Tuesday, 1 April 2014

THREE NOVELS ABOUT ~ CONVENTS

When I recently read at a festival alongside the author Wendy Wallace, the chair commented on how odd it was that our books, although set in the same period and dealing with similar issues, were actually so different ~ in style, and in the way in which we approached the constraints of writing within that particular historical genre.

That set me to thinking about other books that might also have similar subjects, and yet which are entirely unique ~ which is why I've decided that, now and then, I'll write an occasional post on this theme, starting today with novels that have convents as their settings.

I have read and very much enjoyed every one of the books reviewed today, but it would be good to hear your thoughts. And if you have any suggestions yourself please do add them in the comments below.





The latest novel I read on this subject was one of two novellas written by Richard Skinner and published by Faber & Faber, both of which go under the single title of The Mirror

The Mirror is set in Venice, in 1511, and tells the story of Oliva, a young novice about to take the veil and become a bride of Christ. It opens with an earthquake which not only shakes the physical world but is also the point when a seed of doubt begins to take root in Oliva's heart, and that event coinciding with the arrival of Signor Vilo, the artist who paints her portrait. For these sessions he also brings a large mirror, painting his subject from its reflection. But what secrets does the mirror hold? What truths and what madness might there be found? 

This is a philosophical novel. The prose is poetic and beautiful, and almost creates a dream like mood. And yet it approaches its subject with a spare and clear reality, as if through the cold sharp lens of the mirror that glitters at the story's heart. 

I really enjoyed this novel. It lingered in my mind for days ~ and I was especially impressed with the author's allusions to colour; how colour ~ and colour is only light, reflected as if through a mirror's frame ~ might reflect the nature of our plights ~ our hopes and fears and destinies.




My second choice for this genre is Michelle Lovric's The Book of Human Skin. I adore Michelle Lovric's writing style which is magical, flamboyant and entirely assured. Her YA novels are also a delight - if only we'd had them when I was a child! However The Book of Human Skin is decidedly not a children's read. It is fiercely dark and subversive, though not without great humour. 

The central story is that of a Marcella, a young girl who is locked away in a convent when her brother, Minguillo (mesmerising and charismatic, but  horribly evil too) begins his narration with the words 'This is going to be a little uncomfortable'. Indeed it is! And Marcella's suffering at his hands is narrated from the extravagant viewpoint of no less than five individuals who (apart from creating a sense of awe that any writer could pull that off) knit together a complex scheme of events that lead to a thrilling conclusion.

I particularly enjoyed this novel because the quite sinister convent scenes are set in Santa Catalina, in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, a convent which I have also toured, and found it to be an inspiring place with a melancholy, haunting air. I always thought I would like to set a novel of my own in that place. But having read Michelle's Lovric's work I couldn't even begin to compete. Delightful, horrific and riotous. A truly entertaining read.

(And while we are on the subject, should you enjoy this novel, Michelle Lovric's The Remedy is  another based upon the convent theme.)




My third choice is Sacred Hearts, written by Sarah Dunant, and as an added bonus the novel is currently serialised on Radio 4 in the afternoons, with a dramatisation by Rachel Joyce. If you've missed it you can listen here - but be quick, the recording will only be live for a few more days from now.

I read this novel some years ago, but only when re-reading it did I come to truly appreciate the sensitive and poignant way in which its central characters are portrayed - and how every one of the convent's nuns is forced to come to terms with her fate when enclosed within its walls. Again, it has the central theme of a young woman imprisoned against her will. Indeed, so averse to convent life is the sixteen year old Serafina that her screams wake almost every nun on the night when she is first confined. She is right to be angry and afraid. The convent reflects the outside world - with ambition, hatred, desire and greed demonstrated to the full, where women are trapped in a battle of wits - whether in trying to escape or in the assertion of their roles. 

This is a novel about art, love and faith and the prices paid to achieve success. A finely wrought exploration of the complexities of the female heart - and the restrictions that those hearts must face during the Italian Renaissance,  an age of much enlightenment, but also of sexual inequality.

