Monday, 31 December 2007

Books of the Year - last batch!

I’m going to get this post up relatively early today as we’ve got stuff to do before fun and games this evening. We’re having a few friends round to eat, drink and play silly games to see in the New Year. Charades anyone?

So, here’s the last lot of my best reads of 2007.

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. I have been a Tracy Chevalier fan since reading The Virgin Blue, so I got in there before she became really famous when she published Girl with a Pearl Earring. I wonder if it was to do with book jackets? Virgin Blue’s jacket wasn’t the most inspiring ever whereas anybody interested in historical fiction is going to be immediately grabbed by the jacket of GWAPE with its Vermeer portrait and the Dutch townscape. I enjoyed Virgin Blue more but maybe that’s because I’m into split time narratives…
Anyway, The Lady and the Unicorn. Tracy Chevalier is clearly inspired by art a lot as this is a tapestry-inspired story. It’s deceptively simple, almost like a fairy story, and I’ll let TC fill you in on the bare bones with her own words, as she does so much better than I would:

Nicolas des Innocents, a handsome, lascivious artist, is summoned to the Paris home of Jean Le Viste, a nobleman who wants Nicolas to design a series of battle tapestries for his house. Jean’s wife, Geneviève, persuades Nicolas to talk her husband into a softer subject: the taming of a unicorn by a noblewoman. Nicolas shapes the tapestries with his own vision, dedicating five of the six to the senses and using the images of Geneviève and her daughter, Claude, with whom Nicolas is smitten, for two of the ladies in the tapestries.Nicolas takes the finished designs to Brussels, where master weaver Georges de la Chapelle will make them. At first Nicolas is scornful of Georges, but gradually comes to respect him and his wife Christine, and to take an interest in his daughter Aliénor. Nicolas models two more of the ladies in the tapestries after Christine and Aliénor, but his heart lies with the unattainable Claude.

There are layers and layers of symbolic meaning in The Lady and the Unicorn which resonate (can a layer resonate? You know what I mean, anyway) throughout the book. Jean le Viste, like all card-carrying, fairy-story rich men, is unreasonable and wants the hanging presented to him in an unfeasibly short space of time. Because he knows it will make his name and bring in other commissions, the weaver accepts the terms. And still the time is shortened as the story goes on until completing the tapestry begins to take on the aura of a supernatural task.
And against this backdrop the lives and loves of the weaver’s family and those around them are played out with all the historical detail which I have come to love Tracy Chevalier for. Nowhere is a detail put in gratuitously, it is always necessary to the story and I admire that in a historical novelist. We learn huge amounts about late medieval weaving techniques and the symbolism of the unicorn story but nowhere is the knowledge gratuitous, in every detail it moves the story forward or casts a new light on a character. It’s beautifully done and I was so sad when I finished this book.
Read it as a fable or as a historical novel, either will delight you.

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant begins dramatically:

My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.

We escape from Rome to Venice with Fiammetta in the company of her dwarf, Bucino, through whose narrative voice the story is told. He’s an engaging character, Bucino, and seeing things through his eyes (and from his height, a life-imperilling shortness on occasion) is fascinating. Obviously, I’m not a man, so I don’t know just how convincing a job Sarah Dunant has made of Bucino but I was convinced by him – by the story of his happy childhood and an adult life lived at the whim of others due to his ‘deformity’ (which is how he refers to his own lack of stature).
I seem to have read so many novels recently where women have no choice but to sell their bodies in order to stay alive – whether they marry or ply the oldest trade – that it seems that women’s lives have been little but the trading of sex for security throughout history. Is that what our life, as a gender, has been? And is that why we seem so lost at the moment as we fight amongst ourselves about whether it’s morally or politically better to be a working mother or a homemaker and carer? Why so many of the young women I know show a frightening crisis of self-confidence?
Fiammetta Bianchini does not lack self-confidence, despite the fact that her mother began pimping her out when she was no more than thirteen. What would be seen as rank child-abuse now was, then, a matter of survival. And she does not seem damaged by it. Is this just Sarah Dunant’s take on things, or do our expectations of life colour how we react to the circumstances we are forced to live with and whether we are damaged or not by them?
It was as much this kind of question-raising which made the book enjoyable as the story itself; not to mention the brilliant evocation of the gilded rottenness of Renaissance Italy which makes you glad to live in tawdry old twenty-first century Britain.

The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower. As I’ve blogged about this here, I shan’t say any more, except to add that the book continued to intrigue, thrill and satisfy right to the end. I can hardly wait for Sarah Bower’s next book.

The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris. I’ve raved about this here, so no more.

The Observations by Jane Harris which was nominated for the Orange Prize this year. The Prize website summarised the story:

Scotland,1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh, working for the beautiful Arabella.
Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts.
And it seems that Arabella has secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.
Then a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella.
But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realize that she has not quite landed on her feet …

What this summary doesn’t begin to tell you is what a wonderful narrator Bessy Buckley is. Right from the first page you know you’re in the hands of an energetic, opinionated, though possibly not always reliable, narrator and she whisks you through this pastiche of a victorian servant-voiced novel wonderfully. Yes, it’s a pastiche. According to a friend of mine who’s just done an English degree the servant narrated novel was a big genre in the nineteenth century (why didn’t I know this?) and Jane Harris gets it all spot on. Though it’s not a gothic novel it does have echoes of the gothic with goings on in the attic and things supernatural being hinted at left right and centre. But, though the story is gripping (and we all know what a sucker I am for a good story) I would have read this book from cover to cover for Bessy’s narrative voice alone. It’s that good.
Though it didn’t win the Orange Prize, losing out to Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, I think Jane Harris is a name to watch for those of us who like our novels to have a good story at their heart and a great narrator taking us through it.

Gosh, just realised, four out of the last five are historical novels. In fact, out of the whole list, only the Lollipop Shoes and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows aren’t historical novels or period pieces; and neither of them is exactly a realistic portrayal of twenty-first century life as we know it. What does that say about my reading preferences? That I’m not into gritty realism? Certainly true. That I’m not interested in the times in which we live? Untrue. Maybe it’s just that people with a real talentfor storytelling (as opposed to social observation and reportage which is what I see in a lot of contemporary novels) are chosing to tell stories set in other, more colourful eras rather than our own politically correct, bureaucratically drab one. Maybe that’s why I write split time books, because it gives me the chance to compare and contrast then and now. Hmmm, that needs some thinking about…

Anyway, as preparations beckon, I’d just like to say thanks to any and all who have read the blog in the last few months, whether regularly or just on a one-off visit – it was good to have you. To those who have commented – thank you so much for taking the time to share your views and to engage with me and everybody who reads this.

Now, imagine the tune of Auld Lang Syne playing in the background as I wish you all a very Happy New Year and all the very best of everything for 2008.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Books of the year - second batch

Just put on my first batch of bread in our new breadmaker – the Other Half has done it all up until now. Anyway, as I sit here waiting for something to happen, here is my second tranche of books of the year.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. Who would have thought that the conflicts between Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung would provide such a fascinating backdrop to tales of murder amongst the glitterati of turn-of-the-century New York? Well, actually, anybody who knows me well would have known this would appeal to me. My ex-husband is a psychiatrist and mental illness has always fascinated me (when I’m not in the throes of depression myself) so this was always going to be an interesting read for me. (As was Human Traces which I blogged about here but didn’t make it to my books of the year for reasons you’ll see if you read the blog.)
Jed Rubenfeld cheerfully admits on his website that, apart from the fact that Freud did visit New York in 1909, all the events in the book are entirely fictional. And yet, after the single visit to the US, Freud ever thereafter described Americans as ‘savages’. The Interpretation of Murder, with its descents into depravity presents the reader with a wholly believable backstory to such a verdict. It is a book which gives us a picture of what very well might have happened if Freud had been presented with the sadistic murder of a fellow-hotel guest and left to help another analyst to solve the mystery.
The Freudian epigram quoted on Rubenfeld’s website ‘The pleasure of satisfying a savage instinct is incomparably more intense than satisfying a civilised one’ could be the subtitle of the book as the process of psychoanalytical interpretation itself - and the instincts which it calls on in the protagonists - begins to look more base than civilised.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling. Honestly, it almost feels superfluous to write ‘by JK Rowling’ after any of the HP books – I mean, who doesn’t know??
I came to the last Harry Potter with equal dread and anticipation. Dread because it’s the last one and I’m a big fan; anticipation because I thought there was about as much chance of being disappointed by this book as of me waking up tomorrow and finding that my rucksack fetish has worn off (ie none).
I also came to HP and the Deathly Hallows with several predictions/convictions:
Snape had not gone to the dark side, he just hated Harry.

