Sunday, 29 November 2015

A second festive chat with Susan Buchanan

I am delighted to welcome back Susan Buchanan to my blog. How time has flown since my interview last year when she told me to ‘watch this space’ about a sequel to The Christmas Spirit!

I asked her, over a cosy cuppa, all about her and how she likes to spend her Christmas, so today she’s taken time from her hectic schedule to chat about Return of the Christmas Spirit, an uplifting and heart-warming sequel to her multi-reviewed 5-star novel. It’s a new place and with new people, all except for one important person to help make Christmas special…

Thanks again for joining me, and I’m soooo excited Return of the Christmas Spirit is finally out! For those who haven’t read The Christmas Spirit (although I heartily recommend you do!), tell me, briefly, what it’s about.

Thanks, Emma, pleasure to be here again. You’re too kind.

Well, the blurb probably explains it best, so here you go! But as an addendum, let me just say it’s about peace and goodwill and community spirit.

Christmas is coming, but not everyone is looking forward to it. 

Rebecca has just been dumped and the prospect of spending the holiday period with her parents is less than appealing. 

Eighty- two year old Stanley lost his beloved wife, Edie, to cancer. How will he cope with his first Christmas without her? 

Jacob’s university degree hasn’t helped him get a job, and it looks like he’ll still be signing on come New Year. 

Workaholic Meredith would rather spend December 25th at home alone with a ready meal and a DVD box set. Can anything make her embrace the spirit of the season? 

The enigmatic Natalie Hope takes over the reins at the Sugar and Spice bakery and café in an attempt to spread some festive cheer and restore Christmas spirit, but will she succeed?

To buy The Christmas Spirit visit Amazon

When you first wrote The Christmas Spirit, were you imagining a sequel?

Actually, no, but everyone seemed to love the characters and Natalie, in particular, was a big hit. I’m hoping her reinvention will be equally warmly received.

I love Star and the idea that we have a guardian angel watching over us. Where did the idea come from?

Initially, I’m not sure I had intended for there to be any magical elements to the book (funny when you think how it turned out!). I’m quite an organic writer, so I have ideas for characters and bits of plot floating around in my head, then I write them all down, and now (having learned the hard way!) I try to map out roughly what each chapter is going to be about, but if that changes along the way, so be it. I just liked the idea that some people who were having a really terrible time, with no possibility of having a good Christmas as a result, would have a helping hand from somewhere, which could turn everything around.

Is Star a guardian angel?

I love that Return of The Christmas Spirit is a sequel but involving all new characters (except one, of course!) and a new place. Tell me a bit about how you develop your characters.

Well, I think to start with they just come to me. I wanted to represent several age groups and both sexes, so whereas in The Christmas Spirit we had Stanley who was in his eighties, in the new novel we have Arianna, who is only sixteen.  Rebecca, Jacob and Sophie were all in their twenties/thirties in The Christmas Spirit, so this time I wanted to have those in their fifties represented. Although we still have thirty-something Daniel! Then I think about their families, their jobs, their personalities. I do know more about them than I ever put on the page. I tend to make quite a lot of notes and jot down when I think of something new to do with the character, to avoid continuity errors. I keep separate Word docs for each character.

Apart from Star, my favourite character is Evan, I rooted for him all the way through as you feel so sorry for the way his life is heading. Who is your favourite and why?

I don’t know that I have a favourite. I like them all in different ways, sincerely. However, if I had to pick one, I’d choose a minor character, and that’s Leo. He’s funny, sexy, sophisticated and a lovely guy.

You tackle the issue of depression and how it can affect not just that person but 
those around them. Did it take a lot of research to deal with it in a sensitive way?

Obviously I hope I’ve dealt with it in a sensitive way. I’ve tried my best. I didn’t want to linger on it too much. It is a Christmas book, after all, so I tried to be subtle. Yes, I researched it as best I could. I always do with any aspect of my writing, but particularly those I know next to nothing about. The two things that struck me the most about depression are that it often goes undiagnosed and that the symptoms are so diverse.

Love is definitely in the air, but so is compassion, hope and new beginnings, so I see it less of a romance novel and more about the human (as well as Christmas!) spirit as a whole. Would you agree?

Absolutely. Like its predecessor, The Christmas Spirit, this novel is about the goodness in each of us and the world in general. Compassion is exactly the right word. Of course there are two romances in the novel, too, but it’s not a romance novel. It’s a feel-good tale about community spirit and  familial, platonic and romantic love.

