Wednesday, 31 December 2014

New Beginnings from an Old Story - Guest Post by Pippa Goodhart

It’s New Year’s Eve, so a moment to consider casting out the old and bringing in the new. But is casting out of the old really necessary to the creation of something new? I’ve just made a new start with something old, and that something is a story called Ginny’s Egg.

I have had over ninety children’s stories published in the traditional way over the last twenty years, but I’m brand new to self-publishing. I’ve just created my first Kindle ebook: Ginny’s Egg. Ginny’s Egg was originally published by Mammoth (later Egmont), got shortlisted for Young Telegraph Book of the Year and sold well.

Cover One
It was reissued with a new cover some years later, kept in print for a good number of years, but finally went out of print about twelve years ago.

So why, out of all my now out of print books, was Ginny’s Egg the one I’m trying as an ebook before any other? Because it’s a story that is close to my heart, and because it is the book that made me into a ‘real’ writer in my own mind.

I’d been a bookseller for years, but was now at home with two small children, mixing child minding and writing ‘reader’ reports on slush-pile manuscripts for the children’s editors at OUP. I got nagged by my husband into writing a children’s novel for the Kathleen Fidler Competition, and that story became my first book, Flow. I thought that if Flow got published, that would be it. I would look at it every day on my shelf, and feel smug and amazed that I had had a book published. But I soon had both my agent and my publisher asking me, ‘so, what will the next book be about?’ Suddenly I had to be a professional writer, producing a story from nothing, and to a deadline.

Cover Two
I went to a talk by Annie Dalton in which she told that the way to play with fantasy in fiction isn’t to create a whole new world that needs every bit of that world explaining (because telling what people look like, what they eat, how they dress etc inevitably slows down the actual story), but to set a story in a recognisable world, and then take just one strand of that world into fantasy. I got home from that talk to find my husband building a new hen run for Nancy Next Door, and small daughters collecting chicken eggs. Eggs. Hmm. Delicate objects, yet strong enough to contain a life. A life that’s hidden. Anything could be inside that shell ….

Hands up all of you who had a go at hatching out an egg when you were a child? I tried multiple times, always with disappointing, and sometimes smelly, results. But what if you kept the egg warm and it DID hatch? What if it hatched a baby dragon!? What do you do with a baby dragon that’s hungry and growing fast and starting to breathe fire? You need to get it back to its dragon mother. But how? That’s what Ginny faces.

In the background, distracting Ginny’s parents from their daughter, Mum is giving birth to a longed-for sibling for Ginny … who turns out to have Down Syndrome. I suppose I introduced that idea so that the parents too had to come to terms with a new baby that wasn’t quite what they were expecting. The publishers, reading my first draft, liked it but wanted me to turn the story into much more of an ‘issues book’, pushing the dragon story into the background, and concentrating on the family and disability side of things. I didn’t agree. I wanted to do the opposite.

There I was, an author almost in spite of myself, and ultra-keen to please my publishers and to do as they asked with this second book, but with a fundamental disagreement with them about how the story should work. I KNEW that the dragon story was the one in which to explore my themes, not the more obvious (more boring?) baby one. But, going this way against publisher advice, I was worried about writing a story that was in bad taste somehow with my implied comparison between a baby with a disability and a baby dragon. So I sent my story to the Downs Syndrome Association and they were very helpful; really welcoming a story that considered how it was for the sibling of a disabled child. Their only suggested change (obvious, once it’s been pointed out!) was that I shouldn’t refer to a ‘Downs baby’ but to ‘a baby with Downs Syndrome’, putting the child before the disability.

I rewrote Ginny’s Egg in the way I’d wanted to, and my editor liked the result. Phew! So an important writerly lesson was learned about knowing your own story better than anybody else can.

Cover Three
But, just days after sending off my reworked story, I was given test results showing that my own baby that I was pregnant with had a ‘high risk’ of having Downs Syndrome. Gosh. How did that real life/fiction relationship work? As it turned out, baby Susie didn’t have Down’s Syndrome … but, again entirely coincidentally, is now an adult planning to work in speech therapy with people with Downs Syndrome. Life is strange!

For over twenty years now I’ve found myself involved with the movement to get characters with disabilities included in good children’s fiction of all sorts, but as individuals first and foremost, not defined by their disability, and with their stories not revolving directly around their disabilities. See and

So now Ginny’s Egg is updated to a new version (encyclopaedias and milk bottles out, internet and mobile phones in!), and given its third cover, this time by lovely Jessica Goode whose work I found on a blackboard outside a food shop!

