magical versus Muggle world (for his benefit and ours) and then back on the train to the Dursleys' to wait a month until the beginning of term.

How do you solve a problem like Petunia?  5/10
A little sidebar about the Dursleys, while I'm here: it occurs to me that in saddling Harry with a nasty step-family who nonetheless have not been removed (yet) by divine or indeed profane intervention, Rowling has painted herself into a corner somewhat. There's no getting away from the fact that while Hogwarts may be his world in term-time, at “home” he's pretty much surrounded by people who hate and fear him, and that, I feel, is a problem.

IMHO, there are two ways to go with this: reconciliation (the Dursleys grow to understand, value and appreciate Harry, perhaps when he uses his powers – albeit reluctantly – to save them from serious peril) or full separation (the Dursleys are tricked or persuaded into endangering him, thus invalidating them as caregivers and immediately removing them from his family sphere: perhaps another, sympathetic relative will show up, or else Harry will be adopted by Hagrid). Not sure which it will be, or when, but I bet it's one of the two – unless Voldemort (murderer of Harry's parents and would-be assassin of Harry) manages to kill the Dursleys in trying to get to Harry and our hero has to move in with the Weasleys.

More cool shit: 8/10
That's all in the future, however. Here and now, once Harry gets on the train from platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross (which implies, according to the British railway map, that Hogwarts is somewhere in the North of England, along the line connecting London and Edinburgh) – it's all gravy. The Great British Boarding School Novel has begun, and this time it's magic.

One of the most delightful things about reading this book for the first time is the inventive and entertaining details with which Rowling scatters her world: even wizard money and wizard sweets are different – though somehow reminiscent – of their Muggle equivalents. Chocolate Frogs contain trading cards of famous wizards and witches: Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans are Jelly Bellies with an element of Russian Roulette (you really can get every flavour, from strawberry to bacon via earwax). Wizard photographs move and wave to you; owls deliver post; portraits talk, and the halls of Hogwarts are stalked by ghosts, poltergeists and the students' familiars (cats, toads or owls again). Not to mention Fluffy the three-headed dog, and (briefly) Hagrid's Norwegian Ridgeback dragon ...

Houses and Demographics: 6/10
The Sorting Hat was my third surprise: for some reason I'd got the impression that Harry, Ron and Hermione were all in different school houses, what with having different strengths. The four personality types into which the Sorting Hat divides you are, basically:

Brave (Gryffindor, confusingly represented not by a griffin but a lion)
Loyal (Hufflepuff – a dog symbol, surely? Nope, it's a badger …)
Clever (Ravenclaw – an eagle. Because eagles are well-known for their brains) and, drum roll please ...
EVIL (Slytherin, whose animal figurehead is a snake)

All right, I exaggerate slightly: the kids of Slytherin House are technically “ambitious” rather than evil, but as Harry's student nemesis and crashing snob Draco Malfoy and his sidekicks belong to it, and sinister Potions Master Severus Snape is head of it, these amount to pretty much the same thing. I'd have thought that to obviate the vast majority of strife, bullying, terrorism and attempted murder in Hogwarts, the school authorities would simply reject anyone assigned to Slytherin – but apparently there's some sort of quota system going on, and headmaster Dumbledore is not allowed to bounce the snaky ones to schools in other catchment areas. Shame.

As it goes, Harry, Hermione, Ron and Neville (the lovable loser of the bunch) are all in Gryffindor. Interestingly, according to my calculations based on bedcount of the new first-year intake (five boys' beds, double this for the girls = 10 new kids in Gryffindor, x 4 houses = 40 new kids per year, x 7 years) means there are fewer than 300 kids at Hogwarts – I'd got the impression from the descriptions that it was bigger, with around 500 students.

Anyway, of these 280, 2 ½ of them (or less than 1%) are not white. (This may, and I suspect will, change in later books). The half/not sure is the mysterious “Lee Jackson” who has dreadlocks (not exclusive to black people, of course), a name oddly reminiscent of the Cosby Show, and is generally considered to be cool. I'm not sure whether, by giving him all these characteristics, Rowling wishes Lee to be read as black without explicitly stating the fact, but let's charitably assume so. The other two (although only one of them ever appears more than once or says anything) are the presumably Asian Patil twins. Sorry minorities, that's your lot. Have fun at school! It seems that in terms of ethnic diversity, Hogwarts is not far off Midsomer Murders or rural Finland.

