Two years later…

holbyI’ve been woefully neglecting this blog, but there were extenuating circumstances, honestly.

I haven’t been idle, though. I’ve got a novel which has been going through various rewrites and every time becomes a little less sunny and a little more sinister. This is interesting for me, because I prefer reading darker, more dramatic stuff (I’m currently working my way through Nicci French’s Frieda Klein series), but my novels so far have been rather light and fluffy. I suppose I feel responsible for the characters and want them to be happy. I might let this lot (some of them) be happy too, but I’m making sure they suffer first!

Also for the last two years I’ve been nurturing a lovely idea about writing a behind-the-scenes book based on my favourite telly programme, Holby City. It has taken all this time, but it’s now officially happening. This is glorious news because the people at Holby are lovely. They love the show themselves and are (justifiably) very proud of it, and I’m keen to do it – and them – justice by producing the very best book I can.

So it’s going to be a busy few months, but very exciting too.

To be added to my mailing list for news about the Holby City book, click here

Why (and what) I read to my baby

so-much-trish-cooke-paperback-cover-artThe American Academy of Pediatrics has advised parents that they should be reading to their children – even when they’re small babies. Early exposure to language (from a human, rather than the TV) has a profound effect on children’s development, apparently.

I started reading to my baby (now a teenager) when she was two or three days old. This wasn’t because I was a particularly enlightened parent. It was because I didn’t know what else to do. Her conversational skills at that age were not great, and although gazing at her admiringly was fun, I needed something else to do. So I sat her tiny self down on my lap and read her a book.

I was extremely lucky to have the perfect book to hand. In among all the cuddly animals, bath toys, adorable clothing and baby blankets we received as gifts, a lovely friend had given me a book that was bright, colourful and had the most engaging story and jazzy (African American) use of language (“Nannie and Gran-Gran came inside with their handbags cock up to one side and their ‘brella hook up on their sleeve”). The book is called So Much! and it’s by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury.

The story is about a little boy who’s at home with his mother and the doorbell rings. One by one members of his extended family arrive, and they all play with him and hug him and dance with him because they love him SO MUCH. The warmth, humour and love just shines out of this book and I would recommend it to anyone with small children.


Under the Greenwood Tree

james murraySometimes I love living in The Future. The other day I fancied reading some Thomas Hardy (Thomas Hardy and Stephen King are my go-to authors who never fail me. Apart from The Tommyknockers and Gerald’s Game, in the case of Mr King). In Ye Olden Days this would have meant schlepping to the library or my local branch of Waterstones, neither of which would have been open anyway because it was 7.30 on a Sunday morning.

No such problems with my Kindle. For less than £2 I was soon the proud owner of the Delphi Complete Works of Thomas Hardy (Illustrated). I was warned it would take a long time to download – it took about five seconds. Ten seconds later I was reading Under The Greenwood Tree.

It’s brilliant. It just makes me smile. Like this little extract after Dick Dewy has just set eyes on his one true love, Fancy Day (those names…).

Tilted on the edge of one foot he stood beside the fireplace, watching his mother grilling rashers; but there was nothing in grilling, he thought, unless the Vision grilled. The limp rasher hung down between the bars of the gridiron like a cat in a child’s arms; but there was nothing in similes, unless She uttered them.

How glorious is that? He comes up with an apt and brilliant simile for a rasher of bacon on a grill, but it’s also a gentle dig at Dick and the way Fancy has made him all, well, fanciful.

He also has a winning way with character descriptions. I’ve hardly read a more perfect description in my life than

Mr Shiner, age about thirty-five, farmer and church-warden, a character principally composed of a crimson stare, vigorous breath, and a watch-chain, with a mouth hanging on a dark smile but never smiling

Last but not least, reading UtGT is a good excuse/reason to illustrate this blog with a picture of the beautiful James Murray, who played Dick Dewy in a BBC version of the story. Thanks to the miracle of Living In The Future, you can watch it right now on YouTube here (possibly only in UK… not sure).



Hillsborough, one New York minute

Hillsborough disasterToday is the 25th anniversary of the terrible disaster at the Hillsborough football ground in Sheffield, UK, when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives.

