Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd Robinson

The lockdown ought to be a really good opportunity to catch up on reading. I'm reading a lot, as I always do: but I'm finding it difficult to find books that I can really get into. Friends are saying similar things; many are retreating to books they remember from childhood, because I guess they take us back to a safer, more innocent time, and because, by definition, if they're favourites they're likely to have offered a gripping read. And a gripping read is certainly what I'm after at the moment. I'd also quite like something soothing, something that offers hope for the future. Some people are drawn towards dystopias and other novels about disasters - Camus' The Plague would be an obvious one - so that, I suppose, they can compare the fictional pandemis to the real one. I don't want to do that. I stopped reading dystopias a long time ago; pictures of a destroyed world peopled only by feral gangs have no appeal for me.

And as an aside - I do find it very heartening that in this current extraordinary situation, although there is bad news in plenty, there are also so many stories of people doing kind things, finding imaginative ways to adapt and to help others. That doesn't usual happen in fictional accounts - things usually turn very nasty very quickly.

But back to finding gripping reads. I haven't had an awful lot of luck with this lately, and have been re-reading. I went back yet again to the comfort reading I've written about elsewhere in this blog, Elly Griffiths' series about Dr Ruth Galloway. That kept me going for a while. Then I reached further back, to a novel by Howard Spring, written in 1946, There Is No Armour. There are some throw-away comments which are uncomfortable for a 21st century reader - he was of his time - but he is a skilful story teller, and he writes beautifully - as in many of his books, his subject is families and relationships, how they develop over time: usually set in Cornwall and Manchester, and rather cleverly weaving in important events of the twentieth century.

And then someone on Facebook recommended this book, Blood & Sugar. It's by Laura Shepherd Robinson, and unbelievably, it's her first book. It's set in London, mostly in Deptford, at the end of the 18th century, against the background - well, foreground really - of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement. At the beginning, the body of a man is discovered hanging from a hook on the dockside. He has been horribly tortured and he's been branded.

The man is called Thaddeus Archer. Our hero, Harry Corsham, comes into the story when Archer's sister, Amelia, comes to see him, saying that her brother is missing and appealing to him to find him. Amelia points Harry towards Deptford, and he quickly identifies the body as that of his old friend - and determines that he will find his killer.

Harry is one of those leading characters who has you hiding behind the settee as he repeatedly forces his way into danger, fearlessly asking questions and barging in where he's clearly not wanted. 'Just stop it,' you groan. 'Go home! No - don't go there! Are you crazy?' But he doesn't take any notice. On he goes, putting his livelihood and his (admittedly rather odd) marriage at risk, because he simply will not give up. He's made a promise to his dead friend, and he's determined to keep it: even more so as his enquiries bring him face to face with the horrors of slavery. The author spares us nothing here. She makes us face up to the realities of this hideous trade, through the stories of individuals as well as through the central, appalling event around which the story hinges: and though poignant details, such as the blacksmith who has openly for sale iron slave collars to fit the neck of a four year-old child. It's almost unbearable.

The characters are complex. No-one is quite how they seem when we first meet them. Layer after layer is stripped away from them as we learn what forces have shaped them, so that in the end, we feel, if not sympathy, at least some level of understanding of even the cruellest villains. The historical background is handled with great confidence and expertise. (I've just discovered that the author is the daughter of Tony Robinson, of Blackadder and Time Team fame - so I guess an interest in history is in the blood.)

And the plotting - well, I find plotting hard, so I really admire a facility with it in others. And this book is incredibly tightly plotted. It's very, very clever. I read it on Kindle, but I wish I'd had a proper copy - there were a lot of times when I needed to go back and check what was happening, and that's not easy to do with a Kindle.

It's a powerful, gripping read, and it will certainly take you far away from the lockdown. But I'd advise having a sofa handy. You know, to hide behind.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri

We first meet Nuri and Afra when they are in a reception centre for refugees in England. We learn that Afra was an artist, but now she's blind. We learn that Nuri is haunted by the knowledge that he has killed a man with a bat. He is also haunted by a child called Mohammed, whom no-one but he can see. And we learn that his and Afra's young son, Sami, is dead, but that his mind shies away from thinking of this.

