Friday, 10 August 2012


Dear readers,

please accept my most sincere apologies for the lack of content over the past few months.

Personal circumstances have made it so that I had to neglect my blogging duties but I hope that I will be able to resume them very soon.

In the meantime, happy reading to all of you!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Book review: The Woman in Black

By Susan Hill
Published by Profile Books

Since reading The Small Hand by Susan Hill last year, her more famous ghost story, The Woman in Black, shot to the top of my reading list. Now that I’ve read it, ghost story sounds so diminishing that I’d rather describe it as a supernatural masterpiece.

Before starting the book, I made the mistake of watching the trailer of the film of the same name starring Daniel Radcliffe that came out this year. I call it a mistake because that one minute and forty-one seconds scared me beyond imagination. So much, in fact, that I refused to do any reading after dusk – just in case!

The Woman in Black opens in the winter of 1920. Arthur Kipps is sitting around the fireplace with his family when he is prompted to tell them a ghost story. Upset, he leaves the room. Ghost stories are not a laughing matter so he later sets out to write a memoir narrating the dreadful events that marked his life forever.

That’s how we step back in time and we travel with Arthur to Crythin Gifford, a small town in the north of England, to attend the funeral of an elderly customer of the solicitor he works for and examine the papers she left behind. The late Mrs Drablow used to live alone at Eel Marsh House, eerily located at the end of a long tidal causeway.

Despite the strange reactions encountered in town at every mention of the house, Arthur decides to spend a few days there on his own, unconcerned by the fact that, at high tide, he will be completely cut off from the mainland. To give him credit, his determination doesn’t waver easily.

At first, he dismisses the apparition of a sickly-looking woman dressed in black as well as sounds and voices that can’t be logically accounted for, strong in his belief that nothing bad can happen to a young and sane man like him. Needless to say, his beliefs will be challenged in the course of the following days.

This book has all the elements of a great ghost story: an isolated house, a ghost, a spooky mist, the tragic story of a mother and her lost son and, last but not least, a curse. The narrative is slow in a way that will make you feel safe before creeping up on you to shock you with a completely unexpected turn of events.

A must read if you’re after an intelligently subtle spine-chilling effect concentrated in one exquisite little novel!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Reading challenge 2012: July submissions

Welcome to a new month in the reading challenge 2012 on Book After Book!

There is still time to join: if you want to enjoy sharing your opinions about books with fellow readers, please click here and add your name to the list.

After that, all you need to do is spend pleasurable hours immersed in a book, write your thoughts on your blog (or GoodReads, Amazon etc.) and submit your link via the tool provided here month after month.

When submitting your review, please enter your name + title of the book + author of the book in the "Name" field. For example: BrightonBlogger, The Brave by Nicholas Evans. Thank you.

Please share the details of this challenge by talking about it on Twitter and Facebook, by displaying the logo on your sidebar etc. The more, the merrier!

Happy reading!

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

In conversation with... Charlotte Rogan

Hello Charlotte! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Lifeboat. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: The Lifeboat tells the story of Grace Winter, a 22-year-old woman who survives a shipwreck only to be put on trial for her life. You find out in the first chapter that Grace’s attorneys suggest she write her story down as part of her defence, and the result is a day-by-day, first person account. As the days pass and the weather deteriorates, it becomes increasingly apparent that for any to live some must die. Grace watches and waits as the other passengers choose sides in a brewing power struggle, but eventually, she too must declare herself. It is because of her actions in the boat that she ends up in a courtroom, but is she telling the truth at her trial or is she merely saving herself again?

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?
A: The plot unfolds for me, kind of as it does for the reader, though a lot more slowly. I have spoken to novelists who first prepare a complete outline of the chapters, and I can see how that is a much more efficient way to work, but I can’t seem to do it that way. I do use an outline, but it isn’t finished until after the book is. And yes, my characters always do unexpected things, which is part of the fun of writing for me.

The Lifeboat is a fictional work but you must have had to research the historical period it is set in, not to mention all the technical, nautical details. What resources did you use and how much did you enjoy this process?

A: Even though the book is set on the eve of the First World War, I never think of it as a historical novel — mainly because there is not a lot of history in it. But any novel requires a certain amount of research, and I love that part of the writing process because it focuses my reading and because it is like a treasure hunt, leading to all sorts of interesting documents, both in libraries and online.

Much has been written on the shipwrecks of history, particularly the Titanic, which was a wonderful resource for everything from lifeboat specifications to shipping routes. I also researched legal cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued, and I read several non-fiction shipwreck accounts. But in the ten years I worked on the novel, I chose not to read any fiction set at sea or any accounts of the survivors of the Titanic. I felt it was important to protect my imagination as I created my own characters.

An example of how the Titanic was useful was in determining the size of my lifeboat. Most of the Titanic lifeboats could hold up to 65 people, but a lifeboat of that size would obviously lead to an unwieldy number of characters. There were also four 47-person collapsible lifeboats and two 40-person emergency cutters, but those still seemed too big, especially since my plot required that the boat be overcrowded. In order to come up with a size that worked for me, I decided that the owners of the Empress Alexandra — the steamship that sinks at the beginning of the book — had cut costs by putting greed over safety and skimping on the specifications. That allowed my boat to be in constant danger of sinking with only 39 people in it.

This is your debut novel. How did your book deal come about and how did you feel to finally see your first novel in print?

A: I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties, and in the past 25 years I have written 5 novels. Over the years I made occasional attempts to find a publisher, but none of them came to anything until a chance encounter led me to my current literary agent, who sold The Lifeboat to Little, Brown in the fall of 2010. Books have always been almost sacred objects to me, so to see one with my name on it has been a complete thrill. An even bigger thrill is knowing the book has found an audience and has sparked some interesting discussions.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am very superstitious about talking about my current project, so I will only say that it is set in South Africa. In 2009, my husband’s job took us to Johannesburg for a year, and I fell in love with the country. While I was there, I started to write a new novel, and that is the one I am working on now.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: This is a very good question, and one I am grappling with as we speak. Years ago, I told my children that I would never have a Facebook page. Well, never say never. I have one now — as well as a website and a Twitter account. While I am enduringly grateful to the many people who have taken time to read my book and to comment on it, I have to admit that I am not naturally suited to social networking. I tend to be a quiet person, saving my words for my work, so everything to do with publicizing the book -- talks, interviews, and social media -- presents a new set of challenges. I am trying to balance those things in a way that allows me to get back to writing, which is something I really love.

What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: 1. Read. John Barthes told his writing students to stop reading innocently, and I second that advice. Try to discover out how your literary heroes did it.
2. Stick with it. Be honest with yourself about what isn’t working, and try again.
3. Don’t give in to writer’s block. There is always something you can do: reread a favourite author; edit an old chapter or piece; put your character in a strange situation and see what he or she does; do research for some aspect of your work; visit an art museum (at least this works for me).

Thank you for your time!

