Sunday, 22 November 2015

A Christmas Gift from the Novelistas

It's no secret The Novelistas love books, so I asked them to tell us which book they'd love to give at Christmas - or maybe just keep for themselves!

Trisha Ashley
The Woman in Black and other Ghost Stories
by Susan Hill

The new collected edition from Susan Hill, The Woman in Black and Other Ghost Stories, would make the perfect Christmas present for several people on my list and also has a wonderfully retro binding that makes it look very attractive.  I know my son would love a copy and so, too, would Louise Marley: there’s nothing like having your blood curdled for Christmas, is there?

Valerie-Anne Baglietto
The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast 
by Alan Aldridge & William Plomer

The Butterfly Ball won the 1973 Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award. In spite of all the wonderful books I read as a child, this one hadn’t stuck with me. It was only when it was given as a gift to my own children that I discovered it properly and marvelled at the crazy, magical and fantastical illustrations.

There’s something grotesque and very Alice in Wonderland about it. A summer’s day, all these flamboyantly-dressed creatures having a party... It’s a surreal poem which would especially suit a child who is fond of wildlife. But most children would enjoy it, I think, unless they only like pink glitter, unicorns and perky princesses. This isn’t Disney; or at least, Disney’s latest offerings (which I love, before you assume the contrary).

Although I’m as happy reading fiction on a Kindle as I am with paperbacks, a stunning visual fairy tale like this cries out to be enjoyed as a hardback. It’s as timeless as a favourite nursery rhyme, and deserves to be handled and loved and read over and over again.

Anne Bennett
The Lilac Bus 
by Maeve Binchy

If I am buying a book for someone else, I like to put some thought into it. Often if a book inspires me, or moves me in some particular way, I’d buy that book for someone I knew would stand a good chance of enjoying it as much as I had. So I choose The Lilac Bus by Maeve Binchy, and this is why.

Years ago, I was attending a writing course in Conwy Library and arrived too early, my shopping not taking as long as I thought it would. Feeling bored, I took a book from the shelf to read and touched the magic that all Maeve Binchy’s books induced in me after that. The Lilac Bus was not her first book, that was Light a Penny Candle, but it was the first I had read and I still consider it one of her finest.

The story is simple. Many people who live in in the village of Rathdoon work in Dublin and one of them, Tom Fitzgerald, buys a mini bus, paints it lilac and offers to take everyone from  Rathdoon home for the weekend – Nancy, Dee, Kev, Celia and many more. Each has their own secret story, unknown to their fellow passengers or their families. And as each story unfolds, the reader is drawn into the lives of these very human characters with their own joys and sadness. I really cared about these characters and was aware I was reading the work of a genius.

However, the writing course I had come for was ready to begin. I did not have my library card, so I couldn’t borrow the book and replaced it on the shelf with real regret.

I would buy this book for Christmas for any of my three daughters or daughter-in-law, sure it would be well-received and enjoyed thoroughly. I didn’t wait to be given The Lilac Bus for Christmas, but bought it immediately! Although after that, Santa often wrapped a Maeve Binchy book in my bundle of presents at Christmas! So I have read every book she has written and was upset to hear of her death.

Annie Burrows
The Captain’s Christmas Bride 
by Annie Burrows

As I have a Christmas book out, everyone is getting that one! And I’m going to donate a copy of The Captain’s Christmas Bride to the winner of the Novelistas’ giveaway as well!

Sophie Claire
Apple Tree Yard 
by Louise Doughty

Two books made a mark on me this year: the first was The Fault in Our Stars (John Green), but I’m not sure about gifting that one because, although I loved it, I can imagine others might find the subject matter difficult. (It’s the story of two teenagers, one of whom has cancer, who fall in love). So the novel I’m going to give this Christmas is Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty.

Yvonne Carmichael has a high-flying career, a beautiful home and a good marriage. But when she meets a stranger she is drawn into a passionate affair. Keeping the two halves of her life separate seems easy at first. But she can't control what happens next.

I don’t usually read psychological thrillers, but I’d heard a lot about this book and I was researching infidelity for my own writing, so I picked it up out of curiosity. I could hardly put it down, I enjoyed it so much! It was full of tension, with a gripping plot and an intriguing narrator, Yvonne, who’s incredibly intelligent and self-aware, but also very human. It was mostly Yvonne’s character which drew me in, but also the way the story raises so many questions about morality, about our justice system, and about the boundaries of relationships. (If I’m being vague, it’s because I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers!) I had previously read and enjoyed Gone Girl, but this book was even better. It’s the kind of novel which makes me, as a writer, despair because it’s so intelligent and thought-provoking and cleverly crafted.

