I had a quick Twitter conversation the other day with lovely short story writer, Susie Maguire, about stories from our childhood, and the vital importance of ‘story ‘to the young mind.  And then I spent last night trying to make some room on one set of bookshelves, by clearing out a load of my own children’s books (and totally failing to get rid of any of them – not even the ones that my kids didn’t like!) 

It’s got me thinking and reminiscing, and I’ve been wondering what you all remember reading as children.  Here are a few story-memories …

Books from when I was too young to read myself:

Two kittens called Puff and Blacko.  Anyone remember them?  I don’t remember the stories at all – only that one of them once ended up with a pancake on its head.  Can’t remember why. 

A little sausage dog called Lulu.  No idea what the story was about – just the character.

Andy Pandy books – small and square, with blue tape spines.  Andy wallpapering himself into his playroom by mistake and not being able to find the door; and Andy filling an upturned umbrella with water as a makeshift pond for some homeless ducklings.   He was a bit of a goody-goody, I seem to remember.  I think I preferred Teddy.

A comic I used to get weekly, called Jack and Jill, with characters called Harold Hare and a talking hot-water bottle called (magnificently) Walter Hottle Bottle. 

Winnie the Pooh, of course.  My father read Winnie the Pooh to us brilliantly, with a deep, philosophical sort of growl for Pooh, a squeak for Piglet and a dismal sort of plaintive sigh for Eeyore.

A Child’s Garden of Verses – Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems, many of which I can remember by heart even now!  (“In winter I get up at night, and dress by yellow candlelight …”)

Those were the earliest, I suppose.

And then I began reading for myself.  I remember reading ‘Treasure Island’ when I was still young enough to dress up as Jim Hawkins with paste buckles on my school shoes, and an old Australian bush hat bashed and stitched into a rough tricorn – and I remember vividly being too frightened to turn the page when Blind Pew was tap-tap-tapping down the frosty road.  The power of a good narrative voice!

Little Women, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, the Railway Children  – I could go on for hours.  Enid Blyton, of course.  Much as she’s decried nowadays, I loved her books, and had a whole shelf of Five Find Outers and Famous Five books – though I never liked the Secret Seven.  Goodness knows why!   The Chronicles of Narnia, that goes without saying, perhaps, and a wonderful, quirky story called ‘The Children of Green Knowe’.  This tender ghost story was one of my favourites.

  I’d love to know what other people’s favourite childhood reads were.

Posted in General | Written By July 24, 2012 | Comments (10)

  Come and join Blake’s Belles at their next monthly meeting on July 2nd , when fellow Sussex writer, Jane Rusbridge and I will be talking about how to find time to write, and how to find a way to get published.  Jane and I are two thirds of the group ‘Three Sussex Writers’  – the third member is Isabel Ashdown.

Time: 7.00 for 7.30 -9.30 pm

Venue: Felpham Village Hall

Blake’s Belles is an exciting new  group recently set up to inspire women to get together to learn new skills, meet like-minded friends and have fun. Local women from Felpham and the surrounding areas are invited to be part of this exciting            new generation group. 

Jane and I  will answer questions about our route to publication and the writing process in general. We are planning to read from our novels and will be signing books at the special event price of £5.

Posted in General | Written By June 27, 2012 | Comments (0)

How many of you out there used to love colouring-in when you were a child?  (Perhaps some of you still do …?)  There’s something really wonderful  about watching a black and white line drawing taking life  as you add colour – it’s like that moment in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ when Aslan breathes on the stone lion, and the colour licks like flame up and around the lion’s legs and back.

‘The tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back – then it spread – then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a piece of paper  – then, while his hindquarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stone folds rippled into living hair.’

With that in mind, I’d like to show you something rather wonderful.  Have a look at this:

This is one of a series of posters, drawn by my brother in law, Jamie Courtier – and although this picture is utterly extraordinary as it stands, in black and white,  the whole series is available to buy, to colour in!

 The series depicts different locations in the extraordinary world of Wildergorn, and, as it says on the first page of the Wildergorn website, “If you like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or the work of M C Escher, and enjoy losing yourself in fantasy worlds, then you’ll love the Wildergorn Colour In Posters.