Dumbledore knew his days were numbered and he and Snape had agreed between them that if the situation arose, Snape would kill Dumbledore to maintain his cover with The Dark Lord.
Harry was a horcrux.
Harry would die in defeating Voldemort (in true messianic fashion).

Don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers!
And, as all those of you who have read HP&TDH, I was right on all counts, though the last is a bit dodgy as he sort of dies and then chooses resurrection. So - go me! - I can predict what’s going to happen in a children’s book! Actually, I had some very heated arguments with other HP fans (mostly adults) about Snape. After HP and the Half Blood Prince, they were all convinced that Snape had gone rogue, and – to be fair – JKR had given them enough evidence for that belief. But I was convinced by Dumbledore – there was no evidence anywhere in the books that he gets people wrong. Nor did he, clearly.
I loved all the Dumbledore back-story in the Deathly Hallows and particularly his admission that he knew he couldn’t be trusted with power. Brilliant – made him so much more human in my eyes.
There’s been a lot of scorn poured on the book's epilogue/last scene – the grown up characters seeing their own little wizards and witches off to Hogwarts, Harry and Ginny and Ron and Hermione all nicely spliced up. Well I liked it, and I admit to a lump coming into my throat every time I even think about Harry saying to his second born, worried about which house he would be chosen for ‘Albus Severus … you are named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.’ That’s Snape! The one who had supposedly – according to the losers-of-faith – gone bad! Hah! I actually howled when I read that – as in cried – I don’t know why but I just found the whole book unbelievably moving.
Is there any wonder I don’t like reading Man-Booker prizewinners?

The mysteries of Glass by Sue Gee. I discovered Sue Gee about ten years ago when I read The Hours of the Night which, I now see, was re-released by Headline in a new edition in 2004.
Sue Gee is one of those writers for whom the word lyrical is not idle praise. Her prose is often highly poetic but neither it nor her characterisation are ever less than precise. The Mysteries of Glass is set in the Welsh borders in the 1860s and concerns the first curacy of Richard Allen, a young man coming to parish life and to love for the very first time. You know he is going to fall in love with the vicar’s wife the first time she sees him and so it proves but it is not just the love story – so beautifully drawn and so very constrained in an authentically Christian, nineteenth-century kind of way – which is so affecting. Sue Gee takes you bodily into the world her characters inhabit, we shiver on the floorboards of his bedroom with Richard as he says his prayers, he walk with numbed toes through the heavy snow as he goes to preach at Christmas, we feel the rush of freezing air on our faces as we skate with him on the frozen rivers. And, as the winter finally loosens its grip and the summer comes in with its sun and flowers and garlands, so love blossoms and our hearts beat more quickly with Richard's and Susannah's. But neither their love nor Richard's first taste of the pastoral life is without its trials and tribulations and, in this simple but beautifully told story, we feel every one right down to the bone.

Last lot tomorrow…

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Books of the Year - first batch!

OK, here we go with my best books of 2007. I have an atrocious memory and don’t keep any kind of reading diary because I’m not that organised (nor, sadly, do I seem to want to be) so this list relies on books really standing out in my mind or on the bookshelves when I went back to look at them.

The novels listed are in no kind of order, either of merit or chronology. Not all of them were published in 2007, I just happen to have read them this year. So, with no further ado here are the first batch – the rest will follow tomorrow and on New Year’s Eve.

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. Normally, when I read the words ‘tour de force’ I run a mile because it means somebody’s being clever and probably using a lot of literary devices or writing the whole of his/her novel in some hard-to-grasp demotic. But Matthew Kneale did neither of these things and yet his novel was a tour de force that I loved. The impressive thing was his use of multiple narrators to tell his story. I lost count of how many people contributed to the narrative as we moved from England to Tasmania but it was a large number. From the Manx ship’s captain to the barmy cleric who believed that Eden would be found in Australasia and on yet further to one of the most engaging voices of all – that of Peevay the Tasmanian aborigine – Matthew Kneale made you believe in his people and their voices. No two narrative voices sounded remotely alike. He really did make you believe that these were different people speaking with different life experiences, different outlooks on life, different cultures. I loved this book, though I felt that whoever had designed the jacket had done it no favours at all…

The First Casualty by Ben Elton. I’ve blogged about this before, so I won’t do another long spiel but suffice it to say that I loved it a great deal more than the war book I’m reading at the minute which is Michael Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl. TWG is beautiful and well-researched but, frankly, so is The First Casualty which also has a much better story (I’m half way through the Welsh Girl and not very much has happened, though it has failed to happen very beautifully) and a narrative drive which carries you along. Elton makes you care about his characters, so far Mr Davies has not. So why will The Welsh Girl win prizes whilst The First Casualty will not? Why is it assumed that if tens – or hundreds – of thousands of people want to read a book it must be less than worthy literature? I refer the reader to Dickens, Austen, Mrs Gaskell… When did we lose the ability to see that novels need well-drawn characters and a good story, to be told in flawless prose but also to move swiftly to the end of each chapter leaving the reader wanting more?

Atonement by Ian McEwan. See everything I said above. Why Ian McEwan would write books like The Child in Time when he can write the way he did in Atonement defeats me. Even then, I felt that it was a book of two halves. The first half, with its claustrophobic and beautifully realised setting was infinitely more successful – for me – than the second half when he plucked Rob out of prison and took him to war. It was beautifully realised and his research was clearly impeccable but – for me – this part of the story had none of the feverish, brittle, brilliant tension of the first half. Bryony atoning wasn’t half as good as Bryony childishly and wilfully misinterpreting what she saw…

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. People seem to either love or hate this book but I definitely fell into the love category. Well, it’s got a story, innit? Add to that the fact that it’s a wonderfully well-done period piece, it has characters you could cut yourself on, so sharply are they drawn and the fact that Susanna Clarke writes about the use of magic without the smallest suggestion of twee-ness and you’ve got a winner. There was only one thing wrong with this novel, in fact – it was really fat and hard to hold up in bed when reading far longer into the night than I should have been doing…

More best books of 2007 tomorrow.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Writing, routines and the Reading Festival

As I’ve only been writing four days a week for a couple of months (this academic year, to be precise) I’m still working out how best to organise my time. And, clearly, at the moment, I am getting it wrong. Yesterday, I must have been slipping visibly down the slope towards horrible-person-ness because, sometime during the evening, the Other Half suggested that I get up at a reasonable hour this morning and do some writing instead of slobbing in bed til ten o’clock and doing nothing but binge-read before lunch.

Much as I love reading and am enjoying having a lot more time than usual to read, I had to admit that getting some actual work done on the book sounded good. So I got up at eight thirty (that’s still a two hour lie in on normal) had some breakfast, went for a walk and was working (though not in the over-populated kitchen) by ten. Managed nearly three hours with only one blog-induced hiatus. And I felt much better for it. some people get cranky without sleep, or food, or alcohol. For me, it’s writing. I need to do it, especially when the tools of my trade (the kitchen table, the laptop, the teapot) are all there in front of me the whole time saying ‘what have we done – don’t you love us any more?’

I wouldn’t like to say that I’m a creature of routine because, as somebody who works with kids who have an autism spectrum disorder, routines acquire a rather negative spin, but I am a bit like a small child. When I’m at home, I thrive on sameness. On holiday – ie when I’m somewhere else – I can be as slobby as you like. When I went to the Reading Festival with the Bass Player and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak last summer I spent countless hours slobbing out around the tent, reading and listening to podcasts. There were only two bands I really wanted to see (The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kings of Leon, since you ask) and, as I don’t enjoy standing for hours in a jostling, smelly, beer-throwing crowd just to see bands I’ve barely heard of never mind listened to enough to be able to sing along to in the required fashion, those were the only two bands I bothered to go and see for the entire weekend. And I was blissfully happy. I had taken five books and read four and a half of them. I did not miss my routines because, in a tent at the festival site, I had no routine. When I got tired of our tent’s site by the river (I’m not silly, no main arena site for us – being puked/peed/fallen on during the night may be de rigueur if you’re under twenty-five but I can do without those delights) I would wander around the festival and people-watch which was entertaining as I was older than most other festival-goers by a good twenty years. I saw maybe three people the whole weekend who were my age. But then, as the BP and the UFF will tell you, I am unobservant. And I probably wasn’t wearing my glasses as I only took my second best pair (just in case) and they kept falling off.

