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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Writing an Icon - an unusual art

I was reading in our free Parish Magazine that one of the nuns from our local monastery has been commissioned to write an icon for the local church. Of course it is a painting, but the terminology for producing a religious icon is to "write" it. I wondered why the word "writing" was used, so I did a little investigation.

An icon (from the Greek eikon - an image) is like a picture, but is not supposed to be an actual representation of the person, more like a window into our understanding of the qualities that the saint or holy person represents, and a window into our own soul and relationship with God. An icon can be compared to a carefully constructed poem. Every element, like a word in a poem, fits very concisely and precisely to add to the overall meaning and harmony of the whole.

Each icon is supposed to be unique and written with a prayerful attitude, requiring many hours of painstaking work, including contemplating the symbolism of that particular saint.

"It's very important to be at peace with yourself and with the world around you. Writing an icon is a form of prayer. Each brushstroke is like a form of meditation. You have to have that inner peace. Otherwise, you can't do it." Maria Leontovitsh Manley, icon painter.

Not all icons are portraits, although this is the most common form. Above - a 12th Century Icon showing monks ascending a ladder to a welcoming Jesus. Note the devils trying to pull them off!

Nothing artificial is used in the production of an icon, which is usually painted on a wood panel that represents the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge, and sometimes it is called an ark to recall the Ark of the Covenant.

The board is covered with linen cloth which represents the shroud of Jesus and then the whole thing is painted with gesso and egg tempera in the required design. On the right is the earliest known icon of Christ from the 6th century.

Colour plays an important role in the design. Red represents divine life, and blue human life, whilst white is the pure essence of God, only used in resurrection and transmigration scenes. If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary, often Jesus wears red undergarments with a blue outer (God become human) and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red overgarment (human granted holy gift by God).

Often elaborate gilding is used, made from real 24 carat gold leaf. Gold, which does not tarnish is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit, or breath of life, because you have to breathe on the fine gold leaf to get it to settle into the glue before it can be burnished to a high shine.

There is a specific order to writing the icon: from the most general space (background) to the most specific (the face).

In an  interview with iconographer Marek Csarnecki he says:

"There is a pragmatic reason for painting the face last. Although the face is the most important part of the icon, every detail in the icon is part of the transfigured reality, and has to receive the same level of focus and attention. Experience has shown me that if I start with the face, I obsessively work on it to the detriment of the rest of the icon, and it loses its overall harmony or wholeness and develops lopsided.
It’s best to work from the outside to the inside, giving every aspect of the work its due. Painting the face first is like having dessert before dinner. You might lose your appetite for the rest of the meal."

I had no idea icons were so complex, or that they had such a rich history and tradition. I am looking forward to seeing what Sister Mary Stella writes for our local church. Apparently her icon will be of Saint Oswald and St Aidan (The patron saint of the local church and St Aidan has links to the North of England.) 
Pictures are from wikipedia commons.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Unputdownable - The Courtesan's Lover by Gabrielle Kimm

The Courtesan's Lover is exactly the sort of book to keep you occupied over Christmas as you sip mulled wine before a cosy fire. In fact I would liken it to mulled wine - rich, deep and satisfying!

Set in a beautifully realised Renaissance Italy, it tells the story of Francesca Felizzi, a wealthy courtesan, who decides to 'go straight.' The first section of the book shows us her life as a courtesan - the glamour and the potential danger are neatly interwoven. For the book to work this part has to be believable and the author spends some time setting this up, so we understand just what a courtesan's life would have been like, right down to how a citrus fruit is used as a contraceptive device!.The setting of Napoli is impeccably researched; the nitty-gritty of Francesca's business is described frankly, but there is nothing here that would shock the average reader.

Once Francesca falls in love, the rest of the book is concerned with how her former clients interact with each other, and how each past encounter now poses a danger to the one true relationship in her life. The reader is kept on tenterhooks wondering which of her lovers will betray her. There are plenty of colourful characters, not least her servant Modesto, a eunuch, whose plight is both touching and sad. There can be few books that examine the tragedy of these young boys whose voices were preserved by the worst kind of intervention.

