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!

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.