Thursday, 16 June 2016

Happy Birthday Choc Lit!

Yesterday, 15 June 2016, was the seventh birthday of my lovely publisher, Choc Lit  -   The celebrations online included several short stories by some of the Choc Lit authors, all with a birthday theme and a touch of romance – and even one with a very famous ghost.  (Mine). Check it out: 

There were competitions and prizes galore. And there's still time to get along to the blog and enter a competition or two . . . there are chocolatey prizes!

So keeping with the seventh birthday theme, I decided to write about seven of my favourite books.

The first book is easy . . . no prizes for guessing which book is first. Anyone who knows me will know instantly. It is, of course, Bram Stoker's Dracula. When I first read this book, I was captivated by the immortal vampire, whilst being pretty scared by him at the same time. I was only fourteen then, but I've read the book many times since, and like any well-written work, I find something different every time. Reading the book often over the years, I'm constantly amazed at the characterisation within the novel. Bearing in mind it was published in 1897 and written a fair few years before that,  a strong female character is pretty unusual. And yet, this is what we have in Wilhemina Murray – who marries the hero Jonathan, to become Mina Harker. She's intelligent and resourceful – hardly a run-of-the-mill Victorian heroine. 

The story is told from several different points of view and laid out in a series of journal extracts, letters and postcards. Another astonishing fact is that Stoker never travelled to Romania, and of course there was no internet or Google in those days, so all his research was done at the British Museum and various libraries. Several friends I know who have made the pilgrimage to the Carpathians, the Borga Pass and Castle Bran, have all told me that Stoker's descriptions are eerily accurate, which just shows how painstaking and thorough his research must have been.

The slow build of tension within the novel is second to none, as is the feeling of unease which permeates every page. This book is a work of art, and probably the reason nobody has – yet– produced an accurate film version. The closest in my opinion has to be the BBC's 1979 version, starring Louis Jourdan and Frank Finlay, it's by far the closest to the book I've ever seen. Someone asked me the other day who my definitive Dracula would be. That's a difficult question. My first cinematic Count was Christopher Lee whom I loved in the role (even if in latter years he refused to be associated with it). But I think if anyone is intending to make a film very close to the original book, the actor in the lead role should be an unknown. Just as long as he's tall, charismatic – and very scary.

The second choice is one of my favourite children's books. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. The above cover is the old Puffin design, and the first copy I read. I know the premise is pretty similar to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings – wizards, goblins, dwarves and a race against evil – but Garner's deft storytelling is exquisite, and the story so exciting that I always find it impossible to put the book down once I've started reading. I love Selina Place and the Morthbrood, Cadellin the wizard and Angharad Goldenhand. Although instead of  Orcs we have Svarts, and instead of hobbits we have two children, Colin and Susan. 

Interestingly, this book is set around Alderley Edge in Cheshire, and based on local legend. We visited the area a few years ago on the way back from a friend's wedding, and I was thrilled to find an old inn called The Wizard, a 'Wizard's Walk' and even the well with a wizard carved in the rock which is mentioned in the book. We were told Alan Garner's grandfather did the carving! (See below).
If you look carefully you'll see the wizard :)

The third book in my choice is actually seven books, but I'll go with the first one to save time! It is, of course the Harry Potter books by the fabulous J K Rowling.

When a friend showed me The Guardian review of this book, I immediately rushed out and bought it. I knew my son (aged nine at the time) would adore it, but I didn't realise I would too! If only I'd been a bit quicker and had managed to buy a first edition. Because of the short print run (Bloomsbury didn't think it would sell many copies, and she was an unknown author)  a first edition now fetches around £8,000! 

I was working at Penguin when they turned down J K Rowling – which was a bit like EMI turning down The Beatles. They weren't alone, however, most of the big houses turned her down. Presenting a publisher with a seven book series was very brave, but luckily her tenacity paid off.  

I think J K has been almost single handedly responsible for getting children back into reading – and a lot of adults too. I've lost count of the number of times I've spotted commuting adults reading a Harry Potter book on the tube over the years. 

But I do get heartily sick of  people banging on about The Worst Witch and how Jill Murphy got there first. You can't copyright a school in a  story and you can't copyright a witch or a wizard. Jo created a whole wizarding world, she invented Muggles, Dementors, Quidditch and the evasive golden snitch. I've read all seven books over and over and I never tire of them. That's the sign of a good book. Plus my son was one of the extras in the first film – he played a little wizard. How cool is that?

Everyone loves Heathcliff - don't they? Poor wretch of a boy, badly treated and kept dangling on a string by the manipulative Cathy. How I hated her! Selfish vain woman. No wonder Heathcliff turned out badly! I always thought Oliver Reed (in his younger days) would have made a fabulous Heathcliff, but now I'm thinking . . . Aidan Turner . . .

But I digress – I love this book. The wind-swept moors, the eerie branches scratching at the window pane . . .  just wonderful. But that Cathy . . .

I read Le Fanu's Carmilla several years after I read Dracula for the first time, but it was actually published in 1872 thus beating Stoker by 25 years. Another uneasy Gothic read. A novella which seeps into your conscience and stays around long after you've finished it. Hammer of course, tapped into the lesbian angle with their film, The Vampire Lovers (1970) starring Ingrid Pitt.

This book, the first in the Anita Blake series, was first published a little before Joss Whedon's film of Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out. It's anyone's guess who came first with the idea of a petite attractive young woman as a vampire slayer. Yet Anita isn't a schoolgirl, she's an animator and a necromancer. Killing vampires is an additional job. She's a busy girl. She raises zombies for a living.
In her spare time she helps the police solve preternatural crime whilst keeping the attentions of the Vampire Master of the City well away from her if she can. He is the gorgeous Jean Claude, all seductive midnight blue eyes and a body made for sex. Anita keeps him at bay for several books, but succumbs in The Killing Dance after seeing her werewolf boyfriend eat an enemy.

I loved most of this series until it slithered into explicit porn, the work with the police stopped - probably because Anita was too busy having sex to help them solve anything, and the series (for me) lost its charm. A friend once said Anita's bedtime antics sounded like a preternatural Partridge in a Pear Tree, as in ' three vampires, two wereleopards, two werewolves, and a werelion . . .' all in bed together! Must have been a big bed is all I can say.

A Christmas Carol. Evocative, beautiful,  and scary - with a moral. What's not to love about this classic Christmas tale. Every Christmas I watch as many versions of the film I can find . . . although I have a sneaking regard for the Muppets' version! I love Alastair Sim's Scrooge in the 1951 film. His joyful dance at finding he hasn't missed Christmas and is still alive, makes me laugh every time. 'I feel quite giddy!' And the housekeeper's terrified screech as she throws her apron over her face is a hoot too.

So there you have it, and to quote Buffy, 'If I'd known I was going to talk so long I probably would have brought some water!'

Happy Birthday Choc Lit! You rock!

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