I’m not one of those writers who keeps a notebook and jots things down. I’ve discovered that when I eventually look at my notes to self I can’t remember why I was so excited about a bit of chewing gum wrapper blowing in the wind or who ‘man with bald head and tattoo of spider with little blonde girl with pink scrunchies’ was or why I wrote ‘Nursery Rhymes!’ without any explanation as to why I was so excited at the thought. My kind of people-watching just involves literally watching, listening if I can (coffee shops are great for that, aren’t they?) and taking in impressions by osmosis. I’ve learned from experience that, later, when I come to write something, it’s all there, in pre-digested form, waiting to be recovered. It’s not that I could necessarily paint a fabulous word-picture of the Reading Festival site, cold, but, if it formed the backdrop to events in a book, I’d be able to pull out details and impressions I hadn’t consciously memorised. Weird, but there you go.

Anyway, what today’s little episode has taught me is that holidays at home are not like holidays away. However much I look forward to spending time at home with the family, I need to insert a couple of hours writing time most days otherwise I’m going to drive them all mad.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Beware - editing in progress.

It’s weird, being at home all day and not writing. Home is my workplace, the kitchen (or occasionally the living room) is where I write so it feels strange to be sitting here reading or watching DVDs with the boys instead of in front of my laptop. By today (ie not quite a week since I last touched the work-in-progress) the fidgettiness was too great and I had to do something. The Ultimate Frisbee Freak was out doing what he loves best, the Bass Player was ensconced in the front room with his girlfriend and Family Guy DVD, the Other Half, being some species of angel, was doing our tax returns (I don’t do numbers and forms freak me out totally) so I was free to play around with words to my heart’s content. I started editing the most recent chapter.

The generally accepted lay-off before your work starts not to feel like yours and you can, therefore, achieve the distance necessary to savage it is six weeks. (Though one of the ancient Greek writers said you should bury your scroll in a jar for three years and forget about it before coming back to it in a completely objective state of mind. Seems a little extreme…) I was giving it six days... Unwise. I waded in with the computing equivalent of the red editing pen (mark and delete) and cut a swathe through last week’s efforts. Too wordy here, too colloquial there, this person sounds too much like you (ie me), that person seems to have forgotten he’s Welsh, why does he sound like a nitwit… there was nothing I was pleased with.
‘That’s quite a nice bit of description’ a timid bit of me suggested as the heavy DELETE hand looked like descending. I read it again. Nice. Hmm.
‘I think maybe you’ve caught what you wanted that person to say rather well’ the timid half of me, gaining courage, suggested. I read it again. Growl. No. Could do better. DELETE.

Mood plays a big part in editing. Sometimes you’re not in objective enough a frame of mind – you might be too pleased with yourself, allowing blatantly weak writing to slip through and reproach you in a later draft or – like today – you might be in a combative state, swingeing about you with the cutting edge of literary endeavour, determined not to let yourself get away with anything less than wonderful prose. Why am I in a combative mood when it’s the lovely Christmas holidays? The Puritan work-ethicist in me says that days and days of sitting around watching bad TV, eating empty calories and drinking too much alcohol is bad for me. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s right. I need treats now and again, a shared bottle of wine here, a box of chocolates there. A lovely book to be read all day every now and again.
All my mental space was filled up with sugar and spice and all things over-indulgent. I was in the mood to be harsh with myself. The hair shirt of literature hung around my shoulders.

Bah. After twenty minutes of self-flagellation when the chapter in question looked to be in serious danger of being reduced to a couple of paragraphs so tightly-worded they made text-speak look like purple prose, I stopped and hit SAVE.

Why the hell did I delude myself (and everybody who reads this blog) a few days ago, that editing demands any less time, effort and mental space than actually composing in the first place? In actual fact, it probably needs more. Instead of just pouring the whole thing out in a big splurge of subconsciousness, you’ve got to be alert to subtleties, nuances, resonances with other bits of the book; your ear has to be open for similies you’ve used before and things which characters have become too fond of saying. Although in real life people repeat themselves endlessly, if you make your characters do it in your books, people get fed up and assume that you didn’t edit tightly enough.

To be fair to myself, I’ve had six days of (almost) unlimited reading of exceptionally well-honed and edited prose so the first draft of my rawest and most recent chapter was never going to measure up. So, if an hour here and there for the next week isn’t going to work, what am I going to do to stave off madness and familicide? I suppose I could brave the sale-hitting hordes and go and work in a coffee shop in town every morning while everybody else is still in bed. (Why is it that I can work surrounded by strangers whereas even one family member in the house at home and I’m hopeless?) Or I could give up trying to work and wait until things return to normal next week...

What do you reckon, people of the blogosphere?

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Christmas books

Waking from the chocolate-flavoured, carol-sound-tracked, new-clothes strewn oblivion of Christmas Day, life surfaces again chez nous. This afternoon the Bass Player, the Other Half and I went shopping with the Waterstones’ cards we got for Christmas. The Ultimate Frisbee Freak was too busy doing payable chores around the place (severely broke after Christmas) to come with us, though he did send us off with instructions to see if the Dalai Lama’s autobiography was out yet – v. attracted by the Dalai Lama is the UFF.

Once over the threshold of the only bookshop left in town (sigh…) I was determined not to just go for the three-for-twos, partly because I’m beginning to feel dictated to and partly because I want to support authors whose publishers haven’t stumped up for a place on the front tables. And, if I’m totally honest, I’ve read all the three-for-twos I fancy anyway…

The results are in the pile on the right – three chosen by the Other Half, three by me. All will be read by both with much gusto.

Not that I’m going to get to these for a while, still got the birthday haul to enjoy. I’ve just finished reading The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris which I raved about here a couple of days ago and which I loved more and more as I read it. There’s something timeless about Joanne Harris’s books, as if they’re purely about the people and their predicament and don’t relate to the rest of the world, be it political situation, cultural context (whatever that might be) or historical time-scale at all. it’s a clever trick if you can pull it off, and she can. Apart from the one mention of the internet (to say that Yanne and her family didn’t have it) and the fact that one character is welded to his mobile phone (which immediately puts him beyond the pale) the modern world doesn’t intrude into The Lollipop Shoes any more than it did into Chocolat. The result is a kind of fable, a timeless story with a uninversal meaning. And I love that kind of thing.

But, though I love it, I don’t write it. My stories are much more time-bound. Testament is full of very specific historical references, both in the fourteenth century where Simon’s life and ambitions are bounded by the heresies of Lollardy and in the contemporary world where neither Damia’s campaign to save the college nor her long-distance relationship with Catz could possibly survive without constant use of the internet. Of course, the internet has its down-side as Damia also discovers.

It’s the same with the current work-in-progress. A memoir written about a single summer in 1843 and a contemporary story based very firmly in the West Wales of the twenty-first century. But, as I say, I do love fables and I’ve put one in to the w-i-p, though whether it will survive beyond the first draft, I don’t know. Stephen King (whom I seem to keep quoting as if all I know about writing comes from him instead of twenty years of practice) says that we should kill our darlings, ie cut out those bits of our books we cherish the most as they’re likely to be dead, purple weight. We shall see.

Meanwhile, am I getting any writing – or even editing, as predicted – done this holiday? Not yet. But tomorrow may be another day in that respect…

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Merry Christmas!


Monday, 24 December 2007

Magic and The Lollipop Shoes

The Lollipop Shoes, by Joanne Harris, is a magical book. It has magic flung over it like fairy-dust and it pulls you into its world of a reality behind the real from the first sentence.

It is a relatively little known fact that, over the course of a single year, about twenty million letters are delivered to the dead.

And it is in this world of the dead-but-still-alive, the assumed identity, the life behind the life that The Lollipop shoes takes place. Vianne Rocher is dead – Anouk, her daughter, tells us so – but Yanne Charbonneau has taken her place. Anouk has become Annie but, she tells us, her real friends call her Nanou. Except she has no friends bar her real/imaginary rabbit Pantoufle.

And Zozie De l’Alba - formerly Francoise Lavery and countless other women - has taken on a new life in the Place des Faux-Monnayeurs where nothing – least of all her – is what it seems. The very name of the square – the faux-monnayeurs – means counterfeiter or forger and that is what both Zozie de l’Alba and Vianne/Yanne are. Both, for reasons of their own, are hiding their real identity, their true history. They are making their life up as they go along and that, too, is a kind of magic.

Zozie confesses to having dabbled in every kind of magic there is and Yanne, too, has cantrips for every occasion, runes for luck and skill with the Tarot. But it is not just this magic that the book is full of. Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre which I read recently was full of Tarot-lore - and even demons and the occult - but stopped short of being magical in the way that the Lollipop Shoes is. Because Joanne Harris is a genius at infusing the mundane with the magical. Who but she would have thought of describing shoes like this:

Those fabulous luminous high-heeled shoes in lipstick, candy-cane, lollipop red, gleaming like treasure on the bare cobbled street.