A satisfying, intelligent read, both passionate and political. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

BLOG TOUR ~ THE WRITING PROCESS

I have been asked by my friend and fellow author Lorna Fergusson to join an online blog tour in which writers share some personal thoughts regarding their creative process. This is Lorna's contribution, and these are my answers to questions asked:



1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

I'm just at the start of a new novel so very much at the research stage, creating a new world and its characters in my mind rather than setting them down on the page. This novel is going to be a little different from my other three, so there is some extra research to be done. 


2. HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?

So far, my three novels have been 'Victorian Gothic' in genre - becoming a little darker with each subsequent publication. I would also say that my writing has a certain other worldly element woven into the classical structure of the traditional Victorian novel. I love the work of Angela Carter and think that has influenced me very much, as indeed have all the fairy tales that I read when I was a child.


3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

It is said that you should write what you love to read, and also what inspires you most. Well, I've always loved a good Victorian mystery, but when I began my first novel I fully intended to make it a contemporary Young Adult, where a girl living in a Victorian house would find some old letters hidden under the floorboards - and the information those letters contained would then create a small sub plot, about a nineteenth century girl whose life in some way mirrored her own. However, when I started to delve into Victorian history I found myself increasingly drawn to the era. And then, a random visit to Wilton's music hall in the East End of London was all that was needed to tip me full speed into the nineteenth century ~ waking up the next morning and knowing that the only story I wanted to write was a fully fledged Victorian one. 

I'm so glad to have followed my instinct. The result was The Somnambulist which was then featured on Channel 4's TV Book Club show and was also shortlisted for the National Book Awards Debut of 2012. 


4. HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK

Because I write historical novels there is quite a degree of new research involved with every novel created - particularly as each one (though set in the Victorian era) deals with a different aspect of nineteenth century society. The Somnambulist was influenced by social life in the East End - where the Temperance movement was concerned with destroying the 'decadence' of the halls. It is very much a novel that deals with hypocrisy and the telling of lies. Elijah's Mermaid features the worlds of prostitution, art and literature, and this novel directly references dark fairy tales of the era. By contrast, The Goddess and the Thief is inspired by tales of Hindu myth and how those come to effect the lives of characters based in Victorian England - characters who are themselves immersed in the dark world of spiritualism and raising ghosts. 

Once all the research is done - via reference books, documentaries, online research, or visiting museums and galleries - I set about creating my own story. However, I am not a plotter. I always have a beginning and end in mind, but how I find my way to that end is generally a mystery for me during the first draft stage. I work my way into the main characters and then allow any 'extra's to show their faces as they will (they often seem to pop up from nowhere and then become vital to the plot). And finally, when a first draft is done, I will go back to the beginning again, to finesse the structure and storyline until I can look at it no more - at which point, and only then, will my work be seen by other eyes.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

HAVE YOU READ EVERY BOOK ON YOUR SHELVES?


A small selection of some of the books scattered about my house - unread


Today is World Books Day. It is also the day when the result of a national study was published in the Independent newspaper stating that the average British household contains 138 books, of which more than half have never been read.

Earlier today I asked Twitter friends if they also had shelves full of unread books, to which I received a resounding YES, with answers such as the following - 


We've started to give the unreads shelves of their own.

I have more unread books than read. But that's the joy of building a library, isn't it.

Buying books is almost as much fun as reading them.

They're not unread, they are just waiting, forming an orderly and beautiful looking queue.


My queues are not very orderly, but I also admit to owning books which, as yet, remain unread on my shelves. More titles are piled beside my bed, or on the sofa and floor of my office. Some of them are bought for research purposes, to study when writing historical novels. Others are waiting for me to enjoy whenever I happen to have free time, at which point my filing system applies - in that if I would never read them again or recommend them to a friend then out they go, through my front door and down to the local Oxfam shop. 

In this ruthless ability to prune I am different to those in today's report who claim to hang on to their unread books because they are emotionally attached to them - or else because they like the 'look'. One friend did admit that when she moved house she went to her nearest charity shop and bought up as many books as she could to arrange on new but empty shelves; to create a homely literary feel with the bonus of those old cracked spines to give the appearance of having been read. 