And yet, and yet … the constant threat of oppression by an outside world which does not recognise or understand their culture … the wizarding kids' almost total ignorance of the Muggle world around them (Ron is astonished to see a fifty-pence piece, and can't believe Muggle photos don't move) … is Hogwarts, perhaps, some sort of metaphor for ghettoised racial or religious communities, forced into secrecy and isolation by the threat of being crushed by the less enlightened, but far more numerous “Other” surrounding them? No, probably not. Moving on ..

Best bits
The Mirror of Erised – a rather brilliant object this, a mirror which shows “not your face, but your heart's desire”: when Harry looks into it, he sees the faces of his parents for the first time, and it's rather a touching scene. It's also pivotal in Harry's recovering the Philosopher's Stone later on (see below).

Professor Quirrell as villain. There, I've spoiled the end for you. Told you I would. Someone's trying to steal the Philosopher's Stone from its closely-guarded home underneath Hogwarts, and Harry and his friends are utterly convinced throughout that it's Snape – but it turns out to be stuttering, feeble Defence Against the Dark Arts master Quirrell, who's secretly in thrall to Big Bad Voldemort.
Where's Voldemort? OH MY GOD he's living in the back of Quirrell's head!!! A proper EEK moment when Quirrell takes off his turban and turns around, to show Harry Voldemort's face in the back of his skull.

Your Crimes Against Fashion Master welcomes you
The spells guarding the Stone. Every hero has to face obstacles, but the variety of traps and riddles Harry and friends have to get through is somewhat reminiscent of The Crystal Maze. All you need is Richard O'Brien going on about Mumsie and you've got yourself an early-90s gameshow. From live chess to a poisonous logic puzzle, though, they're fun and challenging – and, crucially, allow Ron and Hermione to help Harry significantly on his way.

The Quidditch scoring system: I won't bore you with a full rundown of the rules, but essentially, Quidditch can be, and usually is, won by a single player catching a single ball. There are several other players whose job it is to score with much less important balls, but given that the Golden Snitch is so ridiculously valuable that whoever catches it wins the game, it made me wonder why the rest of the team don't just toss their broomsticks aside and sod off the pitch, muttering “why bother?”

House point devaluation – House points are used to threaten and set Harry back at various points in the book, when he's caught breaking rules (pretty much every chapter). It starts off small, with Snape deducting one or two points for insolence in Potions class – but by Chapter 15, Professor McGonagall is stripping Harry & Co. of 50 points each for sneaking around the school after lights-out. The devaluation of the currency here is reminiscent of Weimar Germany, and moreover the number of points lost for a given misdemeanour seems to be completely random and decided by the demands of the plot.

How Harry gets the Stone – Dumbledore is particularly pleased with charming the Mirror of Erised so that only someone who wants to get the stone – but not use it personally to gain wealth or immortality – is able to wish it out of the mirror. But Professor Quirrell also wants the stone … not for money, or the Elixir of Life, but to give it to his master Voldemort. Just because he's planning to pass it on to Voldemort and Harry wants to give it back to Dumbledore should make no difference: neither desires it for himself, so technically Quirrell (who looks in the mirror first) should get it. Although obviously that would completely screw up the book's ending. But still.

However, nitpicking aside, I did really enjoy reading HP1, and I don't think I can sign off more aptly than by quoting the eerily prescient words of Professor McGonagall in Chapter 1:

“He'll be famous – a legend … there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!”

Amen to that, sister.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

... published a novel: 2 - Artwork

I love Sherlock Holmes. I’ve loved him since I was about 13 and discovered Arthur Conan Doyle’s work for the first time. I was thrilled by the characters, puzzled by the mysteries, but most of all enthralled by the setting; the atmosphere of Victorian London, elegant and sordid, gaslit and murky by turns. That's a major reason why I chose to set The Whores'Asylum in the 1880s – it was a world I enjoyed writing about, and one I felt I knew - well, as well as anyone born nearly 100 years later could.

Holmes gave me a sketch of the events”
You know where I'm going with this (or at least I hope you do, given that this post's about artwork) … the thing is, it was Sidney Paget's wonderful illustrations for the stories when they originally appeared in the Strand Magazine that really brought Holmes, Watson et al to life: Paget added the famous deerstalker and I think also the Ulster cape, for example. And what would be more appropriate for a Victorian novel (like, ooh, I don't know, mine) than an exquisite series of bookplates to accompany the narrative?

