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Introducing Alex Macbeth and The Red Die

The body of a man with a red die in his pocket is washed ashore near a quiet village on the coast of the Indian Ocean in southern Africa. But what looked initially like a corpse that came in with the tide soon turns out to be a murder case that will lead Comandante Felisberto and his team to the edge of danger and despair as they uncover a trail leading up to the highest echelons of power in their country.

Can Felisberto and his ‘motley crew of rural investigators’ solve the case – and survive?

OOOH! Alex Macbeth’s debut novel, THE RED DIE, sounds right up my reading alley and so, while I wait for my pre-order copy to land on my kindle this weekend, I jumped at the chance to ask Alex some questions about this gripping new story, set in Mozambique.

Alex, how did you come to write this particular novel?

Alex_smallI was sat in a police station in Mozambique because somebody had stolen my motorbike. Despite the curious situation, I was overwhelmed by some of the challenges the officers faced; there were no aspirins in the district, yet hundreds of crimes. A total of six officers policed a town of more than 130,000 people. The force’s only car often ran out of petrol and the local police force had no forensic department.

I think in Europe we have a stereotype of African policemen as corrupt and malicious figures, but I realised that the challenges of being a detective in an African village are huge and often under-appreciated. So I was inspired to create a rural African hero, a shrewd, ‘hardboiled’ detective who despite his limited resources is determined to fight crime. The quirky setting grew on me and with research the story became my debut novel, THE RED DIE.

Do you have a favorite scene or character in your novel?

I have to say, there are several I enjoyed writing, although the scene in which my protagonist, Comandante Felisberto, jumps out of an exploding plane without knowing whether his parachute works is one of my favourites.

I also enjoy writing dialogue a lot so the interrogation scenes, which usually come with a twist, are also among some of the scenes that I enjoy re-reading the most.

What was your process in writing THE RED DIE? How long did it take?

THE RED DIE took five years to write and went through at least twelve drafts.  As the plot developed, I had to do more and more research. Subsequent drafts helped shape some of the details that contribute to the sense of place (Mozambique), the characters, their relationships (e.g the grumpy and technophobe old-school detective and his technology-obsessed deputy) – and also plot twists.

26221053_10155867073520761_3564073603336382054_oI wanted to create a detective who was both tough but sensitive, just but hard. I tried to take what I could from Chandler’s hardboiled detectives and combine it with the attempt to rectify moral hazard that is so present in Nordic Noir. And I set it in Mozambique, in the small district where my family have lived for the last fifteen years.

The story is told from three points of view. The main story follows Comandante Felisberto, the investigating detective. The secondary story features Tomlinson, a British zoologist in Mozambique. Podolski, a dodgy British banker in London, makes the odd appearance too.

I always think the books author’s read tell me a lot about them and their books. Can you recommend some three novels you have read and loved?

THE WINTER QUEEN – Boris Akunin

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN – Sjowall & Wahloo

WIZARD OF THE CROW – Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Hmm, Alex. You have chosen 3 books I have never heard of! Thank you! I’m excited to check them out.

And finally, what is the best piece of advice you have for other writers?

Gosh, that’s tough. I guess the best advice is keep writing and believe in your voice, even if at times others, or even you, don’t like it. It takes time to find a voice we feel comfortable with as writers. Meanwhile, read as much as you can! Others have already shown the way to write great stories, we just need to catch up on how to do it.

Alex Macbeth’s debut novel, THE RED DIE, is available on Amazon in the UK & the US

To know more, find Alex on twitter, facebook and at his website.

 

Cover reveal!

I’m so delighted to start sharing the cover for my new book, The Road to Newgate, which is being published by Crooked Cat books on July 16th!

rtnfrontcoverThe cover is particularly relevant to the book as the background image is part of Ogilby and Morgan’s Large Scale Map of the City as rebuilt by 1676.

The map is a) beautiful and b) available to inspect online in great detail at British History Online. I love it so much I bought a print of it and hung it on our dining room wall.

What was so useful about it as a writing resource is that I was able to zoom in on all the book locations and relate the places I was writing about to modern-day London, getting a real feel for the geography my characters inhabited. Now I can tell you how long it took Nat to get to work above Henry’s print shop in Little Britain from his and Anne’s small home in Love Lane, near Billings Gate. I also traced the route of the Pope-burning procession that so distresses Anne on this map – more of that later – and worked out just how long it would take her to walk to Tyburn to watch an execution.

