Aphrodite’s Island has been chosen for the Kindle monthly deal for August. So if you haven’t already read it, now’s your chance.
This is an intriguing book but I found it ultimately disappointing. Set in Amsterdam during the 17th century it tells the story of Nella, an initially naïve country girl trapped in a marriage of convenience to a wealthy merchant. The author admirably conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of a city in the grips of extreme puritanism and Nella’s desire to become a ‘proper’ wife and to fit into this society. Little by little we come to understand that her husband, Johannes, is hiding a deep secret and that he is in rebellion against the laws and customs of the time. He is shown as an attractive man, but Nella cannot understand why their marriage is not consummated.
Another character who plays an important part in the story is Nella’s sister-in-law, Marin, who has been used to running the household and seems to resent Nella’s arrival. She appears to be a very strong personality but she, too, has a secret. As the story progresses we see these two strong people slowly disintegrate under the blows of fate, while Nella grows into someone capable of taking over her husband’s business and coping with, first, the death of Marin in childbirth and then the execution of Johannes by drowning.
So far, so good. The characters are believable and we become involved with their fates and the slow transition of Nella from a rather pathetic little girl to a strong woman is well portrayed. But here is what I find is the weakness of the book. Early in the story, Johannes buys Nella what amounts to an elaborate doll’s house, which is a miniature copy of the house she now lives in. Nella see an advertisement by the miniaturist of the title and orders some pieces of furniture for it. From then on, more and more items arrive, unordered, and each one shows an uncanny knowledge of the household. Later tiny dolls representing Nella and Johannes and Marin appear and the miniaturist appears to be able to predict what is going to happen to them. Nella makes repeated attempts to contact this mysterious person, who is apparently female, but only catches tantalising glimpses of her.
All through the book I waited to discover who this person is and how she knows so much, but the changes in the miniature dolls, echoing or foretelling what is happening to their real life counterparts, became more and more inexplicable and ultimately unbelievable. The book ends with no resolution to the mystery and I found this most unsatisfactory. If an author chooses to present her readers with a mystery at the start of a book, I feel we have a right to some explanation by the end of it. Did the author herself have any answer?The use of the miniatures is a clever plot device, but ultimately I felt Burton was cheating. There seems to me to be a trend in modern writing to introduce supernatural elements into otherwise realistic stories in order to add twists to the plot, but personally I think this is illegitimate. It is a pity, because the book stands on its own merits and does not need this extra elaboration.
Review of The Mistra Chronicles Books 1 and 2.
by James Heneage.
I love books that take me to exotic and unfamiliar times and places and these books do that in spades. They are set during the last days of the Byzantine Empire, when Constantinople is under threat from the Turks. I did not know that Mistra, on the Greek Peloponnese, was one of the last outposts of the empire but Heneage’s description has made me want to visit it.
His hero, Luke, is descended from one of the Varangians, exiles from England after the Norman Conquest, who formed the emperor’s elite bodyguard and who, we learn in a preface, escaped from Constantinople just before it was sacked in the Fourth Crusade with a great but mysterious treasure. He is in love with Anna, the daughter of the ruler of Mistra but his low birth means they are destined to be kept apart. His adventures take him first to the island of Chios, another unfamiliar place to me, and I was fascinated to learn about the importance of the trade in mastic and the labyrinthine villages constructed to save the people from pirate attacks.
The story progresses and both Luke and Anna are caught up in the machinations of the Turkish Sultan, the wily Venetians and Anna’s devious father-in-law. There are plenty of unexpected twists and turns to the plot and Luke and Anna are brave and far-thinking in their efforts to outwit them.
In Book 2 the action moves even further afield as Luke is sent to to the court of Tamburlaine the Great, the Mongol lord who swept through Asia minor in the fifteenth century. This is a part of history I knew little about and Heneage evokes brilliantly the exotic combination of barbarism and luxury surrounding Tamburlaine’s court. He was a bloodthirsty monster, massacring whole populations of cities that opposed him and leaving pyramids of skulls to mark his passage.
I was gripped by these stories but I have some reservations. Luke seems to me a little bit too perfect; a warrior who can overcome all opposition; a wily negotiator; brave and honourable – but I found my sympathy for him stretched to breaking point when he remains with Tamburlaine, as a trusted companion, even after the most terrible massacres. The excuse is that he is oath sworn and has a task to do, to persuade Tamburlaine to attack the Turks and so distract them from Constantinople and the writer shows that he is driven to despair by what he sees, but I kept thinking ‘why don’t you just ride away?’.