Gleaming like treasure. Yes! All the world gleams like treasure in the world of Joanne Harris’s books. It’s one of the things which thrills me about her writing. In the work of most authors, description merely serves to illustrate character or to provide a background of resonance against which things happen. In Joanne Harris’s books, description is very much a highlight – she sets the world ablaze with her words without ever descending to purple prose. I love the way she makes me see the world as if I’ve never really looked at it before and – every time I read one of her books, I vow never again to walk down the street without noticing things with all my senses.

Christmas, however religious you are or aren’t, is infused with dollops of magic and the sense of heightened expectation just makes it more so. If you want to immerse yourself in a magic which won’t make you sick from too much chocolate or too much saccharine on the TV, I cannot recommend The Lollipop Shoes too highly. I’m only a quarter of the way through the book and already, I believe….
Merry Christmas everybody!

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Reading and writing over Christmas

Firstly, sorry about the abrupt change back to this 'look' for the blog but I was being driven mad by the font difficulties on the other one. Think of it as a new year's resolution, only early.
Anyway, on with the post.
Will I get any writing done over the Christmas holidays? Extremely unlikely – I find it really difficult to work with anybody else in the house, never mind in the same room as me. So, as the Other Half has all of next week off (hooray!) and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist will both be here work on the book will probably go out of the window.
Having said that, there is stuff I can do, editing being a completely different animal to creating something - the difference between washing up and having created the meal in the first place, I reckon – so I may do some of that.

Stephen King, in On Writing, which I had occasion to mention here a while ago says that one of the things you need a first draft for is to see what your book is really about. Not the story, but what preoccupations and themes lie beneath the story. When he comes to read the first draft of a book, about six weeks after finishing it (during which time, he says, it will be ‘aging, and (one hopes) mellowing’) he says he is

‘..looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I’ll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions.’

I found that an incredibly helpful comment. How, I wondered, have I written four books - one about to be published, for goodness sake! - without knowing that that was what I was supposed to be doing on my read-through of the first draft? Maybe that’s why Testament had to go through so many revisions, because I didn’t really know what it was about until I finally got to grips with my story and got the contemporary narrative to really resonate with the historical thread.

It had always been my intention to have the dual narratives in Testament act as glosses on each other, each informing the reader’s understanding of the other, rather than just have a plot-driven book where the modern-day characters simply needed to solve the mystery of Kineton and Dacre College’s foundation in order to sort out their own, twenty-first century problems. (Though they do that as well.) But I don’t think I’d really worked out what my book was about at a deeper level. Where was it all coming from? Once I’d realised that it was about picking yourself up after disappointments and shattered expectations and living your life with what you had rather than what you wished you had, I was away.

With the work in progress, since reading that piece of advice from Stephen King, I’ve been consciously reflecting on the story every now and again and working out what it is about; what the story means for each of my characters and for the shape and flavour of the book as a whole. I think that’s going to be especially important for the climax – that scene towards which everything should be tending, where tensions are released and disparate strands are brought together made.

I think I might have a go at doing some of that kind of reflection over the holidays rather than trying to move the book forward by producing new stuff. It will probably help when I come to re-start in the New Year as I’ll have an even clearer idea of where the book is going and why. That’s if I can tear myself away from the stack of books I’m hoping to get for Christmas…

Having said that, I’m still working my way through my birthday haul with Karin Slaughter’s Skin Privilege, Joanne Harris’s The Lollipop Shoes, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl and Philippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance still to read and David Baldacci’s The Camel Club only just started. The joys of being a slow reader!

So, hopefully, it’s going to be a fab book-filled Christmas. Instead of writing, I shall indulge my other passion and read incessantly. But I am slightly worried aobut when I am going to find time to learn how to use the breadmaker I know the Other Half and I are getting from her family. Any tips for machine- breadmaking from book-blog-readers?

Friday, 21 December 2007

E-interview for local paper

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the local newspaper where I grew up and where my extended family still lives are very kindly going to do a piece on Testament and me. As I’m guessing most of you don’t take The Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser on a regular basis, I thought I’d give you the benefit of the e-interview I did with the Tivyside’s Bethan Lloyd.

BL:Who would you say the book is written for - who would it appeal to?
AH: Who is Testament written for? You tend to write the kind of books you like to read so I guess the silly answer is it’s written for me, or at least people like me. But I supose it will appeal to people who like books with a strong storyline but which also make you think and, maybe, take you into a world you’ve not experienced – in this case the world of the fourteenth century mason and an Oxbridge-type college community. It will appeal to people who like mysteries as there is a strong element of mystery at the heart of the book and it will also appeal to fans of historical fiction.
Also, it will appeal to anybody who likes a happy ending!
It’s been read by people who are 17 and 70 and was satisfying to both. Testament has been described as appealing more to women but actually my strongest positive reactions have come from male readers. [OK, they were related to me, but still…] There are strong characters of both sexes for readers to identify with so, in that sense, it’s not a ‘man’s’ or ‘woman’s’ book.

BL:It seems that the plot will have a few twists before reaching a climax, is there a shock ending and will readers be suprised with the outcome (without giving the ending away!)?
AH: There are definitely twists and turns as Simon keeps facing mounting odds against getting his college built and Damia is knocked back constantly in her attempts to resurrect the college’s ailing finances and stop it being taken over by the more successful Northgate college (not to mention the messy issue of her love-life). The ending is surprising in that it sees all the different threads in the novel, both historical and contemporary, gathered together in a climactic scene. The reader has – hopefully – not seen it coming but, at the same time, once it’s happened, I hope readers will feel that nothing else could have brought everything to such a satisfactory conclusion.

BL: Where did the inspiration come from for this book?
AH: The inspiration for the book… Well, the college community is not a million miles away from what I experienced myself when I was studying at Oxford (Corpus Christi College), though, obviously, I had no experience of the high-level stuff that goes on in Testament.
As far as the fourteenth century strand is concerned, I’ve always been fascinated by medieval buildings and building techniques – how much they achieved with very primitive mechanisms like block-and-tackle pulleys and treadmills.
But I suppose the actual moment of inspiration was when the image of a ghost in an Oxford college lodge came to me. Who was the ghost, where had he come from? In answering those questions – though there isn’t a ghost in the book – I found the story of Simon of Kineton. The contemporary strand followed because history has always been most fascinating to me in the effects it has on us, in the present. I wanted to see what effects all Simon’s agonising six hundred years before would have on a modern-day person and the college he had struggled to build

BL: Who inspires you in the literary world?
AH: Joanne Harris writes brilliant, multi-sensory books where you can taste, touch, feel and smell her world – I find the way she writes very inspiring. Tracy Chevalier, like me, is fascinated by the past and her novel Virgin Blue is also a split-time novel. Philippa Gregory is one of the most accomplished historical novelists writing at the moment, though her period is the Tudor era rather than the medieval period when Testament is set. Minette Walters is my favourite crime writer and I have learned a lot from her about how a story is constructed and moved along. Jodi Picoult, an American writer, produces books so gripping their pages virtually turn themselves. She also writes with great emotional depth about her characters which is what I try to do, too.

BL: The title -'Testament' - does this have a close link to the plot line and will the choice of word become clearer towards the end?
AH: Testament. Yes - you have no idea how long it took me and my publishers to find a title which worked! It’s important to have a title which not only reflects something of the book’s content but also gives the reader an idea of the book’s general genre. This is popular fiction, not literary fiction so it had to be bold and direct. (If it had been literary fiction, I would have called it Steadfast like the Crane – you’ll see why if you read it!) Does it have a close relationship to the plotline – yes, but you can only see that at the end of the book! There’s no point halfway through when you think ‘Ah, that’s why it’s called Testament!’

BL: Also, just to add some local interest, I wondered whether you could let me know a bit about your time back in Cardigan.

AH: I went to primary school in the village where my parents still live, then to secondary school in Cardigan.
I think the last time I was in The Tivyside was probably for winning the crown in the school eisteddfod in 1980 when I was 17 (for a sonnet entitled Winter if it’s of any interest!) Other write-ups I would have had would be for a small part in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ when I was in the 5th form (I was the Duchess and a bystander – such varied talent!) and – possibly – for singing (along with three other altos when we were horribly short of tenors) the part of one of the house of peers in Dafydd Wyn Jones’ translation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ which the school put on in summer 1980 for the Gwyl Fawr.
My other claim to fame whilst at school is that I had the great good fortune to have Menna Elfyn as my Welsh teacher. Menna is, now, of course, a world-famous poet and author.
Sadly, having not lived in Wales for the best part of 27 years, my Welsh is pretty rusty these days!