But for now, here is Anne in Chapter Two, walking past “The Pillar where the fire began” that you can see in the section of the map below, before turning right along Thames Street:

On Fish Street Hill, more people than usual are gathered around the new monument to the Great Fire. They are pointing. An addition has been made to the Latin inscription on its northern side. I’ve read the stone panel many times. It describes the fire that ravaged this part of the city, day and night, in 1666. On the third day, it reads, the fatal fire died out. But a new line has been added, indicating the rising tide of concern felt all across London.

One man translates, calling others to hear how it says now that, “But Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.” Around him, people grumble their agreement. On the east side there is another addition, this one in Latin and English. I join the people peering at it and read, “The City of London was burnt and consumed with fire by the treachery and malice of the papists in September in the year of Our Lord 1666.”

            “Those Catholic bastards,” one woman shouts. “They’re the ones that should burn!” 

I hurry home.

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Review of White Houses by Amy Bloom

Here is a link to my latest review for the excellent book site, Bookbrowse.

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 2.43.45 PM White Houses by Amy Bloom was a really interesting read, not least because I had very little (no) foreknowledge about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock. In fact while I was reading it I kept stopping people (people I know, not strangers, honest!) and asking people if they knew. The response was a bit hazy.

As a love story this is a terrific read and the writing is of the highest quality. I thought it was a bit lacking in terms of plot but it has definitely piqued my interest in Eleanor Roosevelt and I found myself (shock) doing a bit of shopping as result.

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Alice Roosevelt Longworth only gets a teeny mention in Amy Bloom’s book – fair enough, it’s not her focus – but the rivalry between Alice and Eleanor (they were first cousins and born only eight months apart) sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to read Hissing Cousins and then dig into Princess Alice which I spotted at our school book fair and snaffled up at once.

For a little more background on the Roosevelts, check out my Beyond the Book article for Bookbrowse here.

Or better still, read White Houses and see what you think.

When characters are “like family”. Interview with John R. Bell

Every book gets written for a different reason and every writer’s journey to becoming an author is different. Today I’m sharing what I’ve learned about John R. Bell and his World War II thriller, The Circumstantial Enemy. Here is our Q & A:

Why did you write this particular story?

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 11.00.34 PMThe list is long of authors who’ve had a burning desire to write a novel from an early age. I am not one of them. The inspiration came late in life with one potent statement from my daughter. Fifteen years ago, she said, “If you don’t write it, Grandad’s story will be lost forever.” I’ll never forget the yearning in her eyes. Grandad was 80 at the time and though in good health, he wasn’t about to be the first person to live forever. The family had heard his tales and tribulations as a young Croatian pilot coerced into the Luftwaffe in 1941. Writing a record of events stapled together became a biography with enough books printed for the family and several generations to come. I thought I was done with writing. Not so.

Three years later, I re-read the biography and wondered if I could dramatize that fascinating journey to freedom and redemption into a thrilling novel. If I added elements such as hatred, betrayal, lust, and revenge, would a bona fide publisher share it with a larger audience? Writing historical fiction would become the greatest challenge of my adult life. Eight years of research, writing, editing, rewriting (ad nauseam), and seeking an agent and/or publisher finally came to fruition with the release of The Circumstantial Enemy at the end of 2017. At age 71, I was a novelist.

Final CoverTalk about a favorite scene or character in your novel.

When you are on the wrong side of a war, there is more than one enemy. That assertion appears on my book’s cover. At page 120 of the 324-page novel, I introduce the main antagonist, SS Major Helmut Mauer. Mauer is interned at a POW camp for Germans in Rockford, Illinois in 1943. Mauer is the quintessential Nazi with three peculiarities—he puts his own interests ahead of Hitler’s ideals, he loves catch-and-release fly fishing, and he is infatuated with strangulation. At this point in WWII, the US War Department pays little attention to what goes on behind the barbed wire of the 400+ POW camps on American soil. At Camp Graham, a gang of Nazis rule with an iron fist. A few pages beyond Mauer’s introduction, he meets and interrogates the novel’s protagonist, Tony Babic, the latest arrival. Each man’s cautious and orchestrated interface hints at their personal motivations and establishes a conflict that will accelerate.

