Sunday, December 30, 2007

Telecom Hell Belgian-style

There are many good things about Belgium: apart from the obvious chocolate and beer, there are the bakeries with the best patisserie I've ever tasted with more variations on the nut/chocolate/pastry/sponge combo than I've ever seen anywhere else; small hills - important on a bicycle - although I've never actually been on a bicycle in Belgium; comfortable cinemas that show movies in three languages; yummy boutiques with gorgeous clothes and jewellery and accessories; delicious restaurants of every foodie persuasion; teenagers whose idea of assault is trying to sell you marzipan in the street as opposed to mugging you for your mobile. But no-one, not even a Belgian, could say that their newly competitive formerly public sector utilities are anything but supremely incompetent.

I will not go into the tedious details of my Kafkaesque experiences with phone and internet connections over the past three weeks, but for anyone bothering to surf their holidays away in this direction, this is a quick heads up that blogging in this vicinity is severely limited by lack of access, but normal service should resume come Feb...and in the meantime can anyone explain to me why it is acceptable to 2 telecoms operators that our phone answers to a phone number that officially belongs to a Swiss insurance company? No? I thought not.

In the meantime, The Lives of Others was definitely the best movie of 2008. Definitely.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Mills & Boon row

Here's the link to what will no doubt be the first of many such discussions as we approach M&B's centenary year:,,2222083,00.html

Just to fill in non-romance readers, an M&B author (Daisy Cummins) and Julie Bindel, a freelance journalist who works for the Guardian wrote contrasting articles on the merits (or NAAAHHHT as Borat might say) of Mills & Boons.

The comments by Julie Bindel have already roused strong responses across the internet and there are some terrific refutations of her position (based on the reading of 20 M&Bs 15 years ago) that basically the books sanction rape... No, you have to follow the link and read her skewed logic for yourself. If you want to find the great ripostes, google Natasha Oakley, Small Town Scribbles, Teach Me Tonight and Smart Bitches Read Trashy Books.

The reason the article pressed my button was that I've been doing my own research - it's about 15 years or so since I read M&Bs with any regularity at all. So after my declaration the other day that I'd always wanted to try to get into that market and the incentive of the competition currently being run by M&B/Harlequin, I bought six M&B Modern novels (aka Harlequin Presents), which are their bread and butter monthly output. Eight currently, going up to twelve as of next year. So these are books in demand, and yes, they are the ones which tell you exactly what it is on the tin, e.g. Billionaire Baby's Secret Greek Virgin.

It would have been much more interesting if Bindel (or perhaps someone with some time and genuine curiosity) had done a decent survey of these books. They are just natural extensions of celebrity lifestyle magazines - of course they sell like hotcakes. First of all, there's variety. So far, I've been taken to Malaysia, Greece, Italy, London and NY. But all the settings have in common a lovely glitziness to them, like going into a five star hotel and having soft-voiced waiters offering you cocktails on proper coasters with decent nibbles. Mm, remove me from the wind and the rain, the day to day hassle and my classroom with a conduit from the canteen's deep-frying equipment. Two pages into a classic M&B and it's all thick (shag, lots of shag) pile carpeting and marble staircases.

Then we have the alpha male. I've been idly trying to find a placeholder for the alpha male in my competition contender. Most modern Hollywood stars are too young looking, ditto those sulky models posing for Armani/Hugo Boss ads. Let's see, I suppose Adrien Brody might be a candidate:

And in case you have any post-Pianist ideas about him looking like a coathanger, check this out:

(Yes, you're very welcome. It was a pleasure.)

Yup, he's all potential tycoony, with actually a very cute smile but lots of brood about him, and mmmm, tasty bod. Now, what red-blooded female wouldn't mind hanging out with someone like that for a couple of hours (because that is roughly how long it takes to read the 50-55,000 words of an M&B). And rather than being an actor who might have narcissistic tendencies and could go all Stanislavsky on you, you get to be with Tycoon Guy with a terrifically healthy bank balance. Of course money can't buy you happiness but in a wish-fulfilment fantasy, the knowledge that neither hero nor heroine will ever have to worry about the gas bill, the mortgage, life insurance and a pension is, well, fantastic.

The big difference I've noticed with the heroes is that they are generally nicer and more sensitive. When they discover they have a four-six-eight year old child that the heroine has hidden from them, they don't say, damn, the Child Support Agency is going to get after me now, they say, "Why didn't you tell me, I want to be a father to my child, I must bond with the fruit of my loins, call me super-Dad, and no, I will not go out and buy it Nintendo Wii and hope I never have to talk to it again." They cook. They worry about their chickies. They are gooey inside. Exterior of steel, interior of My Little Pony. Well, perhaps not quite so synthetic nylon, but just as dayglo. These are men who whup corporate ass by day and go all melty-cheese toastie by night. And are very keen on pleasing their women in all the good ways.

The heroines pretty much fall into the feisty/clueless paradigm that you might expect - that lets us readers feel a little better just in the way that it is permissible to feel better when you see a picture of an A-lister in the throes of some fashion nightmare in Heat or OK.

And finally, M&Bs are forgiving. Both heroes and heroines can commit serious doo-lalliness (except adultery which is beyond no-no), provided the writer can still show that they are Good People, who would never be kitten-drowners or dog-kickers. M&B characters get away with blunders and mistakes that make Field Marshal Haig look like a chap whose plan for the Somme turned out to be a mighty fine idea which played out not so very badly all things considered. And they still get the guy/girl - in the interests of equality, it should be noted that generally speaking, both hero and heroine could be nominated for clot of the year.

So, luxurious, hot and forgiving. Like cocoa and lycra, two other necessities that help us through the workaday world. I'm not sure I could be addicted to M&Bs - there are so many other books on my bookshelf, but for a couple of hours of escapism and mingling with the uber-rich, I'm happier reaching for a romance than for a copy of Hello! magazine, because the other thing that M&B guarantees us is a happy ending, and you know what they say about the curse of Hello.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Oh....My..... God...

Yes, it's a Janice moment.

My book has finally been published. Go here....

and you can buy it direct from the publisher, using credit card or paypal. It costs $5.50, or €3.73 which is nothing, for hours of innocent pleasure. Because let me tell you, it is sweet. There is a bit of kissing and cuddling, but no sex. Lots of action, adventure and desire, but no sex.

Go buy A Perfect Hero, it's perfect.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Daleks rock

I am not sure whether this cake demonstrates that daleks rock or simply that my husband (who made the cake for Minion Number One's birthday earlier this year) rocks.
The icing is royal icing dyed red, with licorice allsorts, Pez and Smarties. You too can make your own dalek.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Surfing the romantic wave of global capitalism

Cruising some of my favourite blogs this evening, I came across this link:

which will take you to the Harlequin Presents blog and news of a competition for a sizzling first chapter and synopsis for a Harlequin Presents novel. That's a Mills & Boon to those of us outside the US and Canada.

So here I am, now about 15,000 words into The Apprentice, plenty of ideas a-burgeoning, lots of lovely possibilities unfurling, the momentum achieved to know roughly where I'm going in a long-haul journey which will take another 6-8 months. Should I take a swift break to craft up a quick 4,000 words + synopsis for a book which I might then have to write? Except that of course, there will be thousands of contestants in this race, quite literally, and I'm very unlikely to get any nearer a firm book contract.

The thing is, I've always wanted to write for Mills & Boon. Now there's a confession! But first completed novel was a Mills & Boon. As with most of my writing, I started writing it in extremis, in this case, financial extremis, during my second year of university. And I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. So began the tale of Ellis and (oh God, I've forgotten her name, let's call her) Elinor. They were musicians brought together in a string quartet much against their will and there were endless opportunities for angry scenes followed by sizzling kisses and my very first sex scene. Ellis and Elinor long ago headed to the great recycling bin in the sky - the mss was written on the dot-matrix v. portable Brother typewriter that my mother bought for my 18th birthday, then photocopied and punted off to Paradise House in Richmond (M&B HQ for the uninitiated). I did eventually receive a really nice rejection letter - not a form FOff you daft bint, but a rejection letter that suggested that someone had actually read my sweaty 52,000 words and thought about them. They pointed out that the setting was not really glamorous enough for the M&B market (yup, I can see that classical music isn't really an alpha male setting....) and apart from that, perhaps Ellis and Elinor were just a touch... well... immature??? I have a feeling this is because Elinor (or whatever the hell her name was) was a bit free and easy about slapping poor Ellis during their various misunderstandings which were many and varied.

Since then, I have learnt a fair deal about writing including how to create conflict between my characters without letting them indulge in assault and battery. But I still want to write a proper, no holds barred M&B with a title that tells you all, e.g. The Secret Millionaire's Greek Baby. Or Virgin in Distress. Or The Italian Tycoon's Reluctant Bride. You think I'm kidding. Well, I'm not. Technically, I believe it was The Greek Millionaire's Secret Baby, but basically, you need a set of dice with the words Millionaire/Billionaire/Tycoon/Prince/Sheikh, then Secret/Misunderstood/Reluctant/Baffled and Virgin/Bride/Mistress/Secretary/Baby with finally, Spanish/Italian/Greek/Arab engraved on them and you too can play the Name That Romance competition. Actually, maybe not Baffled. Maybe Captive or Innocent instead of Baffled.

