First, there was the Word – The Handmaid’s Tale

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Between watching the last available episode of June’s story and opening –with the utmost care, as the author urges me to do on the cover – The Testaments to read what happens next, I reread The Handmaid’s Tale.

The TV series is based on the book. In its own right the series is powerful, uncompromising, thought-provoking. It is also full of dramatic tension, twists, visual effects that burn into your skull, fast pace between now and then, as well as amazing acting – I mean, a-ma-zing. It is brilliant TV. There are very few writers out there who would refuse having their novels adapted for performance. Whether it is for the stage, the radio, television or cinema we want our stories to stay alive and continue to be re-enacted for our audiences, be it readers, listener or viewers. And looking at it from the other side of the coin, there is no film nor theatre or radio play without it being written first. As the famous first line of the most-read book in the world says, First there was the word.

But that doesn’t mean that novels should be written in scenes or film frames. The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t. Reading it, you would think that it is too retrospective and too abstract to ever qualify for adaption. But you would be wrong. Novels – great novels – provide inspiration, a theme, a focus, a feel. Adaptations run away with that and develop it into scenes, frames, events and twisty plots. One does not detract from the other. To the contrary, one feeds off the other. I took note of that as writer: it is written in big red letters in my little black book.

I loved both the series and the book though the series took several liberties with the characters and the plot. Despite that, The Handmaid’s Tale remains instantly recognisable.

The genre provides interesting dilemmas too. You may know from my earlier blogs that I am genre averse. At first sight you would be tempted to classify The Handmaid’s Tale as sci-fi – it is about the future. But it isn’t. Atwood refers to it as speculative fiction. This term fits perfectly. It is about our world today as it may or may not evolve. The chances are that it will. If you believe that, the speculation draws you in and it becomes your alternative reality (like it not). And when the book your read becomes your reality, then you know you’re reading a masterpiece.

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Sandman – an expert opinion

Sandman review Major AFAn email arrived in my inbox from a retired British army officer. He wished to share his thoughts with me about Sandman (book 4 in the DI Marsh series). I read his email with a flutter in my stomach: a mixture of excitement and trepidation. After all, this was an expert in the field of warfare, and he was referring to my book!

He wrote:*

“I am not able to offer an erudite, literate assessment of Sandman however on a visceral level the book is, well, it just …  ‘works’. It is entertaining, absorbing, addictive and well structured or, in other words a jolly good read. I enjoyed your book, my wife enjoyed your book and now my daughter is reading – and enjoying – your book.

Your grasp of the realities is sublime. The heaviness of a German Toy. The sullen, slack, dead weight of a body. Anger and adrenaline. Detachment and retreat from emotions.

You have quite captured the bleak landscape of killing. You have understood the realities of war, radicalisation, anger and the practicalities of survival in a foreign land.

Medals. Your Sergeant Butler won the Military Cross in the Falklands. […] at the time there was class distinction in all walks of life, even gallantry. Richard Butler would not have been eligible for an MC in 1982, his award would have been the Military Medal.

Magnum. The Magnum .44 is an awful gun. It is extremely heavy with a vicious recoil, making accurate shooting very difficult indeed. It is also very expensive and the ammunition is hard to obtain. It is however a superb weapon if one is very close to a target and one has strong wrists… !!

The Magnum? Good and bad – the parsons… A veritable conundrum. Dirty Harry, .44 Magnum cartridge and the power of a shotgun. But expensive, rare and hard to use. The S&W 29 is a blood heavy gun…

If your terrorist wanted a firearm, then something from the bloc would be far easier and cheaper. Makarov. CZ75. Second hand P38? Cheap, anonymous and easily found.

Or American – 1911, Colt. German – Walther.

The ending of your book, hard and fair. Have you left room for another chapter? Is the tale not yet complete? Or is there a new story to tell?”

I am so chuffed with this feedback that I could scream the roof off the house! It’s constructive and honest, and at the same time, it is positive! A jolly good read! he said.

