Friday 4 September 2015

A must for Betty Macdonald fans

Much Laughter, a Few Tears: Memoirs of a Woman's Friendship With Betty Macdonald and Her FamilyMuch Laughter, a Few Tears: Memoirs of a Woman's Friendship With Betty Macdonald and Her Family by Blanche Caffiere
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Against expectation, I loved this book. I didn’t think I would before I started it. Indeed I was a couple of chapters in before I realised quite how good it was going to be. Like many Betty Macdonald fans, I imagine, what I wanted from this book was some insight into Betty Macdonald’s life. Having just read one of Mary Bard’s books with the same motivation and been disappointed, and having read a review of Blanche Caffiere’s book which dismissed it as self-indulgent irrelevance, my expectations were low. They shouldn’t have been. That review was rubbish.

Blanche Caffiere writes well, tells the story of how her life interwove with the Bards in general and Sydney, Betty and Mary in particular. I know that Betty Macdonald spun her story partly at the behest of her publishers (Bob for example in the final version of The Egg and I was painted essentially as a good guy; the wives routinely used as punchbags by drunken husbands were people she knew and not her); her leaving her husband was a brief but dramatic sequence at the start of Anybody Can Do Anything – Blanche tells what sounds like a more likely scenario: Mary Bard drove out to the farm at a time she knew Bob would not be there and helped Betty to pack before driving her and her two daughters back to the family home in the city.

In fact one of the things that Blanche Caffiere’s account does is to paint Mary Bard as the truly amazing person she clearly was. It does likewise for their mother Sydney including the story of how she came to be called Sydney. Their unique qualities come across in Betty Macdonald’s accounts, although not in Mary’s own writings, but Sydney was her mother, Mary was her sister; there’s an element of ‘she would say that, wouldn’t she’ when it’s Betty. From Blanche it comes across differently.

Blanche Caffiere tells her own story as well as that of her interactions with the Bards, but partly because her own story was largely influenced by Mary and Betty, and partly because she tells it well, it drew me in. I became interested in what happened to her as well as what happened to Mary Bard (in a way I hadn’t when reading Mary’s writing) and of course, Betty.

An absolute must for genuine Betty Macdonald fans.

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Thursday 27 August 2015

The triple review - sometimes that's how it happens

This is a triple book review. The three books are linked by the fact that I read them all together over this last week. There could be other links, but that's the one that counts in this case.

Firstly, why am I reading three books at a time? All avid readers will have had this happen - that multiple books on the go scenario. I'd wanted an easy reread for bedtime and picked a crime novel that was the nearest as opposed to a favourite. Because it wasn't a favourite, it didn't automatically get promoted to Main Book which meant I was subconsciously on the look out for something else.

I fell over book 2 on a charity book stall. It was a modern sequel to an old classic. I usually steer clear. These things rarely cut the mustard, but I dipped in, liked it and bought it.

Book 3 I fell over online. An out of print hardback written by the older sister of one of my favourite authors from adolescent days. I'd always wondered about big sister's take on little sister's stories, so I snapped it up.

That left me with a crime, a romance and an autobiography on the go simultaneously. There was a moment at the weekend where I was out in the garden with cup of tea, sun hat, sun screen, our hens, next-door's dog, 40,000 insects and my three books. I dipped into each, fished flying things out of my tea and fended off the dog who wanted to play.

The books! Get to the books.

The crime was a Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, called Whose Body? I've read it before. Wasn't much taken with it then, wasn't much taken with it this time. I'm not a great fan of Peter Wimsey who I always think will irritate the hell out of me far more than he actually does. But the fact is that Sayers can spin a yarn and as ever, she keeps me reading. I'll never class it a favourite but I won't give it away. In another few years I expect I'll read it again.

The romance - this was Pemberley by Emma Tennant, a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice which has always been a favourite of mine. If I could have got at the bookcase (that's another story) I'd probably have picked Pride & Prejudice as my easy reread and had no hankering for any other books. Constructing a sequel to a classic is never easy, in some cases impossible, though Pride & Prejudice lends itself to a sequel far better than something like Gone With the Wind. I'm afraid I hated PD James' Death at Pemberley. The genre swap simply didn't work in my view.

