Thursday, 30 August 2012

Light Books and Heavier Books

After my quick dash to Wales and back last week, I barely stopped at home before I was off again - visiting Edinburgh. It was a stay with friends - and a reunion with new friends and some old ones, too. It was about book shopping and revisiting old haunts like the Blue Moon Cafe - and then sitting up late with pals to watch old TV and films like, 'Tales that Witness Madness.' (Joan Collins and Michael Jayston's weird erotic hankering for a spooky tree. I've been haunted by that film for years and delighted to actually see it again!)

Moving around so much, all my reading was from the Kindle. I spent the first half of the week with Guy Fraser-Sampson's second Mapp and Lucia sequel, 'Lucia on Holiday.' It reminded me a little of 'Auntie Mame Around the World' - in which Patrick Dennis sets his monstrously funny heroine loose upon the continent and the wider world.

This is a fabulous book. Beautifully put together, plotted and characterised, doing full justice to the originals. More than justice, I think. Everyone is on top form as they converge upon the shores of Lake Como. Georgie gets a particularly splendid role to play in this sequel - seduced from all sides, it seems, and deservingly so. I  really hope there'll be more Benson sequels to come.

The second half of the week I spent with Jonathan Harvey's debut novel, 'All She Wants.' I was on the platform at Piccadilly, waiting for the train to Scotland, and I fell for the big push that WH Smith was giving it. (And it's fun, isn't it? To see a book on the shelves in the shop and then go sit in a cafe and dial it up on your machine? It feels futuristic and retro at the same time.) It's a novel about Liverpudlian soap stars and a heroine whose rise and fall and rise and fall again we are held enthralled by. It's slangy and slaggy and silly and fun, all the way to the end. I've liked Harvey's work for years - especially his TV drama from years ago (ten years ago?) 'Birthday Girl' - and mostly I can skim by his tendency to put archly funny lines that sound too composed and knowing into the mouths of his characters. This book's done with a great deal of affection for the characters and their world, though. The world of Soap seems absolutely ferocious.

And now - I'm home and right in the middle of 'Ravenscliffe', Jane Sanderson's sequel to her marvellous, 'Netherwood', which I read earlier this year. It's a sprawling period epic about pit disasters, royal visits and the making of pies and pastries. I'm enjoying it enormously (even though the proof feels massively unwieldy after reading Ebooks for a week...)

Monday, 27 August 2012

Guest Blog: Leo Cookman's 'Welcome the Pigz'

In what's becoming a weekly feature on my blog, I'm handing over today's post to a guest blogger! This time it's over to first-time novelist, Leo Cookman.

I have just published a novel you know. Welcome the Pigz is actually my third novel but the first I have published. Self published that is. I spent the last year or so hawking this to all and sundry in the hope someone would gasp at its flagrant, almost libellous, similarities to other incredibly well selling books and snap up the rights like a hungry man at John Prescott's dinner table. But they didn't. The near universal response was “It's great! It will never sell.” The reason for this is because despite WTP having a car chase, a love story, a heist and a climactic battle to the death like every Hollywood movie, best-selling novel and its dog, mix this in with personifications of wind and shadow, the Asian mafia, an anthropomorphic frog, the quandary of existence, the deconstruction of narrative, lots of swearing and the eponymous pigs and this is confusing, “too whacky” and “too clever for its own good”. You see, a lot of my favourite authors, and by extension their books, tend to either play with formula, genre or expectations or are just plain silly. As such, I derive great pleasure in taking the well established formula of an adventure or thriller story I love so much and bung in the silly things with it. I would argue this makes a worn out formula and story more interesting. The people in charge see this the other way.