I have to admit I Googled Butterburn, where Return of The Christmas Spirit is set, but couldn’t find it so assume it’s fiction! Is it based on anywhere you know? I would love to think that the library at least is real!

Ha, ha. Butterburn is fictional. I actually took the name from Buttermere in the Lake District, which is a tiny hamlet, gorgeous, next to hee-haw there, but lovely place to go walking. I then 'scotified' (my own invention) the name to ‘burn’. Fortunately that works too for the north of England where it’s set! I did, however, also have initially in my head the village of Hawkshead in Cumbria, which I am sure I had read about not long before coming up with the name, as being in the top 10 quaint places in the UK. I’d seen the pics and loved it. It was the inspiration for the name Hawksmeade in the book, although Hawskmeade is a town (in my book a fictional one!)

How I obviously visualise Butterburn....

You talk quite a bit about Christmas traditions from around the world, which I found fascinating. Do you have an interest in other cultures and Christmas?

I just love other cultures and countries generally. You may remember until two years ago I was a big travel nut and at last count had visited 57 countries, many of them several times. I love Christmas, so often when I travelled I brought back something Christmassy from the country I’d visited. Many of these are baubles which adorn my tree every year. I have so many now, I am going to have to cull them this year!

I have Italian friends, and they celebrate La Befana on 6th January. Even from very young it has interested me that some people celebrate occasions at different times from us here in the UK. The saint’s day in Spain was something else I used to love – you got an extra present on your saint’s name day. And my other half has Dutch ancestry, so he was brought up knowing about Sinterklaas. In fact, we’re locking horns over Antonia and Luke getting to open their presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, as our family traditions are different! I am, however, putting my foot down!

Sinterklaas, why perm your beard? And what've you done with Rudolf?!

Will there be a third instalment? I can just see Star (or whatever her new name would be) going from place to place secretly spreading more Christmas cheer!

Hmm, I’m not sure. If so, it won’t be anytime soon. I have a few other Christmas books in my head, and I don’t even think there will be one in 2016, as I am working on other non-Christmas projects. I like to leave things pretty open. There might be another tale in the future, but perhaps with the next generation – I think you will know what I mean, having read the book! Leaving that cryptic puzzle there for you anyway!

I Can’t resist a little question about Christmas for you this year. Now you’ve got your new addition, will it be hectic with two little ones or are you hoping for a spot of pampering?

Pampering? Pampering? (sorry, I just spent the last ten minutes rolling about the floor laughing!) No, it will be all hands on deck. Luke is crawling, almost walking, and I fully expect him to be walking by Christmas Day. He already coasts along the sofa very quickly. I am very much looking forward to Christmas, though. Presents are in hand, Santa has been asked to stop at the house. I am shattered trying to prepare for the onslaught of presents. Every time I declutter something to make space, something else appears!  I cannot wait for Christmas morning. Antonia will go berserk. She is a very enthusiastic wee girl. She will be jumping up and down with excitement when she sees all the presents – I can envisage it now. I may have to clear all the furniture out of my living room to make space! And Luke will happily eat the wrapping paper and pull everything out and steamroller over everything in his path. Bliss.

 I might get a bacon roll or a smoked salmon one with cream cheese (Tony, if you read this, take note!) but no pampering. Christmas is for the kids.

I am, however, having a few nights out before Christmas, so I suppose that counts as pampering.

Christmas morning in the Buchanan household??

What’s next for Susan Buchanan – are you continuing your proofreading business and do you have plans for more writing in 2016?

Oh yes. In fact, Perfect Prose Services is booked up for about 8 months! I love this aspect of my life. I read books I otherwise wouldn’t necessarily read, I learn things from other authors, including vocabulary, given the range of genres I’m covering. I love working on US manuscripts too, as I enjoy the differences between US and British English, and even just the different turns of phrase. That will be the linguist in me. And I really think that working on others’ manuscripts helps me as a writer, too.

I have plans to write a book in 2016 which will be pitched at traditional publishers, just to see what happens, and either before or after that, I will work on What If again. It will be odd working on it, having left it for over two years. I’ve never done that with a book before or since.

Plus when I was on maternity leave, I had at least forty ideas for novels, all of which I saved in a file, so all I have to do is figure out which book to write next. Rest assured there are plenty more books to come!

You sound like you've got a busy time ahead! Thanks so much, a pleasure as always. Have some yule log for the road!

