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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Review of The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

Agnes has lived in the sleepy town of Chartres for years. She has become ingrained in the fabric of the community; she cleans the tiled floor of the cathedral, acts as muse and model for a local artist, organises the correspondence of a befuddled academic and does the occasional spot of babysitting. But despite her involvement, the townspeople know little about this tall, elegant, stoic woman with turquoise eyes and matching pendant always around her neck. No one knows where she came from, or what stories she may have brought with her to Chartres. She is indispensable to them, but completely enigmatic.

But Agnes can’t stop the tide of gossip that comes with small-town life. When the local busybody takes a dislike to her, Agnes’s past comes stretching up into the light. What is revealed is an incredible story of grief and loss, but one that also reveals the way in which small acts of kindness can shape a person’s path in life.

My thoughts:
This is a beautiful moving novel with depth
Agnes Morel is an unlikely main character in a novel - quiet unassuming and middle-aged. The beginning of the book is slow with lengthy descriptions of Chartres Cathedral and not much dialogue, so at first I thought I would struggle to make it to the end. But I loved Miss Garnet's Angel so I persevered and was more than richly rewarded.

The characters of the nuns with all their un-saintly quirks and human failings are acutely well-drawn and Agnes's past as it is gradually revealed is horrifying yet utterly believable. Her malicious neighbours are described with gleeful venom. The characters in this book slowly seeped into my imagination and soon had me in an iron grip so that I had to know what would happen to Agnes when her unfortunate past was uncovered. 

This is a beautiful portrait of small-mindedness in all its ways, but it is also a vehicle to tackle the really big questions, such as: Where does evil lie? What constitutes sin? How is the spirit of a religion preserved in its buildings? What is the power of truthfulness?

I'll certainly be looking forward to Salley Vickers's next.

The soaring arches of  Chartres Cathedral

Monday, 15 October 2012

Author Eliza Graham reveals her Desert Island Books and love of cakes

Today is the last of my Desert Island Posts. Today I'm not touring the blogosphere but actually really touring the Cumbrian landscape on my way to Cleator Moor Library to give a talk about THE GILDED LILY. Cleator Moor is one of the more remote towns in the county, up near the west coast, so it will take me almost two hours to drive there. On the way I'll have the company of Radio 4 and some spectacular scenery. Just looked out of the window and it's raining - but hey, you can't have it all! If you'd like to see where I have been touring lately, why not visit Hoydens and Firebrands for my post on Old London Bridge, or Historical Tapestry for my post on The Smell of Old Coffee Houses.

Eliza Graham lives in Oxfordshire and is the author of four novels blending historical and contemporary themes. Eliza's first novel, "Playing with the Moon" was a smash hit in Germany where she has sold over 100,000 copies. Her latest, THE HISTORY ROOM, was published in May and combines reborn dolls and the Prague Spring in the setting of an English boarding school.
Eliza's first young adult novel, BLITZ KID, will be published this month as a Kindle e-book. Look out for further information.

Over to Eliza:
For my classic novel, I would choose OUR MUTUAL FRIEND by Dickens. It was one of my A level novels and I've loved it ever since. It's a big novel in every sense of the world: a little messy in times, but full of life and insight. The descriptions of the murkier parts of Victorian London would probably make me look around my beautiful desert island with relief. 

For my contemporary novel, I would choose I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith, even though it's not that contemporary, having been written in the fifties and set in the thirties. The descriptions of the novelist father imprisoned in an old castle dungeon to make him finish his novel would scare me into using the desert island as a chance to write, write, write. It's such a very English novel, too, that it would make me feel a little bit of home was with me.

For non-fiction I was going to select The Book of Common Prayer because, as a cradle Catholic, I had no exposure to its beautiful language. Each image is almost a novel in its own right. But now I'm going to crack and reveal my true greedy self and ask if I can choose Mary Berry's Book of Cakes (with a magic supply of equipment and ingredients). I'll be very healthy on that island, what with all the fish and tropical fruit, so a bit of indulgence on cake is in order.   

(Hope Eliza leaves me some of that cake when she goes!)

Friday, 5 October 2012

Contemporary romance writer Mary Metcalfe's Desert Island Books

Today I welcome women's fiction and contemporary romance novelist Mary Metcalfe whilst I am touring the blogosphere. Find my interview today at Fly High
About Mary:
Originally from the Toronto-Hamilton area of Ontario, Canada, Mary moved to Ottawa to study journalism and fell in love with the region. Shortly after graduating, she met and fell in love with her soul mate.

