Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Week Scotland packs a punch!

I'm absolutely thrilled to say (for the benefit of those who haven't already heard my outpourings on Twitter) that I am one of the four Author Ambassadors for Book Week Scotland 2014! The other three are Paul Cuddihy, Shari Low and Ross King. We will be doing our very best to spread the word about Book Week Scotland and how brilliant books and reading are!

The 2014 programme was officially launched this week at a boxing gym in Edinburgh - a strange place for a literary event, you might think, but all became clear when some of Scotland's best-known book characters slugged it out for the title of "Favourite"! The question won't be settled, however, until the readers have voted too!

You can read all about the programme on the Scottish Book Trust's website here:

and you can vote for your favourite character here:

One of the fabulous activities taking place this year is the distribution of free books to every P1 schoolchild in Scotland. I'm very proud to be an advocate for this brilliant initiative, which will bring these books into thousands of homes.

You can hear me talking about my favourite library on the SBT's Audioboom page here:

If you're on Twitter, you can follow Book Week Scotland @BookWeekScot or me @helengrantsays for updates on activities and events.

Do think about making your own reading pledge for Book Week Scotland, which is 24-30 November 2014. Even if you don't actually live in Scotland, there's no reason you can't make one!
You could read one to your kids - the Scottish Book Trust website has some great lists of books including this one for 3-7 year olds:
Or, why not make this the week you finally get around to reading a book by Robert Louis Stevenson, Iain Banks or Christopher Brookmyre? As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, what could be nicer than to settle down with a wee dram (or an Irn Bru!) and plunge into a book? Go on, you know you want to...

(Photo of Hit Girl and Hermione Granger by Rob McDougall)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Finding the Demons of Ghent

This weekend, I dragged my passport out of its seclusion in a lonely corner, blew off the dust and cobwebs and set off for Brussels for the Belgian launch of my latest book, Demons of Ghent. 

Demons of Ghent was published in June and I had a UK launch event at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh, but I really wanted to do something in Belgium too, because the book is set there. July and August were not the best time to do this because many of the expat population are away on holiday, so I decided to go in September instead. I managed to set up some bookstore events and a radio interview but I'm very pleased to say that I also had time to visit Ghent to see some of my very favourite book locations, and to do a bit of exploring in some new places too.

The interview (on Friday) was with Brussels-based Radio X, and I'll post details of how to listen to that once it has been aired. After that, I headed off to Ghent for the afternoon. I'd been debating with myself whether I should go and see my old favourite places in Ghent, or see something completely new; in the end it was no contest and the old favourites won out. I can never resist paying a visit to this place:

Sint-Baafs Cathedral! That's a photo from a previous trip, by the way. The church is currently covered in scaffolding whilst renovation is carried out, so you can't see much of the glorious gothic architecture. The photo was taken from the Belfort tower on the other side of the square. If you have already read Demons of Ghent you will know that both buildings feature in the opening scene. 

The cathedral is home to the glorious fifteenth century artwork that is the Ghent Altarpiece, sometimes known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The altarpiece also features in my novel, so I  went to have another look at it. I can't post any photographs I'm afraid. Although photography is forbidden in Sint-Baafs, it is possible to take discreet photos of the interior if you are not abashed by the numerous signs telling you not to, however, it would be much more difficult to get any of the altarpiece, and considering its rarity and beauty I think it makes sense not to drench it in the light of a thousand flash bulbs. You can see it online here:

I did however get a photograph of this painted panel, which was at one time considered a seemly subsitute for the original one of an entirely naked Eve! This hangs in the nave of the church and not in the small secure room which houses the altarpiece itself. 

Again, if you have read Demons of Ghent, this painting will ring a few bells! 

After visiting the cathedral, I went up the Belfort tower, which I found (having a complete terror of heights) quite as horrifically vertiginous as last time. It was fabulous when I was researching the rooftops of Ghent, because it was a superb view over them, but this time I really couldn't face doing the entire circuit of the outer arcade! It makes me feel weak at the knees. I identify very strongly with my heroine, Veerle, but I certainly don't have her amazing head for heights. 

Anyway, I did get a photograph of myself (and the book!) next to the great bell Roland, that is mentioned in chapter 1 of Demons of Ghent. 

