Friday, 27 November 2015

Yes, I know it's still November

It's almost December and I'm afraid it's that time of year when I have to mention that Christmas is coming and that if you want to buy books for Xmas, now would be a good time to think about ordering them.

This is my Christmas cactus, so it must be that time of year again.

However convenient e-books are, there's no doubt that, as gifts, paperbacks have the edge. There's something about unwrapping a book on Christmas Day that a digital gift just can't replace. Fortunately, all my books are available in paperback.

Books are great gifts. They show that you respect the intellect of the person that you are giving them to and they show your own intelligence at the same time. Most importantly - let's be honest here - buying books supports authors. In these days of ridiculously cheap (and often free) e-books many people have got out of the way of ever ponying up actual money to pay for their reading material. Once a year you have the chance to impress your friends with your erudition and taste and make a small gesture towards those authors whose work you will miss once they've starved in their garrets. This is especially true if you enjoy reading their blogs through the year.

It's Christmas. (Well, it soon will be.) Do the right thing. For your friends, yourself and authors everywhere: buy a book.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Williamson Papers

I've just sent the third of the trilogy about John Williamson off to Accent for editing. It won't be out until next year, but I’d like to mark the occasion by writing a little bit about "The Williamson Papers".

John Williamson makes his first appearance in The White Rajah, the first novel I ever wrote. It's based on the life of James Brooke, the eponymous ruler of Sarawak in Borneo. There have been a lot of stories already written about him: the most famous is probably Lord Jim. I felt that it was a story worth telling again. I was fascinated by the way that somebody could arrive in a country with nothing but the most liberal and humane of intentions and yet preside over a massacre so terrible that even in the mid-nineteenth century it led to protests half a world away in London. I decided to tell the story through the eyes of somebody close to Brooke. In real life, he had an interpreter of mixed Malay and European parentage: the man's name was John Williamson. I kept the name, but my interpreter was a European, born in Devon, who ran away to sea as a youth and fell in with James Brooke early in the latter's career. The real Brooke was almost certainly gay and, by making my John Williamson gay too, I was able to place him close to Brooke and in a position to comment on the events of his rule. Williamson provides a moral viewpoint separate from Brooke’s, so that issues raised due to Brooke’s rule can be seen from more than one angle.

The White Rajah has its faults: all first novels do, but it was well received and I was asked to write a sequel.

At the end of The White Rajah, Williamson leaves Borneo, unable to live with what he has seen. The timing worked out so that if he had sailed to India, he would have arrived there just in time for the Indian Mutiny. For a while I had been thinking about writing a book based around events in India in 1857. I decided to have Williamson move from Borneo to join the East India Company. By now, my Williamson is a totally fictional character, but the move is credible for somebody with his experience. Williamson is given a post at Cawnpore, where he finds himself at the centre of the events that will lead to the siege of Cawnpore and a massacre of Europeans unprecedented during colonial rule in the subcontinent. The events of the siege are very well documented and I was able to put Williamson in a real place surrounded by real people, but his personal experiences come entirely out of my head. In the story Williamson, ever the outsider, flits between the Indian and European camps, passing himself off as an Indian amongst the sepoys and maintaining his own identity amongst the Europeans. Several people have criticised this as being completely unrealistic, although there are well-recorded incidents of people carrying out just such deceptions in circumstances much less favourable than Williamson's.

I'm really proud of Cawnpore. It has had some lovely reviews and I think it is the best thing I've written. Williamson plays his part wholeheartedly in the attempts that some Europeans made to improve life in India, but he comes to see that Europeans, as colonialist outsiders, will always be alien and resented. As the siege moves toward its horrific conclusion he is able to see both the horror of the Indian atrocities and their inevitability. While I was writing it, my son was serving in Afghanistan. I was very conscious that he and his comrades were involved in an adventure where many of them felt that they were genuinely helping the Afghan people (for whom he has a great affection). As in 1857, though, the attempt of foreigners to impose their own notions of civilisation and progress were doomed to failure.

At the end of Cawnpore, Williamson, a broken man, returns to England, where the final book of the trilogy takes up his story. He finds a country he hardly recognises. Industrialisation at home and military expansion abroad have made Britain into a dynamic political and economic power that dominates the world. Yet, in London, he finds the same divide between the poor and the rich that he saw in the Far East. Once again, is caught between the machinations of the powerful and the resistance of the powerless. But now that he is back home, can he escape the cycle of violence that has dogged his life?