Describe your process in writing this book. (e.g. did you outline? Did you choose one pov and stick to it? What did you add? How many drafts did you write? How long did it take?

After penning a few chapters of what would become The Circumstantial Enemy, I was struck by my naivety. I was in over my head. I knew nothing about writing fiction. Eager to learn, I didn’t write a word for a year, throwing myself into every book I could find on how to write fiction. I learned about dialogue, characters, plot, viewpoint, even romance. After preparing a plot arc and compiling a sizable portfolio of research, I began writing for the second time in 3rd person omniscience. My next mistake was a bloated first draft of 225k words. When literary pundits said it was too long, I cut out 45k words. Then, over the course of 3 years, another 200 pages went into land fill. By the time the remaining tight manuscript reached the promised land of publishing, 8 years had passed. The first draft was complete in 18 months. I needed another 4 years for rewriting and editing as well as checking the historical facts and all those little details of the 1940s that had to be error free. Another couple of years of fine-tuning kept me occupied while I tried to persuade bona-fide publishers to take on the project.

Share some book love. Please recommend at least one novel you have read and loved.

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 3.37.34 PMMy favorite book is the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. (ME TOO!) At 1276 pages it is also the longest book I have ever read. Alexandre Dumas’s epic classic chronicles the protagonist’s imprisonment and his subsequent persecution, suffering and retribution. This is the book that Tony Babic’s lover sends to him during his incarceration. In some ways it parallels Tony’s predicament. I am also a fan of the late Australian novelist Bryce Courtenay. I’ve read all of his books, but my favorites are Bryce’s early works, The Power of One and The Potato Factory.

Recommend a work of non-fiction.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers tackles a fundamental question about high-achieving people. What differentiates them from the rest of us? He introduces the notion that 10,000 hours of practice is vital to greatness and uses several examples including The Beetles’ 3 years in Hamburg where they played 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. I invested 10,000 hours into my novel. Does that put me up there with Steinbeck? Of course not. But there is no doubt in my mind that the 5,000-hour version of The Circumstantial Enemy can’t hold a candle to the published novel.

What is the best piece of advice you have for other writers?

By the time I finished reading those self-help books on writing novels, I was left with the indelible principal that characters and conflict are critical to great fiction. But nothing surprised me more than discovering that when it came to POV, I found it no more difficult to express the POV of a romantic female as a chauvinistic male. Why is that? It comes down to knowing your characters. When you know a character like a close member of your family you know what they will do and what they won’t do.

I love this advice! Thank you for sharing John. To find out more about John R. Bell and The Circumstantial Enemy, please find John on Twitter, Amazon, Goodreads or at his website 🙂

 

 

“Never give up, never surrender!” Book love and advice from author G. Elizabeth Kretchmer

WEB_Kretchmer__0446Today I’m introducing a fellow novelist – G. Elizabeth Kretchmer. Kretchmer is the author of two novels – The Damnable Legacy and Bear Medicine – and a collection of short stories – Women on the Brink (a great title, I think!)

We have been talking about her latest novel, Bear Medicine and also about books and writing in general. Here’s our Q&A:

Why did you write Bear Medicine?

I have to laugh when I’m asked this question, because the story has evolved over the thirteen years between when I first sat down to write it and when it finally came out. My life has changed and the world has changed so much during this time, so my reason for writing the story (actually the two intertwined stories) has also transformed.

One thing that has remained constant is my love and concern for the grizzly bear and what she represents, and it so happens the novel finally came out at a critical time for the grizzly, who has lost her status as an endangered animal in the Yellowstone area and who is now eligible to be hunted in some regions.

Another constant is the strength of my love for my kids, but what has changed is my maternal role as my kids matured, as well as my understanding of how parent-child relationships don’t always wind up the way we hope they will. The relationship between mother and child was always a part of this story but it is certainly quite different now than it once was.

The part of the story that emerged to become most critical stemmed from my growing commitment to the idea that women must help women in our male-dominated world. We must respect our contributions to humanity and put a stop to the idea that our innate roles of care and compassion are less important than roles that generate money or celebrate power. We need to honor women who have come and gone before us and who, except for a select few, have been deemed unimportant and omitted from our history books. And we must continue to raise awareness about abuse against women, both physical and psychological, until it’s finally stamped out of our culture for good.