Colouring in a Wildergorn poster is a journey of discovery. As you colour, you’ll find yourself becoming as immersed in the world of Wildergorn, as you would when buried in the pages of Middle Earth or Narnia. Slowly, out of a two dimensional black and white wilderness will come layer upon coloured layer of depth and detail. By colouring every hand-inked nook and cranny, the extraordinary black and white world of Wildergorn will magically come to life.”

If you fancy finding out more –  then check out the website on http://www.wildergorn.com

Posted in General | Written By June 12, 2012 | Comments (1)

I’m going to be appearing as part of a panel of four historical writers  at The Leeds Big Bookend Festival on 16th June at 1.30 pm.  Along with fellow writers Hallie Rubenhold, Jane Borodale and Anne O’Brien, we’re going to be discussing ‘Women, Sex and History’!    We’ll be talking about the women in our books, and how across the centuries women have  often had to fight against the odds, as courtesans, mistresses, lovers, abandoned mothers and submissive or subversive wives.

Do come along if you can – here’s a link to the Big Bookend website for more details:  http://www.bigbookend.co.uk/

Posted in General | Written By May 18, 2012 | Comments (4)

One of the first people who ‘followed’ me when I tiptoed out into the murky waters of Twitter was travel writer, Trish Nicholson.  Based in New Zealand, her delightful website is called ‘Words in the Treehouse’ (http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com/) and it’s always well worth reading.   Trish is a prolific writer, and always busy, so I feel very lucky to have secured an interview with her.  Here it is! 

GK: What do you think makes for great travel writing? 

TN:  I weighed this question for a long time because I think the process starts long before the writing. Each author may write from a different perspective, focusing on particular interests, and as long as these are declared, they can be appreciated by readers who share that interest. But overarching this diversity, a great travelogue, to me, is one that combines a strong sense of place and culture with an interpretation of meaning. An ‘interpretation’ because we are all inescapably subjective, and for travel writers, their own culture can be an added burden.

 A way to achieve as much detachment as possible from one’s own bias, and be open to an unfamiliar environment, is detailed observation without judgement. Recording minutely, and in a raw state, what all the senses are picking up. The search for meaning comes later, after emersion and reflection lead to better understanding. In other words, I think it is attitude and perception before the writing that is most important. The narrative craft is no different in travel writing to any other creative writing; the only limitation is to stick to the truth as far as the writer can measure it. 

GK:  Your new book is very vividly written – the first person, present tense narration gives a great sense of immediacy. Was it a conscious decision to choose this narrative structure? 

TN:  The first time I used first person, present tense – in a short story – I found it difficult, and I think some readers do, too, but thinking about how to share this journey, it seemed the only way to do it. What I wanted to do was to place the reader in my boots, to let them do the trip rather than for me to tell them about it. Writing in the past tense means that events and places are not ‘here, now,’ which I thought would make it harder for the reader to experience ‘being there’, to feel they were doing the travelling. I included extracts from the journal written at the end of each day during my trip – and therefore mostly in past tense – so that there was also reflection. It’s funny, but I now find this narrative form more natural to write than any other. 

GK:  How much do photographs contribute to a travel book, do you think? Should the words do it all, or is there a place for pictures too? 

TN:  I don’t think description should depend on photographs; the word-picture should be sufficiently vivid that someone listening to a ‘talking book’, for example, can ‘see’ the images for themselves. But photographs are important for readers’ involvement in other ways. We all react differently to visual cues; we see things through our own memories and imaginations. Pictures evoke specific personal feelings. One reader read the book on an iPad, in colour, and also on a Kindle, which is only in black and white, and she described images on the Kindle as “even more dreamy” – a response that hadn’t occurred to me. And when the author’s own photographs are included, it can add a certain validation to the whole account.

 GK:  Do you have a favourite moment from your Bhutan trip – if so, what was it and can you tell us why it is memorable for you?

