It’s all getting very exciting…

I have just realised that I’ve shared the latest ‘Echo Hall’ news everywhere except here. Which is a bit remiss of me, considering this is the place I first started talking about the novel.

So first up. Here’s the fabulous cover designed by the wonderful Mark Ecob of Ecob Designs. It’s getting a lot of love so far, and so it should…

Secondly. I have finished the proofs. After so many years writing and re-writing that feels quite a milestone. I’m just waiting to hear back from Unbound that they’re OK and we are nearly good to go to the printers. Which hopefully means publication before the end of November.

Thirdly,  it is time to let the world know about the book. I am very excited that Unbound have teamed up with The Pigeonhole to release extracts over ten days around publication. You can sign up to this exclusive group and get the first section for free  (I can’t see what they charge for the rest). You will be able to chat with other readers as you read and talk to me and ask me questions. It’s going to be fun, so do join in!

I am also planning a number of other things. We’ll be launching the book at the fabulous Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford. I’m speaking to bloggers about reviews, I will be returning to twitter with Ruth’s story before Echo Hall, I’m hoping to come to bookshops for talks and more.

It’s all getting very exciting!

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Summer Reads 4: New Kids on the Block

My last post on holiday reads features new  or (relatively) new books.

Shelter. Sarah Franklin

SheShelter-final-coverlter is the debut novel from Sarah Franklin, who hosts the wonderful Short Stories Aloud event in Oxford. Alas! I wasn’t able to get to either her launch party or her SSA event, but as it was published round my birthday I was lucky enough to have a copy delivered to me in Tenby.

Shelter is an unusual World War 2 story for several reasons. One is that instead of presenting us with a stereotypical wartime romance, the author has written a relationship based on uncertainty and ambivalence which is far more interesting. The second is that the heroine Connie subverts all our expectations of motherhood and behaves in ways that seem selfish mainly because she is a woman. And in another neat role reversal, while she yearns for freedom, it is her lover Seppe who longs for the comfort of safe domesticity. Thirdly,  the novel is set far away from the front lines in the Forest of Dean, which allows us to see the impact of war on ordinary people.

The evocative setting of the forest, the sense of everyone finding shelter under its trees and the well drawn characters make this a satisfying and enjoyable debut. I’m very much looking forward to Sarah’s next book.

How to Stop Time. Matt Haig

The title for this novel (another birthday present) comes  from a short section of Haig’s self help book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive‘ which begins ‘how to stop time:kiss‘ and continues ‘how to travel in time:read’ .  It is an entirely fitting title for a book that explores what it feels like to be disconnected from the world, and the struggle to remain human and alive. Haig has visited this territory before with his  novel, ‘The Humans’ in which his hero was an alien trying to understand humans. Here, the central character Tom suffers from a strange disease that means he ages very slowly. As a result, he has lived through centuries, hiding his secret for fear of being punished, after his mother was drowned as a witch and his wife died of the plague.

After centuries of searching for his daughter, who suffers from the same illness, he discovers an organisation of people like himself. When they promise to help him in his mission, he becomes an enforcer for them, killing those who would tell the world they would exist and changing his identity every eight years to avoid discovery. But, just as the alien in ‘The Humans’ begins to question his Vonnadoran masters who want him to kill the humans, Tom too, begins to realise he has made the wrong choice, particularly when the chance to love again comes his way.

This is a beautifully optimistic book with some lovely set pieces. I didn’t love it as much as Haig’s previous two, particularly because I felt the historical segments were too Hollywoodised (not surprisingly it’s being made into a film with Benedict Cumberbatch). However, these are niggles, because the central concept is so very strong, and in a world that constantly challenges us to be optimistic, we need books like this to remind us that human kindness and love will save us every time.

The Power. Naomi Alderman.

I had a weird experience on holiday, when I was looking at the pile of books we’d brought and was pleased to see someone had brought ‘The Power’ which I’d been meaning to read. When everyone denied buying it I realised belatedly that I’d purchased it as buy two get one free and completely forgotten about it. That’s the menopause for you…

Anyway I digress. I wasn’t sure about this one as I hadn’t particularly liked the last novel I’d read by Naomi Alderman, but ‘The Power’ was being hyped as THE feminist book of the year so I had to give it a go. And I’m very glad I did.  ‘The Power’ is a fascinating novel about what the world might be like if women were more physically powerful then men. The novel begins with a teenager discovering she literally has power at her finger tips when, her anger at a man trying to sexually harass causes her to electrocute him. All of a sudden all over the world young women find themselves able to fight back and the patriarchy is under attack. And when the older generation are also awakened by their daughters, the world changes dramatically.