You know me, I never refuse grub! Thanks m’dear. Had fun, as usual. Have a fab Crimbo, Sooz x

To download Return of the Christmas Spirit go to Amazon:

Follow Sooz on Twitter @susan_buchanan

Sunday, 13 September 2015

In celebration of Roald Dahl Day

Being hidden from the world today trying to fix a dodgy computer (well, the hubby was, if we're to be picky!) and making Sunday lunch for my brood, I have to admit I hadn't realised it was Roald Dahl Day. Thanks to good old (well it's been around for a few years now so in my kids' world it's ancient) Twitter, I discovered it was trending with many people reminiscing about their favourite books and the gloriumptous number of words Dahl created for his 'gobblefunk' language. Why not make words up? All words were invented at some point, and why should Shakespeare have the monopoly? I'd like to think Dahl would be whoopsy-splunkers that people were online creating babblement about his words and works. Apparently to be confused if to be 'muggled'. I'm sure I've heard a very similar word more recently...

 Snozzcumbers, apparently!!

Of course, like so many of my generation, we were brought up on Dahl and waited impatiently for the next book, although I had a few on tape as well. Yes, tape, not CD, and I was always worried it would wear out after many, many times through my tape player....

Similar to my old Walkman on which I played Dahl's tapes over many happy hours (why didn't I keep it and flog it today on ebay for a small fortune??).

Boggis and Bunce and Bean,
One fat, one short, one lean,
These horrible crooks
So different in looks
Were equally horrid and mean

I ADORED my tape of Fantastic Mr Fox. I didn't need pictures for that, only my imagination, as I lay in bed at night listening and imagining the scenes. The richness of Dahl's worlds were captivating and inspiring for my own writing at the time, especially Revolting Rhymes (who knew Red Riding Hood kept a pistol in her knickers?) and Dirty Beasts (The Tummy Beast is genuinely scary!).

"I'm getting hungry, I want eats! I want lots of chocs and sweets!"

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator was also a firm favourite on tape, although the Vermicious Knids were quite eerie and Dr Who-like, and ahhh the Giraffe and the Pelly and Me and the Ladderless Window Cleaning Company is such a beautiful tale with a true happy ending.

I could write for hours about each of the Dahl books I read growing up in the 1980s (The Witches, The BFG, The Twits, Matilda, George's Marvellous Medicine...) and what memories they created, but I'm sure I would be one small voice among many praising the 99th birthday of a man who brought words (both real and invented) to life for millions of children, and continues to do so today. They are timeless, and although more recent authors have tried to emulate him, I feel he can never quite be replaced. But, if he has inspired writers and readers alike, then surely that is the greatest compliment he can be paid, and his lasting legacy.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

My All-American Heroes

For the last few months I've been carefully watching three of American politics' finest representatives preventing wars by cajoling, swearing at and terrifying world leaders while catching traitors through the power of true American patriotism, a handy set of circumstances and skilful writers. Not to mention the in-fighting, family crises, sex in the war room, Principal Figgins morphing into General Zaman, Téa Leoni's numerous awful blouses and embarrassing Press Secretary Mike's dyed moustache...

Hanging on in there: Veep Press Secretary Mike McLintock

Throw in Donald Trump, like the political bomb he is, under all of  the above in one real-life fly-on-the-wall documentary, and you probably have a realistic idea of what current American politics is all about. I am, of course, talking about satires VEEP and THE BRINK, and the serious West Wing wannabe MADAM SECRETARY.

The Brink's Secretary of State Walter Larson: Because he's definitely worth it

After a while all three begin to blur as you spend your time remembering which minor character is in which show ("I'm sure I've seen him in both The Brink and Madam Secretary, or was he in Veep and The Brink or Madam Secretary and Veep??"), but with The Brink and Veep having such strong writers it doesn't really matter. Exaggerations they may be, but throw in a heavy dose of Mad Sec (not sure about this abbreviation but hey!) and it's likely you've nailed the American political scene. Those taking a sadistic interest in Australian politics may agree there should be an Australian version - if you think the US is cut-throat then I'd kill (a traitor) to see Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard lampooned in fictional Veep-style mockumentary The Party Room...

The sharpest - and shiniest - specs on TV: Elizabeth McCord IS Madam Secretary

Both Mad Sec and The Brink have sometimes pugnacious, other times inept and plain stupid Presidents, but while in The Brink this is meant to be heavily tongue-in-cheek to give our hero Walter Larson more leverage in the climatic final episode, I can't help but wonder in Mad Sec if it is purposeful or not. 