Well, I suppose they had been. By someone, at some point in time. Other readers once held those books in their hands and turned the pages back and forth. And what a good feeling that is - to hold a physical paper book rather than basking in the glow of an electronic reading device. Not to say that I do not own one. I confess to having downloaded more books than I could ever hope to read - an invisible mirror of my walls where a 'bulging' virtual library lies silent and patiently waiting, yearning for darkness to turn to light. 

What explains this greedy collecting of books? 

There is the pricing issue of course - the fact that a novel can often cost even less than a cup of coffee does. There are Kindle books offered for free, or else so  very cheaply sold that - hey - why not have six of them! But that is another issue - and quite another can of worms - though I think it does facilitate what could be called an addiction of sorts. And I'm sure that I am not alone in anticipating the thrilling rush whenever I open a glossy new cover and wonder what worlds might soon unfold -  to step out of my own skin and enter those of the characters in fictional realms. 

Where is the harm in that, and, isn't the pleasure well expressed in this quote from a G R R Martin book - "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies... The man who never reads lives only one."

I choose life  - or is it lives! Now, where is that Irvine Welsh Trainspotting book? It's been gathering dust on my shelf for years...

Friday, 28 February 2014

THE IMPORTANCE OF CHILDREN READING BOOKS

Children reading in a library in the 1960's - about the same time as I joined my local library in the town of Leominster in Herefordshire.


I firmly believe that good writing begins with the reading of good books ~ and those books should be available as early as possible, in every child’s home, school, and library.

In my own case there were very few books to be found in my childhood home. I was lucky enough to attend a school where dedicated teachers encouraged my interest in literature. Miss Daredon (who I adored) was the teacher from Leominster Infants' School who made the suggestion that I join the local town library when she realised that I had read every book available in her class.

I still recall those library trips as something exciting and magical. I would clutch at the little card envelope in which my borrowing tickets were placed ~ that passport to untold delights as I wondered through racks of free-­standing shelving where books of all colours, sizes and shapes nestled together in dark brown wood. 

And yet, my home was not without its own versions of stories to keep me enthralled. The walls of our house were not shelved with books, but the air rang out with stories ~ folk stories of infamous local events ~ stories about my ancestors' pasts with historical details as vividly told as if they had happened yesterday.

Because of this I am still inclined to prick up my ears at all tales of the past, and to write about Victorian times and the characters who inhabit that world as if I know them personally ~ as if I am also living then. For this, I am very grateful, for the oral tradition of tale-telling that, still, to this very day, lives on through my elderly relatives. 

This post is inspired by The Booktrust ­‐ a charitable organization that works with families, schools and libraries to foster a love of literature.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

ARE YOU THE MUSE ~ OR THE OBJECT THROUGH WHICH THE MUSE MOVES?

The muse, Clio, writing history - by Franz Ignaz Gunther


This fascinating TED talk by the inspiring author Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful exploration of where the muse comes from and how it is tamed in the art, or craft, of writing.

I hope all my writer friends enjoy YOUR ELUSIVE CREATIVE GENIUS





With thanks to the writer, Emma Darwin, who is also a great font of writing advice, and who first informed me about this film.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

READING IMPROVES BRAIN FUNCTION

Illustration from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

When you read a good novel, one that thrills you, or makes you smile, or cry - one that fills you with wonder or admiration - do you find yourself still 'living' the plot long after the final page has been turned?

A recent article in The Independent newspaper reported on some scientific findings from Emory University in Atlanta, US, which claim that reading a compelling story can trigger the mind into heightened states of neurological activity - almost as if creating another internal life to run alongside the activities experienced in our 'real' physical lives. 

This reaction is more intense when a novel has a first person protagonist - when we sometimes feel as if we have experienced another separate life. This is described as 'shadow' activity - a way in which the brain redevelops itself, as if it is building new muscle. And the affect can last for up to five days when a novel has a profound affect on our emotions and imaginations.

