Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Thank you

It's a funny old game, this writing business, isn't it?

As a general rule, it's best to be positive on social media – at least those postings that are publicly viewable, like this blog. So, by and large, I am. Most writers, I suspect, suffer not so much from the long dark teatime of the soul (thank you for that, Douglas Adams) as the seemingly eternal struggle to remain vaguely sane faced with a keyboard and a blank screen. (The ones with a sheet of paper are either already hugely successful, or can afford a typist to sort out the mess, or are just playing at it.) You’d never know this from their cheery blog posts and the seemingly infinite Twitter tags of #amwriting (for which read #ammessingaroundontwitterbecausethealternativeisstartingonanotherbottle). And the cheery boasts of “I’m #56 in the Amazon charts of books about red-heads in boats” are seldom accompanied by anything about actual sales figures because we all like to retain some tattered vestiges of pride.

From which you might guess that I’m having a crisis of writing confidence (or ‘another day at the office’ as writers call it). Sales of Back Home are disappointing and I’m at the 20,000 word mark in the next James Burke book which is, so the Internet tells me, the point at which writers decide that their book is absolute rubbish. (Other points where writers have their doubts are the 30,000 word mark, the 40,000 word mark and the 50,000 word mark. After 50,000 words it just seems easier to finish the damn thing and worry about it afterwards.)

I was at the point where you throw things at the computer screen and suggest that you’re going to get a proper job (or, alternatively, live in a cave and eat worms) when I got an email to tell me that I have a 5-star review for Back Home going up on another book blog site. Looking at amazon.co.uk, there are now six 5-star reviews there and a further two on amazon.com.

I can-not begin to describe how much difference it makes to get the sort of praise that is being lavished on Back Home. I really am so grateful to all of you who have taken the trouble to review it. I do hope that this works through to better sales, but, even if it doesn’t, it means a lot to me that at least some people have really enjoyed my work.

Thank you all so much.

Now back to the writing.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

The mysterious travelling blog post

Why no blog post yesterday? Actually, I did blog yesterday - just not here. I've written about the Indian Mutiny (the background to the second John Williamson book, Cawnpore) on Antoine Vanner's blog 'The Dawlish Chronicles'. Antoine is amazingly well-informed about this period and I'm very proud to be a guest there. Why not pop over and take a look?


Friday, 13 May 2016

The Crown

This is 'The Crown', a public house in Seven Dials.

The blue plaque on the wall says that it was there in 1833, so it would have been standing in 1859 when Back Home is set.

When it was built, 'The Crown' would have been a gin palace. Dickens, in his Sketches by Boz describes such a place in a rookery near Seven Dials.
All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left.
Gin palaces featured a lot of mahogany and brass-work and offered a relief from the unrelenting grimness of life outside. They were still, though, a place where people got very drunk very cheaply.

In Back Home, 'The Crown' is not a particularly alluring place. It does, after all, face directly onto the stump where a column (now replaced, but not there in 1859) used to mark the very centre of Seven Dials. As the area had descended into the hell of a rookery, I have allowed 'The Crown' to fall in the world as  well. Perhaps it gets more cheerful in the evening, but our narrator is there during the day.
The triangular shape of the building, occasioned by the peculiar arrangement of the streets, meant that the interior was well lit, despite the grime that covered the windows. Twenty or thirty people sat about the place or lay slumped over the tables, apparently sleeping. A couple of fellows were standing at the bar. They were being served not beer, but a clear liquid which, from the prevailing smell of the place, I recognised as gin.    As I watched, the men at the bar upended their glasses, downing the contents at a gulp, before making their way uncertainly to a space at one of the tables, where, regardless of the mess of crumbs and pooled liquor that stained it, they settled their heads upon the wood and promptly fell into a stuporous sleep.    Watching the scene, I paused, uncertain of whether or not to remain. The landlord, though, called across while I hesitated.    ‘What’s your pleasure, sir?’    He spoke with a distinctly Irish lilt to his voice and I stepped hesitantly forward. ‘A pint of beer?’    ‘We’ll serve you beer willingly, sir.’ He made his way to the beer pumps that lay at the farther end of the bar. ‘We serve Wood Yard’s here, sir, a fine beer and local. Do you know the brewery, sir?’    I confessed that I did not and he insisted on explaining exactly where it was. It stood, indeed, nearby and if the pervasive stench of the place was not so strong I would probably have smelt the distinctive aroma of beer being manufactured, but the brewery lay a little to the South and out of my way. ‘It’s a fine beer, sir, you must admit it,’ he said, passing over a glass of some cloudy liquid which, once I sipped at it, I had to admit tasted a great deal better than it looked.    ‘You’ll be wanting to sit with that,’ he said.    I glanced around, but the two men who had been at the bar when I arrived seemed to have taken the last convenient seats. This did not worry the landlord, though, for he stepped from behind the bar and walked to one of the nearer tables where he proceeded to shake awake the man who was slumped there. ‘It’s time you were awake, Higgins. Will you have another glass?’Higgins shook his head, gazing blearily around. He reached toward his trouser pocket and then, as if recollecting himself, shrugged. ‘No money,’ he mumbled.    ‘Then you’d best be on your way,’ the landlord said, not unkindly and, taking Higgins firmly by the arm, he escorted him to the door.    I took the place he had vacated and concentrated on my beer, trying to ignore the stentorian snoring of the men on either side of me.

