Cover artwork concepts for East of England

Here's a series of six cover art concepts prepared by my brother, the talented Maxim Peter Griffin, to give a flavour of East of England in visual form. 

They're in no way official, so I wouldn't necessarily expect any of them to end up as a cover to the book when it gets published, but they are - I admit - pretty cool. 

East of England is being crowdfunded via Unbound Publishing; this means pre-orders of the book are necessary to raise its preproduction costs (editing, proofreading, design, printing, the cover, advertising, promotion and distribution and so on). So, don't wait till it hits the bookshelves! As you'll see from the book's details, there are a handful of different pledge levels with escalating rewards; plus, everyone gets their name in the book as thanks. Plus, you get to be a patron of the arts, which isn't too bad, is it?

EoE cover concept 1.jpg
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EoE cover concept 6.JPG

Which one's your favourite? And how do they relate to your own visual sense of the book? Again, details  - including how to support East of England - are here

Tsundoku

I've come down with a disease. I've been harbouring the symptoms for years, but it's only recently that side-effects of the problem have become properly noticeable. I've caught tsundoku. And the thing is, you've probably got it too. 

Tsundoku is a Japanese slang term for buying books and having them pile up around you. Those shelves of unread paperbacks? Thrillers on your Kindle happily displaying 0% read? The teetering stack of novels on the bedside table? All known signs of the contagion. 

I blame society, of course. Not my own poor impulse control, the cheapness of books in general (they've never been more inexpensive, and never represented better value against other forms of entertainment), one-click online buying systems, next day delivery options, the eminent browsability of charity shops and new booksellers alike. And that's before we get the inestimable bounty of libraries simply brimming with books, all of them free at the point of use, like an NHS of the imagination.

None of that's to blame.

Nor is my wholesale abandonment of portion control. At present I read in full a book or so a week; maybe two if I'm lucky. Push that to three if I've a longish train journey or two coming up. So, by the laws of one-in, one-out, you'd have thought that this would regulate my purchasing and borrowing.

Behind me, in a corner of the kitchen.

Behind me, in a corner of the kitchen.

Yeah, right.

I think I'm on about a book a day at the minute. The postie has long since given up on sardonic commentary about the parade of slightly-battered padded envelopes from online secondhand purveyors of lexical drugs. My collection of red "While You Were Out" cards would provide sending-off artillery for the entire Football League if so appropriated.  

 But I can handle it. So what if I can barely sit down for Jenga-like constructions of reference material, or see out of the kitchen window (the window-ledge long since been overtaken as a source of ad-hoc shelving)? 

I can handle it. And besides, like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone story, I'll never want for reading. 

If only I could find my glasses. They were here a minute ago. I swear it. Hmm...

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My novels Torc and The Prospect of This City are available via Amazon (in ebook and paperback), Kobo (ebook), and Smashwords (ebook).  

Me and Star Wars

Star Wars, as the film was humbly titled when it was first released, was released into UK cinemas in the last week of 1977. I was nine years old. I’d been aware of the movie for some time – it had been released in the States over six months earlier after all – presumably, through mentions in the arts pages of The Guardian (the only paper my parents got), and from children’s TV shows like Clapperboard on ITV. Then again, BBC1 was the preferred setting for teatime telly; ITV children’s programmes weren’t quite banned in our house, but there was a definite sniffiness from Mum towards the commercial offering, and, being no fools, we tended to abide – even agree with – the idea that Auntie Beeb knew best.  

The point is that by the time that Christmas 1977 came around, I was more than ready for Star Wars. I wasn’t fussed about the toys; Matchbox cars, Lego, Meccano and the long-hoped-for chemistry set were my thing back then. But I really wanted to see the movie.

I was a regular attendee down at Louth Playhouse, the sole cinema in the town then and now. It’s been a three-screen for a couple of decades after reopening following a short period going dark in the mid-1990s, but in the seventies, there was a single screen in operation. The downstairs stalls area had been converted to bingo some time before I was born; the cinema screen was up four flights of stairs to what would have been the circle seating for the original auditorium.

I was there most Saturday afternoons for the 1 pm matinee; a diet of Disney re-releases, Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad movies, Laurel and Hardy, plus American TV shows that got theatrical releases in the UK (The Amazing Captain Nemo, the pair of Nicholas Hammond-starring Spider-Man flicks, both Battlestar Galactica and Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack).

