Saturday, 25 February 2017

Amahl and the Night Visitors – a storytelling experience

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Alongside my hubby, Jim, I love storytelling, and everything surrounding it… myths and folktales, personal stories, history versus legend, and the idea that, in this age of digital devices, we can still sit, spellbound, when someone opens their mouth and tells a story.

It’s surprising how easy it is in the UK to find storytelling sessions. The very best tour the country, just like rock stars, and we’ll drive a long way, and wade through a lot of mud to be at festivals, such as Beyond the Border, where performers like Daniel Morden, Hugh Lupton, Jan Blake, Eric Madden, Cath Little, and the great Robin Williamson, bewitch us with their tales.

We’ve started to include storytelling in the parties we hold; what better excuse to sit around a firepit or hearth with friends!

So, to get better acquainted with the techniques of storytelling, we joined a weekly workshop run by a professional storyteller. It was an experience – and a challenge. Each Monday, we delved into storytelling in a variety of ways, but we always started up on our feet, working on our breathing and posture, stretching, and moving to sound, singing and chanting to work our voices. When we eventually sat down, we closed our eyes and used visualization to increase what we saw in our mind’s eye. 

We worked in small groups, which was interesting at first, as we didn’t know each other. Then we began to get fond of one another, and the groups became a relaxed sharing of ideas. One week, we each brought a small item that meant a lot to us. We paired off and told its history to our classmate, making notes, because it was our partner’s item we had to use to make a story we could tell to the class. These became fascinating stories, some of them closely representing the original experience, some going off on a fantastical route. We use this sort of ‘exchange’ a lot – not just using artifacts, but also recalling anecdotes in an effort to ‘release’ stories and allow us to feel we have carte blanche over them.

In another class, we learnt about the monomyth…the hero’s journey…and worked together to create our hero and discover why they journeyed from their home to a threatening, unknown place. We worked on landscape, using all sorts of settings to either create new stories or emphasize parts of familiar tales, and learned how to face an audience, how to pace stories, time the telling, and breaking it into sections and working on relating some parts faster or slower than others.

We learned that in storytelling the five senses count for the most; listeners can feel the emotions of the story via experiencing tastes and smells, textures, pain and pleasure and the entire tapestry of sounds as well as describing colours and other visual descriptions. My writing friends will know that I think the five senses are very important in writing fiction, as well, but here they became crucial to help the listener ‘see’ the story.

We also worked on detail another aspect of written stories that, as my students know, I’m always banging on about. Detail in written fiction is the lifeblood of enrichment; in storytelling it has a similar, equally essential quality of slowing the fast pace of a story and engrossing the audience.

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One thing I really enjoyed as a writer, were the ‘storytelling packs’, which  contained random aspects of building a story, such as character names, settings and places, times and dates, and the random symbols often found in tales, such as talking birds and fantastical beasts, deep wells and ladders of maiden's hair, magic swords and foundling babies. I found it amazing, as someone who spends a fair amount of time trying to build plots, just how simple this exercise was, and how easily a story fell into place.

As a writer of short stories, it occurs to me that the storyteller has an advantage over the writer in one important direction; they can gauge the reaction of their audience immediately. They can also employ the benefits of body language, gesture, voice control and can even add atmosphere via sound and light effects. Meanwhile, the writer put out their stories without really knowing what their readership will think of them, and without any further props to help them get their point across. Getting direct feedback from an audience is  hugely scary, but the responses the storyteller wants are very similar to the ones a writer is looking for.

As we started to have the confidence to recreate and then tell stories, we were shown how to use ‘sparklines’, a method of mapping our presentation, and other ways to be able to remember where we were in our story. We began to include sound effects, background music, costumes, masks and props to aid our storytelling – better to get the basics under one’s belt before including such things – too much going on, and the novice storyteller will crash and burn!

The storyteller connects with their audience by evoking emotions from them. And the audience arrives, hoping for that; they’ve chosen the story…or the teller…because they like comic stories or sad stories or spine-chilling tales. But the storyteller will know immediately if they’ve been effective....if the audience doesn’t laugh at the funny bits, or be seen fumbling for tissues during the sad bits or gripping their knees from fear as the tension mounts, the storyteller knows right away that they have failed.