There is plenty of danger to add spice to this romance.
We fear for Francesca's life when she entertains the sadistic Michele - the client from hell, and fear for her daughters at the hands of the irrational Carlo, her lover's son. Gabrielle Kimm racks up the tension and the pace so it builds nicely to its conclusion.

The Courtesan's Lover is a well-written pageturner, a good old fashioned story with action, romance and a sumptuous setting. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The UK Historical Writers Association Dinner

How much noise do fifty writers make when they are gathered together for dinner? The answer is - it's deafening! It could be that we are desperate to speak after staring at our computer screens and notepads in our solitary imaginary worlds, or it could be that historical fiction writers are just loud, but lip-reading skills would have certainly been a bonus!

On the way in to The Westbourne I got chatting with Cassandra Clark, who then introduced me to more people. It was hard to read everyone's name-badges, without missing chunks of the conversation, but over drinks we spoke of agents good and bad, of promotional postcards, and booksignings, and the fact that some plots never seem to go where we want them to go. In short, lovely to share experiences and know that others are travelling the same path.

When we finally say down to dinner and people were eating, the noise abated enough for us to have a proper conversation. I was seated at one of the smaller tables along with what I shall call the "Roman cohort". I found out some interesting facts about roman armour from Lindsay Powell - that it was chain mail, or individually made, not always the plate armour we see in films, and as an added bonus he filled us in on not-so-ancient American politics.

Also on my table was Ben Kane, who not only writes best-sellers but seems to be a great organiser,as it was he who had master-minded the evening. Ruth Downie was opposite me, all the way from Devon, and it was interesting to hear that she has the same trouble with slaves in her books as I have with servants and chaperones. We have to get rid of them if we want a scene to be between just two people, and then bring them back whenever the character needs to go anywhere.

Gabrielle Kimm was next to me and we already know each other from a long while back when we were both short-listed for the same prize. (Neither of us won, but it made us friends.) I had her latest book with me to persuade her to sign it for me, and on the way home I finished reading it, so a review is coming soon.

What was going on at the other tables I have no idea, but looking over my
shoulder it seemed everyone was engrossed in conversation with somebody. Thanks to Stella for her warm welcome. It was lovely to meet all those writers. And thanks to everyone I met for a great evening. At the top are the books of the folks I met, if you are looking for a Christmas present for someone, why not choose one of these....

Find out more about the Association:

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

For the time of year you can't do better than this stunning debut by Eowyn Ivey. The Snow Child is a beautifully written novel of longing and loss, and the battle of human beings to make their place at the edge of habitable nature.

In the wilds of Alaska Jack and Mabel build a snowman - a girl - on the night of the first snowfall. After this a little girl mysteriously enters their life. From the book I gather the Russian myth of the snow girl was collected by Arthur Ransome (of Swallows and Amazon's fame), and this myth has been skilfully interleaved with the narrative in Ivey's book.

The tale borders on the mythic and shifts between what is real and what is imaginary, and this is what gives it its uncanny power. The snow child herself is like nature, not easily tamed, and for most of the book we are not sure whether they are taming the girl or nature herself. For example Jack and Mabel's speech is in speech marks, but the snow girl's is not. This gives a sense in which we almost imagine we are hearing her voice, that it half-blends with the background. Masterful.

The book portrays the realities of survival, the killing of animals and the sheer hard work with an unflinching eye as Jack and Mabel eke out an existence where neighbours can mean the difference between survival and failure. I enjoyed Esther and George, the rumbustious neighbours, and the portrayal of Garrett, the boy who turns into a man before our eyes.

For me the star of the book is the landscape, reflected beautifully in the bare-boned prose.

Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Creation of a Master-piece - Guilds in England

From the 14th century right up until the 18th century in England, no master-craftsman could set up in a particular craft unless he became a member of its Guild.

So what were these Guilds that had such a stranglehold on craftsmanship and production?

The Guilds were controlled by a self-elected oligarchy, or confraternity of craftsmen, a system greased by bribery and favouritism.

Above, a bootmaker from Northampton shows his wares.

Guild Laws restricted a man to the manufacture of only one article, for example weavers were not allowed to dye their cloth, shoemakers were not permitted to mend shoes and bowyers could not make arrows for their bows, only the fletchers could do that. This was supposedly to protect each craftsman's job, but in practice led to much dispute and difficulty.

If you became a member of a Guild you would have to make your goods from specified materials, employ a specified number of apprentices, and sell at the Guild's fixed prices. If you failed to do this, or produced shoddy goods or work not approved by the Guild you would face penalties such as a fine, punishment in the pillory or imprisonment. Each Guild had a Court, and cases not satisfied in the Court would go before the Mayor who would arbitrate.

Only freemen of a particular town could join the Guild for their craft. Even if you had been a Guild member in another town, you still had to serve 5 years bound to a recognised master in the new town before you could prove yourself by making your "master-piece" and finally being admitted to join.

No one was allowed to sell their goods by candlelight, in case of passing off faulty workmanship under cover of darkness, and no work could be done after eight o'clock Saturday night until Monday morning, to respect the Sabbath.

Guilds were social as well as business institutions, and concerned themselves with the welfare of their workers and founded schools and alms-houses, even occasionally in some crafts supplying dowries for poorer women workers. Each Guild had its own Chaplain to conduct the services, and its own patron saint - St Anthony for grocers, St Patrick for saddlers, St Clement for tanners, St Stephen for weavers, and so forth.

Crafts were highly specialised, there were Guilds of longbow-string makers, salters, horners, patten makers, quilters and pin makers. Above you can see the Guild of Painters, of 1695. As you can see they are all dressed alike. Each Guild had its own costume, with variations for the different ranks. Apprentices wore blue cloaks in the winter and blue gowns in the summer. Nobody was allowed to wear cloaks below calf-length until they reached old age.
Many of England's finest buildings are the Guild Halls quite a few of which survive. The one pictured is Leicester's Guild Hall, a fine Elizabethan example.

"a haberdasher and a carpenter,
A webber, dyer and a papicer
Were with us eke, clothed in a livery
Of a solemn and great fraternity.
Full fresh and new their gear apyked was,
Their knives were ychaped not with brass,
but all with silver wrought full clean and weel.Their girdles and their puches every deal.
Well seemed each of them a fair burgess
To sitten in a Guild Hall on a dais"

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A gentle undemanding stroll through an English Village

This small undemanding guide to the English Village would make an ideal gift for a townie or visitor to England just before they drive off into our rural byways. Divided neatly into 10 chapters, each section conveys a sense of the traditions and formation of the features of a typical english village. The Village green, the pub, the church and the big house are all here. I particularly enjoyed the section on the big house - the legacy of manor houses has been frequently undervalued and Wainwright makes us understand what they contributed and underlines the appeal of such series as Downton Abbey or Cranford.
Simplistic black and white woodcuts serve as illustrations - colour pictures would have helped bring the text to life (my only quibble). As will be apparent from its size, this is more of a general guide than an in-depth examination, but it packs a lot of information into a small space.
And talking of houses - I highly recommend Simon Jenkins paperback book England's Thousand Best Houses, a brick-shaped county by county guide to the big houses referred to in Wainwright's book. Jenkins is chairman of the National Trust and gives succint descriptions of each house's history, quirks and claim to fame.
Each house warrants at the most a couple of pages in this paperback, but again it is surprising just how much information can be compressed into such a small space. For historical fiction writers, this is your best guide to where to see period houses. All the houses in the book are open to the public and helpfully graded with stars to denote their importance. Oddly enough, I have often found the houses rated 1 star such as Lancaster's Cottage Museum to be more interesting than those rated with 5 stars, an accolade reserved for edifices such as Windsor Castle.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell

Only another historical fiction writer could appreciate the amount of research that has gone into Gillian Bagwell's novel "The Darling Strumpet". And as I have researched a book in the same period I hope I could have spotted holes in the historical background had there been any - but the detail was impeccable, no holes here!
The way the historical fact blended with the characterisation and story was excellent.