This is such an interesting idea and Alderman deals with it well by playing out different responses. A liberal American politician helps contain the phenomena to ensure her rise to power, sending her daughter to a training camp to correct her, and hiding her own abilities. The wife of an Eastern European dictator kills the tyrant and takes over the country ridding it of domestic abusers. The daughter of a gangster takes revenge on her mother’s murderers before fleeing to America. An abused foster child reinvents herself as a religious leader. There are sexual revolutions around the globe and a young African man sets out to document it all. All of which leads to some searching questions about what gives us power, what having power means and whether we can ever stop the powerful from committing abuse.  For once, a novel that deserves the hype.

The Heart. Maylis de Kerangal.

This 2016 novel was another birthday present and was  very different from my other reads. It deals with a short intense period that follows the death of a young man and the decision his parents must make as to whether to have a heart transplant.

The book takes us from the moment the young man and his friends decide to go surfing early in the morning, through the accident that kills him, the hospital that receives him the horror for his parents and then the various medical issues that need to be resolved until the heart reaches the woman who is waiting.

It’s a really thoughtful book, well told that takes us from person to person as the events impact their lives from the devastated parents to the hopeful recipient. Though it’s not high on action, the emotions run deep, and the novel leaves you with a sense of both the fragility, and strength of the world. It wasn’t my favourite book of the summer, but still is well worth a read.

 

I did also begin The Bible this summer, nearly reaching the end of the Pentateuch, but since I haven’t finished it, and I couldn’t get it any one of my categories, that’ll have to wait for another time.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my holiday reads and found something to whet your appetite.

 

Summer Reads (3): Second hand Collection and a Book shop bargain.

Just before I went on  holiday I visited the wonderful Albion Beatnik Bookstore and picked up some second hand books and while I was away found a cheap copy of an Alice Munro collection in Tenby. Here’s what I thought of them:

Cover Her Face. PD James

I bought this one because I remembered reading it when young and enjoying it. It has stood the test of time, just. It’s a reasonably well paced puzzle for James’ famous detective, Adam Dalgleish, to solve. An unreliable maid who has alienated the family by declaring the son of the house proposed to her, is found dead in a locked room. The story of how and why she died is worth following because the reason for the murder is not obvious. Some of the characters are pretty stereotypical- the put upon sister, the hard working son –  but the murdered Sally and the mother, Eleanor, are much more complex and satisfying. And although it suffers from being a bit too much of a parlour detective story, there are enough of the psychological flourishes that characterise her later work to keep you reading. Worth a punt.

Some Tame Gazelle. Barbara Pym.

I’ve never read Barbara Pym before, so I thought I’d give her a go. I have to say, I wasn’t quite sure of this, her debut novel. Apparently everyone thought it was  marvellous at the time of publication, because she, a young woman, could imagine what it was like to be an elderly spinster. I’m not sure that’s such a huge achievement these days,  and I found the country life comedy a little too much like the Vicar of Dibley for my tastes but there were some nice comic touches. I particularly enjoyed the one time love of one of the characters who was such a great hero  in her youth, turning out to be a self centred and rather creepy Bishop. The central relationship between the sisters was well drawn and I liked the fact it didn’t end up with them marrying the men who proposed to them. So, although this wasn’t my favourite read this holiday,  I’d probably pick give Pym another go.

 

The Daughter of Time. Josephine Tey.

I bought this because I remember my mum and sister raving about it when I was a teenager. I think I may have muddled it in my mind with an Anya Seton novel, as I loved her stories about the Plantaganets back then. Anyway, this one was a total disappointment I’m afraid. It’s a plodding story of a sick detective keeping his mind active in his recovery by investigating the deaths of the princes in the tower. (An idea copied by Colin Dexter a few decades later when he had Morse investigating a Victorian murder mystery from his sick bed. I didn’t enjoy that one either). Anyway, this might have  been surprising in the 1950’s when perhaps history was fixated on Richard 111 being the villain, but in 2017 it was all a bit obvious and uninteresting. And I never did work out what the title meant…

Dear Life.  Alice Munro.

I was very late to the party with Alice Munro and have only read two of her books (including this one). Shame on me because she really is as marvellous as everyone says. This collection is terrific featuring small and big moments in people’s lives, passing encounters, and evoking memorable landscapes. Every story is beautifully crafted, but my favourites are ‘Gravel’ in which a character is haunted by a childhood tragedy, ‘Amundsen’ where a young woman goes to work in a strange sanatorium where she falls in love with its director, and ‘Night’,  a wonderful evocation of insomnia and the comfort fathers (even difficult ones) can bring. Can’t recommend this one highly enough.