A more important criticism is the writer’s reliance on elements of the supernatural. Luke learns in a dream that Anna is in no immediate danger, so he can leave for the east; she knows that he is still alive by looking into the eyes of his horse. There are books which are entirely predicated on the existence of the supernatural, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. I can happily accept that. But when they are used as plot devices in an otherwise well researched and realistic historical novel I think that is illegitimate. Most irritating is the use of the mysterious treasure rescued from Constantinople, which is unearthed and gazed upon with awe and wonder at the end of both books. We are never told what it is, only that it will ‘change the world’. I assume the author’s idea is that we will keep reading subsequent volumes in order to find out; but I fancy that the final revelation will be an anticlimax. What can possibly live up to the significance laid upon it? Does the author himself know what it is?
These caveats apart, I was hooked on these stories and would recommend them to anyone looking for a gripping historical read.
There isn’t a lot to report for this month. I’m working on the last chapter of the new novel, and up against the publisher’s word limit of 100,000. I think I might just be able to bring the story to a conclusion within the limit but I wish I had a bit more leeway. The book has involved a lot of research, particularly the second half in which the hero becomes a merchant plying the Mediterranean in the years just before the First Crusade. There is so much fascinating information about the trade in spices and silk, the origins of which were a mystery to western Europeans at that time; but the political situation in the Middle East was very volatile and confused and I am constantly having to check up on who controlled which area at any particular time – Turks, Byzantines. Egyptians ?? And there is so much technical detail to discover. How many men did it take to row a galley? How long did it take to get from Amalfi to Alexandria? What were conditions like on board? It’s very interesting, but time consuming.
I’m afraid the writing has had to take a back seat in favour of the garden lately. While the weather has been so lovely it seemed a shame to stay indoors and it is looking so beautiful. The roses are glorious at the moment, and so are the peonies. The lupins and foxgloves are going over now, but the herbaceous border has been a blaze of colour for weeks. Now it is the turn of the delphiniums and the penstemons and soon there will be dahlias and cosmos and day lilies. It’s a lot of work, but worth every moment.
I had an enjoyable day last Thursday at the Authors North summer social, run by the northern branch of the Society of Authors. We had a half hour cruise on the River Dee in Chester and then ‘afternoon tea’ at 12.30 in the Town Hall, followed by a very interesting discussion which centred mainly on the problems and advantages of self-publishing. It was good to chat to other writers and share experiences and tips.
I’ve been a bit disappointed by the muted reception given to TWICE ROYAL LADY. There is one really good review on Goodreads and so far nothing on Amazon, or in any of the papers. It hasn’t made the sort of impact I was hoping for. If any of you have read it and can contribute a review I shall be very grateful – and remember, if you want a signed copy you only have to let me know.
I hope you are all having a wonderful summer.
NEWSLETTER FOR MAY 2015.
I apologise for the gap in sending out my usual monthly letter. As I think you know, I have been working as drama coach on the cruise ship Balmoral. I started to compose a letter at the end of March and then found I had not copied the group address onto my tablet, so I was unable to send it.
I have mixed feelings about the experience, coloured largely by the fact that David and I both picked up a bug that had us coughing and wheezing and which we never managed to throw off completely. Being asthmatic it hit me particularly hard. I even had to spend a night in hospital in Singapore. Wonderful service, but the cost!! I hope the insurance company will pay up. Well, we’re home safe and sound but still coughing. Now on our third course of antibiotics. Now comes the struggle to catch up on the admin and battle the weeds which have taken over the garden.
Anyway, here’s a summary of my conclusions.
Cruising is an unhealthy occupation.
It’s not a good way to see the world. Most of the far east ports were miles from anywhere you would really want to see and people were doing two and three hour coach journeys to spend an hour or so in Beijing or Bankok or at the pyramids. It didn’t worry us, because we’ve already been to all those places, but if you didn’t go on an excursion of some sort there was nothing to look at. I’ve seen enough ugly container ports to last me a life time!
On the plus side: It’s nice to be pampered and have your food cooked and your cabin cleaned etc – and the food wad very good. Also the entertainment. The resident company were all very young but extremely talented and we had a succession of visiting acts which came on a different ports, most of which were well worth watching or listening to, including some very good musicians. I particularly liked Matthew McCombie, a very talented pianist.