Nuri and Afra are refugees from Aleppo in Syria. As the book slides between past and present, we discover that Nuri was a beekeeper, who worked with his cousin, Mustafa, who was a genius with bees. Mustafa is already in England. He's doing well, thanks to his boundless enthusiasm for bees; he has started up new colonies, and is also teaching other refugees about bee-keeping. He sends encouraging emails to Nuri, he's eager for them to be together again - yet when, after a difficult and dangerous journey, Nuri finally makes it to England, he is curiously reluctant to get in touch with his cousin and tell him that finally, he and Afra have arrived.

In a complex network of flashbacks, we are told what life was like in Alepp before the fighting began. Nuri loved his work with the bees; Afra painted marvellous pictures; their son was a delight to them; they would have Sunday dinner each week with Mustafa and his family. Times were good. But all this changes horribly. Brutal, pointless executions take place every day - in this way, Mustafa's teenaged son Firas is killed, and it is days before they even find his body. Bombs drop indiscriminately: one kills Sami and renders Afra blind. And so they decide to leave. The only way out is with smugglers, via dangerous, massively overcrowded refugee camps. Eventually they make it to England, but it is by no means certain that they will be allowed to stay.

I was given this book for Christmas, but put it aside a couple of times: its subject matter is not easy. But we hear every day of the plight of refugees, and our country, like others, is becoming increasingly hostile to them. We see footage of overcrowded camps, of people in small boats being shot at by soldiers to prevent them from landing, of small bodies lying on a beach. And it feels as if there is nothing we can do, so what is the point of reading about them?

I'm not sure what the practical point is, apart from that maybe, we will be moved by what we read to contribute money to charities working with refugees. But there is a point, of course. Books are a window into other lives. This book shows us very clearly what it is to be driven from your home by an impossible, unbearable situation. It shows us exactly what it is like to live in those camps. It shows us that some people are very bad, but that others are very kind.

Christy Lefteri is herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees, and she has worked as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens. She's listened to the stories of many refugees. So she knows what she's talking about.

When Nuri is in England, he finds a bee with deformed wings in the garden of the B&B where he is staying. With the encouragement of another refugee, he begins to care for it. It cannot fly, and he doesn't expect it to survive, but the other man buys small plants which will provide it with food, and Nuri makes up some sugared water for it. Against all the odds, it adapts to its new surroundings - it goes on living, as Nuri and Afra must learn to do, despite all their losses.

It's a wonderful book - Christy Lefteri writes beautifully and handles the flashbacks very skilfully. I hope someone will make a film or a TV serial of it, so that it will reach a wider audience. I hope that our government, and others, will realise that refugees are not just someone else's problem, easy to forget about because they are in a far-off place.

(Apologies that there's no cover image - for some reason I wasn't able to upload one.)

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The Lantern Men, by Elly Griffiths

I first discovered the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths almost three years ago while on holiday in Norfolk (https://suepurkiss.blogspot.com/2017/04/bookless-in-norfolk-2-dr-ruth-galloway.html). I was on the lookout for something to read, and found the first book, The Crossing Places, in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust visitor centre at Cley. (Which, if you've not been there, is a marvellous place, built on a slight rise and looking across the salt marshes to the sea.)

Ruth's beloved salt marshes

The book was about a forensic archaeologist (a specialist in bones, particularly ancient ones) called Ruth Galloway. Ruth is a woman after my own heart - she hates the gym, wouldn't thank you for a spa experience, enjoys her food and drink maybe a little too much, and is interested in the far-distant past. In this first book, she is asked to help in a police investigation; DCI Nelson is investigating some bones which have been found on the salt marsh, and hoping they are the solution to an unsolved case which has haunted him for some years.

Well, sparks fly. The investigation is a page turner, but the heart of the book, and of the intense loyalty which the series inspires in its readers, is the central group of characters and the relationships between them. As well as Ruth and Nelson, there's Nelson's beautiful wife Michelle, his sharp-tongued mother in Blackpool, his sidekicks Judy and Cloughie, my particular favourite Cathbad the Druid - and others besides. Elly Griffiths writes with a dry humour and a keen eye for the complexity of human relationships - and she continues to do so throughout the series of - so far - twelve books. I don't often re-read books, but I've re-read this whole series at last twice. It's just so nice to be in the company of the gang, and to follow all the unfolding drama of the relationships between them. One of the pleasures is that there is drama, but it's so true to life: people muddle through and make mistakes, and things go wrong and sometimes they go right - and that's just how it is.