On the other hand, if feet stop shuffling, sweet wrappers stop being crackled and every eye is on the storyteller…that’s success. The story has woven its spell and the listeners are entirely absorbed. Even their breathing slows. 

For the writer, too, engaging a reader from the get-go is so important. Building tension into the reading experience that holds the reader and forces them to turn the page is equally about the five senses, detail, setting, character identification and empathy. Because we’re concerned for the welfare of the protagonist – plucky, perhaps, but vulnerable, or beset with problems or dangers – we’re totally caught up.  It could be said that every protagonist that walks the pages of a novel is on their personal hero’s journey.

Stories in books have several and varied effects on the reader. Endings might leave them with a feeling of satisfaction, or of vague unquiet...the characters might linger in their minds as they move through their life in the days ahead. But it’s harder for the writer to know if this has happened.

I admit, I still find it difficult to truly work out why some of my own stories are loved more than others. I can mostly put my finger on the reason when it is other people’s work I’m reading, but I sometimes just get too close to my own. 

That’s why I love it to bits when readers write to me; either via a card which drops through my door, or an unsolicited email that manages to avoid the junk box, or a message on Facebook or this Blogsite. I always try to respond. Quite recently, I heard from a reader of the Shaman Mysteries who lives in Scandinavia. I was dead chuffed about that – they love their ‘noir’ fiction in that cold place.

the book of the opera
At the end of our storytelling workshops, we each had to mount a proper performance. Because the Christmas festivities were upon us, I chose Amahl and the Night Visitors. I remembered this story from my childhood. It was originally a one act opera, first performed in New York on Christmas Eve, 1951. It had a haunting connection with early Christmases for me. Researching it, I found that both the music and the libretto was by Gian Carlo Menottia, who produced a little booklet, revealing how he tried to recapture his own childhood in Italy, where there is no Father Christmas. Instead, as in Spain, they celebrate the Three Kings, who bring gifts, usually at Epiphany. I actually never met the Three Kings—he confesses—it didn't matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.

It was a work of love for me, to recreate an opera into a storytelling performance. As I rehearsed, tears often welled up. But blocking and releasing your own emotion is part of the storytelling experience. For my performance, I didn’t use music or props, just gestures and my words. It was quite terrifying (we’d invited a small audience), but exhilarating, too.

 Beyond the Border entices you in.

Finally, comes the applause. Hearty clapping tells the performer that, not only did they wring the right emotions from their audience, but also that the listeners ‘got’ the story; that the denouement, especially, felt right and fit for purpose. Of course, I got my hearty clap…we all heartily clapped each other. But it made me realise one certain thing about storytelling.  Storytellers are very brave people. It is so much easier to put your written story into an attachment and press ‘send’, than stand up in public and weave fictional magic with your own voice.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Sandals with socks? Voice and Style in Writing

Nina Milton is guest-blogging again for the Open College of the Arts. This week she's looking at voice versus style in writing, trying to pull the two apart, and put them together again.

Style…sandals with socks versus Angela Kelly headwear.

Voice…the light that catches someone’s eyes, when they open up about themselves.

Perhaps the Cambridge Dictionary can help. Here’s their definition of style… a way of doing something, especially one that is typical of a person, group of people, place, or period.

Voice, on the other hand, is far more subtle. Even the Cambridge Dictionary admits this, with various definitions, including…important quality or opinion that someone expresses. Your writing voice is your personality…heart, soul…coming through on the page.

To read the rest of the blogpost, go to

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Get the Soundtrack of your Novel in Your Head

“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” 

Walter Pater’s said that. It’s a famous quote of his, more famous than he is. When I first heard it, I checked him out, to find he was a nineteenth-century art critic and literary theorist who was born in the East End of London.

Some think that this quote is bunkum, and that art doesn’t move towards being music, but the idea resonates with me. Why else would Leonard Cohen have moved his writing sideways from prose and poetry to lyrics (oh! the money, maybe…).  Music often enhances reading; I played Bob Marley all the time when I was consumed by A Brief History of Seven Killings 

When I write, I’m always aware that certain scenes make a sort of music in my head. My characters, right from before I had anything published, always listened to music, often (this is possibly why these stories weren't published!) for long, closely-described scenes.

