Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts

Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday book review - The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes


I do love Marian Keyes’s books. Her latest, The Mystery of Mercy Close, proves yet again that Keyes is in a league of her own. Even when she’s writing about hard-hitting subjects like depression and bankruptcy, as she is here, she’s perceptive and funny, moving and wise.

The novel’s heroine is Helen Walsh, the youngest and stroppiest of Mammy Walsh’s five daughters. Older sisters Claire, Rachel, Maggie and Anna have all starred in earlier Keyes novels, so this time round it’s Helen’s turn in the spotlight.

After spells as a make-up artist and the “world’s worst waitress,” Helen has now trained as a private investigator and set up her own business. But with the credit crunch at its height, her work has dried up, her flat has been repossessed and she’s had to move back in with her parents. Most worrying of all, she’s sinking into the depression that has plagued her on and off throughout her life.

Helen explains her situation in her own inimitable way: “…when the crash hit, I was one of the first things to go,” she says. “Private investigators are luxury items and the It bags and I came out of things very badly.”

But out of the blue her conman ex-boyfriend asks her to track down a missing musician. Wayne Diffney, the “wacky one” from boyband Laddz, has gone missing just five days before the group’s sell-out comeback show.

Helen isn’t keen on getting involved with her shady ex-lover a second time, especially as she’s got charismatic copper Artie Devlin in her life, but she reluctantly agrees.

The sharp-tongued Helen, with her “shovel list” of things she hates - dogs, doctors’ receptionists and the smell of fried eggs (I’m with her there) - and her love of Scandinavian box sets and cheese and coleslaw sandwiches, is one of Keyes’s most memorable creations. I hope she gets to star in another novel. And soon…

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph, £18.99)

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Who will win the Man Booker Prize 2012?


One thing struck me as I watched the 2012 Man Booker Prize readings at the wonderful Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford last night.

If the prize was judged on the best reading alone, then gravelly-voiced Will Self would win hands down for his shortlisted book, Umbrella. And I reckon he’d be closely followed by Indian performance poet Jeet Thayil.

The readings took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall but were also beamed live to 36 cinemas across the country – and I’d snapped up a ticket the moment they went on sale.

The evening, chaired by the redoubtable James Naughtie, was a treat. The six contenders on the 2012 shortlist sat patiently in sleek, black leather armchairs, awaiting their turn to read short extracts from their novels and then be quizzed by Naughtie.

Like most book reviewers, my track record at choosing winners of literary prizes is patchy to say the least.

After reading the six novels, my favourite is definitely Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. No question. The sequel to Wolf Hall (winner of the Man Booker in 2009), it continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, in the heady months leading up to Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536. As I wrote in my Daily Express review last week, it’s an “outstanding” novel – a book that really will stand the test of time.

I loved Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse too – and they must stand an outside chance. Tan Twan Eng’s novel is the story of the sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and her determination to create a garden in memory of her dead sister while Moore relates how a newly-separated man sets out on a solo walking holiday in Germany.

The other books battling it out for the prize are Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.

But back to Will Self. Umbrella is his ninth novel and has completely divided critics. A 400-page book without chapters and barely any paragraph breaks at all, it spans nearly a century and tells the story of a young munitions worker wrongly admitted to a mental hospital after the First World War. It’s the most difficult book on the shortlist and even the judges have called it “moving, but draining.”

I much prefer Mantel’s novel (and loved her description of writing as “you sit down every morning and don’t know where your craft will carry you by the end of that day”) but hearing Will Self read the first pages of Umbrella last night was a revelation. A gaunt figure in a bright pink shirt, tweed jacket and jeans, he told the audience that “everything is too easy in this society” and that when he finished writing Umbrella he thought he had “really blown it this time.” He said that it’s important to him as a writer to be “sonorous” and that being read aloud to as a child was “tremendously important to me.” It shows. Read aloud, Umbrella was utterly brilliant.

The judges of the 2012 Man Booker – chair Peter Stothard, historian Amanda Foreman, Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens and critics Dinah Birch and Bharat Tandon – met this afternoon to decide the winner. All will be revealed at a dinner at London’s Guildhall tonight...

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Download School Ties for free today


Will Hughes slammed his pen down in frustration. It was ten fifteen on a rainy September night and he’d been marking Hamlet essays for more than an hour. And what a bloody shambles they were too. Admittedly he was teaching the bottom set, but he was stunned by the quality of the teenagers’ work. Some could barely string a sentence together, let alone use an apostrophe properly. Only one had produced work that showed any understanding of Shakespeare’s most famous play. 