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Two Writers, One Story - co-authoring a book by Susanne O'Leary

I have, with my co-writer Pete Morin, just published Full Irish, a political suspense story set in Boston and Ireland.

This is my second co-written project, my first being the two Virtual books that I wrote with my fellow Swede, Ola Zaltin.

I never thought I'd do this again, as I'm quite happy writing my romantic fiction stories all on my own. Writing the Virtual books was fun and very educational, as my then co-writer was not a novelist but a scriptwriter of Wallander fame. Our working method was not easy but Ola Zaltin was forced, because of his own commitments, to let me take complete control during the first draft and then he just sketched in his own take. His knowledge of Swedish criminal procedures was invaluable, and also his superb plotting skills. But I did the whole story arc, the characters, dialogue and the settings. The result was unusual to say the least. But it was hard work and, although the two novels were well received, we didn't feel we could repeat the process.

So when they were published, I happily set off on my own path, not thinking I'd ever co-write again, or embark on yet another detective series.

But the saying that you should never say never is very true...

After having published the third book in my Kerry rom-com series last spring, I saw a blog post by my writer friend of many years, Pete Morin, where he was inviting submissions to co-write a detective novel with him. Not thinking for a moment that I would apply for the job, I nevertheless asked Pete about the why and wherefore and what was he planning? We joked around for a bit and I said, just out of the blue, why not do a Boston-Irish novel, where the story would be about political corruption, linking the two countries? We chatted a bit about it and then realized somewhere along the way that, well, the two of us might perhaps try to create this story. We could combine my inside knowledge (from being married to an Irish diplomat) about what goes on behind the scenes in Irish politics, and Pete with all that Boston legal and political  experience. We realised we both had some great material we could use.

So off we went.

This time, the writing method couldn't have been more different. It was truly co-writing, with both of us doing exactly half of the writing, mixing, blending, criss-crossing everything; plot, characters, dialogue, setting, even voice. Difficult to describe as a true 'method'.  With modern day document sharing via e-mail and the collaboration technology built into many word processors (we both used MS Word), the process was quite smooth.

We passed the draft back and forth constantly, and we often wrote over each other's work, until we got to the point where we truly didn't know who had written what in some scenes. There were some arguments, of course, about dialogue and scene settings. But in the end, the finished story is the result of two writers’ styles, ideas and voices blended into one. It’s as if we became Morin & O’Leary- the author (singular), not the authors (plural), in a strange way. The now much loved story (if we’re to believe the excellent reviews) is the result of six months' fun and truly stimulating work. 

And now we’re already writing book #2 in what we hope will become a series.

 So if you consider co-writing, I'd recommend it. It’s both fun and educational.

Full Irish: Amazon UK Apple Nook

Monday, 29 December 2014

Making a New Year's exhibition by N M Browne

          So as the fridge slowly empties of cling-film covered leftovers stored on ever smaller  plates, the Christmas tree sheds pine needles onto the carpet in ever increasing quantities and the waistband on my jeans grows ever tighter, thoughts inevitably turn to the New Year and resolutions. These  cold turkey-filled twixmas days  are a good time for indigestion and introspection, not to mention chocolate comas, Netflix binges and that ever popular, post gift-giving game of ‘hunt the receipt.’
          I am a fan of new resolutions. ‘Drink less wine’ is always up there along with ‘write every day’ and ‘keep on top of the laundry pile'. Such resolutions are always doomed, but 
last New Year was a little different. For a start my whole family were in Australia visiting my sister. Nothing is quite the same when it’s 40 degrees at Christmas, not even resolutions. Sunshine changes everything and in a spirit of sun-drenched optimism rather than the more  usual chilly self loathing, we sat round a long trestle table and each of us came up with the one thing we hoped to achieve in 2014.

         I suppose it was more an ambition than a resolution but either way I remember that mine was met with a certain amount of scepticism and derision. This was not entirely unexpected because I said I wanted to get some poetry published. There was scepticism because I had only just started writing poetry and derision because, as everyone knows poetry does not keep the wolf from the door and for me, as for most writers, the wolf is permanently camped on my doorstep.  I don’t actually know why I said it, but I did and it certainly made a change from my usual lengthy list of guilt ridden pledges. 

          Back in the UK, I inevitably forgot my ambitions and it must have been late August/September when my sister mentioned that she had told her gallery her next show would be accompanied by my poetry. Obviously I panicked: I am still a beginner poet and my sister is a well established and highly respected painter. The paintings themselves were and are amazing: brilliant and haunting and bursting with story-stuff. As a novelist I could come up with endless stories, but poetry? I drew a blank for quite a while. I told my sister I couldn’t do it and then, of course, I sort of did it.

