Saturday, 26 March 2016

'Redemption Song': Laura Wilkinson

I was chatting to a friend the other day. She's got boyfriend problems. They've been going out for years, but he wants to live near his work and she doesn't want to give up her house, so they have a fairly long distance relationship which doesn't really seem to be working for her. You'd have thought things might have sorted themselves out when she retired from her job a year or more ago, but they haven't. "You've got the relationship issues of a twenty-something," I said. Yes, she acknowledged, she had.

Perhaps it's my age. Over the years I've met so many people, from the aforementioned twenty-somethings to well into their sixties, or maybe older, who manage to mess up their relationships by what the wonderful Bridget Jones used to call emotional fuckwittery. That's on top of the serial noncommitters, always convinced that this one is Mr Right and explaining to me a few months later why he wasn't; the adulterers (the time we passed Tammy’s office late at night to see two people emerge, desperately not catching her eye, was entertaining for us, but not them); and the genuinely sad – the nervous breakdowns and the sudden deaths.

I feel that, on the whole, our friends have fairly normal emotional lives. Surely everybody knows people like this? Perhaps it's my belief in the mundanity of romantic complexity that means that I often struggle to enjoy romantic novels. Girl meets boy; girl decides she can't possibly love boy for whatever reason; girl and boy hang out a lot; girl decides she really does love boy; happy ending. Life presents us with this "story arc" often enough without searching for it in literature. The only difference is that it is a convention of the romantic genre that there must be a happy ending while in life that so often is not the case. The frequency of tragic endings is sad for those involved, but does often make for a more interesting narrative. Happy endings, as Tolstoy didn't quite say, are boring as hell, but unhappy endings do make a good story.

Why, then, do so many writers produce so many words in the genre? The short answer is that lots of people read them, possibly because they don't pay enough attention to what their colleagues are getting up to in the office late at night. Or perhaps it is the comforting knowledge that it will all end in a happy resolution without crying children, suicidal spouses and financially crippling divorce settlements. Whatever the reason, the tide of romantic fiction rushes ever inward, lapping against my feet with, it seems, increasing frequency. Many are by hack writers with clich├ęd characters and unconvincing dialogue but what's interesting is when a talented novelist decides to move into the field.

So, finally, to Redemption Song by Laura Wilkinson. Full disclosure: I know Laura, and I like her – though whether she will like me by the end of this post is a moot point. Redemption Song is set in North Wales, in a lightly fictionalised Llandudno. Girl (Saffron) meets boy (Joe) when he comes to her rescue after her car breaks down. They clearly fancy the pants off each other but both are suffering from Tragic Pasts (i.e. emotional fuckwittery), so they insist to themselves that they have no real interest in romance at all. Unfortunately, this being a small Welsh town, their paths keep crossing, until one night, fuelled by alcohol, she kisses him. After that, it’s just a matter of each admitting the secrets of their (not really that) Tragic Pasts to each other and then, eventually, true love can find a way.


What redeems (sorry, pun totally not intended) this book is the sense of place and the quality of the characterisation. The people (especially the minor characters) are beautifully realised and the secondary romance (between Saffron’s mildly religiously manic mother and a seaside rock manufacturer) is, to my mind, much more interesting than that between Saffron and Joe. Because our hero and heroine have to have Tragic Pasts they can’t quite develop naturally as people because people’s pasts aren't actually Tragic, just upsetting and messy and mildly guilt inducing and thus, it seems, not really suitable for Romantic Novels. Which is a shame, because Saffron’s mum (whose greatest tragedy is being saddled with the name Rain by hippy parents) has a past that is mildly messed up like a real person has. And she over-reacts to it until one day she has a good cry and starts to come to terms with it and move on and that sounds so mundane that it would be easy to be snide but, honestly, that’s what real life is like and I really sympathise with Rain (wretched name and all) and I believe in her and I want things to work out for her and I just wish the story had been about her and not her tragic heroine (or, as Bridget Jones would say, emotional fucktard) of a daughter. Interestingly, the relationship between Rain and her rock-seller isn't neatly tidied up and tied off, yet another way in which the romantic sub-plot is just so much better than the main story.