Trying hard to stay awake, he took a gulp of cold instant coffee. He was less than halfway through the pile of scripts and at this rate he’d be hard-pressed to finish them by midnight. Worse still, he’d promised to take the first fifteen rugby squad on a training run at dawn.

For the umpteenth time, Will wondered why he had returned to teaching. He’d left his last school a year ago to join an up-and-coming Shoreditch advertising agency. Yet now he’d had another change of heart and given up his skinny lattes and generous expense account to return to the chalkface.

Not that Downthorpe Hall was a tough place to work. It wasn’t. Compared to the early years of Will’s career, when he’d been a young English teacher at a tough inner-city comprehensive, Downthorpe was the cushiest number imaginable. A private school dating back two hundred years, it was housed in an elegant Cotswold mansion, complete with castellated turrets, a winding two-mile drive and acres of playing fields. It had once been an all-boys school, but had gone co-ed twenty years ago. The decision was deplored by the old guard but had succeeded in giving the school’s academic results a much-needed shot in the arm.

Will stretched his arms out wide to keep himself awake, then stopped. He could have sworn he heard a loud whirring noise outside the window. It sounded like a helicopter. But that was impossible. Not at this time of night. And not so close to the school.

These are the opening paragraphs of my latest ebook, School Ties. If you’d like to read more, you can download the novella for free on Amazon today. Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

JK Rowling at the Cheltenham Literature Festival


There can’t be many writers capable of filling the cavern-like auditorium at Cheltenham Racecourse – but JK Rowling is one of them.

All 2,000 seats for the Cheltenham Literature Festival event at the weekend had been snapped up in a trice, with people travelling from all over the world to hear their heroine speak. When interviewer James Runcie threw the session open to questions at the end several tearful young fans stood up and said “I love you,” while one woman told her: “I hope you know how many lives you have touched.” “Don’t make me cry,” said Rowling, clearly moved by her words.

Rowling was ostensibly there to promote The Casual Vacancy, her  first novel for adults, but she proved generous with her time and her willingness to answer questions about everything from her favourite The Casual Vacancy character (Fats) to her favourite overall character (Dumbledore).

A tiny, blonde figure in a chic, black jacket, matching trousers and high heels, she rushed to the side of the stage to accept a letter from one awestruck young girl, crouched down to talk to her for a couple of minutes and gave her a hug.

Along the way she revealed that the next book she publishes will be for children, that Lucy Shepherd, the teacher who taught her A level English, was in the audience that night and that taking part in the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was the “proudest moment” of her life.

“I was terrified, absolutely terrified,” she said. “Walking out on to the hillock at the Olympic ceremony was extraordinary. I think I will see it on my deathbed. It was breathtaking and I felt extraordinarily proud to be in it.

“When the huge Voldemort grew up out of the middle of the stage my entire body went cold and I thought ‘how the hell did this happen?’”

Asked about books she read as a teenager she mentioned Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, while she revealed that the character from children’s literature she most adored was Jo March from Little Women. One book she’d read recently and loved was the Orange prizewinning The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Asked which of her own books was her favourite she confessed to a three-way split. “I love The Casual Vacancy – it’s what I wanted it to be.” Her favourite Harry Potter title is Deathly Hallows and “then for obvious reasons, Philosopher’s Stone – which changed my life.”

She said she made up stories for her own children but “they are very much tailored to my children. I don’t think they will be appearing in book form.”

At one point she also spoke about her own battle with depression. James Runcie, who described The Casual Vacancy as “Hardy with heroin,” asked her if she would ever write a comedy.

“I think this book is comic in places but the humour gets a little dark,” she replied. “I do have a tendency to walk on the dark side sometimes. I have suffered from depression. I know how that feels and I probably have an innate inclination that way. Writing is necessary to me and does help with that.”

At the end of the evening the queue for JK Rowling to sign copies of The Casual Vacancy stretched down the stairs and right round the building. She’d agreed to sign one book per ticket holder and people stood patiently, clutching their copies of the book and waiting their turn. Goodness knows what time they all got home.


Monday, 8 October 2012

Interview with Liz Harris - author of The Road Back


If you’re looking for a compelling story set in Ladakh, a remote region north of the Himalayas, then Liz Harris’s debut novel is just the book. The Road Back is the story of Patricia, who accompanies her father to Ladakh in the early Sixties. There she meets Kalden, a man destined to be a monk - but how can their forbidden love survive?
Dynamic ex-teacher Liz is a great friend of mine and agreed to be interviewed about the path to publication. Liz will also be giving a talk at Thame Library in Thame, Oxfordshire, on Friday October 12 at 1pm. Find out more here.
Did you write as a child and did you always want to write novels?

