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SPOTLIGHT: Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy & the Infamous Five

Monday, May 30, 2016



Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy and the Infamous Five 

(an article published in BLACK & WHITE in 2001)


There could be few people left on the face of this planet who have not heard of Harry Potter. You know, the one that has had kids camping outside bookshops all night. The one that has made sardine-flavoured jelly beans fashionable.

Maybe, if you’d been in a contemplation retreat for the past four years, you might have missed the commotion. Or lost in the Amazon jungle without a radio. Otherwise I can confidently say you know all about the Harry Potter Phenomenon. 

What you may have missed is the growing backlash against Pottermania. At the moment it is still low-key. Mutterings of middle-class bias. Fuming by feminists that Harry is not Harriet. Banning of the book by Bible-bashers. One critic described the hype ahead of the release of the fourth book as being “worthy of a Wonderbra.” Another has described them as ‘marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.’ That critic, Whitbread book judge Anthony Holden, went on to call Rowlings’ books “essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative (and) dispiritingly nostalgic.” 

I would have said exuberantly nostalgic. For therein lies the secret of Rowling’s success. It should be no surprise that her books have proved as hugely popular with adults as they have with children. For decades the literary establishment has been blaming TV, video games, the Internet, MTV and Macdonald’s for the demise of reading in the young and not-so-young. Few have wondered whether the reason reading has gone out of fashion is because the books published have simply not been what anyone wants to read. 

To me, the Harry Potter books have all the verve and wit and excitement of the books I loved to read as a child – and still read today when I’m tired or sick or studying for exams, when I feel in need of sinking myself in the guilty, sensuous pleasure of reading for the pure joy of reading. And though Rowling has been compared with C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl and Edith Nesbit, the author she reminds me of most is the author I loved most passionately as an eight year old. Enid Blyton.



The first story I ever wrote was about a brother and sister who fell down a hole into Fairyland. It was unashamedly influenced by Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I was six years old. A year or so later I attempted my first novel. It was entitled Runaway and was about a brother and sister who run away from their cruel aunt and uncle, at last finding a happy home with their nice auntie after enduring all sorts of adventures. Coincidentally, the plot synopsis sounds remarkably like that of Blyton’s first book, The Secret Island (1938). 



For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book to read. Since there were 21 in the Famous Five series, my family found buying me Christmas and birthday presents very easy. I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy, in our never-ending Famous Five games. Since she was bigger than me, my sister always won. I had to be timid Anne who liked to play with dolls.

When I imagined my life as a grown-up, I modelled my daydreams on Blyton’s The Story Of My Life, which had belonged to my mother when she was a child. Blyton described her life in idyllic terms. She lived in a big old house in the country with a huge garden filled with flowers and lots of animals and two sweet-faced children of her own and a vague sort of husband floating around. 



She never mentioned her bitter divorce,  perennial problems with the plumbing or the time her house was invaded by hundreds of rats – just like Julian never got a pimple or George never experienced her first menstrual cramp. I wanted desperately to be a writer living in a big old house in the country too – and I have to admit my ambitions have not changed much since I was eight.

Confessing to all this is actually very hard. Enid Blyton has been sneered at for so many years. One critic described her as “slow poison”; another said her language was “colourless, dead and totally undemanding.”

The first shot in the anti-Blyton campaign was fired by Geoffrey Trease in 1949 with the comment “The Blyton school stories entertain but … can hardly be said to go far in depicting reality, stimulating the imagination or educating the emotions. Their style (is) drained of all difficulty until it achieves a kind of aesthetic anaemia.” In other words, “marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.”

Geoffrey Trease’s 1949 book, Tales Out of School, was the first ever critical analysis of British children’s literature and it was to prove highly influential over the next half a century. In this seminal work, he placed great emphasis on the need for children’s books to “represent reality.” 

This was to become the rallying cry for critics, librarians, and literary academics everywhere – and not just in relation to children’s books. This was the age when ‘angry young men’ dominated the world stage. There was no room for whimsy and wonder, frivolity or fancy. No room for illicit midnight feasts in the dormitory or hunting for treasure in secret passages. No room for a world where gangs of children outwitted gangs of baddies without the unwelcome interference of bumbling grown-ups. No room for wishing-chairs or flying broomsticks or animals that could speak or wardrobes that led into magical lands.



In December 1975, the Times Literary Supplement wrote “the past fifteen years has seen a turgid wave of problem books, bombarding children with facts on abortion, menstruation, racism, mental and physical handicaps, divorce, adolescent hang-ups, violence, religion and so forth. No area has remained sacred; but style, imagination and storytelling have too often been sacrificed to the golden calf of truth.”

Twenty-five years after that review and fifty years after Geoffrey Trease first cast Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Edith Nesbit and other popular children’s writers out into the arctic circle of academic scorn, Harry Potter has taken over the world. J.K. Rowling had the good luck to sit down and write her fantastical, whimsical adventure stories at a time when the world was hungry for kiddies’ books like you used to get. Of course, she had some trouble convincing the literary establishment of that. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series, was rejected by every single publisher in the UK before at last being picked up by Bloomsbury. It now accounts for more than 20 per cent of that publisher’s turnover and all the other publishers in the world are now clamouring for books about boy wizards, grumpy owls, chambers of secrets and boarding school capers. 

What is most interesting is that this enthusiastic embracing of the unrealistic comes at a time when the almost universal derision towards Enid Blyton is being replaced with a new degree of critical and popular interest. 