Mad Sec's President Dalton: Possibly the worst US President in TV - and actual - history.

Still, I have a huge affection for it because of Téa Leoni, who does a great job in the title role against a slightly lame supporting cast and an often dodgy script. She is Madam Secretary, both in character and the whole show, and although her methods aren't the unconventional approach to negotiation as Larson's, they seek similar outcomes, and surely it's the resolution that matters most? Larson's appetite for women (any women, it seems, but in the end his wife in full view of the Israeli PM, ahh...), Selina Meyer's insecurities and Elizabeth McCord's trauma after a terrorist attack give them a realistic edge. All three series show that as America builds to 2016's presidential race politics can be just as enticing in fiction as zombies, alien invasions and epidemics.

Selina Meyer: Larson's soul-mate and the best presidential one-liners on TV

But Tim Robbin's Secretary of State against Téa Leoni's in a war of words, or an actual war? And what if Meyer was running the world (into the ground) in the middle of it all? If I had the time I might go back to my fan fiction days and write a mash-up, but for now I'm hoping in their respective season twos they, like Meyer, end up with the top jobs. If Veep didn't need to change its name, why should Mad Sec? And a President Larson who would make JFK look almost monk-like? Oh, yes, yes, YES, Mr President! 

Monday, 29 June 2015

A fly infiltrates Parliament and other triviality...

On my way home a few days ago, walking the ten minutes from work to Waterloo station as I dodged the dozens of selfie sticks, I pondered one thing: how on earth had there been a fly in my office? The windows in Portcullis House don’t open (the words ‘bulletproof’ and ‘safety’ are probably something to do with it), the doors slam shut each time you go through them with such finality the walls literally shake, and there are no gaps in the panelling. But somehow one tiny bluebottle made it through.

I should've swatted the little bugger Obama-style...

It defied the odds to either fly through the revolving doors (assuming it came through with a human and didn’t push them itself), bypass the airport-style security, fly through another set of revolving doors, up four flights of stairs (or up in the lift if it was feeling lazy) then brazenly enter the office when quite obviously either me, my boss or the postman weren’t looking. It could have come up the escalator leading from the Colonnade, which leads into Portcullis House from the outside, but either way it showed security can be breached by even the simplest of creatures, so perhaps the men with the big guns (I can’t say I’ve seen any women here with them) ought to keep a better look out.

Then it was gone. How was the fly GONE? I refer to my earlier observations about the room, but this time nobody had come or gone in between noticing its existence and its sudden exit. It was a puzzle worthy of Holmes and Watson, or, more famously, Castle and Beckett. Maybe it had flown through the ridiculously placed air vents in the carpet, but it was unlikely. I never saw it again. Perhaps it got what it came for and disintegrated in a tiny explosion so small it was beyond human hearing because it was a drone fake fly – a robot – fixed with a tiny camera, filming the inner workings of Parliament while its evil master watched on a large screen in a bunker while cackling to themselves that the Mother of Parliaments would soon be obliterated (I’m thinking more Baron Greenback or Doctor Claw to fit in with the mood of the article rather than anything more serious and relevant to in today's security-conscious world).

Inspector Gadget literally couldn't hurt a fly...

But, of course, I am simply writing irrelevance, as the fly is a whimsical distraction from the other, rather more major problem Parliament faces: the place is falling down, riddled with asbestos and generally sinking into the Thames. The Elizabeth Clock Tower is leaning at an ‘inclination of 0.04 degrees’ (although I should add this isn’t a cause for concern, so it shouldn’t fall on top of you while you take your #BigBenSelfie), the fabric of the building is literally crumbling and should there be a fire then those poor souls (of which I was one once) down in the bunker - I mean basement - or up in the Gods, have zero chance. 

The Leaning Tower of (diamond) Geezer

So the options are: move everyone out for six years and cost £3.9 billion, a partial move-out (i.e. Commons then Lords) at a cost of £4.4 billion over 11 years, or everyone stay put and take 32 – yes THIRTY TWO – years, costing £5.7 billion. I don’t know whether the £5.7 billion is because it’s just much slower or they’re taking account of things being far more expensive (relatively) in 32 years than they are now, but I have a feeling which way this whole decision may go. Some have argued that Parliament should just have a modern new building and have the current site as a massive museum, but I suspect that would be doubly expensive.  Besides, I’d miss getting lost every time I tried to get anywhere, the grandiose sense of history when you’re buying your morning croissant and the myriad of oddities such as the curiously named Chess Room. I am sure that is no cold, financial argument for keeping Parliament for what it was intended but it’s my reasoning and I’m sticking to it.