 TN:  So many memorable moments, but my favourite is standing on a ridge above a high pass, the Nyile La, surrounded by the most incredible landscape and laughing and hugging my companion with sheer joy. The long, steep haul up to the pass had been in an eerie silence, suddenly shattered by the tremendous wind funnelling through the narrow pass when I stepped up to it. On the open ridge, the force of the wind was less, and it felt as if I’d gone through some kind of boundary and emerged at a different level of perception. It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘on top of the world’. It’s a magical moment that remains with me.

 GK:  Which writers do you most admire and why?  

TN:  After too many years of functional reading for work and research, my first love, when I turned to fiction, was Joseph Conrad. I think I’ve read everything he wrote. And then I discovered Salman Rushdie through reading Midnight’s Children. In both cases, I admire how they achieve an intimacy with the reader, you feel yourself alone with them, sharing a glass of something in a quiet, comfortable corner, listening to their stories. And in Rushdie’s case in particular, I love his playfulness with words. Another wonderful wordsmith is Le Carré. If I can be allowed a couple of others, they would be Peter Ackroyd and Edward Rutherfurd. Hugely different in the length and style of their writing, but both authors are masters of creating story around real events and people. 

GK:  You have published your work as e-books. Much is being said and discussed right now about the role of the e-book, and its potential to change the whole publishing industry. What are your views on this vexed question? Does the thought of piracy worry you?

TN:  A tough question for everyone, but I’m an optimist and I see it as a means to greater choices and opportunities for both writers and readers. We are still in transition, it’s been a long one, and opting for e-publication at this stage has its risks, but I’ve always been a risk taker and there are obvious advantages. One of which is immediacy: a frazzled commuter, for example, can buy and start reading an e-book of their choice within seconds. For travel books in particular, carried on a reading device they are practically weightless in a backpack. Of course the possibility of piracy is a worry for me, and for my publisher, but if we bowed down to every potential snag we would achieve nothing new or creative. 

GK:  Can you name your five favourite books (not sure I can!!)?

TN:  You do ask difficult questions, but if I interpret it as those I return to, or dip into, most often, it would be these: Midnight’s Children, of course; A Personal Record – a little book by Conrad on his life and writing that I picked up in a junk shop because I enjoy his company; I shall cheat a bit with a compendium – Great Short Stories of the World; Robert McKees’ Story, for reminders of what my craft is all about, and I have to include my Roget’s Thesaurus, an ancient, battered, but complete edition, another $2 find at a car-boot sale. I haven’t included any biographies, which I love to read, but it’s hard to pick one and you’re being so mean with the books :) (GK: Ha ha! These are the perks of being the interviewer for a change!)

Thank you Gaby, for inviting me to your sumptuous website, and for asking such thought provoking questions. I’ve really enjoyed it.

GK:  And thank you for such fascinating answers!  If you are intrigued about Trish’s new travel book, Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, it is published by Collca, and you can find out more about it here: http://collca.com/jib

Posted in General | Written By May 13, 2012 | Comments (2)

I’m busy writing at the moment – my third novel. I have just had a new offer confirmed from Little, Brown, which has made me very happy! I love the team at Sphere (women’s fiction imprint at Little, Brown) – I’ve so enjoyed working with them on the two previous books, and I’m really, really pleased to be able to stay with them.
I understand that the new book is due out in November 2013 – which I reckon gives me about thirteen months writing time. Oo er … given that each of my first two books, written at my own pace before getting any sort of a book deal, took the best part of three years, I seriously need to get my skates on!

Both His Last Duchess and The Courtesan’s Lover were written in the days before I discovered Twitter and Facebook.   On my writing days (days when I wasn’t teaching) I would settle down to the computer, and just write.

No distractions, no stopping every time the BlackBerry pinged to check tweets or emails or Facebook postings, no worrying that I might have missed something significant.