The full article is to be found here. Fascinating reading of its own.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

STORIES WITHIN STORIES - BOTH OLD AND NEW...

I do feel rather guilty that, being a writer, I spend so little time posting here. My only excuse is that I've been busy working on a new novel whilst posting historical links to that on my Virtual Victorian blog. But some thoughts are more suitable for this site - and of late I've been considering the concept of stories within stories, and how authors can use such a device for enriching and deepening the world in which their characters are set.

In my own fictional worlds I liked to use a myths or fairy tales is to add another dimension - something spiritual or magical - sometimes even the supernatural. I love to read books that develop this theme - almost like a literary Russian doll, with more and more dolls contained inside, each with her own face and character.

One of the novels that comes to mind when I think about this sort of device is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, where different narrators offer the reader alternative views of the tale they're told. It is almost a puzzle that must unfold.

A S Byatt's The Children's Book tells the story of a woman who writes Edwardian fairy tales, and those tales are then woven into the plot - a means by which to tell the 'truth' of a world which is on the verge of destruction, personally, morally and politically. Very far from being a fairy tale! There are also vivid references to actual historical characters who have some great significance in the era's art and literature. And here we see them warts and all.

The House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski is a sprawling and unconventional novel that employs different stories and points of view. It uses 'found texts' and footnotes to draw the reader into worlds, seemingly disconnected. It is a horror story. It is a testament of love. It is the darkness consuming a mind when everything concrete and beloved begins to fall apart around. To read such a work is to find oneself immersed in something quite 'other'. Not an easy read, but ultimately one of the most rewarding I've known.

In my own novel, The Goddess and the Thief, I have drawn on stories of Indian gods and then woven their own tales and fates into the lives of my characters. I have also, here and there, had my fictional characters relate ancient myths or actual historical events that might, in some way, reflect their fates - such as the story of Anarkali, a tragic Indian romance described by my main narrator, a young woman who is called Alice, who is here recalling a childhood scene -


A still from the film Anarkali, 1953


"I did my best to try and forget, burying my head in the pages of books which my aunt brought from Tilsbury’s shelves below. If she read, it was her Bible, to memorise those verses from which to weave more séance spells – those quotes which pledged of lives to come. But I had no wish to think about what life might lie ahead for me. I lost myself in poetry, in fantasy worlds of adventure and myth. And how affected I became when I chanced to come across a tale once heard from the lips of my father – on that day when we went to the party held on the lawns of the Residency, the day when the boy maharajah had arrived on the back of an elephant.

Mini had not been there. Servants were not invited. That had caused me some distress, so much so that, when we first arrived, Papa took me to the rooms in which he had his offices. There, he dabbed at my tears with a handkerchief, then collected some seed kept in a drawer, after which he took my hand and we walked to the Residency church – to the gardens where Papa often went, to feed the birds, to sit alone.

It made me smile to see them, the parrots and the budgerigars, to hear the flutter of their wings, the whirling colours, blues and greens. Some of those birds, they were so tame they flew right down from the palm trees and ate the seed from Papa’s hand. And one of the parrots, it perched on his arm. It squawked, ‘Hello, dear Willoughby! And how are we today?’ That made me laugh, and Papa smiled. He said that he would teach that bird to say hello to me as well. I don’t know if he ever did. For then, he squawked the words himself, ‘Hello, Miss Alice! How are you?’ And when the birdseed had all gone, when the parrot had flown from my father’s arm, my fingers settled there instead and we went to look inside the church.

It was not very English, much more like a miniature Indian temple, being rectangular in shape, with columns holding up a dome. Papa said that was because it had once been a Mughal tomb which marked the final resting place of a girl called Anarkali.

I hung upon his every word when he told me that Anarkali’s name meant Pomegranate flower, to hear that Anarkali had been a favourite in the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. But when his son, the Prince Saleem, declared how much he loved the girl, Akbar said his son must die. How such news distressed Anarkali - so much so that she offered her life instead, and all she asked for in return was to spend one night in Saleem’s arms. 