So there you have it – my interview for the Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser. Now you don’t have to order a copy in January…

Thursday, 20 December 2007

It's here!

Wild excitement chez moi today as my very own pre-publication copies of Testament have arrived! Here’s the box they came in.

Here they are in a fat pile, looking v. smart. (I do like the way all MNW books have the striking black spine with the title in white.)

And here’s one I prepared earlier. Much earlier and several times. The book itself. Testament. Toby to its friends (you’ll see why if you read it) and oh, so nearly
The Master Mason’s Son.

I was so excited when they came that I couldn’t sit still so I gave up writing for a couple of hours and baked shortbread and flapjacks for Christmas pressies! I do like to pretend to be a domestic goddess occasionally!

The arrival of my copies of Testament represents, as I said to an old friend on the phone ‘the triumph of sheer bloody minded determination over any kind of realism’. Thank goodness for Mike Barnard and his brainchild, Macmillan New Writing – as those of you whose Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook falls open at ‘Publishers UK’ will know, there are fewer and fewer publishers who will look at unagented fiction or anything ‘without prior agreement’. In such a chilly climate, the welcome at MNW is warm.

And now, just because I can, I’m going to quote the whole of the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, because… well, when you read it, you’ll know why.

In acknowledging those who have helped in the writing of a book there’s a tendency to thank everybody or nobody. But there are a few people without whom this book would, quite literally, not have been written. My family, Edwina, Sam and Rob have watched our income go down and down as I have worked less and written more – I would not have been able to dedicate time to writing if they had once mentioned that they might like a foreign holiday or a designer… anything. Their emotional, financial and moral support and unswerving belief that one day I would ‘make it’ have enabled me to produce the book Testament has become.
Years ago, when Testament was an idea, then a tentative draft, my ex-husband, John, gave me enormous support of every kind for which I am truly and enduringly grateful.
And finally, very much in the here and now, I must thank my editor, Will Atkins, who has enabled me to make Testament the book I always wanted it to be.

That's more than enough for today, I think.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Unblocked and showing restraint...

What are my chances of suing Jodi Picoult for loss of earnings? I mean, seriously, how am I supposed to work when there’s Nineteen Minutes to read?

I did limit myself to an hour this morning so I was writing by half past eight so not too much damage done... I made sure that the book didn’t come downstairs with me once I’d got up and I stoically ignored the little voice which said ‘I'm in here’ from the bedroom when I went upstairs to rack the washing up next to the bathroom radiator. OK, yes, I’ve got the heating on during the day, it’s barely getting above freezing in Canterbury during the day at the moment and you try typing with frozen hands. I wear fingerless gloves as it is!

Where was I? Oh yes, the book calling to me. I hardened my heart. I told myself I didn’t care what was going to happen next to Peter Houghton the High School shooter, that I didn’t care if Jodi Picoult had made me sympathetic to somebody who guns down ten of his classmates, that I didn’t want to know (desperately) whether/how JP is going to save him from being locked away in jail for the rest of his natural life. I turned away! Yes.

Over lunch I read bits of The Author which arrived yesterday and felt virtuous and professional. I now know more about the fiasco at the PFD literary agency than I ever knew I needed to know, but I didn’t succumb to Picoult and, after determined thinking and re-writing my own novel is back on track. Result!

The nasty patch mentioned yesterday with such pessimism turned out to be no more than a conversation people shouldn’t have been having. Yet. What we needed was … well, don’t ask because I’m not going to tell you. I can’t, that’s not how it works for me. The minute I discuss the work in progress with anybody it sounds totally ludicrous and I wonder what exactly the hell I think I’m doing. It needs to solidify a lot before I can even let anybody think about looking at it. All these writers who give their spouse their novel to read chapter by chapter? Sheer madness in my view. Or just a very different approach to writing. Perhaps theirs is less subconscious and more conscious. Not mine, as I said - at some length - here.

So, am I going to be able to indulge my Picoult-mania this evening? No. This evening I shall be answering various questions sent to me by the editor of the local newspaper where I grew up (The Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser) which is, very kindly, going to run a feature on Testament and me.

The questions? Hmmm. That’s for tomorrow’s post, I think.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already read Nineteen Minutes, buy it. Don’t wait to be given it for Christmas - that’s nearly a week away! Buy it now, today, tomorrow at the latest.
But only if you like page-turners and people who you can – oh so easily – imagine being.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Things that make me laugh

Do you ever read something which you find ludicrously funny but which seems to leave other people cold? Happens to me all the time. I could hardly get through Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island for laughing, and, even though other people thought it was amusing, nobody was incapacitated like me. PG Wodehouse has much the same effect, particularly the Jeeves and Wooster stories.

I have just discovered (almost a year late) that Louise Doughty (that's her in the photograph) has been writing a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph since last January. It’s called ‘A Writer’s Year’ and was clearly designed as a ‘this is how this writer does it’ column but Louise Doughty has sent herself up royally. I laughed so much last night that the Other Half, peering over her reading specs like some school marm (the only time she ever looks like one) asked to be let into the joke. Here’s the paragraph. I should have let the OH read it herself, too, because every time I tried to read it I cracked up again and had to wipe my eyes.

Louise is at a literary party and has already had a glass of wine or two…

Another friend was pleased that his writing residency at a university had been extended, because they gave him free use of an office and a whippet. I found myself nodding sagely in agreement, although it was some minutes before I realised he had said "equipment". At that point, I corked the bottle and shuffled off home.

A whippet! You see? Just cutting and pasting it has made me start laughing all over again! Why is it so funny? (As the OH asked, baffled as ever by my weird sense of humour.) I think it’s the total incongruity of imagining a whippet in an office – and a whippet, moreover, that one was given free use of… whatever that might look like.

Anyway. My own writing is not going so swimmingly. I spent most of yesterday doing research which, today, it looks as if I’m not going to use because I don’t think the chapter I had in mind is going to work. Was the research interesting? Yes, actually. It was about the Mabinogion – the cycle of Welsh legends which are the country’s greatest historical prose treasure, so it was quite nice to be reminded what they’re all about. If you’re remotely interested, Wikipedia is rather good on them, here.

I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to go into Christmas mired in a patch of ‘I’m not quite sure what comes next’-ness in the book, which is an uncomfortable place to be. Added to this, my reading matter at the moment is proving far too attractive and lunchtimes are extending from the half hour I normally allow them to over an hour.

Now finished Sarah Bower’s The Needle in the Blood – fantastic. If you’re remotely interested in historical fiction, or – frankly – even if you’re not and just like fiction about well-drawn characters, get somebody to buy it for you for Christmas. It’s fab. Definitely one of my top 5 books of the year. The others? Well, my current book-on-the-go (another, like TNITB, from the birthday haul) Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes has to be up there. I find all Jodi Picoult’s books pretty compulsive but this one – about a seventeen year old who shoots dead ten students at his High School and injures twice as many more – is COMPELLING. With a capital C and all the rest, as illustrated. I keep having to make cups of tea so I can read it while the kettle boils. How sad am I…?

Right, must go back and try and find my way into the next bit of my own book and stop thinking how effortless JP makes it look. Somebody please tell me she has to do more than one draught…

Monday, 17 December 2007

Publication date woes

Heard today that, due to ‘technical difficulties’ in the ‘production department’ of MNW, the publication of Testament has had to be put back by two weeks. Drat!! So, instead of the New Year thrill of seeing it on the shelves and on the Internet on January the 4th, I’m going to have to wait until January the 18th. It’s only two weeks, I know, but is still a bit of a disappointment.
After all, it’s been almost a year since I had the fateful email from Will Atkins, the MNW commissioning editor, telling me that he really liked Testament and that MNW would like to publish it. On January 4th 2008.

It was more than slightly amazing to me that his email contained so much detail. Publication date, price, terms – all there in black and white. When I’d submitted the MS to MNW four months previously I had assumed that the best I could hope for, some time in the future, would be a carefully worded email expressing interest and asking me to come and talk to them about the book. My previous experience had led me to believe that that, in itself, would be a minor miracle. But no – we love your book and we want to publish it. It’s this, it’s that, it’s the other (sparing my own blushes by not directly quoting from v. complimentary email.) End of story.