Other, even more peripheral, characters are a joy to read. Mrs Evans, who runs the local department store, is a treat. She carries the values of the 1950s that still live in small Welsh towns and stores like Wynne’s (loving the apostrophe) with its “tightly packed rails of cheap blouses, skirts, and jeans, and a wall of footwear”. No wonder her god-daughter, Ceri, rebels, wearing unsuitable clothes, getting drunk and swearing even more than me. But Mrs Evans (does she even have a first name?) and Ceri are both, we instinctively know, lovely people and Saffron’s eventual “redemption” owes at least as much to Ceri as to the uncertain power of Love.


It says a lot for Laura's characters that I can care about them so much when the main narrative is so ploddingly predictable. The dialogue is convincing and the writing generally fluid. I am left with the impression that here is a writer of undoubted power and ability, frittering away her considerable talents in a genre that doesn't deserve them. Still, if you like romantic novels, this one is definitely worth a read.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Istanbul – not just a terrorist target

I’ve been away for a week. Friends keep telling me that there’s a lively tango scene in Istanbul and Tammy complained that we never go anywhere different these days, so we packed our dancing shoes and booked a flight.

Obviously our trip has been rather overshadowed by the bomb that went off in Istiklal Street on Saturday morning. We’d been there on Wednesday and Thursday night, but by Saturday we were on a plane home. Our trip was untroubled by terrorist outrages, though the number of armed police, water cannon and riot squads we saw all suggested trouble ahead. For a tourist, though, Istanbul remains a fantastic place to visit.

Our (inexpensive) hotel was in the historic area of Sultanahmet. From the roof terrace you could see the Blue Mosque, just a few minutes’ walk away. Our room faced directly onto the Roman brickwork that supported the end of the hippodrome. The hippodrome itself (with some of the columns that once made a line down the centre) is now a public open space that features in all the guide books. The massive retaining wall is hardly mentioned – just one of the unremarked wonders of a city so filled with historic sites that many are simply overlooked.

The hippodrome
  
I’m tempted to write a travel blog here (if people ask me to, I probably will) but once I start, I’ll be going for rather a long time. There were so many buildings there where I walked in and my jaw literally dropped. The vast space of the Haghia Sophia, for almost a thousand years the largest enclosed space in the world with a dome that still amazes. It’s impossible for a photograph to give any impression of its size, so I won’t bother. Instead, here’s just one of the gorgeous mosaics that decorate the place. (This one is from the 13th century.)




The Blue Mosque seemed much less impressive inside (don’t take my word for it – read what architectural experts say) but the grace and beauty of its exterior are truly lovely.



There are great defensive walls, palaces from the 15th century to the 19th, the world’s first shopping mall (the Grand Bazaar), a 14th century tower with spectacular views, wonderful early Christian mosaics, hundreds of mosques with beautiful tiling, world-class museums, fantastic restaurants and, I know, much, much more that we did not have time to see.

With a history that takes in the height of the Eastern Roman Empire and Ottoman rule at its peak, Istanbul’s architecture shows two cultures at their best. The Muslims who conquered the place in the 15th century did not destroy the Christian buildings that they found there but adapted them to their own religion, or just left them alone. (Inside the Topkapi palace is one of the world’s finest examples of Byzantine architecture that was abandoned as a church but left alone as a building. It’s another example of a huge open space that defies photography, especially with a sheet that protects visitors from pigeon droppings but obscures the dome. The view across the atrium, though, gives some idea of how impressive it is.)



It’s a sobering thought that the worst incident of cultural vandalism across the centuries was the damage done to the Haghia Sophia by Catholic Crusaders who took exception to it being dedicated to the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity.

Even without its architectural and cultural importance Istanbul would be a beautiful city. Built on seven hills (only seven? Our legs would disagree after a day of walking round and up them) it is a city of incredible views all set against the blue of the Bosphorus. And, yes, we did go dancing and, yes, it was very good.


Even as casual visitors, and even before the bombing, it was clear from what people said to us – and the evidence of a tight security presence – that Turkey is not a country at peace with itself. Istanbul is not, at present, a dangerous place to visit and, as a tourist, you will find people friendly and helpful. How long this city, which has survived so much in two thousand years, will remain an open and welcoming place is an impossible question to answer. But for now, it's easy to get to and, as many tourists change their plans, it's cheap and uncrowded. If you want to see it, this is probably the time to go.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Istanbul

I'm sorry to have missed my usual Friday blog post. I've been away on holiday. I was going to post a photo and ask you to guess where, as I was feeling happy and light-hearted, having had a lovely few days exploring a wonderful city. Then, only an hour after getting home, came the news of the bombing in Istanbul.