Back Home will be published by Accent Press in the spring. For advance review copies, please contact me by email to

Friday, 13 November 2015


The last couple of weeks have seen blog posts from guest writers talking about how they got into writing – whether by genetic disposition (Jenny Kane) or by going on a residential writing course (Maggie Cummiss).

Guest posts like this always get a lot of interest. Perhaps it’s because a lot of my readers are themselves writers, so they want to know how other people have made their way into print. But a lot of people seem to be interested in my posts about tango and I'm sure I have already written something about how I started writing, so I wondered if some of you might be interested in how I moved into the strange world of Argentine tango.

When I started to ski I looked for something that would keep me ski fit out of season and what I came up with was ice skating. Eventually I took up ice dance, the evil love-child of figure skating and ballroom dance. One of my fellow ice dancers turned out to be a tango teacher and she persuaded me to give that a go.

After the strict tempo rigidity and formalised postures of ballroom dance, the freedom of the fluid tempo and constant improvisation of tango came as a revelation. Here was a dance where you could let the music take you and sweep you along and where your partner would move naturally with you. People complained that tango stretched their ability to balance, but after years of staying upright on blades a few millimetres across, the idea that I could rest my whole foot on the ground was an unprecedented luxury. And moving from getting up before dawn to practice in a freezing ice-rink to staying up late on a sweaty dance floor was very heaven.

We started to learn a very theatrical style of tango – showy and fun, but more Strictly than anything than an Argentinian would recognise as their national dance. Still, my partner and I knew no better and, caught up in the romance of it, we eventually booked our tickets to Buenos Aires.

Maldita Milonga, Buenos Aires

 With all its dirt and poverty, crime and corruption, its economic insanity and political failure, it remains, for us a city of wonders. We love the buzzing streets, the friendly people, the food, the cafes, the bookshops and theatres, the zoo, the parks. Over the years we've been robbed (Buenos Aires pickpockets are true artists), we've found ourselves staying in an apartment without electricity or water, we've been lost, soaked (in summer it doesn't rain often but when it does there can be catastrophic floods) and baked. And we still love the town and have met some wonderful people. Most of all, for us, we have heard marvellous music and seen some fantastic dancers. But on that first visit, most of this was before us. What we mainly realised was that we couldn't dance tango at all. The style we had been taught may have looked quite glitzy but had nothing in common with the close embrace and sensuous movement of the dance we saw in Buenos Aires. We came back to London and got a new teacher.

Bianca is from Eastern Europe and has an acerbic teaching manner. But, as someone explained, ‘She is so harsh because she cares so much.’ A brilliant technical dancer (and an astonishingly sexy one) she took our dance to pieces and slowly put it back together again in something that approached an Argentine style. We went back to Buenos Aires and found ourselves taking the floor without making quite such fools of ourselves.

A couple of years later we moved on. Bianca was great, but we wanted to explore other styles and we started lessons with Alexandra Wood. You may have seen Alex on TV (she appeared on Strictly and turns up from time to time on other shows) or in the stage show (or DVD) Midnight Tango. A lovely dancer and a fantastic teacher, she built our confidence while remorselessly drilling us in the basic steps from which all the other fancy moves flow.

By now a horrifying amount of our lives is defined by tango. We go out dancing socially far too often (you can dance every night of the week in London if you want to) and have danced in Paris and Reykjavik. My partner has even danced in Seoul. Whenever we can afford it, we are off to Argentina again. We have cleared out a room in our house so that we have space to dance. We have adapted to a life that only really gets going after 10.00pm (2.00am in Buenos Aires). We both own ridiculous numbers of shoes and the first question my partner asks when looking a new dress is: ‘Can you dance in that?’ Our music collection is dominated by tango in all its forms, from the deeply traditional orchestras of the 1930s to tango covers of Beatles classics.

Tango by the Seine

Tango (we are assured by Argentines we know) has been scientifically shown to ward off heart problems, depression and even dementia. There’s no doubt that it improves posture and general fitness. It’s clearly true that it brings a whole new social life and the knowledge that in any big city in the world you need only a pair of shoes and the address of the local tango club to find yourself among friends.

With Burke in the Land of Silver I was able to combine my love of Argentina and my love of writing. There’s no reason why I should ever have to choose between tango and writing, but, if I ever did, I think it is writing that would be cast aside while I hit the floor to lose myself in dance.