So when I was emailing my editor Juliet Annan at Fig Tree about the cover art for my book, I suggested, in a throwaway fashion, that it would be amazing to have some pictures of key scenes scattered through the text – it's a typically 'period' thing, so would be very much in the spirit of the novel – though I was sure (I said disingenuously) it would be far too expensive to consider …

To my delight Juliet said she loved – in fact, LOVED the idea – and immediately set about finding a suitable artist to work on the cover and illustrations. Score! All I had to do was go through the story and find some of the most visually dramatic scenes, then sit back and wait for them to be turned into fantastic Pagetesque black-and-white line drawings. I also had to comb the text for physical descriptions of the various characters (harder than it sounds, and even harder to keep them consistent – to my shame I discovered one minor character had been endowed with brown, green and blue eyes … this has now been fixed :)

I'm not one of those writers who has a crystal-clear picture of their characters in their head from the outset; I tend to build them up from the inside out. I knew this much: my eager young medical student Stephen Chapman (in some ways the hero of the novel, though only briefly a narrator) would be handsome and open-faced, with high, fair colouring – i.e. blond hair and blue eyes, and that to provide a visual contrast, Diana, the woman he falls for, would be black-haired and dark-eyed, with a “pale and interesting” complexion. (Needless to say, she's also quite a looker). But I wasn't visualising anyone in particular – as the authors of the brilliant How Not To Write a Novel say, playing the Julia Roberts/Tom Cruise plus-or-minus game (a Japanese Julia Roberts, a fat, bald Tom Cruise etc.) does nobody any favours.

Similarly, Edward Fraser, Chapman's best friend, who narrates much of the story, was outwardly very much sidekick/wingman material – a less confident Watson, a reticent, hesitant sort content to be outshone by his brilliant and dashing companion. He doesn't say much to everyone else; but he's got plenty going on in his head which the reader alone is privy to. He emerged as a lean, stooping chap with receding hair of “a peculiar dark auburn colour” - always dressed in black, as befits a student of theology with limited means, and appearing rather older than Chapman, though the two are almost the same age. Who did he look like? Himself. What did that mean? I didn't quite know – but I was aching to find out.

Kester's the villain of the piece, and though I based his “high, hoarse” voice on that of an ex, his looks, apart from his stone-cold grey eyes, are described as … well, nondescript. Here's Diana on Kester's appearance:

“He appeared so deceptively mild; he was not especially tall nor strong, and his countenance was somewhat plain – neither very handsome nor very hideous. His sole claim to beauty was a soft and sensual mouth, rosy as a girl’s, which contrasted eerily with his grey, fishlike eyes. He did not wear his vices in his face, as some men do, though perhaps he was yet too young for that. His aspect, when he was not drunken or angry, was unassuming. It would not be easy work to pick him out of a crowd. 

In short, in looks and bearing he was altogether quite ordinary. I wonder sometimes, when I think back on it, if that was not the very thing that haunted and enraged him. I wonder if he had been handsome, like Henry, or even very ugly, like poor Towers, he should have been a different man. I cannot say.”

The banality of evil made flesh, in fact.

Grow the hair, add a 'tache: Chapman!
The above, at any rate, was how my characters appeared to me and therefore in the text – but I didn't set to writing with a gallery of detailed portraits floating before my eyes. I didn't cast the (surely inevitable?) six-part TV adaptation in my head – well, not much, though Laurence Fox, if you're reading this, I'm willing to audition you for Chapman :) In short, I was open to however the artist decided to render the people in my book, because I love (even LOVE) having my work illustrated, ever since I had a short story on UntitledBooks and to my delight, it was accompanied by a fantastic picture by the superbly-named Sarah Buttery. There's something about seeing your characters afresh through somebody else's eyes that's completely intriguing and revelatory. 

First up, of course, was the cover – that needs to be sorted out before anything else so that the publisher has an image for their catalogue and for Amazon. The first artist Juliet found didn't work out, but then she settled on a great pastiche artist called Max Schindler, who came up with a rough sketch for us to look at (on the left).

The style was great, the shield design was awesome (I must stop using Americanisms, but somehow I don't want to) but the boaters had to go – it's not Zulieka Dobson after all – and some colour needed adding. 

Also, Diana (for it is she) was barefoot, and I wasn't sure why. Not to mention the wandering apostrophe in the title … He kindly took my comments on board, went away and came back with Mark 2 (the red version on the right below).