So here's my title, The Reluctant Greek Tycoon's Millionaire Mistress. Nah - I've used Reluctant in a previous title, I can't have that again. So how about The Italian's Innocent Captive. There we are, perfect. Why's she captive, why's she innocent, what does he think she's done? Excellent kick-off questions which can surely take me through 5,000 words and a cooking synopsis...

On the other hand, my current heroine is about to watch her worst enemy break the legs of her uncle's extremely valuable horse at the San Bartolomeo palio....Before the animal rights activists get up in arms, only imaginary horses will be harmed in the making of this novel.

The thing is, one of my goddesses in the writing world, Jennifer Crusie, kicked off her extremely healthy and amusing career by writing what are known as Series Romance for Harlequin. If you can break in and get regular contracts, they are a very nice steady earner. And if you build up a following, you can break out and get into the really lucrative single title market. A great launchpad for a career in one of, if not the most, steady niches in the crazy world of publishing.

So what do you think? Innocent Captive or horse-harming daredevils?

On Teach Me Tonight (, an erudite hangout for those interested in the psychology and philosophy and literary roots behind the explosion of romance in the publishing world, Laura Vivanco writes about the competition and the idea that the success of M&Bs or Harlequins are inextricably linked with the expansion of capitalism around the world. It's a really interesting piece with links worth pursuing. But it raises for me that good old question - what am I writing for? I have to write, this is something I've long ago accepted, and my feeling is that if I am going to spend so many hours bashing away at a hot laptop (normally 2-3 each night in case you are curious) when I could be doing other things, it would be nice to be rewarded. I've always wanted to be able to earn my living exclusively from writing. It doesn't mean that I would give up teaching, but I would like the option. So, as a writer do you chase the money or write the book of your heart, in the hope that some sweet editor somewhere will read it and believe that it could be a book to soothe many other people's hearts also?

I have friends who are full-time writers/actors/artists and they don't all necessarily like the way things have panned out. Getting the contract, building the following, but most definitely, meeting the deadlines, can be far more stressful than trying to fit the writing in the gaps left by work, kids and life in general. So should I go for the mainstream romance route or pursue my more complex, opaque and ambiguous current WIP?

Whatever the answer, it's time to go and do some writing.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


It should of course be water dripping from the light fitting, although light dripping is quite an image...

and no, I do not watch the Bill. I write while other people in the house watch the Bill.

Drenched in the dark

Last night, I was about to get stuck into my next 500 words when there was a sort of clunk and the whole house went dark. My heroic husband was in bed watching TV, so he sent me off to investigate and get The Bill back asap. But it was not a runner. Found the matches, found the candles and went down to the fuse-box. As I was standing there, having no luck, I heard an ominous dripping. A dripping I had never heard before... I went to the guest room, and found a big old puddle and a stinky, sodden rug and saw light dripping from the light fitting, which is under the kitchen.

Sigh. I called the Hero upstairs and he moved the rug (a truly disgusting task) and we went back upstairs. I went to bed and read by candlelight, just like the ladies of Cranford which started last week on BBC1 with one of those heritage casts where every old luvvie and some fresh-faced young luvvies have a slot unless they were too busy with the latest Harry Potter or Poliakoff saga - except for the ubiquitous Michael Gambon who has managed to crop up in all three.

Once I blew out the candles, I kept waking up with a start, imagining some worse disaster - the ceiling disintegrating, the basement flooding (especially because I was too tired and cold to find out where our bucket has got to...), working out how to live without heating, lighting or hot water past the weekend because the plumber wouldn't come and sort this out, discovering that the whole kitchen floor would have to be dug up (that one could still happen, I suppose, but I'm too tired to care much about it anymore). I think this happened four or five times until the final time, it turns out it's Hero-guy going to the loo, after which I can't go back to sleep at all and lie there plotting to make sure I have the first shower, because if he shaves and showers, there will be no hot water left at all. There's some myth about women and bathing and how we hog the bathroom, but the truth is that men take three times as long and use four times as much water.

I did get the first shower, and intrepidly found my torch and went down to check out the devastation which had all dried up whooppeeee! So I flick the fuse switch and the house lights up, the dark is dispelled and electronic gizmos come to life, including the dishwasher and so I get going with the little bit of washing up left from the previous night... It will come as no surprise to any technically minded reader that the lights went out again. Sigh. Which suggests to me that the leak is somewhere into/out of the kitchen sink zone. It's so good to narrow these things down.

It was charming and romantic to have a candle-lit breakfast. Just as I left, I tried the lights again, on they came and I left in the happy illusion that they would be functioning when I got home. Hahahahaha. It finally occurred to me that if I took the light-bulbs out of the leaky light-fitting, we might get a continuous electrical supply...They were halogen bulbs, and by the time my mighty mind had figured this one out, they were full of water - never seen that before. It's frightening to think that I am the most technically minded person in our house, the one who does plugs and erm.... well that's about it. The Hero is a whizz when it comes to allan keys and building Billy bookcases (well he should be by now, we've got about 20 of the suckers) but anything electrical/plumbing/machine-connected - that's my territory. I have managed to take a Dyson to bits and get it working again, and I have figured out how to programme the thermostat and keep the central heating pump at the right pressure...And I used to be able to handle spark plugs and distributor caps for the old Mini (the proper Mini). I protest too much. We are a house of incompetents.

Nonetheless, we've gone 2.5 hours without a power cut - maybe I hit on the solution after all, at least until the plumber puts in an appearance.

I don't feel too glum about this - for some reason, virtually every one I spoke to this morning had a story of woe about some household trauma, so the puddle seemed to shrink as I encountered companions in adversity. Then while I was doing my Victorian miss impression in bed last night, I found the book I'd idly picked up to round out a 2 for 3 offer over the summer was funny and twisted (Book of Air & Shadows, let me get back to you in a couple of days about that one) and when I was hanging around the Cora buying two plastic basins to substitute as the kitchen sink, I found another big fat thick book with promise, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I know, a title too cutesy for a totally good vibe, but I had time to chew up a couple of chapters in the checkout line, and the heroine had me hooked. And finally, I found the gold ring I was given on the birth of Number 2 son, which I thought had disappeared for good. That made up for a lot of dripping and fiddling in the dark with fuses.

All is not entirely right with the world - not with the big bad world outside the house, but even though my lovely home is leaky and electrically vulnerable, it still feels righter than it's been for a bit - decent stories make a difference.

(PS any complaints about the alliterative nature of this post should be directed at Mr Robert Browning - I spent some of this morning in the company of the Duke of Ferrarra and he sneaks in quite a bit of alliteration here and there. It is catching. Look it up on some medical site, alliterationitis, an uncontrollable tendency to alliterate at all opportunities, and when those do not present themselves, to veer into assonance.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Comfort Reading

I've been reading a book called The Thirteenth Tale, which I've enjoyed. It's a bit Barbara Vine, but more pot-boilerish and less original than say A Dark-Adapted Eye, which still remains one of the best psychological mysteries ever. TTT is fine, but not as complex. Reviewers have compared it to Rebecca but I think that's a glib option because what the two books have in common is a country house which is burned in the course of the action (not a spoiler for either book, I hope). Setterfield is good writer, there's clarity and pace and an effective distinction between different narrative voices. Rebecca, however, it ain't. I re-read Rebecca. TTT - well, probably not.

That's the difference, isn't it. Re-reading. The books we sink into like comfortable armchairs. The books that we take down from the shelf when the world outside is too much for us and we need to retreat to another place, perhaps another time, a world of certainty because we know the story already.

I've had numerous comfort books that have seen me through the customary range of woes that plague as we march day by relentless day onward. The first was Harriet The Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. It was odd and unusual and happened in a world where a 10 year old was able to slip out into a city and watch people. I think it is still one of the best books about growing up that has ever been written. My parents thought it was unhealthy that I read and reread and reread this book, but I couldn't stop myself. Harriet's world was one I understood.

Another childhood favourite was Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfield, about the Fossil sisters, orphans and theatrical performers. I still love this book and if I am really really sick, retreat to bed with it. The secondary characters are interesting, the way the story unfolds is incredibly vivid, and it was the first book I read where children really worked and earned their own money and became their own people.

Then there was Gone with the Wind. My mother took me to see the movie when I was 10, and I was stony-hearted and dry-eyed through the whole thing. But when I was thirteen, I picked up the book, and that was that. I had at one stage three or four copies because my parents kept confiscating it in the hope that I would read something else, but frankly, my dear, nothing else would do. And like all the men in the book, I was in love with Scarlett, I wanted to be like Scarlett when I grew up, bad and selfish and hot-tempered and petulant. Fortunately, the infection didn't last. Now I think Scarlett is the sort of person I'd see coming and think, "Run, just run. Don't look back, run!"