Liz: I don’t know that I wanted to write novels, but I loved writing essays, letters, anything I was given to write. I think it was some time before I connected the books that I adored reading with the process of writing. As a child, I rather assumed that books just happened. If only!

You were a teacher before becoming a novelist. What did you teach and did your years in schools help your writing in any way?

Liz: I taught secondary school English and French. If you approach me speaking fluent French next time we meet though, I should warn you that I feel a lengthy bout of laryngitis coming on. I think those teaching years did help me.  Apart from studying texts in the way that you have to do when teaching A level English, which gives a great awareness of what can be done with language and of the importance of the relationship between character to plot, a school is a microcosm of the larger world. It is a hotbed of seething emotions - although perhaps not quite as seething as Waterloo Road

Your first novel, The Road Back, is just out. Can you tell me about the road to publication and how you got a publishing deal?

Liz: For the seven years prior to being accepted for publication, I kept on writing. I’d send a novel out, feel bereft and instantly start on another. I’d also send my novels for a critique. I believe that every novel needs independent eyes to help the author to see clearly what needs work. A published author has an agent/editor to be those independent eyes; not so an unpublished author, as I then was. I love writing, and I never thought of giving up for so much as one moment.

What gave you the idea for The Road Back?

Liz: Three years ago, my cousin, who now lives in Australia, appealed for help in finding a home for an album of notes and photos compiled by my late uncle after a trip he’d made to Ladakh in the 1940s, when stationed with the army in North India. No one in Australia was interested. The ink was fading fast and she was anxious to see it preserved. The album is now in the Indian Room of the British Library. It was brought to England by friends of my cousin. When I collected it from them, I held on to it for two weeks, read it and instantly fell in love with Ladakh. I knew that I had to set a novel there and I began to research its tradition, culture and geography.

How did you go about researching the novel? Did you visit Ladakh, the area where it is set?

Liz: Visiting the place where a novel is set is the ideal, and that’s what I’ve been able to do with my next novel.  I went to Wyoming, where it’s set, in August.

But Ladakh is at a very high altitude and I have very low blood pressure. I would have been susceptible to altitude sickness, and I was advised not to go there. However, since the gates of tourism were opened in 1974, Ladakh has become a mecca for trekking tourists, and thanks to the internet, YouTube and some excellent books on Ladakh, I was able to go there with them. I can close my eyes and see Kalden’s village, see the monastery suspended above the white houses below, and the distant mountains, just as well as if I’d been there.

How and where do you write? Do you shut yourself away from your family? Do you spend a certain number of hours writing or do you set yourself a daily word count?

Liz: In my pre-publication days, I’d come down, have my breakfast whilst catching up with my emails, then I’d write all day.  Whilst I can write anywhere, I prefer to be in my study. My husband, as practical as I’m impractical, would busy himself in the house until the evening. A blissful arrangement.

Post-publication, things have changed. It’s much harder now to find a concentrated period of time in which to write as there are so many other calls on one’s time. When I start work on my next book, which will be soon, I shall probably give myself a couple of days in the week when I don’t switch on the internet.

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Liz: Don’t worry about getting published: just write. Write what is crying out in you to be written, and don’t worry about anything else. In the end, it’s a matter of luck whether an author gets published. Hopefully, everyone will be as lucky as I’ve been, but giving birth to people who didn’t exist before you put finger to keyboard, people with emotions, who live and breathe in a world that didn’t exist before you created it – that is the real thrill. Getting published is only the icing on the (chocolate) cake.

What is your own favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Liz: I’m going to be so corny now – I adore Pride & Prejudice. I love all of Jane Austen’s novels, though Northanger Abbey less than some – and I re-read them most years. I particularly love the way in which she lets her characters condemn themselves. She doesn’t take on a narrative voice – she lets the characters speak, and through their words we see their foibles. This is a rare art. But who initially stimulated my imagination as a child? The answer is Enid Blyton. I loved her school stories and the adventure stories. The Famous Five were six when I read the novels, and I led the way with a torch!

I know you’re an avid theatre-goer in your spare time. I can’t resist asking you about the best drama production you have seen this year. And what are you seeing next?