I reckon that to write really well, you need to find the space and time to tap into that “mysterious side of writing, that strange opening of the unconscious where the writer almost becomes a channel for the work” . The quote is from Stephanie Norgate, course leader for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester – and she sums up beautifully that strange, super-focused place you go to, when you are totally immersed in the Work In Progress, and the story sort of takes off with its own energy and just flows. It’s really hard to achieve that, when distracted.  (Actually it can be quite hard to achieve it when you’re not.)
Multi-tasking seems to be something demanded of all of us, all the time, in pretty well all areas of our lives, and if I’m going to be really honest – I’m rubbish at it. I’m forgetful and impatient and easily distracted, and so, being determined to hit my ambitious daily word-count for this new book (I’m not going to tell you what that is, in case I don’t manage it every day!) I’ve decided to cut out as many possible distractions as I can, so that I can get my literary blinkers on, as it were, and just write. There are plenty of unavoidable distractions that I know I’ll just have to work around, but some of them are in fact pretty easily disposed of.
So I am now on a self-imposed month-long sabbatical from social networking (a Twitterbatical?)and am looking forward to quiet, focused days getting on with my new book.   I’ll let you know how it goes.

Posted in General | Written By March 24, 2012 | Comments (0)

In the run-up to Valentine’s Day, I wanted to do two things.  I wanted to take a moment to think about some of the great romances of history … and I wanted – shamelessly, perhaps – to suggest that a copy of The Courtesan’s Lover might make a much more individual Valentine’s day present than a box of chocolates or a bunch of roses.  (Of course, you could always combine them … reading the book whilst eating a load of chocolates and smelling the lovely roses – and quaffing champagne, perhaps – might really put someone in the mood for romance …  )

So – a quick look at some of the more memorable romances of history …

The BrowningsRobert and Elizabeth.
(Of course I had to include the Brownings – look what Robert’s poetry has done for me! )

Robert and Elizabeth Browning

This was a lifelong love between two great writers, which was kindled at the start … by poetry.  Robert  Browning wrote what to all intents and purposes was a fan letter to Elizabeth Barrett in

January 1845.  He had read her book of poems and was both in awe and in love.  ‘I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,’ he wrote.  Browning at the time was a little known but wildly ambitious writer of 32, while the invalid Miss Barrett, seven years his senior, was already an internationally respected poet.

What followed must be one of the most passionate and devoted literary correspondences ever – they wrote each other nearly SIX HUNDRED letters over the following twenty months.  This correspondence lasted right up until the night before they left for a trip to Italy, a fortnight after a secret marriage.

The marriage had been shrouded in secrecy because of the appalling Mr Barrett, Elizabeth’s father.  For years, the invalid Elizabeth had lived with this tyrannical and domineering man, who had, bizarrely, forbidden any of his children to marry.  After the couple’s first meeting, it took time for sickly, isolated Elizabeth fully to trust Robert’s passionate declarations of affection, but over several months (always in her father’s absence, of course) their relationship blossomed, and Elizabeth’s frail health began to improve.

The couple fled England (and Elizabeth’s father) and settled in Italy immediately after their marriage, where they lived happily for fifteen years until Elizabeth died in Robert’s arms in 1861.  During their married life together they produced both a son (another Robert, known as Pen) and many successful and beautiful poems.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ – read at probably more weddings than any other poem – is an exquisite declaration of love for her then husband-to-be.

Anthony and Cleopatra

anthony and cleopatra

A very different sort of love affair now – one which flourished amidst violent political intrigue and civil war.  Cleopatra is famously linked to several men, of course, but her final romantic alliance

was with Roman general Mark Anthony.  This was no easy relationship – it resulted in both their deaths, and brought an end to the centuries-old Ptolemeic dynasty to which Cleopatra had belonged, but its very passion and intensity has ensured it its place in history.

Just as had happened with Julius Caesar, years before, once Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt set her sights on Mark Anthony, the outcome was pretty well inevitable.  Well known for her extraordinary powers of seduction – she planned the best way to ensnare Anthony carefully and lavishly.  She arrived to meet him for the first time on a vast river barge, dressed as Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love.  In the face of such determination, Anthony didn’t stand a chance!

