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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Unpublished Novel Competition - Crime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?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Review of The Rhetoric of Death by Judith Rock

Judith Rock has certainly led an eventful life. She has been a dancer and choreographer, a police officer in the NYPD and also holds a doctorate in art and theology. You might think it would be difficult to weave ballet, crime and Jesuit theology into one novel, but Judith Rock does it with aplomb.

Her main character, the delightful Charles du Luc, is rather too good looking to stay as a Jesuit priest without encountering romance, and without it causing him problems. He is also blessed with a fierce intelligence which he puts to use to solve the murder of a young boy at the Jesuit college of Louis le Grand where he is employed to teach Rhetoric.

The story has many notable and well-drawn characters, most of whom, including the police officer that dogs Charles' investigation, were real people of the time. The past is brought beautifully to life in Rock's evocation of 17th century France. She obviously knows the geography of Paris well and the college feels authentic. I had no idea that colleges put on ballets of such lavish proportions, but evidently they did.

This is a novel with texture - a fast-moving exciting plot which keeps you guessing who-dunnit, alongside the deeper theological questions of who to serve when the holy orders demand one thing and your conscience another. There is a dash of politics and romance too, which made the novel my perfect in-flight entertainment travelling home from Seville.

Judith Rock's new novel, "The Eloquence of Blood," another in the Charles du Luc series, is out now and you can hear Judith talking about it on my other blog Royalty Free Fiction. I chose this earlier book on the basis of her interesting article and wasn't disappointed. Highly recommended for francophiles and historical crime fans.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Finding your readers

I have noticed a disturbing thing, which is that the e-book and kindle readers consistently rate my novel lower than those who buy the paper version of the book. Have any other writers noticed this phenomenon?

From this, I can take it that those who read on e-readers are not "my readers" - i.e the readers that will love my book. Either that, or that those who buy e-books regard all books as more disposeable, and are quick to give up on a book if they don't love the opening chapter, and are therefore rating all books more harshly than those people who buy paper books. But it is obvious that there is a distinction between the paper book buying public and the e-book buying public at least in my corner of the historical fiction market.

So, it seems to me that finding your reader in this tide of e-books is not as easy as just exposure. It is not just a matter of getting the book to the notice of those who are internet-savvy. People are buying the kindle version or e-book version, but how do I target the thinking reader, perhaps someone who reads literary fiction as well as popular fiction and has a broad diet of reading, not just historicals?

Someone suggested that I should blog about what is of interest to my readers, and this would build an audience for my work. This is dead easy if you are a non-fiction writer. If your book is about horse -management, then you blog about horses. So - blog about history, you might think! And of course I do, but fiction readers are not necessarily as interested in my research as I am, and those of my readers who are also writers are too busy doing their own historical research to want to read mine!

But the thing I like doing the best is discussing books with other book-lovers. I've decided that this is probably the best way to bring my book to people's attention - by simple word of mouth. And I am more than happy to meet readers face to face, give talks to book groups, the WI, libraries or any other place where readers meet. Any takers?!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Three Question Thursday

I put three questions to Zoe Saadia, who is the author of a book about Pre-Colombian Native America, a topic which has had scant attention from other historical novelists.

Tell me 3 things that helped you as a writer.

Well, it's hard to define who or what helped me first.

· My obsession with anything Native American began as soon as I learnt to read (not that I lived anywhere near this continent). So probably this obsession comes as the first drive of my writing career.

· Relocation to California when I was in my mid twenties, utterly fed up with being an accountant, was another push that could not be ignored. As a girlfriend (a wife somewhat later) of a relocated software engineer I was offered to do nothing but have fun for a few years. Some of the relocated wives went for a life of shopping and homesick boredom; I disappeared into the wonderful Californian libraries.

· And of course, my family – my husband, my parents, even my kids these days – are of an invaluable help. They kept believing in me all those years when I worked on the research, then the first (unsuccessful) novel, through the writing classes, then this current novel, then the process of translating it into English, refusing to accept the polite "not interested" from my countrymen publishers, then polishing it and so on. It took years of frustration and no-income and I'm not sure I would have persisted if not for the fact that my husband continues to push and give moral support.

Tell me 3 things you hope your readers will enjoy about your book.

· My book deals with the interaction of nations in pre-Columbian North America, which, for some reason, catches people by surprise. The general assumption is that the Americas were hardly populated and not cultivated at all, while the exact opposite is true. I think the reader would like to discover some new, unknown cultures and even empires.