Of course, it wasn’t the end of the story. There was some polishing and rewriting – though no radical structural editing of the kind I was expecting after brushes with other publishers (which were along the lines of ‘we really like the historical strand but aren’t sure about the contemporary, are you quite happy with it?’ I re-wrote the contemporary strand completely – characters, storyline, the lot – on the basis of that question alone. And the publisher still didn’t like it enough to publish…) Then there was copy-editing… Am I alone in finding the comments of copy-editors, their changing of punctuation and suggestions as to alternative words, infinitely more annoying than the more swingeing comments of commissioning editors? Perhaps I am – perhaps it was just because I had met Will, liked and trusted him and would, pretty much, have considered anything he said before deciding not to do it.

Editing was done entirely by computer without paper ever intervening. Will sent me a version of the book with his suggestions logged in the ‘track changes’ option in MS Word. I then changed or didn’t change things as suggested (or elsewhere if I suddenly realised I needed to change other stuff I hadn’t seen before) and my changes were also logged, in a different colour. So, we could see who’d suggested what and who had done what. And why - you can add comments to your own or somebody else’s changes. Amazing stuff! Doubtless all you pros out there are going ‘tchah, track changes, old news’ but for me it was a revolutionary piece of technological wizardry!

The copy editing was done on paper – not sure why but involved the familiar tons of typescript and the poor postman standing at the door before shoving it into my hands. At least it wasn’t like the old days when MS would come back with the familiar ‘Thank you for sending us your novel…’ letter to ruin your day.

Then came proof reading. Finally, I saw Testament as it would appear in print, each block of page-sized text sitting, looking slightly lost, in the middle of an A4 sheet. Somehow, a lot of errors seemed to have crept in at the typesetting stage so I had to keep my wits about me. Fortunately, as mentioned elsewhere, I read very slowly which is ideal for proofreading. I’d be really interested to know how many more errors the professional proofreader picked up than me.

As an unwelcome consequence of the proof-reading experience, I’ve become hyper-critical of typos and errors in published books. ‘Pah’ I cry, ‘somebody didn’t proof-read very carefully did they?’
You can all do the same to Testament when it comes out as I doubt very much whether I, at least, was able to spot 100% of the errors.

Proof reading finished in the middle of October and – as far as I can gather – the book was re-typeset and sent off to be printed and bound and have its jacket fitted cosily around itself ready to sit fatly on shelves.

Since I’ve been privy to all previous stages, I can only assume that it’s printing, binding, jacketing or getting the thing into warehouses which has gone awry. See, I don’t really know what ‘production’ entails apart from the bit of handwaving above.

Anyway, I shall remain in the dark and bide my time until the 18th of January when, all being well, Testament will finally see the light of bookshops (or at least the inside of an Amazon warehouse). I heard today that most Waterstones, Borders and Books Etc will be stocking it, along with lots of small independent bookshops which are MNW’s lifeblood.
THANK YOU SMALL INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS – THIS AUTHOR LOVES YOU! Some of you are even on my daily blog reading Simon and Tim down at the Big Green Bookshop.

So, if you have a local independent bookshop – sadly, we no longer do in Canterbury - please do order Testament from them, they (and all of us at MNW) need all the support you can give them (and us!)

Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Needle in the Blood

In amongst the Christmas shopping and failure, yet again, to put up the tree (tomorrow, tomorrow!) I am having a lovely time reading Sarah Bower’s The Needle in the Blood.

Oh, what joy to read a book whose depth of historical knowledge isn’t flagged up every page or two on the ‘I’ve done all this research so you’re bloody well going to know about it’ principle. Sarah Bower obviously knows her stuff inside out, back to front and upside down and it shows. It shows in everything she doesn’t say or doesn’t have to say, it shows in the way she treats the reader like a grown-up and doesn’t explain who all her characters are and how they fit into the scheme of things. Hey, if you don’t know who The Confessor is why on earth would you be reading a book about the making of the Bayeux Tapestry in the first place?

And, even when historical details are given, they are woven in so seamlessly to the narrative, into the way her characters’ interact with each other and the world that it is a joy to behold. Sarah Bowers doesn’t go for static descriptions of things but weaves details into the sinewy dynamic of her story – for instance, the full medieval Earl’s regalia is described, item by item, as his mistress removes it! I love it, love it, love it!

I also love Sarah Bower’s characters. As far as I’m aware, Aelfgytha, late of Harold Godwinson’s court and handmaid to his mistress, Edith Swan-Neck, is an entirely fictional person but for all that – perhaps because of that – she is a very real, highly engaging woman who you expect to step off the page any minute and demand to know who you are and what you’re doing reading all about her private affairs.

Aelfgytha – despite the Anglo-Saxon name – is Welsh by descent. It’s interesting, this resort to the ‘same but different’ persona of the foreigner within. It allows all sorts of not-quite-done behaviour and accounts for radically different ways of thinking. I know – I did the same in Testament when I made Simon’s wife, Gwyneth, Welsh.

But this isn’t about Testament, it’s about The Needle in the Blood, whose other main protagonist is Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, everywhere referred to in the book as The Bastard which is both technically correct and – doubtless – a shorthand expression of how his English subjects felt about him. Odo is very different to William – mercurial where William is phlegmatic, imaginative where his brother is prosaic, romantic where the King is pragmatic. William comes across as, frankly, dull whereas his brother is the kind of charmer who could whisk the most resistant female off her feet. And he’s a woman’s man, he likes a woman with spirit, with intelligence, who won’t automatically let him win. Which Aelfgytha most certainly does not.

Odo’s sister, Agatha also features in the book and it was a delightful surprise to find – as one so rarely does in historical fiction – that she is gay. Gay and riddled with self-loathing it’s true but gay nonetheless. This gives a very different edge to the dynamic in the atelier, the glass-walled workshop where her embroiderers create the wonder of the ancient world which is the Bayeux Tapestry.

Though The Needle in the Blood is, essentially, a love story, it is full of such polictical intrigue that Odo and Gytha’s affair becomes a looking-glass into which we gaze to see the state of the conquered country. I haven’t finished it yet – in fact I’m only half way through, but I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who has the remotest interest not just in medieval history but also in human nature and how and why people love and hate.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Whatever the weather...

Today, in Canterbury, it’s cold with that kind of dense, high cloud which dampens everything beneath it and looks as if it could produce snow for days on end. In my book, however, it is the hottest of hot summers. Riot weather. What, didn’t you know that riots are much more likely to happen after a spell of unusually hot weather? Frays the nerves. The police pray for rain when things look like kicking off, I’m told. Perhaps, instead of breaking out the baton-rounds and riot shields when going to confront stone-throwing, Molotov-cocktail heaving mobs, they should consider seeding clouds instead. Or directing their water-cannon skywards and letting the jets drop as the gentle rain from heaven upon the yobs beneath… But I digress, clearly.

It’s not easy writing about hot, sweaty, dessiccated days when you’re watching the other half take boiling water out to de-frost the windscreen every morning and fighting a losing battle with the carbon-footprint conscience about whether to turn the heating on during the day. (Did I? Yes, I did, but I went and turned all the thermostatic valves in the house (apart from the kitchen and adjacent rooms where I live and move and have my writing) off. And, as the Other Half says in order to salve my conscience, it must be easier to maintain an even warmth in the house than to have to heat it up from scratch each afternoon at 4.30 when the heating comes on again. Actually, since we live in a terrace, most of the house stays pretty warm but the kitchen’s a single-storey extension with the resultant outside wall issues.

All of wich which makes it much harder to write about a West Wales in the grip of a heat wave. The other thing which makes it difficult to do is that my only real-life experience of West Wales in heat wave happened in 1976 and a lot of memory-loss-inducing water has gone under the bridge since then.

Putting myself in the place of people who can’t sleep because it’s so hot, who are slathering sunblock on to avoid turning into purple-coloured crisps, whose footsteps send up dust on the farm lane is hard when I’m shivering, typing in fingerless gloves and drinking even more tea than usual in a bid to warm myself from the inside.

I’m listening to my characters expressing feelings of bliss when they walk into the cool of an old building, feeling the cold stone flagstones cool their hot, throbbing feet whilst I’m wondering if the sun will ever shine down from a clear blue sky again, if I’ll ever be able to go out in a t-shirt and jeans without freezing to death.

At one point today, I was trying to conjour up the plants which would be wilting in the July heat my characters are living through. We’ve got precious little to amuse us in the vegetation department at the minute so it’s quite hard to remember just how rampant an old West Walian hedgerow can get in terms of flora. But if I close my eyes and walk in my imagination along the little back road past Dangraig farm, Y Gaer and up to Brongwyn church I can see the stitchwort, herb robert and red campion in front of my eyes. Toadflax’s brilliant yellow and speedwell’s heavenly blue grow in sunny patches and there might even be the odd bit of ragged robin where a spring makes the ground damp.