 

My last post on this subject will be the new books I read, and there are some corkers…

Unbound debuts (2): Ian Skewis

Taking  a break from my holiday reads to catch up with my fellow Unbounder, Ian Skewis, who kindly agreed to a Q and A on his debut novel ‘A Murder of Crows’

murdercrows

 

Welcome Ian, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

First of all, let me offer my congratulations on the success of ‘A Murder of Crows.’  It is wonderful to see a fellow Unbounder do so well!

I really enjoyed this novel, I think it is has a lot more depth than the average crime novel and leaves you wanting to hear from Jack Russell again. A few questions occurred to me as I was reading them, so thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

 

  1. I couldn’t find the village of Hobbs Brae on the map, so I assume it’s fictional. It feels very real though. Is it based on somewhere you know? What writing techniques did you employ to make sure it felt authentic?

Hobbs Brae is indeed a fictional place, and is very much based on my love of the countryside. I took all the beautiful places I have seen, and all the eerie places too, and put them into the mixing pot, as it were. So Hobbs Brae is a place of the mind. One of the characters describes it as the ‘estranged Scottish sister of Stepford’ – a place where all the gardens are perfectly lawned, but where the curtains are twitching – and dark things are happening. The setting was paramount because the place itself tends to have an impact on those who live in it. Hobbs Brae has its own microclimate and this affects the behaviour of its inhabitants. It is a claustrophobic place, and this turns the mood of its inhabitants to a dark, almost resentful one at times.

  1. ‘A Murder of Crows’ is a great title and is a lovely bit of wordplay. Was it the first title you thought of? What made you choose it?

It just seemed right to be honest. I knew that for the marketing of the book I needed a title that in itself summed it up as part of a particular genre, in this case, crime – so to have the word murder in the title seemed obvious. Crows play a large symbolic part in the book too, and it is mainly set outdoors, so A Murder Of Crows fitted the bill.

  1. You use the weather and scenery very effectively to build up menace. Was this difficult to achieve?

Actually, no. It was one of the easiest and most enjoyable aspects of writing the book. Keeping a track of the weather in particular was easy because, as Alice says in the book, ‘the weather in Hobbs Brae tends to stay the same for days because it’s in a valley.’ The scenery was carefully chosen, in order to create atmosphere, and I actually drew a map of Hobbs Brae many years ago, which I still have tucked away somewhere.

  1. We’re used to seeing friction between detectives in crime stories, but here you’ve made Jack Russell and his deputy Colin Clements absolutely loathe each other, which makes for an interesting change. How did you come up with this relationship? Will they ever be friends?

I just wanted it to be a bit different. It was more interesting for me to write it that way. This is why I started the book near the end of Jack’s career too. He has all that lovely incriminating baggage to carry and therefore an entire life to draw on, which for a writer, is a dream. The reason behind Colin’s hatred soon becomes apparent though, and I hope that he still becomes a bit more likeable as we find out exactly why he is the way he is. He isn’t just nasty for the sake of it. Something is quite literally, eating at him…

  1. I like the fact that the sub-plots deal with dementia and familial abuse. Was that intentional from the beginning or did they creep in as you were writing them?

Memory is always a recurring theme in my writing so I always knew that the character of Alice would have that problem to contend with. It was important to write it from her perspective though and it seems to have worked. She is quite probably the most popular character in the book because many people recognise and sympathise with her struggle. I loved writing her and I felt bad about how her story concluded, but it had to be done. No spoilers though!

  1. Jack’s back story is intriguing and is revealed very carefully. You’ve mentioned you might do prequels. Are you going to go back and show us what happened?

I will one day, but I was watching and listening to Ian Rankin at Bloody Scotland, and he said that writing sequels and prequels is hellish because it bogs your writing down. I tend to agree. I did start on a sequel but it quickly became clear to me that I was already closing the doors on my writing rather than opening new ones, so I’ve opted for a brand new standalone crime thriller as my second book instead. It makes perfect sense to me now. I’m soon to be embarking on research for my next book, however, there will be a link in there to A Murder Of Crows, but that’s firmly under wraps for now. I have to say I’m really excited about this one and I’m looking forward to seeing what people think.

  1. You’ve left us on quite a cliff hanger at the end of ‘A Murder of Crows’. Will you resolve this for us, or are you going to leave the story there?