It was during that night she drugged his wine with seed of the pomegranate bloom, so that Saleem failed to wake in the morning and therefore prevent her sacrifice – when Akbar buried her alive – on the very spot where I then stood!

When Papa reached that part of the story I remember clapping a hand to my mouth and gasping with the shock of it. But nevertheless, I wanted more, still gazing up through wide-stretched eyes when Papa told me Prince Saleem had never recovered from his loss. And later, when his father died, when Saleem became the emperor, he constructed a tomb on the very site of the ditch where Anarkali lay. And on that tomb had been inscribed: Ah! Could I behold the face of my beloved once more, I would thank God until the day of resurrection.


I almost cried to hear those words – to hear the yearning they contained. They made me think of Shiva, and how he felt when Sati died. But when I went back home again, Mini consoled me with other tales in which Anarkali had been saved, then taken to a secret place where she and Saleem often met, to join in bliss, as man and wife.


I’m not sure I believed her, even at that tender age, when ‘happy ever after’ seemed the surest end for everything, when every story Mini told would have some scene of married bliss. But, if Anarkali had lived on then why would Saleem build that shrine? Why would he have inscribed those words – the words I’d seen with my own eyes?"


For more on The Goddess and the Thief see this page from my author website.

And for further reading on my inspirations for this novel, See another article in Fleur In Her World.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

WOULD YOU SAY WRITERS ARE MEDIUMS?



Normally, I would say a resounding, No! Writers use their imaginations, the memories of their own pasts, and also of other stories heard - of books, and films, and of those tales told by friends and relatives.

But today, well today, I might feel a little bit different and that's because of something decidedly strange that happened to me yesterday.

I am currently writing a novel which is set in the Victorian era - mostly the early 1860's - and as the story takes place in Windsor, which happens to be where I live, I decided to use my Victorian house as  one of the novel's main settings. 

In that house lives a woman called Mercy, who is a spiritualist medium, whose mother died many years before in a bedroom that is now closed off, almost as if it is a shrine. Another of the characters used to live in India where his English father, a clergyman, had gone to do Christian missionary work among the Maharajahs.

Yesterday morning, I was doing a Google search, looking up the local town council regarding a mundane neighbourhood issue. But, when I typed in my address, the first thing to come up on the screen was a question from a local History forum in which someone was asking about my house with regard to  research being carried out about a lady who was something of a local saint - even being known to Gladstone for establishing a refuge for homeless and unmarried mothers; all those 'in moral danger.' She was also aided in that work by the group of local nuns she formed, who also spent a great deal of time doing missionary work in India; known there as the Sisters of the Raj.

But here is where it gets really interesting because, at some point, at the end of her life that lady came to live in my house (I will do more research here, but the house is opposite a church and I think that some clergymen lived here, although it is not a vicarage). She lived here and she died here, in the year of 1860, in one of my very own bedrooms - and also in a bedroom that belongs in my fictional Mercy's house - in which my Mercy spends much of her time claiming to protect her orphaned niece from the 'dangers of immorality'. 

And what was the Windsor refuge called? Well, it was The House of Mercy.


If you also write, have you had any spooky experiences that you would like to share?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

WHAT AN ASTONISHING THING A BOOK IS...



A short post, which is made up of nothing more than the following quote by Carl Sagan:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

I think that says it all.

Friday, 4 January 2013

DO YOU EVER LOSE YOURSELF IN A BOOK?



How often, when you're reading a book, do you put it down in exasperation because you can't 'connect' - because you simply can't escape the 'noise' of the physical world going on around?  

Then again, when a story draws you in how strange it can be to emerge again, finding for the first few moments or so that the 'real' world is an alien place, and the one created from words on a page is actually more vivid and alive.

The old saying that we become 'lost in a book' has now been proven scientifically. A fascinating article written by April Dembosky and published in today's Financial Times addresses many issues related to Cerebral Circuitry - one of which is specifically related to the act of reading:

"Matt Langione lies on his back in an MRI machine, reading a copy of Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'. Neuroscientists in Stanford's imaging laboratory are comparing the patterns in his brain when he skims the pages leisurely, and when he concentrates hard on the literary form. The technicians are surprised by what they find. The areas of the brain that light up during close reading are not just those associated with attention, but also those involved with movement and touch. It is as if the readers physically place themselves in the story when they analyse it more carefully."