It is often said, but not often enough, that book reviews are the writer’s life support. We feed on them. They help us build meaningful relationships with readers. Praise sends us orgasmic with pride. Brutal criticism has its value too, as long as it is constructive and not designed to hurt. Criticism is like bitter-tasting medicine – we don’t like it much, but once we digested it, we find that it helps us get better at our craft. So, dearest reader, never hesitate to share your reviews, no matter how short. Writers crave them. When they finally arrive we feast on them, get drunk on them, and crave more.

*I omitted personal detail – if the gentleman wanted to make them public himself he would have posted his thoughts somewhere on Amazon or Goodreads, though perhaps he is unfamiliar with those platforms.

 

80 Years – celebrate or commemorate?

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We all delight in medieval history – it is so quaint and so distant. But there are historical events closer in space and time which must not be forgotten.

80 years since World War 2 started. Should we celebrate the 80 years of global peace, or should we commemorate the outbreak of the all-out war that cost us 80 million dead, the barbarity of the Holocaust, famine, disease, the homelessness and displacement of millions, the obliteration of cities and industries that would take decades to rebuild, and finally the crisis of civilisation as we knew it?

It’s great to celebrate – never say no to a good party. Remembering is a bit harder because it requires drawing analogies and avoiding repeating the same mistakes.

WW2 started ten years after the Great Depression of 1929 caused by corporate greed and bankers but blamed by populist politicians on Jews and the Others. Those scapegoats became the casualties, but ultimately they were not the only ones. Everyone was a casualty. One cannot control war – who lives and who dies becomes a game of Russian roulette. There are five bullets for every six slots in the magazine – you know the odds.

It is now just over ten years after the 2008 Financial Crisis. It was caused by corporate greed and bankers but is being blamed by populist politicians on foreigners, refugees and yes, you guessed it – the Others. Those who don’t speak your language, look different and aren’t related to you are being dehumanised so they become dispensable.

WW2 was cooked up by those in power who wished to change the world order in their favour – to divide and to rule it on their terms. They didn’t like the League of Nations created to guard peace after WW1 and they certainly didn’t like the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. They had better ideas of dividing the world on their own terms: The Thousand Year Third Reich or the ever-growing Union of Communist Republics – and nothing else. Nazi Germany and the USSR put their heads together and signed the Molotov-Ribbetrop Pact of Non-Aggression just seven days before the outbreak of WW2 so that each could do their own thing – their worst – and get away with it. (Luckily for us, Hitler lost his marbles and reneged on that treaty when he attacked Soviet Union in 1941. But imagine if they had both stuck to it – the rest of the world would have stood no chance. There would be no Victory Day celebrations and no Remembrance Day every year -not for us.)

Today again two powers have risen and are led by two demented dictators who seem to have found a common ground – their new common understanding of divide-and-rule. And after a few cosy tête-à-têtes they now have a friendly pact of non-aggression between them, allowing each other to do what they please in their own backyards. The rest of us are pawns. Most of us support them because we believe them. Their hatred of peace organisations, such as the UN or the EU, is well explained to us. Those institutions haven’t been elected to power based on lies and false propaganda! They are the enemy! And why would we need them if we have NATO? Except that NATO is for the times of war (which we really, really don’t want) and UN or EU are to guard peace (which they really, really don’t want). The existing peace and world order doesn’t suit Mr Trump and Mr Putin. Time to change it.

The wheel of history is turning and the same mistakes are being repeated. Democratic institutions are being compromised, prejudice is rampantly bred in the streets and people’s minds and values are being corrupted. I think this is the time to remember. There is nothing to celebrate.

Would you rather live in Handcock’s Bottom or is Marston Bigot more up your street?

I had a whale of a time when conniving the settings for my cosy crime series The Shires Mysteries. Truth be told, I nearly wet my pants.

To find a name for the village that would host all of the crimes I had in mind, I needed something memorable but authentic – something that would sit comfortably alongside all the real-life places in my county. Something that didn’t sound out of place in the Shires.