           I didn’t succeed in creating poems that did justice to her images, but I did manage to write a series of poems that reflected on them. I won’t claim that they were good (I am still a novice, apprentice poet) however they were displayed next to her canvasses for the duration of the exhibition. Inspired, I subsequently managed to place a couple of poems with a literary magazine. I could not be in Sydney for the show, yet I can’t deny there was a certain thrill in our first professional collaboration. We have often talked vaguely about doing a book together: after all she puts colours and marks next to each other for a living and I do something similar with words. Maybe  2015 could be the year of our book.
          She is over here now and perhaps this New Year we might repeat last year’s round-table resolutions. We could put on all the lights on and build up the fire to a near inferno to replicate that optimistic Sydney glow and who knows? I might find myself coming up with another bullish, ambitious resolution which I could actually keep. Watch this space.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Metamorphoses, Elephant Boys and the Cosmos by Enid Richemont

This is a disturbing image of a boy turning into an elephant (or can it be an elephant turning into a boy?) Possibly worse is the person who is clearly turning into a giraffe, and even more worrying, the caterpillar man, but these are classifed images, and not for the consumption of delicate souls like you.

Strange, top-secret experiments are taking place in Cornwall this Christmas and New Year, and I would advise anyone considering going there, especially with young children, to stay well away. However, if you're still prepared to take the risk, visit Miracle Theatre's pantomime this year - it will not disappoint (it never does).

The mask and the backdrop are both designed by our daughter, and just to remind you that dubious shape-changing might well run in my family genes, here is my most recent book. THE NIGHT OF THE WERE BOY, in which a cat is transformed, by the full moon, into that most odious of creatures, a SMALL BOY (SO embarrassing for an elegant feline equipped with a tail and sensitive whiskers).

Since I now find myself exploring the possibilities of metamorphosis, I'm reminded of "THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING", by T H White, and of how the very young Arthur was transformed, by his mentor, Merlin, into other creatures, as part of his education. I wish this fantasy could be possible - we would learn so much. And which of us has not imagined death as a portal to another sentient life - coming back as a cat, or a tiger, or a swallow, or a butterfly? Fantasies about flying - who hasn't had them? Leonardo certainly did, but his never quite worked. I'd love to think of Leonardo and Galileo flying together, out there in the universe, no, in all the multiple universes, marveling at what is really out there - worlds without end, amen.

Happy New Year, everyone! 

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Thoughts on the Vlogging of Zoella - Andrew Crofts

This was the month of Zoella the Vlogger, (that’s “video-blogger”, for those who haven’t been following the story.) For reasons too complicated to be bothered with, I was aware of this book’s approach before the full page article in the Sunday Times explained that it was the fastest selling new release from a debut author since the beginning of time. The article was a sort of expose, telling shocked readers that Miss Sugg, (Zoella’s wonderfully Dickensian real name), had had the help of a ghostwriter to pen her debut novel, “Girl Online.” A languidly affronted Will Self was quoted as saying that he did not regard Zoella as a writer “in the sense that I’d regard Marcel Proust or Franz Kafka as one.”

The following morning my in-box was filled with requests from eminent journalists asking if I had any thoughts on the whole shocking scandal. Always eager for a bit of free publicity I stared hard, (it has also of course been a triumphant month for that greatest of all starers, Paddington Bear,) into the depths of my soul to see what I truly thought about the whole broo-haha.

Why, I wondered, was everyone being so po-faced about the whole thing?

A likeable young woman had been blogging and vlogging about stuff most young girls are interested in. Digital word-of-mouth had led to millions of followers, which whetted the appetites of agents and publishers. They suggested she wrote a novel – why wouldn’t she? It’s a fun thing to do!

Writing a book takes a bit of practice, so obviously she would need some help if it was to be done quickly, which she freely admits to. A professional writer was then paid a rather mean fee by the publisher considering the company’s managing director has been quoted as saying that he knew immediately that the book was going to be a “Christmas number one.” As a member of the Society of Authors Management Committee I am well aware most writers are grateful for any crumbs thrown their way, but I don’t think that the fee this writer was allegedly paid, (£8,000), supports the general argument that publishers like to put forward about being authors’ best friends and supporters, unlike that naughty bunch of ruthless business people over at Amazon.

