Monday, 24 November 2014

Books for Christmas

The Christmas cactus is coming into flower, so it must be time to give my suggestions for books you might like to read this Christmas.

Let's get the obvious over with first. Accent publish my books in both Kindle and paperback. People usually prefer to give paperback books as gifts, and it's true that the paperbacks are a little (but not much) more expensive than paperbacks produced in large print runs by bigger publishers. They're still pretty inexpensive, though, and I still think that books make good gifts. If you ever run into me – and a lot of people who read this blog may do that – I'm happy to sign them for you.

Moving on to other authors, I'm going to concentrate on writers who are published by independent publishers. There are a lot of good writers who are published by mainstream publishers, but mainstream publishers have huge marketing and distribution departments and don't need my help to shift books.

Over the last few years I've been reading a lot of books published by tiny presses. Not that long ago, I was published by a tiny press myself. Let's be blunt and admit what everyone knows already: many of these books are badly presented, badly written, sometimes barely literate rubbish. However, many are perfectly good books and a few are really excellent. The best book I read in 2014 was published by a very small publisher in Australia. It was Unforgivable. I've written about it HERE. It's a stunning novel that I am going to keep plugging in the hope that one day it will get the recognition it deserves.

When you are looking at books from independent publishers, the name of the publisher does become rather important. I am published by Accent Press. I am not going to pretend that every book that Accent publishes is absolutely wonderful. I've looked at some and really not been that impressed. But everything they publish has been read by an editor who did like it – and who is to say that they are not right and I am not wrong. All Accent's books have been properly edited and proofread and are presented with the words in the right order on the page. (This should be a given, but trust me, I have been given books to review where it was not.) If you buy a book from a professional publisher like Accent – however small they are – you will have some basic guarantee of quality.

I'm reading an Accent book right now: Just One Damn Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. I'm only a third of the way through, so I'm not in a position to give a proper review, but yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I sat in the bath reading until the water went cold. It's a story about time travel but, with its beautifully believable female main character, its eccentric English setting and its delightful sense of humour, it's far more Doctor Who than a traditional po-faced piece of science fiction. I suppose I could be disappointed, but I'm prepared to recommend this on what I've read so far.

Another Accent author I have read and enjoyed is Jean Goodhind. Something in the Blood is a traditional murder mystery, though as a whodunnit it leaves something to be desired. What it offers instead is smooth and witty writing, an attractive and entertaining heroine, rounded characters and a wonderful sense of place – in this case Bath. It's not Agatha Christie, but if you are looking for a book that will offer the reader undemanding entertainment on a winter's evening, you could do a very great deal worse.

Public Battles,Private Wars by Laura Wilkinson (Accent again) is a more serious and considered work that has, deservedly, received positive critical attention. A politically committed look at the miners' strike, with a strong feminist perspective, it does not let its ideology get in the way of telling a good story. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Let's finish with a couple of books from other publishers. Drawn to Perfection by Victoria Owens is published by Hookline Books. It was published in 2013, but it has a Regency setting and the style is straight out of Jane Austen's notebooks. There is a plot – actually rather a good plot – but I would recommend this book anyway. The characterisation and the sheer elegance of the writing blew me away. This is a fine example of why we should not dismiss books from smaller publishers. Given the amount of rubbish that mainstream houses push out into WHSmith every month, it's a shame and disgrace that something as beautifully written as this is unlikely to find a mass-market.

Finally, I'll mention Ticket to Paradise by Elizabeth Morgan. This is a novel, closely based on historical events, about the movement of Welsh settlers to Argentina in 1865.It’s a fascinating story, well told. Morgan writes well and with a great ear for the cadences of Welsh, which enlivens her dialogue. The history is riveting, and particularly interesting to anyone with an interest in Argentine history, as I know many of you have.

So there you are: half a dozen books from four different independent publishers, none of which you are going to see promoted in your local Waterstones, but all of which are, in their own ways, well worth reading. John Grisham is a great author, but he really doesn't need the money any more. This Christmas, why not give some consideration to books by authors you've never heard of from publishers you didn't know existed?

