Tuesday, 18 February 2014

In the Beginning: Catherine Dunne

In the Beginning

by Catherine Dunne

Published by Fado Fado

£2.62 on Kindle

I'm a great fan of Irish writing - the tiny damp isle seems to have bred so many fine writers and poets. Catherine Dunne was recommended by an Italian friend who'd read her in translation and loved the novel. It's a great plot - Rose strives to be the perfect executive wife - immaculate home, pampered children, beautifully cooked meals - and she believes her world, though not ideal (what marriage ever is) to be stable and secure. But one morning her husband, off on a business trip to Europe, turns round at the door and tells her that he's leaving and he won't be back.

The shock of the announcement brings everything that Rose had believed to be rock-solid, tumbling in rubble around her ankles and there are a series of unpleasant discoveries waiting for her. What do you do if you put your card in the wall and no money comes out of the cash machine? How do you feed your children and pay the bills when the bank account is empty?

The novel also gives us the back-story of Rose's relationship, slices of narrative between the contemporary story which gradually reveal the layers of sand that her marriage had been built on.

But Rose is more resourceful than she realises and she's surrounded by loving friends. Day by day she grows stronger and, when she discovers the enormity of what her husband has done to her, she is able to deal with it. I loved the way the book was written - lived each episode with the characters and enjoyed every moment of Rose's revenge. I'm going to be reading more of Catherine Dunne's books.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Transatlantic: Colum McCann


by Colum McCann

Published by Bloomsbury
Kindle Price £3.08

The cottage sat at the edge of the Lough.  She could hear the wind and rain whipping across the expanse of open water.  It hit the tree and muscled its way into the grass.......

A friend lent me this book and I was so hooked I had to buy it on Kindle when I gave the book back.  It’s written in lyrical Irish prose that is almost poetry - a style that accommodates both internal monologue and external observation. There are several strands to a story that moves backwards and forwards in time across five generations of a family and from one side of the Atlantic to another.

It touches on the anti-slavery movement that became connected to women’s suffrage and the Irish republican cause. There’s a brief, but important, meeting between a former US slave and an Irish serving girl. Every detail is significant.  But it begins with the historic flight across the Atlantic made by Alcock and Brown, observed by two women - a journalist and a photographer. One of them gives a letter to Brown and asks him to post it when he reaches Ireland.  He agrees, but it is a very long time before the letter is ever opened.

At first I thought it was a series of linked short stories, but the weaving of the different strands became tighter as the novel developed and the relationship between the different narratives became clearer and more compulsive.  It's good to know that publishers are still publishing novels of this quality.

I really loved this book and it gets an extra star for the ‘wow’ factor.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard


by Linda Gillard

Since I discovered The House of Silence, I've been reading Linda Gillard's novels and wondering why on earth her publisher ever allowed her to go 'Indie'. They must be kicking themselves. She's providing exactly what readers seem to want - a rattling good story, interesting characters, romance, real dilemmas and traumas we can all empathise with, and an original mix of genre elements.  If you like this recipe, you're never going to get bored.  Not all Linda's books are to my taste, but the writing is always impeccable.

I've followed the genesis of Cauldstane via Linda's Facebook author page and been intrigued by the little snippets she's shared.  I also admired her determination to press on with the book through the long recovery process of a serious brush with cancer.  Her honesty and integrity in sharing her journey gave me a greater respect for her skills as an author.  This is someone who writes about traumatic human situations with personal knowledge.  It's this compassion and empathy that inform the pages of this unusual novel. Think Northanger Abbey meets Daphne du Maurier and Bridget Jones with a bit of Downton Abbey thrown in. It's absolutely modern and gloriously gothic.

There's a remote and decrepit Scottish castle, (with a curse attached, of course), a wicked stepmother, a feisty but emotionally vulnerable heroine, more handsome men than you can shake a sword at, and a very dangerous ghost.  The main male character, Sholto, has made a career out of adventure, but is now getting old, short of money to keep the roof over his head intact, and wants to tell his sometimes scandalous life story.  He has chosen J.J. Ryan to ghost-write it for him, picking the name from a Society of Authors' list of recommendations without realising that J.J. is a woman.  Jenny falls in love with Cauldstane and its occupants and is totally committed to the project, until ghost-writing of another kind comes between her and the family.  To tell you more would be to spoil the plot, so I won't.

I'm not a great fan of the Gothic genre, though I did read quite a lot of it when I was younger, but this novel is a really good read and I was happy to suspend disbelief and just enjoy myself between the covers.  It could only be improved by being read with a stiff malt whisky in one hand and a plate of Mrs Guthrie's ginger cakes on the side!


by Linda Gillard

Monday, 3 February 2014

From Writing with Love by Avril Joy

From Writing with Love

Avril Joy

Published by Room to Write

This is not a ‘how to’ writing book in the usual sense, but an account of one writer’s journey from the first tentative words on the page, through self-doubt and crises of confidence, to eventual publication and a Costa award. ‘I came late to writing,’ Avril says, ‘and after a matter of only months found myself hopelessly in love’.  After some ‘early, modest success’, came a series of knock-backs, until in 2011 she ‘came dangerously close to falling out of love with the one thing that had changed my life’. Avril generously shares everything she’s learned in the process of becoming a writer - the heartache, the envy, the rejections, the apparent successes that turned out to be almost as damaging as the rejections, and the survival mechanisms she developed to cope with them.