In sharing what happens when people use power as a means to control others, and the healing power that comes from supporting one another, my book, according to one reviewer, serves as “a rallying cry for those believing in humane co-existence with all life on this planet.” While I can’t say I set out to write a rallying cry, I think I can honestly say my purpose was to evoke thoughtful consideration about the state of our world and particularly the status of women and grizzly bears.

 

Talk about a favorite scene or character in your novel.

perf6.000x9.000.inddOne of my favorite scenes is the opening of the novel. Brooke sets off on a trail in Yellowstone National Park one morning to train for an upcoming marathon. The landscape is stunning but savage. She stops to snap a photo with her phone to send to her estranged college-aged daughter, and then this:

A horrible stench. A distinctive blend of musk and rot. A slow-motion image of my phone being jettisoned from my hands, bouncing down an embankment, and landing against a fallen pine. The subtle taste of sandy dirt. Followed by the stabbing penetration into each of my hips, blinding pain, liftoff from the ground. Heavy and helpless, I was hefted into the air like a tree stump raised by a bulldozer.

It’s a wonder that, in the midst of all my agony, I had enough wits left to figure out was was happening. But I did.

I’d been attached by a bear. A very big bear.

 

Can you describe your writing process for this novel?

After writing my initial draft and a few rounds of revisions, I secured an agent. But the book didn’t sell so I put it on a shelf. I got an MFA, created a writing workshop series for survivors of domestic violence, and wrote and published an entirely different novel and a short story collection. I never forgot about Bear Medicine, though, so I finally went back to it.

Rather than dusting it off for revision, I started from scratch. By now I had a clearer idea of what I thought the takeaways from the novel might be. I wanted to tinker with the historical genre and introduce some magical realism, but I wanted to retain the contemporary flavor, too. I embarked on a new round of research including a trip to Yellowstone for rich inspiration in the field. I spent a lot of time analyzing who I really wanted my characters to be and what stories they needed to tell. Finally, I came up with what ultimately became the final version, not counting numerous rounds of editing revisions along the way.

 

Can you share some books that you love? Not more than 3 though!!

I’m a sucker for stories about family, especially families with lots of flaws. It’s hard to choose only three!

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

This reminds me of Defending Jacob by William Landay, another great novel surrounding the mystery of a child’s death, how it destroys a family, and how mutually fragile each member of the family can be. Ng’s story also depicts how generations rebel against that which their parents most want for them.

LaRose – Louise Erdrich

You probably think I’m obsessed with stories about children dying. I’m not, but you’ve got to admit that’s a premise that immediately tugs on your heartstring. This novel weaves together three stories: how a boy’s death destroys the relationship between two families; what happens when more than one man is in love with the same woman; and the power of strength and peace that can be handed down through the generations.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

I loved this long before it became one of the most talked about HBO shows in recent history. It’s another mystery as it’s written, but the guts of the story surround the unfortunate competition that can arise among young mothers who sincerely want the best for their children but who, in their quest for maternal perfection, let their ugliest shadow selves surface and take control of their lives.

(I think that’s 4 books really!!)

And what about a work of non-fiction/a TV show/a movie/an album?

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 10.17.59 AMAgain, an impossible request, to recommend only one. So much to choose from! I was planning to recommend a memoir with the same structure and tropes as a novel, but then I got a wild idea to recommend a journalistic nonfiction. It’s so relevant to our society today and in all likelihood will ring true for some of your readers:

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol – Ann Dowsett Johnston

I drank wine almost every night for my entire adult life, and just a year ago I decided it was time to give it up. Doing so was one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced, and this book was the final kick in the derriere that made me do it. It articulates just how pervasive wine is in our society and how the alcohol industry has specifically targeted women in its marketing efforts.

 

What is the best piece of advice you have for other writers?

“Never give up, never surrender!” That was actually a line from the film Galaxy Quest which wasn’t an inspirational movie in the slightest. But the line stuck with me. If you love to write, then you must do it. If writing makes you crazy and grumpy, you must also do it. If life throws you curve balls (which of course it does), then you must write about these flaming balls to help you process and figure out how you feel and what to do.