Bianca teaches in London. Details at

Alex divides her time between London and Italy. Her website is at

If you have questions about taking up tango, feel free to post them here.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Guest blog: Maggie Cammiss shares her writing journey

Another guest post this week as Maggie Cammiss tells us about how she came to write her first novel (published by Accent Press, who also publish my books). Everybody starts differently and it's always interesting to see how people get from that first idea to seeing their words in print.

Maggie Cammiss

It’s taken a while but I think I’ve arrived. This summer I put ‘novelist’ in the ‘profession’ column of my brand new marriage certificate. But my biggest challenge these days is applying backside to chair and actually getting the writing done. I live in a beautiful part of the country and the temptation to down tools and go for a walk on the beach, whatever the weather, is always there. Self–control has never been my strong point. 

I’ve always been an avid reader – my mum made sure I joined the public library as soon as I was old enough – and my love of the written word was reinforced in my first career in public libraries. Later, I moved into film archives, where I discovered an interest in history and current affairs, and in 1989 I joined Sky News, when the 24 hour news channel first launched. I wasn’t a journalist and my background in libraries and archives presented an unconventional route into television.  

Working in rolling news was a bit like being in a revolving door; there was always something going on, no matter what the time, day or night. But the shift patterns meant I had time to concentrate on my growing love of writing. I read mostly fiction and that was what I wanted to write. But there’d be no paddling about in the shallows of short story writing for me; I decided to jump straight in.

Like a lot of people who tell you they would write a novel if only they had the time (!), I had this naïve idea that, because I was a keen and critical reader, writing a novel wouldn’t be too difficult. I was soon disabused of that notion; writing convincing dialogue is hard, I discovered. But I was determined. I went on a residential Arvon course and began collecting a library of how-to books. I joined a local writing group, bought myself some notebooks and set about coaxing the characters in my head onto the page.

I’d been warned that my characters would have their own opinions about what was going to happen. I didn’t take this very seriously. They are my creations, I thought; they will do as I say. Wrong. My characters always know their own minds. I’ve been taken up so many literary cul de sacs I’ve developed a reversing light. But I’ve learned to wait and trust my subconscious; the solution will reveal itself in its own time – usually in the dead of night. Which is why I keep a notebook by the bed: to jot down those elusive thoughts that would otherwise vanish with the dawn. It helps me believe that I’m in control. 

It’s a bit of a cliché these days, but the old advice to write about what you know certainly worked for me. The 24-hour rolling news environment provided me with all the inspiration I needed for my debut novel No News is Good News and I used the familiar setting of a television newsroom as the background to the novel. It concerns a young producer whose career is compromised by an intriguing storyline which eventually threatens her job and reputation. There’s a romantic element to the story, as well as some dramatic twists and turns. I joke that I changed all the names to protect the guilty, but I promise you, the characters and storylines are entirely fictitious.    

I didn’t have an agent, but I’d read about Accent Press in Writing Magazine and I submitted the novel via their website. To my surprise and delight, Accent took the book on and it was published last December. Since then, I’ve been working
hard on the next novel, which is set in the same fictitious TV newsroom and features a minor character from the first book, with a whole new set of personalities and problems to grapple with. It's now in the final editing stages, so look out for it in 2016.
My advice to anyone contemplating writing a novel and beset with doubts – don’t talk about it, just get on with it. Otherwise, how will you know? 

Twitter:  @maggiecammiss 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Guest blog from Jenny Kane

I'm very happy to have Jenny Kane back as a guest blogger this week.

Jenny is the author of the best-selling Cup of Coffee series (Another Cup of CoffeeAnother Cup of Christmas, and Christmas in the Cotswolds), the modern/medieval time slip novel Romancing Robin Hood. Her latest novel Abi's House, was published by Accent this summer and a special Christmas novella, Christmas at the Castle will be available from 14 November.

With so many books to her credit, you could reasonably ask where all this creativity comes from. Apparently it's genetic.

Inheriting the Creative Gene

Officially, I have been a writer for the past eleven years. Deep down however, I suspect I have always been a writer; I have certainly always been a creative person. How could I not be, when I was influenced from childhood by my grandmothers? Both of them, like me, were physically incapable of sitting still and doing nothing. Plus they had imaginations that would have made Roald Dahl proud.

From an early age I remember watching my maternal Nan performing plays, poems, and comedy sketches on stage for the WI, all of which she’d written herself.