I am fascinated by Nell Gwynn and her journey from rags to riches via the English Theatre. I used to lecture students on a theatre course about the Restoration, so of course I could not wait to read this novel. Those interested in this aspect could do worse than visit the current National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of actresses - the scale of the portraits brings you quite literally face-to-face with Nell Gwynn.

But, back to the book -

Nell begins this novel poor and hungry, but soon realises she has a commodity she can sell. Her first encounter does not go entirely to plan, but we all know that she will end up in the bed of a King. Gillian Bagwell is skilful at keeping the reader's interest although of course we all know what will happen to Nell. In an age where violence was the norm, it is no use being coy about sexual relationships, and these are dealt with frankly. Most of the explicit encounters are at the beginning of the book and they lend the book its necessary earthy tone. The whole point of Nell Gwynn was how she used her 'charms', after all.

Once Nell Gwynn is established as a royal mistress the book examines how she is still, as a woman - not to mention the King's whore, excluded from all the decisions and intrigue of life at court. In many ways Nell was better cut out for the role of aspiring courtesan than established mistress. Gillian Bagwell draws these contrasts nicely, and I admired the way she did not let the reader's interest flag.

The novel gives you the sights, sounds and smells of Restoration London and brought Nell's journey vividly to life.

Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Jazz Age of the 17th Century

Under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, there had been little spending. No gambling on horses, no visits to the theatre, no music or dancing - even Christmas Day was banned. One of the broadsheets of the time lamented,

We are serious people now and full of cares,
as melancholy as cats, as glum as hares.

But after ten years of gloom, how did England celebrate? Well, with an intensification of all the old delights. Fashion was at its most outrageous, with new styles brought from France and Spain, in an outburst of feverish spending.

Charles II tried to bring in a standard costume for men at court, described by John Evelyn in his Diary of 1666 as "Eastern fashion of vest, changeing doublet, stiff collar, bands and cloake", but Pepy's wagered that it would be less than a year before the court was back into French frippery, and he was right.

The country was tired of restraint and wanted ostentation - the more extreme the fashion, the better. Clothes were adorned with ribbons and lace and plumes. Wigs came in, and the carrying of fancy-hilted dress swords.

Pastimes became not only frivolous but positively juvenile. A favourite indoor sport of the young townspeople was pillow and cushion fighting.
Pepys reports:

"anon to supper; and then my Lord going away to write, the young gentlemen to flinging of cushions and other mad sports till towards twelve at night."

Another popular pastime was playing cup-and-ball - see all the ladies and gents playing it at the head of this page. Blind-man's buff was a fashionable indoor game, as was building houses of playing cards. The second Duke of Buckingham was apparently very skilled at this, and would spend hours erecting his elaborate "card palaces".
(left 18th century painting of a boy with cup and

Dancing was no longer stately as it had been before Puritan rule. Nobody wanted the dull old dances any more. New italian jigs and corantos were danced at a more lively tempo. It must have been the equivalent of the Jazz Age in the twenties after the staid waltzes of the Pre-war era.

And all at once three new beverages - tea, coffeee and chocolate, were imported within a few years of each other and at once became extremely sought after, despite their expense. Coffee houses became fashionable places for men to meet and discuss state affairs, so much so that the King became scared of what might be being said behind his back, and issued an order to ban them. But so numerous and popular had they become that enforcing the order was impossible and the King finally gave up the attempt.