He followed her back to Alexandria, vowing to protect both Egypt and his new-found love.  Things seemed not to last, though – Anthony left for Rome some months later, leaving Cleopatra pregnant with his twin sons.  Filled with as much political ambition as Cleopatra herself, Anthony had decided to return to Rome to ensure that the powerful Roman triumvirate remained strong and effective – to this end he married the half-sister of another member of the triumvirate, Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus).  Anthony’s love for Cleopatra remained undimmed, though, and several years later, he returned to Egypt to be with her.  Declaring her son by Julius Caesar to be his heir, and awarding land to each of the twin boys he had fathered on her, Anthony’s political machinations resulted in a furious war of propaganda with Octavian, who declared that Anthony was entirely under Cleopatra’s rule and influence.

Full-blown war was eventually declared by Octavian upon Anthony and Cleopatra – and the pair were soundly defeated.  As the battle died down, Cleopatra took refuge in the mausoleum she had had built for herself, and Anthony, wrongly believing her dead, stabbed himself with his sword.  Cleopatra was distraught, and, along with two (unfortunate) female servants, shut herself into her chamber and took her own life, probably with the help of a poisonous snake.

At her request, she was buried alongside Anthony.

Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci

botticellivespucciAnother request for burial alongside the beloved.  This was a totally unrequited love, though, which, if true, is almost unbearably romantic!

Sandro Botticelli, the great Renaissance painter, never married, and in fact often said that the thought of marriage even gave him nightmares!  This might have been because there is a possibility that he was homosexual – though this has never been formally documented – but the most likely reason seems to be that he spent much of his live in unrequited devotion to a young married noblewoman, by the name of Simonetta Vespucci.  Simonetta was the darling of the Renaissance – she was impossibly young and unbelievably beautiful.  She was the model for Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ and many other paintings.

Simonetta Vespucci died in 1476 at the tragic age of 22 – most probably from pulmonary tuberculosis.  Botticelli was, so it is said, heartbroken.  He remained devoted to her for the rest of his life, she inspired many more of his paintings, and he made a special request to be buried at her feet when he died.  This wish was carried out some 34 years later, when the painter finally died in 1510 – he was indeed buried at Simonetta’s feet in the Vespucci parish church of Ognissanti.

I do hope I’ve put you in the mood for a romantic read!  The Courtesan’s Lover is available to buy from Amazon and Waterstones – and you might still be able to catch it in Sainsburys.   You can read the first chapter of the book here.

 

I am wondering if I’ve lost my marbles.  Completely.  I’ve just reviewed a clutch of books read and loved during 2011, written by people I know.  And I forgot one of my utter favourites!  How could I have?  This book haunted me for weeks!!

THE HUNGER TRACE: (Simon and Schuster 2011)   Edward Hogan’s book utterly blew me away.  Set in a Derbyshire village, it explores how the  sudden death of David Bryant, the  owner of a rambling Derbyshire wildlife park affects his young widow Maggie, his old friend Louisa (a falconer who lives on the grounds) and Christopher, David’s eccentric teenage son.   They are complex and fascinating characters, unbelievably beautifully drawn, and compassionately depicted.

In some ways, this book is rather like the birds of prey which feature in it – it’s spare, hard, tough, impressive and fundamentally beautiful. Hogan’s prose is deceptively simple – he makes first class writing look easy. His powers of observation are astonishing and engaging, and his characters are complex, three dimensional and never predictable. I think, in fact, this is some of the most impressive writing I’ve come across in years – here’s one tiny quote to give you a taste of the brilliance.   “The walls of the gritstone gorge rose high above Detton Village.  In the soft light, the cliff-face looked tooth-marked and bruised, like half a discarded apple.”

A wonderful, exquisitely crafted book – I loved it.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR TO EVERYONE – here’s to a healthy, happy, successful 2012 for all of us. xx

Posted in General | Written By December 23, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

I said recently that one of the good things about bringing out a second novel has been having a whole community of fellow writers supporting me and encouraging me along the way:  a community of people I just didn’t know, first time round.  Support and encouragement are definitely wonderful benefits … but the other, even more wonderful, benefit of having a community of fellow writers is that … they write books!  And I love to read books!  And there is something just so excellent about buying and reading a book by someone you know.  