I vividly recall sitting in the audience of one charity production where my Nan’s poem, ‘Hats’ was performed to shrieks of laughter and delight. I was only ten, and as I sat and laughed alongside the rest, I was struck by how wonderful it would be to be able to make people happy like that- if only I wasn’t so shy...

My paternal Nan, on the other hand, was a knitter extraordinaire. There was nothing she couldn’t produce out of wool with just the aid of a pair of needles and a decent drama to watch on the TV at the same time. I never saw her glance at what she was knitting, and I certainly never saw a pattern. The jumpers, gloves, toys, or whatever she was making, seemed to magically appear at a speed that would be the envy of any conjurer. Her creativity boggled my young mind.

Both my grandmothers loved to read, but neither of them had any time for books that contained waffle. If a story didn’t grab them instantly it was jammed back onto the library shelf before the second page got so much as dabbed with a damp finger.

Standing with my Nan in Princes Risborough library, getting restless while book after book was dismissed with the words “If you ever write a book Jenny, make sure you get to the point faster than this lot!” ringing in my ears became a regular feature of my grandparental visits. This advice stayed with me, and I have always made an effort to grab my reader’s attention before the end of the first chapter. I have to confess, that as a reader, I’m just as picky as my Nan’s were. I am notoriously hard to please!

A love of words, crosswords, and word puzzles in general- usually completed at a coffee shop table - was something that was very much part of my childhood. This love of wordplay was inherited by my Mum, and has been passed on to me as well. I spent a great deal of my childhood (and indeed my adulthood) playing with words in cafes, so perhaps it is not surprising that I ended up writing a series of stories set in the fictional Pickwicks Coffee Shop.

My latest novel, Abi’s House (Accent Press, June 2015), was written in dedication to my grandparents. Set in the Sennen Cove area of Cornwall, Abi (recently arrived from London), creates a new life for herself not far from Penzance, where my paternal grandparents lived.

On Abi’s arrival in Cornwall, she meets Beth, a young woman who has recently inherited her grandfather’s cobblers shop. My maternal grandmother’s family owns Wainwright’s Shoe Shops in Buckinghamshire, where I spent many hours with both my Nan and my Grandad, who was the chief cobbler!

Both of my grandmothers influenced my writing, and the way I approach the production of my stories, more than they ever knew. Their creativity and encouragement (my maternal Nan was forever telling me I’d make my mark on the world with words, long before I even contemplated trying my hand as a writer) carried on into the next generation, with my Mum, an excellent artist and needlewoman in her own right, cheering me on.

And now, proving that the creative gene is strong on the female side of my family, my daughters have picked up the baton. Both had poetry of their own published before either of them reached their teens, and now one is writing a screen play. Watch this space!

But what about the male side of might family you ask? From them I hope I learnt the importance of something equally important- the value of always being a little bit kinder than you need to be.

Jenny xx


Links to all Jenny’s books can be found on her web site-

Keep your eye on Jenny’s blog at for more details.

Twitter: @JennyKaneAuthor


Thursday, 22 October 2015

Five books I recommend - and an astonishing offer if you buy them this week

It's sometimes easy to forget that the point of this blog is to sell my books. So this week, I'm unashamedly selling books – though only one of them is mine.

Until next Wednesday (28 October) Accent are offering five of their historical novels for the bargain price of 99p (99c in the USA) for all five. One of them is Burke in the Land of Silver. So, effectively, you can buy Burke in the Land of Silver for 99p and get four other books thrown in for nothing. It's stunningly good value. Is there a catch? No, there isn't – except that all five books are by authors who have several novels out with Accent and if you enjoy them you may well want to read more.

What's included in the bundle besides the first of the James Burke series?

Best of the lot (and I hope I'm not offending any of the others) is Just One Damned Thing After Another. I keep on enthusing about this book. I read it because it's published by Accent, but I'm so glad that I did. Jodi Taylor knows a lot about history and sticks it into her novel, but it's hardly most people's idea of historical fiction. It's a time travelling romp that owes more to Doctor Who than any other literary source. The quintessentially English heroine hops from disaster to disaster as she travels through time, pausing to recuperate with regular cups of tea. The history is well-researched and interesting, the action is dynamic and gripping, but most of all it is very, very funny. I'm working my way through the whole series. It's brilliant and the bundle is worth buying for Jodi Taylor's book alone.

