Friday, 30 September 2011
The first of my regular Friday book reviews. There'll be a mix of paperbacks and hardbacks, old and new, grown-ups and children's reads - so watch this space every Friday.
Back in the 1980s Bella Pollen was one of Princess Diana’s favourite designers, famed for her sharply-cut jackets in jewel-bright colours.
Then she decided fashion wasn’t for her and switched to writing novels instead. Over the years she’s written about everything from aristocrats to the Arizona desert, but her fifth novel is the compelling story of a family rocked by loss and bereavement during the Cold War.
The Summer of the Bear begins in the summer of 1979, when diplomat Nicky Fleming falls to his death from the roof of the British embassy in Bonn. Struggling to come to terms with her loss and unable to believe whispers that he killed himself after betraying his country, his widow Letty takes their three children back to the desolate Hebridean island where she grew up.
But as Letty seeks to unravel the secrets behind Nicky’s death she’s oblivious to her children’s anguish. At one point she observes that they don’t seem like a family any more – “more like a collection of damaged souls.”
Pollen is brilliant at portraying the bewilderment of the Fleming children. First they have to cope with losing their father, then they’re uprooted to a windswept isle where locals serve up a delicacy of seaweed and boiled milk (ugh) and electricity is considered “a mysterious foreign game recently adopted as the island’s national sport.”
Bookish 17-year-old Georgie is preoccupied with trying to uncover the truth behind her father’s puzzling last trip to East Berlin while her younger sister Alba has become a prickly 14-year-old who’s shockingly spiteful to her siblings.
But it’s eight-year-old Jamie who’s the emotional heart of the book. An adorable little boy who takes everything literally, he believes the father he worshipped is “lost,” not dead, and will eventually return. On the day he died his father had promised to take him to the circus so when a tame grizzly bear escapes from his wrestler owner on the island, Jamie is inextricably drawn to the beast – with calamitous results.
The novel shifts back and forth between East and West Germany and the Outer Hebrides, where Pollen spent her childhood summers. Narrated by each character in turn, including the bear himself, it’s a gentle, haunting tale and highly recommended.
The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (Pan, £7.99)
PS: I’ve just got back from a great talk by Bella Pollen and Kay Burley at the Henley Literary Festival so will blog all about it soon.
Thursday, 29 September 2011
Six weeks after leaving the House With No Name in friends' capable hands, I’m pining for my tumbledown farmhouse in the middle of rural France.
I’m worried about the fate of the loir, the sweet-looking dormouse that kept us awake scratching in the attic all night. Will it have outwitted Monsieur Noel, the charming pest man, or will it have departed this world once and for all? I’m anxious that our neighbours might have taken offence because I dropped a canapé they gave me in a plant pot when they weren’t looking and I'm fretting that the dodgy roof of the adjoining barn might have collapsed.
But most of all I’m missing the way of life in the Drôme, the unspoiled region between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps I fell in love with six years ago. It isn’t half as famous as Provence, its southern neighbour, but the countryside is far greener and more lush, with majestic crags and limestone cliffs that tower over the landscape.
If I was there now I'd be looking forward to the bustling Friday morning market at Dieulefit, where we buy freshly-baked bread, fruit and vegetables. The name Dieulefit comes from the saying Dieu l’a fait (God made it) and the area's known for its clean air and artistic connections. Artists and ceramicists flock to sell their work at the market – from pretty watercolours to hand-thrown plates the Conran Shop would give its eye-teeth for.
My other favourite places are the village of Saou (above), with its shady square and restaurant under the trees, and the ski resort of Col de Rousset. Not because I like skiing, mind you, but because in the summer months you can take the chairlift to the top, hire mini-scooters and helmets and whiz down the mountainside. Typically, my daredevil teenage son loves zooming down the red run at breakneck speed so much that he does it four times on the trot.
Then there are the villages perchés, the tiny hilltop villages perched high above the surrounding countryside. Le Poët-Laval, where an order of 12th Century knights kept watch from their fortified keep, is one of the most beautiful. After climbing to the top to admire the view across sunlit fields of lavender we stop for tea and homemade lemon cake at La Bouquinnerie, the charming café and second-hand bookshop halfway down.