It will be resolved one day. It’s possible that books one and two will develop into two separate series and maybe even converge, but who knows? I will definitely do a sequel, as I want to complete Jack’s story, but I think I need time away from it before I return to the dark world of Hobbs Brae…

 

As well as preparing for his second novel Ian Skewis has written a short story entitled Remembering Miss Clare, which he has donated to the forthcoming anthology, Borrowed, which is currently crowdfunding on unbound.com

All profits go to the World Literacy Foundation.

For further information on Ian Skewis please follow his website, ianskewis.com or find him on Twitter @IanSkewis or follow his Facebook page, Ian Skewis books.

Thank you Ian for great answers to my questions.

Don’t forget to buy A Murder of Crows’ and please back ‘Borrowed’.   It featuresures lots of my Unbound mates and is edited by Shona Kinsella who appeared on this blog earlier this year.

 

Summer Reads (2): Old Favourites

I know some people who never read the same book twice, but I am not like that. There are certain books that are like old friends for me. I have to read them again and again. And while I never get the fresh excitement of reading a story for the first time, rereading a familiar one is both comforting and brings new things to my attention. So this summer I was in the mood for two old favourites, and loved them every bit as much as I did the first time.

A Prayer for Owen Meany. John Irving.

Owen Meany was a Christmas present from a very dear friend of mine back in 1990. Coming as it did at the end of a gruelling year and during the run up to the Gulmeanyf War, a book about grief and the terrible consequences of US foreign policy, was bound to have big impact on me at the time. But it’s a testament of how good it is that it still does today. Though, at first, I found Irving’s conceit of putting all of Owen’s speech in capitals to represent his high pitched voice, annoying, I soon got used to it. Which was a clever way of showing how people learnt to accomodate Owen.

The story is told by the adult John, remembering his childhood friend, Owen. The book flits between past and present as John unveils what happens to them from the moment Owen hits a foul ball in a baseball game, to his fateful decision to join the US army during the Vietnam War.  Owen’s story is both comic and tragic,  and as the adult John rails against Reagan’s interventions in Nicaragua and Star Wars programme,  unable to forgive the country he has left, we come to learn quite how much he has been damaged by events.

Irving is a skilful writer and though the narrative jumps in time within time frames, he never loses you. The intricate plot is carefully lain, so that there are no loose ends, and everything has an explanation.  This is a remarkable study of grief, obstinacy, idiocy, faith and predestination which packs a powerful punch. It also has  the most devastating last line, one that has been foretold from the very beginning. Gets me every bloody time.

 

Gilead. Marilynne Robinsongilead

I came to Gilead by a completely different route (although Christmas was also involved). A few years ago, my lovely husband Chris bought me a very funny selection of book reviews by Nick Hornby called ‘The Polysllabic Spree‘. His review of Gilead ended with him declaring that it was so good it made him, a rank atheist, want to become a priest. With a recommendation like that, how could I resist?

Hornby was spot on with his reaction, because Gilead is an amazing book. So amazing, in fact, that I believe I have written about it before on my blog. But 2009 was a long time ago, so I’m going to break with tradition and talk about it again. Gilead tells the story of the Reverend John Ames, a man who has rarely stepped out of his tiny town but who has somehow managed to live an important life.  Now in his 70’s and dying he writes a letter to his 7 year old son, in which he articulates the key moments he has witnessed, the lessons he has learnt, and describes the personal failings that make him an ordinary flawed person.  I can’t tell you quite how much I love this book. Robinson gets to the heart of what it means to be human, what it means to love, hate and forgive. And in doing so manages to paint a portrait of a truly good man, without resorting to sanctimoniousness or fakery.

Since Gilead she has written two extraordinary connected novels. ‘Home’ tells the story of Ames’ wastrel godson Jack Boughton, repeating many of the same scenes from Jack’s point of view. ‘Lila’ which delves into the troubled life of Ames’ wife before they met and gives a welcome voice to someone who largely remains in the background in the first two books. Both the follow ups are wonderful, but Gilead is the one which draws me back time and again. I was so glad to make John Ames’ acquaintance again this summer. As always I felt I was in the presence of an old, wise man who I’d love to know in real life. I highly recommend you walk with him for a while. You’ll enjoy his company.

 

Part 3 follows – my second hand collection…

 

Summer Reads (1): Nonfiction.

Somewhere in the dim and distant past of late July/early August, we managed to get away for three whole glorious weeks in Tenby. After a hectic few months editing 3 books and doing 2 exams while trying to hold down a full time job, it was a total joy to sit and do nothing much except read. I’ve been meaning to write up the results ever since but the minute I got back it feels like I’ve not stopped till this weekend. So,  time to make the most of the rare moment of calm and let you know my thoughts on my non-fiction choices…

linescapes

Linescapes. Hugh Warwick.