I hadn’t read any of Louise Doughty’s fiction before, although I had enjoyed her craft book A Novel in a Year for its gently encouraging tone, but I’ll look out for them now. And I’ll be giving Apple Tree Yard to parents and friends, male and female alike, because it really has something for everyone.

Beth Francis
The Snow Child 
by Eowyn Ivey

The book I would like to give as a present for Christmas is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey –
 the hardback edition, because the cover is so beautiful, and this is a book to keep and dip into again and again.

Inspired by the Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child is a magical story set in 1920s Alaska, where Mabel and Jack are struggling to homestead in the brutal environment, while grieving for their stillborn baby. As the first snow falls they build a snow child, but as it melts away they spy a young girl amongst the trees. Somehow she seems to survive alone in the wilderness. Who is she? What is she?

This is a book to read for the power of the story, then again for the hauntingly beautiful descriptions of the Alaskan landscape. It’s a book to talk about with friends. I reached for my copy before writing this, and started reading it again. It’s a Christmas present you can share, and keep coming back to.

Who would I give it to? I can’t say. It’s a surprise, as all the best Christmas presents are.

Juliet Greenwood
The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver

The book I would give for Christmas is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for years but only finally got around to it a few months ago. I love Barabara Kingsolver’s novels, but this one totally blew me away. It’s one of those few novels when, after I’d finished it, I didn’t want to pick up another book for weeks afterwards, just because I just wanted to keep on savouring it, and I couldn’t imagine another story that could draw me in and hold me quite so fast, and in such a satisfying way.

I love that it’s an intelligent female take on colonialism, folly and the abuse of power, one that balances world events with the microcosm of the domestic world of one missionary family in the Congo. It is warm, funny and sensual, as well as an astute analysis of the dynamics within a family, and of the relationships between human beings of different cultures. Despite the inevitable tragedies, and the utter stupidity of the rigid mind that cannot see beyond itself in the missionary who refuses to bend to his surroundings, I found it an ultimately uplifting book. The image of the missionary persisting in planting crops in his own ‘civilised’ manner, even after a local women has demonstrated how to plant so that they actually survive, is one that will stay with me forever.

There’s one friend I can’t give it to, as she read my copy after I’d raved about it, and is now raving about it too. But this Christmas I’ll be parcelling up plenty more …. 

Cheryl Lang
Iris & Ruby 
by Rosie Thomas

I loved this book. Set in Cairo, it had me interested right away. It tells the story of stroppy teenager, Ruby, who escapes her fraught relationship with her mother in the UK and turns up in Egypt to stay with her elderly grandmother. She writes her grandmother’s autobiography and learns about Iris’s early life in wartime Cairo. In the process, Ruby learns about herself and changes. This was a Cairo that was smothered in heat, dust and deprivation, but Iris’s world was cosmopolitan, full of glittering dances and balls. Memories of Iris’s lost love are sprinkled throughout the book. It is well-written, full of atmosphere and details of the era. You feel drawn into the book.

Louise Marley
The Annotated Brothers Grimm 
edited by Maria Tatar

I've loved fairy stories ever since I was a child, but as I grew older I began to prefer the darker, more twisted tales without the obligatory happy ending. The Brothers Grimm were German academics who collected and recorded folklore during the early part of the 19th Century. The idea was to record these oral stories for other academics before they became lost, but when the brothers realised the stories were being read by children they rewrote them for a ‘PG’ audience, cleaning them up and giving them happy endings.

This book lists forty-six stories. Some are easily recognisable – Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel – as tales that have been retold and reimagined over the years in both books and films. Others, such as The Seven Ravens, I’d never even heard of. And there are nine stories at the back which are definitely not for children!

But the main appeal of this book to me is in the annotations, which explain all the different versions of the stories and where they originated from. In this adaptation of The Frog King, for instance, the frog is killed, not kissed. And apparently Little Red Riding Hood veered from Fifty Shades of Grey to Silence of the Lambs before the brothers turned it into the story we know today.

So who would like this book for Christmas? Not Valerie-Anne Baglietto, that’s for certain! Some of the more gruesome endings would definitely give her nightmares. Maybe I could give a copy to Haydn Lee, who shares my love of the dark and twisted?

Or maybe I’d keep the book all to myself!

* * Competition now closed! * *

If you'd like to win a fabulous book bundle from the Novelistas, just leave a comment below! One winner will be drawn, in our usual random way, after the closing date. Unfortunately, due to the cost of postage, we're only able to offer this prize to entrants living in the UK.