Then I read the critically acclaimed Teddy Wayne, and heard about how he created a ‘soundtrack’ to his most recent novel Loner, an unsettling story of obsessive desire. In his article, Wayne says…A great deal of pop songs are also about romantic obsession and loneliness (often in the same breath), and many ostensible love songs, when you examine the lyrics, are really avowals of stalker-like pursuit or thoughts of the object of desire; the British seem to have a particular fondness for this kind of ballad

Wayne chose ten tracks that informed his portrayal of his protagonist. I’m writing book four of the Shaman Mysteries, Flood Gate, and I'm doing the same thing. My chosen tracks each represent a character, and I’m finding wonderful inspiration from listening to these songs. Follow the links to hear the music.

In order of appearance:

Larry Waish is a small-time poultry farmer who recently lost all his hens in one of the many floods that plague the Somerset Levels. What he’s discovered, is that his neighbour is to blame for his loss, and he’s hopping mad. Larry really loves Country and Western and plays The Eagles Heartache Tonight  a lot, while he’s trying to cope with what happened between him and Jack Spicer at Harper’s Coombe 

Jack Spicer, who’s real name is John, farms 200 acres of Somerset land, as his family has for generations. He's recently lost his daughter, and is helping bring up her daughter, baby Olivia. He knows he's been driven to do wrong, and t’s tormenting him. He's a bit of a classical buff, and listening to the slightly sinister tones of Shostakovich’s first piano concerto helped me build his character. By the end of chapter one, Jack is dead.

Sabbie Dare is a young shamanic practitioner and therapist who knows it is her destiny to be of service to people on the very edge of life. The victims of evil…the perpetrators of it.  Sabbie’s mad about Pet Shop Boys and pagan music which can vary from folksy to rocking, and includes groups like Incubus Sucubus, Dahm the Bard and The Dolmen 

Kelly King was 28 when she threw herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She’d never really recovered from her life in The Willows, a local authority children’s home where Kelly, Sabbie and Debs Hitchings all lived when they were children. Kelly was depressed, directionless, and addicted to chocolate cookies. In her last days, she plugged into the music of her childhood, such as Pink’s There you go.

Debs Hitchings is a beautician who wanders from boyfriend to boyfriend and job to job. Debs turned up at the very end of In the Moors, (Book One) where she cuts Sabbie’s tortured hair, and has a small part in Unraveled Visions. In this book Debs, and the story of her past, takes centre stage. She’s known for cracking out Beyoncés Crazy in Love 
at the top of her voice as her heels skittered across nighttime pavements.

Quentin Lachapelle is a thirty-five year old photographer with a nice studio, a pretty wife, and a flourishing career. He meets Sabbie and Debs at Kelly King's funeral, where he offers to take some glamour shots of Debs, although he finds Sabbie’s dark skin tones and angled face interesting. There is more to Quentin that meets the eye…or the lens of his cameras. Quentin is a Miles Davis fan, of course. 

DI Reynard Buckely. Fans of the Shaman Mysteries will be delighted to hear that and Rey and Sabbie are still an item. In fact, things hot up between them considerably! Rey made his musical preferences clear in In the Moors, so there’s only one group I could play, and that’s the Stones

Fenella Waish is Larry’s sister. Now in her forties, but still living in their childhood home, Fen seeks help from Sabbie for longterm Ornithophobia, her paralysing fear of birds which prevents her going anywhere near Larry’s poultry shed. Fenella loves her laptop, which is her window on the world. Scared to be Lonely might bring tears to her eyes, but she plays it again and again.

Tara Yorkman. Before she died, Kelly was fruitlessly searching for her friend Tara, who lived at The Willows from when she was little. Kelly, in need of someone to care for, always looked out for Tara, until she was a teenager. Then she disappeared. When Kelly’s spirit comes to Sabbie in a dream, she feels indebted to continue the quest for the missing girl. I listen to Taylor Swift and other noughties music to get in touch with Tara.