Emma Tennant takes a light tone, leaning very much towards the relationship tangles to find her drama, and she mirrors the original rather cleverly. Does it compare? No, but it doesn't set out to. It's more of a light romp. She catches the tone and relies heavily on dialogue which I thought she did well. I enjoyed it.

And finally the autobiographical one. It was The Doctor Wears Three Faces by Mary Bard who was Betty MacDonald's sister. I read it to the end but it was a big disappointment. There were interesting insights into the times but barely a mention of Betty. I wonder if that was at the direction of the publisher. Betty MacDonald was sued twice for portrayals in The Egg and I, with one out of court settlement and one court battle which she won. Maybe the cautious publishers of the time warned Mary off anything but the most cursory mention of her sister. I'm fairly sure the rest of her books (of which I've read reviews but not the things themselves) will be the same. 

The pictures were interesting of the somewhat brutal male dominated field of medicine and things like the doctor sitting up in his hospital bed post appendectomy demanding his cigarettes, but what I wanted to know about was the other side of Betty's illnesses; how did they cope when Betty was whisked into a sanatorium? How did Mary cope with her role as breadwinner and job finder for such a large family in the depression - we have Betty's side in Anybody Can Do Anything. What did she and the family make of Betty's first marriage. Did they know about the violence before Betty left Bob? Was that the real reason for Mary's absolute insistence that Betty drop everything, pack only what she could carry along with her two small children and trek across miles of wilderness to get to the nearest bus stop to bring her back to civilisation*? If only her publishers had told her to mirror Betty's own books and give the other side, her book could have been riveting for all that the writing doesn't have Betty's light touch. Alas, I fear they told her to steer clear of what they must have seen as controversial ground.

* The version in Anybody Can Do Anything. The version given by Betty's long-time friend Blanche Caffiere is that Mary drove out to the farm at a time she knew Betty's husband wasn't there and helped Betty pack up what she could, then drove her and her daughters away from the abusive marriage.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Philae, Shelley and politics from the dark ages

(originally a Facebook post but I thought it was worthy of being a blog)

What’s with all this 'discovering' of long forgotten anniversaries and the bizarre pronouncements that go with each? Magna Carta for instance and the BBC’s statement that it marked the beginning of the 'Rule of Law' (whatever that means).

And how about the Battle of Waterloo (1815)? I’ll bet the 100th anniversary wasn’t half as much celebrated as the 200th. After all, in 1815 it was England and Germany versus France, whereas in 1915 it was England and France versus Germany. A real puzzle to work out whose side God was on.

But apparently Waterloo marked the victory of Liberal Democracy over the rule of the mob. Er … did it? 
Wasn’t it in fact English, German, Austrian etc reaction trying to set back the advances made in the French Revolution?

Compare with a snippet recently come to light about British PM Edward Heath's homosexuality which was apparently a fiction invented by the security services to discredit Heath in the eyes of the right-wing of the Tory party. Irrespective of whether or not one is a fan of either Heath or the right wing of the Tory party, where does that fit in with Liberal Democracy and the Rule of Law?

Moving beyond the planet, apparently the space-lander Philae is coming awake on comet 67P about 190 million miles from the earth. The science involved is just incredible.

Contrast that with today’s politics where we may as well be in the dark ages.

I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh
Very smooth he looked, yet grim
Seven bloodhounds followed him.

And I’ll leave the last word to Shelley (from The Mask of Anarchy)

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Buried not so Deep

Buried Deep (crime: set in York and Hull) was the subject of a scary last-minute plot disaster. It was close to finished when a terrible thing happened. A major plot line dived into an irretrievable dead end. There could be no way out. What was the protagonist to do? How would this book ever end?

Then just before I'd torn out all my hair, it dawned. I'd fallen for one of my own red-herrings. It wasn't a dead end because of what thingy had said to so-and-so way back when ... and that time where the villain of the piece had said ... and the thing with the doo-dah ... and so on. Whew! Relief.

When I plotted the new novel I was determined to keep it nice and simple - an everyday tale of mayhem and murder with a nice twist or two but nothing to scare the pants off the author on the last lap.

That was the plan.

The plotting process was simple enough, but the devil - as they say - is in the detail. Has it worked out? Who knows? It's at that edited first draft stage where I can recite it by heart without it making any sense at all.