Loads better – but still, the picky pain-in-the-arse author in me worried about the expression on her face: did she look a bit bored? Was this the right message to be sending? And that cleavage – the title has whores in it, for sure, but Diana's not one of them; it felt a bit Katie Price for my taste. I tentatively expressed my views, and my very patient editor passed them on to my very patient artist. Third time lucky, we hoped (see below).

Bingo! That was the one – I loved Diana's new wistful expression, and she didn't have everything in the window either. Much more suitable. This turned out to be the final cover, and I'm immensely glad it did, because everyone I've shown it to so far has really liked it. It looks even more spectacular in real life, because it's embossed and debossed (new word) with a textured, cloth-effect cover and GILDED as well – the shield/curtain bearing the title is shiny, shiny gold. In short, it will be a brand new paperback designed to look like a late 19th-century hardback. Love, love, love. I've got an advance proof of the cover hanging on my wall as I type and I keep on darting across the room to appreciate it anew.

So, the cover was ready – now for the illustrations! I was sent roughs of seven key scenes from the book, ranging from a formal ball to a strangulation, via a duel, a naked lady being painted, a prostitute soliciting in a dodgy tavern, and a masked orgy. (I feel I have ticked all the melodrama boxes here ...) Lucky Max had to deal with some more of my authorial objections as I pointed out that the tart looked too prosperous, the artist probably shouldn't be wearing a cliché – sorry, beret – and the duellist holding a gun in his left hand is actually seriously injured on that side. Moan, moan, moan – it's all us whining writers ever do …

However, in my defence, the reason I was so pernickety about the content of the illustrations is that each one is on the facing page to the scene actually described – so the reader having just read about one character's arm getting maimed would definitely be puzzled to see it whole again in the picture opposite. And in my artist's defence, he took what I said and produced the magnificent final versions you see below. Needless to say, I'm super happy with the result and extremely grateful to Juliet and Max for making it possible – mainly because I can't draw to save my life and am in awe of anyone who can.

I've taken the liberty of adding a short excerpt from the scene each illustration depicts, to put it in context … and, of course, because that's what Conan Doyle would do. Enjoy. 

Fraser,’ said Chapman, ‘may I present my good friends, Mrs. Diana Pelham and her cousin, Dr. Neil Cornell?'
‘Mrs. Pelham,’ I said, ‘surely I have had the honour of meeting you before?’
Before me stood Valenti in a paint-smeared smock, his palette in one hand, his paintbrush in the other, and his mouth a perfect ‘O’ of surprise. Behind him, only partially obscured by the canvas, was his model goddess, frantically clutching a volume of white gauze ...

 'Ten!’ cried March. Valenti swivelled to face Hereward, small and far away, ethereal now in the mist rising from the green earth, Jameson at his side. I had been praying all night; silently, I prayed again. 
'Oh for God’s sake just sit, Fraser,’ said Hereward impatiently.
You look like a travelling-salesman. If you stand upon ceremony you’ll stay there till you drop.'

Come on, Doctor,’ Sukey wheedled, soft and sloppy, ‘pour a girl a glass.’ 
'Teasing?' snarled Kester, ' I’ll tease her, the impudent bitch. 
I’ll tease the damned life out of her!’ 
Before he could gasp for breath, I jerked the rough noose back, crashing his skull against the iron gate, and pulled the leather tight about his throat, leaning into it with all my bodily might.


Monday, 9 January 2012

... seen Jaws

First off, an apology: 
I'd like to say I have never failed to update a blog for two months, but sadly it would be a massive lie. In my defence I spent the run up to Christmas working on what will hopefully become my second novel, but I've now made a resolution to keep updating this every Monday - bank holidays excepted :)

WARNING: the following blog post contains spoilers. However, as until a few days ago I seem to have been the only person in the Western world who hadn't seen Jaws, that probably won't matter.

So, Jaws. How have I avoided it all these years? Not deliberately, that's for sure. I like horror films, admire Spielberg and find sharks fascinating. But somehow, I never got around to seeing the ultimate shark film, even by accident, until the other night.

The first surprise of the film, for me, was that it starts off in a mildly racy, even soft-porny fashion, with a teenage party amid the dunes of an idyllic beach. A pretty blonde girl is making eyes at a pretty blond boy as the others drink and chat; soon enough, naturally, she's running towards the ocean pulling her clothes off, in order to entice him into a midnight swim. This scene is an interesting combination of twilit side-boob and a rising sense of dread. Will the adorable pair live happily ever after, frolicking naked in the waves, or will this scrummy morsel of Seventies totty get EATEN BY A SHARK?