And thank goodness, for we still use coffee shops as a place to meet and gossip with our friends, or to discuss the latest news.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Limning - the exquisite art of the Tudor miniature

Limning is a thing apart from all other painting or drawing, and it excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points

Nicholas Hilliard

'Limning' was the contemporary term in Tudor and Stuart times for miniature paintings, portraits which were portable and could be held in the hand. In the days before photography, these likenesses were much prized, and the making of them was considered to be a specialised art, apart from general portrait painting with its own skills and techniques. Many of these special techniques stemmed from those used in medieval manuscript illumination.

Miniatures were designed to be worn as pieces of jewellery too and were kept protected in delicate cases of gold or ivory, or stored in cabinets of rare imported woods. Most limners were also jewellers, as was the case with Nicholas Hilliard, probably England's best known limner.

The painting was done on vellum, the skin of an unborn calf, which is hairless and made the fine surface needed for such small work. It was then backed onto card - often a playing card to give enough rigidity. Dry colours were bought from the apothecary and mixed with a binder in mussel shells. The brush - then known as a pencil- was made from one or two squirrel hairs.

The elaborate clothing in court portraits as in the one of Elizabeth I, left, was brought separately to the studio so that Hilliard could paint the detail without tiring the sitter. This portrait, somewhat idealized, was painted when Elizabeth was in middle age.

Real gold and silver were applied with gum arabic and burnished using an animal tooth set into a handle. To give the crisp effect of lace a more solid white pigment was dribbled painstakingly into its intricate pattern to leave a slightly raised effect. An even heavier paint was used to make raised droplets of "pearls". The sitters often appear paler than they would have when the painting was new because the Red Lake pigment fades in the light.

In Hilliard's Treatise concerning the Arte of Limning he tells us he is extremely fussy about cleanliness, and will not allow coal fires to burn where he is working, lest soot should fall on his work. Even more he urges those who wish to paint miniatures to wear only silk so that particles of lint and fibre might not fall on the work from their sleeves.

This portrait by Hilliard was identified as Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 18th century, although there is still some dispute.

The inscription 'Virtutis Amore' is an anagram of the name 'Marie Stouart.' The style and costume indicate it was actually made after her death as a memorial portrait following her execution in 1587.

I love the transparency of her veiling and the way Hilliard has treated all the different shades of white. I imagine it must have been very difficult to paint something so detailed after the sitter is dead - not to mention spooky!

Miniatures were often given as love tokens or signs of political loyalty. Some portraits have a hidden symbolic meaning that has been lost to us, such as this young man against a background of flames, holding a portrait of a lady. Perhaps he was indicating a flaming passion, or perhaps survival from a catastrophic event.

The art of limning was passed down from master to apprentice. Hilliard was first apprenticed to Robert Brandon, a Goldsmith in Westcheap at the Sign of the Gilt Lion and Firebrand. (What a great name!)

In his turn Hilliard employed Isaac Oliver as his apprentice, and he also became very fashionable in Court circles, almost ousting his master. Isaac Oliver's family were Huguenots and fled France to escape religious persecution. He became known for his realistic treatment of children and his slightly less formal portraiture. Below you can see delightful portraits of two Elizabethan girls.

In The Lady's Slipper, Alice's father encourages her to take up miniature painting. Alice finds the techniques and scale of the work too exacting and decides instead to study botanical painting. However, I loved looking into the art of the miniature and really came to appreciate the skill involved in these small jewel-like portraits. Pictures are courtesy of the V&A museum.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Reading Guides - extra value for your readers, and how to write one

I am nearing the end of proof-reading my new novel, The Gilded Lily, and have decided to make a Reading Guide for it. When I brought out The Lady's Slipper, St Martin's Press asked me to put one together and I really enjoyed it. I thought of it as a bit like the extras on DVD's - the "Making Of" or "Behind the Scenes" that seems to so often accompany a film.