By the time I was sixteen, the 19th century got me. For various reasons, I opted not to do A level English literature, but I had several friends who did. And one afternoon, as we were sitting putzing about in someone's room, drinking coffee, eating toast, I picked up a stray copy of Bleak House and that was that. For the next 72 hours, I couldn't put it down. And then I re-read it. And just for good measure, once more. Still one of my all-time favourites and to my delight, two marvellous TV adaptations, one in 1985 and one two years ago, have done the book justice and encouraged others to pick it up and lose themselves in the fog of Chancery.

Then there was the summer of Mill on the Floss and This Side of Paradise. A weird way to spend the summer, flitting between rendez-vous with Maggie Tulliver thinking high thoughts about Thomas Aquinas and then heading off to meet up with Amory Blaine and watch his Jazz Age high-jinks.

Interspersed somewhere in there was Shanna, by Kathleen Woodiwiss, the woman who arguably created the historical romance as we now know it, and Frederica by Georgette Heyer, who is definitely the mother of the regency romance. I knew Shanna was high-grade, crazy ass nonsense right from reading the opening page, but it was unputdownable. If you want a taste, follow this link:

What is it about books that turns them into comfort reads? Partly it is in the world-building. You can be a lame writer and still world-build effectively (q.v. K. Woodiwiss above). Partly it is characters who just erupt from the page. Partly it is a story which a reader stumbles upon at the right time - I was the same age as Harriet and Maggie Tulliver and Amory Blaine (at the start of TSoP, anyway) and they were people I could understand and believe in and listen to. I don't suppose it matters really, once you know what your comfort reads are. But one of the things I have noticed is that the more you read, the fewer comfort reads you find. There are books I enjoy, books I will re-read (pretty much anything by Michael Chabon, frex), but not many comfort reads. Except, except.

Thank you Jennifer Donnelly, for A Gathering Light (A Northern Light to N. American readers). Voted one of the top ten ever winners of the Carnegie medal, it is a book that is beyond age boundaries, a book that moves me every time I read it, a book that I have started to use when teaching, and despite having read it five, six, seven times, never weary of re-reading. It is perfect and entire of itself - it doesn't need sequels or series, but one of its greatest pleasures is wondering what its heroine, Mattie Gokey, made of herself. And best of all, it is a book that celebrates books and words and stories with so light and absorbing a touch that it makes me dash off to read more. If you haven't come across it, go out and get it now, drop everything else and read it. It's wonderful.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Casting Game & Venetia

I'm currently re-reading a favourite novel of mine, Venetia, by Georgette Heyer. I have five favourite Heyer novels: Arabella, Frederica, Sylvester, Venetia and The Black Sheep and reread them every couple of years or so. On one of the lists I frequent, this month's read is Venetia, so there you are, my decision is made for me. And then someone asked who we would cast as the hero of Venetia, Damerel, aka The Wicked Baron.

When I first read the book, this was the Damerel I envisioned, roughly speaking:

But nowadays my taste has altered a little, and I am afraid in any case, I have never been able to take T.Dalton quite so seriously after seeing him as Antony in Ant & Cleo with his then squeeze, Vanessa Redgrave. When he kept saying, "I'm dying Egypt, dying," you could almost hear the audience collectively demanding why he was taking so long about it. At this point I am tempted to digress on the nature of the A&C play. It's one of my favourites, but it seems to me that it is either amazing and utterly excellent, or diabolically awful in performance. There's Hopkins and Dench, who were notoriously wonderful, ditto Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter and then there was Mirren and Rickman, which should have been a dream team but the couple had the charisma and chemistry of a pair of toads in a stagnant pond. Although I've currently foresworn all directing, I might be tempted if someone let me do an open air version of Ant & Cleo. But no, no, no, no. Let my thoughts not that way fly. Directing is hell. Drama is hell.

Back to Damerel. And casting Damerel. My latest thought is Clive Owen:

Here's Heyer's description: "He was taller than Venetia had at first supposed, rather loose-limbed and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swash-buckling arrogance.....he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation."

I hope my fellow Heyer fans, if they visit here, will approve of my choices for Damerel. Actually, it doesn't really matter if they object, it will simply be an excuse for them to think up even better examples. That is the joy of the Casting Game - infinitely more rewarding than seeing an actual adaptation of a much-loved book.

What I love even more than the casting game performed on a published novel is the casting game that I play in my head when writing a new book. We authors, we call this "Creating Place holders", which sounds like a sophisticated way of laying a table, but personally, I continue to think of it as the Casting Game. What I particularly enjoy about the casting game is that I do not play it solely with movie stars. In fact, I rarely play it with modern actors. Instead, I play it with portraits and pictures from the period I'm writing about. Which can be fascinating. Frex: here is a portrait of a young Italian girl of noble family:

There's tons to write about there - the silver gown edged with golden thread, the dog, the open expression of this child's face, how it felt dressing up in this stiff kit, whether she could walk anywhere in it... I could go on. What was even better was that there is another portrait of this young lady, Margherita Aldobrandini, painted some years later after almost twenty years of marriage to her rather unpleasant Farnese husband, Ranuccio, Duke of Parma, who was volatile, cruel and violent. I can't upload it for some argh computer reason, but if you can google it, it's extraordinary - recognisably the same person, but a totally different expression, hard eyes, a chill, tight mouth, a taut, tense body as if she were preparing to lash out or expecting to be lashed out at.

The Casting Game is one of the ways of rounding out a character: somehow, a real face bestows on a character a much greater sense of identity. But I wonder if this is a by-product of existing in such a powerfully visual time. Back to Shakespeare: just check out the way women are defined by the way they sound. Beatrice and Cordelia leap to mind, but there are others. In his world, sound perhaps mattered more than sight, certainly in decoding the signs of one's own culture. That's one explanation for the density of imagery in his plays, the reiterations and repetitions and echoes. Now, we are surrounded by visual images, and directors play with that by trying to recreate worlds, particularly in historical films. Derek Jarman did this wonderfully cleverly in both Caravaggio (obviously, in a biopic of a painter) and in Edward II and his version of The Tempest, as did Greenaway in Prospero's Books. And this is one of the enriching aspects of the casting game, because it is fun to imagine what friends and colleagues and family would like dressed in 16th or 19th century get-up.

There's a confession - I admit it, I do use my circle of acquaintance in my books. Sometimes I borrow your names, sometimes I borrow your physique or features, and occasionally, I borrow personalities and internal characteristics. I think all fiction writers do in one way or another beg borrow and steal from life, but it is a question I am asked and this is the answer. Yup. You never know, I could write about you next. Just don't expect to recognise yourself because it's not a cookie-cutter process. You might be jumbled in there with the physique of Timothy Spall and the whine of Peter Lorre and an early 17th century set of boots of Spanish leather. Writing is a magpie art, picking and dropping and nicking at bits and pieces from who knows what foetid corner of the author's subconscious.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Stardust, spoilers galore

I didn't fall asleep - perhaps that is because we got to the cinema early enough for me to kip through the ads, but perhaps it was because Stardust was genuinely a lovely, cuddly, sweet movie. There are minor liberties taken with the plot and characters' backstories, but they work to pare the movie down into a pacy 130 minutes, which given the flab of some blockbusters out there (spidey 3, 139 mins, Pirates 3 168 mins, King Kong 187 mins) is dealable. Anyway, Neil Gaiman must have approved since he is one of the producers of this baby (Neil Gaiman, who he? Well only the writer of the original graphic novel which he then turned into a novel. And genius writer of the Sandman series. Not to mention American Gods - about which more later).

The essential scenes are there - but the story has been somewhat kid-friendlied - the unicorn frex, does not die in the movie. That was a three-hankie moment for me in the book, but I was absolutely not looking forward to discussing it with distraught 10 and 4 year old. Luckily, 4 year old took one look at Tristran Thorne and fell asleep so he missed all the squicky bits with animal entrails. Actually, not that that would have upset him much as he is in a very dark place at the moment involving dreams of fanged flesh-eating baby kangaroos and the evisceration of Barbie, any Barbie). Victoria has quite a charming love-story in the book, but is punished for dithering between her movie suitors, in a way that I think enhances the movie, but the book is more interesting there ultimately. And poor old Dunstan Thorne loses Daisy and his numerous family - it's just him and Tris (why did he lose the second r? he becomes Tristan in the movie).

The performances: Charlie Cox is a serviceable Tris - he does a good job at changing from bit of a gangling boy to polished fencer and dapper man about Stormhold; I liked Claire Danes as Yvaine (I've heard some quibbles - how the NYTimes reviewer could ever imagine gooey Gwyneth as an alternative beggars belief); Michelle Pfeiffer was excellent as Lamia, but for me the standout witch was Sarah Alexander of Green Wing and Smack the Pony and the princes, dead and alive, were great, wish we could have seen even more of them. It was delightful to see Ricky Gervais (Ferdy the Fence) prevented from making anything but animal noises and then getting a shiv in the guts for his pains, and Mark Strong was on fine-foaming-at-the-mouth form. Robert de Niro's comic turn sort of worked, but only because Dexter Fletcher, that stalwart, was a great foil to him. And of course, Mark Williams, previously the stammering apothecary of Shakespeare in Love and Arthur Weasley, father of Ron, was terrific as the enchanted innkeeper Billy, from goat to man to late goat in a skip and hop. It was also interesting to see Ms John Simm, Kate Magowan as Tristan's mother, although I thought it was a thankless role for her.

