As do novels, all too often. It’s exactly six years since I sat down to write a 2000-word short story, The Bath Curse, for the Open University Creative Writing course I was then undertaking. At the time, I thought it might also make a good opening to a novel about Roman Britain.Continue reading “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow…but slowly”
It’s a snowy Saturday morning at the end of January 2021.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, with the Government’s apocryphal “light at the end of the tunnel” dim and far-off, I’m celebrating today. Firstly because I have a new follower on this blog (welcome Chris of Chris Green Reads! ); secondly because I have an appointment for my first COVID jab next week (not queue-jumping, just immunosuppressed); and thirdly because I have a new book review to share with you. And most of all because it’s snowing outside, and it feels cosy in my kitchen with my darling husband playing guitar and topping up my coffee.Let’s begin with the book review, and then I’ll give a brief update where I am with getting my Roman historical mystery novel Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl published.
Dear Lina, by Jess Glaisher, published as audiobook by Audible December 2020
[Warning: as of today I’ve not been able to find a print version of this book. It seems so far to be audiobook only. I’ll update if/when I know more for readers who prefer the written version.]
Lina is a talented young woman living alone in a near-future London after her mother disappears. Mother, Eve, has left a carefully prepared leather-bound book of advice and musings on the world she knows Lina will have to deal with. A world in which the UK has burst apart, in which the English government, a totalitarian one intolerant of immigrants, individual rights, diversity of any kind, and entitlement to any individual freedoms, controls movements, careers and attitudes. Think 1984 meets The Wall, with a dash of The Chrysalids thrown in for good measure.
The story alternates between describing Lina’s stifling impoverished life as an artist at the ministry of propaganda, and chapters from Eve’s book. It becomes slowly apparent that not only was Eve an immigrant, whose human rights became more and more eroded until her very existence was threatened, but that now Lina too is in danger from an administration becoming more Fascist by the day.
Eventually Lina realises she too must disappear, and she sets off to follow her mother to free Scotland. It’s a brutal and dangerous journey, but like Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress or David and Rosalind in The Chrysalids Lina discovers help when least expected, and comradeship in unlikely places.
This is the debut novel by the exceptionally talented Jess Glaisher, and I hope to read more of her work. Jess describes herself as a “queer disabled activist and feminist”. Her own experience as a “hidden immigrant” i.e. having white Irish heritage, allows her to explore issues around discrimination and immigration in an original and arresting way, which I loved. Other themes drawn from contemporary Britain loom large in Dear Lina: global warming, diversity and equal rights, protection of personal data, and the fragility of democratic and individual protections in our troubled times. Jess has particular personal perspectives on all these issues which clearly matter to her, and for the most part do not overwhelm the story. The themes are handled with enough wisdom to engender the reader’s empathy and concern. Towards the end, as a cisgender woman myself, I would have welcomed a wider range of characters representative of all society.
4.5 out of 5 stars for me, and I watch for Jess’s next book with anticipation.
Since December I’ve been working on incorporating the corrections and suggestions of my independent editor Gemma Taylor. At times this feels painful, a bit like selectively cutting off digits with a rusty pair of secateurs. Fortunately this is second novel around for me working with Gemma, so I now know that the next time I read over the amended text I will be delighted with the improvement. It’s just a question of gritting teeth and killing darlings.
I had an IT capacity glitch which slowed down resumption of work after Christmas, but by yesterday I was up to chapter 18 of 30. And– joy of joys! — there’s a perceptible drop-off in the slash of Gemma’s metaphorical red pen (track changes to you). In the meantime, a literary agency has expressed a cautious interest after seeing the first 10,000 words. They will remain nameless unless and until they actually like the full script, and take me on. Wish me luck!
And more news: while waiting for Gemma’s input, I began researching and outlining the second book of the Governor’s Man series. GM#2: The Carnelian Phoenix will occupy me through the spring and summer, when I hope to get the first draft out to beta readers.
Here’s a tiny flavour of GM#2: Quintus discovers things he never knew about his dead father; Tiro is amazed at finding that Rome is bigger and better than Londinium; and Julia has a difficult journey with a dangerous ending.
You don’t need me to tell you it’s been a long year of lockdown and cloistered existence. We’ve all had to find ways to cope, and for me that has meant escaping into a comfort place of words (not just my own writing, I hasten to add.) I’ve built myself an escapist book-lined nest, mostly fiction with a weird slant or surprising twist that drags me off into a different world.
Turns out I spent quite lot of 2020 escaping to my nest to read: plenty of books I’ve loved, some I’ve had to push through, and a few abandoned before the end. In total too many to mention. Nevertheless, for my final book review of 2020, I decided to share five books that would definitely feature at the top of my list. Here they are, in no particular order, just because I loved them enough to read or listen to them twice. At least twice.Continue reading “Book reviews: My top reads of 2020”
V2, by Robert Harris, published by Hutchinson autumn 2020
In the autumn and winter of 1944, the dying embers of the Nazi war effort were fanned back to a brief fierce flame by the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei campaign – known to us as the V2 rockets.