I need to go back...
PS: If you would like to subscribe to House With No Name and have the blog wirelessly delivered to your Kindle, it's now available here.
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
The news that children are being taught how to be happy made me unutterably depressed. Lots of schools across the country (Wellington College in Berkshire for one) are already giving happiness lessons – to help pupils banish pessimistic thoughts and cope with whatever life throws at them.
I know the summer's nearly over (apart from the current mini heatwave) and the economy's a mess – but surely things aren’t so dire that we need happiness lessons? At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, the little girl in the children’s story who melted the heart of her embittered old aunt by finding a silver lining in every cloud, I’ve come up with a list of five things that have made me smile recently:
1. My daughter’s face when the publicists at Lauren Kate’s book launch asked her to pose with two bare-chested waiters wearing bow-ties and wings.
2. My son’s face when I promised to take him biking again in Gloucestershire at the weekend. The downside is that while he leaps off sky-high ramps, I’ll sit in the car and try not to look.
3. Nails Inc's divine Porchester Square nail polish. It's a sort of beigy grey and makes even my nails look good. Which after a lifetime of typing is quite a feat.
4. The prospect of reading The Affair, Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher book. It’s out tomorrow (Thursday September 29) and I can’t wait... By the way, can you believe that Tom Cruise is going to be playing the maverick ex-army cop in One Shot, the forthcoming movie of the ninth Jack Reacher novel? No, me neither.
5. The news that House With No Name has been nominated for the Cosmo Blog Awards 2011. There’s still time to vote here – and I’d be thrilled if you would. Enter your email address and then select the Lifestyle Blog with Handpicked Media category. Click on House With No Name, then on Vote. Thank you so so much.
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
The party to celebrate the success of Lauren Kate’s mega-selling Fallen series was never going to be just any old Monday night bash. Hosted at Proud in Camden (my teenage daughter says it's one of the coolest clubs in London) – it boasted winged waiters, scarlet petals strewn across the floor and a mannequin adorned in a gothic floor-length black satin gown.
With sales of Fallen, Torment and Passion, the first three books in the series, approaching a million copies in the UK, Australia and New Zealand alone, the mood was upbeat. Lauren Kate, a tall, slender American in a short strapless dress, made the evening even more memorable by reading an extract from the prologue of the fourth and final book, Rapture, which is due out in June next year (2012). Lauren has just finished the first draft and the contents are so top secret that all the guests – bloggers, hacks and publishers alike – were sworn to secrecy.
If you’re one of the few who haven’t discovered the Fallen series yet, they make a refreshing change in a genre dominated by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books. Aimed at teenagers but read by loads of older readers too, the darkly compelling series follows the passionate love story of Luce and her fallen angel boyfriend Daniel back and forth across five thousand years of history.
When I got the chance to talk to Lauren I asked if she’d been surprised by the books’ massive success. “It’s insane,” she smiled. “I’m surprised every day. I really wasn’t expecting it. But pretty quickly after they were published I was getting emails from people all around the world saying how much they were loving the books.”
After her current UK tour, Lauren will fly home to Los Angeles to put the final touches to Rapture. Then in January she will start a brand-new trilogy – again top secret, but which she revealed will have “no angels and no vampires.”
“The first chapter is always hard to do,” she admitted. “But I sit down and write half a chapter a day and don’t worry about it or let myself revise it all until the end.”
Like millions of fans across the world, I can't wait.
STOP PRESS: Random House Children's Books have just announced that an additional new novel set in the world of the Fallen series will be published on February 2 next year (2012), just in time for Valentine's Day. Titled Fallen in Love, it is described as "a riveting collection of four intertwined love stories featuring the Fallen characters that fans have grown to know and love - Miles, Shelby, Roland, Arriane and Luce and Daniel."
Sunday, 25 September 2011
Sport is like Marmite. You either love it or hate it. I won a running race at primary school once and reached the heady heights of the netball team a few times but that’s the extent of my sporting prowess. Until recently, that is. My teenage daughter suddenly decided to join the local gym – run by the council, incidentally, and far better value than a posh one. After a few sessions though, she declared it would be much more fun if we went together. I was horrified and refused point-blank - except that she went on and on about it so much that eventually I gave in.