So I thought I’d take a moment as 2011 draws to a close, and tell you a wee bit some of the books I’ve read over the year, books written by my writer friends. (Yeah, OK, I’m a bit biased about them, but my comments will be honest, I promise!) 

HURRY UP AND WAIT:  Isabel Ashdown brought out her second novel in 2011 – Hurry Up and Wait  (Myriad Editions 2011).  It’s more than twenty years since Sarah Ribbons last set foot inside her old high school, a crumbling Victorian-built comprehensive on the south coast of England. Now, as she prepares for her school reunion, 39-year-old Sarah has to face up to the truth of what really happened back in the summer of 1986.  

This is a sensitively told story of adolescence – Isabel Ashdown portrays the uncertainties and anxieties of teenage with great empathy and understanding and narrates the horrible situation in which Sarah unwittingly tangles herself with unflinching honesty and no prurience.  Ashdown is a master of understatement, in many ways.  It’s hard to catch her being as great as she is – if that makes sense.   (http://isabelashdown.com)/ 

FLORENCE AND GILES:  (Blue Door 2011)  I’m not sure how to write about this book without waxing sycophantic!  It is definitely one of the most stunning things I’ve read in years.  John Harding has created a narrator with an entirely unique ‘voice’ – a voice which sort of haunts you while you are reading the book, and stays with you long after you finish.  Set in New England in the 19th century, it is, if you like, a homage to Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’, though this quirky, idiosyncratic Gothic thriller is a genuine original. It is gripping, chilling, utterly engaging, and truly, genuinely scary

Florence, the narrator, has an extraordinary way with words – denied a proper education, her oddly-used vocabulary is drawn from the books she reads obsessively in secret. The oddity of her narrative ‘voice’ lends edginess to the story and adds to the unsettling atmosphere.  I absolutely loved this book – as Florence might have put it … while I was reading it, my house remained unbroomed, I was book-in-handing for several days, utterly stunned by Harding’s brilliant wordsmithery.   http://www.john-harding.co.uk

THE MISTRESS’S REVENGE:  Tamar Cohen’s debut novel appeared this year (Doubleday 2011).  This is a story about a discarded mistress, who simply – and literally – cannot believe that she has been abandoned by the man she loves.  Sally’s response to her predicament is disturbing and unsettling, and Tamar Cohen charts the progress of Sally’s increasingly disconnected hold on reality with a sharp, darkly funny and compelling narrative.  

Anyone who has suffered through unrequited love will recognize the emotions portrayed here – even if they might perhaps cringe at the extraordinary ways in which Sally responds to her predicament. One scene in particular had me squirming, almost in tears at the extent to which Sally had forgotten what she owed to her own family from the depth of the pain she was feeling.  I loved this book!  (http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/tamar-cohen

BLOODMINING:  (Bridge House 2011)  This was one of my surprise likes of the year – only because I normally shy well away from any sort of dystopian, futuristic stories, usually finding them hard to believe in, and impossible to engage with.  But I’d heard wonderful things about Laura Wilkinson’s debut novel, and, having been at the launch, I was keen to have a go.  And as it turned out, I was blown away by the book.  It’s brilliant!  It plays out in two time-zones (one scarily close to the present, one a couple of decades on) 

‘Bloodmining’ explores the ethics of assisted conception. It also presents presents us with the possible catastrophic fallout from our current selfish, consumer-driven society. The post-disaster world of the book is much calmer and less driven than our present world, and it offers, surprisingly, despite the appalling tragedy of 2015, some elements which could be seen as being preferable to the world we all know now. Wilkinson’s characters are beautifully drawn, multi-layered and genuinely engaging. She portrays them with tenderness, though without sentiment, allowing their relationships to develop in complex and compelling detail. I loved the book, and can’t wait for Laura Wilkinson’s next novel.  http://laura-wilkinson.co.uk 