Liz: I’m going to see the drama about a family, Jumpy at The Duke of York’s. I missed it the first time it was on in London as it was instantly sold out, but I was at the head of the queue when it returned this year, again with Tamsin Greig, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The best drama production I saw last year may well be something most people won’t have heard of. It was Witness, an absolutely spell-binding production of a story of great emotional intensity. 

The Road Back by Liz Harris (Choc Lit, £7.99)

Saturday, 29 September 2012

JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy - the verdict


In an interview with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead last weekend, JK Rowling said: “I just needed to write this book. I like it a lot, I’m proud of it, and that counts for me.”

Well, I think she’s right to be proud of The Casual Vacancy, and I said as much when I reviewed it for the Daily Express this week. Even though Rowling’s first book for adults features “teenage sex, drug addiction, swearing and scenes that would make Harry Potter blush,” I called it “a highly readable morality tale for our times.”

The book’s been out for two days now and everyone I know is desperate to read it. My husband’s visiting my daughter in Paris this weekend and the first thing she asked him to bring from the UK was a prized copy of The Casual Vacancy. “I’m going to stay in all weekend and read it,” she said happily. “I can’t wait.” Her excitement took me back to the old days, when we used to drive to the old Borders shop in Oxford and queue at midnight for each newly published Harry Potter story.

I’ve been stunned by the vitriol that JK Rowling has attracted in some quarters this week. The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani judged her book to be “willfully banal” and “depressingly clichéd” and said it read like “an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like Peyton Place.” And writing in the Daily Mail, Jan Moir acidly declared that it was “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.”

I completely disagree with both of them. The Casual Vacancy isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a gripping story. I read it in one go, barely glancing up to make a cup of tea or switch the lights on as dusk fell. Yes, the themes are dark, most of the characters are unlikeable and Rowling’s style is workmanlike rather than literary, but she is a brilliant storyteller. There was no way in a million years that I could have stopped reading this book. In my newspaper review I gave it four out of five stars and I stand by every word.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

School Ties - a new novella set in a school


Downthorpe Hall is a posh boarding school in the wilds of the Oxfordshire countryside.

Fresh from working in an inner-city comprehensive, Will Hughes has just been appointed as the new head. He knows there will be a host of challenges ahead. Tricky parents, rebellious teenagers and teachers who will fight his attempts to reform the school.

He doesn't expect a battle for his heart.

But when he meets two women - the fiercely ambitious deputy head and a brilliantly smart science teacher - Will realises that the ties at Downthorpe are not just the kind you wear around your neck.

What follows is a tangle of competing ambitions and desires that leave Will bemused - and could force him to choose between the job he has always wanted and the woman of his dreams.

That’s the blurb for my new novella School Ties, a romantic e-book set in a school.

From Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers to Jilly Cooper’s Wicked!, I’ve always thought boarding schools provide brilliant settings for novels. So when Endeavour Press asked me to write one, I jumped at the chance. It’s out this month and I’d love to know what you think…

School Ties by Emma Lee-Potter (Endeavour Press, £1.99)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Interview with Eowyn Ivey - author of The Snow Child


“…a touching and truly exceptional portrayal of heartbreak and hope.” Those were my words in March, after I'd read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child for the first time. Six months on, Eowyn’s debut novel is still one of the most memorable books I’ve read all year. It’s out in paperback in the UK today - and I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview her about it.

I understand you were named after a character in The Lord of the Rings. Did you read JRR Tolkein’s books as a child and what did you think of them?

Eowyn: I have to confess, I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. I tried several times when I was younger. After a chapter or two, I would lose interest, skip ahead until I found my name in the text and then put it down. Somehow I could never get past all the complexities of the world and battles. However, I did read The Hobbit when I was a child, and have read it several times since. It’s one of my favourite stories. I love the characters and the simplicity of the quest. It’s very endearing.

Did you enjoy writing as a child? And if so, what did you write?

Eowyn: I read a lot when I was a little girl. And occasionally I would get in a certain mood, often on a rainy, boring day, or when I was feeling thoughtful and melancholy, and I would write stories. I once wrote a story about a planet inhabited by talking cats, and another about a little boy who disappears into the reflection in a puddle. In high school, English literature and writing classes were my favourites and I realised I wanted to find a way to earn a living with words. But never did I imagine I would someday have a career as a novelist.

You have worked as a journalist and a bookseller. What impact did these jobs have on you as a writer?