There, not too difficult to do when you’ve got a particular place in mind.

Strangely, I didn’t find it at all difficult, last summer, writing about West Wales in the rain…

by the way, the change of font-size is due to some difficulties some people have been having with lines disappearing from the screen. sorry if this is a bit small... please let me know if it's an issue and I'll try with other fonts rather than other sizes.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

My writing day 2

So, this follows on from yesterday’s blog about my writing day.

Some or all of the following will take place.

Reading blogs and blogging. Both the family laptops are in almost constant use by the UFF and the B in the evenings so blogging doesn’t get a look in the weeks they’re here. [They divide their time equally between our house and their Dad’s on the other side of town, on a week-on, week-off basis.] Reading blogs is the first thing I do each morning, like touching base with friends, and I peck away at my own at various points in the day. If a paragraph isn’t coming right in the book, I’ll have a quick go at the blog. If I’ve just done a chunk I’m really pleased with, I’ll do a few more sentences on the blog.. you get the picture.

Washing, ironing, tidying, vacuuming, cooking supper… well I have to justify all this time at home somehow…

Making and drinking industrial quantities of tea. At least I’m taking up green tea as well which is supposed to be better. But better than what? Black tea? Not consuming liquids? Alcohol? Poking yourself with a propelling pencil? Strangling the cat?

Writing and answering emails. A gratifying number of these are starting to be about writing. For instance, heard today that the local newspaper where I grew up is interested in doing a piece about Testament. Hooray. But there are equally likely to be frustrating emails from eg car insurers or somebody with an unlikely name offering to sell me drugs to improve bits of anatomy I don’t have.

Going for a walk. I try to do this every day. I used to run (that makes it sound like I’ve spent 40 of my 45 years at it – but no, I’ve had brief spates of running throughout my adult life, the last of which ended last year with a bad back) but I’ve discovered that walking frees my mind more to think about things other than pain and getting sufficient air into my lungs. It also saves time – don’t need to change clothes before you go and don’t need a shower when you get in. Oh, and you can take in Tesco’s en route and pick up more tinned tomatoes (or whatever) as needed. Today’s walk was v. beautiful as the rain has gone away and it has been one of those crisp, clear autumn days we all long for. Even saw a bullfinch which you don’t get many of round here.

Picking bits of fluff and cat hairs out of my laptop keyboard. I don’t know why but this seems to occupy a ridiculous amount of my writing time. I should have the cleanest keyboard in the Northern Hemisphere but there always seem to be cat hairs in there. Do we have an abnormally moulty cat? She’s not bald so unless she grows hair at an alarming rate that can’t be it, surely?

Sneak reading whatever book I have on the go. I try not to do this because two minutes spent reading easily turns into three-quarters of an hour but some books are just too compulsive… I’m looking at you, David Baldacci and you, Minette Walters.

I’m sure I’ll think of dozens of other things which occupy my writing day once I’ve posted this but those are a few. Now, how am I going to condense all this verbiage down for Matt?

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

My writing day

I’ve been asked to do a an online interview with Matt Curran to go up on the MNW blog in the week that Testament is published. Which is great, obviously!
But there’s one question I’m a bit stuck over.

What is your typical writing day?

It’s not that I don’t have writing days. Unlike some of my MNW colleagues (is that the right word for people you’ve never met but feel a kind of professional affinity with because you’re all at the same sort of stage of your writing life and are published by the same house?) who write in the evenings and snatched hours in days basically given over to bringing up the next generation, I have the luxury of four whole writing days a week. Having survived on evenings for most of a decade, then a blissful two days a week for years, this really is unimaginable luxury.

No, it’s how I describe the patchwork of activities which constitute an average writing day. I don’t have a word count I work towards, though I’m always happier when I’ve produced the magic thousand words (today I’ve knocked off 1,963) but how many words gets done is largely related to where I am in the book and whether I’m still having to plunge into pages of planning for the next chunk or do some research. These things slow the writing pace down, dontcha know.

Actually, while we’re on the subject of word count, one of the things I’ve noticed about having more writing days is that – weirdly - I’m less bothered about how many words I produce. When I only had two days in which to push back the literary frontiers (ahem) I was obsessed with getting the 1k done, as if I had to prove to myself that the book was progressing. Now, I’m more chilled, I’ve got more time to spend in my fictional world and I know things are moving on so I don’t have to prove it to myself.

I do basically sit at the kitchen table from 8am when the boys leave for school til 5ish when they get home. But there are various other things which can and do take place, some of which I will blog about tomorrow if I can get my act together in between work (as in the one day in five I actually earn a living rather than dream of royalties) and getting all of us plus sundry other teenagers to the boys' carol service in Canterbury cathedral in the evening.

How do other writers out there organise their time?

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

History vs. Story

As those of you who read this blog regularly will know, the work in progress involves events in and around West Wales in the 1840s. Specifically, that area of Wales where the three old counties of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire meet, in the summer of 1843 when the Rebecca Riots – nocturnal gatherings of men dressed as women for the purposes of destroying tollgates and addressing other perceived social ills – were in full swing.

One of the things the characters are having to grapple with at the moment is whether folk history/oral history is as valid as the written down variety.

In my research I came across this lovely quotation from Gore Vidal

‘Since I have been written about, perhaps, a bit more than most historians, I am not as impressed as they are by what I see in print, no matter how old and yellow the cutting.’

Yes, quite. I think I’ve mentioned here before that things look far more official when in print so I would have to agree with Mr Vidal. But why is this? The phenomenon of the apparent trustworthiness of print, I mean, not my agreement with GV. Is it a hang-over from the time when simply to be able to write things down meant that one was educated and therefore entitled to speak with authority? Or do we generally find the things we believe in print to be mostly true and therefore believe it all on balance?

I’ve had the odd brush with the press myself in a previous life (more of that at some future date, maybe) and know, to my cost, that what is written is not always objective or truthful. The story is all and facts take second place. But is oral history – interviewing people who took part in events – or fok history – the stories which have come down to us by word-of-mouth about those events - any better?

It seems to me that cold, hard, literal truth (if such a thing exists) is nearly always pushed into second place by the need to tell an engaging story. Newspapers will alter facts if they think this fits their story better and I’m sure documentary makers do the same. Otherwise the cutting floor would not be littered with dozens of hours of footage and we would be watching very lengthy television programmes.
Folklore may, possibly, do this cutting and colouring less consciously but only those elements which contribute to the thrust of the story will be left in, details which go against the grain will, either from the beginning or over time, be winnowed out. I guess that’s why folk tales from the same country can look quite different in separate regions as the tellers have adapted the tale to their own local agenda.

Inevitably, I’m doing the same in my book. Obviously, I have a particular view of what it must have been like to participate in the Rebecca Riots and I am, in all probability, ignoring facts which don’t chime in with that. At the very least, I will be chosing to tell those bits of the story of the riots which fit in with my views and the way my characters perceive events. If I had no view, it would be an indication that I have absolutely no interest in the events and there would be no point in spending all this time writing a book about it.

Some people might say that that makes my book – possibly all historical fiction – a less valid enterprise than writing a textbook. But, aside from the fact that the motivation for writing a novel is very different from that which inspires non-fiction, haven't we all read historical fiction which has catapulted us lock, stock and barrel into a different time period, immersed us totally in the way of life and ways of thinking of the time in a way which a non-fiction book, however brilliant, never could . As I write, I’m thinking of Lindsey Davis’s books starring Roman 'private informer' (and sometime spy) Marcus Didius Falco. I’m fascinated by the Romans and have read numerous books about them but none brought them to life and made me feel that I knew how they ticked like Falco’s exploits. You can hear, see, taste, touch ancient Rome. And, what’s more, it’s quite clear from Lindsey Davis’s take on the Romans that human nature doesn’t change. Or, at least, Lindsey Davis doesn’t think it does!

Fiction isn’t just about facts (the clue’s in the word, folks) it’s about how people interact with the events they are caught up in, how they feel about them, how they perceive them, how they remember them, how those events change their lives. And, I’m assuming, that’s what folklore represents. Not just what happened but how what happened shaped the people to whom it happened.

The debate between narrative history and ‘respectable’ history is not academic in the book I’m working on. Which side wins the argument will determine how the book proceeds, whether a dream flourishes or dies, but it’s been interesting to think about the whole issue and to come to the conclusion that, whichever version you prefer, all history is story, whether we recognise it as such or not.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Visitors and the Writing Zone

I don’t know about other writers but when I’ve had people to stay for a few days – however overjoyed I am to see them – I can’t settle to work immediately once they’ve gone. I need to find my way back into that space of almost indolent calm in which I can slip into my fictional world unnoticed and mundane tasks like putting the washing on, cleaning the floor or ironing can be slotted in to the writing day without breaking my concentration.