Hugh Grant recently named The Naughtiest Girl In the School as his favourite book of all time, and it was widely reported that Liz Hurley sought refuge in her own Blyton collection after his infamous encounter with a black prostitute. Writers who have unashamedly acknowledged their early love of Blyton include Melvyn Bragg, Beryl Bainbridge, Ken Follett, Hanif Kureishi, and Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme (who, much like me, wrote a Enid Blyton rip-off called 
‘The Cave of Adventure’ at the age of seven). 



Blyton’s own life has been a source of continual fascination, perhaps because she so unfailingly represented it as bathed in perpetual sunshine. The Channel Four series Secret Lives recently probed the dark, secret shadows of her life with great relish - Blyton’s frigid relations with her own family, her affairs and bitter divorce, her intense friendship with Dorothy Richards (Bi Women On the Web, a resource page for bisexual women, lists Enid Blyton as one of its heroines, along with Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir and Sandra Bernhard).

Most tellingly, Blyton has finally been the subject of an in-depth critical analysis, published last month in the UK as Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature. David Rudd, a senior lecturer at Bolton Institute, has examined the life and work of Blyton, with particular emphasis on the fact that, despite the storm of adult negativity, Blyton remains the most popular children’s author ever.  To date, her books have sold over 300 million copies and are still selling strongly. They have been made into TV series, feature films, radio plays, stage plays, fun parks, animated cartoons, and puppet shows. They have never gone out of print and 32 years after her death, Enid Blyton is still chosen by children as one of their all-time favourite authors.

“Why does a writer accused of being … middle-class, snobbish, sexist, racist … continue to fascinate in our multicultural world? To fascinate not only in France, Germany and Australia, but also in Malaysia, Russia and Japan, and in languages such as Catalan and Tamil?’ Rudd asks.

To begin with, Rudd examines the primary criticisms of Blyton’s work and concludes that many “are based on glaring misreadings, sometimes not even drawing on Blyton’s own original texts.”

The accusation of sexism, for example, is one that has always troubled me. Of all the thousands of books I read as a child, it is George of the Famous Five that remains most vivid in my memory - the tomboy who refused to let the boys push her around, the girl who could out-swim, out-climb and out-wit anyone. The critic Bob Dixon has described George as “a very bad case of … penis-envy’, yet she was a powerful role-model for literally millions of young girls. 



Enid Blyton said that the character of George was inspired by herself as a child


Blyton’s books are filled with passionate, independent girls who fight desperately against being straitjacketed in normal gender roles. Even Anne, normally dismissed as the typical domesticated female, has her own power, which often takes her brothers by surprise. And as Rudd points out, without the contrast of Anne, George’s behaviour would not appear half so subversive.

Noddy, once Blyton’s most popular and celebrated creation, was singled out for the most venom. One critic of the early ‘60s called him “the most egocentric, joyless, snivelling and pious anti-hero in the history of British fiction.” Noddy books were banned for many years, primarily because of the racial implications of their naughty golliwogs. Blyton herself protested that she depicted more bad teddies than golliwogs and statistically she was right. A close examination of the Noddy books shows that the poor maligned golliwogs were wicked in only one story, out of 24 books in total, with the real villains more likely to be monkeys or goblins.




In the sanitised, homogenised versions of the books on sale now, the golliwogs have been replaced by slit-eyed goblins. Noddy and Big Ears, who once liked to share a bed, now live in separate establishments and Noddy no longer feels himself “coming over all queer.” The BBC, producer of the hugely popular animated TV series, has introduced a number of new characters, among them Dinah Doll, who it describes as a “black, assertive, ethnic minority female.” 
In spite of the controversy, Noddy has continued to be hugely popular with the very young. In the 50 years since he sprang to life in Enid Blyton’s fertile imagination, the Noddy books have sold more than 200 million copies in 27 different languages, with spinoffs including toys, clothing and CD-ROMs generating annual sales of more than $80 million in Britain alone. In the US, the Noddy series is now more popular than Sesame Street. No wonder he was asked to ring the bell to launch the day’s trading at the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year!

Most interestingly, Rudd places Blyton strongly within the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, where the audience is spellbound by the visual, sensual aspects of the tales, their sense of immediacy, their affinity with the natural daydreams of the powerless, who long to be heroes. What is most interesting about Rudd’s analysis is his comparison of this oral tradition with the literary tradition, and how contempt for the more intuitive, spontaneous and simplistic oral tradition reaches as far back as Plato.

In The Republic, Plato criticises Homer’s work for being, at best, frivolous and at worst, dangerous. He sees it as a ‘crippling of the mind’, a ‘species of mental poison and an enemy of the truth.’ Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? 
One of the primary causes for concern for many critics was the sheer volume of Blyton’s work. She was the most prolific author of all time, writing 700 books, 10,000 short stories and hundreds of magazine article and columns. She could write up to 10,000 words in a day. This meant she could write a Famous Five adventure in a week. 

Many worried that once a child became addicted to Blyton, he or she would read nothing else until they progressed - “if ever, on such a spoon-fed diet” as one critic despaired - to adult literature. However, all the evidence goes to show that children who are given the gift of reading for pleasure read voraciously. They read everything they can lay their grubby little mitts on. They read all their lives. 



The fact is Blyton was a wonderful storyteller, with a wonderful knack of knowing just what it is children like in books. Her first ever review, for the book of poems Child Whispers (published in 1922 when she was just twenty-five and working as a nursery governess) celebrated her ability “to move into the child’s world of fancy”. 

The psychologist Michael Woods wrote “she was a child, she thought as a child and she wrote as a child.” He did not mean it as a compliment. Nonetheless, it is a statement of profound truth and the greatest tribute any critic could give a writer for children.  



(This article was written and published quite some time ago, but I think is as relevant as ever. Just to be fair, I have to say I love Geoffrey Trease's books too!) 