To win a copy of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, please fill in this form. The competition will end on the 9th July. Good luck!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

In conversation with... Vanessa Gebbie

Hello Vanessa! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Coward’s Tale, out in paperback at the end of March. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you very much! The book is the story of a small town in south Wales, where Laddy Merridew, a boy of ten, has been sent to stay with his grandmother while his parents sort out their failing marriage. He befriends an old man called Ianto Jenkins - a beggar who lives in the chapel porch. In exchange for a coffee or some sweets, Ianto will tell stories - funny, sad, poignant and strange - about the people of the town, and why some of them do eccentric things. The stories all go back to a coal-mining accident on a September day several generations ago. But for all the storytelling, Ianto has bever told anyone the story of what happened to him that day. He seems to recognise someone in the young boy - and begins to reveal his own story for the first time.

You now live in Lewes, East Sussex, but you’re originally from Wales. How much of The Coward’s Tale, which is set in a Welsh mining community, was drawn from your own experiences and how much is just the fruit of your imagination and research?

A: I was adopted by a couple from Merthyr Tydfil, a large town in the valleys of south Wales. They’d had to leave Wales to find jobs, but both families were in Merthyr, and at every opportunity we went back and stayed with my paternal grandmother, who I adored. So the setting of the novel is based on the streets I remember, the buildings - library, school, cinema - but with plenty of artistic licence! It wasn’t really a mining community then, most of the mines had already closed, but the evidence was there. There is a lot of imagination in the novel - but I needed to focus on the realities for the details of the mine in the book, and concentrated on a mine called Senghennydd for research, and a tragic accident that happened there in 1913.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing The Coward’s Tale or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: Absolutely not - I don't do much plotting, I’m afraid - which has its own advantages and disadvantages - I had a lot of work to do to tidy the completed first draft. The whole novel took six years to write (or thereabouts) but I was never only writing that - I also worked on my other three books at the same time - writing two collections of short stories and editing a text book.
When I write, I think of it as ‘telling myself a story’, so I just write and follow my nose as I go. It was lovely - plenty of things happened that really surprised me, and I love that!

Which of the novel’s characters are you fonder of? Are there any characters that you don’t particularly like but that you think the fictional Welsh village wouldn’t be the same without?

A: I like and admire all my main characters, but the ones I am most intrigued by are Laddy (the boy) and Ianto (the old man) whose story forms the backbone of the book. Do I dislike any - probably black-skirted Nan isn’t my favourite - but as she is partly based on my own maternal grandmother, I’d better be careful! I actually was frightened of my own nan - she wore long black skirts and ankle boots, and was a real matriarch.

The Coward’s Tale was first published as hardcover book in November last year. What feedback have you received from the public?

A: I have been lucky - there have been some very lovely reviews left by readers on Amazon and on Goodreads, and I am hugely grateful for those. I have also had some great messages through my website, from people who have loved it enough to tell me so - quite a few from Wales, which pleases me enormously.

The book came out in the USA earlier this year, and again, I have had some lovely messages out of the blue from readers who have picked it up thanks to the intriguing cover, which is very different to either of the UK ones. The lastest is from a professor of literature and writing at a college in New Jersey - he tells me he is going to put it on the curriculum for his undergraduates next year. That is so lovely to know - I am going to keep in touch, and interact with the students when they have read it - answer questions and so forth.

Talking about the two UK covers, which one do you prefer? Assuming that you didn’t have any input in the selection process, would you have chosen something different?

A: But I did have input - Bloomsbury were brilliant. They asked me right up front what I would like, and I ummed and aahed and came up with a list of things - a statue, preferably Dalou’s Le Grand Paysan’, feathers, and leaves, and maybe the boy and the beggar - and when I saw Holly MacDonald’s interpretation for the hardback jacket, I was really moved. The only changes she needed to do for me were tweaking the character silhouettes. The whole is rather like an Eric Ravillious woodcut - very appropriate for a writer living in Sussex. The hardback cover is designed to appeal to serious reviewers, and it certainly worked.
The paperback is designed to appeal to a different readership, broader and younger. I was sent one cover image and loved it immediately. I now know it was one of several discussed at Bloomsbury, and have seen the alternatives, unusually - and they were so right to pick this one. With that bright reddish-orange sky, It is easy to pick out the book in Smiths and Waterstones!

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am working on lots of things... the one that will hit the shelves first is the second edition of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story which is scheduled to come out with Salt Publishing in 2012. I am adding new chapters to an already strong mix. The new chapters are terrific- from some amazing talented writers who are also gifted teachers.
I am also working on the next novel. Provisionally entitled Kit, it is a sequel and a prequel to The Coward’s Tale... and will take me a long time. Don’t hold your breath!
And never being one to hang around, I am self-publishing a collection of short short short pieces together with an artist colleague, this year. Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures will make it five books in five years.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: Of course, they do disrupt. That is one reason I go away to write - with a laptop that does not know the codes to get into the broadband at my chosen writing retreat! I go across to Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat in Ireland, and have been doing so since 2005. Later in the year I am trying out a new place in Devon - and in the winter, I will be in Scotland on a Hawthornden Fellowship - a whole month with no internet or phone signal. Gee whizz.
Having said all that, I think it is really important to interact with writers and readers, and Facebook and Twitter facilitate that really well. Maybe you do have to limit the time spent - but I dont find that a problem. I’m not one of these amazing people who tweets about 500 times a day. I run a blog, and update that when I feel like it. It gets about 500 readers a week.
I do tweet a writing prompt every morning, under #StoryGym. You dont have to follow @vanessagebbie to access those.

How did your first book deal come about and what one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: My first book deal was with Salt Publishing back in 2007/8, and the book was a collection of mostly prizewinning stories - Salt is an independent publisher and produces beautiful books. I sent them a few stories, and they jumped - I was delighted.

The best piece of advice I was given is this, “Never stop learning. Never think you’ve ‘got there’ - always try to write better tomorrow than you did today.”

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: I’m always happy to visit local book groups who have read The Coward’s Tale.

Thank you for your time!

A: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog.

Intrigued? To win a copy of Vanessa Gebbie's The Coward's Tale, please complete this form. One winner will be picked on the 25th June.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Terri Giuliano Long on Writing & Motherhood

I grew up in a big traditional Italian family. Being a mom has always been part of my story, an expectation as well as a dream, an essential part of who I am. It’s only natural that being a mother would shape my life as a writer and it has - both practically and philosophically.

My husband and I have four daughters. We were very young when our eldest was born; in that sense, I’ve lived my life backward. We had children, and then I attended college and graduate school. While our children were growing up, I worked part-time. Although all my jobs involved writing, I didn’t have the luxury then of an apprenticeship in creative writing. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I loved my life – and my jobs. I wrote news and feature articles for the town paper, a column for a regional paper. I edited a newsletter, and wrote copy for marketing, advertising and public relations. This was all great practice.

I attended my first creative writing class in my mid-thirties. Once I did, I was hooked. As a young woman, I’d read mostly spy novels and sweeping sagas like The Thorn Birds. In my thirties, I favored literary fiction, stories about people and families that felt real and pertinent to my own life. Like most authors, I wrote stories similar to the stories I read.

Given the timing, the fact that my life revolved around my family, it’s not surprising that family plays a central role in my body of work. When I wrote In Leah’s Wake our daughters were teenagers. At the time, immersed in their world, I was acutely aware of teen issues and problems. In Leah’s Wake is not our family’s story—not a single event portrayed in the novel happened to us - and I’m not, or at least I hope I’m not, anything like Zoe. But the thoughts and feelings I describe absolutely belong to me and spring from my being a mom.