I’m sure, however, that the ghostwriter enjoyed herself; the publisher got a jolly romantic novel for teenagers, which did indeed go to number one, and the teenagers were hysterically happy when their heroine signed their copies. The book was so successful, however, that the denizens of Fleet Street felt stirred to shoot it out of the sky with the revelation that a ghost had done the whole thing, (something which Zoella herself had never denied but which the publisher became extremely mealy-mouthed about when asked to comment).

A little bit of fluffy glitz had illuminated the usually sombre world of publishing for a few days. Why would Will Self even have an opinion? (The same reason as me, I suppose). Why did so many highly educated, well-read and literate people want to rain on this poor girl’s parade? This has got nothing to do with Kafka or Proust. This is a little Christmas treat for young people who like reading about celebrities as much as they like reading about vampires, boy wizards and romantic goings-on and ponies. Maybe if the publishing industry lightened up a bit more often it wouldn’t find it so hard to get people to buy books! That, I think, is what I think.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Oh, Those Russians! by Ruby Barnes #ASMSG

The Chernobyl disaster of 26 April 1986 is imprinted on the memory of everyone who lived through that time and continues to be known as one of the World's worst nuclear accidents. The Cold War had long threatened the planet with a nuclear cataclysm but Chernobyl surprised and appalled the population of Earth.

An author with a knack for prophesy had written a novel based around a nuclear power accident in Russia several months before the Chernobyl disaster occurred. Farewell to Russia by Richard Hugo (a.k.a. Jim Williams) described a technically very different scenario to Chernobyl, with an even more disastrous potential outcome. But the point Williams made was poignant: 

"...there remains a fundamental similarity in that both disasters have their origins in the way that the communist system operated. The Soviet Union was a rickety slovenly place behind its sinister fa├žade and the circumstances of the imaginary disaster at Sokolskoye and the real disaster at Chernobyl stand as a metaphor for the weaknesses that would bring the whole system down."

As a fan of Jim Williams I had a battered second-hand copy of Farewell to Russia in my bookcase and resolved to read it sometime. Last summer I finally got around to the task and was very surprised by this out-of-print novel. The author soon transported me into a dark Soviet Era world in which a KGB detective became embroiled in a nuclear incident and attempted to smuggle embargoed USA technology to solve the threat to the Russian nation. The retro feel was authentic, the prose timeless, the detective Kirov a dark master of manipulation and interrogation. Psychological thrills, action, a love interest, it had everything. Critics of the time had praised the work but it seemed to have lapsed into obscurity. I spoke to Jim about it and he suggested I read the sequel A Conspiracy of Mirrors / The Gorbachev Version. For several days I lived for that book, entangled in a mix of James Bond, Nordic noir and The Americans. Jim's flair for languages and research combined to build an authentic and troublesome world for KGB Major Pyotr Kirov. Jim was finally persuaded to re-release both books under his real name with our publisher Marble City Publishing, renaming the sequel Anti-Soviet Activities. The original paper copies were digitized and reformatted for the modern world by Marble City, and new covers created by JD Smith Design.

Farewell to Russia by Jim Williams
The First Pyotr Kirov Detective Novel

Both books are now available from Marble City in e-book and paperback format. Farewell to Russia will be free on Amazon from 28 December 2014 to 1 January 2015. If you enjoy a good thriller then click the above link, head on over to Amazon and grab a copy!

The Second Pyotr Kirov Detective Novel

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Big Fat Lies - a review, by Susan Price

It's Christmas Day, so I don't suppose anyone is reading this post. Which means
Big Fat Lies by David Gillespie
I won't be accused of  killing the joy.

          On the other hand, Christmas is a traditional time for telling creepy stories - and I am here to make your flesh creep.
            'Big Fat Lies - How the Diet Industry Makes You Sick, Fat and Poor' is by an Australian lawyer, David Gillespie. He was fat, and he wanted to be thinner, but found, like so many of us, that diets don't work. So he started researching the subject.
          As he says, he may not be a doctor or nutritionist, but what lawyers are really good at is following the evidence - which he presents in Big Fat Lies.
          The ghastly monsters which emerge from fridge and pantry, to gibber, mop and mow, are Sugar, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, and Polyunsaturated Fats, aka 'vegetable oils' - though as Gillespie points out, they aren't vegetable oils at all, but seed oils.
          The tale that Gillespie uncovers about sugar and High-Fructose Corn Syrup is the same one told by Yudkin and Lustig in books previously reviewed here.  Sugar is an addictive poison, which is stuffed into almost every manufactured food item because Big Food knows that it's hard for us to resist its addictive sweetness. So they sell more, and we end up with 'an obesity epedemic.'