INTERVIEW: Georgina Penny, author of Summer Harvest

Monday, May 30, 2016

Interview with GEORGINA PENNEY, author of A Summer Harvest 



 Are you a daydreamer too?
Definitely! If I don’t give myself time to daydream I don’t get any sleep at night. I find my best ideas turn up when I just let my mind wander for a bit. A nice sunbeam and a comfy couch to do said mind wandering are always welcome.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
According to family legend, I’ve been telling stories since conception so I’ll have to say yes. I just didn’t really know how to get around to it until I found myself an expat wife in Saudi Arabia around ten years ago now.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in Kununurra in the top end of Australia and have lived all over really. I think I counted over 30 house moves in Oz and internationally the last time I sat down and thought about it. I love to travel and meet new people. I think having a good conversation with someone is the peak of human experience and I definitely know how to talk!


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for A Summer Harvest?
I was listening to a friend who was going through a tough time recovering from breast cancer tell me about the fear she faced every day of a relapse and I decided I wanted to get that down on the page.



How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Enough that I have my head around a setting, my lead characters and their main conflicts. Everything else is a sweary, messy fight to wrangle those characters into some sort of plot!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Absolutely. I’ve been known to launch out of bed on many occasions, muttering to myself over forgetting to leave a notebook out ready. I tend to find my brain uses dreams to let me know about plot holes in the stories I’m writing. I wish it would pick a better method and a more convenient time but there it is☺

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I love writing characters of all ages, especially in families. I think that’s the discovery. I loved writing the secondary characters and especially Rob Hardy and Gwen Stone, they were an absolute joy to get on the page.

Where do you write, and when?
I try and work to a 9-5 schedule but when I say that, I’m kind of lying. What usually happens is that I sit down in the morning, intending on getting everything down and then my imagination decides to go on strike until around 3 in the afternoon when I’m left frantically trying to get all the ideas down before they escape. I’ve tried sitting down at 3 to start my day but it doesn’t work. It seems I need the run up!

What is your favourite part of writing?
Getting the ideas initially and then the editing afterwards. Essentially everything but the actual writing of the first draft!
 
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I go for a walk or better yet, have a conversation with someone. I’m a talker and the minute I start chatting with someone, I tend to find interesting solutions to whatever problem I’m having on the page.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I shut out all the white noise. I find being online too much or watching too much mindless TV numbs me out. Instead I try and listen to good music, watch good movies and read good books. Oh, and I travel a lot! Even when it’s to the next village here in Scotland as opposed to somewhere international, I always find something new to experience and think about.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 

Definitely. I’m a fruit cake with that kind of thing. I have to have a cup of tea next to me when I start my day and it has to be in my ‘writing’ cup if I’m writing or in my ‘editing’ cup if I’m editing. I’m also been known to talk to myself to nut out problems and I may sing far too loudly to music when I’ve got my headphones in. There’s a whole raft more of battier things that may involve taking whiteboard markers into the shower to scribble on the tiles when I’m really stuck on a problem but then it gets a little weird… ;)

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This kind of question is always so hard because depending on my mood and the day, the list changes. So, how about I go for the first ten authors I have on the top shelf of my’ comfort read’ bookcase?
Terry Pratchett, Zadie Smith, Amanda Quick, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, PG Wodehouse, Rohinton Mistry, Haruki Murakami, Val McDermid, Elmore Leonard, Junot Diaz



What do you consider to be good writing?  
Anything that fires the imagination and transports the reader. While I truly appreciate beautifully written prose, my first port of call for a good book is whether or not it triggers my emotions and takes me on a journey. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Want it badly, be brave and do it. It’s a messy, random, wonderful, sometimes exasperating process and if you want it badly enough, you’ll get there. Oh, and know that your best opportunities will come from kindness to others☺

What are you working on now? 
 Too many things! I’m beginning to suspect that I’m a workaholic. At the moment I’m pottering away on my next Aussie set book, the first in a steampunk series and the second in a US based contemporary series. I’ve worked out that the way to keep myself from going nuts worrying about sales, fate and whether or not the universe is going to smile on any given day is to keep on truckin’ ☺

Love interviews with writers? I have lots more!
 


BOOK REVIEW: SUMMER HARVEST by Georgina Penney

Sunday, May 29, 2016


THE BLURB:

 English dog trainer Beth Poole is having trouble getting her life back together after beating a life-threatening illness and divorcing her husband. When her Aussie-soap-obsessed grandma sends her to Australia to recover, it seems a great opportunity for some rest and relaxation while she figures out what's next.

But when Beth arrives in Australia things get off to a rocky start. To begin with, she's on the wrong coast and there are deadly creatures everywhere.

And if that weren't enough, her neighbours are driving her crazy. She's staying in the beautiful Margaret River wine region, right next door to a family-owned vineyard. 

It should be perfect, but the boisterous Hardy clan just don't seem able to leave her alone. 

The usually reserved Beth is soon reluctantly embroiled in their family disputes and romantic entanglements. And eldest son Clayton Hardy is proving surprisingly persistent.

The more Beth gets to know Clayton and the Hardy's, the more she sees what she wants for her future. But as the end of summer approaches, her past comes back to haunt her and will test her new found relationships to the limit.

From the author of Fly In Fly Out comes this entertaining and touching story about family, friendship and love among the grapevines.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

A funny, romantic story with lots of heart, set in the Margaret River wine region and featuring engaging characters and light-hearted encounters. Beth Poole is a Yorkshire lass who has had a rough time. 

Her Aussie-soap-loving grandmother gives her a ticket to Australia as a birthday present.

Beth is terrified of snakes and spiders and sharks, and in fact, nearly everything. And her heart has been badly bruised in the past. 

