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BOOK REVIEW: THE MATISSE STORIES by A S Byatt

Monday, June 06, 2016


These three stories celebrate the eye even as they reveal its unexpected proximity to the heart. For if each of A.S. Byatt's narratives is in some way inspired by a painting of Henri Matisse, each is also about the intimate connection between seeing and feeling--about the ways in which a glance we meant to be casual may suddenly call forth the deepest reserves of our being. Beautifully written, intensely observed, The Matisse Stories is fiction of spellbinding authority.

I picked up this little book in a second-hand bookstore, only knowing that I love Matisse’s art and A.S. Byatt’s novels. I’m also very interested in how writers drew on the work of visual artists in fiction (I’m working on a book about the Pre-Raphaelites right now).

The book is comprised of three short stories, loosely linked through some mention of Matisse. The first story is the weakest, involving a frustrated middle-aged woman who visits a hairdresser because she likes his Matisse print on the wall. The second was my favourite, involving a tense triangle between a woman, her artist-husband, and their cleaner, who is much more than she seems. The final story – a sharply observed vignette about some of the problems of modern-day academia - is the one most closely concerned with Matisse. 

Each situation is acutely observed and stamped with A.S. Byatt’s trademark wit and irony.



REVIEW: The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

Wednesday, October 28, 2015




The Quality of Silence
by Rosamund Lupton 


The Blurb:

On 24th November Yasmin and her deaf daughter Ruby arrived in Alaska.

Within hours they were driving alone across a frozen wilderness

Where nothing grows

Where no one lives

Where tears freeze 

And night will last for another 54 days.


They are looking for Ruby's father.

Travelling deeper into a silent land.

They still cannot find him.

And someone is watching them in the dark.


What I Thought:

This is one of the most beautiful and haunting psychological thrillers I have ever read. It breaks so many rules, and yet does so with such cleverness and such confidence. Set in Alaska, the novel is mostly told from the point of view of a ten-year-old deaf girl. She and her mother have arrived in the vast, icy darkness that is subarctic Alaska in winter. To Ruby’s surprise, her father is not there to meet them at the airport. Instead, a policeman tells her mother that there has been a terrible accident. Ruby’s father is dead. 

Refusing to believe the news, Ruby and her mother set out across the black, wind-scoured ice to find the truth. They soon become aware that someone is following them, hunting them. From this simple premise, Rosamund Lupton weaves an extraordinary spine-chilling tale of love, guilt, sorrow, survival … and silence. At times, the bitter cold and darkness and terror were so vivid, so real, that I could not stop shaking. Absolutely riveting.

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

BOOK REVIEW: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Saturday, May 23, 2015




The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)
by Robert Galbraith (Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling)


THE BLURB
Private investigator Cormoran Strike returns in a new mystery from Robert Galbraith, author of the #1 international bestseller The Cuckoo's Calling.

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine's disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before...

WHAT I THOUGHT

Robert Galbraith is, of course, the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling. Like much of the world, I was interested to read her take on contemporary crime and so grabbed a copy in the airport one day. 

I enjoyed it immensely. The characters are all interesting and well-drawn, and the actual murder mystery ingeniously plotted. I enjoyed the wintry London setting, and the interplay of human relationships between the one-legged private detective Cormoran Strike and his pretty red-headed assistant Robin. I really enjoyed the subtle poking of fun at the world of publishing, and loved the mix of humour and pathos. In fact, it’s one of the best contemporary crime novels I’ve read in a while. I’m now tracking down the first in the series The Cuckoo’s Calling. 

INTERVIEW: Liane Moriarty, author of The Husband's Secret

Monday, January 26, 2015

I have long been a fan of Jaclyn Moriarty's wonderful books, but I had not ever tried reading a book by one of her sisters, Nicole or Liane. I decided to dip my toe in by reading Liane Moriarty's New York Times bestselling novel The Husband's Secret!

The Husband's Secret is a funny, sad, suspenseful and utterly surprising book that has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and is set to be translated into over 35 languages. CBS Films has acquired the film rights.

I loved it, and so begged Liane to talk to me about some of her creative inspirations and techniques.




Are you a daydreamer too?


Certainly!


Have you always wanted to be a writer?


Yes, my sister, Jaci and I had always wanted to be authors. When we were children, our Dad would commission us to write novels for him. However, it was Jaci who achieved our childhood dream first. At the time her first novel Feeling Sorry for Celia was accepted for publication, I was working as a freelance advertising copywriter, writing everything from websites to TV commercials. Although I occasionally wrote short stories and first chapters of novels that didn’t go any further, I’d let my childhood dream slide. My sister’s news was the inspiration I needed to get me back to the keyboard.  In a fever of sibling rivalry I wrote a children’s book which was enthusiastically rejected by every publisher in Australia. I calmed down, and two years later, my first novel, Three Wishes was published


Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?


I was born in Sydney and I’ve lived in Sydney all my life. I love reading, DVD box sets (my husband and I are the only people left in the world who obediently wait for the box sets rather than downloading them), snow-skiing, chocolate, champagne, coffee, hot baths, sleep, restaurants with flattering lighting, old friends, but also new friends. I’m also quite fond of my two children. I have a six year old son and a four year old daughter.     