Doubtless sometimes they just showed whatever was cheap to rent from the distributor. Remember; it was all good. Often as not these were double-features; two movies for the price of one. Sometimes a Children’s Film Foundation effort would be bundled together with the main American attraction. Only occasionally was the week’s big movie included; the programming was usually separate, so the Saturday afternoon show was often the only showing of that movie that week. Sometimes it wasn’t, though, and that meant heartache. In the late 70s, films were released into cinemas on a Sunday; that meant a whole week’s wait until Saturday.

Yes, it was an ache to wait, but no-one minded. That whole delayed gratification thing applied; we seem to have lost this in an age of dumping entire series onto Netflix, of 12-week windows between theatrical and home sell-through release, and of simultaneous pirate-dodging global release patterns, and of films living and/or dying by the first weekend’s grosses.

This was a time before VHS and before movie rentals, when there was a gap of at least three years between a first cinema release and a TV outing. A time when films got massive terrestrial television ratings because they were something of an event.

So, yeah. When Star Wars loomed I wanted to see it. And I knew I’d have to wait. And it was a problem, but it wasn’t an issue. Besides, I had a workaround all planned out.

Parents up and down our street had organized a Christmas party for the kids; the kind of community thing I’d kinda hope still goes on. They’d hired a room (Ayscough Hall on Lee Street, detail fans). There’d be party food, games, a festive-themed disco and, most importantly, Santa would be there.

I was nine, remember. Even though I’d worked it out for myself a year or so earlier, there’d never been an actual conversation with adults about the non-existence of the Man in Red. It was a bone of contention among some of our year at school; the cool kids swaggered with claims that they’d got grown-up proof that it was all a tale for tiny tots.                  

So when Mum came to me a few days before the party, and she asked me what I wanted to get from the Santa who’d be there, it was a bit of a revelation.

I knew straight away what I wanted, though. A book token. A one-pound book token, please. A pound was more than enough to buy a new paperback in those days, when the Net Book Agreement set the price, and the price was 99p.

The other kids got their dolls and cars and whatever. I got an envelope. I can’t remember if Santa was apologetic about it, or if he was in on the scheme.

It was, after all, clear as spring water in a crystal glass what I was going to do with the voucher.

At that time, Louth had a book shop. A proper book shop that sold new books. Not a charity shop full of mouldering early James Pattersons and spine-broken Maeve Binchys. Not a WH Smith. A book shop. Louth’s not supported a dedicated new-book shop for some decades; The Paperback People – as the shop was called – was the last. It’s not there any more. Heck, the building’s not even commercial premises these days, having been converted into a ground-floor flat years ago. It’s at the corner of Aswell Street and Kidgate; the white building next to Mark Merrifield’s excellent record shop Off The Beaten Tracks.

First chance I got I was down there; I assume it was in those aching days between school breaking up and Christmas rolling around. And with that book token I bought what I wanted; the novelisation of Star Wars.

Novelisations were a big thing, and for all kinds of reasons. For one, in those pre-video days, they were your best bet for either creating or recreating the experience of the movie. And all movies had them, it seemed. There was a stall in the town’s indoor market that sold secondhand books; they took a chunk of my pocket money for years. A section of their stock was novelisations.

I was able to experience movies I’d never be allowed to see, and somehow, because there were tie-in editions as well available with movie-related covers, I was able to get away with reading matter that was formative and instructive in all kinds of ways. I learned a lot from the novelisation of The Sting, from the tie-in editions of Jaws and The Exorcist. Through movie associations, I was able to read all of Ian Fleming’s output, plus battle with the weirdness of the Christopher Wood novelisations of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker; book versions of films that were based on books already. I scared myself regularly with the binding of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House because the cover artist had made the house on the front of the book look like a properly scary face.

I was reading the kinds of children’s writing you might expect as well – Tolkien, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Richmal Crompton, my sisters’ Enid Blytons, Richard Adams, Alan Garner – but novelisations were as important to me, as were the sneaked-in pleasures of the tie-in edition, as these expected influences.

This stayed with me well into my teens; I’ve got very fond memories of the various Omen novelisations, and the two Gordon McGill spin-off books that extended the franchise through a couple more sets of satanic adventures after the films stopped. McGill's a bit of cult hero, his Amityville 3D novelisation is great fun, and it started me off on a long-term fascination with director Richard Fleischer's films. 

So it’s Christmas 1977, and I’ve got Star Wars in my hand. Later on, I’d find out that it was Alan Dean Foster’s work (probably about the time I read his Alien novelisation, I’d have thought). But the cover said "George Lucas". This was his world, his universe.

I don’t know how many times I read it. Or how many hours I stared at the pages of colour pictures in the middle of the book - stills from the movie – and used them to help guide my knowledge of the movie.