However, the warm-hearted Hardy clan, who own the vineyard on which Beth stays, soon have her embroiled in all sorts of complications. 

My only reservation about this engaging book is that about halfway through I began to realise that it was a follow-on from an earlier book by Georgina Penny called Fly In, Fly Out.

I usually like to read books in order, and so I’d have liked to have done so here. However, the books clearly stand alone, and I look forward to picking up Fly In, Fly Out now that I’ve been charmed by the Hardy clan. 

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS BOOK?


INTERVIEW: Christine Wells, author of A Wife's Tale

Friday, May 27, 2016

Interview with CHRISTINE WELLS, author of "The Wife's Tale"



Are you a daydreamer too?
Oh, most definitely! I think you have to be as a fiction writer. Stories are always running through my mind. I must be difficult to live with when I’m working intensively on a first draft because I have the story in my head constantly and don’t hear people when they speak to me. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, I thought novelists were god-like creatures when I was a child. While I loved writing stories, I never thought having writing as a job was possible for someone as ordinary and uninteresting as I was. I wanted to be a brain surgeon until I worked out that I wasn’t great with blood. I loved the humanities and eventually gravitated toward the law. There’s a lot of reading and writing involved in a law degree and I enjoyed the commercial aspect of negotiating deals and all the excitement of settling a big transaction. It wasn’t until I had spent a few years as a lawyer that I wrote my first novel but very soon, writing fiction became an obsession. It was something I needed to do.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born, raised, and now live in Brisbane. I love traveling, mainly to England (for research, of course!) spending time with family and friends, baking and going to the beach. I love antiques, too, for the stories people tell about them as much as for their beauty. I’m a huge fan of The Antiques Roadshow. I’m also trying to get back into running because I love it, but it’s been a while. I’m working on it!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for THE WIFE'S TALE?
I was having lunch with my editor, discussing a new direction, and the kernel of an idea for a story that dealt with a historical court case came to me. I’d always been interested in legal history, having done some very obscure research for one of my lecturers at university. I found the feminist legal theory I’d read when studying legal philosophy fascinating also. 



I decided to write about a woman caught up in a criminal conversation action, which is an old cause of action in which the husband sues his wife’s lover, basically for damage to his ‘chattel’, the wife. These cases became quite a spectator sport in the latter half of eighteenth century England and the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money was often awarded to the husband in damages. The wife’s character and sexual proclivities were openly debated in court and she was not allowed to testify or be represented because the action was between the husband and the lover. Both sides would present their stories and the wife never got to tell hers, even though she was the one who might well end up cast off and destitute when the trial was over. THE WIFE’S TALE is about giving the wife in one of these cases a voice of her own.


How extensively do you plan your novels? 
My process has evolved considerably over the years. I used to write with only a vague idea of how the story would go but now I use Scrivener to plot extensively. The plot is never set in stone and sometimes new threads emerge as the characters develop in unexpected ways, but usually I stay fairly true to my original plan.


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
No—sadly, the only dreams I remember these days are the ones where I am looking for something quite mundane that I need desperately and I can never find it—last time it was the coffee plunger! I certainly use daydreams, though, and I believe firmly in the subconscious working on the story while you sleep.


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Oh, yes, there were several—perhaps not astonishing but serendipitous, at least! Because the Gothic novel grew up around the time I was writing and I wanted to give my heroine some believable means of supporting herself, I decided to make her a novelist. It then transpired that an early nineteenth century novelist, Caroline Norton, had actually been through a criminal conversation trial. Her struggles inspired me as I wrote Delany. 

The other incident was when I wrote a fictional tapas bar into the present-day town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight and brought the chef from the tapas bar to cook paella at a garden festival on Seagrove, my fictional estate. I had based the Seagrove gardens on the Botanic Gardens at Ventnor, which have separate sections featuring plants from several subtropical regions. If you’ve ever been to Ventnor, you will know that it is a small, Victorian seaside town, where you would not expect to find something so exotic as a tapas bar, but I decided that I was Supreme Being in this story and I could make up a tapas bar if I wanted to. When I went to the Isle of Wight after writing the first draft, I found that in fact there is a tapas bar in Ventnor, called Il Toro Contento. Not only that, but on the restaurant wall is a newspaper clipping of the chef cooking paella at the Botanic Gardens. I wrote all of that before I ever set foot on the Isle of Wight, so it’s amazing how serendipitous writing can be!


Where do you write, and when?
When I’m on deadline, I write in two places—in my study at home from 4am to 6am each morning and then later at a cafe, after I’ve dropped the boys off at school. I find if I’m not home during the day, I am less often disturbed, either by thoughts of domestic chores that need to be done or by the phone or people coming to the door. 


What is your favourite part of writing?
When I’m in what I call ‘the zone’ and the words are flowing freely. I love that feeling when you don’t even notice the hours flying by. There’s nothing like it.


What do you do when you get blocked? 
I’ve never suffered from true writer’s block, thank goodness, but there are times when it’s very hard to make myself write. When this happens, I sit there at the same place at the same time, day after day, not letting myself do anything else, until I start writing again. After a few days of this, I find the words start flowing. Another trick is to try to analyse the story so far and see if there’s something in the structure that is not working, although that analysis often convinces me that I should throw it all out and start again! For me, the best way to avoid blockage in the first place is to get up from the computer before I've written to the end of a scene or chapter. It’s easier to begin again when you return and see that unfinished train of thought than it is to write into the unknown every day.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read a lot of research books before and while I’m writing a novel. I watch movies set in the same era or with the sort of feeling I’m trying to evoke. I watch The Antique Roads Show and read wonderful novels and listen to workshops on writing craft. I love going to art and museum exhibitions although I don’t go often enough. I also love to bake and I find that very relaxing, if not too kind to the waistline!