Jane Jackson writes historical romance. Unlike some romance writers, I know that Jane researches her books carefully. Crosscurrents is set around the Industrial Revolution and, while it has its share of ebony curls, broad shoulders and muscular thighs, it also has an astonishing amount of details about hot air-engines and their advantages, or otherwise, over steam power. Ms Jackson has a fine eye for clothing and furniture and fills her story with details of both, painting a deeply textured word picture of Cornwall two centuries ago. Her books are very popular and Crosscurrents is a good introduction to her world.

I haven't read James Green's Another Small Kingdom, but I reviewed a later book in his series set in the early years of the USA on behalf of the Historical Novel Society and I was impressed. His work is definitely worth a read.

George Rees is new to me. I've only had the chance to read the opening pages of An Eye of Death and that has certainly encouraged me to read more. It's a murder mystery set around the world of Elizabethan theatre.

So that's four books free when you buy Burke in the Land of Silver for 99p. Or, if you prefer to look at the other way round, Burke in the Land of Silver free when you buy four books for 99p.

Click on to be taken to the appropriate Amazon page. But do be quick: the offer expires next Wednesday. Once you've bought the books, they sit in your Amazon library like any other and you can read them whenever you want.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Dead trees and Xmas gifts

According to the Evening Standard, last Thursday (8 October) was ‘Super Thursday’ when publishers release a slew of books intended to catch the Xmas trade. Accent have certainly released a lot of new titles in the past week or so. I guess Christmas must really be on its way.

Presumably the idea that people still buy books as gifts is not entirely unrelated to a sudden burst of articles about the joys of paper as opposed to e-books. Paper, we’re told, is taking off again. E-books are rubbish: people don’t concentrate on them, they don’t remember what they read, they miss the smell, the feel, the tiny screams of dead trees.

It’s weird, this idea that e-books versus paper is like one of the great divides of human-kind, like Mods vs Rockers, Mac vs PC, Corrie vs East-Enders. [Should I explain the last one for American readers? No, that’s what Google’s for.]

I’m a huge e-book fan. I read mainly on an iPad. It lets me carry lots of books with me. It allows me to highlight and make notes on them. (I know some people do that on paper, but I was brought up to see that as vandalism and I still feel uncomfortable with it.) I don’t lose my place. And it’s massively cheaper and easier to get new books. (Given the amount of 19th century reading I do, it’s often the only remotely realistic way to get hold of obscure out-of-print Victorian volumes.) So am I a paper-hating child of new technology? Hardly.

This is the biggest bookcase in the house, but far from the only one.

Practically every room in the house has at least some books propped up in it somewhere (not the bathroom – the steam makes the paper soggy). Paper books are attractive. It’s easier, sometimes, to browse a shelf full of books than to find something useful in an e-library. E-books are easier to search when you know what you want, but they can be frustrating when you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for. Paper books allow more opportunities for serendipitous discoveries. The original inspiration for Cawnpore was a book I picked up browsing through someone else’s (paper) library, stuck indoors on a wet day. If I’d had an e-reader with me, I’d probably never have come across it.

Bookshops can be very frustrating in their selection of stock. (Try asking for one of my books – or pretty well anything published by a smaller press – at Waterstones and prepare yourself for, frankly ridiculous, claims that they can’t get it for you.) But the shelves of temptingly displayed volumes can draw you to books you would never otherwise have discovered.

Paper books can be lent to friends or passed on when they’re finished with. They do, indeed, furnish a room. Old textbooks remind us of our student years, an autographed volume of a special meeting. Most of all, as ‘Super Thursday’ reminds us, paper books can be gifted in a way that e-books cannot. A paper book says that you want to share something you have enjoyed, or that you have thought about the interests and enthusiasms of your friend and sought out a book that matches them. The transfer of digital data from computer to computer does not, for some reason, carry the emotional resonance of the gift of a physical book.

All my books are available in paperback as well as on Kindle. Most good publishers try to produce paper copies, if only for their authors to display proudly on their bookcases. (Second shelf down on the extreme right if you’re checking the photo.) All authors I have ever met want to see their words on paper. It’s odd because, in this digital age, the paperback is probably the first time I’ve seen my book printed out in its entirety. Still, there they are. And you can buy them, and give them to your friends.

‘Super Thursday’ means there are just 2½ months to Christmas. Time to start thinking which books you’re going to order.