· The story comes before the history. The history lesson my novel is teaching is written fairly lightly and not "aggressively". The novel is full of action and drama, with a fair amount of love and betrayal – it could easily fit in another historical setting, such as Medieval Europe or Ancient Greece. It's just a novel, regardless of the message I am trying to smuggle along the way!

· This novel is getting positive reviews. The storyline is strong and the characters are vivid and full of life – worth getting acquainted with!

Tell me 3 things that have inspired you in life.

· As an avid reader and writer of historical fiction, I can say that I drew much inspiration from great writers such as Colleen McCullough and James Clavell.

·As a history geek, I'm inspired by great generals such as Caesar and Hannibal (inspired to do what, I haven't quite figured out yet); by great politicians - Caesar again, before his infamous dictatorships, and the Great Peacemaker of the Iroquois; and, to leave aside the fighting spirit, by a few great scientists such as Eratosthenes for his early (and by our standards amazing) discoveries.

· I also draw inspiration from some people around me who take life with an amount of good, healthy humor.

By 1,250 AD the Great Mound of Cahokia on the Mississippi River was the centre of the largest North American empire, populated more densely than the 13th-century London. A hundred years later the Great Mound lay abandoned.

“The Cahokian” is a historical novel, based on the final years of that empire.

The chief warlord of Cahokia - a magnificent center of the Mississippians - is embroiled in a dangerous political conspiracy. An attempt to escape the consequences brings him northwards, up the O-hi-o River and into the lands of the powerful League of the Iroquois, where his life takes an unexpected turn.

Thanks Zoe, for answering my questions.
Anyone else who would like to answer the same three questions, just email me

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Want to be a poet? Cath Nichols invites you in.

I have always loved poetry, both the writing and reading of it, as a way of enriching our dialogue with the world. Someone else who has found a rich source of pleasure in poetry is poet and lecturer Cath Nichols. I took the chance to ask Cath about her writing life, and was really inspired by her answers. If you live anywhere near Lancaster, don't miss her excellent workshops.

What is it about poetry that makes it essential to you?

Cath: Something about the reading of poems makes me go into a different space/time experience – reading them in my head or hearing the poet read them out loud. It’s not usually a ‘story’ space (escapism, learning or forward momentum) as I get from reading prose. It’s more like meditation or a quality of attention. If prose is forward momentum, poetry is circular! It ripples out form centre. Certainly when I’m writing poetry, too, there is a sense of ‘tardis space’ – time spent ‘in’ poetry is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside!

2.Tell me about the themes that most excite you at the moment, or structures in poetry or prose that make your eyes light up.

I have been preoccupied with the sea for years and various myths. Also hybrid people and characters: mermaids and over the last couple of years the Procne and Philomela myth where both women are turned into birds. I’ve noticed that I often get hooked on material that was someone else’s first. The hook is where my mind keeps going back to a thing that I disagree with strongly. It’s the gritty irritation than later develops into something. Often a kind of injustice in the older writing that needs re-writing for today (in my opinion). Philomela (the nightingale in various odes) had real appeal: why should she sing a sweet sad song having been raped by her brother-in-law? It made me furious! So, I wrote a poem and later a play (set in the present and involving an Asian family in Manchester) to work out a different approach.

I am building up a novel now which is a response to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Again deep outrage that Imogen’s husband agrees to a bet to test his wife’s faithfulness. She is put at great risk; he believes she has been unfaithful and sends someone to kill her; and then at the end of the story they reunite to live happily ever after! Aargh! The gall of it. Of course I realise in those days women had to put up with a great deal and possibly marriage was the best protection available, so you’d do all you could to make it work, and forgive all kinds of crap. But not now.

Structures: something about rhythm and alternation. It happens in my poems and dramatic writing. There’s even a trace of that in the novel. In prose it seems to be to do with suspending the revelation of plot; and in a poem it’s to do with tension and enjambment...

3. You are interested in radio and the aural experience of words. How has this influenced your work?

It was a big part of my PhD research. I’d noticed that many poets write for radio as dramatists, docu-drama writers and sometimes as poets. I love Michael Symons Roberts work (he used to be a BBC documentary producer and later Head of Religious Broadcasting before becoming a full-time poet and academic). Paul Farley and Simon Armitage too have done a lot. Way back you have Dylan Thomas and in fact almost every poet based in London in the forties. Samuel Beckett did some innovative stuff (the first really radiophonic work All that Fall – using sound in a distorted way for atmospheric effect). Joan Littlewood and Charles Parker valued working-class history and experience. With Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger they made the Radio Ballads series: this pretty much invented documentary without commentary – people were heard in their own voices for the first time instead of transcribed interviews being read by actors! That followed on from the invention of new technologies that made recording equipment portable – writers and producers could get out and about. Kathleen Jamie did a wonderful radio play in the 90s that had imagined characters from Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings talking about their lives since the great Whitsun train ride. Their stories were interleaved with Larkin reading the poem. You can listen to it in the British Library if you go to the sound archive there. All of it is just so inspiring.