But along the way, you must also read, read, read. Devour books in your genre but explore plenty of books—both fiction and nonfiction—in other genres. (Joining a book club to be forced to read books you wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, and to hear how other readers analyze books, can be extremely helpful). And don’t forget craft books! There are too many great books about the craft of writing to mention here, but I will recommend four fabulous inspirational books that I highly recommend. In fact, I’m due to reread them again!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

You don’t need to be a fan of his novels to appreciate his experience and advice.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

A down-to-earth, touching, and sometimes humorous peek into one writer’s life.

If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit – Brenda Ueland

The author’s convictions that anyone can write, and that everyone has something important to say, can inspire the new writer to pick up the pen and the seasoned writer to put her butt back in the chair.

Gift from the Sea – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Not a writing book per se, but a book that invokes our inner voices to express our observations and musings about life.

I have read 3 out of 4 of these! Definitely need to check out Brenda Ueland’s book after this recommendation!

Please do check out G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s books on Amazon and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

 

Two Journey’s Home by Kevin O’Connell

Updated For Kevins Tour

It’s 1767. As the eagerly anticipated sequel to Beyond Derrynane begins, Eileen O’Connell avails herself of a fortuitous opportunity to travel back to Ireland. In Two Journeys Home, the O’Connells encounter old faces and new—and their lives change forever.

Her vivacious personality matched only by her arresting physical presence, Eileen returns to Derrynane this time not as a teen aged widow but as one of the most recognised figures at the Habsburg court. Before returning to Vienna she experiences a whirlwind romance, leading to a tumult of betrayal and conflict with the O’Connell clan.

Abigail lives not in the shadow of her sister but instead becomes the principal lady-in-waiting to Empress Maria Theresa.

Hugh O’Connell leaves behind waning adolescence and a fleeting attraction to the youngest archduchess when he begins a military career in the Irish Brigade under Louis XV. But more royal entanglement awaits him in France…

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Today I’m excited to share news of a new historical novel from author Kevin O’Connell, and tempt readers with this excerpt from Two Journey’s Home

Having served at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa for almost six years, Eileen O’Connell is returning to her home in County Kerry, Ireland for a brief visit. Though she had last departed the O’Connells’ sanctuary at Derrynane as a teenage widow, she returns as one of the most recognised figures at the glittering Habsburg court. As the family’s ship, the Will o’ the Wisp, approaches the secure harbour at Iskeroon, Eileen experiences a strong sense of place – and reflects on some of the events of her years in Vienna:

Within moments, it was the whistling trill that heralded the sudden leaping arrival of a pair of dolphins, their joyful presence—especially as they would remain on the port side of the vessel for the duration of the passage to Derrynane—reminding Eileen that no dolphins had been in evidence at the time of her most recent departures and arrivals. So perhaps the smiling dears herald something special, she reflected. As she watched them cavorting even as they swam, she could not help but smile, returning, she felt, the warm gestures the animals seemed to be directing to her.

Leaning against the ship’s rail, noticing the sun’s orb as it continued its struggle to make itself more fully evident in the still-dull heavens, recalling briefly her gentle awakening, Eileen spoke aloud to the wind, and to herself, “These years, these not-quite six years . . . They could have all been a dream . . . could they not have? Yet to me, all of it has actually happened . . .” A panoply of places and events—and people, so many people! —raced vividly through her mind, as if it were all unfolding as a moving panorama before her.

With the coming of the spring of 1761, General O’Connell’s skilful orchestration of arranging opportunities at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna for Eileen, now twenty-three, and her ebullient, slightly older sister, Abigail, having borne fruit, it was the Countess Maria von Graffenreit, at the time and for a number of years prior the primary lady-in-waiting to the empress, with whom Eileen and Abby had corresponded, in preparation for their journey to Vienna.

It was also the countess who had greeted them warmly on their arrival at court in October of the same year, following their five-weeklong journey from Derrynane, seeing to it that Eileen was presented to her new charges—Their Imperial Highnesses, the Archduchesses Maria Carolina and Maria Antonia of Austria and Lorraine—and Abigail to her own new mistress, the Empress Maria Theresa herself, as well as choreographing a lengthy series of both formal and informal introductions to key persons at court.

