Category Archives: Books

Between Christmas and New Year

It’s a funny time of year, isn’t it? Christmas Day is over, but the New Year hasn’t started yet. We’re in a period of limbo, with time to look over the past year and prepare ourselves for the next. And, in my case, read. I had several books saved up for Christmas and realised that three of them had a Jane Austen theme, so if that’s the kind of thing you’d like, read on. ‘Murder and Matchmaking’ by Debbie Cowens brings together Elizabeth and Mr Sherlock Darcy as they investigate the deaths of four young, attractive girls. Here’s a hint – who do you think would benefit from the removal of so many marriageable young ladies? In Cora Seaton’s ‘A Seal’s Oath’ four girls have decided to live for six months as the young ladies from Austen’s time might have done – but their plans don’t fit in with the new owner of the property. And Abigail Reynolds’ variation on ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Conceit and Concealment’, images a counter-factual history of England where Napoleon has succeeded in his invasion plans and French officers dominate in Meryton. Each very different, but all recommended.

I’ve also finished the last of my charity knitting for 2017. Actually I finished it a while ago as it had to go into a Christmas box sent via Vision Romania. They deliver shoe boxes covered in Christmas paper to children each year, which are filled with useful things like toothbrushes and pencils, as well as toy and sweets. I made a bright pink scarf, teamed with a lime green hat. Colourful, if not always tasteful.

I’ve worked out that since I started this project in January, I’ve knitted over 100,000 stitches using one and a quarter pound weight of yarn (over a mile!). I’ve read about so many good causes and been impressed by how many people give up their time and money to make something with love, for someone whom they will probably never meet. Next year I’ll carry on knitting but without tying myself to the commitment of a new project each month, as I’m aware I haven’t been writing as much as I hoped. Roll on 2018, and best wishes for a happy and healthy year.


Have you tried MOOCing?

I just completed a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course. I first heard about them last year but couldn’t find one I wanted to try. Then the University of Edinburgh announced they were offering one through FutureLearn on ‘How to Read a Novel’. I know how to read a novel (open cover, start at page 1!) but I thought it might give me a new way to look at writing a novel, so I signed up.

The course lasted for four weeks, with an expected two hours of work per week. It course was an interesting mix of videos, articles, discussion and, at the end, a piece of written work. I had wondered how, with many thousands undertaking a course, the instructors could possibly assess written work, but now I know – that task is assigned to participants, and after submitting my own I was given others’ work to comment on. One of the strands of the course was an assessment of examples from the short-listed finalists for the James Tait Black prize for fiction, to be awarded at the International Edinburgh Book Festival. This was awarded near to the end of the four weeks and it was interesting to see how the course participants championed the different titles. Most left me cold but I was intrigued by Jo Baker’s ‘A Country Road, a Tree’, a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s wartime experiences; her ‘Longbourn’, a servants’ eye view of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, created quite a stir a few years ago.

In case it isn’t clear from the name, MOOCs are free. Successful participants on my course are invited to upgrade their qualification by getting a certificate and permanent access to the course materials for £49, but I don’t think I could justify that cost. It was an interesting experience though and I’m already looking over the options to select my second MOOC.

My charity knit in August was a hat for ‘Knit for Peace’, to be sent to a Syrian refuge camp. The pattern is ‘Two by Two Basic Beanie’ from Ravelry, knitted in some oddments of pure new wool I was given by a friend. None of the scraps looked very much in the ball, but they were enough to make sure someone is warm this winter.

The Write Stuff in Dundee

After a winter when not much was achieved, I hoped to kickstart my creativity by booking myself on to The Write Stuff, an afternoon about writing and publishing arranged by Literary Dundee at the university there.  There were around 150 people in attendance; many of them students, as Dundee runs an M Litt in Writing Practice and Study.

Three of their recent graduates were there. Oliver Landmead, Claire MacLeary and Sandra Ireland all read extracts from their works. They all said that reading work aloud was key; initial discomfort at reading to fellow students was excellent training for doing readings from their books at festivals, and reading your work out loud to yourself could make you aware of areas needing improvement. Claire added a query letter should have three paragraphs; what it’s about, whom it will appeal to, and a little about yourself. Jenny Niven spoke about her career organising literary festivals, which has taken her all over the world, ending back at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

David Stenhouse’s talk about the BBC and the written word was fascinating; I hadn’t thought before of how much work it would be to fill all those hours of radio. As he said, if you can be an answer to someone else’s problems, you’re halfway there already. 404Ink were inspiring; their story of how ‘Nasty Women’ came to be published showed just how much they were willing to take on to make it and their publishing venture a success. The last two speakers were Laura Waddell, a writer and children’s publishing manager, and Claire Wingfield, a literary consultant and editor. Both had some great advice and suggestions which I need to follow up on.

There’s going to be another Write Stuff event next year. Would I go? Absolutely. At £3, the tickets were a bargain and the goodie bag was great!

Royal Ascot contest

Beau Monde badgeI’m really excited to announce I’m one of the four finalists in the Royal Ascot contest for Regency authors, run by the RWA’s Beau Monde chapter.

I entered at the end of March only in the hope of getting some feedback, so this is wholly unexpected and very encouraging. Now I have to wait until the middle of July to find out, but I’m not worried – because with my memory I’ll probably forget about it within a few days, and the result (whatever it is) will come as complete surprise!

