Friday, 26 February 2016

A Kestrel Rising

Another book review this week. Well, people seem to like book reviews, and I'm a great believer in giving my readers what they want.

After exploring the middle of the 19th century with last week's review of Fingersmith, this week may seem hardly historical at all. S.A. Laybourn’s A Kestrel Rising is set during World War II. There’s no doubt that stories set in the 1940s qualify as ‘historical’ but many people see ‘war stories’ as a separate genre. This, though, is no war story: it’s a romance told from the point of view of a young woman (Ilona) who has joined the WAAF to do her bit for the war effort by driving. She starts by driving pilots to their aircraft and she is soon adopted by the absurdly young men that she takes out to wait for what might be their last flight and who she greets as they return, frightened but putting a brave face on their adventures. Romance almost inevitably ensues, but then this idyll (he is handsome and kind; she is a virgin, desperately giving herself to the love of her life) ends with the death of the pilot. Around a fifth of ‘the Few’ died in the Battle of Britain and the book is very good at capturing the way that everyone in the RAF and WAAF had to live with the reality of friends and comrades dying or being horribly injured on a regular basis.

Ilona is emotionally destroyed by the loss of her lover and transfers to a job driving trucks between RAF bases, so she has less contact with the pilots. The war, though, touches every aspect of her life. Her family is terribly important to her but she hardly ever has the chance to visit them. So when it turns out that a distant relative has come over from America to sign up with the RAF, she feels obliged to spend time with him. In one of the book’s rare descents into cliché, she at first hates him before slowly growing close to him. But he is flying escort in the bombing raids on Europe – a role with a horrifically high attrition rate. Ilona is terrified to admit her feelings because she feels that she cannot face the loss of a second lover.

I would say that this is very definitely a ‘historical novel’. The romance is defined by the reality of war and the social attitudes of its time. It's probably more driven by historical reality than most ‘historical romances’ where, one suspects, the details of the dresses are the only point at which real history touches the story. Here everything from the ring that her lover gives her to wear on their ‘dirty weekend’ to the impossibility of sleeping together when he visits Ilona’s house (though her parents are under no illusions as to their relationship), all catch the combination of social repression and sexual liberation that seems to have typified the war years.

Laybourn also writes with real understanding about the emotional agony of losing a lover to death. It’s probably only fair to say that I have been a ‘virtual friend’ of this author for a while (though I have never met her) and I know that these passages reflect her own experience. They are written from the heart and rise far above the mawkishness that can characterise some romantic writing.

While this is a romance, rather than a war story, Laybourn has a scarily precise grip on the different sorts of fighter planes used in the war and the various ways in which you could die in all of them. When the pilots describe their experiences, they ring absolutely true. There’s also interesting stuff about the position of US airmen as the US finally joins the war.There are, of course, places where reality gives way to the necessities of keeping the plot moving. Realistically, there are an awful lot of railway journeys (the only way to travel any distance when off-duty) but, unrealistically, our hero and heroine always get seats, so they can move the story along with meaningful conversations. While it is remarked on as lucky, accounts I have read of wartime travel suggest it was little short of miraculous. And once the war is over, everybody is demobilised practically overnight so that Laybourn can hurry us to the inevitable happy ending. (I was holding out for a dark twist where they survive the war only to die in a freak motorcycle accident on the first day of peace, but I’m not your average romance reader and it was never going to happen.) There are an awful lot of goodbyes at stations (I felt sometimes that I was on a constant rerun of 'Brief Encounter') but that’s probably realistic and if the desperately stiff upper lips and ‘I do love you, darling’s seem ridiculous in 2016, I doubt they did back then. The one occasion where they take a return rail journey and end up back at a different London terminus is less convincing, but perhaps the usual route was blocked by bombing or something. It’s the only obvious ‘gotcha’ so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Beautifully written, with credible characters you come to care about, this book works as a romance and as a novel of the Second World War. I recommend it.

Friday, 19 February 2016


You may have noticed that I'm getting quite excited about my next book coming out in the middle of April.

Much of the action in Back Home takes place around the criminal underworld of London in the mid-19th century, so it is hardly surprising that people kept telling me I should read Sarah Waters' books set in the same period. With Back Home finished, I finally got around to Ms Waters and settled down with  Fingersmith.

What a treat it turned out to be! Waters is, above all, an astonishingly good writer. In an age which increasingly emphasises story rather than style, her use of language is a joy. Not that she sacrifices story in the interests of literary pretension. Fingersmith is a real page turner. If the plot is at times Dickensian, with twists and turns, mad houses and long lost relatives, thieves’ kitchens and grand houses, then this is at least consistent with its period. And what a grasp of period Sarah Waters has. Many writers force historical factoids down our throats to prove that they have done their research. Others wear their learning so lightly that, even if there are no anachronisms in their books, the characters and situations are not rooted in their period. Fingersmith is remarkable in that every page oozes the reality of the mid-19th century, without ever throwing history at the reader. It is written in the first person and, of course, to somebody living in the period the realities of daily life are mundane. Waters does not make the mistake of drawing attention to things that her characters would have thought un-noteworthy, but all the detail is there. I never, for one moment, doubted that I was seeing the real world of Victorian London.

I can't enthuse in detail, because the plot contains several dramatic twists and it would be a shame to spoil it if you haven't already read the book. So you will just have to take my word that the characters are fully rounded and their idiosyncrasies make sense. The plot, like all convoluted Dickensian confections, sometimes twists a little too much for its own good. ‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler if they’d just …’ you find yourself saying. Sometimes the reason for the confusion becomes clear, sometimes not – but you keep turning the page and I was never disappointed as things unfolded.