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?


 I came quite late to motherhood and as a result I tend to look at the world of parenting with the wide eyes of a tourist. Last year I became a ‘school mum’ for the first time when my little boy started kindergarten.  It was a brand new experience for me, and I wanted to write about this ordinary, extraordinary world of parenting.  I came up with the premise for the book when I was touring with another author (the lovely Ber Carroll) who was spending every spare moment searching for the perfect necklace to wear to a school trivia night. She and her friends were all planning to dress up as Audrey Hepburn. For some reason the image of those mothers with their Audrey Hepburn hairstyles and outfits stayed with me long after the tour.  I thought imagine if all the mothers were dressed as Audrey Hepburn and the fathers dressed as Elvis Presley? Then I thought, imagine if there was some sort of argument between all those Elvises and Audreys? Then I thought, why not a riot? After that I was hooked.




How extensively do you plan your novels?


I just tend to come up with a premise and dive in and hope that an ending will come to me. It means there is a sense of anticipation because I think, I wonder what’s going to happen? 


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?


No. Never. My dreams are awful. I always have exactly the same dream: I suddenly remember that I’ve forgotten something EXTREMELY important and the consequences are catastrophic. They were particularly bad when my children were babies and I’d wake up screaming, “The baby, the baby! Where did I put the baby?”  Actually, maybe I do need to write about this and that might cure me of this awful dream.


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?


No, not really, but what a lovely phrase, “an astonishing serendipitous discovery!” I will hope for an astonishing serendipitous discovery with my next book.


Where do you write, and when?


I write in my home office when my children are at school or pre-school or when they’re playing outside my door with their lovely babysitter.


What is your favourite part of writing?


I love the final twenty thousand words or so of a novel when I can see the end in sight and I know my characters and I finally know what’s going to happen and where I’m going and I’m writing exciting climatic scenes that I’ve been looking forward to writing and everything is coming together, and the writing feels lovely and flowing, rather than awkward and stilted, as it always does when I start a book, and I can’t quite find my voice, and I’m missing the characters from my previous book and I often find myself thinking, Who are these people?   


What do you do when you get blocked?


A walk helps. So does a long shower. Also chocolate.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full?


Conversations with friends seem to give me the most material.


Do you have any rituals that help you to write?


My best ritual is to turn on ‘Freedom’ – a little software programme that turns off Internet access for a specified period of time. Just the act of clicking that little button really does give me Freedom to write. 


Who are ten of your favourite writers?


Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, Maggie O’Farrell, Jaclyn Moriarty, Nicola Moriarty, Dianne Blacklock, Ber Carroll,  Karen Joy Fowler, Kate Atkinson, Lionel Shriver – I could go on, but I see I’ve used up my quota.    


What do you consider to be good writing? 


When I don’t notice the writing at all, I’m so lost in the story.


What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?


 To think of nothing else but the story – not the world of publishing, or what makes a best-seller, or should you self-publish or not, or should it be double-spaced (yes), or should you make it more erotic (probably, if you can! Wish I could) or how will you make sure nobody else steals your ideas (they won’t) – just lose yourself in the pleasure of writing your story. Then edit, edit, edit.  THEN and only then should you think about all that other stuff


What are you working on now?


I’ve decided to set my next book on a tropical island, and I feel that I need to do a lot of research to get this book right. A lot of meticulous research. Editors, publicists, agents and various friends are all generously offering to help out. 

On Liane's website, she says to anyone wishing to email her: 

"If you have just read The Husbands Secret and wish to tell Liane that Easter takes place in spring, not in autumn, please note that this book is set in Australia, where the seasons are upside down.
Easter takes place in the autumn here. It’s true." 

I love that !

Liane's most recent novel, Big Little Lies, was the first by an Australian author to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Film and television rights have already been snapped up by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon - how cool is that!

INTERVIEW: Elisabeth Gifford, author of Secrets of the Sea House

Friday, November 08, 2013

A story set in the Scottish islands, that draws on selkie fairy tales, and moves fluidly between the past and the present  ... anyone who knows me will be able to guess how eagerly I grabbed this book! Yet when I find a book I think I'm really going to love, I open it with trepidation as well as eagerness, afraid the book will not be as good as I had hoped.

Well, not this one.

I loved THE SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE truly, madly, deeply. It was one of the best books of the year so far.



When I really love a book, I write at once to the author to tell them so. And you want to know something eerie and wonderful? Elisabeth Gifford, the author of THE SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE, wrote back to me saying that she was so excited to hear from me as she had just finished reading my novel THE WILD GIRL! We worked out we must have been reading each other's books at much the same time (except, with the time difference, she was reading my book while I slept and I read her book while she slept. The universe is a magical and mysterious place sometimes).

So Elisabeth is a very special guest on the blog today. Please make her welcome.