Victor Doyle is a successful Bristol business man, a builder of local housing. Now 55, he's loaded, charming and still handsome in a chiselled way, although he’s put on a bit of weight. In the community, he’s a well-loved philanthropist, but underneath, the man is pure, unadulterated evil. I think he’d be rivitted by Pretty Women from Sweeny Todd.

If you're writing a novel, or a series of short stories, try finding and playing the soundtrack that perfectly accompanies the story and the characters. It can make a tremendous difference to the outcome. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Secrets of Orkney's Ancient Capital

Secrets of Orkney's Ancient Capital

Anyone who watched the BBC mini-series, Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney
will have had their imaginations captured by the mind-blowing discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar.  Presenters Andy Torbet, Chris Packham, Neil Oliver and Shini Somara investigated the archaeological dig unlocking Orkney’s archaeological secrets.

Archaeologists started uncovering this new discovery in a 2010 dig, and were so amazed at what they’d exposed, that they are still there, seven years later. Brick by brick, bone by bone, they are
Artists impression of the ancient site
revealing a 5500-year-old temple in that could be earlier, and more important, than Stonehenge.

The excavation used geophysics technology to get started,  revealing that there are 100 buildings on the Ness altogether, forming a kind of temple precinct. Some of the buildings are 800 years older than the trilithons at Stonehenge. The entire complex was surrounded by a 10-foot high wall. The Ness has produced decorated and painted stone work unlike any other site. On the walls of the buildings, they’ve found painted symbols; they’d use paint formed by rubbing stone into dust, mostly hematite that creates a lovely red colour. The symbols were zigzag lines, and so these are going to be some of the oldest artworks ever found. It has revealed a well-preserved and sophisticated complex of monumental stone buildings enclosed by walls that are 6 metres thick. Its architecture is unique and it shows evidence for stone-tiled roofing never previously understood.

The team has also found ritually deposited artefacts, including pottery representations of humans, and the remains of a massive feast of BBQ’d beef for perhaps tens of thousands of celebrate, it seemed, the pulling down of the final temple.
The full era of the various temples was as long as the whole of the middle ages at least - some were pulled down and new ones built. The doorways into the buildings were twisted and concealed...all of this does suggest that magic was a major part of the world-view of the Neolithic communities, as the sort of worship that might have gone on in the temples suggest a certain ritual element. This only confirms for me personally, that working with ritual magic nowadays is something that is locked into our DNA and only needs to be re-discovered.

Amazingly…frustratingly, I went to Orkney with Jim, my husband, in 2009. We missed the dig by one year. Even so, ours was a quest to learn more about the ancient pre-history of the islands. 

Our first trip, once we’d unpacked in our Orkney croft, was a drive to the very bottom of South Ronaldsay, to the Tomb of the Eagles, also featured on the BBC programme. This passage grave contained evidence that the burials in the tomb included the bones and feathers of the sea eagle, a bird that was thought extinct in Britain but is now coming back to us.

Set at the edge of the raging sea at a place called Isbister, it’s a remarkable site. The passage grave had been discovered by the farmer of that land while moving stones to use for walling. Suddenly, he was staring at a line of skulls and realised he’d discovered something unique. This was in 1950 – right away, he informed the Ministry of Works. Twenty-five years later, he rang them again, to ask when they were going to come and even look at the remains, let alone excavate the tomb. They said they wouldn’t be long…but ten years later Ronald Simison gave up hope of seeing them and asked a team of student archaeologists if they’d like the job.

Because of this anomaly, the tomb, and the bronze age site discovered later, still belong to Ronald Simison, and he is generous with his discovery. There is a small museum, where visitors are allowed to handle the artefacts. The tomb was packed with grave gifts – bowls, buttons and pins, some food, but mostly remains of sea eagles. We held an eagle’s talon – 5,000 years old and as thick as a toddler’s finger .

Half a mile up the wild coast, under its fur coat of grass, is the tomb itself. To get into the tomb, we had to lie on a modified skateboard and scoot our way in on our stomachs!  In one of the chambers,
four of the skulls are laid out behind a Perspex screen, giving us some idea of the shock Ronald must have had as he harvested stone all those years ago. 25 separate sets of bones (none complete) were found in the tomb, which was used for over 600 years.