The stage - in fact - where it is ready to go out to its beta readers, a valiant group acknowledged in Buried Deep to whom I am eternally grateful for their insights and honesty. Take a deep breath, guys! Tiger Blood is heading your way.

Monday 6 April 2015

Four of the best for crime fiction fans

A crop of useful web resources for those who like crime fiction:

European Crime Writers 

This is a useful website that categorises authors into contemporary, groups and classic, giving a one-line intro and a website link.

The site is curated by Karen and runs competitions with books as prizes

Crime Fiction Lover 

A good site for news, reviews and events which bills itself as the site for die hard crime and thriller fans. The site’s 2015 April 1st interview is with Laura Lippman

Crime Time

This online magazine is another source of news, reviews and interviews.

Looking for a Mystery?

Billed as specifically for those who love mysteries, this site is curated by retired librarian Linda Bertland, and contains far more than a list of mystery novels.

For example, there is a fascinating page of resources for school librarians 

At time of writing not all these sites include the 

but they’re worth visiting all the same.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Checkout staff say no to Chief Constable: Why York is fruitful ground for fictional adventure

This is the real York: A gruesome history, the longest medieval town walls in England, a pub for every day of the year. What’s not to like? Here is the merest sprinkling of York facts...

  • Margaret Clitherow’s history and gruesome death in 1586 was served up to us in school. A martyr for Catholicism her severed hand is exhibited at the Bar Convent in York. She was canonised in 1970 and has a shrine in York’s famous Shambles.
  • St Peter’s School in York does not take part in the traditional burning of effigies on Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th, because Guy Fawkes, born in the city, was educated at the school.
  • York has many pubs, it is said that you could visit one a day and not return to the same place for a year. 
  • North Yorkshire police officers have hit the headlines for unusual reasons – Chief Constable Della Cannings tried to buy wine in her local supermarket in 2004 whilst still in uniform. The checkout staff refused to serve her until she removed her hat and epaulettes. It was at the time an offence to sell alcohol to a police officer on duty.

This is where the real York morphs into fictional York: The North Yorkshire Police were established in the mid 1970s. The headquarters are at Newby Wiske near Northallerton and get a passing mention in the books. Maybe some future plotline will invade headquarters but the action in Buried Deep centres around fictional officers stationed in York.

York is irresistible as a setting for a novel ... any novel. And with its rich history it’s also a fertile ground for contemporary fictional crime which is how Buried Deep found its focus. Read a review here.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Fusion – a peek behind the scenes

An illustrated book of short stories came out last year. It had previously been available only as an ebook. It’s a great collection – I reviewed it when it came out – and the illustrations add a new, quite unexpected, dimension.

Following the original publication I had the enviable job of interviewing the authors and uncovered a wealth of amazing admissions, surprising secrets and fascinating insights. To celebrate the illustrated version I thought I would draw them together here and share them again. 

Follow the links to learn about:-

The illustrated anthology is available from Fantastic BooksPublishing.

Saturday 14 March 2015

What is it with Show and Tell?

Show don’t tell? I hate seeing that in writing guides or hearing it in writing courses. It’s shorthand, it’s lazy, it isn’t good advice. Show and Tell do different things. They’re both good in the right context and can wreck a piece of prose if you get them wrong, but show isn’t somehow better than tell, it’s just different. Sometimes you need to show the reader what’s happening and sometimes it’s best to tell. The trick is to know when and why to show or tell.

What does 'show' do?
  • Show keeps the viewpoint close behind the eyes of the viewpoint character. The closer you show, the closer the viewpoint.
  • Show brings the reader closer to the action.
  • Show is great for dramatic sequences, for keeping the reader at the edge of her/his seat.
Where ‘show’ is not so good
  • Show is not so good for the more mundane moments. There’s tedium in real life; people don’t read fiction to be immersed in a boring moment.

What does 'tell' do?
  • Tell distances the reader from the action, and sometimes that’s just what is needed.
  • Tell pushes the viewpoint away from the character, makes it more distant, less personal.
  • Tell is the way to allow the reader and the characters a breather after a moment of high drama.
When not to ‘tell’
  • Tell is not the technique to use to involve a reader in a high tension moment.

There’s a short article called Milking the action and emotion: never summarise the dramatic moments that pulls together some of these ideas. It’s from the launch of The Writers’ Toolkit which contains other articles, worked examples and the live critiques that were done during the launch.