The drawback is that once you've read the series and gasped at the final cliff-hanger, you then have a whole year to wait for the next installment. A period of mourning ensues, and that's where I am at the moment, because I've just finished the latest one, The Lantern Men. And what a cracker it is. The gang, though some of them have moved away, are all, by means of a cunning plot, drawn back to the Norfolk coast which is the true home of the series, and into a tale of murder, yes, but also of myth and local legend. I'm not going to say any more than that because I wouldn't dream of spoiling the story for you. (My only slight quibble is that I would have liked a little more Cathbad - but then again, what there is of him is pure vintage.) I tried to read it slowly, to make it last, but there it is. I read it in a day. I think it's one of the best of the whole series, and that's very high praise.

Of course, if you're new to the series, you should start at the beginning. You could read The Lantern Men on its own, but you'll want to know the back stories so you'll end up going back to the beginning anyway - so why not do the right thing and start at the beginning? I envy you, I really do. You have not one, but twelve treats in store.

Monday, 3 February 2020

The story of a book cover

In my last post, (sorry - I know it was some time ago!) I wrote about a book fair I attended in Corsham, Wiltshire, with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick and others. It was good fun - and it gave me some food for thought.

I had a number of books on display. I'm not a particularly prolific author, and I'm a bit of a butterfly - my books are all quite different. I've always seen this as a disadvantage, but on this occasion, it turned out to be be a good thing, because there was something for (almost) everyone: Spook School and two similar funny fantasy stories for younger children; Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is a story set on Brunel's ship the SS Great Britain in the 19th century, beautifully illustrated by James De La Rue; Jack Fortune, which is a middle grade historical novel about a boy who goes plant-hunting in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, in search of the elusive blue rhododendron; and Warrior King, which is a novel about Alfred the Great.

They all attracted attention - except for Warrior King. The reason for this was pretty obvious.

The book was originally published by Walker. I loved researching and writing it, and I had high hopes that it would make out of Alfred a hero of the stature of King Arthur - with whom Alfred is often confused. Arthur is, or was then (this was before Bernard Cornwell's books and the subsequent TV series) much more famous than Alfred, and this struck me as particularly unfair as Arthur isn't even real - or at least, the Arthur of the stories isn't.

They designed a beautiful cover for it - this one. It was blue, and had a hunky, brooding warrior on it. The sales team, I was told, were keen to appeal to boys who were interested in Lord of the Rings, and it had that kind of feel to it. I loved it - though I was a little concerned when a bookseller who had hitherto been very supportive of my books expressed concern, asking how could he sell a book with a cover like that to girls? And there was every reason that girls would like it: two thirds of it is seen from the point of view of Aethelflaed, or Fleda as I called her in the book. She had been a great discovery: I needed a child for a point-of-view character when I came to write about grown-up Alfred (the first bit of the book is about his childhood) - and was delighted to find he had a daughter of just the right age - who as an adult became a ruler in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom, Mercia. So she was obviously a girl of character who learned a good deal from her father. And there's also a charismatic British woman called Cerys - and a brave Frankish princess called Judith Martel.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the book didn't sell in zillions and went out of print. I got the rights back, and decided to reissue it through Amazon Createspace. Lots of adults had read it and enjoyed it, so I thought I would try marketing it as a book for a wider audience, not only for children. And so the cover I made for it is sombre and moody: I used a photograph of floods on the Somerset Levels near Athelney, where much of the story takes place. There is a regular trickle of sales, small but satisfying.

But at the book fair, I watched as children's eyes slid over Warrior King and lighted on Jack Fortune - clearly because it was sending out signals that here was a book for grown-ups. Hm, I thought.