Dr Rudi Graf, a dedicated engineer who still dreams of reaching the stars with his beautiful rockets, is the fictional colleague of Wernher von Braun. (After the war von Braun famously re-surfaced in America as the genius behind NASA’s space programme.) Graf’s opening line, ‘I doubt it’ when asked whether the rockets will win the war, tells us immediately of his utter weariness and and his growing doubts about Nazism, the war effort, and his own life’s work on the rocket programme.
Harris’s other main character is WAAF Kay Caton-Walsh, who survives a V2 attack in London. Escaping a moribund love affair, she finds her life transformed when she volunteers to go to Belgium as part of a group of talented female mathematicians who use slide rules, nerve and sheer ability in a race to find the launch site of the deadly rockets.
Before the two eventually meet, the gripping course of the final winter of WW11 has somehow to be survived. And a muddy, grim, despairing time it is before the climactic end is reached.
And now I must declare making a big mistake, and being most unfair to Mr Harris:
I read Fatherland, Harris’s first novel (which was also set in Nazi Germany but of a very different era) so many years ago I blush at how old I have become. I was immediately hooked on the premise of that book – that the Nazis had won the war, prevailed through to the sixties, and a doddery Hitler was ruler of the whole of Europe including a Vichy-type regime in Britain. I was even more captivated by the quality of the writing.
What Harris did with Fatherland. and has done since in most of his writing, is to focus on carefully crafted distinctive characters and a wealth of painstaking research distilled down to the most delicately constructed detail. And then he twists events to utterly fool us. While we were watching the brilliantly crafted “this” over here, Harris has all along been fooling us with a hidden “that” over there, which explodes into view in the final twist. Oh, for such talent!
One or two other thriller writers can do this, but few choose to do so to investigate epochal moments of history to such gripping effect. The magic is in the detail, and this was where I made my mistake. I had been so looking forward to V2 that I pre-ordered it on Kindle, and when it downloaded on publication day I gobbled it down much too fast, consuming the book in a single marathon session ending in the wee small hours.
This is not the way to treat a much-anticipated new book, as those of us no longer small children usually recognise. Unsurprisingly, having rushed through what may seem at first glance a simple story, I was a little disappointed. It felt a touch superficial, rather short, not really up to par. I knew Harris had written the book in lockdown, having fortunately conducted his field research in autumn 2019. Perhaps, I reasoned, he felt under pressure to deliver, or the restrictions of lockdown were taking their toll.
Fortunately for me, I then chose to listen to the book on Audible, and had a vastly different experience. All the touches of detail – Harris’s unique magic with deftly deployed historical research – somehow emerged far more effectively in the audio format. By the time I reached the denouement, much more satisfactory second time round, I had changed my opinion considerably.
Kay’s chagrin at her shifting personal life, including her mistakes of the heart and initial difficulties with colleagues, came out in beautiful nuance. Graf’s lonely stance, a thwarted dreamer reaching for the stars who is forced to kowtow to evil, was much clearer, and his behaviour at the climatic twist became believable and poignant. The backdrop of the dreary frozen Low Countries, and the war-shattered scenes of exhausted London were almost characters in their own right.
My view now? This is a terrific historical thriller, once taken at the correct pace. I thoroughly recommend it and heartily apologise to Robert Harris for my initial misgivings.
But, dear Reader, I must caution you – read V2 twice to get the most out of this story. It creeps up on you.
An update now on progress with my own first historical mystery novel, Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl
My first draft has just come back from my editor Gemma Taylor, and I‘ve also had feedback on the script from several beta readers. My grateful thanks to my readers – signed copies coming your way sometime next year!
Mostly positive reviews so far, I’m relieved to say. There’s still a lot of work to be done, of course, but I’m on timetable to finish the second draft and polish it up to send out on pitch to agents and publishers in the New Year.
In the meantime, I’ve made a start on the second book of the series, Governor’s Man: The Carnelian Phoenix. Get ready for all kinds of mayhem, murder, subterfuge, and misunderstandings as my trio racket around third century Europe in a quest to uncover the truth behind the suicide of Senator Valerius.
Where Every Man by Charlie Garrett (fourth in the Inspector James Given series)
Published by Sapere Books, 2020
I’ve given myself a short break between sending the first draft of Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl off to my editor, and beginning the sequel, GM: The Carnelian Phoenix, in which Quintus Valerius and Tiro find themselves plunging round Gaul and on to the Eternal City in pursuit of danger, death and general mayhem. More of that later.
Meanwhile, Sapere Books asked me to read their latest detective thriller, and here is my review, as published today on Amazon. I gave the book three stars.
Five months ago I realised Covid wasn’t going to disappear anytime soon. Mainly because our beloved leader and his cabinet of All-the-Untalented were showing every sign of world-beating incompetence. We never stood a chance of avoiding the second wave, let’s be honest.
As it turns out – how can I state this modestly? – I was right. So I needed a distraction, and I found one.
Now, after five months of spending every afternoon Mon-Fri buried in my virus-free hillside writing cabin, I have emerged having finished my RomanoBritish mystery novel Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl. Hopefully it will be the first of a series that people will like.