Like Zoe, I worried constantly. I used to think, if only I knew everything would turn out well; I wouldn’t worry so much. Of course we can’t see into the future, and fear of the unknown kept me on edge.

Addressing Issues Related to Parenting & Parenting Philosophies

The ways in which my philosophy and parenting style were accepted or challenged by others, my fears, my anxieties, the pressure I felt to raise perfect children, inspired and drove In Leah’s Wake. My novel-in-progress, Nowhere to Run, is a psychological thriller, a very different story from In Leah’s Wake, and yet many of these issues and themes repeat.

Parenting is the toughest job in the world, bar none. Unfortunately, children don’t come with instructions. We do the best we can. Really, that’s all we can do. The Tyler family is far from perfect, yet they love one another. Had the community rallied and supported them, Leah might have not have gone down such a terrible path. At heart most teens just want to feel accepted and loved – not for what they accomplish or contribute, but for who they are. When problems arise or when teens go astray, the fallout affects the entire community.

These themes of community and communal responsibility run through both novels. This repetition of themes is, of course, common with novelists. Like anyone else, authors are driven by our internal beliefs, philosophies and assumptions. We all have what my college philosophy professor called “mobiles,” or internal motivators that we may or may not be conscious of. For better or worse, novelists tend to be more introspective than the general populace; we’re always thinking and digging, trying to scratch the itches that most normal people let go. Those itches become storylines or themes in our work. This is certainly true for me – it’s one of the myriad ways that being a mother has influenced me as a writer.

I feel tremendously blessed to be a mother and doubly blessed to be a mother of daughters. My family means everything to me and they come first, before anything or anyone else. If my children need me, I attend to their needs. As with many moms I know, this affects my productivity. I admire writers who can pump out a book every year. I doubt that I’ll ever achieve that goal. This makes me neither a martyr nor a hero. It simply makes me a mom!

About Terri
Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She has written news and features for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, began as her master’s thesis. For more information, please visit her website. Or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Blog.

And... for a chance to win a copy of In Leah's Wake, simply enter a comment below and make sure I have a way to contact you. The prize draw will take place on 18th June.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Reading challenge 2012: May and June submissions

Dears readers, had you given up on the reading challenge 2012 on Book After Book? I hope not!

I apologise for the delay in posting a new link for your submissions. I realise that it's the end of May so I created a link for both your May and June submissions.

And, to thank you for your patience, at the end of June a lucky reader will win a copy of Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles.

When submitting your review, please enter your name + title of the book + author of the book in the "Name" field. For example: BrightonBlogger, The Brave by Nicholas Evans. Thank you.

Please share the details of this challenge by talking about it on Twitter and Facebook, by displaying the logo on your sidebar etc. The more, the merrier!

Happy reading!

Kimberly Menozzi: Writer, Interrupted

Did you miss Kimberly's monthly feature in April? I know I did. Here, all the way from the States, is a new piece by one of our favourite writers, who's remembered about us even when she has more important matters to think about! Please join me in thanking her and wishing her mother well.


For many writers, one of the hardest things to manage is time. Finding the time to write is one of the first obstacles presented to anyone who fancies the notion of being a working writer. Different writers go about this in different ways - some write during any free moment they find throughout the day, others write early in the morning before their families wake up, still others wait and write late at night. A handful of writers like myself are very fortunate and are able to write throughout the day. I work part time for a language school and have an office in my flat in my home in Italy. The computer is primarily for my use - my husband has his own laptop for his computer needs - and in that respect, I have what seems like complete freedom. No kids, few outside work demands and a cat who sleeps most of the day mean I'm free to research and write when I like.

Except when I can't.

My current project, 27 Stages, has been interrupted twice. That doesn't sound like much, I know, but those interruptions have brought work on this novel to a near-standstill both times.

The first time work stopped was November of 2009: I was writing well, words were flowing freely and I had gotten nearly two-thirds of the way through the projected work on it. The morning after returning from London (where I'd managed to do more work in spite of touristing about and attending a launch party for a friend), I received a call from my mother. My stepfather had passed away unexpectedly during the night. Needless to say, my writing was set aside for a while. I took a printout of my first chapters with me to work on during the flights from Italy to Tennessee, but I couldn't focus well enough to get anything done. I didn't resume work on the novel until March, and then it was half-hearted at best.

Not long after that came revisions and edits on Ask Me if I'm Happy, to prepare for publication in 2010. I continued to work on 27 Stages throughout, but it was undoubtedly relegated to a secondary position as the work on Ask Me... was on a deadline. Once I'd gotten those revisions done, other work kept me preoccupied - lessons at the school, promotional efforts and the like - and so my beloved cycling novel was again relegated to the 'When I get around to it' file.

It wasn't until mid-2011 that I was able to really focus again on 27 Stages. With Ask Me if I'm Happy in re-release and Alternate Rialto having debuted the previous spring, I found the time to get back into Federico and Abby's world. After a few false starts, the writing began to flow again, and I completed the first draft of the novel in early 2012. I forced myself to take a short break, planning on edits and revisions in March and April, then to submit the first three chapters to a number of agents while I polished the whole novel in the meantime. When I left for the US in May, I thought, I'd have the whole thing completed.

It didn't happen. I started a new course at my language school in February which took up more time than I'd expected, and then, on April 13th, I called home to talk to my mother and got some more unwelcome news. I knew she'd had macular degeneration in her left eye for quite some time, so that was nothing new. I was stunned to learn that she had awoken that morning to find she'd lost the vision in her right eye as well. When I called, she was about to go to her doctor, and was hoping desperately that this event was not macular degeneration too.

But it was. I shifted my plans around and went home a month early, and set 27 Stages' edits aside for a while. Now my time is used helping my mother out by driving her to her doctor appointments, shopping for her and doing other chores she can't do because of her impaired vision. There is hope that the next surgery will clear her vision enough for her to be able to read better, but there are no guarantees.

When she's seeing her doctors, I edit printed pages of my novel while I wait for her. While she watches TV (sitting up close to a 55" TV enables her to make out much of the program even if she can't see the center of the screen), I edit and revise. When her friends visit, I make the changes to the manuscript file on the computer while they chat in another room.

It's not what either of us planned, but what can we do? Sometimes, Life just gets in the way.

We'll just have to find a way to work around it.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

In conversation with... Gill Paul

Hello Gill! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the recent publication of your latest book, Women and Children First. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: It begins on the Titanic, where I describe events through the eyes of Reg, a steward in the first-class dining saloon, Juliette, an English lady, and Annie, an Irishwoman in third class who is travelling to New York with her four children. They each have very traumatic experiences as the ship sinks and I then follow the ones who survive through the next three months as they try to come to terms with all that’s happened to them. The sinking of the Titanic is, of course, a well-known story but I’ve tried to explore some less well-known angles, such as the experiences of the crew and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress that many survivors suffered.

You previously published Titanic Love Stories, a non-fiction book focusing on thirteen couples aboard the doomed passenger liner. Where did your interest in the sinking of the Titanic stem from?

A: Both my grandfathers worked in shipbuilding but it was when I watched the film A Night to Remember as a teenager that I caught the bug, and I’ve been reading about the Titanic ever since.