In addition to being a full-time novelist, Mary edits memoirs, fiction and non-fiction manuscripts. She's adopted the moniker Lakefront Muse to reflect (pardon the pun) her love of living by a small lake and gaining inspiration from nature in her rural surroundings. While her novels are set in or near Boston, she lives in the foothills of the Laurentians in Quebec, Canada.

'The whole point of a good novel, in my view at least, is to journey with the characters as they learn about themselves and what is important in life. We tend to learn best when we are challenged; when we have to dig down deep to our core values; to what’s negotiable and what’s not negotiable. I don’t cut my characters any slack when it comes to challenges.' 

From an interview with P Y Delagrange

Here are Mary's choices:Non-fiction: Official biography of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. She was an amazing woman who stood by her husband through thick and thin and helped keep up the morale of the Brits during WWII.

Classic: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. They are such wonderful stories, with bawdy women and shameless men and wonderfully archaic writing.

Fiction: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It's the first in an amazing series of books about an 18th century Scotsman and his time-travelling wife. Beautifully written with masterful storytelling, I'd read it again any day.... or several, as it's very long.

And below are details of Mary's latest novel, Winds of Change.

After losing her husband and daughter in a plane crash, Boston social worker Jennifer Barrett is rebuilding her life. Finding solace in her work, Jennifer helps young client Mark Powell find work at the seniors' residence where her father lives. After learning Mark hasn’t seen his father, an internationally-known broadcast journalist, in over four years, she can’t understand how a father could abandon his only son to chase war stories.

When Jennifer meets Ben Powell, she is prepared to dislike him, despite his charm and affable manner. But, when he reveals he’s been battling post-traumatic stress disorder, she realizes he didn’t want to bring his demons home to Mark, who has suffered from clinical depression. As Jennifer gets to know Ben, she realizes there may be room in her heart for laughter and new love.

Lana Fitzpatrick, a close friend of Jennifer’s and a young nurse helping care for Jennifer’s father, is also a widow, raising her young son Danny alone. As Lana gets to know her handsome co-worker, Mark Powell, and sees him bonding with Danny, she finds her heart swelling with love.

As new family bonds form, all discover the power of friendship and love to overcome loss so they can face life with renewed hope.

Find out more about Mary at her blog

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The changing state of books - the Author today

The Author, Autumn 2012Here are just a few quotations from the Autumn edition of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors (UK). All were extracts from stimulating articles about the state of the writing and publishing profession today. I can highly recommend the organisation and its journal. More information and how to join at
"Equally destructive is the trend towards pricing e-books at preposterously low levels, in an effort to increase sales of a given item tenfold. This strategem may work temporarily for a few books, but the long term effect will be to make all but the most sought after e-titles sell for peanuts (99p and less) and to reduce the overall revenues of authors and others in the industry dramatically."
Andrew Rosenheim

"By now there's hardly any point in submitting a novel if all you can say in its favour is that it is extremely well-written and has an utterly enthralling story. If the marketing department agrees it has those virtues but they still can't see it selling many copies, it's dead."
Malcolm Ross-MacDonald

"publishers have at last realised they must up their game in order to compete with the convenience of e-books. Go into any bookshop these days and you will see glittering tables full of sweeties. Books are now being better designed with better covers and paper, with innovative packaging. Books are becoming beautiful objects."
Tracy Chevalier

"The problem with companies such as ASI is the cynical way in which they exploit the naive aspirations of Sunday afternoon writers, encouraging them to believe that a vast readership is eagerly awaiting their book. As Author Solutions, 'now a member of the Penguin Group', helpfully explains on its website: 'Through our unique imprints, you can publish, promote, and sell your book around the globe, plus retain your rights and get in the market much faster than with a traditional publisher.' Easy Peasy!"
Liz Thompson

"There is no silver clock to be handed to you by the managing director, no pats on the back, no speeches. There are not even colleagues around to tell you that your time is up. Thousands of authors, all over the world, are working away right now without having noticed that they retired several years ago."
Terence Blacker