It gave me a chance to tell the reader what inspired the book and to give some historical background that would help with their understanding. St Martin's Press suggested a really good format, so I thought I'd share it with you. If you are about to self-publish your book, why not add a Reading Guide, an added extra for your readers which will illuminate, educate and entertain.

Here are some suggestions for content:

The story behind the story.
What inspired you to write that particular book, and how does it relate to your career/hobbies/skills? This is a story, so take as much care as with your book itself to make it a good story. Perhaps there was an interesting incident whilst you were writing it, or a sudden realisation that made writing the book essential.

The historical or technical background to your book
A chance to help the reader understand the context of your book, when and where it was set. I remember reading Geraldine Brooks's reading guide in Year of Wonders in which she described how living in a small village made her understand the tensions of the closed-off village of Eyam during the plague. I used mine to explain about the tensions of the English Civil War, particularly for US readers who only know about the US Civil War and little about the English Civil War.

A Meet the Author profile
Just what it says, a little bit about yourself, especially anything that relates to your writing. You can say where you live or were brought up, something of your non-writing life too will give the impression of a well-rounded person. A good way is to ask someone else to interview you, the answers will sound more natural and less like you are selling yourself.

Fun Facts
Even in a novel there may be interesting facts to highlight for the reader. For The Lady's Slipper I could have chosen fun facts about shoes, or about Restoration fashion, or even "Gruesome Facts" about the Civil War, but chose instead to appeal to gardeners and flower lovers by giving them snippets about orchids. Here are my examples:

  • The lady’s slipper orchid is also known as American Valerian, Nerve Root, Camel’s Foot, Steeple Cap, Noah’s Ark, Two Lips, and Whippoorwill’s Shoe.
  • One of the most famous, endangered wildflowers in the United States is the pink lady’s slipper,Cypripedium acaule. But it is officially endangered in only two states: Illinois and Tennessee. Georgia lists it as “unusual.” New York lists it as “exploitably vulnerable.” But in the other twelve states it is not listed at all! Even wild flowers like this one can be quite common in many places. The Endangered Species Act required that each state create its own list of plants (and animals) that need protection within its (state) borders. These lists are updated regularly. You can find out which plants are endangered in your state by visiting
  • One of the earliest books about North American plants is from Jacques Philippe Cornut’s Canadensium Plantarum. Published in France in 1635, it features an illustration of a yellow lady slipper. Cornut himself never visited America, though he received imported New World seeds and plants for his botanical garden in Paris. See illustration below.
And yes, a picture is a good idea. Even a black and white picture adds a little bit extra. It could be a photo of you, or something else relating to your book.

Related Reading
This could include books that have directly influenced your own book, or ones on a related theme or from a similar period. It is nice to explain why you chose them or how the writer influenced you. See my reading guide for examples. I really loved this part and found it hard to choose only ten books. But I decided I wanted to pique the readers' interest, not drown them!

Discussion questions
Make sure these are a mixture of general and easy, such as "discuss the Character of X. What does he contribute to the novel?" and harder and more exacting, such as "In what way does the language of the novel reflect X's obsession with food?" That way, your questions will suit a wider range of people and groups. Don't be afraid to highlight your major themes through questions. Sometimes readers read the Reading Guide first, so it can help to point readers to your major concerns, whether your book is deep literary fiction or light entertainment.
If you feel your book has no deep themes in itself, make your questions more about the characters, or ask them to compare the characters' lives with their own.

Your next book
Don't forget to mention your next book somewhere. I nearly did!

Hope you enjoy writing yours as much as I did mine. If you are a writer with another example, please add a link to it in the comments below. Thanks!
You can look at my whole Reading Guide here

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Quaker Week - The Strong and Silent Type

This week is Quaker Week in England, and I thought I might celebrate by re-posting about my Quaker Character, Richard Wheeler. The original post was on Marg's Historical Tapestry site, please bob over there for a look at all her articles.