How much of Women and Children First is fiction? Writing Titanic Love Stories must have involved a lot of research. Were you able to draw on that while writing your new book or did you have to dig some more in historical records?

A: Great question. I had to do MUCH more research for Women and Children First than Titanic Love Stories. Although my three main characters are invented, their experiences are based on things that actually happened on the ship and I wanted every detail to be authentic because my goal was to imagine what it must have been like for the people who were there. The whole section about the sinking follows eyewitness accounts, minute by minute. Once they are in New York, I made sure that the food, the buildings, the transport system, everything is described as it was in 1912. Writing non-fiction about the Titanic was much easier – but nothing is as rewarding to write as fiction.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: It’s set in the 1960s and has a Mad Men vibe. It’s about fame and the early days of the paparazzi and that’s all I can say for now, under publishers’ orders, but it’s due for publication in May 1913.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I absolutely love Twitter. It’s great that readers can contact me directly to tell me what they think of my novel while they’re reading it, and I always reply. I try to restrict myself to going on first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon, unless I have direct messages to answer, but sometimes temptation strikes and I have a quick peep to see what’s going on. My publisher asked me to write a weekly blog and I managed it for ten weeks but haven’t had time recently as I’ve been doing the publicity rounds. Now, Facebook I’m not good at. I have a page where people can contact me but I don’t update it as much as I should. Must try harder! But none of this disrupts my writing schedule as much as the telephone.

How did your first book deal come about and what one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: I was lucky enough to find a very supportive, inspiring creative writing group who helped my confidence a lot. Once the novel was finished, I sent it out to half a dozen agents even though I knew it wasn’t quite working. Vivien Green from Sheil Land called and asked me in for a meeting and she immediately put her finger on the problem with the novel and made a very neat suggestion about how it could be solved, so I had no hesitation in signing up with her – especially when I heard she also represents Rose Tremain, who is one of my favourite authors of all time. I did the revisions, Vivien sent it out to publishers, and when I heard that Hodder had made an offer I had to lie on the carpet for half an hour to calm down. Really, I was incredibly lucky.

My advice for aspiring writers is very basic – just write. Set yourself word count targets and don’t stop till you reach them. Keep writing even when you think it’s not working. Don’t be too critical of your first draft – save that for the second, third and subsequent ones. Just keep putting words down until you reach the end. I have no great advice on getting published but am full of admiration for the people who manage to self-publish and self-market their own books. I’d be terrible at that.

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: I mentor a few young writers (under the age of twelve) who send me their work for advice, and it’s incredibly rewarding. I love their intrinsic understanding of the way stories work and their incredible imaginations. I just hope it’s still possible to earn a living as an author when they grow up. The way the industry is going doesn’t look terribly promising, but I’m optimistic that new publishing models will emerge that will guide readers to the best novels (blogs like this will become ever-more important in that respect) and allow writers to keep themselves in Pinot Grigio.

Thanks for your time!

A: Thank you! Love the site.

To win a copy of Women and Children First, please fill out this form. The competition will end on the 11th June.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Green Books: Book-Art

What do you do with your books when they're obsolete? I don't mean just that you've read them and no longer want them – in that case you give them to a friend or a charity shop, a hospital or a B&B. No I mean the books that you know no-one will want – out of date textbooks for example.

One answer is to make them into art!

Altered Books are quite popular and there's a good introduction to them on the Karen's Whimsy website. The idea is to use old books and to paint over them, make collages, cut pages and hide items in them. There are all kinds of creative things you can do and blogs devoted to how to do it!

The French Canadian artist Guy Laramee goes a stage further and makes amazingly complex 3D sculptures out of old vintage books. I first came across his work via this article on Treehugger.
Book art recently hit the headlines in Edinburgh, where I live, when an unknown artist left a series of intricate book carvings at literary venues across the city. You can read more about the mystery sculptures in this article in the Guardian newspaper.

I've even had a go myself! As an experiment I used an out of date Italian comprehension book as the basis for a journal for an Italian holiday. You can see a sample page here, on my Crafty Green Poet blog.

I don't know though. I have to admire the crafting and artistry of the best altered books and book art, but I'm not always convinced the books are actually obsolete. Wouldn't someone out there have wanted to actually read those articles from 1970s Italian newspapers?

Then I see a truck outside a local charity shop being filled up with books to be taken to the landfill and I know that making art is certainly better than throwing away.

So make art with your unwanted books, but do first check whether there's anywhere you can donate them!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Books through my lens #20

The ARK BOOKTOWER designed by Rintala Eggertsson Architects for the V&A Summer Exhibition 2010, called 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces. You can imagine how fast I started to walk when I glimpsed the wooden structure through one of the museum's arches!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Erinna Mettler: Tales from Brighton

A Bit of Spoon Throwing On a Chilly Spring Night

A few weeks ago I went to a Victorian Séance Experience at Brighton’s Preston Manor. For those of you who don’t know, Preston Manor is a gloriously mismatched manor house on the edge of Preston Park, right in the heart of the city. The original house dates from the early 1700 but there was a religious small-holding there in Saxon times and the Manor is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as belonging to the Bishops of Chichester. The foundations are still visible in the basement, and this is where you first get that spine tingle that comes with knowing a place has such a long history. The temperature suddenly drops and you fancy you hear footsteps on the stairs along the corridor or feel the brush of a breeze, though there are no windows at hand and no-one else has joined the tour.

The rest of the house was added by degrees and refurbishments over the centuries, the house was substantially renovated in 1905 by the last private owners the Stanford family. Lady Ellen Thomas-Stanford commissioned society architect Charles Stanley Peach to design a veranda, guest rooms, servant’s quarters, an enlarged entrance hall and dining rooms to enable her to entertain the great and the good. And this is what remains today, along with a beautiful Italian garden and a scrubby little graveyard beyond. An empty Manor House with its own graveyard? Perfect for ghosts, don’t you think? The most haunted house in Sussex – so says the brochure. Preston Manor has been subjected to many spooky encounters over the years, including a famous episode of LiVINGTV’s Most Haunted in which the crew supposedly made contact with the White Lady, a solid manifestation claimed to be responsible for many of the weird happenings in the Manor.

I’m not sure I believe in ghosts. I mean, I think there could be some sort of energy floating around, but dead people? Nah. Once you’re gone, you’re gone. I do think there are unexplained phenomena though, and as a writer I’m always up for visiting places with unusual atmospheres. The first time I visited Preston Manor out of hours was to attend a workshop on the uncanny. I took my friend Gill for her birthday, safety in numbers!

We were shown into a room and discussed Freud’s famous essay and looked at photographs which backed up his claims. We were asked to tell the group about any paranormal activity we had experienced. One man said nothing like it had ever happened to him and he was just there because his wife wanted the company. ‘It’ll be you then,’ said my friend. And sure enough in the dining room, as our guide was telling us how a noise like the rolling of a barrel is often heard outside the window with no explanation, the man pointed to a painting of a lion and said ‘that’s freaking me out a bit.’ The painting was swinging from side to side on its frame, quite vigorously. We all stared and made comments like ‘someone must have knocked it’ and ‘maybe there’s a draught’ but after a while it didn’t seem frightening anymore, it was just there. We all sidled past wondering what the lion was trying to tell us.