If you like 19th-century historical novels, you are almost certain to love this. And if you have never tried this genre before, this will be a good starting point. (You can always read Back Home later.)

Friday, 12 February 2016

Back Home

If all goes well, my next book should be out in almost exactly two months. It's called Back Home and it brings John Williamson's adventures to a conclusion with him "back home" in England.

When I introduced John Williamson in The White Rajah, I had no plans to produce a sequel, although I deliberately left open the option of having him move on to India. When Cawnpore came out, the conclusion had him returning to England and I knew then that there was a possibility for one more story.

Back Home is my farewell to John Williamson. I have really enjoyed writing about him and I wanted to send him off in style. The mechanics of his story to date meant that last one was going to have to be in England and the idea for the plot came when I started reading about the Victorian underworld. It seemed to me that in Victorian society the gap between the respectable world and the London underworld was as great as between Britain and its colonies. Writing about crime in London could not only produce an (I hope) exciting adventure story, but it could allow Williamson to see how the governing class in England exercised its power in a ruthlessly self-interested way at home, as well as abroad.

As I learned more about the London of 1859, I was repeatedly struck by the parallels with today. Just as today, London was undergoing a period of massive growth, at least partly fuelled by immigration (from Ireland rather than the Middle East). There was a lot of political activity by revolutionaries and a concern about possible revolutionary acts. Napoleon III was waging war in Europe and there was a genuine belief that he might invade Britain. All this, of course, against a background of extreme wealth and privilege in some parts of society and almost unbelievable poverty in others. Increasingly, I felt that a book about the struggles of the underclass in 1859 had something to say about society today.

Williamson's story comes full circle with Back Home. He left England as a young man and has now returned as a man past his prime. He has spent much of his life carrying British values to people in the Far East. Now he sees how those values are applied in his own country.

Back Home is not a political tract. It is, first and foremost, an adventure story that rounds off the adventures Williamson has had in Borneo and India. But there is a political side to the story. And, as the British debate their place in the world of 2016 and politicians talk proudly about Victorian values, it is, perhaps, time that we looked at the world of 1859 and asked ourselves if those are really the values we want to go back to.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Guest post by Laura Wilkinson

Last week Laura and I (joined by others) wasted much of a morning talking about shoes. Because Laura is a professional writer, that time turned out not to be wasted at all, as she made this blog post out of it.

Laura Wilkinson

Bottom Up or Inside Out?

Last week, three days before the publication of my third novel, Redemption Song, I posted a photo on Facebook of the boots I planned to wear at the launch party. To say the posf a pat attracted attention would be an understatement. Among friends my love of footwear, clothes and all things glittery is well known. At the Waterstones launch I joked that the boots might prove more popular than the book. But how is this relevant to writing I hear you cry?

The famous boots
It’s about character and, specifically, character creation. In my 20s I worked as an actress and footwear was incredibly important for getting a handle on my role. Once I had the right shoes all else seemed to slot into place. I knew how she moved, what she loved, who she was. This was especially true of the period roles. When wardrobe presented me with a knackered pair of old boots during a stint as Dinah (in a stage adaptation of George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece Adam Bede) I slipped them on, glass slipper style, and become a tub-thumping, devoted Methodist lay preacher.

The correct shoes, and clothes, are also important in my novels – for whether we like it or not, clothes, our attitude towards them and how we present ourselves, reveal a lot about us. And even if our characters are constrained by uniforms, the adjustments they make – if they make adjustments – are revealing. Tom and I, amongst others, had an extended conversation on Twitter about shoes. As you may know, Tom is a passionate dancer, but even if you didn’t know this, you might have guessed by taking a look at some of his footwear. My female lead in Redemption Song, Saffron, wears black Doc Martens, thick black tights, black jeans and jumpers. She’s even dyed her hair dark. It reflects her internal world. By contrast, her mother Rain’s style is more flamboyant and colourful and she is a more optimistic character at the story’s outset. And while Joe is constrained by his profession – he’s a carpenter – his haircut and the way he wears his clobber also tells us something. Or should.

All that said, when it comes to writing I create characters from the inside out and not the bottom up. When I first embark upon a project I have no idea what my characters look like. They are nebulous, indistinct creatures; part spectres, part shop dummies before the window dresser sets to work. I find out what they like to have for breakfast, what’s their favourite hangover cure (if they drink and if not, why not?), the childhood secret they’ve never shared, what they like least about themselves… You get the gist. Only once I know these kinds of things can I dress them and even then, from time to time, during the intense period that is the first draft, they can pick something out of their wardrobe and surprise me. ‘You’re going to wear that?’ I sometimes shriek. In much the same way I will sometimes gasp: ‘You said what?’ or ‘You did it!’

Thanks for having me, an outsider from over in contemporary fiction land, at your brilliant blog, Tom.

Laura has written three novels. By a strange coincidence, her third, RedemptionSong, has just been published. 

If you lost everything in one night, what would you do?
Saffron is studying for a promising career in medicine until a horrific accident changes her life for ever. Needing to escape London, she moves to the Welsh coast to live with her mother. Saffron hates the small town existence and feels trapped until she meets Joe, another outsider. Despite initial misgivings, they grow closer to each other as they realise they have a lot in common. Like Saffron, Joe has a complicated past…one that’s creeping up on his present. Can Joe escape his demons for long enough to live a normal life – and can Saffron reveal the truth about what really happened on that fateful night? Love is the one thing they need most, but will they – can they – risk it?
Redemption Song is a captivating, insightful look at what happens when everything goes wrong – and the process of putting the pieces back together again.

If you’d like more information about Laura and her work visit: