Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Sea Change & Other Stories by Helen Grant

If you’ve read any of Helen Grant’s books, then you know she is a woman who loves all things spooky, supernatural, otherworldly, creepy, and mysterious. The Sea Change & Other Stories is a collection of Helen’s spooky tales put together by Swan River Press in Ireland. I was delighted when author and publisher Brian J. Showers offered me an advanced copy of Helen’s book to review!

Don’t bother looking for gore and guts. Any violence tends to happen off the page, bar a few brief scenes. This isn’t “Friday the Thirteenth” on paper. The scariness of these stories lies in your own imagination. I am reminded of Shirley Jackson’s horrors, or one of my all-time favourites, “The Monkey’s Paw”, by William Wymark Jacobs. What’s behind that door is never described, but you know it’s horrific, and you are fervently praying for the father to find that paw and make the final wish before the grief-crazed mother opens the door.

In Helen’s collection, the story that creeped me out the most was “Grauer Hans”. It is a universal tale of a scary goblin-like creature who tries to lure a child out of the safety of her room. Who hasn’t been afraid of things under the bed or in the closest in the dark of the night? What if you think it’s just a childhood fable? What if you know it’s not?

“The Sea Change” was really interesting, partly because I used to scuba dive when I was younger, and partly because of the transformation of the narrator’s friend, local “salt of the sea” Daffy, once he becomes obsessed with a particular wreck.

The only story I didn’t care for was “The Game of Bear”. This was an unfinished tale by author M.R. James, someone unfamiliar to me. Helen won a competition to complete the story. I found it hard to get into the story told through two old Victorian duffers, known only as Mr. A and Mr. B, about some unlikeable acquaintance of theirs named Purdue. On re-reading it, however, I like it better the second time around. The means of Purdue’s comeuppance is rather intriguing. But I think with such an unsympathetic victim, I was rather more pleased at his demise than disturbed. What does that say about me?

“Self Catering” was quite enjoyable. It has a thread of humor in it that none of the other stories have, which gave it a lighter tone. Edward Larkin needed a holiday, but he didn’t want the usual stuff. So, he found a rather oddball travel agent and, in the end, got a very unique holiday, but it’s certainly not what he, or I as the reader, expected.

The next tale, “Nathair Dhubh” is set in Wales and is a climbing adventure. I don’t climb, but one of my friends does, so I read it with interest. I like the narrator Jim, especially as he reflects back on his younger self and his boyhood friendship with Tom. This story has that emotional connection that was lacking for me in “The Game of Bear”. We immediately care about Jim and Tom and what happens to them. Tom wants to climb Nathair Dhubh, which is shunned by locals as being cursed. What happens is not fully revealed, but Helen has captured the tension and psychological terror of being trapped alone during a climb in sinister weather.

“Alberic de Mauléon” was also written for a competition. It is a prequel to another story by M.R. James, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”. While most of her stories have a contemporary setting, this one takes place in the 17th century and pits two brothers against each other. It’s got a high creep factor and has a horrific outcome for one brother. Very satisfying.

The final story, “The Calvary at Bankská Bystrica”, is a modern tale, again about two brothers who are not particularly fond of each other, but when Robert vanishes, his brother travels to Slovakia to try to find some trace of him. I won’t give away the story, but suffice to say something very spooky and weird takes place on the Calvary hill. Helen was inspired by the real location when she visited Tajov.

Helen Grant
Helen Grant has published three deliciously mysterious and creepy novels all set in Germany in and around the town where she used to live (“The Vanishing of Katharina Linden”, “The Glass Demon”, and “Wish Me Dead”). Helen puts a lot of research into the locations for her books, which is a great excuse for travelling, though I'm sure she doesn't get to do that as much as she'd like. She is currently working on a new trilogy set in The Netherlands. The first book, “Silent Saturday”, is due to be published in April 2013.

Swan River Press   
Named for the now subterranean river that flows through Rathmines, the Swan River Press, founded in Dublin in 2003, specializes in Gothic, strange, and supernatural literature.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Picture book sampler

At the SCBWI Ireland meet-up on February 2nd with guest speaker, illustrator/author, Alan Corbett, we talked about picture books, graphic novels, and the many mediums and techniques that people use to develop their artwork and tell a story. I handed around a selection of picture books for the group to view and discuss. I promised to provide a list of the books I had shared, so here they are.

These are just a few samples. There are so many more!

Pets go Pop! by Bob Staake – fun and colourful pop-up book that literally jumps off the page.

Ghost of Shandon by Alan Corbett – at last, a graphic novel that’s really for kids! Beautiful autumn palette and a historical adventure with some real characters from 18th-century Cork.

Spells by Emily Gravett – I absolutely adored the illustrations in this book about a frog who wants to be a prince. There’s a brilliant section in the middle of the book where you can flip the top or bottom half of the page to see a transforming image.

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – a classic that has been turned into an animated film and a live theatre production.

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems – a clever blend of photographs of New York City and Mo Willems’ illustrations and a cute story. A Caldecott Honor book.

The Night Pirates by Peter Harris and Deborah Allwright – A fun story with great illustrations. The thing I particularly liked about this book was the way the text and font was incorporated right into the illustrations and became part of the book and not just the bit you had to read.

What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner and Bonnie Matthews – a non-fiction, self-help activity book for children with black and white illustrations throughout.

Tuesday by David Wiesner – winner of the Caldecott Medal and one of my absolute favourite picture books! There’s only about four pages with any text, the rest is all in the images. So much is left to the reader to interpret. It’s great fun, slightly mad, and definitely unique.

Mister Got to Go: The Cat that Wouldn’t Leave by Lois Simmie and Cynthia Nugent – this is a true cat tale from Vancouver about a stray who wandered into the Sylvia Hotel and decided to stay. I love it because of the humour and great pictures, and friends of mine used to go to that hotel pub regularly.

Beware of the Storybook Wolves by Lauren Child – I like how she puts photos of patterns into her illustrations. This is a brilliant story that mucks around with a few familiar fairy tales but really has a lot of fun, so you just don’t know what’s going to happen next.

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean - for the life of me, I can’t find this one, but I know I had it in my collection. I had to include it here because it’s a book that is a hybrid of picture book and graphic novel for younger kids. Great stuff, a bit darker and scarier, not for the wee tots.

What are your favourite illustrated books for children and why?

To read about the SCBWI Ireland meet-up with Alan Corbett, click here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Next Big Thing - Blog Hop

How the Next Big Thing - Blog Hop works

An author answers ten questions and then tags other authors to do the same thing the following week on the same day, which in this case is a Wednesday.

Paula Leyden tagged me.

Paula Leyden

I met Paula a couple of years ago at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) event, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. I loved that she was from Zambia as I’ve had a secret crush on Africa for as long as I can remember, though I haven’t yet traveled to any countries on that continent. Paula’s first book, The Butterfly Heart, is a beautiful, lyrical, funny, touching, and exciting book that deals with the issue of child marriage in a very sensitive and accessible way. In 2012, Paula’s book was shortlisted for the Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) Book of the Year award and won the CBI Eilis Dillon award, a well-deserved honor.

I am eagerly awaiting her follow-up book, The Sleeping Baobab Tree, which is due out in May 2013.

You can find out more about Paula Leyden on her website.

My book

I’m really flattered that Paula included me in her list, since I am prepublished and very sloooowwwllly writing my stories.

Here are my answers to the questions. This is fun!

What is the working title of your next book?
A Dragon Named Thelma

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I really like dragons, and I also like oddball names, so I came up with the title “A Dragon Named Thelma” first. I had a pretty good visual of her in my head, bright yellow with orange wing tips, kinda girly. I was a long-time volunteer at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and I had performed at a couple of other festivals when I was younger, but got stage fright and kind of stopped singing in public. So, I had the idea of this little dragon who likes to sing, and she wants to sing in the folk music festival. Then I thought - what if she can’t really sing but this is her dream? How is she going to achieve her goal to perform at the festival?