Still, the real star of the movie for me was the locations-spotter. We had gorgeous shots of Scotland, Iceland and Wales. The landscapes and the camerawork were terrific - I felt that Wall and Stormhold were really plausible places, and that's a joy when seeing an adaptation of a book (ok comic) (sorry, graphic novel) you liked. Well, loved. I hate to get all fangurl squeeee but I really have enjoyed just about everything Gaiman has had a hand in, from Mirrormask to the Sandman sequence.

I'm now looking forward to Beowulf, which Gaiman scripted, and the animated version of his super-spooky kid's book Coraline. But but but. If only someone would make a movie of his greatest novel, American Gods - now that would be something (18+ as a rating, but hey ho). If you haven't read American Gods yet, go, get thee to a bookshop. It's really dark, really nasty and really fantastic in all senses of the word. I think my favourite novel of 2005. I'll never let my copy go. I'm not sure I'll re-read it particularly soon, it is a work so epic and harrowing that I won't be going back to it in a hurry. But it is very memorable, very rich and very readable. Can't wait to see what Gaiman comes up with next. Let's hope he's not too lost to the movie-madness that he fails to write any more fiction.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Heroes and shark-jumping

Well, I know I'm behind the times, because I'm watching Heroes real time on BBC2, and there we are, on ep 17 where the rest of the world is busy with Season 2. I was hooked, but oh, look, here comes the Fonz, ready to jump that shark:

So what made Heroes a shark-jumper for me? Sylar. Serial killers, ptui. I didn't see much of ep 17, but what I saw induced a bit of weariness in me that underlined the irritation I felt after watching last week's ep when Mohinder busily takes Sylar along so that he can slaughter another individual with some super-power, in this case, the mechanic woman with fantastic hearing. Mohinder does appear to be a little suspicious of his new pal, but sigh, the serial killer schtick is just gratuitous. Perhaps it's a nod towards Heroes' comic-book homage thing, because there are plenty of serial killers in various graphic novels one way and another. There was enough without a Sylar who will no doubt be back. Besides which I am beginning to find the Petrellis pretty irritating too.

I have no quibbles with the acting of Zachary Quinto (or any of the rest of the cast). But somehow, for me, the show has lost the zing it had, the whole thing is getting darker and darker and we never seem to see enough of Hiro and Ando who seemed to have the best lines but are being lined up for all sorts of phony samurai hi-jinks what with having to collect the sword and all. I have this feeling that from now on, there'll be stockpiling of coincidences and confluences of plot. It's shifted from amusement and entertainment to trying to be deep, there are too many characters to care about any in particular, there are even more unpleasant bad guy super-powers people lurking about and I'd rather watch other stuff: Desperate Housewives, Bones, House - yes I know, they are repetitive and formulaic, but they aren't testing my willing suspension of disbelief system to total destruction. Same problem with Lost. At least I got through 17 eps of Heroes - I couldn't get past the pilot for Lost.

Actually, my problem is that I'm pining for Buffy and Angel. And Firefly. I think I have to set my 200 euros aside and go for the wholesale purchase of complete Buffy and Angel on DVD, and then just re-enter the Whedonverse. Which will continue to spoil me for anything terrestrial TV has to offer. Bring on the quip, the internal and external demons and scrummy men in black leather. Return me to the world of sensible story arcs (cough cough, Cordy as demon goddess intent on devouring the world, oops, sorry, forgot about that one, take it back on the sensible story arc) and Glory and funny knights and the Groosalugg, and my favourite of all, Lorne. Sigh sigh sigh. Reavers, Jayne, River, Simon versus Jayne, Wash and Zoe....It was all so fast, so funny, so poignant, so witty and now, so over. With apologies to Prince, nothing compares 2 the whedonverse.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Rory Stewart and measurement

This is Rory Stewart, author of two of the more interesting books I've read recently, The Places In Between and Occupational Hazards.

Stewart has had an interesting life, in the Confucian sense. TPIB is about his walk across 800km of central Afghanistan in early 2002 (um, yes, mountainous territory, winter, walking. On his feet - what a nutter - admirable, but a nutter). He took five weeks covering between 20 and 30 km a day. The book is fascinating for his encounters with Afghans, for the sights he sees and the big picture, the awareness he has of history, not just immediate history, but also the long-distant past where great empires and kingdoms flourished and now are looted lacunae in our records. Ozymandias in action.

His second book, Occupational Hazards is more immediate and even sadder: it details the months he spent as a representative of the Coalition Authority prior to the handover of power to Iraqis in two provinces, Maysan and Dhi Qar. It is a fascinating account of the frustrations, obstacles and attacks endured by Coalition officials and their genuine attempts to impose order, develop economies and encourage the rule of law in parts of Iraq.

One of the points Stewart makes that struck me most was the following: "the policy debate on Iraq remains obsessed with measurement and is expressed in words, which are as strident as the numbers are pedantic and as meaningless."

This leapt out at me, because I think that the bean-counters have taken over the asylum, not just in Iraq but in so many areas of political policy. And their defence against discovering that they are in the asylum is to count all the more frenziedly. I was talking with colleagues about performance targets in UK schools, where students who achieved the top grade of an A* at GCSE were identified as -1 in terms of the "value-added" measures applied to the school...There is no getting your head round that one, don't even bother.

Personally, I enjoy statistics, I've always quite enjoyed them since I trained up as a journalist in my early 20s, largely because I was guided by an economist who understood when the numbers were being played with and could explain the techniques used to obfuscate, obscure and confuse. So my sceptic's instinct is usually roused whenever people produce graphs and charts and rankings. Stewart highlights the nonsense when he comments on the way UN and World Bank and Pentagon statistics and data have been processed to produce "a global comparative index on civil and political rights". It's a mix of all sorts of information, from how many newspapers a regime has closed to levels of police brutality. But I don't need the comparative index to tell me that conditions in Burma and Zimbabwe are shit, whereas conditions in Chavez's Venezuela are not too shit, but the signs are getting a little ominous. And the comparative index is perhaps an interesting way to defuse the moral twinges in the corporate world about doing business with a dodgy regime - "well, their rating is only 120, that's not sooooo bad." Actually, I am not too sure that the multi-nationals which make their living out of doing business with dodgy regimes are capable of moral twinges. I can quite easily imagine a completely fish-eyed response from most board-room directors when asked if they have experienced a moral twinge about the deals they've cut. It's only when shareholders and NGOs make a crisis out of a deal that the moral twinges manifest themselves.

We use our data (we sophisticated westerners) to shield ourselves from the necessity of confronting the consequences of our decision-making. Making decisions whether it is about the health service or education or Iraq or NATO in Afghanistan involves moral choices because the decisions have, eventually, a direct impact on the lives of other humans. But that is perhaps too raw a reality for our politicians and bureaucrats to deal with. Measuring is easier, tidier, cleaner, neater. Decisions based on measurements require less coherent defence - you just point at the bean-counters and say, "well, that's what they came up with as a baseline indicator" or some such equivalent hooey.

I like measurements - I've just found out my son is 155 cm tall and 51k in weight, in the 98th percentile for his age range - and I'm glad that Galileo worked out what a second was, but I don't like being in thrall to measurements, which is where we are headed. We spend so much time measuring and counting that we forget to look at each other as individuals, as humans. A point that Stewart never forgets, in the midst of spending millions for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I am reading Atonement. Huh? You English teacher you, why didn't you read it when it came out?

Um, probably because I was too busy teaching English?

Anyway, here I am, not quite half way through and really not enjoying, but determined to finish because of course I will be going to see the film because it stars that pint-sized hottie James McAvoy. Well, actually, to digress, I don't fancy him - I almost certainly would kick him out of bed because he's cute but not my type. However, I do think this boy can act. I first caught him in State of Play, and he totally held his own against stalwarts like John Sims (now, him, there would be no kicking), David Morrissey and Bill Nighy. State of Play, in case you missed it, was the best conspiracy series on the BBC since Edge of Darkness which aired in 1985. For more info on SofP, check out this link

Oh, I'm not writing about Atonement? You noticed? Mmmm. I feel really shabby about not liking this book. I've flicked through it, I've read enough reviews to be totally spoiled and to understand why others admire it, but I am hating the book. Not the plot, which is why I am perfectly happy to see the movie, which I happen to think will salvage the best of the novel and make up for the utter irritation of the characters because Keira Knightley is lovely to look at and Saoirse whatsit and James McAvoy can act so they will fill the empty heart at the centre of this novel. Because the impression I have so far from reading the first third properly and skimming through the next two sections is that it is an exercise for the writer which exemplifies what's wrong with the British novel: too much self-consciousness, insufficient soul, too little passion, plenty of self-regard. I won't go into the whole business of McEwan's research and his dependence on the memoir of Lucilla Andrews because I think he is perfectly honest about his debt to her work.