I knew the book by heart. So much that when I eventually saw the movie, which didn’t get to Louth until ten whole months after the UK release - the following October - I missed the parts that weren’t there or which differed from the book version. Stuff like Luke hanging with his friends at the Tosche station; like Biggs Darklighter’s character being almost wholly absent from the movie. I didn’t come away quite disappointed, but there’s a version of Star Wars still playing in my head that was fuelled by the book, and that was never quite achieved by the film.

Nowadays, I’ve got nephews; the two oldest are a little younger at six and five than I was when I had my first theatrical Star Wars experience, but I get their excitement. That anticipation in the days between that 1977 Christmas party and reading the novelization; I feel their pain as they count down the hours until they can get to see whatever it is that JJ Abrams and company have got cooked up.  The ways it’s skewing Christmas by giving two sets of longed-for things with different timescales; both of them impossibly important.

I’ll see the new film, of course. I hope I enjoy it. I’ll see it in the same cinema I saw the first one in, almost forty years ago. Louth’s kinda an old-fashioned place; they still stop the movie to manufacture an intermission to sell ice-creams halfway through; I like that, and I’ll probably get myself a Feast or a Calippo from the self-conscious teen with the tray of goodies who'll appear when the film snaps off the screen. Back in the 70s, the treat of choice was two-fold; a carton of Kia-Ora and a box of Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles. Remember when they sold them - and Fruit Gums as well, though only a tooth-hating fool would buy them - in little boxes?

I hope the filmmakers get The Force Awakens right in ways that Lucas’s universe deserves. It might only be, at its heart, a simple story of goodies and baddies, but for whatever reason, it resonates. I hope my nephews spill out of the cinema barely able to gabble out their recollection of the best bits, that they’ll draw things and recreate in Lego, and that they’ll want to go back and see The Force Awakens again and again. I hope also that they’ll read the books some more and that they’ll add in their own ways to the adventures of Skywalker / Solo / Organa and all of the others. That they’ll feel sorry for the bad guy, and that their baddie will eventually see the error of their ways.

I remember – and I don’t know where I remember it from, but the memory is as firm and distinct as any of them - that George Lucas always had nine films, nine stories, in mind; Star Wars being the fourth. Looks like we'll get the full nine after all. 

Yeah, you got me in a nostalgic frame of mind, but if there’s something of that magic for my nephews that I felt back in ’77 from Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation in the new movie, then Hollywood will have done its job. I still prefer books (the old adage that the pictures are better on paper holds true), but love for the movies, and for the experience of going to the movies, is real, and real love never dies.

Eventually, the book fell apart. This was encouraged by my swapping the torn-out colour pictures for a big eraser in class the following year. Maybe I'll come across another copy and I'll take better care of this time.

After all, as the series has it, there's nothing wrong with a new hope.             

How I buy books

I'm having a bit of a clearout at home. Stuff has got to go. And "stuff" includes books. And that means making some hard decisions. Now, I've probably got an active hoarder gene. I'm not in TV documentary league; I haven't gone full Trebus or anything like that, but things tend to accumulate around me. Most of this is good; stuff brings with it comforts, after all. But too much is too much, and when the shelves buckle and when the window ledges that you've co-opted into bookcase usage fill up and with that block out the light, then it's time to get some volumes shifted.

So why am I still buying books? If you're bailing out your lifeboat you don't pour water into the vessel, do ya?

Take this weekend for instance. I was away for a couple of days and, as usual, I took a book (just the one) with me for writing/research use as well as my Kindle onto which I'd loaded a couple more novels in the series of New York detective books that I'm reading at present (the Matt Scudder books by Lawrence Block, just so you know).

However, I knew that I was going to buy another paperback while I was away. The new David Mark - Taking Pity - which was fresh out in paperback last week. Mind you, I couldn't track a copy down. Three Manchester branches of WH Smith, no joy.  

Not to worry, though. I was going from Manchester to Nottingham. Nottingham wouldn't let me down. And indeed it didn't. First port of call - the city's multi-floored Waterstones - gave up the goods. And that should have been it. You've got your book. Get out of here.

Oh, no. That would be too easy. I'm in the crime section on the ground floor, anyway, so I get to browsing. I walk over to the B section and find a Lawrence Block novel in the lovely Hard Case Crime imprint that specialises in noir-ish fiction with beautifully pulpy covers. That one falls straight into my hand.

But I'm not done. Upstairs I go.  Nottingham Waterstones is one of those stores that seduces you upstairs with the promise of escalators and the smell of coffee, then lets you shuffle, spent, back down via the stairs.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A pocket paperback copy. A book that Block's series anti-hero Scudder turns to from time to time. I haven't got one at home; I'm sure of it. That joins the purchases.  

