Friday, 1 March 2013

Friday book review - With All My Love by Patricia Scanlan

What a treat to curl up on the sofa on a chilly winter’s night and read Patricia Scanlan’s latest novel.

With a clutch of bestsellers to her name (including Love and Marriage and City Girl), Scanlan is renowned for writing heart-warming novels about family, friendship and love.

Her new book, With All My Love is no exception. I read it in one delicious go, with tears streaming down my face by the time I got to the last chapter.

Once again, Scanlan focuses on a family – a family torn apart by a festering tangle of secrets and lies.

The book opens as Briony McAllister sits in a sunny park on the Costa del Sol, watching her young daughter playing with her dolls. Briony’s mother, Valerie Harris, has recently bought a house in Spain and Briony and her daughter have flown out from Dublin to help her settle in.

But when Briony takes an old photograph album out of her bag and starts to leaf through it, a letter she has never seen before falls out. The letter is addressed to her and as Briony reads it she realises that her mother has been lying to her for more than twenty years. Her mother had always maintained that Briony’s beloved grandmother cut off contact when she was little and didn’t want to see her – but it was an out and out lie.

As the lives of the three women unfold, Scanlan observes the conflict from each point of view. None of the women are without blame, but Scanlan cleverly makes the reader sympathetic towards each of them in turn. One moment I felt sorry for Tessa, Briony’s abandoned grandmother, the next I felt infuriated by her antagonism towards Valerie. For instance, when Valerie falls in love with Tessa’s youngest and favourite son, Tessa does everything she can to put a stop to the relationship. She makes snide remarks about Valerie’s clothes, warns her not to distract her son from his studies and acidly refers to her as “Miss Clinging Vine.”

Best of all, Scanlan keeps readers guessing about the women’s secrets right till the very end. There was no way on earth I could cast the book aside and stop reading. I had my suspicions, but I had to find out why Valerie had taken such drastic action and deprived Tessa of her precious relationship with her granddaughter.

PS. Watch out too, for Scanlan’s brilliant evocation of life in the late 70s and 80s, when Valerie first meets Tessa’s son. Glittery boob tubes, Queen singing We Will Rock You, Charlie perfume – Scanlan has remembered it all.

With All My Love by Patricia Scanlan (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

Interview with Alison Morton - author of Inceptio

One of the very best things about Twitter is meeting other writers. Alison Morton and I got chatting about writing, blogging and France a few months back and with the her debut novel, Inceptio, out today I jumped at the chance to interview her for House With No Name.

Inceptio is your debut novel. Can you tell me a little about the road to publication?

Alison: I’ve played with words most of my life - storyteller, playwright (aged seven), article writer, local magazine editor and translator. I started novel writing in 2009 after seeing a particularly dire film. "I could do better than this," I whispered in the dark to my other half. "So why don’t you?" Three months later, I had completed the draft of Inceptio, the first Roma Nova alternate history thriller.

I knew the draft was both woolly and rough. I needed to learn novel-crafting skills and joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme in 2010. Two RNA conferences, an Arvon Foundation course in commercial fiction and the Festival of Writing at York spurred me on me on. I met some knowledgeable, generous and fun people along the way, one of whom ended up mentoring me. My history MA had taught me how to research and my six years in the Territorial Army trained me to do “guns and mud.” Perfect preparation for Inceptio.

I made the classic mistake of submitting too soon. Several rewrites later I had some full submission requests, including from a US agent. Replies like “If it was a straight thriller, I’d take it on” and “Your writing is excellent, but it wouldn’t fit our list” were a little depressing. I was (am!) passionate about my stories so, happy that my writing was at a reasonable standard, I decided to self publish with bought-in publishing services. Using high quality professional backing (editing, advice, registrations, typesetting, design, book jacket, proofing etc), I think it’s a fantastic way for new writers to enter the market.

Why did you choose to write a thriller and what is it about?

Alison: Inceptio started as a romantic novel with some action bits, but the thriller proportion grew until I realised I loved writing tension, danger, death, cliff-hangers and conspiracy more than romance. But the central romantic relationship is still key in this and the next two books.

It starts in New York, present day. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice - being eliminated by government enforcer Jeffery Renschman or fleeing to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.