INTO THE DARKEST CORNER:  (Myriad Editions 2011)  Elizabeth Haynes’s debut thriller was an edge-of-the-seat read for me.  Her story  of one woman’s battle with OCD and the terrors that lie in her past (the causes of the condition) is gripping and un-put-downable.  Told in two time-zones, Catherine’s story unfolds in two separate strands.  In the present, she appears to be obsessional, irrational, anxious and unable to live a normal life – what happens in the other strand of the story, set several years before, gradually explains why.  There are two men in her life – one who is truly dangerous and the other someone with whom I quickly fell in love as I read!   This is tense, edgy, sometimes genuinely frightening stuff – and Elizabeth’s meteoric rise to the top of the Amazon charts proves the book’s worth.  Looking forward to the next one, Elizabeth!  (www.elizabeth-haynes.com)

MASKS OF THE MORYONS: (Collca 2011)  Just to prove that I don’t ONLY read fiction (nearly, but not quite), I’ve just (last week) read Trish Nicholson’s wonderful e-book, describing her experience of the extraordinaryMoryonan, the re-enactment of the Legend of Longinus in the spectacular weeklong Easter pageant, which is held only in the wonderfully named town of Mogpog, on the Philippine island of Marinduque. This legend has been re-enacted in Mogpog in celebration of Holy Week for almost 150 years. Trish describes the event in vivid first person present narration, making you feel as if you are there on the spot in her company.  The photos are lavish (taken by Trish herself, I think) and she chronicles the various rituals day by day, their history, and how these cultural traditions have survived.  The fact that this celebration takes place only a matter of miles from where the devastating flash floods have just decimated the population of a nearby island makes this a particularly poignant piece to read. (http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com)

And now, last but not least, are a couple of  wonderful books I actually read at the end of 2010, but I thought you wouldn’t mind if I sneaked them into my 2011 list  because you need to see them … 

THE DEVIL’S MUSIC:   (Bloomsbury 2009).  Jane Rusbridge’s debut novel is exquisite.  It is 1958 and the Sputnik satellite has taken a dog up into space; back on earth, five-year-old Andy has a new sister, Elaine – a baby who, his father insists, is ‘not quite all there’. While his parents argue over whether or not to send Elaine away, Andy sleeps beside her cot each night, keeping guard and watching as his mother – once an ambitious, energetic nurse – twists away into her private, suffocating sadness.

Told in three narrative strands, as intricately interwoven as any of the knots Andy learns to tie, this is a beautifully told story of family secrets, fractured relationships, impossible choices and the way memories can be distorted and misunderstood.

I loved this – and now can’t wait for Jane’s new book ‘Rook’ which is due out next Spring  http://www.janerusbridge.co.uk/the-devils-music

WITHOUT ALICE: (Punked Books 2010)  D J Kirkby tells the story of Stephen – a man with a secret.  This is a secret so fundamental he fears it will tear him apart.  Outwardly, he seems to have the perfect set up:  a good job, a loving wife and a son he adores.  But in the end, despite appearances, this all means nothing to him – without Alice.   D J Kirkby depicts her central character Stephen with honesty – he is not an easy man to like at the start of the book – in fact I didn’t like him at all!  But, because of Kirkby’s  careful and tender story telling, though, you come to understand and sympathise with Stephen’s predicament, even if you can’t quite manage to condone how he has behaved; DJ Kirkby so obviously has an empathetic and wise understanding of the human condition.  It’s a terrific story.

www.djkirkby.co.uk

 So – there you are.  Some of my favourite reads of this past year, written by people I’m SO proud to know!  What were YOUR favourite books of this year?

Posted in General | Written By December 20, 2011 | Comments (1)

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s just one of those things that you do, isn’t it, when a new book comes out?   Book signings, that is.  I’m not sure what I think of them, but I’ve just done my fair share – three consecutive Saturdays, since the publication of ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’, at different Waterstones stores –  and I thought I’d share a few random thoughts about the experience.

I imagine it’s a very different thing if you’re a Number One Bestseller:  you’d just sit there, pen in hand, smile in place, and scribble away at flyleaf after flyleaf, making people’s days as you write your hugely famous name in the front of their just-purchased copy of your new tome.  You might get a touch of RSI in the signing hand, and a tired face from smiling too much, but other than that, it would be a doddle, I reckon. 