But when I think of the gutsy, interesting novels I've read in the past four-five years, Atonement is a flickering night-light in the shadow of arc-lights. Carter Beats the Devil, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the People's Act of Love, The Corrections, Middlesex, Cloud Atlas, A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, The Time Traveller's Wife. Now these are great books, readable, interesting, lively, engaging, rich, rewarding. Beside it, Atonement is a conceit. Now, John Donne wrote conceits, those wonderful, dense, allusive lyrics to mistresses and his wife, exploring emotions and yearnings and jokes through precise and sometimes mannered metaphors, but McEwan's writing in Atonement is like a conceit with no emotion. Yes, I know, I know - I can't say what I know for fear of entering Spoiler Territory. But what I want to get at is that a conceit is fine in a poem, but stretching it across a novel to make points about the nature of the novel is so self-referential that it actually destroys the worth of the novel as a fictional construct - obviously some people love this kind of thing, but I am of the philistine school that says that James, Woolf and Joyce who led the pack in the playing of authorial games were a dead end, and that James's contemporary Conrad was a far truer (and no less playful) artist. I don't think anything can substitute for the constituents of a really good story - plot, characters with whom the reader can engage and themes that look beyond the novel itself and explore the real issues of the human condition - truth, beauty, love, oh yes, and of course, freedom, thank you Baz and the green fairy.

Of course, McEwan touches on the big themes - especially love, to some extent truth and beauty. But it's like the touch of tissue paper - it looks good, but it dissolves too easily under scrutiny.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Aargh technology

Well, we switched from one Belgian telecoms provider to another - and it is all too much and too irritating - because we lost the internet entirely for 24 hours, and now I can only connect it up by shifting self and computer to the room which is meant to be our elegant salon with no tv and no computer and nothing hi-tech, just books and music. At the moment, there is no furniture either, because we are waiting for the delivery of our elegant chaise longue, sofa and wingchair. We have a carpet, bookshelves and a couple of Chinese trunks but ahem, nothing else.

At the moment, until I face up to ringing our new service provider, however, the modem only works on the main phone point which is in the elegant salon.

Perhaps this means that I will only actually go on the internet when I need to.....Hmmmm. Interesting concept. No more browsing and surfing.... Yeah, right. Now I just have to check out the vital statistics of that very interesting actor I saw in Spooks last night....

What this actually means is that I will start lying on the living room floor and surfing rather than sitting at my desk in my study for hours... and I will still get less done than I should because really, like I have to look up a poem or check out the lyrics for the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny for the minions and other world-shattering tasks that can only be done on the internet. Old Godzilla was hopping around Tokyo City like a big playground....

Friday, October 5, 2007

Why Madeleine Conway?

As I harass my friends, family, colleagues, students and any stray acquaintance to check out The Perfect Hero and prepare to shell out their hard-earned pennies, people are asking me, Madeleine Conway, why? Where?

First of all, right from the start, I wanted a pen name. I like my name. The surname is bland, manageable and we share it with a famous UK brand of children's shoes (no, not StartRite) and a coach company. It's easier to deal with than my maiden name, which caused that terminal deafness that people get afflicted by when someone talks to them in a slightly different accent (yes, like the Weight-Watcher woman in Little Britain when faced with the asian slimmer who speaks entirely coherently). At one of my early, more menial jobs, I was sent tons and tons of books for review by publishers, and they would ring to ask who to address the books to. It was a joyous day when I got one that was correctly spelled. My two favourite misspellings are Zabre Zarim and Zebra Kaolin. Now, I am used to my first name, and it would be odd to be called anything different, but it took some time, and the combination of exotic first name and worthy (but dull) surname is just Not Romantic. So I felt a pen name was the thing to have.

Which name? I thought about it, but it occurred to me that my grandmother's name was very romantic. Madeleine Conway. It has sweep and grandeur and an aura of eating Belgian chocolates dressed in a fuchsia peignoire and remaining very slim and elegant. Also, my dear Granny, much as I loved her, was a bit of an intellectual snob. Of course, if you are the sort of woman who has worked hard enough to get to Oxford in the 1920s, you are probably entitled to a smidgen of intellectual superiority. But it brought on a sense of delicious naughtiness to send Madeleine Conway out into the world once again, this time as a novelist of what my Granny would have called penny dreadfuls.

Madeleine Conway is a much nicer woman than I am. She doesn't get ratty or stressed, she is much thinner and massively more elegant (she might actually wear all the beautiful scarves my husband has given me for Christmas in the hope that I will suddenly transmogrify into Catherine Deneuve or Julie Delpy). She has a much less cynical, much more positive outlook on the world than I do - she skips and hops (gracefully of course), waving at the butterflies and flowers, like Fotherington-Thomas, but in a sophisticated female way:

And of course, most importantly, she believes in Leurve. Not to say that I don't, but my take on True Leurve and such is terribly pragmatic compared to Madeleine's rosy vistas. I am not particularly romantic, although I do enjoy (no, I'll come clean, love, adore and relish) a juicy romance. It is lovely to enter Madeleine's world where good triumphs and evil pays the price, where Love can conquer almost insuperable obstacles, where sweet girls meet men who will cherish them for all eternity and they all live happily ever after.

So that's why Madeleine Conway...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Covering up The Perfect Hero

Thar she blows, me hearties, The Perfect Hero on the horizon, and though I don't actually recall a bare-chested Freddie hoisting Hero towards his lips, perhaps that's just a senior moment on my part. Since purple is one of my all time favourite colours, I am perfectly happy with the cover.

To be honest, it is quite a while since I've thought much about my Hero and Freddie - I've been too busy working out situations of dire peril for my current heroine and her antagonists and protagonists and half the French court too. I had a perfectly marvellous idea this morning but then I fell asleep again and it's gone, so I think I'm heading back to bed for another attempt at plotting in my sleep.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Perfect Hero - an excerpt

I think it is about time to let the world have a little taste of what will hit you all come October 21st when Hero Veasey's story emerges into internet ether.

Hero Veasey, a nicely brought up young lady, is walking her aunt's dogs in the Queen's Street Gardens of Edinburgh's New Town, chaperoned by her maid, one cold December afternoon:

With Beattie running on, full of the invitations and excitements of the past week and the week to come, it was easy to walk several times round the square while the dogs burrowed in the undergrowth and came leaping out to chase after twigs and bark at the saplings planted on the lawns. But the light was leaching away, and they needed to return home before it became entirely dark.
“Let’s try to catch the little horrors, Beattie. I will seek out Achilles, you look for Ajax. I last saw him over there, digging amidst the camellias.”
The girls separated and started calling the dogs. Achilles immediately broke cover and hurtled up the incline to where Hero stood, only to scuffle under the bushes by the gate where they had entered twenty minutes before. Hero picked up her skirts and chased after the tiresome pest. She squatted and tried to peer through the leaves, then stood again in exasperation only to jump back in surprise. A man loomed over her.
“Excuse me, I must beg a favour of you.”
His voice was educated and his cloak looked expensive. He wore a smart hat and silk scarf, and carried a fine walking stick. In seconds, Hero had taken this in but the sudden apparition still startled her.
“What favour?” she asked, examining him. He was not much taller than she, had dark eyes and was slightly breathless. He glanced back over his shoulder. As he turned back to face her, his eyes danced and his smile was rueful.
“You may slap me afterwards, any distraction will do.” He stepped towards her and reached a gloved hand towards her chin, which he tilted upwards. Hero’s eyes widened in astonishment as his face drew nearer and nearer. He was intending to kiss her! She was so astounded that she stood stock still while his lips touched hers, once, gently, tenderly, meltingly. He stayed still, and his eyes flickered away towards the gate once, but then seemed to focus once again on her, and she felt his other hand come up to her arm and then round her back.
He pulled away and murmured something incomprehensible as she gazed up at him, then he pressed his lips to hers again and she felt a shiver of response as he kissed her again, deepening the kiss. Her mouth opened, and she heard him give a brief moan. His tongue parted Hero’s lips. An entirely unfamiliar tingle assailed her, first in her breasts, then her abdomen, then lower. She found her body pressing closer to his, despite their heavy winter cloaks.
His fingers were on her neck and jaw and the tender skin beneath her ear, exerting the slightest pressure, but a pressure which made her lean into him and meet his kiss and reach one gloved hand to his shoulder. Her hand should have pushed him away, but she could not help slipping her arms about his neck, clinging a little closer, meeting his kiss, returning it. She was melting, she was incandescent. Valentine had never kissed her like this, never!
Beattie’s shocked voice only slowly cut through the miasma of desire that had overcome both Hero and the plundering stranger.
“Miss! Miss Hero! Let her go, you brute!” Then Beattie launched herself at the broad back that separated her from her mistress and began to pummel it, accompanying every wallop with her vehement words. “LET – HER – GO!”
Hero sprang away as his hold on her fell away and she watched him turn and easily catch Beattie’s flailing hands. She raised her fingers to her lips, still dazed. The man held Beattie off with ease and looked over the young girl’s shoulder at Hero,“ I do apologise. I’m not sorry I kissed you, but I shouldn’t have done it, I know. I do hope we’ll meet again, but in the meantime, I must dash. I have to see some chaps about a boat.”