'The Crown' today is rather a lovely pub. There's still a lot of polished wood and brass, though the back bar with its book lined walls probably wouldn't have been there in 1859. If you're ever in Seven Dials you could call in and have a look.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Another book review. (Not one of my books)

Another book review this week. People seem to like book reviews and this book is a thriller set in Victorian London, so it seems an appropriate thing to show up here. And it may even encourage people to review their own choice of thriller set in Victorian London. Not that I have anything in particular in mind.

Anyway, the publishers sent me a copy of Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death by Sally Spencer and asked if I could maybe write something about it. Because reviews are really important to getting a book out there in a crowded market. Have I mentioned that?

So here is my review. If you were to write a review (for Amazon, say), it wouldn't have to be nearly as long as this. You could just say that Victorian thrillers are great. People should buy them. Especially if you can get them on Kindle for just £2.82/$3.99 at mybook.to/BackHome.

Anyway, to business:

Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death

Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death is set in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee: 1897. It's a crime thriller which travels from the East End to the homes of the aristocracy as Inspector Blackstone struggles to solve the mystery of an aristocrat’s son who was found murdered on an insalubrious stretch of the River Thames. Issues of class and poverty feature prominently in the story, so, having just written Back Home, a story of crime and violence in the London slums of 1859 where issues of class and poverty are also pretty central, I expected to be on familiar ground.

I was reminded, yet again, just what an era of change the late 19th century was. 1897 is often seen as the height of the Victorian era, but we are moving much more into Edwardian times. I was constantly taken aback by the modernity of the story. People are always on the telephone and at one stage using a telephone box. There is a reference to a Remington typewriting machine that looks at least twenty years old. Horseless carriages are referred to as automobiles.  I was sure these were anachronisms, but a quick tour of the Internet proved that they were not. Admittedly Blackstone does seem to be on the cutting edge of things. Remington typewriters have been around but very little more than twenty years. There weren't very many telephone boxes or automobiles. But Sally Spencer seems to know her stuff. The only apparent error I picked up was a mistake in the licensing laws, which unfortunately occurs right at the beginning of the book and made me unduly suspicious of the rest of it. Still, pub closing times were a complex area with different rules for different kinds of pub and frequent changes in the law, so perhaps she is right and I am wrong.

The important thing is not that Ms Spencer seems to be well ahead on the game of "try to catch the author out": it is that her thorough grounding in the detail of the period reflects the confidence with which she takes us through it. This London of 1897 is a world away from the London I wrote about in 1859. Confident, modern in a way that is recognisable to those of us who knew the city in the 20th century, a society and a city comfortable on the cutting edge of technology, assured of its natural right to rule over much of the world. The appalling callousness towards the lives of the poor which had characterised London only fifty years earlier has passed. The poor are still poor, as the author frequently reminds us, but few of them are dying of starvation in the streets. Proper sewerage, the availability of clean water and improvements in housing mean that life may be grim but it is civilised.

Against this broader background of London life Spencer draws a more detailed picture of some aspects of the city, particularly of "Little Russia" in the East End. I was unaware of the number of Russian emigres who had formed their own world in the alien land of London, complete with shops selling Russian food and banks catering for those wanting to transfer money back to families at home in the East. It was a fascinating glimpse of a bit of London’s history that was completely new to me.

Spencer's research is extensive and her descriptions of people and places are convincing without suffering from long paragraphs which mark out the less sophisticated historical novelist, determined to shovel in all the research that they have done. There is perhaps an element of this in the detailed descriptions of Queen Victoria's Jubilee parade, but it must have been a splendid sight and I think we can forgive anybody who wants to dwell on it at length. And it does come at a crucial moment in the plot.