In the years that quickly followed, as the sisters flourished at the apex of the glittering Habsburg court and society, Maria von Graffenreit was daily, quietly in their lives. More so, during the same period, the attractive, quietly elegant widow had grown ever closer to the never married general, such that the two had wed quietly, early in the current year.

It was with, or so it seemed to Eileen, an almost-dizzying speed that immediately following their marriage, the countess had yielded her lofty position as head of the empress’s household to Abigail O’Connell O’Sullivan, herself wed less than a year to Major Denis O’Sullivan, an officer in the Hungarian Hussars.

During the ensuing bitterly cold, unusually snowy Vienna winter of the current year, Eileen had experienced what she had come to refer to as the winter of my own discontent, marked significantly by the departure from Vienna of her dear friend and lover, Major Wolfgang von Klaus, for an extended tour of duty at the Imperial Russian court at St. Petersburg, an event that had resulted in Eileen unexpectedly sensing herself unsettled, uncertain.

Though in the interim she had become less disconcerted, her state of mind remained such that when in early June the general and the countess announced a late-summer trip to Ireland, Eileen had met the news with an unexpected but profound desire to return to Derrynane herself, if only for a time. Whilst she indicated to the couple that her motivation lay in a simple desire to see the rest of her family, Eileen acknowledged to herself that seeing the O’Sullivans and, more recently, the general and the countess all well-wed—and, she somewhat reluctantly admitted, von Klaus’s departure for Russia—had left her feeling to some not insignificant degree uncertain as to what life might next hold in store for her. She felt that some time spent at what she had always felt the powerful sanctuary that was Derrynane might help her clarify her life’s future direction.

Though she realised it might be awkward for the newlyweds, Eileen quietly inquired of them if she might accompany them to Ireland, phrasing it lightly, “With the dragoons I shall gladly ride.” The general had no doubt that she was, in fact, more than willing to make the trip on horseback rather than intrude on the couple’s privacy in a coach. They immediately and graciously acceded to her request, and Eileen rode in the coach.

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Kevin O'ConnellKevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and the descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French Army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

An international business attorney, Mr. O’Connell is an alumnus of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Centre.

A lifelong personal and scholarly interest in the history of eighteenth-century Ireland, as well as that of his extended family, led O’Connell to create his first book, Beyond Derrynane, which will, together with Two Journeys Home and the two books to follow, comprise the Derrynane Saga.

The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland.

Connect with Kevin on Facebook, through his website or on Amazon

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Reviews:

Two Journeys HomeO’Connell is a fantastic storyteller. His prose is so rich and beautiful it is a joy to read. The story is compelling and the characters memorable – all the more so because they are based on real people. . . I am Irish but I did not know about this piece of Irish history. It is fascinating but historical fiction at the same time . . . Highly recommended for historical fiction lovers! (c) Beth Nolan, Beth’s Book Nook

I enjoyed the first part of the Saga awhile back . . . (and) couldn’t wait to continue the story of Eileen and her family . . . this author really does have a way with words. The world and the characters are so vivid . . . Overall, I was hooked from page one. I honestly think that (Two Journeys Home) was better than (Beyond Derrynane) – which is rare. The characters and world-building was done in such a beautiful manner . . . I can’t wait for the next one . . . (c) Carole Rae, Carole’s Sunday Review, Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell

Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe . . . is a gripping story that will transport the reader back in time, a story with a strong setting and compelling characters . . . a sensational romance, betrayal, family drama and intrigue . . . The plot is so complex that I find it hard to offer a summary in a few lines, but it is intriguing and it holds many surprises . . .  great writing. Kevin O’Connell’s prose is crisp and highly descriptive. I was delighted (by) . . . how he builds the setting, offering . . . powerful images of places, exploring cultural traits and unveiling the political climate of the time . . . The conflict is (as well-developed as the characters) and it is a powerful ingredient that moves the plot forward . . . an absorbing and intelligently-crafted historical novel . . . . (c) Divine Zapa for Readers’ Favourite

Books and terrorism

A post a little off my normal historical reading and writing beat…

First, a little background. Between 1991 and 1998 and again between 2004 and 2008, Chris and I lived in south Manchester – in Heaton Moor, Sale and Bramhall to be be precise. Maddie (now 12) was born at Stepping Hill in Stockport. And with friends and family still living there we were so saddened by the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert – at a venue we have loved going to, and one that on that night was full of kids around Maddie’s age.