So I decided to bring out a new edition that would a) be clearly for children/young people, and b) would make it obvious that it wasn't just about the king, but also about his daughter. I toyed with various ideas as to how to do this; and then I remembered the work of a friend on Instagram called Norlemann, who posts wonderful pictures of Viking re-enactors in Norway. On impulse, I sent him a message to explain what I was after, and ask if he had anything I could use.

Now, I called him a friend just then, but he was only  a friend in the sense that I followed him and often 'liked' his pictures. It turns out he's an art director and professional photographer - and yet he agreed to do a special shoot, with his daughter as Aethelflaed - just because, he said he and his daughter, Minna, believe that historical fiction is valuable and there should be more of it. Such kindness from a stranger! And when the photographs arrived, I thought they were stunning.

The next hurdle was fitting the photograph I eventually chose - with help from friends - into an Amazon template. That wasn't as easy as it could have been. In the end, I used Canva to add title and text to the front cover - and here it is.

It would be lovely to hear your thoughts - but do forgive me if I'm not able to implement them. There are some changes which would be easy to make, but others would be very fiddly and might possibly result in my brain imploding. (Basically, changes to the front cover would be tricky: changes to the rest of it, less so.)

All I need to do now is add the content of the book. But first I will tweak it; and in a prominent place there will be an acknowledgement of the generosity - and skill - of Lasse and Minna. Oh, yes, and then it would be really very nice if it would sell lots of copies to the children for whom I originally wrote it...

Friday, 25 October 2019


Note - this post first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

I had a lovely day last Saturday at a book event in Corsham, Wiltshire, along with several other authors. Corsham is the home of the renowned Bath Spa creative writing department: many in the Scattered Authors' Society are alumni of the MA in Children's Writing, and I think there are several who teach there.

I imagine it's because of the proximity of the department that Corsham seems to be a very writerish sort of a place. It also has the gloss that comes from being one of the settings for Poldark; yes, Ross first set eyes on Demelza in the picturesque streets of this very town!

But part of what the CorshamStoryTown event was about was finding out the stories of people who live there. As I understand it, there were opportunities for people to go along over the weekend and have their stories, memories and anecdotes recorded - it all sounded really interesting. I didn't see much of this side of things, though, as I was in Corsham's rather splendid library along with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick, Jak Harrison and Julia Seal, at a mini book fair.

I've never taken part in a book fair before, but I certainly would again. It's a very relaxing way to meet and chat to young (and older) readers, and also to meet other authors. I've long been rather envious of the lovely network which you instantly belong to as a graduate of the Bath Spa courses, as Sharon, Jak, Chris and Jas do, so I'm very grateful to Sharon for inviting me along to this event - it was so nice to actually physically meet up with other writers: something which I realised I very rarely do except at the wonderful Scattered Authors' Society gatherings.

Jak, Chris, Sharon, me, Julia and Jas (l-r)

So off I went, armed with a tablecloth, lots of books, twinkly lights (thanks to Sharon for that suggestion!), book stands, and my trusty (but sadly not blue) rhododendron. (Jack Fortune is all about the search for a blue rhododendron in the Himalayas, but I've not so far managed to get hold of a true blue artificial one.) It was jolly nice and somehow quite surprising to see all my books spread out in one place instead of being tucked away in drawers and cupboards: several people commented on how many there were, and as I chatted to young readers, I realised that there's actually quite a nice spread of titles for different age groups. I've often thought it was a drawback that I've written very different books, rather than producing a recognisable 'brand' of similar books aimed at a specific audience, but I began to realise that in some ways, it's no bad thing - there was pretty much something for everyone.

Sharon and I

There were other interesting things too. My most recent book, Jack Fortune, about plant-hunting adventures in the Himalayas, got a lot of interest, but the book I sold most of was Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is set on the SS Great Britain. Naturally so, as many children 'do' the Victorians and Brunel, and, certainly in this area, go to visit the ship in Bristol: the book is now on sale at the ship and doing well, but I do wish that I, and the publisher, had managed to get the message out to schools about it more successfully.

Another was something I realised as I talked to people about Warrior King, my book about Alfred the Great and his fabulous daughter Aethelfled. This book, like Emily, was originally published by Walker. The cover they designed was beautiful, and it featured Alfred (looking rather as if he'd just escaped from Lord of the Rings) standing in front of a marshy landscape.