 


Are you a daydreamer too?
By nature that’s my default setting. It used to get me into a lot of hot water as a child as I was generally facing the wrong way and with the wrong equipment at school - but having great thoughts. I don’t intend to give it up any time soon.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes I have, but it took a while to find the time and the confidence to decide I was allowed to spend lots of time writing. I began taking creative writing courses because I loved the process so much. From the Oxford diploma and the London University MA I found that I ended up with material for two books – and lots of inspiring friends, and now write full time.
 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
My father was a vicar in the industrial midlands so I’m very grateful for a rich and varied childhood. I hung around a lot of churchyards and loved the history of the old churches and cathedrals. Dad would stride around in a black cassock and sometimes go off to do an exorcism in a haunted house. I lived in France for a year, and in several parts of England and am now settled in Kingston, near London. 

My husband’s family comes from Scotland so we’ve spent a lot of time there. I adore the way that writing allows you to explore and evoke time and place and love being absorbed in a book project. I love visiting places for research and so have been to China ( for a book on Chinese orphanages), the Hebrides, Spain, Sweden and soon, Warsaw for a new book.  


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 
We took the children to the Hebrides several times while they were growing up, looking for somewhere quiet and unspoilt so they could run wild a bit – rather spoiling the quiet once we got there! It was like going back in time on Harris and I fell in love with the island. The scenery is stunning and Scots Gaelic is still spoken. I couldn’t believe that here was a part of the UK but with such an ancient and unique culture still in place, and its own language. 



A photo of Harris, an island in the Hebrides, by Elisabeth Gifford

We made some wonderful friends who shared stories of the last century. I loved the stories of selkies and mermaids that my small daughter told me, from her friend on the island. Then I came across the work of Gaelic historian John MacAulay and found that the legends were a form of oral history; there was in fact something very real behind the seal people myths. Through him, I came across the letter to the Times newspaper reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster in 1809 and it all began from there. 

But underlying that was an awareness how in Ireland and Skye the old Gaelic culture had been inevitably suburbanized. I felt it was important to try and record Harris as it was, because with improved access via the Skye road bridge now meaning you only have to take one boat to get there, it risks the same process. 


How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I would firmly advise planning a novel before you start it, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. I begin with some ideas and some scenes. When I see where things are going I begin to channel the work towards a story arc. Eventually I have to be strict about adding and subtracting as some things may become backstory, only for you as a writer, and don’t help the plot. Once you have a voice that begins to speak and boss you around, as happened with Moira, it can sometimes feel like the story is out of your hands! If you hold too tight, the air can go out of things. When you think the book is done, then that’s a good time to stand back and see if you need to tighten the story line. That last stage is really important.
 


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I certainly find that I can dream what I’m really thinking about a situation and I wake up with a better understanding of it. I’ve had some surprising moments of clarity that way. The mind doesn’t always think in words! Sometimes, I like to go to bed having read some notes on a scene so that in the morning it feels active and live when I sit down to write. Once or twice, a clear dream has opened a door to the beginning of a story. I find that it’s important to value an almost dreaming attitude when creating a new scene so that you can imagine the richness you need to evoke a place. 


Are you a daydreamer too?
By nature that’s my default setting. It used to get me into a lot of hot water as a child as I was generally facing the wrong way and with the wrong equipment at school - but having great thoughts. I don’t intend to give it up any time soon.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes I have, but it took a while to find the time and the confidence to decide I was allowed to spend lots of time writing. I began taking creative writing courses because I loved the process so much. From the Oxford diploma and the London University MA I found that I ended up with material for two books – and lots of inspiring friends, and now write full time.
 
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
My father was a vicar in the industrial midlands so I’m very grateful for a rich and varied childhood. I hung around a lot of churchyards and loved the history of the old churches and cathedrals. Dad would stride around in a black cassock and sometimes go off to do an exorcism in a haunted house. I lived in France for a year, and in several parts of England and am now settled in Kingston, near London. My husband’s family comes from Scotland so we’ve spent a lot of time there. I adore the way that writing allows you to explore and evoke time and place and love being absorbed in a book project. I love visiting places for research and so have been to China ( for a book on Chinese orphanages), the Hebrides, Spain, Sweden and soon, Warsaw for a new book.  
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 
We took the children to the Hebrides several times while they were growing up, looking for somewhere quiet and unspoilt so they could run wild a bit – rather spoiling the quiet once we got there! It was like going back in time on Harris and I fell in love with the island. The scenery is stunning and Scots Gaelic is still spoken. I couldn’t believe that here was a part of the UK but with such an ancient and unique culture still in place, and its own language. We made some wonderful friends who shared stories of the last century. I loved the stories of selkies and mermaids that my small daughter told me, from her friend on the island. Then I came across the work of Gaelic historian John MacAulay and found that the legends were a form of oral history; there was in fact something very real behind the seal people myths. Through him, I came across the letter to the Times newspaper reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster in 1809 and it all began from there. But underlying that was an awareness how in Ireland and Skye the old Gaelic culture had been inevitably suburbanized. I felt it was important to try and record Harris as it was, because with improved access via the Skye road bridge now meaning you only have to take one boat to get there, it risks the same process. 