The gym staff insisted I had an induction session to discuss what I wanted to achieve (their words not mine). “Not that much” was my response. As they explained the minutiae of the treadmill, exercise bike, cross-trainer and other scary-looking machines, I glanced around at the other members, all honed and bronzed and with legs up to their armpits. “I’m worried that I’m going to be the oldest person here,” I told the instructor, who looked about twelve. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said airily. “Our oldest member is eighty-five.”
What to wear was the next problem. I picked out an old T-shirt, some £5 jogging bottoms from Sainsbury’s that I bought for my son years ago and he refused to wear - and a pair of plimsolls that had seen better days. “You look completely ridiculous,” said my daughter. She was so embarrassed to be seen with me that she frogmarched me straight to a sports shop and made me buy some proper trainers. Next she persuaded me to order some chic Sweaty Betty trousers. The only trouble is that the dreadful joggers are far more comfy.
So what have I learned after two weeks of my new keep-fit regime? Mainly that the gym is just as boring as I thought it would be. In fact it is so tedious that I’ve resorted to planning it around TV programmes I want to watch. The upshot is that I’m no fitter than when I started (mainly, says my daughter, because, I don’t “push myself enough”), but I’m very well up on the news.
PS: I haven’t spotted any eighty-five year olds pounding away on the treadmill. Either the instructor was fibbing or the gym has had such a stupendous effect that the eighty-five year old looks twenty-five.
PPS: COMING SOON - Starting this week, I’m featuring a book review on House With No Name every Friday. So if you love books and are looking for new reads – or if you’ve read something fantastic and want to recommend it – I’d love to hear from you.
Friday, 23 September 2011
“If you want to write a novel, it’s never too late...”
Those were the inspiring words from TV producer and novelist Daisy Goodwin when she gave the annual (and free) creative writing lecture at Oxford Brookes University last night (September 22). It was the first day of term for the university's new creative writing students, who scribbled frantically in their notebooks and tapped away on laptops as she spoke.
Over the next hour Daisy proceeded to give such great advice to the scores of would-be novelists in the audience that she should probably turn it into a book. Or, considering she’s the creative genius behind a string of hit TV shows (from Grand Designs to The Nation’s Favourite Poems), make it into a TV series.
Daisy started her writing career at the age of 43 with Silver River, a family memoir, before turning out her bestselling novel, My Last Duchess. She’s now in the throes of writing her second novel and admitted she feels “very much a novice” in the writing stakes. But many of the lessons she learned from working in TV are applicable to the art of novel writing too. She’s learned, for instance, that “the audience is king. You have to grab them and make sure they don’t go anywhere else. Your first chapter is all-important and you have to sell your book on the quality of your prose.”
She also reckoned that series like Grand Designs have a “novelistic format,” which she gleaned a lot from. The Grand Designs programmes start in a muddy field with people talking about their hopes and dreams. Midway through, the protagonists are still standing in a muddy field and at each other’s throats, but by the end of it all they have a wonderful house. “Along the way they have risk, drama, jeopardy, caravans and screaming kids,” she said, “but people watch the programme for the fairy tale ending, the moment when it’s clear that all the suffering has been worthwhile.”
At the end of the talk, Daisy, resplendent in a scarlet dress and mostly speaking without notes, reeled off a list of valuable tips on writing fiction.
1. Read, read, read. You can’t read too much.
2. Find a subject that fascinates you and that you are excited about.
3. Hard work and stamina are essential. Write 1,000 words a day. “That is the minimum,” she said. “If I can do it, you can. It’s tough but it’s true.”
4. Don’t give up the day job (or certainly not until you’ve had at least three books published.)
5. Don’t immediately show what you’ve written to “your partner, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or dog.”
6. Don’t worry that your novel isn’t all plotted out. Just keep going. Get to the end - and then go back and write a second draft.
7. Remember a book is never going to be perfect or finished. Even now, she said, when she gives readings, she pulls out adverbs and tightens up construction as she goes along.
8. Most importantly, she concluded, “if you want to do something, you can. You can realise your creative dreams.”