I went back to Preston Manor more recently, this time at night, for the Séance experience. The original séance was held on Nov 11th 1896 by the Stanford family in an attempt to find out about the White Lady and the other strange happenings in the house. They employed the famous medium Ada Goodrich-Greer to make contact and the transcript is held in the Museum Archives. November 11th is also the date of Ellen Stanford’s death several years later and it is my birthday. I had high hopes for the evening.

As my companion and I walked up to the door it creaked open, as if they knew we were coming. The giggles started then. Expecting Lurch, we were greeted instead by a smiling man who showed us into the drawing room and poured us a sherry. The room smelled of polish and sawdust and Mr Stanford’s clocks ticked in the background as if waiting for his return. There were a couple of moth-eaten stuffed cats on the antique tables, posed in hissing mode. Taking in the antiques and the quiet we quickly realised that being in such a place after dark made you want to laugh. The room filled with other victims, gratefully accepting the sherry and trying not to bump into the furniture.

The event itself was held in the dining Room. As we sat around the table I glanced at the painting of the lion half expecting it to see it fly off its mount and crash to the floor. It didn’t move. The table was laid out as it would have been for the original séance with tarot cards, divining rods, candles and an Ouija board. We looked at some examples of Victorian spirit photography and an expert from Sussex University talked about mediums, memento mori (pictures of dead people kept by their relatives) and portmanteau (objects thrown by an unseen presence). Then archivist Penny Balchin took over, the lights were dimmed as she explained what happened at the séance, she told us we might feel cold, hot, and sick, want to laugh or cry, chatter or run away. A Victorian séance was a noisy night’s entertainment apparently and it wasn’t just the ghosts. I could see why. As the lights were turned out completely and we were left in total darkness I just wanted to laugh out loud and found myself giggling silently as Penny explained how the original séance had uncovered the unsettled spirit of a nun, Sister Agnes, wrongfully excommunicated and mysteriously murdered. At this point there was a loud clatter beside the fireplace and everyone screamed and jumped in their seats. Unfortunately, that was pretty much the end of the show. We’d run out of time and the sudden lights blasted any spirits who might have been with us back into the shadows.

Did anyone feel anyone behind them? I can honestly say I did because there weren’t enough seats at the table so one lady was sitting on her own just behind me. My friend told me she was tempted to pinch me and pretend she hadn’t. I could imagine this happening during Victorian séances. The whole thing seemed to makes us all a little hysterical, laughing at poor jokes with fixed smiles and wide eyes.

The clattering was a teaspoon taken from the closed draw in the corner of the room and thrown by an angry spirit onto the tiles. We all looked at the spoon and I couldn’t help wondering why, possibly the least expensive item from the Stanford collection, was the thing the spirit had chosen to make itself heard? Why not a china plate or a priceless glass? My suspicions lie with the woman who turned out the lights. I left with a feeling of disappointment that Sister Agnes hadn’t materialised on the table spewing ectoplasm but then maybe she knows I’m a sceptic. One thing is for sure – I’m going back.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Event review: Book Slam

The people behind Book Slam describe it as “London’s first/ best/ only literary nightclub”. Luckily for Brightonians, this event moved to the seaside for one night only. Luckily for me, I was among the audience, who enjoyed two and a half hours of top literature and fine music seated at round tables dotted with candles and glasses of wine.

The hostess for the evening was Malaysia-born poet Francesca Beard, whose bubbly enthusiasm put everybody at ease within minutes and who read one of her poems, The Poem That Was Really a List, setting the bar high for the guests of the night.

Funny and thought-provoking, you can watch her recite the same poem at the Norwich Arts Centre in June 2009.

The three guests of Book Slam, courtesy of Brighton Festival 2012, were Jackie Kay, Jon McGregor and Sapphire, who made two appearances each: a format that worked very well to keep the evening interesting and varied.

First up on stage was Jackie Kay. The Scottish poet and novelist was there to promote her latest collection of short stories, Reality, Reality, and read two of these: Mini Me and Bread Bin. Nothing had prepared me for the hurricane of laughter that Jackie Kay brought with her! Her banter was unstoppable and incredibly funny. She couldn’t even stop chatting while reading her two short stories and interrupted herself with giggly comments! I loved and highly recommend her work.

Next up was Jon McGregor, also promoting his latest collection of short stories, This Isn't The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. I didn’t know anything about his work before attending Book Slam and what I heard made me definitely want to correct this mistake. Britain's second-best short story writer, as he proudly describes himself, read a short story called Wires, whose final twist no-one could foresee, and then made up (or recycled from a previous event!) another using a dictionary and as many words beginning with ‘V’ as possible. Smart and witty.

Last but not least, it was the turn of American poet and author Sapphire. She began by reading three of her poems, although I should say that she sang more than read them. Quieter and more serious than her two predecessors, she was mesmerizing to watch and listen to. She also read a few extracts from The Kid, her latest novel and the sequel to Push, that was made into the film Precious. Her work deals with subjects – like abuse and AIDS - that are not for the faint-hearted but Sapphire has the ability to reach out with dignity and hope, which is not an easy balance to maintain.

After the first performance of each author, a short break was followed with live music by Ninja Tune singer/songwriter Andreya Triana. I had been to one of her concerts before and knew what a treat was in store for the audience. As soon as she started singing, the whole room fell silent in admiration. Andreya sang three songs from her forthcoming second album; her first ever single, Lost Where I Belong; and finished with a cover of Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody. Soft yet powerful, her voice, accompanied only by guitar, was the perfect introduction to the second part of the evening.

Book Slam, please return to Brighton!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

In conversation with... Madeline Miller

Hello Madeline! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Song of Achilles. Can you tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you! And thank you very much for inviting me onto your blog.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the myths surrounding the Greek hero Achilles, from the point of
view of his best friend and lover, Patroclus. It follows the two men from boyhood all the way to the Trojan War taking Homer’s Iliad as its inspiration.

Where did your interest in Greek history and mythology stem from? What made you choose Achilles as your protagonist?

A: I have loved Greek myths since I was a little girl. My mother used to read them to me at bedtime, and as soon as I could read myself, I devoured every book on the subject that I could find. There was something about the world that was, and is, incredibly compelling to me. I think some of it is the alluring darkness of the world—the gods are terrifying and unfair, the heroes are flawed and the monsters vicious. Even with all of the fantastic elements the stories always felt very real to me: there are no simple, or safe happy endings.

Because of this, I had always been particularly drawn to the myths of the Trojan War, which contain some of the most human and most flawed heroes. And also the most moving: Achilles is a young man, who knows he’ll never return home again, and who finds the only two things he cares about in the world, his reputation and his beloved Patroclus, threatened. Then a friend of mine asked me to co-direct a production of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War myths. It was so much fun creating the characters on stage—especially Achilles and Patroclus—that when the production was over I didn’t want to stop. I sat down at my laptop and Patroclus’ voice came out.

How much research did you carry out? Did you complete all of it in advance so that you could then dive into the writing process undisturbed or was it more a research-as-you-go sort of process?

A: I was very fortunate that, as a Classics student, I had already done a lot of the research—though at the time I didn’t know it was going to go into a book! I had actually thought, at one point, about writing my honours thesis on interpretations of Achilles, and in preparation read everything I could find. I ended up writing about something else, but all that research was still there in my mind.