Welcome the Pigz is about a young student called Bevan Croft who takes some LSD and then sees a live pig in his fridge, a frog in his garden and a Vietnamese emperor in his bedroom. The emperor informs Bevan he actually took a magic potion that will help him save the world and leaves him with the emperor's personal body-guard, a ten strong drove of pigs. Upon coming up with the idea of a drove of pigs following the protagonist around  I was chuffed, I love pigs and not making them human but having them assist our lead character was just a hilarious concept to me. The idea came from my brother writing the title on the fridge with colourful magnet letters. It didn't mean anything but it stuck with me and inspired the story. Beyond that I only had a few vignettes in my head of what should happen; I wanted a car chase, I wanted two friends crammed in a car with the pigs surrounding them, I wanted a scene where the protagonist finds the dead pig's bodies hung from the ceiling that holds back the imaginary/ghostly pigs and a few other moments. Initially it was going to be a period 30s piece set in Egypt about a couple of cursed Indiana Jones-style tomb raiders. My mother then pointed out pot-bellied pigs were Vietnamese and not that old a breed. I then saw the cover of an Irvine Welsh book called 'E' with a fridge magnet letter on the cover. My mind made the jump to a 'drug caper' style novel which fitted better as drugs explained hallucinating a load of pigs more acceptable. Tie in the paltry research on Vietnam and its creation myth I did and BAM. Incredible loose plot ahoy! The idea sat as the title and those ideas for about 10 years until my friend Amelia said I should do NaNoWriMo, so I dug it out for that and wrote the first chapter in an evening. I again gave up on it as it was halfway through November at that point so I put it back to bed. It was only when I told my then girlfriend about it, who flipped her lid over the premise, that I, at her encouragement, did a bit more work on it. We then broke up and during that particularly bleak and depressing time I wrote the whole novel in a month sat in the spare room of my mother's house at the end of the bed with no job and no home. Again I was just going to let it sit and fester on my hardrive but after cajoling from friends and family I did some editing, got it read and 'critiqued' made some more changes and started sending it off.

I've written quite a lot in my short years on this planet; screenplays, stageplays, work newsletters, blogs, poetry pamphlets, short stories, songs, comedy sketches, and none of them have been successes (largely because I don't publicise them) but this was the first time I was getting genuinely positive and encouraging feedback from people who know their stuff, despite them all still saying 'No'. So after rejection #4056 I decided I wanted people to read it, with or without the lavish hardback, dust-jacketed design I had in mind, so I bought some magnetic fridge letters, made the cover, formatted the text and here it is:
What is becoming clear about this book, and believe me I am not one to toot my horn, is that it seems to actually be original. Or at least the whole is, even if the sum of its parts aren't. People don't seem to know where to put it or what to class it as which in the current market is a rare thing. I don't, however, think it is merely a curio. I like the characters, I think the story is exciting, I'm told it is engaging, I am very reliably informed it is actually 'well written' and its got Pigs in it! In my opinion that's a book on top of my reading list and, by extension, should be on everyone else’s. But like I say, I'm not one to brag.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Emergency Dash to Wales!

Well, this week was supposed to be a quiet one at home. On Monday, though, I got a phone call from Ty Newydd, which is a lovely Writers' Centre in North Wales. One of the tutors on this week's Short Story course had cancelled at the very last minute - and could I travel down on the train and replace her for a couple of days?

I love being at Ty Newydd. I've taught a couple of courses there over the years - with Menna Elfyn and Jenny Newman. They've been great experiences. Btw - have a look at the website and fix yourself up a course to go on! - here

So I had a couple of days teaching with Patrick Gale, who i haven't seen in ages. That was nice, too - catching up with Patrick - and getting to know sixteen brand new students of all ages, all very interested in the short story - and all very hard-working, as it turned out, as I put them through a number of my very gruelling workshops. We worked on my 'first page' workshop - and another of mine about constructing points of view and subtext in a tense fictional scene.

And then, on Tuesday evening, Patrick and I read to everyone - a story each, and both of which, it turned out, had been written as Radio 4 Afternoon Story commissions. I gave them my original 'Never the Bride' story, and talked a bit about Brenda, which was great fun. Sometimes there's nothing I like better than reading to a whole roomful of people like that. Just like at Lees Library near Oldham, last Saturday, when they put on afternoon tea for everyone. It really helps to have a great audience, of course, which I did on both occasions.

North Wales is really beautiful, this time of year. I remembered having a holiday there, back in 1996, with a whole group of friends, on the Nefyn peninsula. One of those holidays when everything goes perfectly. The softness of the green and gold of the landscape and the sunset over the sea all put me back in mind of that trip.

I made my way back home by train yesterday - and it was then that I heard about the death of Nina Bawden. Strange to be leaving Wales as I did so - since Wales is such a central part of 'Carrie's War', my favourite of her novels - and one of my top five novels ever, I would say.

In fact, during breakfast one morning at Ty Newydd, there was talk about books we read as kids, and I was talking about Bawden. About how she was a saving grace during my first, really horrible day at Woodham Comp in 1981. I've told the story many times before - but perhaps not here on my blog. On our first day we had a lesson in Metalwork - in which we were told that we mustn't be scared of heavy machinery since, if we were lucky, when we grew up, we would probably be working in factories, where we would spend our lives operating machines like this. And then we had PE and a really nasty, brutish PE teacher screamed at us as we trogged about a filthy cross country course in brand new tracksuits.

But then it was English and our new English teacher went round the class, dishing out well-read Puffins from a cardboard box. 'Carrie's War' was all about being propelled into a new and scary place, and having to make sense of it. It was a perfect book to read at eleven.