That's all folks....

Sunday, September 23, 2007

That Kate Atkinson! And books that cheat.

I read Case Histories over the summer and enjoyed it, although the backstories of the various characters are sad and mournful. But One Good Turn was, I thought, even better. There have been critics who haven't enjoyed the denouement, but I enjoyed the whole book the whole way through, and didn't even try to end-read, which was unusual for me. It was funny, poignant, and although there were many loose threads, the key plot points were tightly sewn up by the end. What I like most about these two books is that there seems to be no fuss, no issue over genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or populist fiction vs. aesthetically admired fiction - Atkinson just gets on with the writing. No messing, just solid characterisation, a twisty plot and vivid, pointed writing. Terrific.

Am now rounding off the weekend with a romance: The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt. It was her debut novel, published last year, and it garnered rave reviews. Great sex scenes, but I'm not so sure I could rave about it. It's just one of those wallpaper historicals where there is an official date 1760, and some nods to the fashions of the times - but the steward of an earl's estate would not be wandering about doing the dandy thing, and frankly, the setting of the novel could have been any time when women wore long skirts and men didn't wear jeans or Armani suits.

There is a romance convention that leads to the creation of worlds where noblemen went to London and had a townhouse, came home and went to their estate, had a few friends with funny names and otherwise are totally estranged from the social, political and cultural context in which they are meant to be living. In these stories, the author can get away with whatever mechanism they feel like to ensure that the hero and heroine actually have a relationship that could be recognised as such in 21st century terms, in other words, spending time with each other and falling "in love". So in the Raven Prince, our heroine becomes secretary to the hero even though the role of secretary to a member of the nobility was not simply a question of copying out a few documents.

Neither the hero nor the heroine rang true to their time, and that is one of the tests for me. Now I am a big fan of Georgette Heyer, and I know that many of her characters are informed more by the mores and rhythms of life in the first half of the 20th century than the actual Regency where she sets so many of her novels. But she did her research and she didn't have anyone setting a foot out of place. No anachronisms, no invented occupations, just straight up willingness to accept the milieu which she had chosen to set her stories.

I suppose that fundamentally, that is my problem with certain forms of genre writing - it (and the Raven Prince is right up there in this regard) cheats. There's something about these cardboardy characters and rickety settings that lacks integrity. Most books are flawed but have some integrity. Most genre fiction is technically reasonably well-crafted (few are car-crashes on the scale of Dan Brown, frex), but there's a void in them where some form of truth ought to be. This truth holds for the serial killer books as well as the historical romance.

While I write genre fiction, the accusation can also be levelled at me - but I do try very hard to create a world where the hero and heroine are experiencing things that are historically verifiable (like the fact that it took between 10 and 14 days to travel by coach from London to Edinburgh, and the common routes that people used for that journey, or that blotting paper wasn't invented until Victoria was on the throne, or that the waltz was not commonly danced even in the 1820s). But I want my characters to live in their world. I run my plots through my head, and when I reach points at which I just do not know what is actually going on, I have a choice - plump for what I feel like or check what might plausibly have taken place...

It takes longer, it leads you down side alleyways that do not necessarily help at all, and it can hold up that muse, but in the long run, if the ship you are sailing in has proper joints and caulking and reliable sailors, isn't that better than a leaky boat run by a drunken skipper?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Iron Bess Bonney ahoy

Got me a pirate name today, ooarrr!! I did use to play at pirates, then I got a bit snooty tooty about their general nastiness, but nowadays, I am not ashamed to admit that I like fantasy pirate life, and I pretty much subscribe to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster view that global warming is due to the decrease in the pirate population, and that to avert global disaster, we must all wear full pirate regalia and practise useful expressions like "ooo arr me hearties" and "swab the decks" (the latter is especially important when addressing any inhabitants of my home who are under 18) and "shiver me timbers" and you get the idea.

I wonder whether submitting my next book as Iron Bess Bonney will get me any further in the agent/publisher hunt game...somehow, I think not.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Books I have hated

This is really mean, isn't it. I mean, my books are probably on someone's books I have hated list (in fact, given a couple of the reviews I've had on Amazon in the US, I know they are), so maybe I shouldn't do this, but I don't think the writers will actually weep that much if they have one lousy teacher moaning about them somewhere in Brussels, because after all, they are all pretty much successful (which is not my gripe - writing is definitely not for the money and I like it when writers are successful, even when they are lame writers).

Ok, so going backwards,

In joint third place, Encyclopaedia of Snow, by Emily Miano and The Secret of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig.

Here's what Miano's website says about her:

Sarah Emily Miano is the author of “Van Rijn” and “Encyclopedia of Snow”. She was born in Buffalo, New York. Sarah has had a variety of jobs, including stints as a private eye, a pastry chef, and a tour bus driver. Sarah Emily Miano was taught by the British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion on the famous University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA. Her fiction has been published in “Pembroke Magazine”, “Grand Street”, and in the UEA anthology “Papers, Scissors, Stone”. It is appropriate that “Van Rijn” is about Rembrandt, as Sarah obviously comes from an artistic family, since her brother Charles Miano is a well-regarded portrait artist. In 2004, Sarah was one of the final recipients of the UK Art Council’s Writers’ Awards. Sarah Emily Miano lives in London.

Now, there are aspects of this which sum up why I didn't like EofS - the kooky CV, the Andrew Motion namedrop, the use of 'famous' and 'obviously' and 'well-regarded'. And is she in real life Sarah or Emily? Either way, EofS was a pretentious piece of prose that veered at times towards the unreadable. Try it if you don't believe me, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Secret of the Pink Carnation was certainly not pretentious, but it was dumb as a rock and had stupid things like Keats being name-checked as a famous poet when he was only just out of nappies. It had more of its heart in the right place than EoS which was a swagger novel - hey check me out, MA from UEA, publishing deal, hot stuff. But still, it was irritating in its total failure to convey historical period accurately, including the behaviour of the characters who read to me just like modern people from America, except the modern-day heroine, who was American and who came over as Doris Day acting the role of an academic. And it sucked as a romance. No real substantial conflict, and a set up at the end which failed to resolve the book properly so that there was plenty of room for a sequel - of which I think there are two, but I'm avoiding them.

So in number 2 is Book Lover, known in the US as Literacy and Longing in LA, which I hated
because it combined the pretentiousness of EofS with the dumbness in terms of plotting and characterisation of Carnation. That was a considerable achievement, which should not go unsung. So I'm singing it here - this book has the least likeable heroine that I've read for decades, and I've been reading for three and a half of those now, so I've got some book miles under my belt.

And still number 1 after all these years, combining stupidity and stylistic ineptitude in equal measure is the Da Vinci Code, which is still number one in my hit parade of worst books in the world. I know it is going to be hard to believe that I don't resent all the money that Dan Brown has made - I really really don't. I'm glad that there are writers who make megabucks. But what gets me is the total check-my-brain-in-at-the-lost-property-office approach of so many readers to this incredibly terrible book. When I say that I think this is the lamest book in the world, people go, 'but how, it's a bestseller'. Well, so is Coke, but that doesn't make it good for my teeth. In the same way, DVC is right up there as a complete mind-rotter of a novel.

I am going to put the reverse side of the story and write about books I have loved, but I don't want to sully the names of my favourite writers by including them alongside the writers of Big Pants Books. In the meantime, I just want to say that I know that one woman's poison is another woman's Marcolini ganache, so if you think I'm just wrong wrong wrong, don't worry, I won't take it the wrong way.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Covering up The Perfect Hero

Today I had to fill in a questionnaire for the art department designing the cover of A Perfect Hero. And I would love to show you what I came up with, but harrumph, I do not seem to have the technology, Houston, to show you my two mock-up covers that were I thought, quite delicious.

But I can direct you to the pictures that I thought would be suitable:

The portrait of Thomas Robert Hay, 11th Earl of Kinoull by Henry Raeburn, which I don't seem to be able to upload, but which you can find here

The portrait of the Duchess of Courland by Angelica Kauffman.

The portrait of Sir Humphry Davey by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The Earl checks out for the imperfect suitor of the book, Valentine Wemyss, who was our heroine's fiancé until he dumped her very unceremoniously and publicly. The Duchess of Courland is somewhat my idea of the complexion, features and expression of Hero herself, and Humphrey Davy is exactly my image of Freddie Charteris, who confuses Hero by kissing her in Queens Gardens Edinburgh one dank December night and then gets into all sorts of mischief when he helps her track down Valentine who has done a disappearing act.