The downside to this is that there were some scenes I knew quite well from the Iliad—nearly word for word—and those were some of the toughest to turn into fiction, because I couldn’t get the original out of my head. So in that case, it was a matter of tuning out the research and trying to really listen to the characters I had created. I probably went through twenty drafts of the confrontation between Achilles and Agamemnon before I found my version of it.

The Song of Achilles is your debut novel. How did your book deal come about and how did you feel to finally see your first novel in print?

A: It is absolutely amazing. Especially because the book took such a long time gestating (ten years), to see it now in finished form is beyond thrilling. I keep expecting to wake up!

Once I was satisfied with my final draft, I began researching agents and sending them query letters. I heard back from the wonderful Julie Barer, who was enthusiastic about the manuscript, and we started working together. She gave me some incredibly helpful notes, and the book went through one more draft. Then she began submitting it to publishers, and the book went to auction in the US, where it was purchased by Ecco, followed by Bloomsbury’s pre-emptive bid in the UK. That part all happened very quickly (within a couple of weeks), and I was completely speechless through most of it with excitement and disbelief.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: Like everything, social media has parts about it that are wonderful, and parts that are more challenging. In the wonderful category, I completely love interacting with readers; it is always one of the highlights of my day. In the challenging category was figuring out how everything worked (I was a total neophyte when it came to Twitter, blogging, websites) as well as learning to manage my time so that I wasn’t overwhelmed by all the possibilities. It helped to realize that, at heart, social media is really about expanding one’s world, which I think is always positive. Twitter especially is a very strong and welcoming community.

All that said, sometimes there are days when I need to shut it all off and just focus on my writing!

Are you already working on your next writing project? If so, could you please tell us anything about it?

A: I am just starting to work on something new which is inspired by the Odyssey, much as the last book was inspired by the Iliad. I had such a good time writing about Odysseus that I wanted to finish telling his story. I am also intrigued by the many strong female characters in the Odyssey, from Penelope, to Athena, to Circe, the witch who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs. It’s this last that I find myself particularly drawn to. We will see how it all evolves!

What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?

A: Writing takes time. I know that there are people out there who can whip up a draft very quickly, and I am in awe of them. But for most of us, I think it’s really important to give yourself the space to work on a piece, then let it sit for a while, and come back to it with fresh eyes. That process gives me perspective that is completely indispensable.

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: Thank you so much for having me on your blog, and for asking me such thoughtful questions!

Thank you for your time!

To win a copy of The Song of Achilles, please fill out this form. The competition will end on the 28th May.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Books through my lens #19

I am partial to some tidy lines... and books! Blackwell's Bookshop, Broad Street, Oxford. March 2012.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

In conversation with... Jane Rusbridge

Hello Jane! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of your latest novel, The Devil’s Music. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you, Silvia, and hello!

The Devil’s Music explores what happens to a family faced with the dilemma of what to do when the youngest child, Elaine, is born in the late 50s with severe disabilities, which means she is destined to remain mute and as helpless as a baby. For me, the novel is about family secrets, the way they influence the dynamics of family life and the psychological development of a child. It’s also about post traumatic stress disorder, the shifting unreliability of memory, mothers who leave their children...

The book opens with a glossary of knots and these – together with the antics of Harry Houdini – are a focal point of the novel. Are you an expert of knot tying? What did you want them to represent?

A: I’m definitely not an expert. A Reef Knot is about my limit, but I do have a copy of The Clifford Ashley Book of Knots, well-thumbed and filled with post-it notes from all the hours I spent researching for TDM.

The knots were central to the novel’s content right from the beginning, when I came across the case study of a little boy while in the library looking for something else. The study was written by child psychologist D.W. Winnicott, who describes the boy as having a ‘preoccupation’ with knots which could become a ‘perversion’. After reading the case study I kept seeing, in my mind’s eye, a little boy sitting with a ball of string on his lap in a room where he has tied everything together – cushions and chair legs, the door handle, coal shovel, lamp stand. This boy haunted me. I needed to find out why knots might hold enormous significance for a child, and decided it could be related to both a desire to escape (hence the Houdini connection) and a desire for security.

Trying to find the best fit between form and content was important to me as well, which is why the novel is structured like rope, with narrative strands separating and coming together, occasionally even entangling on a page, as do the characters’ relationships. The knots heading up the chapters in place of the characters’ names were chosen to suggest something of the personality, or story, of the character they represent.

The Devil’s Music is an intriguing title. Did it come before or after the novel? Or perhaps it changed while the novel itself took form?

A: For a long time the novel was called Left Over Right and Under, which I was quite happy with but, just before I was about to send it out to agents, two or three people whose views I respected said the title didn’t work for them. I had a major rethink. Something I often suggest to students stuck for a title for their short stories is to go through and underline any words or associated phrases which leap out, so I did the same, taking just the pivotal scene of the novel – the scene where Andy is left in charge of his baby sister Elaine on the beach. It was clear to me almost immediately that ‘the Devil’s music’ – which is whistling, in this case – was the phrase to use.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: Though I plot carefully at various stages of redrafting, I rarely know where the story is going to take me when I start out. For me, one of the great pleasures of the writing process is the flowering of narrative from what seems to be chaos. Michele Roberts talks of her first draft being like ‘writing into the darkness’ and that’s how it is for me. Frightening, but also exhilarating. With TDM, I began with ‘What if?’ questions and wrote random scenes, to try to uncover the boy’s story. The plot came in bits and pieces, and finally fell into place once I realised Elaine, Andy’s baby sister, was the key to everything that happened.

The Devil’s Music is your debut novel. How did your book deal come about and how did you feel to finally see your first novel in print and being nominated for The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award?

A: My agent, Hannah Westland of Rogers, Coleridge and White, sent the novel out to editors at three (I think!) publishers, and Bloomsbury were interested early on. My editor at Bloomsbury, Helen Garnons Williams, made suggestions and I made several quite significant changes, especially to the beginning of the novel. When Bloomsbury offered me a two book deal, even though I had no idea at that stage what my second novel was going to be, I was ecstatic. And I cried when I first held the beautiful hardback of The Devil’s Music in my hands, from the overwhelming joy of seeing the book itself after living with words on a computer screen and A4 manuscripts for years.

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is a pretty big deal for authors, because the prize is €100,000. Titles are chosen on the basis of 'high literary merit', and what I especially like is the unique way the process works, with nominations made by libraries in more than 50 capital and major cities throughout the world. TDM was nominated by a library in Finland. It was amazing to be on the longlist beside authors such as J.M Coetzee, Hilary Mantel, Caryl Phillips, Anne Michaels and William Trevor – even if it did mean TDM had little chance of getting to the short list, let alone winning!

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: My second novel, Rook, is out in August and is one of nine launch titles from Bloomsbury’s exciting new literary imprint, Bloomsbury Circus. It’s set in Bosham, the village where Cnut is said to have proved he could not turn back the tide. Rook is about the mystery surrounding Harold II’s burial place, the hidden histories of the Bayeux Tapestry and the connections forged through three women’s secrets, past and present.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: Someone (more eloquent than me) once said, ‘Twitter counteracts the loneliness of the long distance novelist’ – there’s a lot of truth in that! For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of social networking is being able to chat with readers and receive encouraging feedback. A lovely comment from a reader easily makes my day! When you’re passionate about books and writing, it’s also fun to have the chance to connect with other writers for conversations about interesting book links, or blog posts on writing. I do take regular breaks – a week, a month or more sometimes – when I need to write intensely. That’s important. Using twitter and FB, my brain hops from one thing to another, skimming along the surface at speed, whereas writing requires long periods of focussed concentration. I find the two states of mind don’t always mix well.