"Letters are often celebrated for their ability to capture an author's tone of voice, but to an even greater degree emails mimic the natural rhythms of speech and can result in a series of pithy exchanges that give a researcher or a biographer a picture of how their subject behaved in informal or unguarded moments."
Sophie Baldock (Archives in the electronic age)

"If you are not where you want to be with your career, think long. With increasing longevity, our productive lifespans now extend from 20 to 80 (at least), which provides six decades to accomplish something in a chosen genre, and plenty of time to make a mark if you've come late to writing.
The passing of time has a way of revealing truth. Writers, consider this radical idea: time is not the enemy, it is our friend."
Tom Butler-Bowdon

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Alison Stuart talks about the Ghosts of the Past

Still to come at the end of this week, Desert Island Castaways Mary Metcalfe and Eliza Graham, whilst I am touring the blogosphere with THE GILDED LILY. 

Have a look at my post on Passages to the Past, or the interview and Giveaway on Let them Read Books - Last Day to enter!

Meanwhile, I took some time out of my schedule to Interview Alison Stuart about her new  romance GATHER THE BONES. I met Alison through the Hoydens and Firebrands blog where she invited me to join the other writers who are passionate about 17th century history.

Hi Alison, lovely to have you visit my blog.

Thanks for having me, Dee. Great questions!

What was the first story you wrote that you were proud to have written?

I have been writing stories probably since I could first hold a pen but my first “real” story was a school assignment in Form 3. We had an English teacher of the old fashioned kind (she wore a gown and tried desperately to drum grammar into our heads – on that count she failed). I can’t remember what the assignment entailed but it resulted in a ‘chapter story’ of a couple of thousand words called “The Stones of Chichen Itza” – my first foray into an archaeological mystery. I was inordinately proud of it (and the fact I had learned to use a Thesaurus in its creation). I bound it in a brown carboard cover illustrated with a Mayan head and I think it still lives in a trunk in the loft. Miss Robinson, who did not give praise easily, was fulsome in her review. I fell in love with writing.

Gather the Bones is set in the Great War. You and your husband both served in the Army Reserves, how did this impact on your understanding of the War?

My interest in military history probably stems from my father, who had been a career officer in the British Army. When I met my husband – we were both doing officer training in the Australian Army Reserve – I met my soul mate. Viewing the history of military campaigns with an understanding of the military mind brings a different perspective to the subject. When we lived in Singapore, to fill in those boring Sunday afternoons, we retraced the Fall of Singapore, visiting the various significant historical sites and reading the accounts. Our objective was to determine if the result would have been the same if Percival had held out for a little longer (we concluded - probably not).

D had been tracing his grandfather’s history. The family had known that he had been in the second wave at Gallipoli and had always assumed he had incurred his wound there. D discovered through the archives of the Australian War Memorial that he has survived Gallipoli and gone on to nearly two years in the trenches of the Somme. We found letters written to him while he was in hospital from his mates and now have a very clear picture of his military career. The result gave D a completely different perspective of his grandfather and he became very interested in visiting the battlefields of the Great War, which we did in 2005.

There is no doubt that the visit had a profound effect on us both. We were in Amiens for the Anzac Day commemorations and traced D’s grandfather’s war to the village of Pozieres. Standing on the hills looking down into the valley of the Somme and looking at it from the perspective of soldiers, not historians, gave the experience some clarity. Soldier to soldier, we had a great and abiding understanding of the foolish notions that turned the war into such a shambles.
Mercifully our own experience was one of a peace time army.

Tell me a little about where your love of history comes from.

Undoubtedly it came from my father (see answer above). He loved history and had a way of bringing it to life. He would take me to any “historical” film that was showing. As a child he would read us his favourite novels (not all of which may have been suitable for our tender ears) and I can still hear his beautiful, rich voice, transporting into imagined worlds of long, long ago. One of the books of his choice was DuMaurier’s The King’s General which instilled my passion and fascination for the English Civil War period.

What is it about the relationship between Helen and her cousin Paul that made them so fascinating to you?

Unfortunately Australia had not been discovered in the seventeenth century and I really wanted to create an Australian character. The Great War is so deeply instilled in the Australian psyche that writing Helen’s character gave me an opportunity to explore the experience of D’s family history and the many, many hours I have spent in reading and researching stories of the Australian experience of the First World War. Helen’s freedom is such a contrast to Paul’s repressive upbringing and his deep sense of honour and duty. I wanted to show them both as outsiders in the dying world of Edwardian English society that we see in Downton Abbey. Helen for being a mere colonial and Paul for being the poor relation and the wrong man.