Founded 16 centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen safety and a ready-made family. But a shocking discovery about her new lover, the fascinating but arrogant special forces officer Conrad Tellus, isolates her.

Renschman reaches into her new home and nearly kills her. Recovering, she is desperate to find out why he is hunting her so viciously. Unable to rely on anybody else, she undergoes intensive training, develops fighting skills and becomes an undercover cop. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it... 

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Alison: Bash the story out. If you pause too long beautifying individual scenes at this stage, you risk losing the narrative flow. You’re first and foremost a storyteller; the story is the most important thing.

Put it away for at least six weeks, then do the first self-edit, checking the plot structure, deleting the dreadful parts and working on the sloppy bits. Then back into the drawer and start the next project.

Out of the drawer comes the first novel a few months later and this time you scrutinise each sentence word by word, forcing each one to justify its existence. Then you have something to work with.

What is your own favourite novel?

Alison: Currently, it’s Restless by William Boyd – spies, two strong women leads, Second World War, love, betrayal on personal and political levels, Cold War, class, alienation, irreverance and beautiful prose. Perfect!

Inceptio by Alison Morton (SilverWood Books, £9.99)

Alison’s blog:
Twitter: @alison_morton

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The RoNA Awards - winners include Katie Fforde, Jenny Colgan and Rowan Coleman

This was the first year in ages that I didn’t get to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s RoNA awards bash - and I’m really fed up about missing it.

The RoNA awards celebrate the very best in romantic fiction and the party is always fun and ultra-glamorous. The champagne flows, you get to meet some of the best writers, publishers and agents in the business and RNA members’ shoes (from sky-high heels to leopard-print ballet pumps) are a delight to behold.

This year’s party was held at the RAF Club in London’s Piccadilly, with Judy Finnigan and Richard Madeley (no mean writers themselves) on hand to announce the five category winners.

So three cheers for Katie Fforde, who won the Contemporary Romantic Novel award for the second year running – this time for Recipe for Love.

Rowan Coleman triumphed in the Epic Romantic Novel category with Dearest Rose while Jenny Colgan scooped the Romantic Comedy Novel award for Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams.

The Historical Romantic Novel winner was Charlotte Betts for The Apothecary’s Daughter and the Young Adult Romantic Novel award went to Victoria Lamb for Witchstruck.

The five winning novels now go forward to the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year award and the overall winner will be revealed at the RNA’s summer party on May 16.

RNA chair Annie Ashurst, who’s written scores of novels herself, told the 250 party guests: “… we are here to celebrate the success of our brightest stars. We are proud of their talent, tenacity and dedication to their craft.

“It is a lovely thing to write a novel and to keep on going even as doubts set in – as they do with us all. Our awards give us an opportunity to publicly recognise the enjoyment you bring to your readers.”

Hear, hear, Annie...

PS. As well as the RoNAs, Sophie Kinsella was given an Outstanding Achievement Award. The RoNA Rose Award went to Sarah Mallory.  

Monday, 25 February 2013

Snow in Paris

Victoria Beckham looked frozen as she watched her husband make his debut for Paris St-Germain last night. I’ve just spent two days in Paris and I’ve rarely felt so cold. The temperature never lifted above -2 degrees, there was a biting wind and flurries of snow fell all weekend. My daughter wore three jumpers and I kept my Brora fingerless gloves and scarf on indoors and out. We had to dive into cafes every half an hour to stop our teeth chattering. Yet when I glanced at the papers this morning Victoria had stepped off the Eurostar in an unfastened coat, with her ankles bare and no gloves. She’s clearly tougher than the rest of us.

But never mind the cold, Paris is one of the prettiest cities on earth. We stayed at the super-stylish Mama Shelter, which boasts chic rooms, friendly staff, reasonable prices and a great brunch. Even though it’s slightly off the beaten track (in the 20th arrondissement) buses whizz past every ten minutes to whisk you into the centre for the princely sum of two euros – which meant we were at Bastille in fifteen minutes and in the Rue de Rivoli in thirty. As we chatted on the number 26 bus a Paris-based sports journalist from the UK tapped us on the shoulder and said he never usually heard English voices “on this route.” He made us feel like real locals.