I reside in a place called Upper Studley. Upper is a common qualifier for an English village and it sounds immensely better than Lower or Little. They are equally common but less classy than my Upper. Then you have the Bottoms. They are, well literally, at the bottom of the ladder. For how would one feel dwelling in Handcock’s Bottom, or Scratchy Bottom, or Bottom Flash? How about Crinkley Bottom or Bottom Burn? If you aren’t into Bottoms, then would you consider buying a cottage in Buttock or a small bungalow in Great Butts? They are real villages proudly inhabited by real villagers.

I decided against setting my stories in the nether regions. I set my sights high – closer to Upper than Lower. Upton struck me as a possibility. There are a lot of Uptons around here. Think Upton Cow Down – yes, it’s a real place that can be found on a map, as can Upton Snodsbury. But they seemed too pretentious to me.

Tiddley Wink tickled my fancy. It’s a not a big village. In fact, it isn’t a village but a tiny hamlet. When I drove through it for the first time, I blinked and I missed it.

Tiddleywink

My mother-in-law is now a resident in a residential home located in Limpley Stoke. Oh yes, she is! When we visit, we can pop over to the village pub called The Hop Pole Inn. Oh yes, we can! Here it is:

Limpley stoke
The Hop Pole Inn in Limpley Stoke

Ultimately, I opted against naming my fictional village using an existing name, so Tiddley Wink and Limpley Stoke had to go, as well as Booby Dingle, Grope Lane, Farleigh Wallop and Clench Common.

Finally, I settled on Bishops Well. Not very imaginative, I hear you say. Life can be so much more out of this world than fiction!

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The Church of St John the Baptist in Bishops Well

The curse of genre and what’s wrong with the runt of the litter

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I won’t choose a book to read because it is of particular genre. I won’t read a book because of a label dangling from it which screams THRILLER, ROMANCE, HORROR or whatever else. The label means nothing to me. I just want to read a good book – preferably, a brilliant book. I want a book to make me think, laugh and cry, get angry, care for someone in the story and keep thumbing through the pages until the end. And after that I want to remember, reminisce and wonder: what a fantastic piece of fiction I have just devoured.

And, naturally, I want to write that book too. Many of them, to hell with genre.

But it seems people like the clarity of genre. The readers reach for their favourite genre before -if ever- they contemplate something outside their comfort zone. Publishers want that clarity, too. I’m such a lucky, bum-in-butter writer to have landed myself a publisher – the dynamic, feisty Accent Press. They gave home to my DI Marsh detective crime series and now to my new cosy crime trilogy, The Shire Mysteries. But they didn’t accept every book I shoved in front of their noses. Oh, I did have to deal with a rejection and I am still reeling from it. Remember Paula Goes to Heaven?

At first, I rejected that book myself – abandoned it like a prodigal mother leaving their new-born baby on the step of a church, hoping God takes care of it, because that baby isn’t quite perfect, not quite viable. It took me more than a year to go back to fetch my abandoned manuscript. I have been re-writing it, working hard to make it better. And I have been asking myself what is wrong with it.

It’s the genre, you see. That book does not belong to any distinct genre. It could be classified as women’s contemporary fiction but for the supernatural elements. It could be humour, but it is quite tragic in places. I could be paranormal fantasy, but it isn’t – not entirely. So, I think it’s the ambiguity of genre that renders it flawed. My heart bleeds for I love that book as I love all the others. But the others are happy and they thrive in the world. This one – this one is unwanted. I will make it better and I won’t give up on it, but sometimes you start doubting yourself and your commitment to that runt of the litter.

It is a little bit like that, isn’t it? Like with puppies. Most people want a pedigree dog with all the trademark characteristics its breed is supposed to possess. But, you know, cross-breeds can be wonderful. They ARE wonderful! They have it all: pointy ears and curly tails, shaggy coats and white socks. And they have as much bounce and give as much joy as your average Labrador, poodle or Yorkshire terrier out there. The same with books: their genre – their breed – shouldn’t matter as much as their unique bookish personalities and what they have to say.

I thought of that when reviewing Ruth Rendell’s A New Lease of Death yesterday. It is categorised as crime fiction. It may well be, but it is so much more diverse. Psychology, society, family, prejudice, vulnerability – everything is there. Narrowing it down to a sequence of steps to detect the killer wouldn’t give it justice. Summing it up as a damn-good book would.