The Ness of Brodgar, the thin spit of land where the dig is taking place, links two of the stone circles we saw when we were in Orkney. In the centre of the Stones of Stenness is a square defined by kerbstones. To the east side of the circle is a small ‘cove’ – three waist-high stones. I had no idea what these inclusions are, but then neither did the guide, pontificating to the little crowd of people he’d brought to the site. But he told them (I was lying on my back in the centre square at the time, looking up at the intense blue of the sky), that one night, unable to sleep, he’d come here in heavy mist. He’d got out of the car and become quite disorientated in the mist, not even able to see the stones until up close to them. But when he lay in the square in the centre and gazed up, the stars were clearly visible above him. 

The Neolithic Ring of Brogdar in Orkney 
At the other end of the Ness is the Ring of Brodgar. Originally, 60 massive sandstone monoliths stood in a vast circle between two lochs, surrounded by tumuli. There are still enough standing stones to make the heart skip a beat as one walks slowly round, touching them, listening to them. The centre is filled with the purple of heather and dreamy puffs of cotton grass. Each stone is taller than two men, and have slanting tops as if pointing towards the sky, although this is the natural way the stone breaks, apparently. The sandstone is quarried very thin and has the appearance of wafer biscuits.

All of this is also not far away from Maes Howe, the burial chamber that predates the stone rings, and the stone-built Neolithic village of Skara Brae – you know – the one that has cavity walls, stone beds and even a stone Welsh Dresser! I won’t try to describe Skara Brae physically – everyone’s seen the pictures. Instead, I tried to express what I felt in a poem:

Whether I am in the hills
Hunting boar,
Or on the sea
Hunting fish
Or in the fields
With the barley or the beasts,
When the sun moves down,
I begin to think of Cadd,
Too heavy now with our second child
To stray far from the house.
I think about how the fire will be blazing
Before I reach the outer wall,
How, as we crouch to share out the shellfish catch
She will be heating the water and tearing herbs.

The day has been cloudless across the sea.
My face is burnt with sun and wind
My hands chilled as stone.
I stride through the passageway and Nitta comes running,
Grasps my knee, hugs and giggles.
She is the one that swells my heart.

When I went to find a stone for my mattock,
Nitta followed, singing to the flowers,
Gathering purple, yellow and white.
Cadd sat with her and named their gifts –
Which plants ease pain, which brings up a fever.
She spoke them after, like an echo of the cliffs,
With such clear intent 
It brought more water to my eyes
Than the passing of the Old One
Five moons ago.

The sun will go down red tonight,
As if bleeding into the hills.
After the fish is baked on the stones of the fire
And we are warm and replete,
I will take Cadd out.
We will lie on the soft heather and stare at the sky.
I will tell her the stars 
Are like the flowers of the land.
Both are scattered and purposeful and named.
And when she speaks them in her voice,
High as a bone pipe,
I will not mind if water comes again to my eyes

The Dig will go on, and every year amazing and exciting artefacts are revealed, and our understanding of early man widens. But excavation on this scale is expensive. Each season in the field costs over £100,000. You can donate here,

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Books are the Thing that Makes Us

Until I was four, we lived near a big red brick library which was in the centre of a park; St George's Park in Bristol. My father was the one that would take me into the library, rather than just to the swings and duck pond, and I can recall  the way the high bookcases loomed over my head, and the smell of the place, which I believed was the scent of bookworm. Dad would let me chose my own books from the children's section because he’d be busy picking his selection from the grown-up fiction. He loved authors like  Howard Spring, Neville Shute, George Orwell and John Steinbeck. I liked Milly Molly Mandy, the tales of Little Grey Rabbit and anything by Beatrice Potter. When we got home, he’d read the books to me. 