I've read it many times since. Almost every Christmas I read it again. I've read many other Bawden books - for kids, adults, and teens. I've loved them all but this one is special to me. I wish I could have got the chance to tell its author how much I've loved her work for all that time.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Guest Blogspot: Elton Townend-Jones on 'Female Gothic'

Here's a special guest blog - from Elton Townend-Jones, who's writing today about 'Female Gothic', his show in Edinburgh, which is playing at the Fringe this very moment.


Hello!  And welcome to Not Paul Magrs!  This entry comes to you from a stranger, but it’s okay – I’m the kind of stranger you’re allowed to talk to.  Who am I?  Well, I’m a writer, actor, journalist and – today – theatre producer for Dyad Productions and I’m beaming myself onto your screens directly from the sunny (which is plain wrong) Edinburgh Fringe.  What am I doing here?  Okay, okay, I’m script editing and producing a play called Female Gothic at the Fringe and a few months ago I invited Mr Magrs along to see it.  Paul was keen – as the subject matter was right up his creepy street – but now, alas, conflicting schedules have made this auspicious meeting unlikely if not impossible.  Boo.

In kind recompense, Paul has offered me the unlooked for but utterly delightful opportunity to shamelessly plug the play (written and performed by Rebecca Vaughan, the other half of Dyad).  This is our fourth play in as many years.  In 2009 we presented Austen’s Women a one-woman show about… well, you work it out.  In 2010, we presented I, Elizabeth a play about the young Liz 1, and last year we performed my anglicised stage version of Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam & Eve (to be published in early 2013).  All these shows continue to tour successfully in the UK and internationally and we have big plans ahead, but for now we’ve returned with a trio of Victorian ‘ghost stories’…

Over two centuries on, we still love gothic fiction and revel in tales of the mysterious and macabre.  The gothic tradition can be traced back to writers such as Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, but it was the Victorians and Edwardians who took the gothic baton and ran with it.  In Penny Dreadfuls and respected periodicals, eerie tales of the unknown became best-sellers, and in this environment female writers began to thrive.  Around 85% of such tales were written by women seeking to give voice to their concerns, such as suppressed sexuality, monstrosity, motherhood and transgression of societal norms.  These female writers deliberately abandoned the social realist novels of the day to explore controversial and taboo topics; taking advantage of the subversive properties of gothic fantasy to develop themes of physical and psychological alienation as well as national and temporal isolation.  Sadly, these writers have been much neglected and almost ignored over the years, so Female Gothic sets that straight, prominently featuring the work of M E Braddon and E Nesbitt, alongside a collage of bridging material from several other such writers of the period – all of which has been filtered through Rebecca and me as we honed and finely tooled the originals to work on stage and offer maximum chills.

The reviews have been great so far – four Five Star reviews and five Four Star reviews – and the audience response has exceeded all our hopes.  If you like some of the stuff Paul likes then you’re going to love Female Gothic – so if you’re in Edinburgh between now and the 27th August, come and see us and then you can all tell Paul what he missed!  We’re on at the Assembly Festival, George Square venue Three at 11.45am daily.  We’d love to scare you.

Thanks, Paul – very much appreciated.
‘A macabre masterpiece, every aspect of this production comes together perfectly, and a spectacularly enthralling performance from Vaughan lifts it to awesome heights. Ghostly, grisly and gorgeous, this show is as fantastic as it is phantasmic. Don’t miss it. 5 STARS’ Three Weeks

Weekend Stuff

The weekend consisted of all sorts of fun stuff. On Saturday we were at Lees Library, Oldham, where I gave an afternoon reading to a good-sized and perky audience of all ages. We had tea and cakes and I read some 'Never the Bride' and '666 Charing Cross Road.' There were some there who were new to my work, but also some hardline Brenda fans - plus some Iris Wildthyme devotees.  It was a lot of fun.

And Sunday took us back to Alderley Edge and lunch at The Wizard pub, and a walk round all the steepest and mulchiest bits under those colourful crags and overhanging trees. It's a spectacular place, and lovely to revisit following my recent rereading of Alan Garner.

Sunday night - there was just a hint of autumn in the air. It made me turn to costume dramas late in the evening at the very tail-end of the weekend... a spot of Downton Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. A bit of lavish landscape and a few tart rejoinders. It seemed the only way to prepare for the week ahead.

Reading this weekend was just perfect. Susannah Clapp's 'A Card from Angela Carter' is a lovely though too-short read. I love the way it jumbles the chronology of Carter's life and jumps intuitively from image to image and idea to idea. Some of the details we've heard before - but there are startling things i'd never heard. It's twenty years exactly since I was starting my phd on Angela Carter's novels, and this was a lovely way to revisit all those titles and those themes - and to retrace a narrative I haven't been back to in a while.