I’ve done some local radio short drama and poetry but I’m still trying to crack Radio 4 drama. New writers have to go via the Afternoon Play slot which is pretty pedestrian. Only the famous get asked to do docudrama stuff, which would be more up my street. So, watch this space!

4. Which other writers have made a lasting impression on you and why?

For novels, Shani Mootoo’s The Cereus Blooms at Night. Fabulous, surprising novel set in the Caribbean with race, sexuality (as in queer as well as straight) and gender issues seamlessly woven through a great story set in the past and present.

Anne Carson, a Canadian poet and Classics professor who writes book-length poems or sequences. The Autobiography of Red (Red is a little ‘creature’ from a Greek myth alive in the present day), and Glass and Gods. The sequence where the narrator goes home to Mum after heartbreak but re-investigates Emily Bronte and the moors sums up a particular kind of sadness and detachment. It is sometime shocking when it describes certain acts of desperation, but it’s so truthful as to how humans can be with each other. And she never loses her amazing touch of language and surprise even though there is a fair amount of ‘story’ going on. Carson also does translations of Greek drama and writes fantastic essays.

5. You teach poetry workshops, what has surprised you most about the process of passing on your

I really enjoy it. University students on Creative Writing courses are sometimes there because they want to write prose and might be a bit dismissive of poetry. So getting them engaged with an exercise and enjoying themselves feels terrific. In other non-uni settings students are more likely to be keen poets already. I think it becomes a dialogue. I’m interested in people’s responses and the happy coincidences and surprises.. When you have a conversation you sometimes stumble on things you didn’t know you knew – or they do! I think teaching makes you a better writer – so long as you can create the time to keep writing your own stuff.

6. Tell me about your publications, and how we might join a workshop with you.

Collection, My Glamorous Assistant (Headland, 2007).
Pamphlet, Tales of Boy Nancy (Driftwood, 2005)
I think these are out-of-print now. But I’ve poems forthcoming in Poetry Wales and The Stinging Fly and, I found out last week I’ll be in 2012’s Lung Jazz: Young Poets for Oxfam. (I’m not that young but the line was drawn at 40 at the time of sending work in!)

I’m teaching a six week course at litfest in Lancaster (near the train station)

on Monday evenings from the 26th September.

We’ll be exploring how ideas about form can inform the way we create free verse poems. I felt that poets today often get stuck in one of two camps: the ‘strict form only brigade’ and the ‘totally free verse crew’. I wanted to show how both sides have something to offer the other and that free verse (where many writers start) can become stronger from a few well chosen techniques. It’s partly about re-drafting: making your initial poem much more ‘poem-y’. Lots of exercises, some reading and happy discussions I hope.

Mondays 26th September - 31st October, 6.30pm-8.30pm.
Cost: £60 (£50 concs.)
Book by 9th September by phone, 01524 62166, or by cheque (post to Get Writing, Litfest, The Storey, Lancaster LA1 1TH, with course name, ticket price and your full contact details)

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Water Theatre by Lindsay Clarke, Review

Totally absorbing, real literature.

The Water Theatre's hold on the reader is difficult to define, but I think it succeeds superbly as a work of fiction precisely because it operates on so many levels. As pure story, the characters are engaging and the plot (which I won't spoil) gripping. But this is also a serious work, with big ideas and depth.

On the one hand it is a story of one man's transition from naive teenager to man-of-the-world, and through that into some sort of acceptance and maturity. His family and the surrogate family he aspires to be part of, thinking them preferable to his own humble beginnings, both feel real, and are portrayed along with all their conflicting tensions - the complexities of class, politics and religious allegiances.

On the other hand, it is an exploration of how the imaginative faculty can bring us to a different more metaphorical experience of the world, and how old rituals can have transformative power. The fact that we might all be living out our own myth is hinted at by the archetypal names of the characters and by the structure of the plot.

It asks very real questions about the nature of evil and the best way to change an oppressive regime.The novel spans forty years and three continents, so this is a book with scope. It brings us back to asking about where a poetic vision and a spirituality might meet, and whether we can keep our innocence as we gain our experience.

If I could give this book more than five stars I would. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of my reading year.