And who would have figured Humphry Davy for such a cutie!

I filled out a detailed questionnaire establishing that my book is set in 1816/17, during the winter, with snow, and that a hot clinch cover was undesirable because no one in the book actually has sex, or indeed gets much beyond a decorous bit of lip action and a caress or two. So what I expect I will get will be something like this:

Which, while it is a lively and vivid cover, would be inappropriate to my novel. I'm a little concerned too by the possibility that the hero has overdone it on the tanning table. However, I learned quite a while ago (2003 when I was first published) that as an author, you can say what you like, but expecting anyone to listen to you is folly in the extreme. Especially when it comes to the nitty gritty of marketing tools like cover art. I'm not sure that the writer in the publishing world is regarded as quite such irrelevant pondscum as the writer in the movie world, but it's best to know your place, tug your forelock and roll with the punches. Or the clinches.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


I love this word, and it seems to be in the news a fair bit at the moment in relation to stem cell research. But I also like it in relation to its other meanings: the mythological beast with the lion's head, goat's body and serpent's tale, and the notion of some desirable goal that is illusory. And by the way, there is an actual chimera which is a type of fish aka rabbit fish, but that I find less interesting.

Most days I think the idea that I'll ever make a sensible living from my writing is a chimera, but I live in hope. They say that it takes 7-12 books to build up a real following, and here I am currently writting book number 7. Since I am still trying to flog book number 5 and have managed to flog book number 6 to an e-publisher, I am not sure that book 7 will count as book 7, it might really only represent book 5, but you never know. I am currently on version 5 of chapter one. I think this is the one that will take. I've never rewritten a first chapter so much. But I've decided that this time I am not going to stop, but will continue and then revisit and rewrite.

If I manage a steady 500 words a day between now and the end of the year, I should have amassed 61,000 words by the new year. Of course it won't be like that: this weekend, I have to go away for family reasons, and I doubt I'll manage my target. On the other hand, most days when I do write, I more than hit the target, so who knows. I wrote the bulk of a book in November 2005 when I did the Nanowrimo contest (National Novel Writing Month) which takes place every November. It took another 6 months to finish off properly, but the starter bones were there and I hit the 50,000 words in a month limit.

Isn't this a terrible prosaic banal way to approach writing! On the other hand, the unglamorous truth about writing is that by and large, it is banal. I'm reading a marvellous book, This Thing Of Darkness, by the much-lamented late Harry Thompson, a British TV producer and comic writer who died a couple of years ago from ironic lung cancer (ironic because he'd never smoked). The book is about Captain Robert Fitzroy, who commanded the Beagle and befriended Darwin, offering him the opportunity to join the voyage which lasted 5 years and was the source of the Origin of the Species.

Now one thing about Fitzroy and his experiences on the Beagle - he was beating the sea lanes around Tierra del Fuego for the better part of 10 years, and the thing that he and his mariners experienced again and again was phenomenal storms - all the more so in a vessel just over 90 feet long. Thompson's first storm is amazing - the writing is magnificent, and your heart is in your mouth as you read the account of how the boat is only just saved from destruction. But of course, that's the first of quite a few storms. Even in the hands of a writer as passionate and competent as Thompson, from time to time, the bad weather gets to you, and frankly, Darwin's expedition from Patagonia to Buenos Aires escorted by gauchos is a welcome relief from the nautical misadventures. Even the most appalling storm can become banal.

This though, is one of the classic reads - it's not a complete history by any means: Thompson omits interesting things like Fitzroy's failed attempt to become a member of parliament which would have put paid to his seafaring, and consequently meant no Darwin on the Beagle. On the other hand, the book is a big'un - over 700 pages, so diversions into 19th century British political manoeuvring were probably best avoided. Sometimes the process of developing scientific theories are rather clunkingly described, but on the whole, this is one of the most interesting and vivid novels I've read for some time. In the hands of Thomas Kenneally, a true master at novelising history, it might have been a real masterpiece, but Thompson did an honourable job and it is a very enjoyable and compelling read.

Now back to that fifth version of chapter one.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Happy New Year

Here we are, at the beginning of another school year. For me it is a particularly momentous year because it marks my fourth year in my current job, the first job in mfmmxxxx years of working (sorry about that frog in my throat...). Yes. Never before have I stayed in a job for more than three years.

There were all the starter jobs where I had to move if I wanted a promotion and/or salary increase. Then I found a lovely job but when I later met the lovely man of my dreams, I had to make a choice between lovely job and lovely man because the latter was going to China. So I went to China too. This also involved retraining for a complete career change.

Then number one son appeared and that put work on hold for a little while (by the time he reached 18 months and was consequently admissable to most nurseries in our area, I was climbing the walls). Then I reverted to journalism, then back to teaching again, and then changed schools a couple of times, and it is only now at the grand old age of 40something that I have found a place where that sense of restlessness no longer assails me about two years into the job.

Of course, in one of life's kind ironies, my current job has a limited contract, so I'll be given the heave-ho in six or seven years' time and must work out what I am going to do for the rest of my working days, which I can tell you, will be long and many since I am one of those people without proper pension provision who is going to have to work until the age of 102 to maintain my standard of living.

But that seems a long way off and in the meantime, I am enjoying buying my mark book and organising my diary and getting new school bags for little boys and all the other tasks that need to be done before the prison gates close in on the growing child - except that now, school no longer seems like a prison, and honestly, I am looking forward to meeting my new classes and finding out how the old ones have passed the summer. If you had told me hundreds of years ago as a school child that I would look forward to September and all those fresh books and newly sharpened pencils, I would have given my special hollow laugh, but now, I am ready and dying to show off my new Spiderman 3 pencil case to my mates.

Somehow, September is a much kinder month with which to start the school year: January is cold and dark, and now we just have weather which is still warm but a little sharp so we don't fall asleep at our desks, the evenings are still light until quite late and there are things to look forward to like the leaves falling from the trees and getting sweaters out and going for crisp walks followed by steaming cups of mulled wine or hot chocolate. I love winter, and I love the sense of possibility that starting the school year in September offers - we'll all be better organised and more intelligent. It's kind of the system to offer us a second chance for resolutions and plans. There will be regular sports for some of us, and writing which can be slotted into a routine, not into a chaos of moving.... Yeah right...

Will I have written 15,000 words come October 1st? Check back and see in a month's time!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


When I was at school and university, I could have been an Olympic splurger, and in my young free and single days, I could still work up a pretty good splurge, but since kids in particular came along, splurging has been a rare occurrence. Here are the instructions:

1 Wake up naturally, without the assistance of any mechanical aid e.g. alarm clock, teasmaid etc.
2 Lie in bed a bit.
3 Start reading.
4 After about an hour or so, answer the call of nature and return to bed with cup of tea/coffee and maybe a slice of toast or apple. Continue reading.
5 Continue reading.
6 Finish book.
7 Realise it is 2pm. Lie in bed and think a bit.
8 Get clean. Baths are good, you can start your next book in them.
9 Eat something, ideally something from three essential food groups. Frex, crumpets, chocolate, cake.
10 Continue reading. Maybe in a chair or lying on a sofa.
11 Eat something from a savoury essential food group - brie and baguette, or little nibbly cheese biscuits with some wine. And an apple.
12 Continue reading.
13 Go to bed.
14 Continue reading. Finish book.
15 Go to sleep.

Easy, once you know how. But it's the details that matter - you shouldn't plan for a splurge, they should be spontaneous events, but it is essential to have the correct ingredients in the kitchen for splurging. When I was a kid, it was easy, because other people did the shopping, although you couldn't always guarantee the correct ingredients for item 9 when leaving the shopping to my mother as she has a puritanical streak.

However, nowadays, I have minions who prevent me from splurging at all. And a husband who feels that splurging is a terrible indulgence and really people ought to get up and do things, like dust all the stuff that has settled now that we've had our beautiful parquet sanded and varnished. Or the washing up, or dressing the kids, or feeding them. I keep trying to train the minions to do things like dress and wash up and cook for themselves, but on this front, so far, I am a failure as a mother and they will insist on conversation and entertainment, and since I want to make sure they don't watch the tv all day, every day, I have to provide the entertainment.

So imagine my excitement when I managed to read 2 books in a day last week - without splurging. Ok, so one was a kid's book and the other a novella, but still, it was a faint echo to my glory days of reading Gone with the Wind on continuous loop.

Oh, the two books were Louis Sachar's follow-on to Holes - a cute read, but nowhere near its predecessor in terms of structural ingenuity and richness of plot, and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which has gone to top of my list of decent fiction in 2007. It felt too short, but I am not sure that it could have been longer - the central conceit of the book being a dramatic monologue probably couldn't have been sustained for that much longer. I'd love to see the book performed....It was fascinating and beautifully written.