But I digress from the fly, talking about significant matters rather than the triviality of a fly’s potentially perilous journey. Perhaps that’s what the creature – or its master - is banking on. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

In praise of good customer service (yes, there is such a thing!).

A while ago I visited my local store of a well-known pet chain (although not the most well-known!) with my daughter. I just needed some guinea pig supplies, nipped in to stock up. The manager was there and approached me, and immediately thought I was in for the ‘big sell’ on something I didn’t need, like posh nibbles for pets already over-indulged on their greens. But I was pleasantly surprised by the manager’s conversation: there was no push to purchase, instead she chatted to my daughter about pets and school, and showed her the meal worms packaged on the shelves. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it made the shopping experience all the more pleasant, with staff who were friendly but not overpowering or pushy. I used to work in a shoe shop, so know how hard it can be to get that balance right, but the pet shop got it spot on. As we left I wondered why all shops couldn’t be like that, then thought why not write to their customer services about how impressed I was with their Winchester store. So I batted off an email, which took all of two minutes. I received a reply not just from customer services but from the Managing Director himself, who thanked me for letting him know and how delighted he was that the service had been so good. He would, of course, let the store in question know about my praise.

We will all complain to companies when we feel they need to improve, whether it be shorter queues or trains running on time (we’ll all want the moon on a stick next!), but do we praise them when they get things right? I suppose most will say that it’s their job to be efficient, why should we thank them for doing what they're paid to do, and that may to an extent be true. But when they go that extra mile, why shouldn’t we feed back our gratitude? Complaining when customer care falls short will, it is hoped, help improve performance in the future, but I think it’s just as important to thank those who have been particularly helpful as this feedback is surely just as essential for customer service improvement. If nobody tells a company that somebody has been particularly helpful, how will they know? Equally, how will they know it can really be appreciated and not just expected?

Yesterday I was commuting home from London when the voice of a guard I recognised from another (identical!) journey the week before came over the tannoy, a guard who is particularly helpful, courteous, informative and professional. So as with the pet shop, I let the train company know that I was singling him out for praise. I have had cause to complain to this particular company through an angry tweet or two (or three) when things have gone wrong, as they do far too often, but it gave me a feeling of happiness to write something positive for a change. And, I can only hope, they do feed my comments back to him as they said they would. I don’t know if customer comments about individuals are used as recognised feedback for assessment purposes, but if they do then I hope I have been of some help. 

I’m not saying don’t complain when it’s needed, only that just a little recognition of those making life a bit more pleasant could go a long way.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Party Games and Power Play - both now 99p!

Although I've blogged separately about my political drama Party Games and its sequel Power Play, I thought now both books are a mere 99p, and everyone is desperately excited about the Labour and Liberal Democrat leadership elections, I'd give my story about the shadowy world of Westminster and power struggles a shout-out in one post.

Although for Amazon purposes my books are labelled as 'political fiction', they are less about the politics itself; there certainly isn't a preachy political message, more a story about people, their failings and their flaws, with politics as the vehicle for the human drama. It is about people working in a stressful, powerful, pressure-cooker world, and how those people react to the environment in which they operate. I firmly agree with House of Cards author Michael Dobbs that “people assume that politicians are a different breed, but they’re not, they’re just in a different place, subjected to different pressures and huge temptations, [but] if we wrote dramas that were all about what a wonderful bunch of guys these are at Westminster, it would be a hard sell.”  Yes, politics can be exhilarating, rewarding, change lives for the better, but it can also be a dirty, nasty, dog-eat-dog business which can corrupt. What better place to set a book or two (or three, as there will be eventually!)?

Rodney Richmond, the young, charismatic yet ultimately insecure Leader of the Opposition, is at a critical time in his leadership. But once his Shadow Cabinet reshuffle turns sour, leaving a sacked Chief Whip out in the cold, events begin to spiral out of his control. Richmond’s leadership rival and deputy sees his opportunity to seize power through a ruthless game of manipulation and blackmail, leaving Richmond battling for the heart and soul of the party – and the woman – he loves.