Closing Date:
Thursday 3rd December 2015

The Prize:

A collection of signed paperback novels as follows:

A Christmas Cracker by Trisha Ashley
The Moon on a Stick by Valerie-Anne Baglietto
Another Man's Child by Anne Bennett
The Captain's Christmas Bride by Annie Burrows
Her Forget-Me-Not Ex by Sophie Claire
The Man Behind the Façade by June Francis
We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood
Why Do Fools Fall in Love? by Louise Marley

Small print!!!
Be sure to use your full name, or post using an account we can contact you on (Facebook, Twitter Blogger, etc). If we don't hear back from the winner within 72 hours of notification, another winner will be drawn.

Good luck!

Trisha drawing the winner
at our Christmas Party
Congratulations to Gurdeep Assi!

Photo copyright:

Book covers: individual publishers
Book bundle: Louise Marley
Trisha Ashley: Juliet Greenwood

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Manchester LitFest 2015 by Sophie Claire

Manchester Literature Festival drew to a close last weekend, and I have to say this was the most exciting Manchester LitFest programme I can remember (and I’ve been going since the festival first started ten years ago), packed full of big literary names. Obviously I couldn't go to all the events but I did make it to Margaret Atwood, Deborah Moggach, Joanne Harris and Louise Doughty, and below are tweets and snippets from those events: 

Joanne Harris, Lemn Sissay, Geoff Ryman, 
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Deborah Moggach

Deborah Moggach

At The Midland Hotel, Deborah entertained us by answering questions and recounting anecdotes in her very upbeat style, before we all enjoyed afternoon tea. I tweeted snippets of what she said:

"I wrote Tulip Fever in a rush of love for Dutch paintings of the Vermeer period." "I bought a painting and it spoke to me."

"Spielberg rang wanting to make a film of Tulip Fever - we all thought it was a prank!"

"I'm always an extra in my films."

"I get 2 or 3 emails a week, mainly re: Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It's had a transformative effect on many people."

"We're all teenagers really - just a bit wrinklier!"

"Loneliness, isolation is a huge problem"

"I love good plots. I think they're a work of art."

I can't wait to read Moggach's new book Something To Hide. It sounds exciting with some really meaty themes.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was interviewed by the broadcaster and critic, Erica Wagner, and she spoke engagingly about her new novel, The Heart Goes Last, ‘an immensely funny and disturbing satire set in a near future where the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free. Young, poverty-stricken lovers Charmaine and Stan sign up for a social experiment but the promise of a suburban paradise soon turns into a nightmare of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire.’
Margaret’s dry wit was hugely entertaining, and I came away eager to read this novel, having previously enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale.
Erica Wagner and Margaret Atwood

Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris

This event began with Joanne reading her Writer's Manifesto which explored how the writing world has changed in modern times, and how Joanne perceives the relationship between herself and her readers. I tweeted:

Snippets from last night: "The truth is, not everyone can - or should - be a writer..."

Fiction should present a challenge. Fiction is often uncomfortable. It is not democratic.

I love my readers...their diversity, & the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them. 

Authors & illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.

Stories are never just entertainment. They help us understand who we are. They teach empathy. Stories bring us together.

The discussion which followed was equally fascinating. Questions were put to the panel, but I've kept to Joanne's answers for the sake of brevity:

Q: How much do you think about the reader while writing?

JH: I don’t. There are too many readers and they’re all too different. When reading, people see what they want to see [...] I write for myself.

Q: Have you ever had struggles with your publisher?

JH: Yes over small things. Publishers worry a lot about readers, and about moral ambivalence (eg bad characters getting away with bad things, or bad things happening to good people). 

Joanne also recounted how she wanted to call her novel Peaches for Ramadan (its title is Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé) but her publishers were worried this sounded too political or that Muslim readers might react against it. In fact, Joanne reported, she's had very positive feedback from readers.

Louise Doughty

Louise Doughty was the Keynotes speaker at the Northern Lights Writers Conference (a day of panel discussions and workshops) and she was also interviewed about her work, particularly the bestselling novel Apple Tree Yard. Here are some of the highlights:

Louise Doughty

Louise was first published 20 years ago, at a time when writers such as Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes were very popular. However, Louise felt that their novels focused on the middle class and she set out to write something different. She is especially proud of a review describing her as an author who 'writes about the people who don’t normally get written about'.

It took roughly 7 years for Louise to get published and she likens this period to the time it takes to train for any profession; for example, a doctor or a lawyer. Writing takes time to develop sufficiently.

She advised: “Enjoy those early years because you can focus on the writing itself.” Whereas later you become an administrator of your career.

Most writers, she said, have to supplement their income by teaching or mentoring. Having another job can be a positive thing because it can feed your creativity. And having lots of time to write full-time can be as difficult as having very little. 