How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I would firmly advise planning a novel before you start it, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. I begin with some ideas and some scenes. When I see where things are going I begin to channel the work towards a story arc. Eventually I have to be strict about adding and subtracting as some things may become backstory, only for you as a writer, and don’t help the plot. Once you have a voice that begins to speak and boss you around, as happened with Moira, it can sometimes feel like the story is out of your hands! If you hold too tight, the air can go out of things. When you think the book is done, then that’s a good time to stand back and see if you need to tighten the story line. That last stage is really important.
 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I certainly find that I can dream what I’m really thinking about a situation and I wake up with a better understanding of it. I’ve had some surprising moments of clarity that way. The mind doesn’t always think in words! Sometimes, I like to go to bed having read some notes on a scene so that in the morning it feels active and live when I sit down to write. Once or twice, a clear dream has opened a door to the beginning of a story. I find that it’s important to value an almost dreaming attitude when creating a new scene so that you can imagine the richness you need to evoke a place. 


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
When I’d finished Secret of the Sea House I was thrilled to find that there is in fact an archeological site in Arctic Norway for the vanished Sea Sami who once visited the shores of Scotland – giving rise to the sea people legends. The reported mermaid sightings died out conclusively 200 years ago and I couldn’t understand why they suddenly stopped. Then, after the book was published, I found that the Sea Sami culture also died out at exactly that time, under intense pressure to assimilate into mainstream culture in Norway and that made a lot of sense.

Through researching the new book that I’m editing now, I found that a relative had been part of a silent conspiracy around the British Embassy in Madrid to rescue Jewish refugees in 1940. A large circle of the most glamorous people there got together to rescue thousands of Jews and stranded allied soldiers who were escaping from France through the Pyrenees into Spain. It is hardly known about because of the conspiracy of silence that endured for many years after the war; the Spanish rescuers were risking a great deal defying Franco’s regime, and of course he stayed in power until the end of the seventies. 
 

Where do you write, and when? 
I have a laptop and move around the house depending on the sun and who is at home making noise! I can tune out quite a lot. My husband is an illustrator who works at home and has his own room, but I don’t want to feel I can only work in one place in case it becomes too limiting. 

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love story and the magical way it has of telling us so much about who we are. I loved how, in The Wild Girl, the fairy tales are shown to be the source of healing for some of the characters in a very real way. I read Talking of Love on the Edge of a Precipice by Boris Cyrulnik. As a Jewish child he was hidden for years in solitude during the Second World War. Now he uses story to help people tell their traumatic pasts in a way that helps them build resilience. We tell stories as entertainment of course but they can also do a deep, healing work, helping us understand ourselves, where we come from and where we want to go.


What do you do when you get blocked? 
I read. It’s so exciting to see how other writers go about things sometimes, and the way they use words. Or I might research pictures, films, and places. If I can I visit a new place that helps. Another way in is to let yourself write freely without censoring, from whatever inspires or interests you. Something can come out of that sort of writing that is fresh and exciting - it may be messy but you can go back and edit it into something with a shape. Or I write ‘in voice’ to see what a character has to say.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
I used to feel guilty about how much time I spent paying attention to the wrong things, but I love being in the moment and taking in the sounds, sights and smells of a place, getting a feel for a person or a situation. Imagery comes out of those impressions, so you have to spend time being aware of your own experiences in order to top up your bank. Also, reading around a subject is such fun and keeps on opening new doors - that you then want to explore. When writing the Sea House I was lucky to be able to spend several summers on the island itself in various locations and cottages and I think I read almost all the books available about the Outer Hebrides!
 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
I’ve sort of banned rituals in case they become too essential, but some things really do help. A quiet space is vital. I write in the morning, as that’s when I’m most fresh mentally, and I try and get enough sleep and exercise - with varying success. In the first stages I might wander around imagining scenes and get the writing down quickly. For the structuring phases I will sit at a desk so that I can spread out notes and schemes. Then I’ll read everything very critically to see what it feels like for the reader - lots of reading out loud to see how it runs at the editing phase. I suppose I have processes more that rituals.


Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Marilynne Robinson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tan Twan Eng, Flaubert, Alice Munroe, Seamus Heaney, Annie Proulx, Hilary Mantel, Catherine O’Flynne and Matthew Kneale. They are all writers who make you want to read their work over and over again and who have a wonderful sense of narrative – and humour.
 

What do you consider to be good writing? 
People write as individually as they sing or talk! So I’m pretty open. I love writing that is energetic and full of texture, where the words evoke the story through the senses, the images and the detail. But I also love story and plot and read plenty of detective novels too. 
 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
 First of all check you like to spend an awful lot of time writing. Write and read lots and lots. Keep a notebook and don’t be too critical with your initial outpourings. Read all you can about the writing process, find a group of fellow writers to workshop with, and then learn how to put on your editor’s hat and shape your writing to where you want it go. Don’t be quick to bin things. They may be the start of something that you come back to later!
 

What are you working on now? 
It’s a family saga that spans two world wars and begins with a bride who runs away from her wedding. Part of it has been published as a short story, largely about my mother’s experience as an orphan after the war – with her permission. Without realizing it, you soak up a lot of family experience from your parents and their parents. I think I wanted to hold some of the textures and history of the last century, and explore how war deeply affected our parents and grand parents. It’s also about how families keep secrets.

It sounds wonderful! I'll be looking out for it eagerly. 

BOOK REVIEW: Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Monday, November 04, 2013




Title: Secrets of the Sea House
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Publisher: Corvus
Age Group & Genre: Parallel Contemporary/Historical Novel for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth


The Blurb:
Based on a real letter to the Times by a Victorian schoolmaster reporting a mermaid sighting, Secrets of the Sea House is an epic, sweeping tale of loss and love; hope and redemption; and how we heal ourselves with the stories we tell.

Scotland, 1860. Reverend Alexander Ferguson, naïve and newly-ordained, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the Hebridean island of Harris. His time on the island will irrevocably change the course of his life, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after Alexander departs. 


It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child's fragile legs are fused together - a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? But can the answers to Ruth's questions lie in her own past. 


What I Thought: 

I absolutely loved this book!

Intriguing and atmospheric, SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE is set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, with the narrative moving between the contemporary story of Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.  

Ruth and Michael are living in, and renovating, the ramshackle Sea House on the Hebridean Island of Harris. Ruth is haunted by feelings of fear and grief, and worries they have made a mistake in sinking all their savings into this remote and run-down house. Then they discover, buried beneath the floorboards, the tiny bones of a dead child. Its legs are fused together, its feet splayed like flippers. The discovery unsettles Ruth, reminding her of her dead mother’s strange tales of a selkie ancestry. She begins to try and find out how the skeleton came to be buried under the house. 

The story moves to 1860, and the alternating points of view of the young and handsome Reverend Alexander Ferguson and his intelligent yet illiterate housemaid, Moira. Alexander’s obsession with mermaids and selkies, and his forbidden attraction to the daughter of the local laird, lead to grief and betrayal and death. 

The book is full of the windswept and isolated beauty of the Hebrides, and I particularly like the way in which the author has researched - and possibly explained - the origin of Selkie tales in Scotland. I had never heard of this historical basis for these beautiful myths and so I learnt something new, which always makes me happy.

I also really loved the way in which the protagonist, Ruth, has to struggle with her own tragic history and try to find some way to overcome fears that felt very real.

Secrets of the Sea House is one of my favourite reads of the year - it is haunting, beautiful and magical. 




Writer’s website: http://www.elisabethgifford.com/
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT – I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK


INTERVIEW: Lauren Willig author of The Ashford Affair

Friday, July 05, 2013


I met Lauren Willig a few years ago when I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Chicago. I snaffled up her first book, THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION, because it was described as a romantic romp in the vein of the Scarlet Pimpernel, only funnier. Well, I've always loved the Scarlet Pimpernel (by Baroness Orczy) and I also love funny historical romances, and so it seemed a match made in heaven. And it was! I've adored all of her books since, and read all 11 of them (here's a link to a list of Lauren Willig's utterly divine Pink Carnation books, in reading order)  


This year, Lauren has released a very different book, THE ASHFORD AFFAIR. 

The book moves between two narrative threads, one set in contemporary New York and London, and the other set in 1920s England and Africa. It's a historical mystery, a family drama, a romance, a vivid re-enactment of life in Kenya after the war - its all this and more and I absolutely loved it. You can read my review here.

Here Lauren answers all my usual questions: 



Are you a daydreamer too?
 
Perpetually!  When I was little, I used to spin stories out of books I’d read or movies I’d seen, weaving myself into the narrative in elaborate ways.  (Return of the Jedi came out when I was six, and I worked up a very complicated plot in which I was Princess Leia’s best friend and wound up eventually living happily ever after with Luke Skywalker—in my own defense, I was only in first grade, and therefore didn’t realize that Harrison Ford was the better romantic option.)  Walks in the woods behind my parents’ house always involved daydreams about stumbling on castles, a la Evelyn Nesbit novels, or accidentally slipping through a time seam into a battle between Robin Hood and the sheriff’s men.  We’ll ignore the fact that this was in New York—as far as I and my imagination were concerned, New York was a semi-detached part of England, and Norman castles in Putnam County made perfect sense.

I have to confess, I haven’t really grown out of it.  The nature of the daydreams have changed (no more Luke Skywalker, certainly!), but I still have a habit of drifting off into reverie.



Have you always wanted to be a writer?

When I was six, I made the grand announcement that I was going to be a writer when I grew up.  Before that, it had been ballerina or princess (I gravitate towards occupations that involve tiaras), but I can’t keep a beat to save my life and no one had come along with a kingdom, so it seemed prudent to try another course.  

I finished my first novel, a mystery titled “The Night the Clock Struck Death” when I was nine, and sent it off—all two hundred handwritten pages!—to a New York publisher, cherishing elaborate daydreams of being hailed as “Youngest Bestseller Ever!” and invited to tea with the Queen (see my delusions of growing up in a semi-detached part of England, above).  The publisher sent it back.  I was crushed and had a little sob with my Barbie dolls before setting to work on the next novel, a Victoria Holt knock-off called 'The Chateau Secret'.  I went on that way for some time, producing large piles of paper, first handwritten, then later on an old dot matrix printer, pouring over Writer’s Digest while my friends were reading Seventeen, and attending the sort of pretentious Young Writers’ camps where the poets spoke in rhyme all the time, until one of those large piles of paper got picked up by an agent when I was twenty-six and became the first book in my Pink Carnation series.  All in all, my path to publication took twenty years—but I started early!
 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

Like the modern heroine of my book, I grew up in New York City, where I attended one of those all girls’ schools where everyone wears little pinafores and shirts with Peter Pan collars.  It was a wonderful place to be in training as a novelist, especially since the lack of real boys meant a lot of time with brooding heroes of the literary variety.  I discovered Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart early on and never looked back.  