When I look back, the strangest, most obscure storises have left the biggest impression. One of the most loved books I actually owned was called Unicorn Island. My father read to me when I was little, but very soon I’d learned to read on my own and then I reread it a million times afterward. A coastal village of disparate animals are in fear of the offshore island, where white flashes of the dangerous unicorn can be seen circumnavigating the mountain.When the hero’s little brother falls dangerously ill, he and his friends take it upon themselves to brave the island and come back with a healing herb. They discover all manner of wonderful things there, and the unicorn turns out to be the most marvellous of all. There is a slightly sinister atmosphere to the story and a gravity you don’t often find in picture books now…a precursor (but with a far longer story) of Where the Wild things Are.

Not long after I’d started to read on my own, I realized I wanted to be a writer.

My first infant school teacher, Mrs Marsden, read a story to the class. It might have been the fable 'The Mouse and the Lion', but I can't really remember.

Mrs Marsden finished reading aloud and then asked the class to write a story themselves. It was then that I had my early epiphany. I was dumbfounded. For the first time, I realized that the books I loved had actually been written by real human beings. Before that, I thought they must have fallen from some sort of story heaven. It was a revelation. I haven't looked back.
It was Mrs Marsden that turned me onto full-length fiction. I was going to borrow yet another Milly Molly Mandy from the class bookshelf when she accosted me, grabbed a thick volume from the shelf above and said, “You’re past all these baby books. Try this that one, Nina.” She handed me Mary Poppins, which I can remember taking to bed because I could not put it down. Maybe I read it too young, though, for when I read it aloud to my children thirty years later, the only things that rang a bell was the marvellously flavoured medicine and a strange man on a ceiling.

I was often in bed with asthma, when I was small, and liked a stack of books beside my bed. There were books I’d return to time and again as a small child. The Adventures of Manly Mouse was one – Manly lived in a world where mice who went about their human-like endeavours in a little mousy town. Manly was a deliciously flawed character, often losing his job or breaking with good friends. He drove a dilapidated car and was easily duped by more suave mice. A phrase our family uses to this day came from the lips of one of Manly’s posh employers who had put Manly to work cleaning his posh car (he turned out to be a poor mouse in scam disguise)…and when I say shine, I don’t mean shine, I mean gleam. And when I say gleam, I don’t mean gleam, I mean glitter

I can’t pretend I didn’t grow up on Enid Blyton, but the works that made the most impression were the magical Narnia stories, the weird adventures of Alice and the tiny world of The Borrowers. By the time I was twelve, I’d read all of the Anne of Green Gables series. I loved the way Anne hurtled through life. Her ‘modular’ way of learning (by making every mistake in the book – literally) suits me to this day. But, as the books watched her grow into a woman, I also (creep!) loved her commitment to duty and her attitude to life, which reminds me of that quote from Man for all Seasons, when Richard Rich asks… 'If I was, (a teacher) who would know it?' And Thomas Moore replies…'You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that…’
I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen. Well, okay I started to write a novel which I never finished. I wrote it by longhand and asked my friend to type it out. She was doing exams in typing at the time, so she was quite pleased. Every evening, I wrote in one corner of the room, while she typed at the table. Blissful silence until Maggie looked up and said, 'it is a bit old-fashioned, but it's really nice.'

'Thanks,' I simpered. I'm hoping people will enjoy it.'

'Nina,' she said, 'I was talking about my new dress. I've been talking about my new dress for the last five minutes.'
I do believe I've got better since then, both at writing and listening to criticism! I can remember bursting with pride when I received the first copies of the first book I had published; a children's novel with HarperCollins (still available from Amazon).

As a children’s writer, I am bound to be influenced by the books I read as a child.I’ve even tried to rewrite some of their ideas into my own work, although that has rarely worked, and most of those early stories were never published. They were my apprenticeship, I guess, and although almost all of them are gone from my hands, I will never forget their stories and characters.

In some ways, the books I read made me the person I am. They were probably more influential than my textbooks or my teachers…or even my parents.

I think that’s true of a lot of people. Books are the thing that make us, when we are young. Finding ourselves inside those marvellous adventures gives us hope, fires our dreams and helps us cope with the things life throws at us. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Queue Here for the Best New Novels for 2017!

I’ll let you into a little secret. I’ve just sent a complete draft of the next Shaman Mystery to my agent…and she loved it. So now I’m polishing it up with a rag, some spittle and a tin of beeswax, in the hope that, sometime in 2017, FLOOD GATE, will start to become a book.