When it went out of print, I republished it myself. I was quite keen to appeal to adult readers, so I used a moody black and white photograph I had taken of the land around Athelney, where Alfred took refuge from the Vikings and where much of the book is set.

But talking to people about the book, I realised I had to do a lot of explaining about the story - the cover didn't do much of it for me. Neither cover made the point that most of the story is told from Aethelflaed's point of view; and that's important and unfair to her. Nor would girls looking at either cover realise that it's a book about a girl, as well as about a king. So I'm going to see if I can do something about that.


Another comment came from a great children's book enthusiast with whom I've been in touch on social media, but whom I hadn't actually met before. She said she'd had no idea that I'd written so much. (Please note - I do realise that I've written very little compared to many other members of the SAS!) So how did that happen? Or rather, not happen? How come that with all the blog and social media posts I do, I somehow haven't managed to talk much about my books?

All of this, and the conversations with children, made me think. It's very easy, particularly when you are geographically a bit out on a limb, to brood (just ever so slightly) on the prizes you didn't win, the books that didn't get published, the stories that got away. But in so doing, it's easy to lose sight of the virtues of the books that did see the light of day: a bit like my grandma, who spent much of her life brooding over the son she lost in the war, to the detriment of the daughter who lived.

So apologies in advance, because from now on I'm going to start paying a lot more attention to those neglected children...

Huge thanks to Sharon Tregenza in particular for inviting me, and also to the other writers whose company I so enjoyed, and to the extremely hospitable library and Paper Nations staff. (Our event was under the auspices of Paper Nations.) And the next time I go to a fair, I'll remember to take my toy rat. (A reference to Emily, which I think may go down rather well.) You have been warned.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

The Clara Vine series, by Jane Thynne

I first came across the Clara Vine books a couple of years ago. I’ve just re-read them and caught up the newest one, Solitaire - and I think I’ve enjoyed them even more this time round.

The story - because it is one story, albeit with different, wholly engrossing episodes - begins in Berlin in 1933 with the arrival of a young Englishwoman, Clara Vine. A rather unsuccessful actress, she has heard that the film industry in Berlin is expanding, and, as this coincides with a wish to put a distance between herself and an unwanted suitor, she decides to try her luck. 

She comes to the attention of Goebbels, the minister for propaganda who also has responsibility for the film industry. Through him she meets his wife, and through her the wives of the other men at the top of the Nazi Party - a potentially useful situation which is not lost on British intelligence. Clara, in short, becomes a spy  at the heart of the Nazi war machine. 

There’s so much to enjoy in these books. Clara is a fascinating character. Jane Thynne explores the elements of her upbringing and character which have led her to be a good spy: her reserve, her self-sufficiency, her ability to inhabit different personas, to hide behind a mask. She’s a subtle creation: she isn’t an expert in self-defence, she doesn’t get into fights: she survives on her instinct, her intelligence and her quick wits. She’s kind and loyal, and she is in some ways vulnerable. She’s a character you come to care for. 

Each book centres on a mystery of some kind - a murder, a missing person, a plot that has to be uncovered. But all this is set very firmly in the context of Berlin in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. Clara is right at the centre of things, so through her Jane Thynne can tell us how they managed to coerce a whole population to go along with their awful creed: how they convinced the people that they were under threat from enemies within and without, and that the only chance of salvation was to trust in a charismatic leader. It makes chilling reading - more so now than when I first read the books a few years ago. 

The research behind all this is formidable. Jane Thynne is immensely knowledgeable and informative about life in Germany during this period: both the big historical events and the minutiae of everyday life, down to the name of a popular lipstick, the details of the food people ate, the cut of a uniform. She weaves actual incidents - the capture of two spies which almost destroyed the British intelligence operation in Europe, a plot to kidnap the Windsors, Eva Braun’s suicide attempts - into Clara’s story, and does this with such skill that it seems completely likely and natural. 

I think she’s a really excellent writer. I’m astonished that no-one’s made the books into a TV series as yet, and it surprises me that they aren’t far better known. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Sightlines, by Kathleen Jamie

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about it a few posts back). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph:
There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not remotely.