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
My best practice is to have a clean desk and no mess in my line of sight. I get up, make a cup of coffee, go straight to the computer in my study and write with the curtains drawn and the door shut. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
(I am deliberately choosing writers I don’t know personally here!) Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Liane Moriarty, Ian McEwan, Lisa Gardner, Katherine Webb, Kate Morton, Elizabeth Peters, John Le Carre, Jojo Moyes



What do you consider to be good writing?  
Good writing, to me, is first and foremost about creating characters with that spark that makes them come to life and go on to live in the reader's mind even when she's not reading. The most beautiful prose in the world does not make up for flat characters. However, I appreciate careful word choice, an author who can encapsulate an idea in an original, perfect simile or metaphor, as well as those authors who have a knack of putting into words the things we think but never say. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too? 
I am laughing at myself, giving writing advice but here is the best I have heard and am happy to pass on--Institute a writing practice so that it becomes a habit, like brushing your teeth and make it your job for those one or two hours, whatever you can spare, every day you can. This will stand you in good stead when you sell a book and have to write under pressure. And don’t worry about how good the first draft is. I once heard someone say, “You’re not a brain surgeon. You don’t have to get it right the first time." I think that is excellent advice.

What are you working on now? 
I’m working on a dual timeline novel set partly in the 1990s and partly in World War II in England. It’s about a young Australian woman whose long lost grandmother invites her to stay at her Elizabethan house in the Cotswolds, but when she gets there, the grandmother has vanished. It’s tentatively called THE SECRET HOUSE and is slated for release in May 2017.

Love interviews with authors - I have plenty more!

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BOOK REVIEW: The Wife's Tale by Christine Wells

Wednesday, May 25, 2016




The Wife’s Tale  - Christine Wells 


The Wife’s Tale is a dual timeline novel that alternates between the point-of-view of Liz Jones, a young Australian lawyer whose ambition and drive to succeed have put her marriage at risk, and Delany Nash, who was at the centre of an infamous scandal in the 1780s.  Most of the action is centred on Seagrove, a grand old house on the Isle of Wight, as Liz becomes fascinated with Delany’s story and begins to dig deeper. However, the secrets she uncovers puts at risk her newfound relationship with the owners of Seagrove, and indeed her own future.  Anyone who knows me knows that I love a dual timeline novel, yet they can be difficult to write. Often one storyline works and the other doesn’t, or there’s a slippage between the two distinct voices that jars. Christine Wells has pulled it off brilliantly. Both story lines are intriguing, and the suspense builds steadily. The two women are very different, yet both have hidden strengths that make them very appealing. And I loved the romance!

I was given an advance copy of The Wife’s Tale to read, in case I liked it enough to give it an endorsement. And I did! So the cover has my thoughts on it: ‘A captivating story of love, secrets and obsession – I enjoyed every word!’ 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

I have lots of other reviews of parallel narratives, if you love them too - check them out here!



BEAUTY IN THORNS: My novel-in-progress

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

BEAUTY IN THORNS – My Novel-in-Progress

I am always being asked what I am now writing, and so I thought I'd share with you some of the work I've been doing in the past year.

I am about halfway through writing a new fairytale-infused historical novel which I am calling BEAUTY IN THORNS

It tells the dramatic story of love, desire, obsession and tragedy behind the famous painting of 'Sleeping Beauty' by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 



Burne-Jones was one of a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings and scandalous behaviour. After Burne-Jones broke off their passionate affair, his mistress Maria Zambaco tried to drown herself. Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously buried his poems in his dead wife’s coffin and later had her exhumed to retrieve the worm-eaten manuscript. His sister Christina wrote intense poetry filled with images of girls both sleeping and dead. His lover Jane Burden was married to one of his best friends, William Morris, and they maintained a secret ménage a trois for years, before Rossetti succumbed to madness. Morris himself fell in love with Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie, and wrote some of his most lyrical poetry for her. 

Burne-Jones was obsessed with 'Sleeping Beauty' and painted numerous different versions of the tale. Here are just a few:








BEAUTY IN THORNS is told by the voices of eight true-life women:




Georgie Burne-Jones



Her daughter Margaret Burne-Jones



Jane Burden



Her daughter May Morris



Mary de Morgan


Christina Rossetti



Lizzie Siddal 




Maria Zambaco

In the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault, there were seven fairy godmothers invited to the christening feast of the baby princess - and one who was not invited and so, in her rage and scorn, cursed the child. This was the inspiration for the eight fascinating women whose stories I have chosen to tell.  


With so many glorious Pre-raphaelite paintings to pour over, I had the most wonderful time building my writer's notebook, which is always a kind of scrapbook of my creative process. Here are a few pages: 
 


The first page of my notebook – a picture of one of Edward Burne-Jones’s famous ‘Sleeping Beauty’ paintings

 

First words of the novel written 4 January 2016 – recorded in my notebook


I have now written around 80,000 words and am around the halfway mark. Its always very exciting to see the book begin to weave itself together. 



Read more about the story behind the writing of BEAUTY IN THORNS here!




          


SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, April 20, 2016



I am in the early stages of writing and researching a new novel, which has a working title of BEAUTY IN THORNS. 

It tells the story behind Edward Burne-Jones's famous paintings of the 'Briar Rose' fairy tale, which he painted numerous times over the course of twenty tumultuous years. Most of the story will be told through the eyes of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Georgie Burne-Jones and her daughter, Margaret, and Jane Morris, and her daughters, Jenny and May.    