A big thank you to the British tourist who kindly took this photograph for me - I don't think I could have taken a selfie here as I would have needed arms six feet long to get the bell into the picture!

Next, I walked to the Gravensteen castle, which also features in the book. The Gravensteen is also covered fairly liberally with scaffolding right now, so I didn't take many new photos of the exterior. I did however get one of me standing inside the fireplace that features prominently in chapter 27:

Again, I had to impose on the kindness of another tourist to get the photo. Ironically, since I can make myself understood in French, German and Dutch, I managed to pick someone who spoke Spanish!! Sadly she managed to cut my feet off in this photo but I didn't have the heart (or the linguistic skills) to ask her to take another one. You'll have to imagine my feet. 

Whilst I was in Ghent I also tried some cuberdons, the locally-made conical sweets; in fact, I saved them and ate them at the top of the Gravensteen. I reckon you can't do much that's more typically "Ghent" than that!

I also had some double-fried frietjes (a.k.a. chips) with a dollop of mayonnaise. Very tasty! The only thing I didn't manage to do this time was to drink a glass of bessenjenever in one of the bars overlooking the canal - I've promised myself that for another day.

On Saturday I went out with Flemish friends to see Beersel castle. I'd never visited it before so it isn't featured in any of my books, but I'm sure Veerle would have enjoyed poking about in it. I certainly did. The castle is ruinous in places and it is not furnished but personally I actually prefer that to visiting somewhere that has been assiduously restored. I like to furnish and people the place with my own imagination! You can certainly do that at Beersel. There are all sorts of spiral staircases, vertiginous walkways and dark little rooms to explore. 

(Staircase photo by Marc Vastesaeger)

On Saturday evening I had the first of my launch events, at Waterstone's on Adolphe Maxlaan in Brussels. I talked about the reasons why I found Ghent so inspirational, and read from the book. I also answered a lot of questions - it was a very busy event! It was brilliant to have such a good audience and I was especially touched to see two friends who had travelled all the way from Ghent for the evening to be there. They showed me around the city when I was researching the book, and the one small example of Ghent dialect (in chapter 36) was given to me by them. 

On Sunday I had a second event at Treasure Trove Books in Tervuren. When we lived in Belgium, we were thrilled to have an English-language bookshop practically on our doorstep, and Treasure Trove have hosted several other books event for me, so it was great to launch the book in the shop. 

The Treasure Trove team had created a really fantastic display to tempt readers (above). Judging by some of the questions I got at this event, it's interesting for readers who live locally to pick out the real life locations in the books in this trilogy. Demons of Ghent is, naturally, mostly set in Ghent, but there are references to other places such as Overijse, where Kris lives, and Veerle's unnamed village near Tervuren. I have never named the village in the books because I thought that the residents of a small Flemish village might not appreciate having it reinvented as the scene of a horrible killing! But anyone who knows the area can make some fairly accurate conjectures about the various locations. 

After the event I spent a bit of time in Tervuren enjoying the atmosphere of the festival that took place this weekend, but all too soon it was time to pack and get back to the airport. I'm pleased to say that I shall be back in Belgium next month for the British School of Brussels' Book Week, so I'll have another chance to stock up on cuberdons and perhaps a bottle of bessenjenever! 

Meanwhile, I'd like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who made this such a great weekend! Big thanks to Genevieve and the team at Waterstone's Brussels, and to Jane, Jennifer and the team at Treasure Trove in Tervuren. Thanks to Noreen Donovan of Radio X for interviewing me. Thanks to Marc Vastesaeger for showing me the beautiful castle at Beersel! And the biggest thanks of all go to my stalwart friend Gaby who not only offered me her guest room for the duration of the trip but also drove me around all over the place. She even drove me through the honking and swerving chaos that is driving in Brussels and managed to find a parking space not 100 metres from Waterstones, which is an almost unbelievable feat! 

Finally, thanks to everyone who came to the events! 

Above: Gravensteen selfie! 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tea, love & murder in Crieff!

Last weekend (23-24 August) saw the second ever Crieff Arts Festival, which is why I have been doing very little blogging recently - I've been too busy!

