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.

 

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?

Sandman, the conspiracy of outcasts

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Just off the genteel Quakers Walk weaving its way amongst rolling fields towards Devizes’ White Horse sprawled upon Roundway Hill, a timid narrow footpath dives into a deep wood. The path is frequented by shady individuals: most of them skinny and unkempt, dressed in threadbare garments, looking older than their actual years due to what one would describe as falling on hard luck.

I once followed that path. It took me down a slippery slope and across a lazy stream towards a well-camouflaged network of under-the-scarp caves. Their existence was betrayed by rugs flapping in entrances and sheets of corrugated iron wedged on top of them. There were also signs of a campsite, a stack of firewood and a few empty bottles and drugs paraphernalia scattered around. The place had a distinct vibe of alienation, depravity and wretchedness about it. It was the homeless’ colony.

In the bushes not far from the path, I heard grunting noises. A quick reconnaissance revealed a couple engaging in the act of fornication. Out in the open! In broad daylight! Those were my first indignant reactions to what I was witnessing. Later on however, upon further reflection, I concluded that I couldn’t really expect the homeless to go and get a room, could I?

That god-forsaken place would a few years later make a perfect setting for Sandman. Haji had to find a hiding place, hole up in there and stay under the radar for days. He had to hide in plain view. He had to blend in. He had to look like he belonged. An Afghan outsider in an alien land, he could not book a hotel in the city or waltz into a quaint village pub in search of low-key accommodation. But he could sit around a campfire with a bunch of like-minded outcasts, and look like he was one of them. They were as disenfranchised as he was. The pariah status was his and their common denominator.

But was their shared existence on the outer perimeter of respectable society enough to give them strength in togetherness – well, let’s see…

Sandman is out tomorrow, 11th April 2019, the fourth instalment in the DI Marsh crime series.

Inside the mind of a cold-blooded killer

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When I decided that the hero – or rather anti-hero – of my next book would be a terrorist who crosses the width of the earth to inflict death and destruction on the West, I knew I had a tough nut to crack: getting into his head.

I didn’t want to make it easy for myself. It would be all too simple to blame it on the radicalisation of some hapless 16-year old by the social media frenzy. I wanted my villain to have a past, a life before he died inside, a background in the shape of a nation, a country and its history. I didn’t want a brain-washed, new-born fundamentalist or a convert who would need some external, divine intervention in order to grow his own backbone.

So, I found 60-year old Haji, an Afghan veteran of the Soviet War, a scientist educated in the best schools in Moscow, an agnostic, a man open to western values, a rational man, an artist, a family man. You could say, I found a good and ordinary man who turned to terrorism before my eyes. And now, I had to give him reason and credibility. I hope I succeeded on some level.

A lot of research has gone into Sandman. I knew of course first-hand of the effect Soviet rule had on all its satellite countries, of the oppression and the tight grip they had on their neighbours’ politics, security and people’s everyday lives. But I didn’t know the unique Afghan perspective: its rich religious, ethnic and historical tapestry. So, I read all I could about that country and I learned, and I was amazed. It is astonishing how little we, the so-called fat cats of the West, know of any other place on this planet! We are dangerously Eurocentric, and to survive, we have to reach out and find out how the other half lives. But that’s just a small reflection.

Going back to my research for Sandman, I must acknowledge a brilliant book by Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Without it, Sandman would be a shallow puddle of guesswork.

Sandman is due for publication on 11th April 2019. It is ready to pre-order on Amazon and with the Publisher, Accent Press.

A Christmas Canon

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Astonishing how life imitates fiction! In DI Marsh’s third outing, Thicker than Blood, Mildred fights tooth and nail against being ejected from her farm and grounded in an old people’s home. Granted, she is old and she might forget where she put her glasses, but she has the willpower made of steel. Just like my Mother-in-law.

My Mother-in-law, dear old Audrey, has spent the ninety-four self-contained years of her life in her house, fending for herself, combating and defeating many a carer and community nurse who tried to tell her what was good for her. As if she didn’t know! She lived through the War and they did not, thank you very much!