I was on that street Wednesday and Thursday evenings. It was full of people strolling and shopping and eating in the amazing restaurants. Only the water cannon parked up in Taksim Square and the coaches of armed police with riot shields suggested that there are dark undercurrents in Turkey.

Now, I think, isn't the time for me to pronounce on the political situation there. (We were there six days and I don't speak Turkish, so what do I know?) But it's probably not the moment for me to be sharing my holiday snaps either.

Enjoy your weekend. I'll try to post something next week.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Guest post by S.A. Laybourn

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about SA Laybourn’s excellent WW2 romance, A Kestrel Rising. This week I’m delighted to have Sue guesting on my blog to tell us how she came to write the book.



Many years ago, when I was still living in Arizona, I was driving home, across a section of tumbleweed-dotted desert. White clouds billowed to the northeast with their taunting promise of rain that would never arrive—a common occurrence during the annual monsoon. Eva Cassidy’s ‘Fields of Gold’ played on the car stereo and I was hit with a wave of homesickness so strong that I nearly cried. At the time, I thought our future in the US was secure and my job didn’t pay nearly enough for us to fly to the UK for a visit. So, I decided that, if I couldn’t go home to England, I’d write about it.

My first effort was a historical romance set in Berkshire during the Great War. I liked it, it was pretty, laden with descriptions of a glorious countryside that only a homesick Brit could write. But…and it’s a big ‘but’, it was a horrendously boring story. The heroine was a passive drip for most of the time. Needless to say, I had no success with agents. However, I’d fallen in love with the setting and with the family. I decided that the next story would be set in the same place, but during World War II. Now we were talking. I’m an utter plane nerd. The older, the better and don’t even get me started on Spitfires…I could wax lyrical about those beauties for hours. 

Anyway, the characters were easy to find. And a song, Closer to Believing by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, sparked off a scene in my head that drove the plot into place. I knew what my hero, Francis, would do and all I needed to do was make sure that he and my heroine, Ilona were able to get together in spite of the demands of serving in the RAF and the WRAF. It was tricky finding an RAF fighter squadron that hadn’t moved around too much during the war but, in the end, I did and Francis being American made it easier, once the USAAF joined the war. With the squadrons established, a little research into their history dictated the plot. It was all there and it was easy enough to make sure that Ilona’s postings brought her within a reasonable travelling distance of Francis.

Then there was the planes. Happily, there is a lot of good information about all of the planes I needed to write about—from the Blenheim bomber to the P51 Mustang, the fighter that, arguably, won the war for the Allies. In fact, my first draft was so weighted down with plane nerd technobabble that my beta reader said that, in places, it reminded her of a bunch of gearheads sitting down to talk about engines. That is the danger of having loads of good sources combined with enthusiasm, it can lead to the author wanting to share as much about their subject that they can. Needless to say, I red-lined a lot of stuff.

A Mustang. Airshows featured prominently in research for the book

Apart from the obvious information about the war, the battles, and the planes, I needed details that were harder to winkle out. By happy coincidence, my dad had a friend who runs a business restoring old warbirds. When I needed that extra bit of reality, I asked Dad, who asked his friend. I think that inside info adds a little more authenticity. But there were other things, every day realities, like ‘would Ilona be able to catch a bus from Mildenhall to deepest Norfolk’? that I needed to know. Again, my dad rode to the rescue. He happens to be a bit of a transport fanatic and he was able to find out that, yes, Ilona could have caught a bus or two.

While I wrote the first draft, I immersed myself as much as I could in the period. No, I didn’t feed my family spam fritters, mock fishcakes or eggless mayonnaise, but I did find a digital radio station that played non-stop music from the 30s and 40s. Some of the songs found their way into the story, which I hope, adds to the ‘feel’ of the era. When I’m writing, having that soundtrack helps a lot. I also attended a couple of the fly-ins at the city airport, mainly because there was always the possibility that someone would turn up in a restored warplane. The day a couple of P-51s flew in was a happy day indeed. Can I add that just touching one of those beautiful machines made me want to cry?