As far as the plot goes, it's more thriller than detective story. The villains leave a chain of corpses for the detectives to follow and eventually they are tracked and their evil plan is foiled in the nick of time. [No real spoilers there.] The plot relies rather heavily on a deus ex machina figure to appear at moments of crisis and there is a conveniently helpful love interest to explain life in Little Russia to our inspector, but these tropes are well within the rules of the genre and I was happy to go along with them. Indeed I was happy to go along with the whole thing, as Ms Spencer has an easy writing style that carries you effortlessly through a plot filled with incident.

The best historical fiction, I think, should entertain while giving you some insight into a past world that you might not be familiar with. Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death does exactly that and Spencer is to be congratulated on her achievement. If I have one quibble it is the opening. The book starts with a prologue in which a character is chased through the streets of London on a dark foggy night until the murderer catches up with him and the foul deed is done. There seems to be a fashion at the moment for insisting that books should start with "something exciting". Hence prologues like this. It doesn't add to the story and, possibly because the author doesn't really believe in it, it is one of the least well written and least convincing parts of the whole book. It nearly put me off reading it. If it annoys you, just skip it altogether: it will make no difference whatsoever to your enjoyment of what follows.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

My five favourite Napoleonic War books.

I'm stepping away from the mid-19th century this week and back to the Napoleonic world of James Burke.

The James Burke books take us from Napoleon's Egyptian adventure (Burke and the Bedouin) to his defeat at Waterloo (Burke at Waterloo) via the disastrous British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver). I'm currently working on another James Burke adventure set in the Peninsular War.

The Napoleonic Wars offer great scope for novelists and there are some excellent books set in this period. Here are five of the best (not written by me). Enjoy.

Sharpe’s Company by Bernard Cornwell. There are an awful lot of Sharpe books and it's difficult to choose between them. This is one of Cornwell’s own favourites and is a fast paced story set around the fall of Badajoz in the Peninsular War. There is a lot of military action, but also plenty of description of the relationships between the various regiments and the life of the men. Cornwell's novels bring the Napoleonic Wars alive. If your school history lessons concentrated (as mine did) on the long list of battles and the makeup of the continually shifting alliances, then these books give a useful reminder that there were real people in those red (or, in Sharpe's case, green) uniforms. Sharpe isn't an especially rounded or credible character, but he's rounded and credible enough. And the details of military life are fascinating.

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow. It's easy to sneer at Scarrow's books. They aren't 'proper' novels. The characterisation is thin and the dialogue unconvincing. But Scarrow approaches the Napoleonic Wars from the opposite direction to Cornwell. His main interest is the way that Napoleon and Wellington planned their campaigns at the grand strategic level and how these grand plans worked out in blood and terror on the battlefield. Fields of Death may not be great literature, but by the end of it I understood more about how and why Napoleon was finally defeated than I had ever learned before.

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris by Christopher Hibbert. For a real infantryman's view of the war, you can do no better than read Rifleman Harris's account. Harris told his story in his own words after the war had ended. There is no sense of grand strategy, no neat little parcels of story. Harris advances across Europe and retreats back to the North Sea coast without ever bothering about objectives and political goals. He's more interested in staying alive, bedding the local women and keeping on the right side of his officers. A worm's eye account of Napoleonic warfare and a valuable antidote to modern romanticisation of history.
[An aside here: I read a lot of old books that are well out of copyright and yet which someone is collecting money for when they sell it on Amazon. If you find this objectionable, download Rifleman Harris free and legally from https://archive.org/details/recollectionsofr00harr]

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. British control of the seas was crucial to success in the Napoleonic Wars and any list of books about them has to include at least one set at sea. When I was young, the obvious choice would have been one of C S Forester's Hornblower novels, but nowadays I think Patrick O'Brian is more in fashion. His attention to nautical detail is impressive and in Aubrey and Maturin he has produced two well-rounded characters, whose adventures are easy to get caught up in. As with Sharpe, it's difficult to pick out any individual book in the series. Master and Commander is the first of twenty completed novels (a twenty-first being unfinished at the time of O’Brian’s death).