Richard Wheeler
Like all my favourite heroes he is handsome, strong and capable, but unlike most other heroes when the novel opens he has just become a “seeker after Truth” or a Quaker. Today we tend to view the Quakers as quite conservative, but in the 1650’s when the movement began they were seen as dangerous, radical, even insane. Through the latter half of the 17th century and beyond they were persecuted for their beliefs which were seen as challenging the stranglehold supremacy of the church. Even when they fled to the New World, the persecution continued.

Richard Wheeler was brought up as the wealthy son of a landowner, but his life changed when he followed Cromwell and his parliamentary troops in the War against the King. Richard saw this as a battle for the common man and democracy, so that ordinary people could have more control over their land and property. During The Civil War the English nation tore at its own throat and the battle of brother against brother claimed thousands of lives. Richard Wheeler was brought up as the wealthy son of a landowner, but his life changed when he followed Cromwell and his parliamentary troops in the War against the King. Richard saw this as a battle for the common man and democracy, so that ordinary people could have more control over their land and property. During The Civil War the English nation tore at its own throat
and the battle of brother against brother claimed thousands of lives.

On the left you can see a painting of Oliver Cromwell at the Storming of Basing House by Ernest Crofts RA.

Basing House was attacked by Parliamentary troops on three occasions. The final assault came in August 1645 when 800 men took up position around the walls. Between forty and a hundred people were killed. Parliamentary troops were given leave to pillage the house and a fire finally destroyed the building.

Richard fought for Cromwell against his own ruling class, but the horrific bloodshed he witnessed made him vow never to take up arms again, and led him to join the fledgling Quaker movement which had made a pledge for peace. Quaker meetings are a “sitting in silence” - but the restless man-of-action Richard finds the silent reflection both refreshing and difficult. He remembers his part in the atrocities of war and wrestles with his conscience, particularly as he finds he is falling for Alice, his artist neighbour. Not only does she have radically different views from his own, but also she is a married woman.

Giving up his fine things to live a simpler life – leaving behind his luxurious lifestyle and fine clothes, is not nearly as easy as Richard anticipates, but harder still for an active man is the idea of “turning the other cheek” when threatened or challenged. The seventeenth century was a violent and bloodthirsty period, a period in which hangings and burnings were commonplace entertainment, and Richard is trained as a swordsman in an era where to be manly is to be able to handle oneself wel
l in a fight.

So what happens when Richard becomes locked in a bitter battle against his former childhood friend, and worse, when the life of the woman he loves is in danger? Will Richard fight to defend her, or will he stick to his Quaker vow of non-violence?

My research for Richard Wheeler took me to fields where the Civil War was fought, to the Armouries Museu
m at Leeds, and to libraries where I looked at Quaker journals and George Fox’s diary.

Richard Wheeler’s House was based on Townend in Troutbeck, Cumbria which was built in 1645. (see left)

You can find out more about Richard by reading The Lady's Slipper!

"Top Pick!" RT Book Reviews
"Highly recommended" Historical Novels Review
"Women's fiction at its best" - History and Women

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

Sorry about the white background, which seems to happen if I copy from a word document - no idea why.

This is a very well-written book, which will appeal to the literary-minded and to book lovers everywhere. A homage to a childhood of books, and examples of their power pepper this story in which a librarian is abducted by a child.(Those who say it is the other way round have missed the point, the child is kidnapping the world of books in my view.)If you liked "Matilda" as a child, then you will probably enjoy this.

Ian is the book-mad ten year old who hides out in the library, and Lucy the librarian who wants to 'save' him from the homophobic Christian sect his parents have become involved with. The characters of Ian and Lucy are complex and not easily pigeon-holed; at times the reader is pleasantly confused as to who is the adult and who is the child during their extended Road Trip through most of America. But this is like life, and feels refreshingly honest. The journey itself is somewhat aimless, and for me this is the only weak point of the book, that the middle seemed a little too long, but then the plot soon picked up again and I was once more hooked.