As an antidote, I'm reading Harry Thompson's amazing (and big fat thick) book This Thing of Darkness, an account of the life of Captain Fitzroy, the commander of the Beagle on its explorations of the South American coast. So far, it is brilliant - I only with I could go back to bed and splurge with it. Sigh.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The best book in the world

Rupert Sewell as Will Ladislaw

I finished re-reading Middlemarch today. It's my fourth or fifth re-read, but this time it matters because I'm teaching it for the first time, and I want my students to understand why it is the best book in the world.

First of all, it assumes a certain intelligence in the reader: the novel is narrated by an omniscient narrator who is clearly humane, compassionate and intelligent. The book is packed with allusions and quotations from Shakespeare (predictable enough) to Pascal and Bunyan. We are invited to contemplate major ideas, such as the nature of spirituality, the human condition, how relations between men and women evolve, cause and effect and the interplay between wealth and happiness. Eliot doesn't allow her readers to skim their way through the book. We are invited to contemplate and judge the characters, their actions and the ideas which fill the book. During this re-read, I tried to find instances where I disagreed with Eliot's fundamental stand, but I couldn't. She demands that we examine our own expectations of ourselves and of others. Which takes me to the next important aspect of the book: characterisation.

There is scarcely a major character who is not complex, interesting and engaging. She tilts the surface a little between those with whom she wants us to empathise and those whom she feels we may criticise, but she provides explorations and explanations for the behaviour of even the least sympathetic of characters that require us to judge flaws with understanding and the possibility of forgiveness. I think Eliot's genius emerges best when confronted with young women: she places before us in Middlemarch Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy and Mary Garth, three very different young woman, all aged between 18 and 24 during the course of the novel and examines their actions and reactions to the consequences of those actions. One of the things I find fascinating about the novel is how over the course of 800 pages, we start by somewhat sympathising with Dorothea's sister Celia, who is both a little in awe of her sister and somewhat dismissive of Dorothea's enthusiasms and emotions, but by the end of the novel, we come round to support Dorothea.

While Dorothea and Mary Garth are kindly delineated by the author, Rosamond Vincy is depicted very differently. With her blond plaits and her cold little hands, her swan-like neck and her delicate mouth, her stubborn streak and her utter self-centredness, Rosamond is perhaps the greatest villain in the novel. One of the features of the novel's greatness is that Rosamond is allowed to triumph over her husband, Lydgate, in dictating their modus vivendi so that all aspiration towards and opportunity for true, lasting achievement is suppressed. Rosamond captures her man much as his clerical friend Farebrother captures some insect, drains it of life and pins it to a board. While others in the novel (Dorothea and her Will, Mary Garth and Rosamond's initially feckless brother Fred) are allowed a happy ending, Lydgate suffers and dies early, his potential unfulfilled, his bitterness unvoiced, his love for Rosamond a hollow chimera. But Rosamond does not go unpunished, and her suffering is given equal weight to Lydgate's. That she recovers from it and continues, pretty much, as before, is the mark of a truly perceptive writer.

There are many other wonderful things about Middlemarch, but for me the real reason that I think it is the best book in the world is that it does not hesitate to confront the reader with truth: "We are all of us born in moral stupidity", writes Eliot when Dorothea is wrestling with the realisation that her first marriage to the desiccated solipsist and failed scholar Casaubon is an empty desert. She amplifies and explores the varieties and cures for this moral stupidity but that clarity of vision and the lucid, slightly convoluted prose she uses allows us to follow our own progression from moral stupidity to a greater sensitivity to our fellow humans and a greater awareness of our own flaws. Best of all, she brings us to these realisations with gentle irony, humour and mild mockery which finally allow us to close the novel not with a grim sense of how appalling we humans are, but with a warm sense of the possibility of becoming not perfect, but simply, better.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Perfect Hero & Seven League Boots

At last, I have a publication date for my next publication: October 2007, and The Perfect Hero will be available to download online from e-publishers New Concepts Publishing. I don't know anything much about e-publishing. I was hitting a blank selling The Perfect Hero because it is a Regency historical with shock, horror, no sex. There's some kissing, there's plenty of yearning and longing and passion, but the hero and heroine do not do the wild thing. And sadly, there's no market in the current publishing climate for a story with no sex. But NCP are willing to give this puppy a try, for which I am grateful, so I am happy to go along with e-publishing and see what gives.

I hope that I find some readers for it, because if enough people buy the e-book, then it shifts into a print copy, and that would be nice to go along with my four previous print books, but really, I don't mind. I now feel that The Perfect Hero is complete. So perhaps that clears the logjam in my brain that is keeping me from writing my next book.

Or that might be the research that I keep finding myself having to do to get into my world. Because when I write, it's like entering a world that I've created for myself - a bit Alice, a bit Narnia, a bit Wrinkle in Time in my own head, and then the world unfolds before me. So far, I've got lots of little sections of scenes all rolling around in my brain, but everytime I try and sew it all together into a seamless blend of plot, characterisation and something layered and interesting, bong, I bash into some totally minor detail that yanks me into the realisation that I don't know if my heroine could have done that... frex, if she was going to be sent off to a convent, how would it have happened, which has opened the doors on all sorts of arcane research. Another query was were tomatoes freely available in markets by 1595, or were they still a rarity? Imagine a time when a tomato was rarer than an egg or an apple, when it was served to nobles as a delicacy, a golden apple - the literal meaning of the Italian for tomato.

Then there was the whole business of how long it would take my heroine to travel from Bologna to Paris. A friend reminded me of Montaigne's Journal of his travels in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, which is the most marvellous account of travelling, and the first thing that struck me is that give or take, Montaigne and his friends and their servants and their luggage travelled pretty much 7 leagues a day. Sometimes they travelled a couple of leagues before dinner and then a full seven leagues after that, but mostly, it was a steady 7 leagues a day. Which reminded me of all the tales in which there are seven league boots, and they suddenly made sense to me. Imagine a boot that takes you in a single stride what it would normally take you a day to cover, no wonder these boots were so magical. BTW - a league is roughly 3.2-3.5 miles, or between 4 and 5 kilometres. A league is the distance covered by a man/horse walking for an hour, which is why it is a variable measure. So a day's travel is roughly 20-25 miles, or 30-35 kilometres. It would be a very long day in the saddle to get from Brussels to Antwerp, for example. Bologna to Milan is six days. Or six strides if you happen to have a pair of those boots.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Transformers - spoilers

I don't know whether I actually am going to spoil or not, but I thought I would put it in the title line so I don't feel inhibited.

Only motherhood would have taken me to the Transformers movie. The minions were insistent, especially minion 2, who calls them Transpooormers and has already trashed the Shazz autobot his doting grandmother bought for him a fortnight ago. Which was how I found myself in a very sparsely populated cinema. Our fellow audience were all male, and all over 18, which I found disquieting. First of all, what were they doing on a Tuesday afternoon watching a movie based on a kids' toy? Secondly, why did they need mounds of cheese-covered nachos? Was that a clue to the nature of the movie?

I have to say that it was better than I'd expected. All the reviews I read gave the movie one star. I suspect that most of them would have given it no stars if that had been an option. But there were some good actors in there - Julie White, who has enlivened both Desperate Housewives and Six Feet Under, and John Turturro. I hope this helped them both pay the rent, and I am grateful to them for turning up and pleasantly surprising me. And there is a story with some coherence. And Shia LaBeouf gets to have a fantastically stupid name again - not as palindromic as Stanley Yelnats, but Sam Witwicky was fine as stupid names go. The heroine was very kick-assy: she was a trainee car thief who could hotwire a towtruck and drive for miles in reverse at highspeed, thus allowing a busted transformer to play his part in the hellish battle between good Autobots and Decepticons.

My own personal measure for a movie is whether it sends to me sleep. It's a problem I first encountered when I was pregnant with minion 2: we went to see the 2nd LoTR movie and I dozed off somewhere between Ents, Orcs and Riders of Rohan. The next thing I knew, Aragorn's horse was giving his unconscious rider mouth to mouth resuscitation, a scene I definitely don't remember from the book. Since then, I've snoozed off in many a summer blockbuster. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, the Batman reviver, Spiderman 3 and most recently The Simpsons Movie. So I consider a movie reasonable if it doesn't send me to sleep. And yanno, Transformers kept me awake the whole way through. There are certainly holes in the plot, there's an ending wider than the Grand Canyon begging to bring on Transformers 2 and 3, there is the cheesy music, there is the endless crashing and bashing and total confusion of which bot was which in the big fight, but there were also some genuinely funny moments and some reasonable one-liners.

The main thing about Transformers that I liked was that it did what it said on the tin. It was about Transformers. The cars and planes and helicopters and trucks and tanks transformed. I had two mesmerised kids who came out saying that they had a good time. On that basis, I am prepared to rate Transformers considerably higher than say, Stanley Kubrick's last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, or the Da Vinci Code, which took a pig's ear of a book and made a pig's behind of a movie. It wasn't art, but it was honourable entertainment. Well, as honourable as you can get when made in conjunction with Hasbro...