Get out of here before you do yourself more harm. I make it to and through the tills. Back out into the low autumn sun. It's Saturday, late afternoon. I start heading back. Then I remember. That other bookshop, the independent one round the corner. A shop I've never been in before.

I'm there in five minutes, and back out within fifteen. The shop - Five Leaves Bookshop - is eclectic, left-leaning, artfully shambolic. Apparently it's only been there a couple of years, but feels like its roots go deep. I buy another couple of books - a slim volume of John Ruskin, an interesting-looking kinda psychogeographic book that I know nothing about - but they're almost token purchases; buys made as nods of affiliation. I could have spent a lot more time (and money) in there. Except I'm not supposed to be buying more books, am I? I'm having a clear-out, remember?       

A brief chat with the friendly proprietor; I'm given a heads-up on the local arty cinema and the events listings / arts newspaper. I'm already wondering if they do mail-order.

Eventually, I'm home after the weekend, my bag somewhat heavier than it had been when I set out, and my weeding-out-the-books task made that little bit more complicated. Of course, there's a note waiting for me; one of the red-and-white postcards from Royal Mail telling me that there's a parcel for me for pickup. I know what it is. Inevitably, another book.      

 

         

Second-hand and other book shops - thinning out the stocks

All bookshops are great. Let's not forget that, They do, after all sell books. Even most branches of Waterstones have a few at the back of the shop. I'm exaggerating a little there - as the UK's last mainstream book chain standing, they have a necessary part to play in the cultural life of the nation - even if it is a little irking to find them increasingly dedicated to toys / film merchandise /  colouring items / stationery / chain coffee shops than to maintaining some depth to the shelf stocks. Nevertheless though, all bookshops, by definition, are good. 

That being said, there's also shops that sell books that aren't bookshops. Supermarkets feature prominently here. Deep price cuts skew the perception of the value of a book, and the Tesco/Asda offer might not stretch much further than the current bestseller lists and the occasional disconcerting pallet of the zeitgeisty book-of-the-year, but they at least offer some convenience as well as - more importantly - putting books out there in public, attracting attention in a more visible way than the window display of your local independent.  

Then there's the secondhand shops.  First, the book specialists, be they tweedy antiquarians or chirpy one-street-back-from-the-High-Street post-breakdown downsizers. Then the specialist charity-run shops, like Oxfam's bookshops. Then your everyday charro with its single bookshelf of Jean Plaidy historicals and early Jeffrey Archers. And then the oddballs; pubs and supermarkets with a windowsill or a dump bin of donations, usually associated again with a charity.   

And then there's the remainder stores like The Works; whole shop units dedicated to remaindered sock, to publishing industry hubris and to retail buyers' folly. Often as not nowadays these have crept into the pound shop chains, where a supply of as-new books are as likely to be found as off-brand liqueur chocolates and flimsy gardening gloves.

And that's before you get to the internet. Or libraries. 

The thing is, books are everywhere. Old books, new books, re-read books, books that should have never felt the press of Gutenberg. All of them competing for attention, for sales, for shelf-space, for landfill, for reasons to exist. 

So, here's the question. Are there too many books? Do all books have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of finding another reader? I don't mean books in the sense of the title, but of the copy. Do we need so many of the darn things? Isn't it time for a cull? Should books be coppiced, like woodland? Sustainably farmed? Or should they, like pigeons and rabbits, be allowed to reproduce uncontrollably because they have some kind of a right to life?

The more I think about it, the more I'm in favour of a little management. I'd start with some second-hand books, and here's why. Too many of them don't produce a return for the writer and for the publisher. Fewer second-hand copies can only be a good thing for publishing as an industry and for writers individually and as a collective. Let's start a little weeding, and let's start with ourselves. 

I spent five years (a few hours a week only) as a books guy in the local Oxfam. I daresay that experience has flavoured my outlook here. I'd guess that a good half of what was donated was unsellable for one reason or another. Too many charity shops end up spending too much time sorting out other people's rubbish. That may be the price of the donation, but it chafes at the soul. 

So, to commit the tiniest of revolutionary acts. Next time you're weeding out a carrier bag of old holiday reads or whatever for the Cancer Research folk (other charities are available), think this: who benefits from this book being bought again? If there's a genuine utility in the donation, by all means make it. If there isn't, then consider your recycling options! 

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My novel The Prospect of This City is available either in paperback from me (signed copies if you prefer!) or in ebook or paperback via Amazon.