I may be wrong. Maybe it is important for a book to belong to a particular genre? Maybe classifications in fiction are as helpful as classifications in biological sciences? Are they?

Paris in mugshots

Daughter and I embarked on a mother-child bonding adventure in Paris, France. It was a perfect setting for finding common ground for it took our joint breath away and it made us contemplate things greater in life than our daily squabbles.

Places to visit in mugshots for those wishing to soak in some culture, history and arts in one potent cocktail, shaken – and – stirred:

Basilique du Sacre Coeur

Chateau de Versailles

Jardin de Versailles

Cathedral of Notre Dame

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The Eiffel Tower

Cruising on the River Seine

The Pantheon

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Louvre

Palais du Luxembourg

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We were swept off our feet, humbled, elevated and so very proud to be European. Admiring the wonders of architecture, sculpture, paintings and arts, wondering about the great minds – philosophers, writers and thinkers who laid the foundation of the unique European culture which shapes us today, remembering the history our ancestors built together, the blood they shed and the blood we share as it curses through our veins and makes us all one and same people, we couldn’t shake the sense of loss that is Brexit.  Cutting Britain off the face of Europe is the proverbial cutting one’s nose off to spite the face, an act of self-harm.

A few snippets of what we are -metaphorically at least – leaving behind:

 

Sandman – an extract from the sea-crossing

There is shouting on the boat. Commotion. Men and women, encouraged by each other, stronger en masse, pushed against the wall, are demanding water. Haji doesn’t know what started the riot. It could’ve been that more people had pushed up from the stern, escaping the flooding. They were being squashed and have grown desperate. Despair breeds defiance.

Two of the smugglers come down to deal with the situation, both armed. They brandish their weapons in a display of might. Haji sighs. They are deluding themselves if they think they have the monopoly on killing. Despite their guns and their theatrics, Haji reads fear in their faces. People are screaming, waving their fists.

‘No water! No water left!’ The older one of the smugglers presents his empty hands in a gesture of helplessness. He turns and points towards the dark horizon. ‘Italia! Wait! Italia close! Europa!’ The sun rising in front of him hits the metal of his automatic pistol. It shines in Haji’s eyes. People aren’t listening or they don’t believe the smuggler’s assurances. The shouting intensifies and, when that happens, children begin to cry. It’s mayhem. Some passengers have risen to their feet and are approaching their minders, fearless and furious. Demanding water. Pleading for water. The younger of the two smugglers loses his footing and slips. He is angry for his humiliation and to cover up for it he grabs a shabby man closest to him and pushes him down towards the stern. The shabby man falls to his knees, splashing water around him. Another person is thrust on top of him. And another one. The smuggler is throwing people across the deck into the flooded stern. ‘You want water?’ he yells, his voice high with irritation. ‘You got water   down there!’ He kicks another person – it’s a woman. Her companion hurls himself at the assailant, but the older smuggler reaches for his pistol and shoots the man.

Silence.

Dead silence. And then the widowed woman starts wailing and scrambles towards her husband’s body. Others join her and the boat begins to sink.

It was inevitable.

Large bubbles, swollen with air, boil over – the stern submerges within seconds. Everyone presses to the bow, but it’s no good. The bow is going to go, too. Someone, the skipper rushes out of the cabin and sends a flare into the sky. It explodes, red illuminations in the grey morning sky.

People are jumping off the boat before its mass drags them into the depths. The family of five – Haji’s neighbours – are in disarray. The father and Boy have dived in, the father with the four-year-old girl in his arms. The mother and the baby just fell into the sea, and gave in to it without a fight. They went down like a smashed block of concrete. Boy is splashing haplessly, screaming, choking on water. Haji realises Boy cannot swim. He dives in and searches for him in the whirlpool of sinking bodies; his fingers meet Boy’s arm, and they claw at it. He pushes him up towards the light of the rising sun.