Monday, 17 November 2014

It's been an exciting few days.

This weekend, Carol McGrath has hosted an article of mine about Waterloo on her blog. It suggests that Waterloo might not have been the British victory it is usually presented as. Why not nip over and have a look at it?

Meanwhile the latest Historical Novel Society reviews are out. These are published once a quarter and simply getting a review means that the book is taken seriously as a historical novel. I had already been very excited by the review of Burke in the Land of Silver (reviewed as His Majesty's Confidential Agent) but I only just realised that the latest reviews also included TheWhite Rajah.
If you want to see the full reviews, click on the links. The highlights are: "An involving tale of adventure, intrigue and unlikely love," (White Rajah) and  "a well-crafted adventure yarn with exotic settings and plenty of suspense." (Land of Silver).

Besides reviews of my books, there's a few reviews that I've written. Given that I blogged on 19th-century history elsewhere this week, I thought I'd take the opportunity to use this post to promote some other authors’ books. Here are the reviews.

The Tsar's Dragons by Catherine Collier

[After I had been given the book to review I discovered that Catherine Collier is also published by Accent. This does not mean I can't review her book honestly.]

In 1869 Tsar Nicholas invited a Welshman to develop mining and ironworks in Ukraine. John Hughes brought with him Welsh miners and iron-workers. They built a new city on the Ukrainian steppe: Hughesovka (now Donetsk).
It was a huge project, and Collier’s account is on a similarly mammoth scale. The Tsar’s Dragons has 552 pages and is the first volume of a trilogy. It is more family saga than history, although there is a lot of historical detail, which certainly reads convincingly. There were some points where I stumbled (could a photographer then have taken a candid “snap” without the subjects being aware?), but I was more worried about social attitudes. Whilst anti-Semitism and the abuse of women are realistically (and sometimes graphically) portrayed, almost all the characters are noble and liberal, with just a couple of ‘baddies’ for contrast. Theirs seem 21st-century attitudes transplanted to 19th-century Russia. The repressive nature of the regime is not mentioned, although we are reminded that the serfs had recently been emancipated. Whilst Nicholas did start to liberalise Russia, things here are progressing so well that the Russian Revolution seems unnecessary.
The modern attitudes of the characters make the primitive conditions of life in the Welsh mining villages and the cruel realities of living and mining in Ukraine both even more horrifying by contrast. Collier is unsparing in her descriptions of beatings and rapes, and her account of a mine collapse is gripping. Like all family sagas, this has its share of passionate love and illicit liaisons, much of it setting up a situation which should make the second volume satisfyingly dramatic.
If you like family sagas and want to learn more about an unexplored bit of 19th-century history, this is for you.

Ticket to Paradise by Elizabeth Morgan

In 1865, the English were giving the Welsh a hard time. (Nothing changes.) Desperate to preserve their language and way of life, some emigrated to Patagonia. This story follows those who founded the town of Rawson, on the Argentine coast. It follows their struggles as they finally make a viable settlement but, at the same time, see their identity subsumed into the wider Argentine society.
It’s a fascinating story, well told. Morgan writes well and with a great ear for the cadences of Welsh, which enlivens her dialogue. The history is riveting, and I was interested enough to find Rawson on the map. The map does confirm my suspicion that the area is not surrounded by grassland, as described in the book. That was always incompatible with the problems that the settlers had in growing crops. It’s a shame that Morgan’s geography isn’t as good as her history.
The story-telling is let down by some neat moralising (the Reverend is a pious and unpleasant man, put in his place by the atheist hero), an unnecessary (and unhistorical) aside involving Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and an unconvincing battle between the Welsh and a band of bloodthirsty Indians. There is also an unfortunate epilogue set in the Falklands War, in which the language and attitudes of 2013 civilians are written unconvincingly into the dialogue of 1982 soldiers. These failures, though, are trivial when set against the gripping accounts of daily life and the relationships between the characters. The book provides a useful introduction to an important period of both Welsh and Argentine history. Strongly recommended.