Right up to this Christmas, she knew how to outsmart her long suffering son, and my poor Husband, and made him do as she said even though, frankly, she hasn’t been making much sense for years. But yet another dramatic tumble down the stairs, yet another ambulance ride, yet another long hour in A&E, and a Christmas miracle at last occurred! Audrey threw in a towel and conceded to a relocation to a lovely residential home, subject to several non-negotiable conditions and qualifications (all of which have been met): gardens, views, countryside, birds, and no more damned hospitals!

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That’s the spirit! The spirit of Christmas! A miracle we never thought would take place (such is the nature of miracles, after all). So now we can visit because she is just round the corner and Husband can sleep soundly through the night. And so can I. Merry Christmas indeed!

And what of Mildred? Is she going to come to her senses?

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Launching Thicker than Blood (the DI Marsh Mystery Book 3) at Corsham StoryTown Festival

I am chuffed to be invited to the first ever Corsham Literary Festival, Corsham StoryTown, to share extracts from the third book in my DI Gillian Marsh detective series, Thicker than Blood, and to chat about books and my writing in general.

Signed copies of Thicker than Blood (to be published on 18th October, Accent Press), and other books in the series will be available at the event.

The event will take place at Corsham Library, Springfield Campus, Corsham, on Friday, 19th October 2018, at 7:30-8:30pm.

Everyone living nearby or willing to travel is most warmly welcome to drop in!

 

How I lead a double life

Every seven years, so it is believed, we undergo a full molecular transformation. Short of shedding skin, we find different things funny and get up in arms over different issues, we drop our old habits (even those that once amounted to an insurmountable thirty-a-day), we swop our likes and dislikes, we lose our strengths and acquire new weakness, and we emerge on the other side as someone else. As writers, we do it with even greater frequency.

If we add to it changing personal circumstances, births and deaths, marriages and breakups, house moves, job redundancies, intrepid journeys and other cataclysmic events, God knows what multitude of personalities we carry inside us! As writers, we kill and resurrect those personalities round the clock, we store them at the back of our notebooks, we chop them, mix and match them, pick and choose, buy two for the price of one, adopt them and disinherit them at a whim…

Many of them make it into our stories. They are much more realistic if we had an opportunity to live inside their heads at some point in our constantly morphing lives. They turn up on the page with ease and we are able to switch between them, dash from one to another in dialogues in which we take sides, try to talk reason and simply cannot deal with the other character’s pig-headedness. In Life Without Me I had to feed on my assertive, professional, no-nonsense self when I stepped in Georgie’s shoes and had to starve myself of any common sense whenever Paula tottered in wearing her high heels and little else. While writing the opening chapters of Swimming with Sharks I lived in my pyjamas, hiding under the bed whenever there was a knock on the door, but when Gillian marched onto the scene, I lost the pjs, got in the car and let the road rage take me to my destination (because, let’s face it, the world is full of fools I don’t suffer gladly and someone has to let them know that).

There are times when characters get under our skin. They won’t listen and they are not particularly likeable, and you really want nothing better than to kill them off. But, like I said, they don’t listen. They won’t go away. They won’t let you write them out of the story no matter how many traps you set for them. They can be exhausting, but you have to deal with them. I like to take breaks from them, offering them the traditional excuse of ‘Look, it’s not you – it’s me.’ Today I’ve been writing about Reggie, a South African mercenary with a heart wrought into a nugget of steel. I just had to throw in his way young Bella – a delicate flower of a woman who brought back tender memories – to soften the bastard up a bit. And so it goes. Sometimes I have to switch between stories, leave one to sulk in the background and reach out to another one, make new friends and remember myself to old enemies.

I know some of my characters, some of my multiple personalities, are pain-in-the-arse, incorrigible wastrels, but God forbid, someone should say that to my face. It feels like a slap, and I have to fight the urge to slap that someone back. Because my characters are my babies. Not all of them are good, or decent, or agreeable, but they are mine.