In the meantime, I wanted to know which great writers already have a book in the new year pipeline, and can reveal that the news is exciting.

I did enjoy The Girl on the Train, even though I knew there were flaws in the plot, because I firmly believed in the main character and her descent into alcohol hell. Paula Hawkins’ new book Into the Water, is out in 2017, and I wish her all success with it. She’s  sticking to the psychological thriller genre, using, I hear, themes of truth and family secrets. Definitely one to try. 

It always puzzles me, why some first-time authors with huge success, don’t write a second book, while some churn out one every year. I loved Arundhati Roy’s Booker winner, The God of Small Things when I read it in 1997, and now, 20 years after its publication, her 2nd book, The Ministry of Utmostherppiness (Hamish Hamilton) is due out. The one thing I now know, is that she’s still good at titles! I do hope it’s worth the long wait.

Colm Toibin only came to my attention when someone recommended Testament of Mary. I was impressed with his take on a New Testament character, and also with his ability to get deeply into the female mind. In May 2017, he’s releasing House of Names, telling the story of how Agamemnon orders the sacrifice of his daughter, to gain good omens for the Trojan war. When he sails home victorious at last, he’s faced with a family filled with hate and the need for vengance. The last book I read about the Illiad was THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, which won the 2012 Orange Prize. I loved that book, and I hope that this one proves as exciting. 

One of my favourite writers, Neil Gaiman, has also chosen to weave mythology and legend into modern storytelling in his latest offering, Norse Mythology, due out in February. Gaiman’s ability with words, and his subtle understanding of how to use symbol and allegory, will surely promise this to be a great read.

Right this moment I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, a book of essays about reading and writing, but he’s most  famous for Wonder Boys, one of my favourite books and also a great movie staring Michael Douglas as a washed-up author who discovers the next wunderkind
in his creative writing class. I’ve always had a theory about Wonder Boys; surely it started life as one of those writing exercises where you take various crazy items and have to work them into a story – in this case – Marilyn Monroe’s jacket, a dead dog, a tuba-paying transvestite and a squashed boa constrictor. Will Moonglow, (Fourth Estate) be as inventive and funny as Wonder Boys? I sincerely hope so.

Later in the year, lovers of William Boyd will have a treat with The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. Last summer, I read his story of an early female photographer, Sweet Caress, and I’m ready for more.

I’m ‘into’ The Hogarth Shakespeare Project at the moment, which is asking bestselling novelists to retell Shakespeare's works. "Hogarth" was launched in October last year, with Jeanette Winterson's take on The Winter’s Tale. I’ve just finished Margaret
Atwood’s Hag-Seed and loved it – laughed all the way through, while marvelling at her brilliantly woven analysis of The Tempest. Read a full review of the book hereSince reading it, I’ve watched Helen Mirren as Prospera in the DVD of Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, and have booked up to see the Royal Shakespeare version which is on now in Stratford on Avon.  

I can hardly wait for the 
next book in the project’s series, written by Tracy Chevalier, famous for Girl with a Pearl Earring. She has rewritten Othello. In New Boy, the story of Othello is set in a Washington school, with 11-year-old friends Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi being the key players in the tragedy.

And finally, I’m looking forward to Tessa Hadley's next book of short stories. She was my tutor on my creative writing master’s degree, and I’ve admired her work every since. Brilliantly observant of the human condition, and a lyrical writer, she’s particularly great at the tricky form of short fiction. In Bad Dreams, the stories focus in on crucial moments of transition, and the blurb is enticing me to put my pre-order inreal things that happen to people, the accidents that befall them, are every bit as mysterious as their longings and their dreams.