         Also, sugar is a cheap preservative, and helps to make it possible for packaged food to sit in warehouses and on shelves for months, even years, without decaying. (And food should decay - if it doesn't, then the colonies of bacteria who live in our guts, and do the work of digesting for us, can't do anything beneficial with it.)

          But Gillespie doesn't simply repeat what Yudkin and Lustig have told us. He discovers additional nuggets.
          Chromium, for instance. We need tiny amounts of the stuff to be healthy, and it's virtually impossible to be deficient in it (though that doesn't stop the food & diet industry from selling it to us in 'supplements' which don't work, and may even do harm.)
          However, if your diet is high in sugar and/or high-fructose corn syrup - if, say, you drink a lot of soft drinks, or eat a lot of ready meals, or takeaways with sugary sauces - then the sugar very efficiently carries the chromium out of your body, resulting in the theoretically impossible chromium-deficiency.
          And what is the effect of chromium-deficiency? Oh, have a guess - go on, guess. Chromium-deficiency makes us resistant to insulin, that's what. Which means high blood-sugar and diabetes 2.
          It also means high insulin levels, as the body floods the blood-stream with insulin in an attempt to reduce blood-sugar. And how does insulin reduce blood-sugar levels? - By turning the excess sugar into fat.
          So you're constantly hungry, constantly craving more sugar, and your weight gain is accelerated. A state of affairs that the processed food and diet industries are very happy about. A cynical person might suspect that, if they didn't exactly set out to create that state, they're at least happy to perpetuate it. (Remember how the tobacco industry denied, for decades, that there was any link between smoking and cancer? - And then it turned out they'd known there was a link all along? - And what does the food industry say, when it's told that sugar is poisonous and addictive? It says that sugar is simply a food like any other, and a valuable addition to a varied diet. So stop worrying, shut up, and have another fizzy drink.)
          There's another condition which has been increasing, besides diabetes, and that's thyroidism. Pollution's been blamed; radioactive fall-out has been blamed. But you know what? A high sugar/fructose diet blocks the absorption of iodine, which means thyroid problems. Fancy that.

          This book is not so much eye-opening as eye-popping - and one of its most eye-popping aspects is on just how little research and poor evidence the 'government' and 'medical' nutritional advice has been based on for the past thirty years and more.

          For thirty years we've been told that saturated fat is bad for us, gives us strokes and heart attacks. We should avoid fat, and eat a lot of carbs to fill us up - potatoes and bread and rice and pasta. And if we have to have fat, it should be vegetable oil.
          It turns out that not only is this wrong - but it was always known to be wrong.
          Ancel Keys was the man who designed the American army's field rations for WWII - that's why they're called 'K-rations.' The 'K' is short for 'Keys.' This seems to have given him a lot of influence at government level.
          So when he published research demonstrating a link between high saturated fat consumption and heart-attacks, the American government listened. Keys' study, published in 1953, looked at the saturated fat consumption in 7 countries: Japan, UK, Italy, Wales, Australia, Canada and the US. His stats showed, with perfect correlation, that the higher the fat consumption in these countries, the higher the rate of deaths from heart disease. This research is what all the 'avoid the killer fry-up' advice has stemmed from.
          And it was nonsense. Even at the time, Keys' contemporaries pointed out that if he'd used the figures for Israel, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Norway instead, his graph would have 'proved' exactly the opposite: that the more saturated fat consumed, the fewer deaths from heart disease.
          Combine the figures from these 14 countries, and there is no significant correlation at all.
           Nor is there any proven link between cholesterol in the blood and heart-disease - but statins, which disrupt the body's natural functioning in order to lower cholesterol, are the highest selling drug in the world. I wonder if there's a connection between that and the continuing message that 'high cholesterol means a high risk of death from a heart-attack.' (It doesn't: there is no clear connection between cholesterol in the diet and heart-attacks, and no evidence at all that eating a diet low in saturated fat has any effect on cholesterol levels in the blood.)
          Dr William Castelli, part of the long-running Framingham study, said in 1992 that, in fact, Framingham was finding that those who ate the most saturated fat, weighed least and were most active.
          Gillespie uncovers evidence - and names the papers - to show that, in fact, the most dangerous fats are those we're constantly being urged to eat: the polyunsaturated seed oils, such as sunflower, rape and canola oil. They have been strongly linked to cancer - and may even be the cause of the increasing number of skin-cancers. Not sunlight and sunburn after all - since we've evolved, over thousands of years, to cope with sunlight. Rather, the cause seems to be the action of sunlight on the polyunsaturated (and therefore, chemically, highly reactive) fat stored just under our skin.
          If you're interested in your own or your family's health - or are just increasingly suspicious of the multi-nationals which control our food and sway our governments, this is a book worth reading.