It’s not the act of terror that I want to focus on however, but the response to it. As far as I can tell from the other side of the Atlantic, the people of Manchester’s response has been wonderful: not just ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, but actively choosing to be optimistic and openhearted, instead of frightened, angry and afraid. This has made a great impression on me, particularly because I’ve just read and reviewed an amazing novel on this very topic.

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A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi tells the story of Rez, an American teen whose parents were immigrants from Iran. It is wonderfully written and very hard to read – especially if you have teenage kids like we do. My full review for Bookbrowse is here:

Review of A Good Country

And here is the link to the Beyond the Book article that goes with it about terrorism in the US:

Where do terrorists in the US come from?

Without giving the game the away, A Good Country starts with a likeable sixteen year old, Rez, who seems to have a bright future. His family have a very comfortable life in California and Rez’s grades are great. But this is the world of the Boston Bombing. And it is the impact that that event, and another fictional terrorist atrocity in a local shopping mall, and how they play into Rez’s isolation and rejection of his future in America, that really stand out for me. In the wake of these events, Rez sees white, middle-class Americans – neighbours and school friends – turn away from him, or glare at him with suspicion because of his Iranian heritage. He is pushed away by the world he has grown up believing he was part of, and he reaches out instead for a sense of belonging and brotherhood with other sons and daughters of immigrants. Through this, Raj falls prey to extremist ideology, the dark side of the internet and promises of a false future.

A Good Country is one of those books that you read with a sense of watching a train wreck that you can do nothing to stop. But although there were many reasons for Rez’s choices, I did feel that the way he was treated after the terrorist acts could have and should have been different. I hope that for young men of immigrant families in Manchester, it will be.

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i love manchester

 

Interview with Sarah Perry

I am lucky enough to sometimes have the chance to ask other novelists questions about their work for the Historical Novel Society and write up feature articles. There’s always something more in the Q&A that I can’t work into the articles though. So here’s a chance to read the whole conversation.

Talking about The Essex Serpent with Sarah Perry

essexHow would you set the scene of the historical context and ‘world’ of The Essex Serpent for someone thinking about reading it?

I have been in the habit of calling it a “modern Victorian Gothic novel” – all of which sounds slightly contradictory! But this is in order to try and convey that although this is a novel set in the 19th century, and influenced by the forms and traditions of Gothic fiction, it very much aims to foreground everything which was modern and urgent about that period: scientific progress and debates, political and social upheaval, the early development of feminism, and so on. And while it has a Gothic sensibility, perhaps especially in the depictions of the eerie Essex countryside and the fear of an unknown best, it does not resort to maidens in nightgowns, and cruel villainous counts. I wanted to challenge and interrogate what readers might expect from a neo-Victorian Gothic novel.

 

Although there might be said to be one main story – Cora’s – lots of other characters have important journeys: I’m thinking of Luke, Francis, Martha and Naomi. Did all these interwoven lives arrive in your head at one time or, if not, how did they develop?

Four of the main characters came to me almost instantly – in fact, during the car journey after I had first seen the road-sign which led to the discovery of the legend of the Essex Serpent! I thought first of Cora, and then – wanting to find an emotional and scientific ‘foil’ to her, thought of Will, the vicar. I then thought of Cora’s son, I think perhaps because I wanted to explore childhood and especially how “different” children would have been seen prior to a time of diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders. Luke came next: I have always been very interested in the development of medical and surgical science, and I instantly had in mind this very daring, even rather dangerous intellect who prized his scientific work above everything else, but could never be immune to his emotions.

Other characters seemed to join the cast as I went: Martha, for example, was inspired by some of my research into Victorian friendships between women, and by the lives of extraordinary Victorian women like Eleanor Marx who were so active in politics. I conceived of Stella as a riposte to the old novel trope that a man may be tempted by other women because his own wife is a bit of a shrew – I wanted her to be a loving and vital presence, not a plot device.

 

How important is symbolism in the novel? Is there one monster, or several?