Fellow author Susy McPhee and I teamed up once again to offer a writing masterclass under the alluring title of Tea, Love & Murder! Seemingly these three things are enough to pull the punters in - or perhaps it was just the tea they were after? At any rate, we had a good sized audience and lots of great questions to answer. We talked about plot development, setting and characters.

Master (or should that be Mistress?) of Ceremonies Helen Lewis-McPhee kept things moving at a brisk pace and also asked a very interesting question: did Susy and I think that we could have written each other's books? As a matter of fact, Susy's latest book Back to you features a woman whose partner has vanished whilst mountaineering, and I have in the past toyed with a very similar idea, although I've never got down to writing it. Susy's book is an absorbing mystery in which human relationships are very much to the fore; my story would have been peppered with nasty deaths, creepy remote locations and grisly local folklore. So I think it is fair to say that I couldn't have written Susy's book! It was an interesting question though - and do check out Back to you. It's my personal favourite of Susy's books.

As well as our literary event, this year's Crieff Arts Festival included live music, poetry, art workshops, street theatre and exhibitions in both the newly established Strathearn Artspace and many local shops. The festival is pretty much run on a shoestring and its success is down to the energy and enthusiasm of organisers June McEwan and Nigel Gatherer, and their team of volunteers, plus the participation of local businesses.

The festival will be back next year. In the meantime, if you'd like to help support this brilliant local initiative (and you don't need to live in Crieff to do this!) please do follow us on Twitter at @CrieffArtsFest, and be sure to retweet our news and photos! Thank you.

* Photograph by Catrina Petrie of Vivace Lichtman, who kindly donated the use of the venue. *

Casting the Runes: see it!

I've been very busy recently with the Crieff Arts Festival, so I am horrified to say that I very nearly missed an experience that no M.R.James fan should forgo: a new adaptation of Casting the Runes!

This production by Box Tale Soup was at the Edinburgh Fringe and nearing the end of its run (eek!) when a Facebook post about it by fellow author Roy Gill caught my eye. I dropped everything and went!

I'm not going to post a full review of the show here because I am going to write one for the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, which is the go-to place for all things Jamesian. However, speaking as a lifelong fan of M.R.James, I think it is a really excellent production, and if you have a chance to see it, I urge you to go! It is genuinely creepy and I did actually jump in places!

I see from Box Tale Soup's calendar, which you can see by clicking on the linked version of their name above, that they have performances scheduled for October in Cheltenham. I hope very much that there will be others in due course.

In the meantime, the brilliant M.R.James-inspired Podcast to the Curious has a new podcast out, featuring a Jamesian double bill. The second part features an interview with Antonia and Noel from Box Tale Soup, so that is well worth listening to for all the background info about Casting the Runes. 
The first part of the show is all about MRJ's unfinished story The Game of Bear - it analyses the story fragment and examines the various endings created by myself and fellow authors Clive Ward and Jacqueline Simpson. All in all, a Jamesian treat!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tea, love and murder

If you're in Scotland, and especially if you're anywhere near Crieff, here are some dates for your diary: 23rd and 24th August 2014 see the second ever Crieff Arts Festival, a combination of live music and literary events and exhibitions of work by local artists. If you live within striking distance of Crieff and have ever fancied coming over to explore the town, have lunch or high tea and enjoy the beautiful Perthshire countryside, here's an excuse for coming. You can have tea, nature and culture. 

For details of the programme, venues, etc see the Arts Festival website, which is being updated as more events are confirmed. 

Once again, I'm going to be teaming up with another Crieff-based author, novelist Susy McPhee, whose latest book is Back to you (see below), which could either be described as a mystery with a love story at its heart, or a love story with a mystery at its heart! Either way, it's a touching and enthralling read which kept me guessing right up to the end. 

My latest book is, of course, my Flanders-based thriller Demons of Ghent, which also has its fair share of mystery and love interest, but a much higher body count...

Last year Susy and I did an evening event with wine at the Drill Hall in Crieff - the venue was kindly supplied by Vivace Lichtman lighting, who have supported the Arts Festival brilliantly by hosting several events. This year we plan to hold an afternoon event on Sunday 24th, with tea and cakes. The event will be at the Drill Hall again, with a start time of 3pm. 

I'll post more information about our event when all the details are confirmed, but it's safe to say that those who attend can expect an afternoon of tea, cake, love and murder!