          You might also find this link interesting.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

One Christmas in Pokhara - Jo Carroll

‘Merry Crishmus.’ The text was from my guide, reminding me I’d agreed to be up early to go hiking today.
            Pokhara was twinkling but I did not look back as Tika led me through the city and across a suspension bridge into the foothills of the Himalaya. I puffed up, with boots and walking pole, as two women in flip-flops came down with oranges for the market. Would I like to buy some? Of course.
            Less than a mile later we met a friend of Tika’s who took us to his house. His tree was laden with oranges – we must eat some. But we could not linger long, as his aunt expected us for lunch. High in the mountains there is little choice and we ate traditional a Nepali meal of rice, spinach and lentil dhal. At least she has a biogas stove and no longer has to collect wood from the forest for cooking. And her tree was laden with oranges; she picked some just for us.
            On the way home we paused by a small temple, gazed across the valley to the mountains, stark and beautiful. The birds sang; the air was sweet and clear. On old couple toddled out of their little house, to give us oranges. We visited another sister before making it back into town (another orange, of course.)
I just had time to shower and change before joining Tika and his family for supper. I bought them chocolates. Presents, I explained, are part of our Christmas tradition. And we’ll give you a traditional meal, Tika’s wife told me. She bent over a tiny stove on her rooftop to cook the rice, and spinach, and lentil dhal. Followed by …
At home, families would be sated by now, many so full they could do nothing but flop in front of Mary Poppins. While I had been with people who had shared nothing but lentil dhal and oranges. And not because it was Christmas, but because this was all they had. 

This was first published in Tower and Town, Marlborough, in November 2014

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Lev Butts Top Ten (Part IV)

The hits keep coming and we're counting them down!

I'm just like Casey Kasem, only younger and 80% less dead.
For those of you just joining us, this all started when a friend and former student challenged me to a Facebook status game where I was asked to list the top ten books or series that have "stayed with me" (whatever that means). I took it to mean the books that have meant the most to me. Since a simple list with no explanations seems boring, and since I am essentially lazy and am always looking for ways to spread my Authors Electric posts out, I decided to take them two-by-two and month by month:

Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.
Part 3 can be found here.

... and 100% less hip, jackass.

4. The Parsival Series by Richard Monaco

Possibly the best book covers ever to grace bound wood pulp.
If you've been following my posts from the get-go, you all know that Richard Monaco is the writer who has had the most influence on me.

I've spoken elsewhere about how I came to meet Monaco and how he came to be one of the most important writing mentors I've had, so here I want to talk about his book series and why it's set apart from other Arthurian fantasy novels.

Monaco's Parsival series tales as its starting point the Perceval legend as set down by Chretien de Toyes in Perveval, the Story of the Grail and by Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzival.

And, yes, they are about as riveting as you might expect.
In both these versions, the young protagonist has been raised by his mother in the wilderness, far away from all the killing and bloodshed normally found in civilization. His mother hopes to protect her son from all the evils of men: the aforementioned killing and bloodshed, as well as other evils such as adultery, abuse, politics, and in general all the various types of cruelties, petty and great, that mankind tends to take so much delight in.

Her plan seems to work well until the boy comes in contact with a group of Arthur's knights in their shiny armor on their way to hunt down some other poor sod who's crossed the king in someway. Parsival takes these knights for angels, and when he learns that they are in fact noble knights, he is told he can go to Camelot and Arthur will make him a knight, too. Parsival leaves, and on his way to Camelot meets the Fisher King, has a vision of the Holy Grail, and completely fails to understand what he is experiencing.

For the first third of the book, Monaco pretty much retells the traditional myth with subtle changes: Its fairly clear the knights are having a laugh at the foolish Parsival's expense when they tell him to go to Camelot. Once there, Arthur seems far less noble than traditional legends portray him. Not corrupt or evil, though, just fairly mundane and petty. He sends Parsival on a quest that would surely get him killed, to destroy the evil red knight who is terrorizing Camelot, without so much as a buckler or sword, all for a laugh at the foolish boy who would presume to be a knight.