I remember exactly where I was when it happened. I was in New York, on my first visit to the city. We saw the horrifying news on the Times Square news ticker – big flashing lights talking about a disaster at a football ground in England. The victims were Liverpool supporters, which made everything feel more personal to me – I used to live in Liverpool and I’d been a Liverpool supporter since I was little. We suddenly felt like we were a long way from home, needing to find out more. There was no internet to get information and the hostel we were staying at had no TV. We read about it in the New York Times the next day:

At least 93 people were killed [the final death toll was 96] and more than 180 others were injured today when soccer fans surged forward in severely overcrowded stands at a match in the northern English city of Sheffield, according to police and hospital officials.

The victims were crushed and suffocated as hundreds of spectators stumbled down the overcrowded standing area at the Hillsborough Stadium.

The tragedy occurred shortly after the start of a Football Association cup tournament game between the Liverpool and Nottingham Forest teams. The police ordered the soccer match to be stopped after six minutes of play, and the game was abandoned altogether about an hour later.

The tragedy is the worst in the history of British soccer.

1117__0591__hillsborough_5342edd9480e9425188994What makes this tragedy so much worse is the fact that so many lies were told afterwards about the causes of the disaster and blame was laid on the victims themselves. The relatives and friends of the victims are still having to fight for justice, a quarter of a century later.

Links: Hillsborough Jimmy McGovern’s 1996 drama-documentary powerfully reconstructs the events of the disaster and the aftermath.

Official Hillsborough Family Support Group

Hillsborough Independent Panel

Film review – Dracula: The Dark Prince

luke roberts dracula 2Luke Roberts, formerly Holby City’s Joseph Byrne (the world’s most beautiful heart surgeon), with fangs, and front and centre of an epic story of love, revenge and power that spans centuries? Hell, yeah.

I settled down in front of Dracula: The Dark Prince (available to buy or rent from iTunes) with a great deal of anticipation given that it stars Luke Roberts, but with my expectations nicely managed by the dismal  iTunes reviews so far and the fact it never had a cinema release and didn’t trouble the media much.

Roberts plays Dracula, but this Dracula is a weary warrior, bitter and brooding following the murder of his one true love. He doesn’t do the going out and biting people thing much, preferring to sit at home (on a throne in a gloomy castle – he does a great deal of moody sitting) and wait for the snacks to come to him in the form of a variety of luscious maidens in skimpy outfits who break into James Bond title sequence-style dancing whenever a camera trundles past.

He’s after some gizmo called the Lightbringer, which is in the possession of a woman who bears a startling resemblance to his former true love, if we can believe the portrait of her that hangs in Drac’s boudoir (and the fact that she’s played by the same actress, Kelly Wenham).

luke roberts draculaRoberts is convincing as a tragic, grieving lover – Dracula is a sensitive, poetical soul. He even gets to engage in a bit of soft-focus sex. All this despite having to wear a poor quality blond wig (apologies to him if it’s his own hair grown and bleached specially for the role) and (in some scenes) scary contact lenses and teeth. He’s not frightening, but he does have presence and a nice way with lines like “I’m not a very easy man to kill.” Some of the dialogue is in an Eastern European language too, which is rather thrilling. And despite the wig/hair, he’s very, very beautiful.

Apart from the moments when Luke Roberts was on the screen, I was never terribly absorbed in the plot (which also features Jon Voight in a hammy vampire-hunter role). It’s not scary, possibly because this Drac is (to me) more adorable than terrifying. And the sound editing is extremely strange. In group scenes, the extras have been miked up as well so any suspense that might have been generated is ruined somewhat by loud, hammy mutterings of the “Where are we? I’m scared! Gosh, he looks like a bad man” type. This doesn’t add to the proceedings at all.

Why I could never be 100% e-book

booksI read in the news yesterday that Tim Waterstone (of Waterstone’s bookshops fame) is predicting that e-books have had their day, compared to real, made-of-trees books. While e-books have their share of the market, that share is in decline, while hardback books are selling comparatively well (full article here).