What genre does your book fall under?
Urban fantasy since it’s set in the real city of Vancouver. I’ve taken some liberties with the layout of the city to include Dragontown and a dragon entrance at the public library.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Well, perhaps Andy Serkis would like to don the ping-pong ball outfit for the CGI for Thelma! Not sure who would play Sashi. I’m not familiar with the current crop of young Indo-Canadian actors.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Thelma is a bit like an X-Factor contestant - she is determined to perform at the Vancouver folk music festival but she can’t actually sing.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
No idea. Of course, it’s preferable to get the vetting and support of an agency or publisher, but it is also possible to do well with self-publishing if you’re prepared to do everything yourself.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I’ve only done 2,000 words, so I’m really just getting started. I was working on another story, but this one is going easier, so I thought I’d focus on it for now.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Someone in my critique group recently described my story as a cross between Little Miss Sunshine and How to Train Your Dragon!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My love of folk music, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, my own dreams of solo singing in public (that didn’t quite happen), and just the fun of writing about a singing dragon and her human best friend.

What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
It’s about pursuing your dream but being flexible enough to roll with the challenges and disappoints that might arise without giving up. It’s about the friendship between two disparate beings, who accept their differences and embrace their similarities.

Tag, you’re next!

I’ll just tag four authors, because I could wax poetic about everyone I like to read! However, if my tagees (!) wish to limit themselves to only one other author, that is allowed. If they don’t want to play, that’s okay too - it’s all about having fun!

Jane Mitchell

Jane Mitchell's most recently published book, Chalkline, is one of the most moving, harrowing, and beautiful books I have read in a long time. This is a book that deals with the kidnapping of a young boy and many of his friends from their village home. They are forced to train as terrorists or be killed. The book shows his world and how it changes him as he tries to survive. It also shows what his family and the rest of the village is coping with the loss of most of their boys and no idea if they’re dead or alive.

The reading is not as heavy as you might expect for such a difficult topic. You really get into the heads and hearts of the main characters and want a positive outcome for them all. Jane has won numerous awards for Chalkline and for some of her other books.

You can find out more about Jane Mitchell on her website.

Oisín McGann

If author/illustrator Oisín McGann is not already the Next Big Thing, then he should be. I’ve become a big fan of Oisín’s books over the past few years. I read a couple of his Mad Granddad series - they are great fun and have Oisín’s illustrations to accompany the text. Many of his books for younger kids are a little crazy and outlandish and funny, but things always work out in the end.

I also really like Oisín’s young adult books, like Small-Minded Giants. These are much darker and more serious, usually with a male protagonist who is struggling to survive in a violent world and protect the people around him.

Oisín is also a great presenter and regularly teaches online and face-to-face writing courses. I did a weekend writing workshop with him and a group of participants in Dingle a few years. He is very practical and down-to-earth with his advice but was also very encouraging and supportive of my fledgling work.

You can find out more about Oisín McGann on his website.

Helen Grant

Oh my god! How much can I rave about the amazing work of Helen Grant? I absolutely adore every one of her books so far. The first book I read was The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. I’ve since read The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead. They are all set near and in a small village in Germany where Helen actually lived for a number of years. Her attention to detail is awesome, and you really get a strong sense of place. It think the location is always an important element in her books.

Even though the protagonist in Vanishing is a young girl, I feel they are all young adult novels. The main characters are usually female, sometimes a local, sometimes a blow in. They are struggling with the usual teenage issues but there is always a mystery, always some kind of spooky terror. You don’t know if it’s supernatural or not. I love to try to unravel the plot, but I don’t always get it right, and that is very enjoyable too.

Helen’s first two books were nominated or shortlisted for awards. I believe that Helen’s next book that is set in a Flemish-speaking area of The Netherlands. Can’t wait!

You can find out more about Helen Grant on her website.

Candy Gourlay

I first heard about Candy Gourlay from Steve Hartley at a writing retreat in Swords, County Dublin, Ireland in November 2011. Steve raved about how Candy had helped him to get his website up and running. I didn’t find out until later that she was also a published author of a really amazing book, Tall Story.