In the meantime, while we’re still waiting for these books to arrive from Amazon, or at our chosen bookshops, I’ll wish you a very happy, prosperous and healthy 2017, and get back to putting the finishing touches to my latest novel, in which I delve into some shocking secrets that Sabbie Dare discovers in her past…

Tuesday, 20 December 2016



When Graeme Macrea Burnet was interviewed on radio news, he was asked how he felt about being shortlisted for the 2016 Man-Booker with his crime novel.
“It’s not a crime novel,” he replied. “It’s a literary novel about crime.”
I have to confess, as a crime novelist, that did put my back up, a little bit. I don’t believe it’s for writers to announce they’ve created a literary novel…that’s for posterity to decide. In my view, ‘literature’ is something that lasts and grows as it ages…books like Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell's Animal Farm or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bibles which I blogged about here. But it got me thinking. His Bloody Project (Contraband 2015) cannot yet, in my view, be literature. So is it crime fiction? 

The great P D James said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel. All human life is found in the killing of one human by another. So writing about murder surely is always crime fiction! I’m going to look at three recent books that I loved reading to find out if that’s true.

Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer doesn’t seem to have any qualms about calling herself a writer of crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her work on my blog, and here she is again, with her 6th novel, The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press 2016). I loved her first book, Badlands, but I did feel the end was a bit weak, a bit unbelievable. This time, no worries about that! I loved the way Bauer took a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a pair of handcuffs, which the main protagonist, TV crime reporter Eve Singer, has become obsessed with as she’s tracked and taunted by a serial killer she’s featuring on her news items. I expected them to be used in some way to secure her life when it was eventually under intense threat, as I knew it would be! But when those handcuffs were put to use on pg 319 of the book, I stood from my seat and crowed in joy. What a twist! What a perfect ploy! A great, twisting surprise is essential in a crime novel. But Bauer also delivers elegant description, strong metaphor and deep investigation of the human condition. She examines what being a killer is – how close each of use could get to murder. A crime novel? Decidedly, but great, contemporary fiction, too. 

Helen Dunmore is known for her lyrical poetry and her award-winning fiction, including the best-selling The Siege,  which is set during the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad  So I wasn’t surprised to find that in her most recent book she turned her hand to a cold war thriller, set in England in the early 1960’s. In Exposure Penguin, 2016)  Although she uses three points of view…the hardened old double agent, the fresh, young candidate pushing a pen in the office of MI6, and his wife, mother of two young children, a typical stay-at-home mum, but a woman with a sharp mind. The shock of the killing towards the end of the book demonstrated for me that  one of our most outstanding writers (Good Housekeeping review) can
‘do’ murder and do it well, focusing on the victims, both of the spying industry, and of the machinations of corrupt individuals.  Is this literary fiction? Or a spy thriller? I can’t honestly see why it can’t be both.

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project didn’t win the Booker in the end. But Burnet’s book is the one that I enjoyed the most from the shortlist. I enjoyed it so much, that I now have a little more sympathy with his comment about literary fiction.
His novel is centred around a vicious triple murder – a man, his teenaged daughter and his baby son – by an angry young boy who lived in the same crofting community in 19th Century northwest Scotland. Burnet uses several point-of-views to create the novel, starting with the gripping account by Roderick Macrea as he languishes in jail, waiting for his trial to begin. This account is the gruelling and bitter story of his short life as a crofter. Although he shows promise at school, he leaves early to start working with his widowed father, who is perhaps a bit lacking in the smarts department, unlike his son. Life is backbreaking, crushing. And the powers who own the land turn a cold, heartless face away from the punishing routine that puts meagre food in the crofter’s mouths. Very soon, as the story is related, it becomes clear why Roddy kills. He is drawn to do so, from the moment he has to batter an injured sheep to a humane death. The second half of the book are accounts from the defence lawyer and the early 19th psychologist he has called in, and from newspaper articles about the trial.

I could not put this book down. Firstly, I needed to know why and how the murders happened. Lastly, I needed to know if his kindly lawyer managed to secure Roddy clemency from the gallows.
Is His Bloody Project a piece of crime fiction, Mr Burnet? I would say so. A piece beautifully written, and a deeply investigated book which looks into the nature of murder. It's also a book that may stay loved over generations and thence become ‘literature’, but at the moment, it’s crime fiction.

A romping good read, but also, like Bauer’s and Dunmore’s latest fictions, it’s about murder. They’ve all written about the deadliest of crimes, and I cannot see what is wrong with admitting that they’ve ended up with great stories that are crime fiction.