Will the loyalty of Richmond’s most trusted allies be enough to stop his enemies, or will their attempts to save him lead to tragedy? Set in the heart of Westminster, Party Games is a hotbed of ambition, treachery, friendship, love and passion. Nobody is safe, and everyone must play...

Treason is a hanging offence... 

As Conservative Party leader Rodney Richmond lies in a coma, his ambitious deputy Colin Scott vows to force unquestioning loyalty to himself on a party which is at breaking point. Dubbed 'the Führer' by Labour MPs, his core supporters - including a morally conflicted colleague and an obsessed, ruthless advisor - will do anything to get their man, and themselves, to the top. But there is a threat from within, one so determined they will resort to murder before they see Scott fail, and soon civil war erupts among Scott’s most senior lieutenants. 

While the true leader of the so-called 'resistance' remains unconscious, their female rising star emerges to challenge Scott's seemingly unbreakable and brutal authority. 

Power Play continues the theme of corrupting power and infighting at the heart of E J Greenway's first novel, Party Games. It is a wry look at what could happen if a modern day political party, finding itself in Opposition after years in power, embraces a narcissistic maniac who promises to bring it back from the brink at any cost. 

Who would I have to play my characters in a TV adaptation? Well, handily I have thought about this long and hard (as many authors no doubt secretly do!) and come up with a list I adore on Susan Buchanan's blog.

I've also had some lovely reviews, including from fellow authors Terry Tyler, Georgia Rose and Geoffrey West

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Gorging on Thrones


I am more than a little bit late to the Westeros 'party'. I've resisted for years, both the books and the show, but with Parliament dissolved while something called a general election campaign goes on (and on, and on) I thought I'd give in after a few episodes I could finally say to my GoT-enthusiast husband 'see, told you it wasn't my thing'.

And it isn't my sort of thing at all. I'm now as far as season 3 episode 4, thanks to Sky box sets, and I'm sticking with it in order to prove such a point. I'm watching it quickly on purpose. The body and boob count is piling up, Dany's dragons are growing, Tyrion's coolness knows no bounds, Jaime gets captured repeatedly and the Stark family variety of accents are still all over the place, rather like their bodies. Theon does pathetic wonderfully after stupidly taking over 'Winterhell' (Hot Pie), Sansa does it through increasingly sulky pouts, while you root for Arya and Brann in every (frustrating) scene they're in.

Sexism and often sheer misogyny is, of course, one of the few things which unites all corners of the Seven Kingdoms, but all of the prejudice helps make the main women physically, mentally and - in some cases - politically stronger.  Brienne of Tarth. Margaery, who knows how to play the Game of Thrones better than most of the men. Feisty Shae, for whom I have a bit of a soft spot. The redhead one who isn't in the books but has her boobs out. A LOT. And is probably going to die soon.

Here come the girls: GoT women shaking up Westeros

But GoT's not my thing, as I've said. I don't even have an allegiance. Well, not really. Can I justify supporting Stannis the Mannis just because a) Ned died supporting his arguably rightful claim to the Iron Throne against the Lannister's incest, b) he reminds me of a major character in my own books and c) I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crisps? Must be something to do with all the brooding, the staring into the middle distance and that lightly accented voice rather than the 'fire within him', which sounds more like an STD problem than anything which will crush his enemies.

Colin or Stannis: Plotting to overthrow a political leader or a king?

Ok, despite Daenerys being the coolest character next to Tyrion (maybe they should defy all the political and historical reasons against them, get it together and rule for the sake of pure awsomeness), I should just 'come out' as a Baratheon. Maybe Rasputiny Melisandre is right, perhaps she is a goodie after all and burning effigies and people opposing her is the Right Thing To Do. But, ah Davos, the onion knight, the only Geordie in the Seven Kingdoms, loathes her and her weird fire magic and demon-birthing (well he certainly does in season 3).  Poor pretty boy Renly. Sort of. It's a toughie. But, then again, so is sexy Stannis, and I hear he is still hanging on in there with Jon Snow in season 5. But I am a long way off from that yet, I'm BRW (Before the Red Wedding), and it's been at least two episodes without a Significant Death...

So far, the only lucky sod who's had a happy ending is Hot Pie, the tubby baker's son who wouldn't have a wolf's chance at Casterly Rock faced with a knife to the throat (as the vast majority of characters end up with at one point or another). Somehow I feel he may be the first and last for at least another season or two, or three, or basically forever.