Tall Story is about a very tall boy, a giant, who lives in the Philippines. His mother is remarried and living in England. They are both waiting to be reunited when he is allowed to immigrate and join her. The book really captures the two different worlds and the two sides of the family. There’s basketball, a natural disaster, a local legend, a medical emergency, and a half sister who is both anxious and thrilled at the prospect of meeting her brother. It’s a funny story but also heartfelt. You can feel the love Candy has for the Philippines, and her sense of humour is always present.

I got to meet Candy last fall at the SCBWI British Isles Winchester conference. You can really feel that Candy is just like her writing style. The warmth and humour and curiousity comes through in every way. She signed my copy of her book for my three nephews - who just happen to be from the Philippines and were reunited with their mother, and their new step-father and step-sister a couple of years ago!

I am really looking forward to Candy’s next book, Shine, which is going to be something different, and wonderful.

You can find out more about Candy Gourlay on her website.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fairy trees

Fairy tree

As you travel through Ireland, you will often see small, gnarled trees or bushes, hawthorn (also called whitethorn), standing alone in a field or by a road. These are fairy trees. Don’t mess with them!

People who believe the old Irish lore won’t cut down or harm these trees, and don’t take kindly to being mocked for it. “In Ireland, if the three fairy trees, Oak, Ash and Thorn, grow together, it is particularly auspicious, and this is venerated even more than the single tree.”

Apparently, if you touch or damage a fairy tree, you risk bad luck or the unwanted attention of the Sidhe (say "shee"). Like standing on a hill in moonlight, you could be sucked into the magical world of the Sidhe, never to be seen again. “This is very old Irish folk superstition, although there have been documented cases of strange and somewhat frightening things happening to those who violated a fairy tree.”

If you doubt the power of belief or the power of fairy trees, here’s a short article that might change your mind:

Hawthorn identification (Posted by James Kilkelly in the Irish forum)

“Whether you fall under the heading of hedge planter or fairy hunter, here is how to identify our native hawthorn, when out and about. A bushy tree, hawthorn grows on average, to a height and spread of 6 meters.

Unlike blackthorn, whose stems are dark, the stems of hawthorn are light grey turning to a pinkish brown color with age, which is also when character-filled cracks start to appear up along the trunk. Most of the young twigs sprouting from the tree emerge red before going through these color changes. The glossy green leaves are between 20 to 30 mm long and are divided into 3, 5, or 7 deeply cut lobes. The tree comes into leaf at the end of March.

Hawthorn is in flower from May to June with 5-petalled white flowers, which unfortunately have an unpleasant smell. You see, up close, the flowers have a faint scent of rotting meat; this allows pollination of the flowers by flies rather than the bees, which are not active in early spring, Hawthorn’s blooming time.

Hawthorn is all around us in the countryside, so if you live there or have spent some time there without being put off by hawthorn’s spring scent, then you won't find it unpleasant.

By September, the pollinated flowers become 1 cm wide, deep red fruits known as haws. These can contain up to five seeds at their centre.”


Flowers that smell faintly of rotting meat. Charming!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Nollaig na mBan

In Ireland, Nollaig Bheag takes place on January 6 and signals the end of Christmas and a break from the hard labor of the season for Irish women. I didn’t know this, but, in the old Julian calendar, Christmas day used to be celebrated on the 6th of January, until they switched to the Gregorian calendar.

“Little Christmas is also called Women's Christmas (Nollaig na mBan), and sometimes Women's Little Christmas. The tradition, still very strong in Cork and Kerry, is so called because of the Irish men taking on all the household duties for the day. Most women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Bars and restaurants serve mostly women and girls on this night. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers.”

Little Christmas is the one day of the year where the Irish mammies get to put their feet up and the men folk do all the chores and cooking? Hah! I'd like to see that!! Irish mammies rule, that's for sure.

For the less cynical, here is a lovely blog post of one Irishwoman’s memories of this tradition:

My female friends and I do celebrate this day, either at someone's house or at a restaurant or bar. As a modern tradition, it's great fun to have a girls' night to dress up, eat, laugh, and socialize. No boys aloud, though we sometimes break that rule. Of course, you can do this any day of the year these days, but Women's Little Christmas is still something special.

Nollaig Shona (Happy Christmas - again)!