Speaking of crying, ‘A Kestrel Rising’ does also deal with death in combat—the loss of a loved one. When I wrote the first draft, I had to rely on my imagination and some empathy to put myself in Ilona’s place. It obviously worked, because I did manage to make my dad cry. Years later, long after I’d consigned the book to the trunk, I revived it again when my publisher, Totally Bound, added a ‘sweet romance’ category. I went through the manuscript and tidied it up, using my three years’ experience as an editor to make it better. At the time, my husband was entering the final stages of terminal cancer. I’d been grieving for ages, since the day we were told he would not survive. So, reading the sad passages came hard and I put my grieving to good use by tweaking things a little. It seems, judging from the reviews I’ve seen, that it worked.

There is no doubt in my mind, that A Kestrel Rising was a labour of love. It’s a love letter to England, to warplanes, to a time when, according to my dad, everyone pulled together.  I am proud of my story and am glad that it’s out there to be read by everyone.


About S.A. Laybourn


S.A. Laybourn lives in Wiltshire with her son and two needy cats. She works as a freelance editor and sometimes writes stories. Her alter-ego S.A. Meade writes gay romance. She loves cooking, reading, gin and tonic, and the occasional glass of wine. She is not terribly domesticated and has trouble finding things that she thought she’d put in a ‘safe’ place.


You can find her books at:

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Friday, 4 March 2016

HMS M33

Last October I blogged about HMS President, one of only three surviving WWI warships. I used to be a frequent visitor when she was moored at the Embankment. She's in dry dock now for repairs, but last weekend I was in Portsmouth and I had the chance to see over the unromantically named HMS M33. She was built in an astonishing seven weeks, specifically to serve in the Gallipoli campaign and she is one of the two other survivors of the Great War. 

HMS M33 is a monitor: a vessel built to serve simply as a gun platform. She carries two six inch guns and a smaller six pounder. She draws only six feet, enabling her to operate in the shallow waters of the Dardanelles, bombarding the Turks from very close range.



As a gun platform, she was not designed to take part in naval conflict, so she carries no armour. The very thin steel that she is made of helped keep her weight down – important if her draught was to be kept so shallow. It meant, though, that she had no protection against enemy shells and the patches covering holes where shells punched straight through her sides are readily visible. Miraculously, none of the shells that hit her exploded inside the ship and during the five months that she spent on station at Gallipoli none of her crew died. She was considered a lucky ship – though her luck ran out at the end of the war when Spanish flu hit her before she could return to England.

Crew Quarters

HMS M33 had a crew of 72. Although the officers had small individual cabins, most of the crew shared one large open area where they ate and slept. With such a shallow draught, the ship was prone to rolling and life on board must have been quite horrible.

In 1919, after years of service in the Mediterranean, M33 moved to Archangel to support White Russian troops who were fighting the Bolsheviks. In addition to the discomfort caused by her limited crew accommodation and unnaturally shallow draft was added the horror of the cold. The thin plate of her hull provided no protection against the freezing temperatures outside and the only heating for the crew was provided by the small stove shown in the photograph above. The stove’s chimney had to be removed to give a clear field of fire when the fore-gun was in use, so the crew will have had no heating when the ship was at action stations. To add to their woes, the galley was amidships and the only access to the crew quarters was through deck hatches. All the food therefore had to be carried across the deck to their mess and that which was not spilled must have been, at best, lukewarm by the time it arrived with them.

M33 is an astonishing reminder of the nature of warfare only 100 years ago. Built in just a few weeks with her plans changed while construction was in progress to accommodate some additional weight, the ship offered the bare minimum of facilities to its crew. Yet she saw active service from 1915 to 1919 and then performed a variety of roles, ending up without engines or armaments as a floating office. She was finally sold out of the Navy in 1984 and was bought by Hampshire County Council for her historic interest. She is now displayed in dry dock at Portsmouth.


I've now had the great pleasure of seeing two of the surviving warships of the Great War. The third, HMS Caroline, is currently undergoing restoration work in Belfast, where she will be on display later this year.