 What is your greatest indulgence when writing?

Fry’s Chocolate Cream. I have discovered our local chocolate shop imports it from the UK so at vast expense I reward myself, every now and then, with a bar. It is one of those taste sensations from childhood that never goes away!

You work as a lawyer, do legal concerns make an appearance in your writing?

Not if I can help it! In fact it probably explains why I tend not to write contemporaries. As soon as I move into a contemporary I find myself writing about lawyers. My military background has had a far greater influence on my writing than my legal profession.

You have been involved for many years with the Romance Writers of Australia. What does this network mean to you?

I would never have been a writer without Romance Writers of Australia. It was only be sheer chance I came across them and from the moment I attended my very first conference, knowing NOTHING about writing in general and romance writing in particular, I knew I had found my tribe. I was fortunate to be President for a number of years and have just seen the organisation grow from nearly folding to what it is today. My dearest, dearest writing friends have come through this network. Only writers really understand other writers.

Have you ever seen a ghost?

No...and yes. Not face to face as it were but I have experienced what I can best describe as “sensations”. I have found myself in places or situations where I have felt cold and what I can only describe as a tight band around my chest. Only last weekend on a “ghost tour” this happened to me and later the guide described the place where it occurred as being a well documented haunted spot. This has happened to me often enough now to recognise that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth...

For more information and to watch the trailer go to

Monday, 1 October 2012

Medievalist Roseanne Lortz chooses her Desert Island Books

Welcome to my blog today the last of my Desert Island guests Roseanne Lortz - a medievalist and historical fiction enthusiast. She will be minding my island whilst I am a guest at the following blogs: Dizzy C's Little Book Blog where you can read and extract of THE GILDED LILY and enter to win one of two copies,and at Hoydens and Firebrands with my post on the fascinating Old London Bridge

Roseanne says, "Ever since I was a little girl, I've always had one or two half-finished stories in the works. When I was around eleven years old, I presented my version of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" fable to our homeschool group. It was renamed "The Ant Who Cried Wolf," and I had rewritten the characters as ants, aphids, and ladybugs. The story was well-received, and one of the ladies there said it would be a shame if I didn't turn out to be a writer when I grew up.

It wasn't until I went to college that I knew I wanted to write about history. Mr. Chris Schlect, my history professor, inspired me with a love of historical research and primary sources. During my senior year, I wrote a hundred page thesis. While my fellow classmates groaned and agonized over their theses, I found (to my surprise) that writing mine was a lot of fun! I savored my sources, raced through my writing, and even derived a mysterious satisfaction from formulating footnotes. Loving to write stories and loving historical research turns out to be a great combination for writing historical fiction.

I'm afraid Rosanne will have to stop being a mum to her three boys for a while and enjoy a bit of relaxation under my shady palm trees. Can't be bad!

Here are Rosanne's choises:
For classics, I would choose "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevsky. It's long--which would be a plus since I'm going to have plenty of time on my hands. The story is beautifully crafted, the characters are memorable, and (in case my misfortunes cause me to wax philosophical) it deals with timeless issues like the problem of evil in the world.

For contemporary books, I would choose "The Big Over Easy" by Jasper Fforde. It's one of his Nursery Crime books and features Detective Jack Spratt trying to solve the mystery of who did in Humpty Dumpty. It is chock full of hilarious allusions to classic nursery rhymes, and I figure if I'm going to be marooned indefinitely, I might as well have something to laugh at.

For nonfiction, I would choose C.S. Lewis' autobiographical book "Surprised by Joy." His description of the innate human longing for joy is one of the most beautiful and true things I have ever read.

Great choices, Rosanne. Surprised by Joy is a classic and one I might consider taking myself. After all, on a Desert Island there would be plenty of time to consider the human condition. Details of Rosanne's latest book are below, or visit her blog


A tale of arms, of death, of love, and of honour. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the Hundred Years' War, I Serve chronicles the story of Sir John Potenhale. A young Englishman of lowly birth, Potenhale wins his way to knighthood on the fields of France. He enters the service of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, and immerses himself in a stormy world of war, politics, and romantic intrigue.