Interestingly, this brain reaction occurs more intensely when reading from a book rather than via a tablet or screen which, in itself, raises an interesting subject for debate. Also, this 'reading experience' is perhaps the most positive aspect of a disturbing article that focuses on how our brains are being 'retrained' or rewired by an increasing usage of computers and related social media or games. 

If you get a chance to read it do - though as the FT has a paywall you may have to register to see. But you can do that for a free trial period and, believe me, it's well worth the effort. It will certainly fire up those neurones. It will make you think!

Friday, 21 December 2012

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK OF 2012?


Well, this is the time of year when everyone is talking about their favourite books of 2012.

Not to be left behind in the game I'm going to state that my own favourite novel of this year has not even been published as yet. But it will be - and I'm confident enough to say right now that if there's any justice in the publishing world then Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley is going to be one of the literary sensations of 2013.

 This was the first thing I read in the proof copy that Tinder Press kindly sent me -

One father; two daughters; fifty wives. 
They're waiting for Salvation. Pray it never comes.


Oh, pray indeed! 

Those two lines had me hooked from the very start when reading this beautifully crafted, tightly restrained, and yet enormously powerful and dramatic novel about women whose fates have been entwined in the creation of an American cult.

Admittedly I've been pondering on the psychological aspects of belonging to such a closed religious community since the tragic events of Waco were publicised all over the world. I was even considering writing a novel based on such a story myself. But now, I never will, because Peggy Riley has done it so well and, really, there's nothing more to say about the potential for abuse that exists when needy and trusting souls become enslaved to those 'caring' and charismatic men who are also mad or unscrupulous. 

Something about this novel that really impressed itself on me was the fact that, despite providing very little physical description for any of the characters, it is a tribute to Peggy Riley's skills that I had the clearest impression in mind when imagining the 'look' of every single one of them. For me, every character in the book was vivid and perfectly realised. I could 'see' them. I even began to cast the parts that actors might play in a film. And, if this isn't made into a film - if this doesn't go on to win awards - then I will return and eat my words! 

But for now I'll look into my crystal ball (from which the two sisters, Amity and Sorrow, both stare back out and into a world that lures one and repels the other) and I'll wager that I'm right - that by the end of 2013 many others will agree with me and include this exceptional novel in the lists of their favourite books of the year.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

HOW DO YOU TWIST THE WRITING KNIFE?



I love books which have dramatic twists upon which the rest of the narrative turns. I'll never forget reading Engleby by Sebastian Faulkes and coming to a point in the plot when I actually shouted: 'No...don't do that!'

From then on, as the reader, I knew something about the protagonist that had turned my entire view of him upon its very head. But it really didn't matter. For me that only added to the story's dark enjoyment - wondering how, when and if the terrible secret, now exposed, would finally reach its 'public' reveal.

When I wrote my first novel, The Somnambulist, I made a concerted decision to reveal, very early on, a 'secret' relating to the narrator. So although Phoebe Turner is telling the story, it is not until well into  the book that she learns about a crucial event of which, had she already been aware, she would not have committed certain acts that go on to affect her future life. And yet, I sometimes wonder, would I change the timing of this exposure if I were to write the book again?

The reason for this question is because, now and then, a reader has highlighted the fact that they would prefer Phoebe's 'secret' to spin out until the story's end. However, for me, the writer, all dramatic tension would have been lost if this were to have been the case. I wanted the reader to know the dangers towards which Phoebe walked; or else was being blindly led. It was extremely important to me that the truth should be glaringly obvious - to all other characters in the book - and to those looking in while reading it.

Of course, I may be wrong.

Are there any plot exposures that you would change in retrospect if you were to write your own novel again?

Or are there any plot reveals in other people's stories that you have always wanted to change?