What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Revel in the magic of the writing process, and persevere.

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: I could witter on about writing forever, but I’d better stop for now. Instead, I’ll say a big thank you, Silvia, for inviting me for an interview, and add that anyone who wants to chat further is more than welcome to contact me via my website,

Thank you for your time!

To win a copy of The Devil's Music, please fill out this form. The competition will end on the 14th May.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Book review: Revenge of the Tide

By Elizabeth Haynes
Published by Myriad Editions

It was there when I opened my eyes, that vague feeling of discomfort, the rocking of the boat signalling the receding tide and the wind from the south, blowing upriver, straight into the side of the Revenge of the Tide.

This is how Revenge of the Tide, Elizabeth Haynes’s second novel, begins. I don’t normally take too much notice of the opening sentence of a novel – I’m not one of those people who won’t read a book if they’re not intrigued from the very beginning – but in this case it was different. When I reached that first full stop, I knew that I would love this book.

Revenge of the Tide is the name of the houseboat that London sales executive Genevieve Shipley buys in Kent with the intention of renovating it and taking some time away from a hectic life that’s become too stressful. Not to mention dangerous, after her second job as a dancer in a private club has become more serious than she’d expected. She just wanted to make some easy money while having fun at the same time but not everyone involved had the same agenda.

When the body of a fellow dancer from London washes up against the hull of her boat, Genevieve’s dream of a new life turns into a nightmare. However, she is not as innocent as you might think. She is hiding something too.

Revenge of the Tide simply has everything you could possibly want from a thriller: an intelligent and feisty heroine, a mysterious packet, complicated relationships and a great cast of characters who are not always as guilty or as above suspicion as they might at first appear. Plus, Haynes’s enviable talent for dialogue and descriptions is like the icing on an already delicious cake!

Do you want to add tension and intrigue to your everyday life? Read this novel. Now.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Books through my lens #18

Oh, to be able to sit at that desk! Virginia Woolf's country retreat at Monk's House, Rodmell, Sussex.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Green Books: E-reader vs Books – which are greener?

Welcome to the fourth post in my series about green books!

It's one of the hot topics for many people who love reading – to buy an e-reader or not. In this post I'll attempt to pull together some information on the environmental aspect of this debate.

I admit - I love books. Real books with paper pages. Plus I'm not a gadget person, to the extent that I don't even have a mobile phone. I can't imagine using an e-reader but I do want to find out whether my old fashioned attitude is environmentally damaging or not!

Comparing the environmental impact of e-readers and books is a tricky business. Most companies aren't exactly transparent about the environmental impact of their e-readers for a start!

Measuring the carbon footprint at the consumer end is relatively easy, though statistics I've read vary from 10 – 100 books being the number you need to read on an e-reader to reduce its carbon footprint to below that of new paperback books. So, if you read a lot it you can reduce your carbon footprint by buying an e-reader as long as you aren't tempted to upgrade it too often.

But environmental impact is about so much more than carbon footprint.

What about production methods? E-readers contain coltan – a controversial mineral that is linked to environmental and social injustices including fuelling conflict in the Congo.

What about e-waste? Tonnes of computers, mobile phones and (in the near future, e-readers) are discarded every year, filling large landfill sites often in the developing world where thousands of people are employed to extract the valuable minerals with great hazards to their health. Yes this is recycling, but with unacceptable side effects.

In most comparisons between e-readers and books, the books under consideration are new books made with paper from virgin pulp. As you can read in my previous blog-post in this series, the publishing industry is slowly moving towards becoming more environmentally friendly. And if you read library books or buy second hand books then you are reusing books - a very environmentally friendly activity.

For more information:

Ecolibris has a good list of links on this topic and an article on how to green your e-book reading.

Centre for Alternative Technology's analysis of the environmental impact of a new paperback book.

Wikipedia page on e-waste.

Information on the film Blood in the Mobile about the environmental and social impact of coltan mining.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

In conversation with... Sara Sheridan

Hello Sara! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of your latest novel, Brighton Belle. Can you tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you! Brighton Belle is the story of an ex-Secret Service agent, Mirabelle Bevan. At the end of the war Mirabelle feels her useful life is over – her skills are no longer required. Her boyfriend is dead and she moves down to Brighton to retire. Then she gets a job working for a debt collection agency run by the charismatic Big Ben McGuigan and before she knows it she finds her skills are useful because a mysterious case comes in….

Brighton Belle is set in Brighton in 1951. Why did you choose this particular time and place and how much research did you have to carry out?

A: The book had its genesis in a boozy lunc
h with my parents. My father was brought up in Brighton and London during the 1950s and he has some great stories of what that was like. It prompted me to look at setting a story there – I had a couple of months on my hands initially and once I’d started writing I didn’t stop. The research was very different from the kind of historical research I’ve done before but there is fabulous material available from the era – film footage, photos, eyewitness accounts etc. I delved right in!

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: I knew immediately what I wanted the book to feel like but it’s a mystery story so it wouldn’t have been right to work out everything in advance (I’d have ended up giving things away too soon) so I let it come naturally. Agatha Christie used to write the whole story, you know, and then go back to fit in the clues (you can’t do better than that!)

Brighton Belle is the first instalment in your new Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries series. How many more adventures are we to expect? Will the second book in the series be your next novel or are you going to publish something different between one and the other?

A: It’s an 11 book series (running from 1951 – 1961). Mirabelle is recovering from the War and from losing Jack, just as the whole country is recovering from the War, I suppose. It’s such an interesting decade, each year has a very distinct character. I’ve just finished the second book in the series – London Calling – which is set in the world of seedy jazz clubs. That’ll be out next summer, which will make it my next novel (though there is another historical novel that isn’t part of the series coming after that….) and then the third Mirabelle Bevan book, England Expects.

You sit on the Society of Authors Committee for Scotland. What does this role involve and what does it mean for you?

A: Writers need writers! I enjoy taking part in the Society of Authors’ work representing the rights and needs of the writing community. I’m currently working with Publishing Scotland on a writer/publisher service agreement – it’s nice to be able to make a difference.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I’m fascinated by readers so no, I don’t think being online interferes. It’s just part of what I want to do with my day. I’m actually blogging about this very issue on the Scottish Book Trust’s site very soon. The whole reader/writer relationship has changed and that’s very exciting.

How did your first book deal come about and what one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: All writers have a different tale to tell about how their writing works for them – every single person makes a different deal, has a different schedule. Being a writer is not like being an accountant or a solicitor – there really isn’t a career path. My first book deal came from me sending out a manuscript myself. It was a first draft, I knew nothing at all and I got my first offer in about 3 weeks. It’s ridiculously jammy, I know! So my fundamental piece of advice is to look at how things have worked for other people and see if you can adapt any of that to work for you. There are no rules.

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked? Any coming events that your fans shouldn’t miss?