If you are an evangelical Christian, then you may have to consider if it is for you, as the fundamentalist parents and Pastor Bob, who wants to rehabilitate gay teenagers back to the straight and narrow are truly gruesome. However, I do not feel the book is deliberately anti-Christian.I feel that Makkai made the choice she did for a reason - some Christians use what is written in a book to determine their behaviour, and say the B

ook is the literal truth. What Makkai is pointing out is that in the end it is only a book, written on paper, like every other book in the library. And as such, the child (or anyone) could always choose other literature as their raison d'etre. At the same time Makkai shows how real events become fictionalised (as in the Bible) by including an episode from Lucy's father's and grandfather's past where exactly this happens, and the real events grow into something more than they were.

In short, this is an intelligent novel, one to make you think about the power of books. Definitely worth discussing in a reading group, and spending your money on. I look forward to reading Makkai's next.

Unpublished Novel Competition - Crime

Have you a print-ready novel sitting in your drawer? Then what have you got to lose?

This is a genuine, no fee competition that stretches over 12 months.
This competition starts SEPTEMBER 2011.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Roman Ruins and the Fall of Nations

I've recently come back from Seville where I was researching for my next book, which will be set in partly in 17th century Spain. Seville is a city that was first under the Moorish and then under Christian rule. Its Cathedral still retains the tower of the old mosque, where the muezzin would call the faithful to prayer, incorporated into the gothic splendour of its catholic vaults and pillars.

What I didn't realise though, was that Seville was also the third largest Roman city in the empire, after Rome and Alexandria, settled in 206BC. It was the birthplace of Hadrian who spent his youth there.The excavated ruins, now known as Italica, lie a little outside Seville, and up until this century were ignored as ruins of little interest. These ruins include a very well preserved amphitheatre where you can walk the path the gladiators took from the passageways up to the searing heat of the arena. A truly terrifying spectacle to see the ranks of seats and imagine the roar of the crowd, the amphitheatre is truly monumental and seats 25000.

There are also thermal baths, and some of the most beautiful intact mosaics I have ever seen, inside the villas of the roman dignitaries. One shows the seven gods of the days of the week, (shown above) and one over thirty different species of birds.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the Roman town, including its Forum and many other important buildings lie underneath the current suburb of Santiponce, and cannot be excavated without demolishing the new town. To uncover some of the Temple remains, householders were re-settled to allow archaeology to take place. It is staggering to think that until a recent preservation order was put on the site, many of the mosaics were removed complete into the hands of amateur enthusiasts or wealthy collectors. Below you can see a mosaic of the life of Zeus about to be removed by a private collector.

What struck me most about this was how the city of Seville has been held by three very different sophisticated societies each of which has cannibalized the previous culture for its own ends. Moorish tiles are everywhere, despite the fact the Moors were forcibly expelled from Spain in the 17th century. Seville's modern bypass was built using some of the stone from the Roman ruins of Italica, as were many civic buildings right up until the thirties. Walking Seville you come across the Columns (a remnant of the Roman Era, topped by Caesar and Hercules), a little further and you can immerse yourself in the moorish architecture of the Alcazar Palace, and a few more strides takes you to 17th century Baroque Seville, all cheek by jowl. This is what makes a city fascinating, in my view, and it is interesting to think that my 17th century characters would have known Italica as simply "old Seville" - a ruin, marked on maps as a heap of old stones of little importance or significance.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Goodreads Lists featuring The Lady's Slipper

The Lady's Slipper is on seven Goodreads Lists. Take a look at the company it's in. My favourite category is probably "Dresses to Die for" though the ones in the top five would certainly take some beating. The most frequently mentioned book in these lists is The Hunger Games, so I will put that on my TBR list, though I know nothing about it. Anybody read it?
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. MartinThe Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsForever by Maggie StiefvaterThe Help by Kathryn StockettBossypants by Tina Fey
What's the book you can't wait to read this summer?