Instead of sticking to our usual haunts we decided to visit an area we hadn’t been to before –the Batignolles, where Manet had his studio and artists like Degas, Renoir, Monet and Cezanne used to gather (at the Café Guerbois on the Avenue de Clichy). It boasts a pretty park, a village-like atmosphere and lots of quirky shops and art galleries. My daughter bought a pink hyacinth at the lovely flower shop below – I only hope it survives the winter on her student windowsill.

Mama Shelter is a five-minute stroll from the famous Père Lachaise cemetery so on Sunday morning we headed down the rue de Bagnolet and through the ancient archway. It’s the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous in the world. Among the renowned names buried there are Chopin, Moliere, Proust, Colette, Modigliani, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Not surprisingly, with a total of 69,000 tombs at the cemetery, a map is essential.

Actually, a snowy Sunday morning in February was definitely the time to visit this historic graveyard. A distant church bell tolled solemnly and the pale grey sky gave it a gothic, rather eery air – like something out of a Balzac novel in fact. Actually - and rather appropriately - he is buried there too.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

What would my mother say?

I’ve been looking forward to reading Lucy Boyd’s book, Kitchen Memories, for ages. The daughter of Rose Gray, the inspirational co-founder of the River Café, Lucy is now head gardener at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, Surrey and an accomplished chef herself.

I met Lucy at HarperCollins last autumn when I was invited to the publisher’s Fulham HQ to give a talk about blogging. 

Kitchen Memories is a captivating mix of recipes, memories and stunning photography. In a moving interview with The Times yesterday Lucy spoke about her mother’s massive – and ongoing - influence on her. Rose Gray died in 2010 but even now, when Lucy’s cooking she can hear her mother’s voice in her ear.

“I bought some asparagus out of season the other day and I’m still covered with shame,” Lucy told interviewer Andrew Billen. “It’s like ‘God, what would Rose say?’ She’d say 'Traitor.'”

Lucy’s words resonated so strongly with me. My mother died more than eight years ago but every time I do something she’d disapprove of (not often, I admit) I feel desperately guilty. We were incredibly close, spoke on the phone every day and agreed on most things  – apart from poached eggs, brackets, flat shoes and telling people your age.

She loved poached eggs, I hate them. She loathed brackets, I love them (as you can tell). She loved sky-high shoes and well, so do I (but I’m quite keen on my Converse too). And last of all she thought you should never ever let on how old you are. Actually, come to think of it, I’m coming round to that one…

Kitchen Memories by Lucy Boyd (HarperCollins, £20)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Another Country - Huhne Junior at the Oxford Playhouse

There are lots of great things about living in Oxford but one of them is the chance to see some stunning student drama productions.

Last week – on Valentine’s Day in fact – I booked tickets for Another Country, Julian Mitchell’s famous public school play. Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a group of public schoolboys struggling to work out what they believe in after the suicide of a fellow pupil rocks the school.

I was lucky enough to see the play in the West End thirty years ago, when it starred a young Rupert Everett and an even younger Kenneth Branagh. So I had high hopes for the production by the weirdly-named student company Screw the Looking Glass – and I wasn’t disappointed.

But two performances towered over the rest at the Oxford Playhouse. The actors playing the parts taken by Everett and Branagh 30 years ago were by turns charismatic and moving, insightful and funny. I found myself gripped whenever they were onstage, not quite so gripped when they weren't.

I stupidly hadn’t bought a programme so when I got home I checked out who these fine young actors were and nearly fell off my chair in surprise. The actor playing Guy Bennett (based on spy-in-the-making Guy Burgess) was none other than Peter Huhne, a second-year languages student at Oxford and the son of former cabinet minister Chris Huhne. As virtually the whole world knows, the student’s bitter text messages to his father were read out in court following Chris Huhne’s guilty plea for perverting the course of justice and were plastered across the papers for days afterwards.

Huhne Junior is only 20 but talk about impressive. How on earth he got through the media firestorm, carried on with his studies and gave a towering performance like this I don’t know. But then again, as all great actors know, the show must go on.

PS. The other fine performance was by Jo Allan, as Bennett's Marxist sympathiser friend Tommy Judd.
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