If you haven’t come across The Beau Monde before, there’s a blog and a free monthly newsletter you can sign up for, which gives Regency snippets and details of new titles. There’s a fun series of articles about Georgette Heyer’s novels to celebrate 80 years of the Regency novel that I recommend: Victoria Hinshaw, who writes about ‘Pistols or Two’, Heyer’s only collection of short stories, has picked my two favourites to write about at

The pleasures (and occasional perils) of rereading

Autumn LeavesRe-reading is often quite a reflective practice, why is why I wanted to illustrate this blog post with a beautiful shot of an autumn day; because autumn, too, seems like a time for reflection. A time to look back on the year so far, before the excitement and distractions of the holiday season. But the weather has been so dreadful for so long, it’s taken me ages to get a sunny day and the chance to go out and look at the leaves before they fall. I finally managed to take this snap last week, so now I can start!

The delay hasn’t been entirely bad – it’s given me more time to reflect on the practice of re-reading. I read things again for many reasons. Sometimes I’m too tired to concentrate on anything, so a book where I already know the plot is perfect. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a favourite, of course, but I’ve probably read ‘Persuasion’ more often. That makes sense, because ‘Persuasion’ is a book about reflection, and reading it at different times in my life it’s given me different things to think about. ‘Emma’, though, is one book I swore I would never re-read. I just find it too embarrassing. If I had made such a cake of myself as Emma did, I’d have had to emigrate – even though I know what a challenge that would have been at the time.

Sometimes, I re-read books I don’t like. I hated Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ when I read it school. Really, really, hated it And yet, every few years I read it again. Perhaps I hope that one time, miraculously, the story will have changed, and poor Louisa have the happy ending she deserves. Sometimes I reread books because I don’t remember reading them the first time! I’ve lost count of the times a gradual feeling of déjà vu has come over me, and it’s particularly embarrassing when I still can’t remember who was the murderer, or which man she marries.

But most of all, I re-read books to evoke the feelings I had when I first read them. The promise of new possibilities, or the opportunities for exploration in the real or imagined world. I still remember the thrill I felt when I read my first Narnia book, ‘Prince Caspian’, and it remains a favourite. For years, I put off re-reading ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and the sequels, as I feared they might not be exactly as I remembered. But of course they were, and I had a flashback to reading my mother’s shabby copies from the 1930s. I suppose books are the closest we can come to time travel, since the person we were when we read them is still trapped in the pages.

Why do you reread books?

Romance as an academic subject

If you write romance, or even simply read it, you might find it enjoyable, but struggle to defend its value and significance. When the RNA began in 1960, the founding members were mocked for their work (not proper writing) and that attitude is still around today. But over the last few years there has been a growing interest in romance as an academic study, and more and more universities are running courses which offer a serious study of the genre. There’s even a peer-reviewed journal on the subject and, unlike many journals, it’s available free online. The Journal of Popular Romances Studies now has eight issues up for viewing, and each includes several articles and reviews.

It requires a strange mental contortion to view some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed in the context of the textual criticism and analytical deconstruction familiar to any student of English. But it’s a very interesting exercise, and it made me see some of my favourites in a new light. There’s an excellent essay by Laura Vivanco  on Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Nonesuch’ (one of her quieter works, and a favourite of mine) which links it to Walter Scott’ ‘Guy Mannering’ and other contemporary works, and makes a claim for it not just as an enjoyable read but as a clear moral guide to the times. And an even more academically titled article is  ‘Who the devil wrote that?’: Intertextuality and Authorial Reputation in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia. If you’ve ever played the same game yourself, you’ll enjoy the analysis of Damerel and Venetia’s conversations.

The one thing good criticism will do is drive you back to the book, to consider it again in a fresh light. I’m already making a note of books I want to reread. And I might even find a new favourite if I tried A Masculine Romance: The Sentimental Bloke and Australian Culture in the War- and Early Interwar Years
by Melissa Bellanta
 or one of the other intriguing articles available on the website.

RNA Conference 2015

Queen Mary University of London

Queen Mary University of London

It’s astonishing to think it’s a year on from my first RNA Conference; time really is flying. This year’s was held at Queen Mary University of London, but unfortunately I was only able to attend the Saturday programme this time. I arrived in the cool of the morning to find these great big letters standing on the lawn in front of the main building; later I realised they had been set out for this year’s crop of graduates to use as photo props, which I thought was a great idea. Maybe the RNA could try it next year, and I could drape myself elegantly against the slope of ‘R’ or perch on the bar of ‘A’?

I attended a range of talks; some were personal reflections of a career in writing and books, and some were practical workshops – all in all, a good blend. Hazel Gaynor gave an excellent talk about promotion, stressing that writers should seek to engage their audience, rather than flat-out trying to sell their books; sales should emerge if readers feel engaged with the author and her work. Rowan Coleman was lovely; she has such a pretty voice I could listen to her for hours. She spoke about ‘Five Reasons Novels Fail’, the first one being they never get finished… valuable advice when things start to drag and you wonder why you started this writing lark in the first place.  I’ve managed to get through sloughs by telling myself firmly I owe it to my characters to let them reach their resolution, wich seems to work for me. There was a very good workshop at the end of the day, from Liz Harris, on plotting, with a superb handout to make you really work at understanding your characters.

It was lovely, too, to catch up with some writing friends, and hear how they were doing. The current economic climate, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of ebooks, means there are problems and opportunities like never before, and it was interesting to hear how many people were moving to take more control of their careers by self-publishing. Lunch was excellent (always a plus) although there were constant calls for water jugs to be refilled as it was very hot. I could hear air-conditioning throbbing away, but it didn’t seem to make a dent in the temperature. We were fortunate, however, not to have met the previous week, when London sizzled in 95 degree heat.

I enjoyed my second conference very much, and am already looking forward to next year’s, which takes place at the University of Lancaster. Unfortunately it clashes with the Romance Author and Reader Event in Edinburgh, which takes place on the same Saturday – but I’ll have to pick the RNA conference, as I enjoy it so much.