The purpose of the book is to encourage and inspire, rather than instruct - to help an individual find their own voice, their own path through the jungle, rather than offer prescriptive advice.  Any advice that Avril shares is sound and well-tested. This is a skill-share, offering hard-won knowledge and insight from a clear-eyed author whose humility hasn’t been altered by her success.

What is necessary, Avril stresses, is to stay in love with writing.  Too often, for a professional author, all the fun goes out of it.  If what we do becomes too deadly serious, then our writing will suffer and so will we. ‘We should be in love with words.  We should swim in them, drown in them.... Be passionate about words; in the end they are all we have’.

She has some good quotes that reflect on the current state of publishing - this one from William Trevor: ‘In the end, only the books matter. Nowadays, books tend to be shovelled into a chat-show wheelbarrow, more talked about than read.’

Avril went down the road of self-publication, though she still has a foot in both camps and a very pragmatic attitude. ‘It’s very easy to get seduced by the possibilities of success and the lure of agents and editors,’ she warns.  ‘It’s not difficult to find yourself losing your way and writing something that’s not true to who you are.  I’ve done it.  I’ve written more sex into a book to please an agent.  I’ve written crime fiction, invented a serial killer, ditched one book and moved onto the next, and more . . . Being new to writing I was vulnerable to such persuasions (which I have no doubt at all were made from a genuine desire to help me get a book deal). I wouldn’t do it like that a second time round because in the end if you’re not writing from your own truth the writing is not truly yours.’

One of Avril’s good ideas is that of having a ‘writing buddy’ - someone you can trust to share work with and give feedback.  Avril meets hers on a regular basis for a writing and reading session giving each other mutual support.  You can talk through a particularly difficult plot twist, get feedback on a piece of writing you’re not sure about.  I’d love a writing buddy - though I think it’s probably difficult to find someone you’re completely in tune with.  Avril adds a quote from E.B White - ‘It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer’.

I liked this book very much - so much of what Avril says resonated with me.  It gave this rather jaded, post-biography, writer a definite injection of enthusiasm.

From Writing with Love

Avril Joy

Published by Room to Write 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley: P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley

by P.D. James

P.D. James confesses, in her essay on the genesis of the novel that she is 'ambivalent' about sequels. 'The greatest writing pleasure for me is in the creation of original characters, and I have never been tempted to take over another writer's people or world'.  But that is exactly what she has done in setting her new murder mystery in the heartland of Jane Austen's world - Pemberley, the home of Darcy and his wife Elizabeth Bennet. James goes on to explain that 'Austen's characters take such a hold on our imaginations that the wish to know more of them is irresistible'.  James is not the first to enter Austen's fictional domain with her own take on it - and currently another novel 'Longbourn', by Jo Baker, is exploring the upstairs/downstairs world of Elizabeth Bennet's family home and there is also 'Georgiana Darcy's Diary' by Anna Elliott and Laura Masselos.  There is also the very entertaining 'Lydia Bennet's Blog', by Valerie Laws.

In 'Death Comes to Pemberley', Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years and have a young son.  Pemberley is a tranquil, idyllic place - Mr Bennet is a frequent, welcome visitor, and Bingley and Elizabeth's sister Jane have established themselves nearby.  The one source of disharmony is the youngest Bennet daughter Lydia, married to the dissolute Wickham.  Lydia is 'received' (though scarcely welcomed) by her sisters for occasional visits, but her husband is barred.  Both are impecunious and dependent on their more fortunate relations and Lydia has an attitude of grievance towards her sisters.

It's hardly surprising, given Austen's portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, that James has chosen Lydia to be the messenger of an event that is going to break the tranquility of Pemberley for ever.  On the eve of the annual ball, a carriage comes to a violent halt at the door and Lydia tumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered.  Someone has indeed been murdered, but it is Wickham who is arrested for the crime.  Darcy, Elizabeth and their friends must now come to aid of a man they despise, but who is publicly part of their family.

I found the novel rather slow and the style more ponderous than Austen's - particularly the dialogue. But the plot is absorbing and the beautifully researched details of 18th century criminal procedure are fascinating, particularly to someone who once studied law with a view to being called to the Bar. It gives a very clear picture of how the law worked in small rural communities.  Darcy, who is a magistrate, is also a reformer, arguing for an appeal court to review the decisions of juries.  'Could it not be possible to have an appeal court consisting of three, or perhaps five, judges to be convened if there were dissension over a difficult point of law?'  His friend, Alveston, a barrister, comments that the jury would be outraged if they felt that their decision was to be challenged by a judge.  Public opinion, he proposes, is the best court of appeal;  'I can assure you there is nothing more powerful than the English when seized with righteous indignation'.  And so it proves.

I enjoyed this excursion into Jane Austen's world - I hope I'm still around at the age of 90 and still capable of writing such a complex novel as this one!  I wonder what she's plotting now?