I am still in the early stages of researching, which means a lot of reading. Here are just some of the books I have been studying: 




Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel – Lucinda Hawksley

Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the brief tragic life of Lizzie Siddal, whose face appears in so many early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

She rose to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain and a pivotal figure of London's artistic world, until tragically ending her life in 1862.


A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin

 – Judith Flanders

The Macdonald sisters were a fairly ordinary mid-Victorian family. Their father was a Methodist preacher, their mother a chronic invalid. They moved often, following their father’s itinerant preaching routes, and so relied one each other for comfort and amusement. Attractive, lively girls, none of them was startling beautiful or brilliant, and yet they all made extraordinary marriages that led to extraordinary family dynasties. Agnes married Edward Poynter, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts; Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most extraordinary painters of the era; Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa gave birth to the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In a way, their stories are a prime example for the way in which class boundaries in the Victorian era was changing, allowing those with talent and drive to change their social status.




The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination – Fiona McCarthy

This is a great big chunk of a book, but very readable, and magisterial in its approach to the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists. Best of all, it shines a light on to the inner life of the artist, helping illuminate the forces that drove this complex and haunted man.


Pre-Raphaelites in Love – Gay Daly 

This is a great book for anyone who wants a really readable look into the passions and scandals that defined the relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s wife-swapping, suicide, trials for impotence, affairs with models, exhumation of dead wives, madness, and horse skeletons being boiled in front yards. Gripping stuff.


Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites - Franny Moyle

Franny Moyle’s book was published in 2009, twenty years after Gay Daly’s Pre-Raphaelites in Love. So she has access to new research into the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a greater freedom to talk about sex and drugs and rocking-and-rolling. Her style is racy and often funny, and lacks any kind of deep analysis or evidence. It was written as a tie-in with the BBC series of the same name, which very much focuses on the love affairs, rather than the art. It is, nonetheless, immensely readable and engaging, and is probably the best place to start if you want to know all the racy stuff about the Pre-Raphaelites.


have a lot more books on the Pre-Raphaelites to read, so if you're interested ... watch this space!


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK! 




SPOTLIGHT: Sleeping Beauty

Monday, April 18, 2016

SLEEPING BEAUTY

History of the Tale

The earliest ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale appears in oral tradition around 1300, in the tale 'Troylus and Zellandine'.  In this tale, a disgruntled deity places a curse on the young Princess Zellandine that causes her to go into a deep slumber. Many years later, Prince Troylus happens upon the princess and rapes her in her sleep. As a result, she has a child. In 1528, the same story appears in print for the first time, in Paris, in a book of romances called Perceforest.


The tale ‘Sun, Moon & Talia’ was written by Neapolitan writer and courtier Giambattista Basile in the early 1600s, and published posthumously in 1634 in a collection of stories called The Tale of Tales. This also included the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel. 

Basile's story is not as pretty as the tale we know. It features the rape of the sleeping beauty, attempted infanticide, forced cannibalism and the threat of being burned alive.

Here is a brief outline of Basile's tale: 
 
It is prophesied at Talia’s birth that she will one day face great danger from a chip of flax. Her father orders that all flax be removed from the kingdom. When she is grown, Talia manages to find the only piece of flax in the entire kingdom, gets a splinter of it stuck beneath her fingernail, and falls into a deathlike sleep. 

Her father, beside himself with grief, orders the palace and surrounding countryside be abandoned so he can put the event out of his mind.

Eventually, another king stumbles upon the abandoned kingdom, and finds Talia sleeping alone. Unable to wake her, he decides to have sex with her while she sleeps. Talia falls pregnant and, without waking, eventually gives birth to twins. While the babies try to suckle, one sucks on her finger and the flax splinter is loosened. Talia wakes up, and is overjoyed to find herself the mother of twins, which she names Sun and Moon.

The king returns and finds Talia awake and his twin childrenborn. A relationship develops between them. 
The king’s wife learns of the affair and, pretending to be the king, sends for Sun and Moon. She gives them to the cook, and tells him to slaughter and roast them and serve them to the king. The cook, unable to kill the babies, hides the twins and serves up two baby lambs instead. The queen watches gleefully as the king devours the meal. 

She then sends for Talia, and demands she be burned alive. The King hears Talia screaming, and rescues her just in time. The awful queen is thrown in the fire instead, and roasts to death. The cook then produces the twins, alive and well, and they all live happily ever after.

In one 14th century version of the tale, the sleeping princess tells off the king and points out her lack of consent before deciding to give him another chance.


La belle au bois dormant’  was written by French author Charles Perrault in 1697, most probably drawing upon Basile’s stories which may have been brought to the French court in mid-1690s by an Italian publisher. Perrault's Mother Goose tales also included such well-known stories as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Puss in Boots. 

In Perrault's tale, a king invites seven fairies to bless his newborn daughter, and prepares golden plates and cutlery for them. One fairy was not invited because she was so old and no-one had seen her for so long. However, she comes anyway and then is angry  because there is no golden plate for her. She curses the baby princess to prick her on a spindle finger & die. One of the other fairies saves her by changing the curse of death to the curse of sleeping for 100 years.

At the age of 15 or 16, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep. The fairy puts the whole castle to sleep as well. A prince hears the story of the sleeping princess and goes to find her – the wood that hides the castle shows him the path. He finds the princess and kneels before her. The princess wakes up (NB: there is no kiss in Perrault's story) and they are married.

Perrault's story does not end here. The prince keeps Sleeping Beauty hidden for a few years and they have two children called Morning & Day. At last he becomes king & takes his wife and children to his home. The prince’s mother is an ogress – she conspires to eat the children and the princess but is outwitted by the cook, in a similar fashion to Basile's story. The Ogress queen dies in a tub of toads and snakes.