I will put it out there straightaway, that Hugh is a good friend of mine, so of course I always want his books to do well. But I will also say that I absolutely love his passion for the environment (particularly all things hedgehog) and he is a brilliant writer.  I’m a former student of Biology, and Hugh’s work not only shows me what my life might have been like if I’d been any good as a scientist, but it always rekindles my enthusiasm for the subject.

‘Linescapes’ is no exception. This is a gorgeous book, celebrating the beauty of our British landscape and lamenting the threats it is under. Hugh’s approach, to investigate the lines (or ‘linescapes’) that criss-cross our land, is a fresh and innovative one. He takes the reader on a fascinating journey along hedges, walls, hollow ways,  canals, railways and motors, as he walks with local environmentalists who explain how human lines can both hinder and help wildlife. While it is a plea to halt the ongoing fragmentation of our natural habitat, it also offers a great deal of hope. To know that wildlife can be found even in the most challenging circumstances (demonstrated by the discovery of otter spraint in an urban canal under a busy A road) and that the highways and railways have teams of passionate naturalists working hard to manage their estates, is very heartening indeed.  A book guaranteed to make you want to search out your local linescapes to ferret out and protect the wildlife you find there.

 

2. Swell: A waterbiography. Jenny Landreth.swell

I started following Jenny Landreth on twitter a few years ago, when I found out about her blog Swimming Round London. Since then we’ve had many interesting conversations on a wide range of topics, but I’ve always remained interested in her swimming stories, so, of course, ‘Swell’ was on my birthday present list. And what a ‘swell’ present it was.

The minute I saw the exuberant cover of women jumping into a lido, I knew I’d enjoy this. And I did. Landreth is a witty and warm writer, who weaves her own personal transformation from unsporty child to grown up open air water swimmer, with the history of women’s swimming in Britain.  As someone who was also put off sport as a teenager, I totally identified with her personal journey, and remain in awe of her achievements as a long distance swimmer. She has also pulled together a fascinating account of how women were gradually allowed a place in the water, and pieced together the stories of the awesome pioneers who demonstrated their ability to be just as good as the men. Like ‘Linescapes’ this is a joyous, uplifting book which will have you diving into the water the minute you put it down.

3.  A Short History of England. Simon Jenkins.

jenkins

A Short History of England was one of my husband’s book choices, and since the sections he kept reading out loud were interesting, I picked it up the minute he was done.  I’ve got a good grasp of British history, but had forgotten a lot, so this well written and informative book was helpful in filling up the gaps.  The only quibble I had was that it was so short, it did rather race through bits that I’d have liked to linger on. Nonetheless, if you want to brush up on your English history this is a good start.

 

 

Next up,  old favourites…

Reclaiming The Common Good

Long term readers of this blog will be aware that I am a fiction writer, but in recent years I have also been developing my non-fiction. I am delighted to announce that Darton Longmann and Todd have just published ‘Reclaiming the Common Good’ an essay collection that I have collated and edited.

The collection was one of the keynote books at last week’s Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival. It explores what part Christians can play in building a better future of hope, peace, equality and justice.

 


Reclaiming the Common Good

After decades of political consensus, we are entering a time in which everything about the way we live today, and about how our society and communities are structured, is up for discussion. Many people are feeling empowered to ask:

 

What kind of world do we want to live in? One that works for a few, or one that works for the common good?

 

What part can Christians play in building a future of hope, peace, equality and justice?

 

Reclaiming the Common Good is a collection of essays which consider these themes. Beginning with an explanation of the history and meaning of the term ‘common good’, it explores how the sense of working for this ideal has been lost. Focussing, biblically, on issues such as welfare, austerity, migration, environment, peace and justice, it provides a compellingly fresh and insightful analysis on the state of the UK and the world today, and offers a realistic vision of how it could be better. This vision is rooted in the idea of a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem, as suggested in the book of Revelation.

I have two essays in the collection, the others by a wonderful group of writers: contributors are: Dr Patrick Riordan SJ, John Moffatt SJ, Simon Barrow, Bernadette Meaden, Dr Simon Duffy, Rev. Vaughan Jones, Savitri Hensman , Ellen Teague, Edward P. Echlin, Henrietta Cullinan, Susan Clarkson and Rev. Dr Simon Woodman.

You can order it here.

We are holding a London launch of the book at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 235 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8EP on 20th September at 6.30pm. Tickets are free. All welcome. You can book via Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!