Eowyn: I would like to think they helped shape me both as a reader and a writer. As a newspaper journalist, I often wrote 10 or 12 articles in a week. I strove for clarity and conciseness and making each word do as much work as possible. I worked with editors and did a lot of editing myself, which is tremendously useful in learning the basics of the English language. But the downside is that the job was demanding, and I had no energy or time for writing fiction. My work at Fireside Books has been the opposite – it’s a source of inspiration and creative rejuvenation. I’m surrounded by books and ideas and people who love both. As a bookseller, I’m constantly discovering new books and authors and seeing how people have broken the very rules I spent years learning as a journalist.

Could you tell me about how and where you found the inspiration for The Snow Child. Was the book straightforward to write and how long did it take you?

This is a perfect example of how Fireside Books has been quite literally a source for my inspiration. Several years ago I was working an evening shift when I discovered a little paperback children’s book that retold the Snegurochka fairy tale. I had never come across the story before, and I quickly read it standing there among the shelves. It was an incredible experience – I just knew this was the storyline I had been seeking. For nearly five years I had been working on a different novel, and I abandoned it to begin The Snow Child. In less than a year, I had a first draft. I felt inspired in a way I had never been before as a writer. As quickly as it came, though, I never knew exactly where the story was going until I wrote it.

The Alaskan landscape is beautifully portrayed in The Snow Child. What are the main characteristics of Alaska that you wanted to convey in the book?

Eowyn: I think like a lot of extreme locations, Alaska has become somewhat mythologised and romanticised. But what I love about this place is its complexity and contradictions, and that’s what I hoped to bring to the page. The northern wilderness is both awesome and delicate, beautiful and frightening.
The winter is so hard for Jack and Mabel, the two main characters. When you were growing up did you experience a similar sense of isolation during the winter months?

Eowyn: That was one aspect of writing The Snow Child that I really enjoyed as a writer – the challenge of seeing Alaska through eyes so different than my own. I have always loved the extremes here, the wind and snow and dark of winter, the lush green and midnight sun of the summer. And there is a sense of loneliness and isolation, but for me that has always made the camaraderie of neighbours and friends somehow all the sweeter. As a child, I found it exciting, and I still do. But I have always wondered what it would be like to come here for the first time as an adult and to not immediately love it. That’s what I had to imagine as I told Jack and Mabel’s story.

Do you live in a remote part of Alaska now and is it in any way similar to Jack and Mabel’s homestead?

Eowyn: Like a lot of Alaskans, we straddle two worlds. We live along the road system, so can drive easily to Anchorage and all its urban opportunities. We live near a small town, where we work, shop for groceries, go to the movies. But our home is in a relatively rural area, and we share some similarities with Jack and Mabel – we hunt moose, caribou and bear for meat, raise a vegetable garden and chickens, fill our freezer with salmon and heat our home with a wood-burning stove. There is an independent spirit here, and a lot of us strive for a certain amount of self-sufficiency.

Where do you write now?

Eowyn: Wherever I can find a quiet spot in my home. Right now I’m at a little sewing table in my bedroom where I can look out our back window toward Castle Mountain. Usually I am easily irritated and distracted by noises, like my daughters arguing or my husband talking on the telephone, so I’ll sometimes even put in earplugs. Then, once I’m particularly engaged with a project, I can write standing at our kitchen counter with the radio blaring, the phone ringing, and everyone talking at once and it doesn’t faze me.

Are you working on your second novel? Is it set in Alaska and can you give any hints as to what it is about?

Eowyn: Thank you for asking! I am working on another novel, although it is still early in the process. It will share some similarities with The Snow Child – set in historical Alaska with some mythological, magical elements. But I also want to continue to stretch my wings as a writer, to break some of those rules I learned, and try something new. I’m having a lot of fun.

Thank you so much to Eowyn for a fascinating and illuminating interview - and to Sam Eades at Headline for organising it. And for those of you about to read The Snow Child, trust me, you are in for a treat.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review, £7.99)

Friday, 10 August 2012

Friday Book Review - Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham began his career as a stand-up comedian. But these days he writes crime novels and reckons the two occupations have a lot in common. “As a comedian you walk out on stage and you have a minute to hook them or they’ll start booing,” he said in a recent interview. “As a writer it’s very similar. A reader doesn’t have time to say ‘I’ll give him 50 pages as it’s not very good yet, but I hope it’ll get better.”

Billingham has built up a huge following for his addictive crime novels starring Detective Inspective Tom Thorne. And deservedly so. But he writes standalone stories too, like Rush of Blood, his latest.