When we’ve had guests, my thoughts are too fragmented, I’ve had to exist too much outside my own head; I’ve been too busy making sure they’re OK, that they’re not bored, that they’re getting what they like to eat, that they’re sleeping OK, to find that kind of peaceable tranquility of mind which I need if I’m going to hear what my characters are saying and see what they’re doing. I can write other stuff – blogging’s OK, because that’s me speaking out of my conscious mind but fiction, which comes from another place entirely, is impossible on the day people have left.

So today, I have taken up a long-standing invitation to contribute a post to the Macmillan New Writers’ blog which you can read here. It’s longstanding not because I’m a dilatory blogger but because the email invitation arrived via my website and, until Friday when the Other Half’s sister rang to say that emails sent to via the ‘Contact’ page on the site were being ‘pinged’ back, I had no idea that the feed from website to email inbox wasn’t working. A quick email to the guy who designed my website and I had an inbox full of exciting emails.

Tomorrow, I shall be back to what passes for normal chez nous and, I hope, back in the fictional world of Rebecca Revisited.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

We have launch date!

We have a date! Testament is going to be launched at a party at Goldsboro Books on the 10th of January! Totally excited. Other people are talking about what they’re going to wear and are horribly shocked when I confess to no plans whatsoever to buy anything new. Well, I want people to like the book not to be impressed by a new frock/suit/shirt/ripped jeans/whatever.

With that in mind I’ve been doing a bit on MS Publisher, letting friends and family know about the event via an invitation which will go in the Christmas cards. Also going in the Christmas cards is the dreaded Christmas letter, though we always do jokey ones about foible-filled things we’ve done during the year and don’t mention exam results, exotic holidays or other stuff which will inspire people to mutter ‘it’s all very well for them….’ and cross us off the Christmas list.

Meanwhile, my parents are here and we are Christmas shopping (minus Dad who is allergic, in the way only older men can be to shopping) in the packed streets of Canterbury. Today, packed and pouring with rain – definitely not conducive to festive cheer, but hey, who cares?

Off to see the Ultimate Frisbee Freak in his school play tonight. (Great celebrations this week when he passed his driving test!!)

Blogging about reading and writing will recommence on Monday.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Love and hate revealed in fiction

In the book I am currently reading - ‘The Moment You Were Gone’ by Nicci Gerrard – a character keen to give an unknown correspondent some idea of what she is like lists, at length, the things she loves and those she hates. It’s interesting, she remarks, how much more the things we hate reveal about us.

Is that true?
Is passionate loathing more fundamental to who we are as human beings than passionate love? Do the people, situations and things we avoid like the plague reveal more about us than those we rush towards?

Does the fact, for instance, that I hate even thinking about crawling through low-ceilinged tunnels as potholers do or standing on the edge of a very long drop (think Tom Cruise at the beginning of Mission Impossible II standing on that tall pinnacle of rock in the desert) tell you more about me than the fact that I love wild western beaches and blustery autumn days on a hilltop? Possibly so. Those facts tell you that I am not gifted with huge amounts of physical courage. I do not strive to push myself to new limits of endurance or tolerance. I am not an adrenalin junkie. I quite like my nature wild but I’m never in any doubt who’s in charge – no stamping my authority on nature for me, ta very much.

OK then, maybe so far so revealing, but how about the fact that I loathe the whole notion of fashion-victimhood with a vengeance whereas I am a sucker for the latest electronic gadgets? I cannot tell you how much I covet an iPhone, how much I love my laptop (no, really, it is love) how ironing is a whole new ballgame now I listen to podcasts and discover things I never even thought about knowing.

And if loves and hates are revealing, do the books people write reveal as much about them? Is Tom Clancy a real action man like his fictional heroes when not sitting at his computer, or is he an armchair adventurer who would throw up his hands and wave a white hanky at the first sign of the kind of thing his characters routinely laugh off with a wry witticism?

Do the intricate - not to say machiavellian - plots of those who write crime fiction indicate characters forever scheming and planning, or are they more likely to be people who like things to be neat and tidy, moral, organised people who long for good to triumph in the end and for order to be restored?

Are romance writers romantic in their own relationships? Or would they just like to be? I’ve always been told that it’s impossible to fake it where romantic fiction is concerned (‘No, Alis you can’t just knock off a few Mills and Boon to subsidise your other writing…’) It’s impossible to just turn it on and be convincing, you’ve got to be behind your story heart and soul. You have to absolutely believe that this rugged, impossibly handsome man and this feisty, quirkily beautiful and ultimately melting woman would fall in love despite all the obstacles placed in their way.

So, what does the fact that I have a tendency to produce books which combine contemporary and historical narratives say about me?
That I can’t make up my mind?
That I’m easily distracted and can’t keep on one track long enough?
That I’m not dedicated enough to my historical characters to write totally historical fiction?
No. At least, I don’t think any of those things are true.
For me, history is fascinating, particularly the everyday kind of social history – the nitty-gritty of how people lived. I’m not a historian - I studied English at university - but the things I enjoyed most – Anglo Saxon and the History of English – taught me a lot about how England has come to be the country it is now.

I have a feeling that, in my books, I’m trying to work out how, if things had been different in the past, we might be living in a totally different present. More on this, I have a feeling, anon.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Mr Darcy's Diary - two for the price of two

Getting publicity for a book you have written is almost as hard as writing the thing or finding somebody to publish it. Unless you’re already famous for something else, or are so shamelessly self-publicising that you’re prepared to doorstep the PM naked or call your book BUY THIS BOOK IF YOU LIKED [insert names of at least three books that your book either resembles slightly or wants to resemble a whole lot more] finding a market for an unknown author is proverbially hard.

Which means we could all learn a thing or two from Maya Slater and Amanda Grange who have both written books called Mr Darcy’s Diary. What a brilliant piece of market-placement; find your eager readers first and then write just what they want to read! Perfect!

Why didn’t I think of that…?

Of course there will be Janeite purists out there who will not sully their lorgnettes or their chaises longues with anything which purports to represent Miss Austen’s characters but wasn’t actually written by her. They will eschew these books whilst looking down their noses at them, possibly holding a lacy handkerchief to their nostrils to keep out the whiff of literary larceny.
But those who could never resist Mr Darcy in a wet shirt will queue up to buy these books and are unlikely to be disappointed.

I have just read the pair for our book group which met to discuss them last night. It’s the first time we’ve attempted a ‘compare and contrast’ read but – for me at least – it was a great success. (And no, it wasn’t my idea. In fact, it wasn’t anybody’s idea really – one of our number chose the Maya Slater book having forgotten the author and, when it became clear there were two, we decided to read both as neither is overly long.)

We did wonder what trick of synchronicity had persuaded two authors to produce books of the same title in the same year – some copyright thing which has a lifespan of over a century and a half? – but, after consulting the inner pages, we worked out that it was simple geography – Ms Slater’s book was published in the UK, Ms Grange’s in the US.

Amanda Grange’s Mr Darcy’s Diary can be a bit disconcerting at times because it is SO VERY like Pride and Prejudice. In fact I checked up and some bits are just lifted straight from the pages of P&P, as when Darcy and Elizabeth are chatting/flirting/teasing each other. This version is the absolute flipside of Jane Austen’s book – there we mostly see things from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, in Amanda Grange’s book we see exactly the same events from Fitzwilliam’s point of view. And nothing else, apart from a little extension after the weddings which, even so, stops short of anything which might smack to Ms Austen of impropriety.

Not so Maya Slater’s book. This Mr Darcy is much more fully explored. We see much further behind his scenes and quite raunchy some of the scenes are too. His feather-spitting antipathy to George Wickham is more fully explained and explored as is his young life and the way in which he came to be so ‘ungentlemanlike’ in his pride. Maya Slater’s book gives us more of a feel for the life of a Regency gentleman and how he would have spent his time. She even invents a friendship for Darcy with Lord Byron who, despite his scandalousness, is presented as something of a sad figure.

I was delighted that both books are united in the extremely short shrift they give Caroline Bingley (don’t you just want to give her a resounding slap?) and both flesh out Anne de Burgh somewhat, which I enjoyed.

The working title of my current book is Rebecca Revisited. I’ve always assumed that no publisher would produce it under that title as the reading public would immediately think Daphne du Maurier but, in the light of Mr Darcy’s Diary, maybe I need to think again….