The Writers’ Toolkit is available from FantasticBooks Publishing

Saturday 7 March 2015

Review: Edge of Arcadia

Edge of ArcadiaEdge of Arcadia by Ken Reah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Edge of Arcadia is the debut novel from artist Ken Reah. It tells the story of Aiden Hamilton also an artist and teacher. This is a book about relationships, Aiden and his wife Cathy in a marriage that has become humdrum at best but with a dark undertone. When Aidan becomes infatuated with Louise, a student at the college, the book sidesteps the well-trodden territory of the relationship triangle. On the face of it we are presented with the older man, the much younger woman, and the wronged wife, but the relationships in this book go deeper. There is a dark thread running through the story involving Aiden and Cathy's relationship with their eldest daughter.

Aiden’s guilt at his affair runs alongside his guilt at being unable to repair a breach in his family or even to confront it in any constructive way.

The story of the central characters is built with realism. There are no artificial devices to bring added drama to the story. The complexities within the networks of people provide crises enough as the different relationships develop or deteriorate, through passion and high drama to sometimes predictable and sometimes shockingly unexpected catastrophes where the different strands of Aiden’s life pull him in impossibly different directions.

Reah avoids the usual clich├ęs. The revelations when they come are not dressed up in unnecessary drama but show the slightly sad reality of real people pushed unwillingly into situations they can’t cope with.

Edge of Arcadia is a long book, the paperback which I read being far too heavy to take on long journeys. With hindsight, I’d have bought the ebook, but I’m glad I own the paperback for the wonderful artwork (from one of Reah’s own pictures) on the cover.

I didn't read this book quickly. It drew me in slowly, bit by bit as the various strands interwove and unravelled. Because we always saw the world through Aiden’s eyes we never saw him objectively in the eyes of others, only as he saw himself or as he perceived others to see him. The reader is left to judge the real Aiden from Aiden's perceptions of the emotional rollercoaster that he both revels in and desperately wants to get off.

Likewise it is Aiden's perceptions we see of his wife Cathy. Is she the wronged wife? Has he somehow pushed her into becoming the woman we see on the page? Some of her actions seem to demand heavy censure yet Aidan struggles not to judge her too harshly. And yet at times it seems to be the guilt of his affair that lets her off the hook for some appalling acts. It is not only Cathy’s actions but some of the actions of the student Louise that are hard to comprehend, but Aidan can't comprehend them and so neither can the reader.

Reah does not fall into the trap of moralising over anyone's actions. He takes us through the entire journey with Aidan and leaves us to judge, to empathise or not, to lay our loyalties where we choose. It is a gentle read with some moments of high passion and high drama. It provides a rich emotional landscape which mirrors some beautiful descriptive prose of the rich landscape of the North East of England where the book is set. It’s a very good read.

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Thursday 5 March 2015

If self-publishing is the question, this is NOT the author solution

Piracy comes in all shapes and sizes these days and is a means for one group unfairly and often unlawfully to extract money from another. The rise in self-publishing has been seen as a great opportunity by more than one very dodgy outfit. But it’s particularly sad to see that hitherto respectable organisations are now allying themselves with these shysters.

Author @DavidGaughran takes the lid off the collaboration between the notorious Author Solutions and Barnes & Noble in an excellent article entitled Barnes & Noble’s Dirty Little Secret.

Author Nate Hoffelder, editor of @InkBitsPixels raised concerns last autumn in his article about Barnes & Noble in which he listed the clues to Author Solutions' involvement along with Barnes & Noble’s shyness in admitting who their partners were in this venture. 

David Gaughran and Nate Hoffelder weren’t the only ones raising concerns. Lawyer and blogger David Vandagriff also wrote last autumn about the shortcomings of Barnes & Noble’s new scheme, noting that the ‘add-on packages’ which started at an eye-watering $999 caused him ‘to think of Author Solutions’ 

Barnes & Noble’s coyness in admitting who they were dealing with rang alarm bells from the start. Author Solutions didn’t even get a mention in their press release about their new author services. Could they have been unaware of the class action that has been running against AuthorSolutions since 2013? An unforgiveable lack of due diligence if they were.

No doubt Barnes & Noble have been feeling the pinch, but scamming the authors who are the foundation of their business is not the way forward.