Once Parsival leaves Camelot, though, Monaco leaves his source material firmly behind, and we are presented with a grim depiction of life in the Middle Ages, a life which seems suspiciously like our own. This is where Monaco's version of the tale shines. These books deal with far more than just a retelling of the Holy Grail story. They use the Percival legend to examine man's conflict between his duty to his family, his country, and himself. The relationship between Parsival and his wife, Layla, brings up questions of marital fidelity, both physical and emotional, and Parsival's estranged relationship with his son Lohengrin (which reaches its climax in later volumes) becomes a frank look at how even the best of us can, through our own self-absorption, fail as parents despite all our best intentions.

Monaco’s genius lies in his ability to masterfully take archetypal stories and mold them into metaphors for modern dilemmas. Pick a book at random and you will see it, though I recommend Dead Blossoms: The Third Geisha and his 1987 novel Unto the Beast as the next best examples after the Parsival books.

One final note for those of you who, like me, are obsessed with narrative chronology: Besides the original Parsival trilogy (Parsival, or a Knight's Tale, The Grail War, and The Final Quest) there are now two other Parsival books: Lost Years: The Quest for Avalon and Blood and Dreams: Lost Years II. These last two make a duology of interquels to the original series, and both books take place during the lost years between the first two volumes of the trilogy (hence the name of the duology series). The Quest for Avalon begins immediately after Parsival or a Knight’s Tale, and Blood and Dreams occurs some time shortly before The Grail War.

These covers aren't too bad either.

3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonegut

Another cover that just makes you want to pick it up
Kurt Vonnegut has a keen sense of the absurdities of modern life. Where Richard Monaco uses historical fiction and fantasy as metaphors for these things, Vonnegut uses science fiction and comedy. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut turns his absurdist, satirical eye on everything from war to middle-age, from death to the illusion of free will.

And he does it hilariously. In this novel, Vonnegut sets out to write the memoirs of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and ultimately sent to Dresden, Germany, where he was held as a POW in an underground converted slaughterhouse and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden (at the time, one of the least known firebombings of World War II and one of the most tragic).

Pictured: Comedy gold (above), Uncontainable jocularity (below)
The entire first chapter, in fact, is essentially Vonnegut apologizing because he can't write firsthand about the horrors he witnessed. he can't write about the battle, his capture, the dysentary, the firebombing, or even the killing of an American soldier afterward for stealing a teapot (seriously, this guy is funnier than the love child of Patton Oswalt and Steve Martin).

He keeps trying, but he just winds up getting hammered and drunk-dialing old girlfriends. Finally, the wife of his oldest friend explains why he can't write about the war:
"You were just babies then!" she said.
"What?" I said.
"You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!" 
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
"But you're not going to write it that way, are you." This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.
"I — I don't know," I said.
"Well I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: "Mary," I said, "I don't think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll call it The Children's Crusade."
She was my friend after that.
He begins his story proper in the next chapter, but he is no longer the protagonist (though he is an extra, appearing in the background of several scenes, but never part of the main action). Instead we have Billy Pilgrim, a middle-aged New England optometrist and survivor of Dresden, who has come unstuck in time.

He flip-flops higgledy piggledy through his timeline: one minute he's a little kid, the next he's getting assassinated; after that he may be in the POW camp, or he may be in the earthling exhibit in the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore (whose inhabitants experience past, present, and future simultaneously). He experiences horribly tragic events, he experiences beauty as well, and boredom and mundanity.

Seeing these things helps him come to grips with death, as he tells his fellow earthlings when he returns from his time on Tralfamodore:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes."
What Billy (and by extension, Vonnegut, and by extension, we) learns is that the best way to live this life is to focus on the nice bits and try to ignore the bad.

It is because of this theme, that I think Slaughterhouse-Five makes a good companion piece to The Great Gatsby. They both deal with the moral shortcomings of humanity, one in times of war, the other in times of peace, and together they provide what I think is the best advice for living: Don't leave messes for others to clean up and concentrate on the happy times while trying to ignore the bad. Both are hard (if not impossible) to do, but they are at least worth the effort.

Next month, we finish this.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Clarity, All Is Clarity, by Ali Bacon

I’m afraid I’m not talking turkey gravy here, just another writerly conundrum. Do you ‘flatter your reader’ by letting them work out what’s going on, or just lay it on the line, loud and clear?

This balancing act came to mind during the recently concluded TV drama The Missing,  a gut-wrenching tale about the abduction of a five-year-old child and his father’s insistence on following up new clues eight years later when everyone thinks he should move on. I’m not questioning the characterisation, the acting or even the labyrinthine plot, only the problem of keeping track of what was going on in a narrative that jumped backwards and forwards in time right up until the final denouement. At first we were told this with useful captions ‘present day’ or ‘eight years earlier’ but after a couple of episodes we were left to work it out. 