A: I’m looking forward to the Harrogate Crime Festival this summer and of course the Edinburgh and Wigtown Book Festivals (both have been massively supportive of my career over the years).

Thank you for your time!

A: Thanks so much for having me!

To win a copy of Brighton Belle, please fill out this form. The competition will end on the 30th April.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Book review: Smut

By Alan Bennett
Published by Profile Books

I first came across Alan Bennett’s writing a few years ago, when The Uncommon Reader was published. I don’t know why I’ve waited so long to repeat such a pleasant experience but I’m so glad to have come across Smut on its recent release in paperback.

First published in April 2011, Smut is composed of two stories: The Greening of Mrs Donaldson and The Shielding of Mrs Forbes.

In the former, Mrs Donaldson has a complete change of lifestyle when her husband dies, thus bringing a dull marriage to an end. To make ends meet, she starts working at the hospital as a patient simulator, participating in medical training scenarios. She also takes in lodgers: a couple who, despite not playing loud music, are not perfect and are often in arrears with the rent. But who said that a non-monetary arrangement cannot be worked out? Mrs Donaldson soon finds out that acting, for her, is not limited to the hospital environment. And she likes it!

The Mrs Forbes of the second story is a middle-aged woman, mother to Graham, wife to Ted and reluctant mother-in-law to Betty, all three of whom - for different reasons - are busy protecting her from finding out truths that would shake the quiet world of respectability that she’s created for herself. To do so, they also have to hide facts from each other, which makes for a story full of funny and quirky situations.

These two unseemly stories are delightfully witty and - despite my limited experience of Bennett’s oeuvre - I’d say that they offer the intelligent elegance which is typical of his work. Words have been chosen carefully and provide a freshness and spontaneity that will remain unchanged regardless of how many times you read them.

Smut is a book I’d recommend to anyone who loves words and needs some fun in their life. And then I’d also recommend it to everyone else!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Elsewhere in the web...

Travel writing

Few authors have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor's ability to dissolve into the places described in his books.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Books through my lens #17

I hate flying but some airports are not that bad! Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, July 2011

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Book review: Portrait of the Mother As a Young Woman

By Friedrich Christian Delius
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
Published by Peirene Press

From its first page to its last, Portrait of the Mother As a Young Woman is just one long sentence. Yes, one sentence. Divided into manageable paragraphs, true, but still one sentence. If you don’t let this put you off, you’ll be rewarded.

The novella opens with a young German woman who, pregnant with her first son, sets off from her temporary home in Rome to go to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church. We follow her along the streets and across the squares of the city, which we see through her foreign eyes, and we are permitted to share her thoughts.

Walking, reminiscing and thinking are her only actions and she doesn’t interact with anyone on her way to church. This, however, doesn’t make for a boring book, as you might fear. By the time we reach our destination, we know everything there is to know about this young woman - her upbringing, how she met her husband, the life she imagines by his side once he comes back from war…

It is the winter of 1943 and she is torn between the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority and the religious message of brotherly love. This internal conflict surfaces with more strength towards the end of the novel - which coincides with the end of the concert - and it makes for a superb reading experience as the words rise and fall in powerful waves, just like the music.

Delius’s narrative is what makes Portrait of the Mother As a Young Woman special. It is not exactly a stream of consciousness, as I first thought. It is an interior monologue but - again contrary to my expectations - it is not recounted in the first person. It’s a poetically flowing prose that - thanks to an undoubtedly skilled translator - is bound to delight those readers who like a “challenge”.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

In conversation with... Natasha Farrant

Hello Natasha! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of your latest novel, The Things We Did for Love. Can you tell us what it is about?

A: Hello Silvia and thank you! THE THINGS WE DID FOR LOVE is essentially a love story set in France in World War 2 during the last months of the German occupation. I don’t want to give too much away but it is based on true events and, given the context, it is as much about heroism, sacrifice, betrayal and redemption as it is about true love.

The novel is set during World War II. What kind of research did you have to carry out? Did you complete all of it in advance so that you could then dive into the writing process undisturbed or was it more a research-as-you-go sort of process?

A: I had already done a lot of research into the Occupation for my first novel, Diving Into Light, which entailed interviewing people who had lived in France during that period, as well as reading a tremendous amount around the subject. For THE THINGS WE DID FOR LOVE I visited the Centre of Remembrance at Oradour sur Glane, near Limoges, which the village of Samaroux in my novel is loosely based upon. My first visit there a few years before was one of the most moving and distressing experiences of my life. It’s a place full of ghosts and as a writer, I couldn’t help but want to write about it.

I try to do all my research before I begin, but of course all sorts of questions keep coming up throughout the writing process, mainly concerning smaller period details. My father is very good at picking out details such as which year specific models of car were first produced in.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?
A: I always have the plot figured out, and then it always changes! The characters usually have their own agenda, and sometimes they just don’t want to obey me… The book was originally called THE ANGEL OF SAMAROUX, and the narrative voice was an angel! But one of the characters – again, no spoilers – soon made it very clear that they should be the narrator, and quite right too – it’s a much better book as a result. What I will say though is that I always knew how I wanted it to end, with the confrontation between two main characters on the market square. That bit has stayed the same since my very first visit to Oradour.

The Things We Did for Love is going to be translated in French, Spanish and Catalan. Are you involved in the translation process in any way?

A: French is the first language in which I learned to read and write, so I was very clear that I wanted to be involved with the French translation. I worked closely with Mathilde, my translator, particularly on the dialogues. I wanted the characters to sound as natural as possible. I kept saying things like, “but she wouldn’t talk like that!” I found the whole process fascinating. I think Mathilde enjoyed it too…

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I just handed in the final edits of my next project! AFTER IRIS is a contemporary novel about a family trying to pull itself together three years after the death of one of the siblings. Everyone who has read it so far has wept buckets, but it’s actually also very warm and very funny. I’m completely in love with it. I hope that doesn’t sound conceited – just I feel like the characters are my own family! And in fact I had a lot of input from my own daughters while I was writing it, which makes it even more special to me.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I think it’s wonderful to have such direct interaction with readers! Particularly young readers, who are so passionate and have so much to say. Reading is a conversation: authors bring their words to it, but readers also bring their own thoughts and emotions and experiences to whatever they are reading. It’s good and interesting for writers to remember this, but it’s also important to isolate yourself while you’re writing. You know, writing can drive you slightly mad – I actually think in order to be good it sort of has to, because you have to be able to completely enter the world you are creating. That’s when social networking becomes a distraction – best to save it for when you have finished and have something you are happy to share! That’s my experience, anyway.

How did your first book deal come about and what one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: My first book deal came about like most people’s – I wrote a lot, sent stuff off to agents, had lots of turn downs and one “would like to see more”, found an agent who took me on, had more turn downs when she submitted my first manuscript and finally, miraculously – a book deal with yet another manuscript! It’s hard to come up with just one piece of advice, other than don’t give up! But mainly: don’t be afraid – share your work, accept criticism, use it to improve your work but stay true to yourself. Take your time to re-read yourself, edit, rework… There! That’s actually lots of bits of advice…

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: So many things! But mainly, thank you so much for inviting me on your blog, and I hope your readers enjoy the book.

Thank you for your time!

To win a copy of The Things We Did for Love, please fill out this form. The competition will end on the 16th April.