Rush of Blood is the chilling account of three couples who meet on holiday in Florida and, even though they don’t have much in common, become friends. Then, on the last night of the trip, the teenage daughter of a fellow holidaymaker goes missing.

The couples return home in shock but make an effort to meet over the coming months, each pair hosting a dinner party in turn. As they get to know each other better, dark secrets and ugly obsessions emerge – especially after the young girl’s body is found and all six become murder suspects.

This is a compelling story that kept me on the edge of my seat till the very last page. If you like pacy, well written crime fiction, you’ll love this.

Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown, £16.99)

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Charlotte Dujardin - from stable girl to Olympic champion

When I wrote Olympic Flames, my London 2012 inspired novella, earlier this year, I had never heard of Charlotte Dujardin.

Charlotte is the prodigiously talented young dressage rider who along with team mates Carl Hester and Laura Bechtolsheimer scooped the Olympic gold medal this week. It's the first time Britain has won the team dressage event since it became an Olympic sport 100 years ago.

Today everyone’s keeping their fingers tightly crossed that Charlotte clinches a second Olympic gold by winning the individual dressage competition.

But one of the most inspiring things about 27 year old Charlotte is that she worked her way up from stable hand to Olympic champion in just five years. Unlike many other equestrian stars, she doesn’t come from a privileged background and her family had to scrimp and save to help her make it. A keen rider, she left her comprehensive school at 16 and at 20 began working as a stable girl for her now team mate Carl Hester. He spotted her talent immediately and let her ride his new horse Valegro – the horse that has taken her to Olympic glory.

It’s a fantastic story - and testament to Charlotte’s talent and determination. But I was extra-thrilled because when I came up with the idea for Olympic Flames I was adamant that my heroine wasn’t going to be someone born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Unlike Charlotte, the star of my book, Mimi Carter, is a show jumper, not a dressage rider. But like Charlotte, she doesn’t come from a wealthy background. Mimi left school at 16, got a job as a stable girl and eventually won a place in the British show jumping team.

As I became immersed in my story I wasn’t sure how feasible Mimi’s rise from humble stable girl to Olympic star would be.

Now, having seen Charlotte Dujardin in action at Greenwich Park this week, I know that it is really is. Go Charlotte!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Louise Mensch steps down

The news that Conservative MP Louise Mensch is stepping down from her parliamentary seat will reignite the “can women have it all?” debate.

I’ve long thought that the answer is probably “no,” and I reckon that Mensch, the mother of three young children, has decided the same.

A hugely successful chick-lit author before winning the Corby and East Northamptonshire seat for the Tories in 2010, Mensch has had to juggle her family life, parliamentary work (including a prominent role on the Commons Culture Committee inquiry into phone hacking) and marriage to her second husband. He’s the New York-based manager of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so Mensch has spent much of her time jetting back and forth across the Atlantic to see him.

In her letter of resignation to PM David Cameron she wrote: “As you know, I have been struggling for some time to find the best outcome for my family life, and have decided, in order to keep us together, to move to New York. With the greatest regret, I am thus resigning as a Member of Parliament.

‘It is only through your personal intervention, delivered quietly and without fanfare, that I have been able to manage my duties for this long. Your allowing me to work in Corby and East Northamptonshire each Thursday and Friday has enabled me to do weekly surgeries while Parliament has been in session, and to visit many more people and places in our local area, whilst still spending time with my children. Unfortunately, it has not proved to be enough. I have been unable to make the balancing act work for our family.”

It sounds as though David Cameron did all he could to make Mensch’s juggling act possible, but most women don’t have such helpful bosses. And in the end, she found that even that wasn’t enough. She simply couldn’t have it all.

When I look around at my contemporaries the most successful women either don’t have children, have wall to wall childcare or stay at home partners.

As a lifelong feminist I hate saying this, but we still haven’t found the answer to how women can combine the best of both worlds. In lots of ways Mensch is lucky because she’s talented, feisty and has a successful second career. I’m sure that once she gets to New York she’ll write another cracking bestseller – and maybe even get snapped up by a US TV station. One thing’s for sure. We definitely haven’t heard the last of Louise Mensch.


PS. We arrived back from the sun-baked south of France (above) to encounter grey skies and torrential rain. How can this be August? 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

How self published author Nick Spalding became an Amazon bestseller


“Kindles and eBooks are changing the landscape of publishing. You can reach an audience and create a buzz online. I think publishers are still important in terms of editing, marketing and getting into bookshops, but self publishing can be another route to that.”