Hot Pie. The only one to achieve anything with his life in GoT so far.

Which brings me to the other unsung heroes who have either perished or possibly will: Hodor, a fan favourite with a cult following, Samwell Tarly, the best Character Without Ambition in the whole show, Yoren (remember him?), Syrio Farel, Jaqen H'ghar (are they the same person??), Maester Luwin (oh, why did he have to die?? Why not fussing, simpering Grand Maester Pycelle?), Ser Rodrik Cassel, with the bushiest sideburns on TV since Amos in Emmerdale, the list is endless. If Sam were king and Hodor his Hand, what a gentler - and possibly wiser - place the Seven Kingdoms would be.

Never mind the battles: my unsung heroes

If you look past the naked women (assuming you want to!) and the bloodlust, the politics and depth of the world is astounding. But, of course, GoT is just not my sort of thing, so I'd better crack on with the rest of season 3 and beyond so I can continue proving my point.

Another picture of Stannis. Because I can. And because he is the one true king. Apparently.

Friday, 13 March 2015

How I've Become A Cat Lady...

After a lengthy adoption process, including a home visit and a mountain of paperwork, we finally were able to collect her. Izzy is now eight months old and adorably sweet, but she can sometimes sleep so much in the day she’s a bit grizzly at night and demands attention, but it’s ok as we’re totally besotted and it’s all been worth it. I am, of course, talking about our kitten, a lovely tabby who adores people and is slightly terrified of the outside world. This includes birds, grass, plant pots and any other perils in the garden.  

Ahh, cute kitty!

 We adopted her through a nearby rescue charity called Happy Cats, run by a dedicated lady called Jo who, while having eight cats of her own, takes in any cat no matter what their history and helps find them suitable ‘forever homes’. It doesn’t end when you take the cat home, Happy Cats provides support throughout the cat’s life and no cat is adopted out until it has been spayed/neutered and wormed.

Izzy came to us after the cat she had been living with kept attacking her, injuring her eye, so her wariness of other animals is to be expected, although our guinea pigs Sooty and Sweep (recently adopted through St Francis Animal Rescue in Eastleigh) are a source of endless fascination.  She loves to play and find mischief, as kittens do, and has such a sweet nature despite her shaky start.

Since becoming a cat owner (or is it ‘adopter’?) I’ve suddenly taken to watching Animal Planet and programmes such as fantasically named cat behaviourist Jackson Galaxy in the utterly American ‘My Cat From Hell’. He helps people with severe cat problems (a bit like Supernanny but with tattoos and a beard), including one idiot who fed his cat junk food, instilled no discipline at all and wondered why his cat was a feral nightmare! He is great and so patient with his clients (by which I mean the people, the cats are never the whole problem!). Anyone with a cat should give him a watch!

Cat behaviourist Jackson Galaxy

Izzy is now firmly a member of our family. As I type I can hear her bell jingling as she finds yet more gaps to squeeze into and more surfaces to jump on. She’s now meowing and crinkling something she shouldn’t be dragging around the kitchen. *sigh*. Best signed off with a ‘thank you’ to Happy Cats, without whom we may never have found her.

Monday, 2 February 2015

How an autistic trampolining club came on Leaps and Bounds...

The last time I wrote on this blog about a good cause was to give publicity to Will Wearmouth’s bike ride to France in aid of the British Legion. Suffice to say Will did amazingly well, achieved his goal with flying colours and raised a fantastic amount in the process.

This time I want to just give a blog (and, I hope, twitter) shout-out to a wonderful trampolining club for autistic children in Liverpool, run by my cousin Stephanie Graston. Leaps and Bounds – formerly JMUpers – was operated by John Moores University, but through Stephanie’s tireless energy and fundraising all the money is now ploughed back into the club. Through her work it has kept its home at I M Marsh, part of the JMU campus, and she has expanded through word of mouth to run a happy, successful and well-loved club with at least 100 children on her books.

I know many of the parents are incredibly grateful for Stephanie’s friendly, relaxed approach, her dedication and above all affection for and understanding of the children at the club and the pressures faced by their families. For many the club is a lifeline where those with similar experiences, so it is not only a chance for the children to gain a huge amount from trampolining (Stephanie is doing an MA into the benefits of trampolining and exercise for autistic children), but it is also a chance for parents to get together. And trampolines aren’t the only activity on offer for the children. With the help of a dedicated team, Stephanie runs parties, trips out and all manner of fundraising activities which includes all children, no matter how severe their autism. In essence, the club has grown over the past few years from a trampolining club into so much more, and I can only be amazed at Stephanie’s endless energy and patience.