For us lesser mortals, it’s a different matter.  You need to engage the public.  Ninety five percent (or more) of the potential buyers in that store that morning have never heard of you.  You need to focus them in your direction and (gently) persuade them that they might really be interested in picking up a copy of your book.  How do to this without seeming either pathetic or pushy is (to me, at any rate) something of a challenge. 

Has anyone out there any brilliant ruses that they use successfully at signings?  I’ll share below things I’ve been doing, but I bet masses of you have FAR better ways of selling successfully than I have! 

Here’s one thing:  a Society of Authors article ages ago suggested a piece of advice for which I’ve been grateful ever since:  have something with you that you can hand out to people as a freebie.  Book marks, pens, postcards, etc.  It’s SO much easier to go up to someone and say ‘Could I give you a free bookmark?’ than just to say ‘would you like to hear about my new book?’  Everyone likes to be given something for nothing – and something like a postcard or a bookmark is cheap to produce and easy to hand out. 

 I had a brainwave the other week – ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’ had just been reviewed in Italia Magazine, and I printed out the review, along with a photo of the jacket image, and took a pile of these along with me to the signing.  Then, when I doled out my free bookmarks, I could also say ‘and this is what Italia magazine thought of the book …’  At least a dozen people nodded vaguely and went off with the review, but came back later and said they’d decided to buy, on the strength of it.  My little ruse worked! 

Smiling and being friendly works, too.  In fact, one of the things I enjoy most about signings is the conversations I have with the people I meet.   Yesterday, I had a lovely chat with a lady who said she was planning to buy a copy of His Last Duchess for her daughter, who was about to travel half way around the world to meet the new love of her life.  She recounted a tale of such heart-rending romance that it brought tears to her eyes – and mine –  and we were almost at the point of hugging by the time I signed her copy.   Bless her!

 Another brilliant forty-something couple the other week had me in fits of laughter.  I was recounting the story of the writing of my two books, and at the point at which I told them that ‘in the course of writing the first story, I gave my duke a mistress’, the husband chimed up, (with the deadpan delivery of Jack Dee) ‘Hmm  – I wish someone would give ME a mistress’!   His wife immediately said in a loud voice, which carried right across Waterstones, ‘Hear that, people?  Bloke here wants a mistress.  Anyone interested?  Anyone brave enough to take him on?’ (It was clearly all in jest, and they obviously have the most brilliant relationship, I hastily point out here!)  I took the husband’s arm at this point and whispered ‘I think you seriously need to read my books …’  and he (still deadpan) agreed.  He bought both. 

A lovely old lady listened carefully to my descriptions of my first book, nodding sagely and drinking in every word.  Looking good for a sale, I was thinking to myself as I chattered on.  As I came to the end of my spiel, the old lady nodded and said, ‘Oh yes, that DOES sound interesting.  Just my sort of thing.  I’ll definitely get that … out of the library.’ (At this point I nearly resorted to that Twitter favourite, the *facepalm*) 

I spoke with a sculptor yesterday, who is going to keep me posted about her exhibitions.  I chatted with a lovely family, whose little girl writes poetry – she’s going to send me her poems for me to have a look at.  And I chatted with a bloke who gave me the most brilliant idea for a new signing venue – I’ll tell you what it is, when I’ve investigated its feasibility. 

They are funny experiences, I reckon, book signings.  In every sense of the word.  They can be hilarious, when you get chatting with genuinely amusing people.  They can be humbling, when you get to talk with people who have amazing stories to tell – and it’s surprising just how often people seem to open up and tell you the most extraordinary things! –  and they can be exhausting, when you don’t sell as well as you would like to. 

I’d love to hear your tales of signings.  Tell me about your experiences if you’re a writer trying to sell your books, or a reader getting your book signed.  Have you met authors who either lived up to, or entirely scuppered your preconceptions of them?  Brilliant ideas, funny stories, embarrassing moments – do share!   I’ll read them all and give a copy of ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’ to the story I enjoy the most!

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Posted in General | Written By December 11, 2011 | Comments (14)