It is a matter of seconds for the boat to vanish from sight and a matter of half an hour before the sea swarming with people becomes calm and still. Haji and Boy are treading water, waiting for a miracle. Haji isn’t one to let go and he is right not to – he hears a distant buzz of a helicopter. He recognises it instantly. He knows the slashing of the air with the rotating blades. He points to Boy, ‘Rescue,’ he says. ‘Wave arms!’

They both wave them, and they shout.

The helicopter pauses over their heads. Water ripples around them, unsettling Boy. Haji has to grab hold of him again. A harness on a rope is being lowered from the helicopter and when it hits the surface it is dragged along it, close enough for Haji to get hold of it. He fastens it under Boy’s arms and watches him being lifted to safety. Then he dives between the waves, and swims away. The land – Italy – cannot be too far. He knows helicopters can’t fly far and he can see the outline of the coast. And even if he doesn’t make it to the shore, he’d rather die free than be captured.

The Prom Queen and an Ugly Duckling

I am an emotionally charged Mummy. Yesterday was Daughter’s prom. Fab day for Daughter, a rollercoaster of emotions, dramas, malfunctioning Satnavs, makeup disasters and bare-knuckle fights for me.

A whole day off work was requisitioned so that I could assist Daughter in her transformation from her customary leggings/baggy t-shirt getup and an aversity to hairbrush to… well, this amazing beauty I hardly recognised. I hasten to add that by assisting I mean chauffeuring to and from appointments, getting under her feet, stabbing her with a mascara brush in the eye and tying her shoelaces. I left the proper stuff to the professionals. And here comes my Prom Queen:

I am amazed and proud, and taken aback by her confidence and grown-up poise neither of which she got from me. And I thank her lucky star for that!

To illustrate my point, I will take you back in time to my own prom. What a tragic affair that was! For I was the ugly duckling who had never made it to the rank of swan.

First of all, it was a social event. Social events weren’t for me. They scared the living daylight out of me (still do, but pst…) as I had no idea what to say and felt deeply uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with all those people who knew exactly what they were doing. My thoughts were far away in lands fantastical and if I were to articulate them, my peers would regard me with contempt, I was sure of that. So I kept my mouth shut. I had no boyfriend. I had zero social acumen.

On the morning of the prom, while other girls were having their hair and nails done, I was away attending the final of The Young Writer 1985 competition. Instead of shoes and makeup, I was contemplating restless ghosts and the sound of a black horse’s hooves on a cobbled road in my gothic horror piece. Incidentally, I came third so that wasn’t a runaway success either.

From that event, my Dad drove me home at breakneck speed (in his car, not a black-horse-and-cart). With half-n-hour to the start of the prom, I hurriedly refreshed, washed the ink away from my fingers and wrapped myself in my new shiny dress (my Mum had chosen it for me on her own. I had been too busy doing something much more important at home).

It wasn’t only the dress that had been chosen for me behind my back and without my input. It was also my partner for the evening. Did I mention I didn’t have a boyfriend? But I did have a few good-Samaritan friends. One of them had recruited their brother’s mate to accompany me. So there I was in his arms on the dance floor, breathlessly counting the steps and never taking my eyes off my feet. Poor guy, it must have been the worst night of his young life!

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When you want to go invisible – step by step instructions

When you want to go invisible:

  1. You climb under the tiniest footstool in the house;
  2. You keep your tail tucked under your backside and avoid wagging it;
  3. You put on an innocent, but sheepish face;
  4. You pretend the legs and tail sticking out from under the stool have nothing to do with you.

Visual guidelines:

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This dog has performed the invisibility manoeuvre. The causes are still under investigation – I am checking all my slippers for bite marks and whether my bed has been slept in by uninvited guests. The local cat population is being examined for missing tails and ears. Husband will inspect his flowerbeds for signs of tunnelling. Meantime, Dog remains invisible.

Thicker than Blood – a story of family feuds and desperate measures

Thicker than Blood is the third book in the DI Gillian Marsh Mysteries. It is a story of an unfinished business between two brothers, greed and regrets, old age and desperation, but also love.

As the old saying goes, You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. Even more to the point in this story, you must be very carefully who you choose to be your enemy.