The Art of Killing Well by Howard Curtis (trans.), Marco Malvaldi

It’s 1895. The famous cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, has been invited to spend the weekend with a baron and his family. At the castle, there is a murder. (At least we know the butler didn’t do it: he’s the victim.) It was carried out by one of the house party or one of the household servants. A policeman arrives. Suspects are interviewed, the policeman solves the crime. It’s a classic country house murder mystery in the English style, but set in Italy. There’s no real sense of period. I’m not sure that the concept of the weekend was even around in 1895 Italy (the phrase only became common in England in the 20th century). The style is (as the author post-modernly points out) late 19th century, except for the frequent post-modern intrusions. The historical Pellegrino Artusi is not particularly rounded, except in girth, and the other characters have the two‑dimensionality of most country-house murder suspects. The recipes, though, are convincing. All-in-all it’s a pleasant read for Agatha Christie fans, but hardcore historical novel enthusiasts should look elsewhere.

I'll post again soon with recommendations for books for Christmas. Until then, happy reading!

Monday, 10 November 2014

1066 and all that

I think it's time for a post about history. This week, we're going way further back than the Napoleonic Wars that feature in my books about James Burke, or the mid-19th century of The White Rajah. Instead, my guest blogger, Carol McGrath, takes us back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest.

Two Noble Women of 1066

As we know women are often the footnotes of history. When a writer sets about telling their stories she has set herself a demanding investigative task. My thought is that for a writer of serious historical fiction it is necessary to excavate the facts where these exist and then embed these within the story she is telling.  I wanted to bring these women’s lives to life and to recreate a semblance of the world in which they dwelled. What did they eat? How did they clean their teeth, where did they go to the loo, how did they raise their children, to what spiritual beliefs did they adhere and, importantly, how did they cope with dramatic change. The Norman Conquest did bring turmoil and change to England. How did noble women cope not only with the loss of their men but with changes imposed on them in the immediate aftermath of Conquest? After all, the noble women were the survivors. They were also, importantly, heiresses.

As I wrote The Handfasted Wife and latterly The Swan-Daughter, I had to do much research in chronicles to find snippets about these noble women’s actual lives. I also had to reconstruct the day to day realities of women’s lives through much further reading to disperse any big sense anachronism creeping into the novels. Of course, I am a modern woman looking back to the eleventh century so modern sensibility some must creep in. I also hoped that these heroines would be feisty enough to appeal to today’s women. I was taking them out of their domestic comfort zone in a world that had been turned upside down by conflict.

By creating both a pacey adventure narrative and female personalities whose story a reader wants to follow, I hoped to hoodwink that reader into believing that that he/she was immersed in the experience of the eleventh century. I do care about historical integrity but admit that where fiction is concerned there will be imaginative invention.

The Handfasted Wife takes place in the year 1066. Edith Swanneck is set aside for a political marriage when her husband Harold is crowned king. According to Chronicle it is she who recognises his broken body after the battle according to marks only known to her. We all know the story of the Battle of Hastings but little is known about Harold’s true love and mother of his six surviving children, four boys and two girls. Researching this book enabled me to discover that women, before The Norman Conquest, owned property separately from their husbands and that they made wills. They could, in theory, do what they liked with their own possessions. When this came to land, in reality, pressure was often put on women by male relatives. After the Norman Conquest a woman’s property became his property. If she became a widow she received a third of their possessions as the widow’s portion until she remarried. Edith Swan-Neck, called so because to possess white skin and a long neck like a swan’s neck was a sign of great beauty, had title to lands in Kent, Essex and Cambridgeshire. She owned properties in Canterbury. We know all this because it is recorded in The Domesday Book of 1086.

Although this novel stands alone, The Swan-Daughter picks up the theme of land ownership by women which was introduced in The Handfasted Wife

Gunnhild, King Harold’s daughter, was in Wilton Abbey for her education at the time of Conquest, 1066. After the Conquest, many heiresses took refuge in abbeys as King William encouraged inter-marriage between English and Normans. It was one way to make the take-over easier. It provided reward as it gave unmarried Norman knights the opportunity to claim legal tenure to English lands.