Then I read with huge enjoyment Jenny Colgan's recent Doctor Who novel, 'Dark Horizons' - a tale of vikings and hardy islanders and alien creatures who manifest themselves as fire. It's a smashing adventure - with some wonderful action set-pieces and moments of real danger. I love the episode at the bottom of the sea, in particular - and the fact that the TARDIS itself comes under threat. There are many things to love about the novel - including a pitch-perfect rendition of Matt Smith's Doctor - gangly and cartoony and keen. I love the fact, too, that Colgan is clearly an old-school Who book fan - the text is sprinkled with clues ('voluminous' and 'wheezing and groaning' and a very Terrance Dicksian sentence which runs something like: 'Suddenly, everything seemed to happen at once.')

Above all, though, she gets the fact that what a Doctor Who story needs is a great supporting cast. We have to want to be among people we care about - and we should want the Doctor to be tempted to take them with him at the end. Her cast of characters here are great - the love interest couple of Henrik and Freydis being particularly worthy companions.

There's also a curious chapter 19 which jumps us rather sweetly out of the action - shoots forwards in time, addresses us directly, revisits the scene of the adventure and features a delightful cameo appearance somewhere in the far distance. Watch out for it!

So - a lovely weekend of reading. How was yours?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

What I've been reading...

I've read some lovely things recently. Before I went off to my week's teaching for Arvon, I spent a weekend reading Ngaio Marsh, Alan Garner and Paula Danziger in the Beach House, lying on the bed settee with Fester asleep on my chest. A curious mix of writers - and i knew that, in doing lots of travelling by train, I wanted to be reading an old favourite. I chose Jonathan Carroll's magnificent 'The Land of Laughs' - a dark phantasmagoria about a reclusive Maurice Sendak / Edward Gorey-type children's writer. I've read this book maybe ten times in the twenty years that I've owned it, and it's one that never dries up or ceases to reveal surprises.

I also read two books by Mitch Albom - his novel, 'The five people you meet in heaven' and 'Tuesdays with Morrie.' I think i had consciously avoided them in the past, since they had the look and feel of self-help books - multi-million selling sentimental stuff that I wasn't at all drawn to. However, somehow, I fell into reading both of these and loving them. 'Morrie' especially, is a terrific book about teaching and having a teacher, and then losing them.

What else..? Oh, in the Kindle summer sale I happened upon a novel I hadn't been aware of, 'The J.M Barrie's Ladies' Swimming Society' by Barbara Zitwer. It's light and romantic - and so perfect for reading during spare moments in a busy week teaching. It's also skilfully done, I think - though the Barrie connection isn't quite followed through enough. The lead female characters are well-drawn - and, inevitably, the reader can't help picturing them as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Eileen Atkins, etc etc. I imagine all those ladies will have their agents ringing to ask how proficient they are in the water.

It's a charming book - though too short in the end - cutting to a finish just as the real tensions between characters are starting to show. The chiming-in with the (wonderful) 'Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel  Pie Society' feels just a mite cynically done, too.

So - next..? I'm rereading (yet again) Anne Tyler's 'Saint Maybe'. Then I'm onto Susannah Clapp's 'A Card for Angela Carter', which has just arrived as a present in the post. That's a book I've been very keen to get my hands on. And then I've got early copies of the new Carole Matthews and the new Jane Sanderson. And I've got Jenny Colgan's Doctor Who novel waiting, which i've been reading wonderful things about.

I hope you're all reading good stuff, too..?

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Summer's reading so far...

I'm not sure what my favourite read of the summer is yet. Oh, there's some on kindle, too, that I can't show here, in a pile. Maybe 'Bridge to Terabithia', or 'My Dearest Holmes.' I've tried to get a mix of returning to favourite characters (Holmes, Jeeves, Spock) and authors (Gregory, Galenorn, Wyndham) - with picking up books I have somehow missed out on ('Darling Buds of May' and 'Memoirs of a Midget' - one of which i liked a lot more than i expected - the other much less!)

I'm about to embark on a spot of rereading old favourites - mixed with a bunch of brand new things. I've just read the brilliant YA writer of the 80s / 90s, Paula Danziger - and intend to read more! And i'm just starting on an umpteenth return to 'Weirdstone of Brisingamen' as part of Nick Leafpile's Brisingathon.

How's your summer reading going..?

Oh! Fans of Iris Wildthyme will be interested to know that, in advance of next month's publication of the season three Boxset of Iris audio plays - Big Finish have posted a trailer! It's here!