My work as drama coach was challenging, to say the least. People in the age range for a cruise like that, ie retired and mostly elderly, either can’t or don’t want to learn lines. However, I did find some talent and we put on two very successful productions. This, in spite of the unhelpful attitude of the deputy cruise director, who was supposed to facilitate with finding props etc. His first reaction to any request was to say ‘Oh, no that won’t be possible.’ In the end I found it easier to cut him out of the loop and go direct to potential providers – the restaurant for china and cutlery, for example. Basically, I don’t think anyone had attempted to put on a properly staged production on the ship before. But even allowing for all the hard work, I should have gone mad if I wasn’t there to do a job. The idea of lying around for months sunbathing and passing the time with various talks and classes and silly games just does not appeal! Would I do it again? It would have to be a very tempting itinerary, and I would far rather stick to teaching creative writing. At least then people are not required to learn lines.
As far as the writing goes I have had to put a hold on the new novel for the duration of the cruise. I simply didn’t have the time or the spare energy to write. However, I shall get down to it now. Meantime TWICE ROYAL LADY will be out this month. I do hope you will read it. I know the period is far from what you are used to in my other books, but I found Matilda a fascinating character. She was proud and sometimes arrogant and short tempered, but she was also intelligent and well educated and deeply religious. Betrothed at the age of eight to the German Emperor, married at twelve, widowed at twenty three and then forced into a second marriage with a boy of sixteen. After her brother was drowned she was her father Henry 1’s only heir; but when he died her cousin Stephen seized the throne. She had to choose between her husband and her three sons and her duty, as she saw it, to the people of England. Her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, refused to support her claim and in the end she was forced to sail from France with a small band of supporters. Many rallied to her cause, but she had to battle it out with Stephen for ten long years. Meanwhile, her position prevented her from finding happiness with the only man she ever really loved. So it is a story of love and war, just like the other books. Do give it a try!
I’ve been ‘networking’ this month. I attended the Authors North meeting run by the Society of Authors in Manchester, where I heard a very comprehensive lecture from Stephanie Hale about marketing your books. It was so comprehensive, in fact, that I have filed it away for future consideration when I have more time! If one did all the things the marketing experts saw you should do, no books would ever get written in the first place.
I also managed to catch the last event in the History Writers Festival at Harrogate. This is much more interesting, to my way of thinking. The festival is modelled on the very well established Crime Writers Festival which has been held in Harrogate for several years now. The History equivalent is fairly new but looks set fair to be as popular as the older one. It was crammed with talks and discussions from writers of both fiction and non-fiction, with some very big names attending, and I just wish I had been able to go to all of it. I am hoping that next year I may be able to take part, to promote TWICE ROYAL LADY; but the organisers do require the publishers to come up with some sponsorship and I am not sure whether Hale will oblige. Their initial reaction was that the money involved rarely pays off in terms of book sales; but I’m still hoping to persuade them. It is a matter of prestige as well as cold cash.
We stayed on for a few days in Harrogate and caught up with friends and also explored some of the lovely countryside of the Dales. A nice break.
I have been lucky enough to get the offer of another cruise, teaching creative writing. This one is with Cruise and Maritime, on board the Marco Polo In Search of the Northern Lights. We leave at the beginning of March and I am really looking forward to it. At the same time, I have had to turn down what sounded at first hearing like a fabulous opportunity. I was asked to be a drama coach on a cruise to the Far East. It would have involved putting on a play with the passengers for each leg of the voyage, which would have been hard work but exciting, and the destinations would be marvellous. Unfortunately, the cruise leaves on Jan 2nd and doesn’t get back until May 4th. So I was already committed to the Marco Polo in March and we have a holiday to Teneriffe booked for February; besides which neither David nor I really fancied being away from home for four months, especially during the spring. It would have meant nothing getting planted in the garden, for one thing. All the same, I have lingering regrets and if I wasn’t already committed elsewhere I would be tempted.
Right now, I have the copy edited text of LADY to go through. I keep trying to get on with work on the new book, but there always seems to be something more urgent to do. But I’ll get there one day!
How fast the months fly by! When I look back and think, what have I done this month that might be of interest, it is hard to remember.
I gave a talk to the Ellesmere Port ladies luncheon club on Sept 9th about the inspiration behind my WWl novels and as usual it was very well received. I also spoke to the Manorgate society in Burton on the same topic. People are fascinated by the stories of Grace Ashley Smith, the commandant of the FANY, and Mabel Stobart, founder of the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy, and the exploits of Flora Sands. They should all be better known.