The Officer’s Prey by Armand Cabasson. UK readers will find an easy diet of Napoleonic War stories featuring British heroes and perfidious Frogs. The Officer’s Prey provides an interesting look at things from the other side. The book is essentially a murder mystery, but it is set against the background of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Although the story is a detective thriller, there is an enormous amount of military detail. Armand Cabasson is a Napoleonic Wars expert, and it shows. If you are interested in Napoleon's march on Moscow (and the retreat), the interminable descriptions of uniforms and details of the different regiments will be gripping, though for many readers they may become tedious. The descriptions of the horror of war and the scale of the disaster that was the retreat are well handled, though. 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Henry V

This is rather different from my usual blogs. Look on it as a bonus posting. It's really just for the benefit of people who were involved with Henry V on Saturday, but feel free to read on and enjoy if it appeals to you.

The Wallace Collection celebrated Shakespeare's birthday on Saturday with an unrehearsed performance of Henry V. A bunch of people, recruited online and given parts without auditions, turned up in whatever costumes they thought appropriate and, without direction or rehearsal, put on a performance.

We did have an amazing venue, though.

I didn't get to see it (and, in any case, I might have been the tiniest bit biased) but the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it. As my beloved put it: "It makes you wonder why most plays bother with rehearsals and a director." Certainly, as I rushed through my four lines, I found I was entirely concentrating on telling the Constable of France to get on and start fighting. I couldn't worry about how to project to the audience (it was in the round). I didn't have to think about where the director had told me to stand (he had refused to give any direction at all). I was just there in the moment and it gave the whole play an intensity that those of us doing the playing really appreciated.

Anyway, if you were in it and don't have any photos, these might be better than nothing.

Producer, Main Man and all-round Good Egg, here playing Chorus: Andrew Hobbs

SP Howarth bigging it up as Henry
We were all terribly impressed that Henry's girlfriend had made him an actual proper costume. Others had resorted to their imagination. It takes a certain something to wear a wooden spoon instead of a sword, and yet, somehow, it worked. (Note gender-neutral casting.)

Jessamy James as Captain Gower

Some of the costume ideas were pure genius. Here, Henry, disguised in his cloak, goes among the soldiers. You can tell they're English soldiers as at least some of them are wearing England football shirts.

Here a Robin Hood costume from a fancy dress party gets a new lease of life.  

I must admit to having doubts about the sword, but we were very definitely told that real swords were forbidden, which seems a little odd, remembering where all this is happening.

Here we are waiting to go on. Oh, the glamour of life backstage!

And here is my 15 seconds of fame, telling the Constable of France to get his finger out and stick it to the English.

And here the French troops are ordered forward. This turns out to have been a bad move, which is pretty much the point of the play.

Anyway, a few thousand dead Frenchmen later, we came in to take our bows.

Here I am, grinning like an idiot. What an amazing way to spend St George's Day!

I think everyone involved had so much fun - even the audience. It was a fabulous day.

Many thanks to everyone who made it happen.

Friday, 22 April 2016

A Day in the Country

It's been quite a week. Back Home is now well and truly launched. If you missed the post about the party, it's HERE. It was a lot of fun and nice to meet some Accent authors (and my editor) in the flesh.

In order to drum up interest in the book, I've been posting on blogs all over the place, which has left me with not that much energy to post anything on my own blog. If you want to read any of last week’s efforts, they're still available – check the addresses in the poster below.

Inevitably, I'm suffering something of a sense of anti-climax at the moment. According to Amazon, nobody is buying the book, which I know is untrue, so I'm expecting a sudden surge in reported sales once their systems catch up with reality. If you're still wondering whether or not to buy it, have a look at THIS post and then get your money out. It's only £2.82 on Kindle. (Why £2.82? I have no idea: Amazon still getting their act together, I suspect. If you hang about, it may well go up to £2.99.)

I calmed myself down after the excitement of the party by going to Bletchley Park for the day on Saturday. This is where Britain's codebreakers worked during World War II. Their success in breaking the German Enigma codes is said to have shortened the war by about two years. It was a massive effort, involving experts from all of the British services and with some of the key breakthroughs coming from work done by Poles in the run-up to the war. It's a huge site; at its height, 10,000 people worked where. There was far too much to take in on one visit and we will be going back. Meanwhile, here’s a taster: the house itself, an Enigma machine, and Turing's office, where he made such a massive contribution to breaking the code.

It's strange to think that this is the place where so much was achieved. Many people say that it marked the beginning of modern computing science, although Turing’s Bombe (a rebuilt version is pictured below) was not really a computer. The work done at Bletchley Park  certainly marked the beginning of modern cryptanalysis. After the war the place was closed down but most of its functions are now replicated at GCHQ in Cheltenham.

Well, that's how I wound down. Next week I'll be back working on the next book and posting about novels of the Napoleonic wars.