Well that was fine up to a point, but because the locations and characters were the same in each time frame, some close observation was required:– what colour is her hair? – how bad is his limp? Despite a fair amount of concentration a few expletives were unleashed in our living room – so is this NOW or THEN?!? Maybe producers think it’s good to introduce a degree of mystification, but once or twice I just felt deliberately confused (why were we suddenly in the Indian Ocean?) as if the story wasn’t taut enough without a degree of over-complication. 

Daughter, captivating, and above all, clear!
While the series was under way I also happened to read Daughter by Jane Shemilt about the disappearance of a teenager. This narrative is also in two time-frames hinging on the day of her disappearance. There were a few other similarities with The Missing, but how wonderful it was to be told at the start of every single chapter that this was ‘two weeks before’  or ‘6 months after’ the abduction (if that’s what it was).
Clarity! This harrowing (but not entirely bleak) novel unfolds with a sense of inexorability that’s the hallmark of a page-turner without ever feeling contrived or over-complicated.
I suppose the visual medium has different demands and too much labelling might have seemed clunky  - and I know that even in a book ‘date stamps’ don’t always work (I read the whole of The Time Traveler’s Wife without taking in any of them!)  But there are lots of ways you can flag up a change of chronology in print or on screen. And if in doubt, I’d say don’t risk irritating your reader. Make the stuff they really need to know as obvious as you can!
Celebrate Christmas with a book, or a whole tree of them!
Seasonal message? I think it has to be that Christmas is for reading, so here’s a lovely tree built at my local library in Emersons Green, Bristol, where I’ll be joining in Christmas stories and carols on Tuesday.

Happy Christmas and a Guid New Year!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Aah, it’s Christmas – Seasonal Ramblings from Pauline Chandler


It’s an odd thing that we change so much as we grow older. Odd, but exciting. It’s not just our bodies and faces that change, it’s our opinions, too, isn’t it? And our habits, long ingrained, that give way to new ones. Even if you never move house, if you stay in the place where you were born for the whole of your life, you change. Life is movement. Families alter, like the patterns in a kaleidoscope. Our children leave home, make their own families, change the pattern, yet we stay bound together, the colours repeating themselves in different ways.

Years ago when my boys were young, I drove myself mad at Christmas, crossing every t,  dotting every i, ticking every box, following like a brainless sheep – baaaa! - every idea thrown at me from tv or magazines, to create the perfect day.

There had to be masses of presents, mostly useless but good for a giggle. 

There had to be a full English breakfast, a three course turkey dinner, a buffet tea. Meals must be served on an artistically decorated table. There must be a door wreath, a welcome bough, a blazing hearth draped with greenery, and twinkling lights, hundreds, everywhere! And cards! And hats! And ..and ..and.. Phew! I was a big mummy spider, frantically weaving my Christmas web.

It’s taken a while, some years, my later years, for me to change and see what it's really all about. It's not about frantic, is it? It’s about peace.

File:A Winter landscape of Parracombe - - 221642.jpg

Why didn’t I know this? I did know, of course, it’s in every carol we sing, but I didn’t know it, not really, in head and heart. 

It’s not about spending money on people, is it? It’s about spending time on them, with them if possible, but certainly on them, with a phone call, a text, a card or a letter. Connecting.

Or not connecting, if that’s what you need. Time to yourself, a gift of calm, time to think, to reflect, take stock, fill the tank again.  However you spend it, Christmas is completely different from normal life, isn’t it? It’s time out, in a different place. I love that.

Let me tell you about my Christmas tree, the heart of my home for the holidays. 

It’s a real tree, a beautiful fir tree, dressed with our family collection of decorations, our yesterdays, todays and tomorrows, part of our history. Some are in loving memory, some brand new, some from my childhood, some for my sons and my grandchildren. 

Cornish Teddy
Grandma Dorothy's Santa
Peter's turtle
Magie's angel

There's a Californian one for Si, a guitar for Matt and a lucky black cat for Ben, a humming bird for Phoe and a new silver one for Lucas. For B there's a London one and for me, there are owls, stars and snowflakes, and a menagerie of animals, sheltering.

Every morning as I come downstairs, I smell the tree. It fills the room with its warm pine scent and makes me feel safe and complete. Happy.

So, no frantic. Just peace. 

Wishing you a calm, peaceful time and all love to you and yours this Christmas!

Pauline x