After some time at Yale and Harvard, collecting various degrees, and a stint in London, doing dissertation research, I made my way back to New York, where I juggled a microscopically short career as a lawyer with writing novels about swashbuckling spies during the Napoleonic wars.  When it came down to knee breeches versus legal briefs, the knee breeches won hands down.  I left my life as a litigator to play with Napoleonic spies and other colorful characters full time.  Which was what finally gave me the time to write THE ASHFORD AFFAIR….


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
 
THE ASHFORD AFFAIR was one of those story ideas that popped up on me out of the blue.  I wasn’t meant to be writing about 1920s Kenya; I was meant to be writing another novel set during the Napoleonic Wars.  But, in the fall of 2010, a friend gave me a copy of THE BOLTER, about the life of Idina Sackville Gordon Wallace, etc, who racketed from England to Kenya, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way.  It wasn’t just the rackety life of British expats in Kenya that fascinated me; I was deeply intrigued by the author’s comment, in the preface, that she hadn’t known that the Bolter (aka Idina Sackville) was her great-grandmother until she was in her teens.  The family had kept the relationship under wraps.


At the time, my own grandmother was very ill, and it struck me, forcibly, how much we assume and how little we know of our own family members and their pasts.  What if a modern woman, wrapped up in her own career worries, were to discover that nothing about her family was as it seemed?


Once the idea hit, it wouldn’t go away.  I put the next book in my Pink Carnation series on hold, read up on Edwardian England, World War I, and 1920s Kenya, and launched into the story that would eventually become THE ASHFORD AFFAIR.


How extensively do you plan your novels?

Plan?  What is this plan of which you speak?  I wish I could be a more organized author, but I’ve found that the more I outline in advance, the more I run myself into dead ends.  I’m a very character-driven writer, so I’ve learned that I’m best off following my characters and letting them drive the plot.  When I try to plan too far ahead, I wind up trying to herd my characters in directions they don’t necessarily want to go, which leads to frustration, writer’s block, and lots of eating peanut butter straight out of the jar.  
 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
 
I generally don’t remember my dreams—isn’t that disappointing?  But I’ve found that dreams often make excellent plot devices, especially with characters who are very guarded in their waking lives.  Exploring their unconscious thoughts gives me—and the reader—a chance to get to know them better.

While I’ve never been able to mine my dreams for ideas, I’ve found that most of my biggest plot breakthroughs have come while I’ve been in the middle of mundane tasks, like showering or walking to the grocery store.  Which is why there will so often be a trail of shampoo suds from the shower to my computer as I rush to get the idea down before I lose it again.


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Where to start?  As a lapsed historian, one of the things I love about writing historical fiction is getting to explore all the little quirks and anomalies in the historical record, all those places where truth really is stranger than fiction.  (As one of my favorite examples of this, when I was working on my dissertation back in the day, one of the events with which I was dealing was an episode where one of Charles I’s attempts to escape from Parliamentary imprisonment was foiled because the King’s shoulders got stuck in the window.  And by stuck, I mean wedged.  Legs sticking out one end, head out the other, unable to move wedged.  You really can’t make this stuff up.)

Kenya in the 1920s certainly wasn’t lacking for quirkiness!  You had old Etonians alternating between boozy parties and experimental farming, female aviators, giraffes wandering into telegraph wires, and a post-War generation dealing with a world in flux.  It’s that mix of hedonism and desperation, self-indulgence and fear, that makes that world and that crowd so particularly interesting.  Well, that and all the gin.
 

Where do you write, and when?

It’s such a cliché by now, but I tend to write in Starbucks, away from the ringing of my phone, the siren song of the peanut butter jar in my fridge, and the lure of email (as far as I’m concerned, Starbucks has no internet access, and I don’t want to be told otherwise).  I’ve had a different signature drink for each novel.  For THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, it was a grande skim caramel mocha—with whipped cream.  I needed the extra sugar to get me over the rough bits! 
 

What is your favourite part of writing?

Those days when the characters do entirely unexpected things that you know are just RIGHT—or they come out with a bit of dialogue you couldn’t imagine coming out of your own mouth, something that completely and utterly belonging to that character.  Those are the golden moments that keep me going through the rest of it.
 

What do you do when you get blocked?

Pace and mutter and scribble notes to myself longhand on sheets of blank paper.  Then I bribe myself with treats and large amounts of caffeine.  I know it’s bad when I’ve sunk to the eating cereal out of the box stage, munching and muttering to myself.  Once it’s reached that level, I call either my little sister or my college roommate, both of whom are geniuses at unknotting plot tangles and helping me figure out where I went wrong.  Sometimes blocks are nothing to do with the book itself—they’re to do with my mood or things going on in my real life outside my head or just pure laziness—but other times it’s a signal to me that the book has taken a wrong turn somewhere and I need to diagnose what the problem is so that I can get it back on track.
 