Work continues on preparation for the publication of TWICE ROYAL LADY in May. I have been sent a picture of the front cover and it is absolutely gorgeous! As the book is being published under the new Hale Broken River imprint I think it is getting special attention. I can’t wait to see the finished product.
Another topic that has been in my mind, with the commemorations for the outbreak of WWl, has been the fate of my paternal grandfather. He was killed during the retreat from Cambrai within days of the end of the war. He has no known grave but my sister has recently been to France with her husband Lyndon and found his name recorded on the great memorial in Arras. I copy her account of her visit here:
‘I have been researching my family tree. My grandfather Alfred William Gladdon born 1881 died in March 1918. He was originally in the Royal Flying Corp and enlisted in 1916 in the 10th battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment . In World War 1 he saw action at Albert, Vimmy Ridge, Beaucourt, Arras, Messines and Passchendaele, and qualified for the Victory and British War Medals. He was killed during the retreat from Cambrai in March 1918 and has no known grave. In September Lyndon and I visited the Arras Memorial in northern France and miraculously amongst 20,000 names found his name carved on one of the walls. We laid a bouquet of poppies beside the official Lincolnshire Regiment wreath. We also went to the Menin Gate in Ypres for the very moving Last Post ceremony performed every evening by four buglers from the local fire brigade. A representative of the Last Post Society recited the famous “Ode of Rememberance” by Laurence Binyon with the line “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them” repeated by the hundreds of people who had gathered. An excellent visiting UK choir sang Herbert Howells edgy setting of the prayer which ends “God be at my end and at my departing”, and the Kernow Pipes and Drums paraded in full Scottish regalia. We also visited the “In Flanders Fields” museum where we were given bracelets so that we became participants in World War 1. I was a nurse at the Front and Lyndon was a French soldier. When we returned to our B&B we discovered that the owner`s grandfather was a stonemason who worked for five years on the building of the Gate. He showed us unique photographs of various stages in its construction.’
One project I have been busy on is some research into which libraries stock my novels. I’m glad to say all of them do, to a greater or lesser extent, but some had never heard of THE LAST HERO, so I took the opportunity to bring it to their attention and I am please to report that a good many of them have now ordered copies.
I have been asked to judge a short story competition run by the village of Curry Mallet in Somerset. They have an annual history festival and this year the theme is WWl. More details can be found at
www.currymallet.org . It is quite a big commitment but I think it is right to encourage other would-be writers.
On Saturday I shall be at the Society of Authors meeting in Manchester and at the end of October I am going to be at the Harrogate History festival. This is a really vibrant event and thoroughly recommended for all you history buffs out there. Go http://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/history/ for details.
All this has rather interrupted my research for the next book, but I shall get back to it eventually!
I hope all is well with all of you.
Good news! TWICE ROYAL LADY, my novel about the Empress Matilda, has been accepted by Robert Hale Ltd, the publishers of my last two books. It will be published under their new Broken River imprint as a paperback and should cost £8.99 – much more affordable than the previous hardbacks. Publication date is provisionally set for May 2015.
Meanwhile, Soundings have bought the rights to produce the audio version of APHRODITE’S ISLAND and, as with OPERATION KINGFISHER, I shall be the reader. I don’t know if any of you use audio books. They come in various formats, including MP3 and CD, and I know a lot of people find them very useful on long car journeys, for example.
Our trip to Canada was very enjoyable, but I must admit very far from being a rest cure! We only spent four days in each place, which meant living out of a suitcase, which I really dislike. The wedding went extremely well. It was held in a golf club looking out over the Bow River in Edmonton – a lovely location. It was very simple and informal but everyone present found it moving. We met a great many of my new daughter-in-law’s relatives, who made us feel very welcome. The nicest part was the fact that they all think Robin is a lovely guy and are glad he is marrying Erin! My elder son and his wife and two children were there as well, which I was very pleased about.
After that we all went up to Banff, which allowed us to have some quality time together as a family. The more intrepid went white water rafting and we all went horseback riding. After that the family went home and David and I went on to Jasper, where there is more spectacular scenery to be enjoyed. However, the pleasure was somewhat dampened for me by toothache. I developed an infection under a tooth soon after we arrived in Canada and by Jasper I was forced to seek the help of a dentist. He recommended root canal work, but we were not there long enough for him to carry it out and my own dentist back here cannot fit me in until Sept 10th! So I am currently existing on a diet of antibiotics and painkillers.