The uninvited fairy motif goes back to Greek mythology when he goddess Eris is not invited to a wedding, but arrives anyway, and throws the Golden Apple of Discord amongst the other goddesses with the inscription ‘For the Fairest’ which causes an argument over whom should claim it, and leads to the Trojan War.




'Dörnroschen' (Little Brier Rose) – Grimm Brothers

The story was told to Wilhelm Grimm by a young woman, Marie Hassenpflug, who had French ancestors and was included in the first 1812 edition.

The tale is different to Perrault's in the following ways: 
Differences 
- it has a much simpler style, closer to ‘oral’ traditions
- the Queen is told of her pregnancy by a crab (in later versions a frog) 
- There are 13 fairies but the king only has 12 golden plates so he does not invite one
- The thirteenth fairy curses the princess to prick herself with a spindle and die
- The twelfth fairy changes the curse to a sleep of 100 years
- When she pricks her finger, the whole castle falls magically asleep
- A thorn hedge grows up around the castle 
- Many princes try and fight through the thorns but fail – then the right prince comes along and the thorns turn into flowers 
- When he finds the sleeping princess, he kisses her
- The princes wakes up and so does the whole castle
- The story ends with their marriage


Jacob & Wilhelm argued about including this tale because of its French origins (they were collecting tales with German origins), but Wilhelm argued for its inclusion because of 1) its beauty and romance 2) it had linked to the Norse myth Sigur and Brynhild – she was a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was cursed to marry a mortal. She feared being wed to a coward, so was allowed to sleep on a mountaintop surrounded by a ring of fire until there was a man brave enough to ride through it and wake her. She had fallen asleep after pricking her hand on a thorn from the ‘sleep tree’. 



Motifs & Meaning Of Tales

Bruno Bettelheim , the Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote in his seminal work ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ that Beauty’s sleep is the physical lethargy that occurs at puberty.  He sees the pricking of her finger as a symbol of menstruation, and sees sexual imagery in the girl’s search for a secret room, the circular stair, and the key in the lock. Therefore her awakening is a sexual awakening 

Maria Tatar has written:  “The story of Briar Rose has been thought to map a female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to passive, introspective period of latency”.

Joseph Campbell notes that fairy tales are often about girls who resist growing up. At the crisis of the threshold crossing, she baulks. So she goes to sleep until the prince comes through all the barriers.

Contrary to most feminist readings of the tale as being a bout a passive princess, many scholars have seen the Sleeping Beauty tale as containing remnants of matriarchal myth. 

In ‘The Feminine in Fairy Tales’, Marie-Therese von Franz says: ‘ the mother of the Sun and the Moon is not an ordinary human being, so you could say it is a symbol. But if the children were Sun and Moon, or Day and Dawn, as in other versions, you are [. . .] in the realm of what we normally call the world of the gods.’ (ie Sleeping Beauty is representative of the Great Goddess) 

This interpretation is borne up by some of the symbols in the story, such as the spinning wheel, a feminine tool and an instrument of the Fates. It symbolizes death—i.e. the cutting of the thread. The hundred-year sleep of the princess is evocative of winter and Persephone’s ordeal, and her awakening to love is therefore the awakening of spring. 

In ‘Once Upon a Time’, Max Luthi builds on this mythological interpretation, saying Sleeping Beauty ‘tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of a new day.’(Aurora)

Luthi finds it significant that Sleeping Beauty is fifteen when she touches the spindle and falls into her enchanted sleep: she is 'in the time of transition from childhood to maidenhood.' Every important turning point, every transition from one stage of life to another, are times of threat and danger and change. 

'The story of Sleeping Beauty is more than the imaginatively stylized love story of the girl and the breaking of the spell through the young lover. One instinctively conceives of the princess as an image for the human spirit: the story portrays the endowment, peril, paralysis, and redemption not of just one girl, but of all mankind,' Luthi writes. 

Luthi also examines the idea that the twelve good fairies in the Grimm version of the tale may reflect "the twelve months (of the year) which bestow their manifold gifts of the earth and on nature.' The thirteenth fairy who was provoked to anger may then personify the "dethroned , neglected thirteenth month (and thus may) portray the transition from the lunar year with its thirteen months, to the solar year, with its twelve.'

In the same line of thought, 'the 100 years ... is nothing more than a poetic overstatement for the 100 days of winter, when the earth lies imprisoned in its sleep.' 

Luthi warns to be careful of such 'sophistical allegorising', saying 'one must guard against the desire to interpret every single feature, every thorn and every fly.'  Nonetheless, he says, Sleeping Beauty is not just a romantic fairy tale but a story filled with powerful themes of 'danger and redemption, paralysis and rejuvenation, death and resurrection.'  



Modern Retellings

'Sleeping Beauty' was a 1959 Disney animated musical fantasy film, the 16th in the Animated Classics series, it was released to theaters on January 29, 1959, by Buena Vista Distribution. This was the last Disney adaptation of a fairy tale for some years because of its initial disappointing box office gross and mixed critical reception. The studio did not return to the genre until years later, after Walt Disney died, with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989).

The film's musical score and songs, featuring the work of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, are arrangements or adaptations of numbers from the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The heroine has only 18 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film & appears in the film for 18 minutes. Her first line is spoken 19 minutes into the film, and her last is delivered 39 minutes into the film. However, she does sing two songs during this time frame.

The seven fairies were changed to three so that it was not too much like Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. 


Sleeping Beauty
is also the name of a 2011 Australian film written and directed by Julia Leigh. It stars Emily Browning as a young university student who begins doing erotic freelance work in which she is required to sleep in bed alongside paying customers. The film is based in part on the novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.