Gunnhild was a child in 1066, but as her aunt, Edith Godwin, had been the wife of Edward the Confessor, thus a queen, and also the patron of Wilton Abbey, it may have been that Aunt Edith hoped that one day Gunnhild would become a novice, take vows and rise in time to the top job , that of Abbess. Gunnhild clearly had other ideas. She did apparently elope with Alan of Richmond, a Breton cousin of King William, who may have through his marriage gained title to her mother, Edith’s lands. When Count Alan married Gunnhild the fact is that the lands came into his possession. I posit in the story, that Wilton Abbey also claimed some of Gunnhild’s wealth. It makes for an interesting historical fiction. The story becomes even more fascinating because after Alan’s death Gunnhild took up with his younger brother. The evidence for this comes from a correspondence between Gunnhild and Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury dating to 1092/3. She would have been in her mid-thirties by then.

We do not really know what happened but Anselm clearly disapproved of her relationship with Alan’s brother. The Anglo-Saxon heiress was a valuable woman, a woman of substance in her own right and after the Battle of Hastings there were many of them, widows and daughters to whom land rights reverted as well as what they may have already had title to.

All this is great material for stories and an important inspiration for The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy. 

Finally, I would like to thank Tom for hosting me on his blog. It is a wonderful opportunity to explain the history behind my novels. Well, as far as I could unearth it! The novels are stories of historical adventure and if you read them I hope you enjoy them.  

Follow me on Twitter @carolmcgrath

Thursday, 6 November 2014

It seems it's that time of year already...

With Xmas on the way (aaargghhhh!) I'm already beginning to see posts on Facebook calling on people to support local retailers rather than large chains. In a similar vein, could I ask that you support writers who are published by independent publishers rather than those from mainstream publishers? Dan Brown doesn't need a bigger audience, but some books from independent publishers struggle to be seen in the mass of pre-Christmas book marketing.

I was thinking of posting here with a list of possible 'independently published books for Christmas' but it seems a bit on the early side. When would you like to see this?

Monday, 3 November 2014

A truly amazing Saturday

Saturday was, as all my younger friends would say, a pretty awesome day.

It started with the paperback of Burke and the Bedouin arriving in the post, so the book is now definitely officially out there. I think Accent are doing a lovely job with the covers. Don’t they look impressive?

Then I saw that the Historical Novel Society's review of Burke in the Land of Silver (reviewed under its original title of His Majesty’s Confidential Agent) had come out.  HNS reviews matter: they are selective about what they review so just getting a review from them means that your book is taken seriously as a historical novel.

Here’s what they said.

This tale of espionage is set against one of the lesser-known fields of conflict in the Napoleonic Wars – South America – with the real-life British secret agent, James Burke, as a dashing protagonist. In the early years of the 19th century, Burke and his servant, Private William Brown, are dispatched to the Spanish province of La Plata in South America in order to find a way to prevent its riches finding their way into Napoleon’s coffers – but once in La Plata, “our man in Buenos Aires” finds himself becoming drawn to the idea of the province’s independence and to the lovely (and married) Ana O’Gorman. He makes a very dangerous enemy and discovers to his cost that idealism has no place in politics.

The action gallops along, taking us with Burke from the Caribbean, through the capitals of the Europe, to the colonies of the New World. Burke holds the narrative together. He is the most strongly realised character – an ambitious, ruthless man, committed to kill, deceive and seduce in order to promote Britain’s interests – but who sometimes makes errors of judgment, who can let his emotions sway him but who is steadfastly loyal to those close to him.

There are occasional jumps in viewpoint, which can jar the flow of the narrative and a couple of characters are rather one-dimensional (Molly, the patriotic “tart with a heart” comes to mind), but overall this is a well-crafted adventure yarn with exotic settings and plenty of suspense. I wonder if Tom Williams has any more adventures lined up for James Burke.

Then there was the Halloween skate to round off the day. Hundreds of people in fancy dress skated through the centre of London and on to a truly horrifying party. I didn’t take many photos myself, but here’s a tiny sample of the costumes on display.

All in all, this has to have been one of the most comprehensively excellent Saturdays I’ve seen in a while. I hope your weekends were even half as much fun.