Back to work now! I am scheduled to give a talk to the Ellesmere Port Ladies Luncheon Club next Tuesday and there are some finishing touches to be made to Twice Royal Lady. Then I must start thinking about the next book.
Wishing you all the best
It has been a busy month! First there was our trip to London for the classes at City Lit. In the end ten people signed up for two days on ‘writing historical fiction’ and we had a most enjoyable time. It was a very varied group, some of whom were already in the throws of writing their first novel, while others had come more out of curiosity than any definite plan to write. The important thing was that they all seemed to enjoy the classes and find them useful, and we had some very interesting discussions on the different genres which come under the umbrella of historical fiction; creation of character; shaping of plot; and styles of writing. The final assessments which the class was asked to provide resulted in five ‘excellents’, four ‘goods’ and one ‘satisfactory’ -not a bad report! (The 10th person didn’t turn up for day 2 – it obviously wasn’t what she was looking for.)
There was a slight hiccup in the arrangements for the weekend, when we arrived at the b&b I had booked at the appointed time of 4.30 and found no one at home! It later transpired that the proprietress had sent me an e-mail saying there would be no one there until 6.30. Well, a) the email didn’t arrive till after I left home; and b) we had arranged to be in central London by 6p.m for dinner before the theatre. In the end we had to check into a hotel for the night.
That night we went to see ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, the adaptation by the RSC of Hilary Mantell’s novel. Sadly, we were both disappointed. It is such a cerebral novel, with such intricate depictions of motivation and thought, that it does not lend itself to the stage, in my opinion. Also, the Aldwych Theatre is a big, old-fashioned building and from our seats in the circle it was impossible to see the subtleties of expression or hear the variations of speech that the play demanded.
Next night we went to ‘Billy Eliot’. What a contrast! Loud, energetic, full of action and movement and the dancing is wonderful. How the boy playing the name part kept gong all through the performance I do not know! He was dancing his socks off almost all the time.
After a brief respite, spent with friends in Surrey, we were off to High Wycombe library where I was booked to give a talk. This was very well received and I sold quite a lot of books.
The following Saturday I was at the Penistone Literary festival in Derbyshire. This is a new venture and I must say the organisers are to be congratulated. Over two days they had brought in a wide variety of speakers and there was a real buzz about the place, with lots of people coming and going. Once again, my talk went down very well and there were good sales.
The one sad thing to report – and it is a major setback – is that my agent turned down the Matilda novel, on the grounds that it wouldn’t make the shelves of Tesco or Asda. Apparently, this is the only criteria upon which publishers make their decisions these days! What does that say about the future of fiction! However, all is not lost. I have other outlets and if all else fails I can do what so many writers are doing these days and publish it myself.
Have any of you been listening to the controversy about the use of the historic present, between John Humphreys and Melvin Bragg? To clear up any confusion, this is when writers or speakers say things like ‘She walks into the room and sits down’ when they are talking about something that happened in the past. Mantell uses it in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and I like it because it gives sense of immediacy, as if you are watching a film or a play. But I know some people dislike it intensely. Oddly enough, I wrote the first draft of Matilda that way, but I’ve changed it to the past tense because I know it is unpopular; but I did feel as I did it that it was making the events more distant – a story that was finished, rather than one which was still in progress. I’d be interested to know what any of you feel about the matter.
My main focus now is on getting ready for our trip to Canada for Robin’s wedding. I’ll be back at the end of the month and then it will be time to start thinking about the next book. It might turn out to be a sequel to ‘Operation Kingfisher’ but I haven’t made up my mind yet.
DAUGHTERS OF WAR, PASSIONS OF WAR and HARVEST OF WAR will be promoted by Sainsburies as part of their World War l Centenary e-books collection from July 21st to August 31st. In addition, they will be featured on the aerbook site from August 8th to 14th. People who click on the links below will be able to see the front cover and read an extract and then purchase if they so wish.
Daughters of War: http://aerbook.com/books/Daughters_of_War-8845.html
Passions of War: http://aerbook.com/books/Passions_of_War-8846.html
Harvest of War: http://aerbook.com/books/Harvest_of_War-8847.html
I am happy to announce, also, that APHRODITE’S ISLAND has been chosen as one of Kindle’s Summer Reads and will be available at a special price from July 18th to Sept 1st.