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I read, constantly.  I can’t imagine not reading.  Usually, I read three to four novels a week, sometimes beloved re-reads, other times new books.  When I got really stuck, I used to go browse through the new books tables at the bookstore and come home with a fresh haul—but, sadly, both the bookstores within easy walking distance of me have now closed, so, these days, I rely a great deal on my readers for book recommendations.  I have a feature on my website on Fridays called Weekly Reading Round-Up, in which I list what I’ve been reading and everyone chimes in with their reads.  I’ve founds some great new authors that way. 

(Here's the link to Lauren's website and her Weekly Reading Round-up - this is such a great idea I might have to steal it. Weirdly, we've both been reading Susannah Kearsley's novel 'The Firebird' at around the same time ....      
 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Aside from large amounts of caffeine?
 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Only ten?  That’s always hard….  Okay, off the top of my head:  L.M. Montgomery, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Sayers, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Nancy Mitford, Diana Gabaldon, Susanna Kearsley, Judith Merkle Riley, Georgette Heyer, and Robin McKinley.  Although that still leaves out so many on my keeper shelf…. 
(oooh, we share lots of favourite writers too!)
 

What do you consider to be good writing? 

It’s like that famous line about pornography: I know it when I see it.  Good writing, truly good writing, is a harmonious combination of craft and storytelling.  There’s a cadence and rhythm to good writing, a comfort with language that draws the reader along.  Clunky writing sits harshly on my ear and makes me wince.  But if the characters seem flat or the pacing lags, the prose can be beautiful as beautiful can be and still not redeem it.  When those two work in concert—smooth writing and a compelling story—the result is magical.  You forget that you’re reading at all and just barrel along with the story, off in another world.
 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Read, read, and read some more!  Read broadly, in a variety of genres and styles.  Nothing trains the ear to the rhythms and subtleties of language in quite the same way as devouring large quantities of poetry and prose, not to mention the instinctive sense of plot and pacing that comes of having immersed yourself in other peoples’ stories.    

Then sit down at your computer, turn off that nasty editor in your head, take a slug of strong coffee (optional), and just keep hammering away at it, even on those days when language feels like lead and all the characters in your head have gone off on vacation together.

 
What are you working on now? 


I’ve just finished writing a second time slip novel: this one goes back and forth between a house in the suburbs of London in 2009 and the same place in 1849, during the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  My modern heroine, who has lost her job in the financial crisis and is feeling a bit lost and at loose ends, inherits her great-aunt’s house in Herne Hill, a house she hasn’t seen since she was six and her father abruptly moved her to New York.  While she’s clearing it out, she stumbles upon a Pre-Raphaelite painting, tied up in yellowed paper, hidden in the back of an old wardrobe.  Who painted it and how did it come to be there?  Her quest for the painting’s provenance leads her deep into her family’s past and a secret buried for over a century….

I don’t have a title or an exact release date yet, but the Pre-Raphalite book should be coming out in spring of 2014.

(I don't know if I should say this, but I've been working on an idea that is spookily similar to this one! Maybe Lauren and I are twins separated at birth ...)

In the meantime, I’m also gearing up for the publication of the latest book in my Pink Carnation series, THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA, set in Bath in 1805, and filled with swashbuckling Englishwomen, French spies, and, of course, my heroine’s trusty sword parasol.  


THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA comes out on August 6th.


For more about THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, the upcoming Pre-Raphaelite book, or any of the Pink Carnation novels, come visit me on my website, www.laurenwillig.com, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/LaurenWillig.


BOOK REVIEW: The River Charm by Belinda Murrell

Monday, June 24, 2013



Title: THE RIVER CHARM
Author: Belinda Murrell
Publisher: Random House Australia
Age Group & Genre: Children’s Historical/Contemporary Family Drama

The Blurb:

A river pebble on a charm bracelet has an astonishing true story to tell, of one family's bravery and survival in harsh colonial Australia . . .

When artistic Millie visits a long-lost aunt, she learns the true story of her family's tragic past. Could the mysterious ghost girl Millie has painted be her own ancestor?

In 1839, Charlotte Atkinson lives at Oldbury, a gracious estate in the Australian bush, with her Mamma and her sisters and brother. But after the death of Charlotte's father, things start to go terribly wrong. There are murderous convicts and marauding bushrangers. Worst of all, Charlotte's new stepfather is cruel and unpredictable. 

Frightened for their lives, the family flees on horseback to a stockman's hut in the wilderness. Charlotte's mother and the children must fight to save their property, their independence and their very right to be a family. Will they ever return together to their beautiful home?

Based on the incredible true-life battles of Belinda Murrell's own ancestors, one of Australia's early artistic and literary families, the Atkinsons of Oldbury.


What I Thought: 

I have a few disclosures to make.
1) Belinda Murrell is my sister
2) This book is about our ancestors, and tells the story of how my great-great-great-great-grandmother came to write the first children’s book published in Australia
3) It is an utterly beautiful and heart-breaking story that celebrates a lost part of Australian literary history that should never have been forgotten
4) I think it deserves to win every major literary prize for children’s fiction in Australia, if not the world
5) I am utterly and unashamedly biased
6) And, yes, I cried a few proud tears reading this book


I have often told the story of how my great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson came to write the first children’s book in Australia. 