I love my Kindle. It’s light, portable, lights up in the dark so I can read in bed, and it carries a lot of books. I love being able to change the type size (my eyesight is rubbish and pre-Kindle I nearly made myself blind trying to read the tiny print on my copy of A Clash of Kings). My Kindle also feels as nice as a book – it has a lovely purple faux leather cover – with the added benefit that it stays open on my lap or on a table.

But… I’ve just moved house. For the last 10 months all my books (the paper ones) have been in storage. This morning I started to unpack them, and was brought face-to-face with why e-books will never replace real books. There’s the worryingly yellow vegetarian cookbook that ensured I didn’t starve to death when I was a student. The book of Norse legends I won as a school prize when I was six. The Christmas and birthday gifts from people I love, or people I used to love in the case of the paperback copies of Kes and Absolute Beginners. Books that recall days spent reading in various gardens or beaches. The latest in my long line of copies of The Catcher In The Rye (I keep lending them to people and never get them back). The hardback of A Prayer for Owen Meany that I bought in New York the month it was published and read in the very strange world of JFK airport overnight while we waited to get the plane home (staying awake at the airport was cheaper than paying for another night in a hotel – but nothing was open. The cleaners gave us some food when their tea trolley came around). The catalogue to an exhibition of Antony Gormley’s work at the Hayward Gallery that I could have had signed – Gormley was wandering around taking photographs, but I didn’t want to disturb him while he was working.

I can’t imagine any of the books I’ve read on Kindle would have the same resonance for me in decades to come. I’ll remember some of the stories and some of the information I’ve read, but it won’t be the same. A made-from-trees book is the ideas and imagination inside, but it’s also a physical thing that you held in your hand, packed in your bag, moved from bookshelf to bookshelf, house to house.

E-books can never replace that.


7 things that annoy me in books

coupleMy top seven personal niggles as a reader – while being fully aware that I have committed some of these crimes as a writer. But not 3, 5, 6 or 7.

1. Chapters that start with the formula: “Blah de blah,” said character X, as he did thing Y. For example, “It’s a lovely day for an Easter egg hunt,” said Morag, as she wiped the dust from her violin case. I’m not even sure why this annoys me. It just does, and it’s extremely common, probably because it lands the reader right in the middle of some action, which is supposed to be A Good Thing. I’ve doubtless used it myself and that annoys me, too.

2. What I call “cigarette work.” This is all the little details of someone smoking a cigarette which is typically used to break up dialogue. “It’s a lovely day for an Easter egg hunt,” said Morag, lighting another cigarette. It can also be used to signify mood: “It’s a terrible day for an Easter egg hunt,” said Morag, stubbing her cigarette out on her violin case. This is one I definitely have used myself (not the violin case example, obviously), and I realise it’s very useful for pacing a long stretch of dialogue. But what irks me about it is that I always wonder how a narrator of a story would be able to remember at which point cigarettes were lit, ash was flicked and smoke was blown, and just that little thought is enough to pull me out of the story for a few seconds.

3. Men picking up women. In the sense of lifting them off their feet and conveying them to another location. If the man in question is a fireman and the house is ablaze, fair enough, but if it’s supposed to be a romantic scene and the woman is quite literally swept off her feet to be deposited on a rose petal-strewn bed or whatever – forget it. I find the whole idea of portable women very silly.

4. Annoying names. This would put me off a book at the blurb stage – I just can’t get into a book if the characters have silly names. I’ve waffled on about that more here.

5. Long descriptions. In Elmore Leonard’s famous rules for writers, number 8 is “avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and number 9 is “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things,” but the whole lot can be dealt with under number 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Readers tend to skip detailed descriptions. I do, anyway.

6. Grandparents. Specifically, grandparents (or even worse, great-grandparents) in biographies. If I read a biography of someone, I’m not interested in what their ancestors got up to. Sometimes a quarter of the book will have passed and the person you want to know about hasn’t even been born yet.

7. Monsters. I love a good scary story, whether it’s a book or film, but they’re always scariest before the monster is seen, because then your imagination can fill up the empty space with whatever terrifies you most. As soon as the monster physically appears, they become manageable and sometimes just silly (Cloverfield, or Daleks). The exception to this is when the monster is a scary human (Hannibal Lecter) or the creature in the Alien films – and most of the power of that creature is that you usually only see bits of it. The bits with teeth.