It’s crucial – and there are as many serpents as there are characters. I wanted each to be haunted not by the serpent itself, but rather what the serpent represents. For example, the schoolgirls and Naomi in particular respond to it with a kind of anxiety that I think is very rooted in their youth: it’s almost a phallic symbol, like a version of the “worm” that enters the rose and makes it sick in Blake’s poem. One of Aldwinter’s parishioners thinks of it as a visitation that marks the end times and the judgment of God, while Stella thinks of it as something that she must placate if she is to preserve the village. For Cora, of course, it is the symbol of her desire to find rational explanations in a world which is confusing and full of change.

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Can you talk about the relationships in the novel between the natural and spiritual worlds?

I am particularly fascinated in where we draw the line between what is natural, and what is supernatural or spiritual. There are many things in the natural world which, even when we know perfectly well what laws of physics and biology have created it, still fill us with a sense of wonder. I am especially interested in the “sublime”, which is a key component of the Gothic and something which, according to the essayist Burke, is a sensation which moves us beyond merely experiencing a sense of beauty (such as when we look at a flower in the spring) into a transport of awe, and wonder, and even terror. Most people who see the Northern Lights, for example, are aware that it’s an effect of electrically charged particles in the atmosphere, but are still awestruck by it and perhaps moved to think about their own place in the world, and mortality, and what might lie beyond all those things we can explain. So for example Cora, when she first walks in the Essex countryside, is profoundly moved by what is actually a fairly ordinary scene of woodland in winter, because she has been trapped unhappily in London for so long – so the rainy woods seem to her to represent her innocence, and a promise of a better future. That she first encounters Will in this context and not, for example, in a neat and tidy room in her London house, is really important, I think.

 

Do you have a favourite scene and/or character?

Speaking of the natural and the sublime – my favourite scene is the one in which Cora and Will encounter the Fata Morgana. I became obsessed with this optical illusion – you can see videos of it on YouTube, and it really came to signify for me nature at its most strange and marvelous: an intersection between the natural and the magical worlds. Shortly after I wrote that scene, I took a day off writing to go to one of the very large and beautiful Norfolk beaches where I live, and I saw a Fata Morgana illusion myself. It wasn’t a ship, but resembled great black tower-blocks being built far out to sea, and it was just as strange and magical as I had hoped. My favourite character is Dr Garrett, the Imp. I used to find myself weeping as I wrote some of his scenes: he is the character who most clearly lives on with me.

 

How do you feel about the reception of The Essex Serpent? It’s nominated for several literary awards in the UK and about to be released in the US. I’m thinking this is an exciting time for you!

It’s been a really astonishing time for the book and for me, to the extent that I am not sure that it’s really sunk in quite yet! Every author dreams of their work finding an audience – or at any rate, I certainly do! – but I had never for a moment imagined that it would reach so many people. What has moved me most of all is finding people from Essex coming to events, or writing to me, and thanking me for capturing something about that part of the world which they hadn’t seen written about before. Essex is famously something of a joke in the UK, and not a place that people associate with romantic landscapes, or myths, or earthquakes, so my fellow Essex folk have been really delighted, which has perhaps been the very best thing about it.

 

Lovers or rich and original language will be drawn to The Essex Serpent. Can you talk about your influences as a writer? (Something about Cora put me in mind of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and the scene in the school made me think of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – or am I off-base making connections like that?)

I am thrilled and flattered by those connections: thank you so much!

I had a very unusual upbringing which I think did much to contribute to my writing style, and even to the themes which are present in my work. My parents were members of a very old-fashioned Strict Baptist chapel, and much of the contemporary world was frowned upon. So I was brought up reading, memorizing and reciting the King James Bible, and singing Victorian hymns, and reading things like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. We didn’t have a television in the house, or any pop music, and I wasn’t allowed to attend parties or to go to the cinema; but I was surrounded by classic literature and classical music. I read Jane Eyre when I was eight, and my father bought me a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was ten, and I think all of those influences (the King James Bible most of all!) have created a prose style which is, or so they tell me, quite unusual coming from a young-ish writer in the 21st century! Certainly my style isn’t something which is contrived: it comes as it does, and although at one point I rather resented it and wished I wrote in a more modern style, I have come to accept my own “voice”.

 

What are you writing next?

sarah perryI am currently working on a Gothic novel which is set in contemporary Prague, where I was fortunate enough to live as a UNESCO writer-in-residence last year. It is entailing rather a lot of research into various rather harrowing historical events, and I look back fondly on writing The Essex Serpent as having been a far more pleasurable experience!