So please do pop over to the Leaps and Bounds Facebook page and give it a ‘like’, I know Steph would be really grateful. If ever an example is needed for the Big Society (remember that?) in action, then surely this is one of the best.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The welcome rise of political fiction

I am so desperately excited to see Wolf Hall come to BBC2 tonight, although will it live up to the books?

Back in October I wrote an article for Conservative Home about how political fiction has become fashionable again, whether it be satirical or drama, novel or television, so with Wolf Hall hitting the small screen (yippee!) I felt it timely to reproduce the article below:

You may have heard, but a well-known writer has a new book out. A political thriller in fact, about the death of a Prime Minister (no, not that Hilary Mantel one) and an EU referendum. I sighed, frustrated it was launched just weeks before my own, but then it occurred to me not to be worried about any similarity (referendums are anathema in my book), but revel in the fact that political fiction continues to be on the up. Surely Fourth Estate wouldn't have banked on sales if there wasn't a continued demand for tales of dodgy Westminster shenanigans and the like?

In the wake of the huge success of House of Cards in the US and the satirical sophistication of Veep, there is now less of the Spitting Image-style lampooning and a far more intelligent approach to portraying politicians in fiction.  In an age where politicians are increasingly distrusted, the West Wing ideal of politicians doing good because it's the Right Thing To Do is outdated and is less fitting to the public mood. Although of course it was superb and remains eminently watchable, I can't help feel that the world has moved on. Flawed ambition, just about hanging on in there, deal making and breaking, raw political realities and selfish back-room manoeuvrings are the order of the day. To be good is to be boring, right? From a writer's point of view, it's certainly more fun to develop the antagonist, especially when you're competing for the Nastiest Politician in Writing award (yes, I of course made up this extremely niche gong, but you get my point).

(House of Cards, Wolf Hall and Veep)

Women are now taking lead roles in political dramas - ones where they no longer have to always play Margaret Thatcher. Borgen, Veep and The Honourable Woman are prime examples. Three very different series but all important reflection on modern politics. We have come a long way since the mainly male-dominated fictional Westminster skulduggery of the 1980s. Smoke-filled rooms are a thing of the past, figuratively and literally. Skilful manipulators and strong female leads are pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of politicians and those who circle around them; their equally ambitious advisors and even their spouses. House of Cards' Clare Underwood is certainly the finest portrayal of a modern-day politician's wife I've seen, and is as tough - if not tougher - than Underwood himself.

But one of the most notorious political antagonists is no piece of fiction. Hilary Mantel is currently dabbling in more contemporary political fiction in the highly controversial short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, but her Thomas Cromwell is an absorbing, complex and tenacious character whose fall in The Mirror and the Light is set to be as incredible as his rise. Like the present-day special advisor loyal to their master, low-born street-fighter Cromwell plays his enemies' weaknesses to his advantage at every turn. But, whether it be a 21st century Underwood or a 16th century Cromwell, with growing power comes growing danger. A political fiction writer's wet dream.

My own novels focus on the upheaval in a Conservative Party on the wrong side of the green benches after years in government. Opposition is fascinating as it elicits navel-gazing, the powerless desperate for the spoils of a war lost at the ballot box, but although it provides rich pickings for an author it is often neglected. For obvious reasons most political fiction writers prefer the allure of government, but I wanted to explore a party facing political oblivion after electoral disaster. Could a mainstream party, weary and desperate for salvation, stumble into being led by a morally deficient, narcissistic maniac who promises to bring it back from the brink at any cost? Like Mantel, I am living out through fiction a rather debauched scenario which I have pondered over the years, although unlike Mantel I have great affection for my subject.

When I wrote my last Con Home article on this subject two years ago, before the huge success of House of Cards, I predicted that the future for political dramas appeared bright. Thanks to the expenses scandal (The Duck House) and press misdemeanours (Great Britain), the stage (along with the successful This House and Handbagged) continues to attract biting political satire. The coalition has been perfect fodder for creative politicos, while the rise of UKIP, the huge turnout in Scotland and the approaching general election will no doubt keep up demand for fictional swipes at the political establishment. If I can continue to play even a small part in that, however affectionately, then I will be proud to have done my bit.