Apple Tree Yard is currently at the casting stage for a BBC four-part drama. The genesis for the story came to Louise unexpectedly one evening: she visualised a woman in court, on the witness stand on trial for a serious charge. Louise wrote the first scene immediately, and this later became the novel's prologue. For the book’s launch, the publisher printed leaflets of the prologue which were distributed on the London Underground.

Asked about the television adaptation and the screenplay which has been written by Amanda Coe, Louise said “You develop a philosophical approach to your work being changed.”

Having read Apple Tree Yard myself, it was interesting to hear Louise talk about its structure which is complex because the story is told in the first person and with hindsight. “I wouldn’t have had the technical skill to write ATY as my first novel,” Louise admitted. “It has a certain readability and narrative arc that my previous novels don’t”.

All four events were equally fascinating and inspiring. I always find it reassuring to hear writers talk about the difficulties they've faced in getting published or with the creative process, because they're often problems we've all experienced. It's also interesting to hear what sparked a story, what the writer hoped to communicate, and how others have interpreted it.

You can read more about Manchester Literature Festival here and it's worth keeping an eye on organisations such as these throughout the year because they sometimes hold stand-alone events. 

Can you recommend any good literature festivals?


Sophie Claire's novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, is available from Amazon

Thursday, 5 November 2015

S is for Stand Alone...or Series? by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer.  And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order.  This month, she's reached she'll be talking about whether to write Series or Stand alone.

I have taken part in a couple of series, where each book has been written by a different author, but never, so far, created one of my own.

Harlequin quite often creates mini-series, where each author is assigned a small part of a longer, over arching plot, whilst also writing a story which can stand alone.  And I've been involved in a couple for the Historical line.  I was responsible for part 5 of the Regency Silk and Scandal series, in which a couple of aristocratic families search for the man responsible for a murder committed in the previous generation.  My instalment, The Viscount and the Virgin, dealt with the fate of the Murdered Man's daughter.  I found it tremendous fun brainstorming the murder mystery plot, which became the backdrop for 8 individual love stories, with the other authors involved.  We drew up a complicated family tree, and created spreadsheets galore to keep track of who was doing what, when, and with whom.

There's a tremendous amount of extra work involved in taking part in such a series, and both times I've done one, although I've really enjoyed it, I've also found it a bit of a relief to coming back to writing just one story, about just one couple.

However, I often find that a minor character in one book will wander into another one.  And that the more often they appear, the more real they become, until I have to give them their own story.  Captain Fawley, for example, first appeared in "His Cinderella Bride" at a ball.  Then took a larger role in "The Earl's Untouched Bride."  So large a part, in fact, that my editor at the time made me cut him back severely.  But I did get permission to write his story (even though he had only one eye, one arm, and a wooden leg!)

A similar thing happened with Lord Havelock.  He appeared as a minor character in a Christmas novella, where he strode into a men's club and set the cat among the pigeons by asking them to help him draw up a list of qualities they thought would make a perfect wife.  I didn't know, then, why he needed such a list, but I couldn't stop wondering.  And eventually I had to write him a book to explain his odd behaviour - Lord Havelock's List.  (Eventually, I'm going to have to write the story of one of the other men who helped him compile the list - the one who said his wife would have to be intelligent, because he couldn't bear the thought of giving up his bachelor freedoms only to beget a brood of idiots.)
But anyway, earlier this month I went down to London to visit the new London offices of my publisher, Harlequin UK, and to have a serious chat with my editor.   I've just been awarded a four book contract, you see, but only had one full length book and one novella completely outlined and agreed upon.  I had a lot of vague ideas...dramatic meetings between characters who had tortured back stories...but no real idea of where to take them.

I sent these rough outlines to my editor and during lunch, (during which some wine may have been consumed), she gave me the most insightful feedback.  In one of the rough outline openings, I'd suggested that the hero pursue the heroine as part of a wager between himself and a group of his friends.  And she asked me whether I'd considered writing stories about these friends, and tying them together as a trilogy.

The moment she made the suggestion it became obvious how other snippets that I'd had floating about in the back of my mind for a while could become parts 2 and 3 of a trilogy.  It would probably have happened naturally, the way it's happened before.  But this time, as I set out to deliberately write a set of linked stories, I can actually plan my own overarching story which will tie them together more firmly, rather than having the loose connections I've come up with before.

And, more importantly, I can actually let readers know in advance that it's going be a trilogy.

Do you know, I feel as if I'm finally getting my writing life organized!

(It has only taken me until S!)

Annie's current release is "The Captain's Christmas Bride", available from Amazon, Harlequin, Mills & Boon UK, Amazon UK, Mills & Boon Australia, etc...

It is a stand alone book.

So far!