Those were the astute words of crime writer Stephanie Merritt (aka SJ Parris, author of detective novels like Heresy and Prophecy) at a recent Red magazine event on how to write a crime novel.

And she’s clearly right. Her views are borne out by the news from Amazon.co.uk this week that a self published novel by UK author Nick Spalding has become one of its ten bestselling items over the last three months.

Southampton-based Spalding has published a string of “comedies with adult humour” through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). So far he’s sold 245,000 copies of his books and earned up to 70 per cent in royalties from his sales.

Spalding’s Love… From Both Sides is currently riding high in the top 25 Kindle bestsellers list while two of his other books, Love… And Sleepless Nights and Life… With No Breaks, are in the top 100.

As Spalding says: “KDP is a fantastic opportunity for writers to get their work into the hands of the people that actually count – the readers. It's never been easier to publish an ebook thanks to Amazon's progressive and forward thinking attitude. They've given many more writers a voice - writers who would otherwise have remained silent. I can't thank them enough for providing me with the means to become as popular as I am.”

Not surprisingly, Gordon Willoughby, director of Kindle EU, is delighted.

“Nick Spalding joins international bestsellers such as EL James and Suzanne Collins in our top ten bestsellers of the last quarter at Amazon.co.uk,” he says. “That’s a fantastic achievement for a KDP author. KDP enables independent authors to compete on a level playing field with the giants of the literary world and we’re excited to see it succeeding for both readers and authors.”

Nick Spalding follows in the footsteps of Kerry Wilkinson, a debut novelist from Lancashire who was the number one selling author in Amazon.co.uk’s Kindle store during the last quarter of 2011. Wilkinson didn't have an agent or publicist - just the determination to write the very best book he could. And it worked a treat.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

BritMums Live - The Path to Getting Published

If you’ve been reading House With No Name for a while, you’ll know that I’m a writing workshop addict. Hearing other writers speak about their work and picking up advice and guidance along the way is one of my favourite pastimes.

So yesterday I jumped at the chance to hear five bloggers present a workshop entitled The Path to Getting Published – Bloggers Who Have Done It. The session was part of BritMums Live, a massive two-day event in London attended by 500 bloggers that I’ll be writing about soon.

The publishing workshop was chaired by US-based writer Toni Hargis, author of the Expat Mum blog, and as she astutely said at the start “there is no right way to publish - but the one thing you do need is a product.”

First up was writer Kate Morris, author of three novels, including Seven Days One Summer. It was fascinating to meet Kate at last because we once wrote a pair of blogs called Country Wife and City Wife for Easy Living magazine. Even though it felt like we know each other well we’d never actually met in person before. 

Kate admitted that writing a novel is “a long, lonely journey and a scary process,” and advised budding novelists to make sure they send out “a very polished product that’s as tight and compelling as possible.” Rather than submitting a book too soon, she reckons it’s a good idea to ask people you trust to read your work and give an objective view. They could be close friends or fellow writers or members of a writing group, but make sure they give “constructive and truthful criticism” and then take on board “what resonates with you.”

Next came the dynamic Emily Carlisle, who writes the ultra-successful More Than Just a Mother blog. She said she felt like “a complete fraud” because she hasn’t had a book published yet, but thanks to the success of her blog she has been approached by three agents who love her work. She's now signed up with one of them and is working on a novel.

“All three told me that having an online presence and a solid platform is absolutely crucial,” said Emily. “It means you have a group of readers who are coming back for more and it means you are marketable.”

She also came up with a list of five tips for bloggers who want to write books: 
  1. Keep your blog fresh, original and professional.
  2. Make sure you have an About Me section on your page (so agents and publishers can find out more about you).
  3. Make sure your contact details are on there.
  4. Include a page about your writing aspirations. Agents want to know you are in "for the long haul.”
  5. If you have done interviews for radio or TV, then put them on your blog. It shows that you can hold your own in conversation and that you are marketable.

Meanwhile American agent Erin Niumata, senior vice president at Folio Literary Management, added some practical advice on submitting work to agents. She advised writers to send a query letter, a synopsis of three to five pages (including the ending) and the first three chapters or 50 pages. “Send them something they can actually read,” she quipped. “And don’t put glitter inside, don’t send gifts and don’t call to follow up. Don’t do any of that.”

Erin pointed out that agents frequently look at blogs – “we are out there, lurking in the dark, looking at you,” she said. “The bigger your platform, the better. So be clever, be smart and write something that is original.”