In Matthew Bourne’s 2013 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty, the action starts in 1890, the year the ballet first premiered in St. Petersburg. Baby Aurora is humorously portrayed by a puppet and the fairies are both male & female. Instead of beauty, grace and modesty, they bestow passion, plenty, spirit, temperament and presciently, rebirth. The wicked fairy Carabosse is danced by a man.


The Disney movie Maleficent has recently been released, starring Angelina Jolie.

Maleficent is a fictional character from Walt Disney Pictures's 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Here is the blurb:

Maleficent is the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain, from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king's successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realises that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.

I find this new take on the story particularly interesting, with the story being told from the point of view of the villainness allowing a new complexity of character and new moral ambiguity.



My Favourite Retellings of 'Sleeping Beauty' 


Sophie Masson. Clementine. Lady Aurora, daughter of the Count and Countess of Joli-Bois, and Clementine, the local woodcutter's child, have been firm friends for all of their sixteen years. Until, that is, the day they stumble upon a castle they never knew existed … A century later, Lord Arthur, a young amateur scientist, is determined to find out. But he discovers that science is no match for a magic that has been lying untouched for over one hundred years...

Adela Geras. Watching the Roses. Raped on the night of her eighteenth birthday by the despicable Angus, Alice remains in her room, in a near-catatonic state, communicating only with her diary, in a modern version of Sleeping Beauty in which the princess must ultimately save herself.


Helen Lowe. Thornspell. - reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince. Read my review and an interview with Helen Lowe here  

Robin McKinley. Spindle's End.  Katriona, an apprentice fairy sees the wicked fairy, Pernicia, delivers the curse: one day before her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle, fall into a poisoned sleep, and die. Katriona flees with the infant princess in order to save her.

Jane Yolen. Briar Rose. Written by one of the true greats in the field of folk and fairy tales, this novel explores the Holocaust with a storyline borrowed from Sleeping Beauty – brilliant!



Sleeping Beauty & Me

Sleeping Beauty has always been one of my own personal fairy tales, and images of roses and thorns are entwined through many of my books.

I am currently working on a fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults inspired by the fascinating story behind the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones's creation of a series of paintings inspired by 'The Legend of Briar Rose'. He painted it a number of times over thirty years, including this gorgeous version:

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE? 

I will be blogging about the new novel BEAUTY IN THORNS as I go along - and I make regular progress reports on my Facebook page and Twitter.

And of course I'm always blogging about fairy tales

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!



BOOK REVIEW: THE CURSE OF THE THIRTEENTH FEY by Jane Yolen

Monday, March 28, 2016



THE BLURB: 

A reimagining of Sleeping Beauty from a master storyteller. 

Gorse is the thirteenth and youngest in a family of fairies tied to the evil king's land and made to do his bidding.

Because of an oath made to the king's great-great-ever-so-many-times-great-grandfather, if they try to leave or disobey the royals, they will burst into a thousand stars.

When accident-prone Gorse falls ill just as the family is bid to bless the new princess, a fairytale starts to unfold. Sick as she is, Gorse races to the castle with the last piece of magic the family has left--a piece of the Thread of Life.

But that is when accident, mayhem, and magic combine to drive Gorse's story into the unthinkable, threatening the baby, the kingdom, and all.

With her trademark depth, grace, and humor, Jane Yolen tells readers the "true" story of the fairy who cursed Sleeping Beauty.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

Jane Yolen is a wonderful writer of fantasy and historical fiction for young adults, and has a particular interest in fairy tales that has long drawn me to her work.

The Curse of the Thirteenth Fey is a reworking of the Sleeping Beauty tale, told from the point of view of the thirteenth fey (the one that cast the curse of death on the princess).

It's written with a great deal of humour and charm, and all ends happily (even though the princess and her family are really not very nice people). 

BOOK REVIEW: THE CATER ST HANGMAN & CALLANDER SQUARE by Anne Perry

Thursday, March 24, 2016


THE BLURB: THE CATER ST HANGMAN

Careless of both murder and manners, Charlotte Ellison and her sister, two determinedly unconventional young women, ignore Victorian mores and actively join the police investigation, led by young Inspector Thomas Pitt, into the murder of their servant girl. 




THE BLURB: CALLANDER SQUARE

Murders just don’t happen in fashionable areas like Callander Square–but these two have.

The police are totally baffled. Pretty, young Charlotte Ellison Pitt, however, is curious.

Inspector Pitt’s well-bred wife doesn’t often meddle in her husband’s business, but something about this case intrigues her–to the point that staid Charlotte Pitt is suddenly rattling the closets of the very rich, seeking out backstairs gossip that would shock a barmaid, and unearthing truths that could push even the most proper aristocrat to murder.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THESE BOOKS:

I love a good Victorian murder mystery, and Anne Perry is the queen of the genre.

Her books are full of brooding atmosphere and intriguing mysteries, and I particularly love this series, with the ugly but kind lower-class detective and his outspoken upper-class wife.

The Cater St Hangman is the first in the series, and introduces Inspector Pitt to Charlotte Ellison, when one of her family’s maids is brutally murdered. The denouement is really very clever (though I guessed the murderer), and the romance is subtly done.

Callander Square is the second in the series, and sees Charlotte and her sister, Lady Emily, helping Inspector Pitt with the gruesome murder of two newborn babies. 

The books are not very long, and swiftly paced, so its possible to read on in a couple of hours.

I have read the first few, but there are now 31 books in the whole series, and I plan to read them all. Watch this space. 

HOW MANY ANNE PERRY NOVELS HAVE YOU READ?  WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THEM?



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