The word “finished” is of course light touch. So far the first draft has gone off to valiant beta readers for initial impressions, and even more nervously to my gallant editor Gemma Taylor at Oakleaf Editing, she who must be obeyed.
In the meantime, I’m off to walk the well-ventilated and hopefully virus-free beaches of Devon for a week, with my long-suffering dog and that man who brings flasks of tea uphill to the cabin. And to play ludus latrunculi.
Of which, more later in the book …
In my last post I promised you a review of Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. Here it is.
But first, a digression …
By Andrew Miller, published by Sceptre, 2018
This book is about who we are, who we become under duress, and who we wish we could be.
Captain John Lacroix of the Hussars has barely survived the opening phase of the Peninsular War (1807-14), and has been repatriated for recovery home to Somerset. He does not recognise himself as a survivor, more as a mourning penitent who has fled what he has witnessed, done, and left undone in a small Spanish village, the scene of a war atrocity by the British army retreating to Corunna.
Lacroix is being pursued: by the army, who want him back in arms now that a new campaign in the Peninsula is to be led by the future Duke of Wellington; by a pursuer, Corporal Calley, appointed by one who cannot be gainsaid and Calley’s Spanish companion, Lieutenant Medina; and by his own ghostlike shame. He is also pursued by death, although it takes some time for Lacroix to realise this.
Both Lacroix and Calley give themselves alternate identities, and their two stories intertwine like snakes seeking to bite each other as the deadly chase crosses the length of Regency Britain.
A convalescent trip to the Hebrides turns into a rout for Lacroix, a flight for his life and sanity. But at first he travels slowly, in all ignorance, not knowing he is laying a clear trail for Calley. Lacroix meets with plenty of more obvious misfortunes until he reaches an unlikely haven with an eccentric cultured London family, living in isolation on a unnamed island. Here Emily, with her brother Cornelius and sister Jane, are the advance party of an idealistic freethinking community, destined one suspects for failure, and rapidly running out of money. Lacroix’s plans to move on gradually change as he falls in love with Emily.
And now his luck too seems to change. There is a very near miss in Glasgow, a breath-taking encounter which Lacroix unwittingly escapes. But his idyll ends with a wrenching reunion with one of Calley’s victims, and a time for confessions on both sides of the twisted plot. As Lacroix grapples with what sort of person he really is, as well as the true identity of the man hunting him, the pace quickens into a desperate race back to the island for the final encounter. And then… shall John and Emily be entirely free?
Lovers of Pure, and other Andrew Miller historical fiction will know his uncanny ability to suck the reader wholesale into his chosen period. His touches of detail are magical in their ability to summon the era: Lacroix making bullets; the mudlark that Medina sees in Portsmouth; pioneering gaslights in Glasgow, and the new police who patrol under those blue lights; the revolutionary eye surgery Emily undergoes.
Miller’s writing is so lyrical and rhythmic that the spare brutality of Calley’s threats and behaviour is thrown into shocking relief, even while Lacroix vainly seeks to escape the horrors of Spain. The tension in this book ratchets up softly at first, gaining momentum and ending in a mighty breathless twist. That is the hallmark of a great writer in full possession of all the requisite skills, and ensures that this book will appeal to lovers of mystery and thrillers, as well as historical fiction.
In the end, Lacroix becomes who he wishes to be remembered as, and Calley? Well – spoiler alert – he too ends as he might expect, knowing himself to be capable even of murdering one he belatedly realises was his friend.
So, is there anything not to admire in this wonderfully immersive story? For me, yes. When your writing has been recognised by the award of Costa Book of the Year, you’re entitled to experiment with the shibboleths of accepted writing norms. Like shifting point of view from inside the head of one character to another, within the same scene. All the same, being entitled doesn’t necessarily make that a good idea. [See Chapter 1, for example].
And then there’s the ending. I was disappointed on first reading. And again on second reading. What need to miss out that one final sentence? I have to admit, for me the magic spell Miller casts over the entire book dissipated a little right there. A shame, but maybe that says more about me as a reader than Miller as writer. I suppose it was inevitable, as this is a book clearly aimed at the litfic market. While the story has all the pace and plot-driven suspense of the very best commercial fiction, the ambiguous ending reveals Miller’s instincts. For me personally, that was rather a shame. See what you think.
Since lockdown began I’ve been focussing on my novel Governor’s Man, and neglecting my usual short story writing. Then along came the Lincoln Book Festival 2020 flash fiction competition. The challenge was to write a complete 50-word story about the Lincoln Imp. Those of you who’ve visited Lincoln will know of the little gargoyle who sits perched on top of Lincoln Cathedral, staring down at passers by. Locals regard him as malign; he’s been blamed for all sorts of mishaps over the centuries, from housefires and miscarriages to sour milk.Continue reading “Prize winner at Lincoln Book Festival 2020”
27 June 2020
Last time I promised you my review of the remainder of the Rotherweird trilogy, by QC and fantasy writer Andrew Caldecott. So I’ll begin with that, and then see how you like the segue into my catch-up on Covid-19 and our illustrious Government’s part in its downfall.