Last, but not least, came writer Cari Rosen, a former TV producer whose first book was published last year. The Secret Diary of a New Mum (Aged 43 ¾) is the story of “one woman, one baby, a slipped disc and rather too many wrinkles,” and as Cari explained, she wrote it in five months, sitting on the sofa in her pyjamas with a bag of M&Ms. The TV rights have now been sold in the US, so watch this space...

Monday, 11 June 2012

Interview with Kate Lace - author of Cox


The writer Kate Lace (aka Catherine Jones) is a great friend of mine. We met years ago at a drinks party thrown by Piatkus Books (who’d just published our first novels). We talked 19 to the dozen all evening, and 15 years later, we do exactly the same every time we meet.


Kate has now written 14 novels (including The Chalet Girl and Gypsy Wedding) and two non-fiction books. She’s a former chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, a quiz supremo and the best company I know. Her latest book, Cox, is a scintillating summer read about two rival rowers and is out on July 5 (review coming next month). The book promises “hot men in Lycra, thrilling races and plenty of steamy sex” – and yes, it delivers all three in classic Kate Lace style.

Kate kindly agreed to talk to House With No Name about writing, her favourite books and Cox.

Did you write as a child and did you always want to write novels?

Kate: Absolutely not! Never had any idea I could write and thought all creative writing at school was intensely boring and pointless. I did keep an excruciatingly awful teenage diary, which thankfully got lost in a house move.



You were a captain in the army before becoming a novelist. Did your army training give you the discipline to write?

Kate: I don’t know about the army giving me discipline but it gave me a huge fund of experiences and stories. I lived in loads of different places, including Cyprus and Germany and I learned how to do a bunch of weird and wonderful things from firing a heavy artillery piece to flying gliders. But I’ve always been quite self-disciplined. I was a terrible swot at school so parking my bum on a chair and just doing the work is something I’ve always be able to do.



Your first novel, Army Wives, was published in 1998. Can you tell me about the road to publication?

Kate: Actually, Army Wives was my third book although it was my first novel. I co-wrote my first book, about being a career officer’s wife, with a fellow army wife. For a self-published book, before the days of viral-marketing, Kindle and the internet, it did extraordinarily well. My co-author and I then co-edited a book all about getting on in other professions. It was all going terribly well but then the army posted her husband to Alabama and mine to Northern Ireland, and that was the end of that. So I decided to write a novel about army wives. It took me over a year to write and almost another two to find a publisher, but in this industry, luck plays an awfully big part. My book just happened to land up with an independent publisher starting a new mass-market paperback line. Right desk, right day, right book. 



Your new book, Cox, is a brilliant portrayal of the rowing world. How did you go about researching the novel?

Kate: Again, luck played a huge role. I’m friends with a family whose son rowed for Cambridge and I also happened to know a whole heap of army rowers. And even luckier, one guy used to cox for the army eight and is now a rowing coach. Between them they managed to straighten me out about the wonderful world of rowing. I expect I’ve still managed to get stuff wrong – but if I have, it wasn’t their fault



Cox has got a racy title and an even racier cover. What reaction have you had so far?
 

Kate: My mother is scandalised. (Wait till she reads it!) Almost everyone else thinks the whole thing is a hoot and most of my female friends seem to spend a rather long time staring at the cover model. I can’t imagine why. But I think I am sensationally lucky to have such a fab cover. I absolutely adore it.

How and where do you write?

Kate: It depends how hard I’m finding the writing. On days when it isn’t going well, the gardening beckons, the ironing pile looks inviting, I’ll even resort to housework. But on really good days I start at about nine and work through to five quite easily with just the odd pitstop for food, tea, emails and Twitter. When I have a deadline I try to do a minimum of at least 1,000 words a day and hope to achieve 1,500. My writing space is a revoltingly messy study – it’s total chaos – but I look out of a big window on to the front garden so I can see what’s going on. Now the kids are grown up I’m quite often alone in the house, which is bliss. When I started my first novel, I was having to move house six times in five years, with three children under five.  Life is much calmer these days.

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right  now? 

Kate: Yes, write it, put it in a drawer for several months, leave it completely alone and then read it. All the continuity errors, all those cups of coffee, pointless conversations, boring bits, plot flaws will shout at you.

What is your favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Kate: Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. There are some spooky similarities with my upbringing (mainly a totally barking family background) and it makes me laugh and cry. If I ever get picked for Desert Island Discs, that’s my choice. As for inspirational novelists – I am totally in awe of Jojo Moyes.

Cox by Kate Lace (Arrow, £6.99)
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