Every single time, people would come up to my afterwards and say ‘what an amazing story, why don’t you write it as a book?’

To my relief and joy, my sister Belinda did it for me (why some stories seize our imagination and demand to be written is part of the mystery of creativity – although I loved the tale, and told it many times, it never came knocking on my door and insisted I must give it life. I’m glad, because Belinda did it much better than I ever could have!) 

THE RIVER CHARM is a powerful, dramatic and engaging story that celebrates love and friendship and family, and the sacrifices that sometimes need to be made in order to keep what’s important in life safe. 

I recently launched Belinda’s book at Berkelouw Bookshop in Balgowlah, to a packed-out house and loads of excited fans, and I said, in utter sincerity, that I believed that the children there would one day be telling their children and grand-children, ‘I was there! I saw one of the greatest books in children’s literature being launched.’ 

And, maybe – just maybe – their signed first edition copy of THE RIVER CHARM will become an heirloom, to be passed down through the generations, just as Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s story was passed down in our family.

Charlotte Waring Atkinson's story, as told by me on the 170th anniversary of the publication of  A MOTHER'S OFFERING TO HER CHILDREN BY A LADY LONG RESIDENT IN NEW SOUTH WALES

BOOK REVIEW: 'Lighthouse Bay'by Kimberley Freeman

Monday, February 25, 2013



Title:  Lighthouse Bay
Author: Kimberley Freeman
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Age Group & Genre: Parallel Contemporary/Historical Fiction for Adults


The Blurb:
A compelling tale of love, secrets, and the power of forgiveness.
1901: Isabella Winterbourne has suffered the worst loss a woman can know. She can no longer bear her husband nor his oppressive upper-class family. On a voyage between London and Sydney to accompany a priceless gift to the Australian parliament, Isabella is the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the sun-drenched Queensland coast. But in this strange new place, she finds she cannot escape her past quite as easily as she d hoped.
2011: A woman returns from Paris to her beachside home town to reconcile with her sister. But she, too, has a past that is hard to escape and her sister is not in a mood to forgive her. Strange noises at night and activity at the abandoned lighthouse raise her curiosity, and she finds herself investigating a century-old town mystery.


What I Thought: 
‘Lighthouse Bay’ begins in 1901, with a woman – the only survivor of a shipwreck - dragging a chest full of treasure down a deserted beach. The narrative then moves to contemporary times, with a woman secretly grieving at the funeral of her married lover. These two women – Isabella Winterbourne and Libby Slater – are joined through time by a lighthouse and its secrets and mysteries. 

Tightly plotted and quickly paced, I found myself quite unable to put the novel down, even reading it with one hand while I was cooking dinner with the other.  It deftly weaves together romance, suspense, and adventure, all acted out by a cast of strong, defiant women and a suitably dastardly villain. Although it has various love affairs in it, this novel is not about romantic love. It is really more about the relationships between women – as friends, as sisters, and as mothers. 

I absolutely loved it! One of my favourite books of 2012. 

REVIEW: 'The Girl You Left Behind' by Jojo Moyes

Monday, January 21, 2013



Title: ‘The Girl you Left Behind’
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Penguin
Age Group & Genre: Adult Fiction – Parallel Contemporary/Historical 


The Blurb:

What happened to the girl you left behind?

In 1916 French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, his portrait of Sophie stirs the heart of the local Kommandant and causes her to risk everything - her family, reputation and life - in the hope of seeing her true love one last time.

Nearly a century later and Sophie's portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting's dark and passion-torn history is revealed, Liv discovers that the first spark of love she has felt since she lost him is threatened...

In The Girl You Left Behind two young women, separated by a century, are united in their determination to fight for the thing they love most - whatever the cost


What I Liked About This Book: 
Is there anything more wonderful than discovering a fabulous new author?

I had not read anything by Jojo Moyes before, but was drawn to this book because of its parallel narrative structure and because it is set in France during the First World War, one of my favourite historical periods and, of course, one of my favourite places in the world. 

'The Girl You Left Behind' starts in occupied France during World War I, with the main character, Sophie Lefevre standing up the local German Kommandant. He sees a painting of Sophie, rendered by her artist-husband who is off fighting the German army. The Kommandant is drawn irresistibly to the painting – and to its beautiful, red-haired subject – and begins to show her favour. This attracts the suspicion and contempt of the other French villagers, and sets in chain a series of tragic events. 

The action then moves to modern-day London, where the young widow Liv now owns the painting and becomes the centre of a legal battle by the Lefevre family to get it back. 

I usually find I like the historical sections of a parallel narrative the best, but in this book I really enjoyed both strands and feared and worried for both of the protagonists. There’s romance and drama and suspense aplenty in both sections of the book – I really loved it and am looking forward to reading more books by Jojo Noyes (she has a back list!)

'The Girl She Left Behind' by Jojo Moyes was one of the best books I read in 2012 - check out the others!

Other parallel narratives you may also enjoy: 




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