Saturday, 12 September 2009

Closing the book...

Well, sort of.

As past of my general blogkeeping, I have decided that it might be easier for me to merge this one with my writing blog. After all, writing from reading are symbiotic. You can't have one without the other.

Therefore I am winding up this one but will continue to review any book that takes my fancy (or not) over there.

See you soon.

Friday, 7 August 2009

One Apple Tasted: Josa Young

I'm so thrilled. I am hosting my very first author visit. I've been rushing around in a bit of a novice's panic, dusting and tidying; there's a bottle of virtual champagne chilling in the fridge and some rather tasty canapes, too (no sausages on sticks at my blog, oh no.) and Josa Young has just arrived, so come on in...

Josa Young is an experienced journalist, having worked on several British glossy magazines such as UK Vogue and She. As well as a novelist, she is also an internet content consultant.

One Apple Tasted tells the story of ever-optimistic Dora Jerusalem, newly arrived in 1980s London. She is "features assistant to the assistant features editor" at Modern Woman, a fashionable glossy, where she meets the louche and gorgeous Guy Boleyn who comes from a very different world. But this is not just a boy meets girl story; the novel moves between the 1980s and 1950s Home Counties and World War Two through a breathtaking trip to the Himalayas. Described by novelist Julie Myerson as a "funny warm, touchingly eccentric and irresistibly readable", One Apple Tasted is a story about love, friendship and the moments that change the course of a life for good

Welcome to my blog. Josa.

Thank you for inviting me; it is a great privilege for me to go visiting.

Could you tell us the inspiration behind One Apple Tasted?

I was working for a slimming magazine as features writer, and my mind did drift a bit when finding new ways to describe the life-changing effect of losing a lot of weight for the nth time. Not that these women were not inspiring – their determination was fantastic! I had been on an Arvon Course, with Beryl Bainbridge as one of the tutors not long beforehand, and she had really encouraged me to feel I could write a full length novel, having read some of my short stories. So, realising I would have a four week gap between editorial contracts, I dreamt up a plot so I
would be ready to start writing when I landed in front of the word processor (as it was in those days). The plot and characters were fully formed in my head, and the first draft was
there in five weeks (I was asked to start on a pregnancy magazine a week later).

Most people who visit this blog are writers as well as readers. I believe your path to publication took eight years via many rejections and a self-publishing attempt. That rings an awful lot of bells here because I and most of my visitors are writers as well as avid readers. Could you tell us a bit more?

It was much longer than eight years in fact from first draft to final publication. So long that when I was invited to upload a manuscript to see how the Authorhouse system worked, I thought
this might be impossible as it was saved on a floppy disc. I was writing about the various ways to get published for a women's magazine at the time. Luckily I found someone to convert it, and
sent off the old version on a modern disc. It was when it came back to me as online galley proofs that I could see what kind of edit it needed. So I started to take it all a bit more seriously
and did some further drafts, uploaded them to Authorhouse, where it just sat there as at that time I had no intention actually of self-publishing the final version. But it did mean that people,
armed with my password, could read it in a nice professional PDF online and get a good impression. Lorne Forsyth, who was relaunching independent publishers Elliot
& Thompson at the time, was one of those people and decided that One Apple Tasted would fit his first list well. The publisher Mark Searle took over, and OAT comes out today, 7 August 2009.

You recently wrote a great feature for the Daily Telegraph--More sex please. we're grown-ups. I agree with you that women prefer to read about deep passion a relationship rather than glamorous young people notching up multiple partners and orgasms Have you had much feedback?

I had some fantastic feedback, both in person, and on the site from women and men wanting to read about passion that actually meant something. And some from another version of that piece
published on the Huffington Post in the US that was less positive and ended up with a debate about porn. I felt that the commenter had not read the piece at all, and was just riding a
hobby horse!

In that article you describe writing the first draft in a freezing semi-abandoned building in Bayswater, London. What was all that about?

The Royal Society of Literature, now warmly ensconced in Somerset House, was at that time in some large dusty rooms in Hyde Park Gardens. The library was never used, and had a broken
window, so when I needed somewhere quiet to bash out my novel, Maggie Fergusson, secretary of the Society, kindly invited me to write there. It was February and freezing!

Tell us a bit about your main character, Dora. How much Josa Young is there in Dora? You have experience of working for Vogue magazine. Are we to assume Modern Woman magazine is Vogue with names changed to protect the innocent (or guilty)?

Dora is definitely not me, although as with most first novels – 'me' is a jumping off place. Her background and foreground are very different, as are the experiences of her family in earlier
generations. And her confused view of love and marriage is not mine either – I was a far more relaxed young woman. The only resemblances are university, career and dark hair (and some
anxiety of body size!). Modern Woman is wholly British magazine. Vogue originated in the US. Similar functions are required for the publication of magazines, and I drew on my experience of
these for Dora's day to day work.

Is it fair to say that One Apple Tasted is typical women's fiction? Some say that this is an overcrowded market. Would you agree?

I am not sure OAT is all that typical. I think one of the reasons it took so long to be published is because it did not fit neatly into any particular genre. It is women's fiction all right, but fellow novelist Isabel Wolff has compared it to a Virago Modern Classic, and I think I hark back to an earlier time when novels were not so rigidly defined. I packed a lot in, because it interested me to do so, and because I was finding a lot of modern fiction thin and insubstantial. 'Too much detail' was a common theme in my rejection letters. My current publishers were able to see beyond that to what they felt was a compelling and entertaining story. I have had terrific feedback from a wide range of people, from young women to older men, all commenting on how satisfying they found the book – which is what I was aiming for.

And achieved! Thank you, Josa, for dropping by on your tour.

One Apple Tasted is published by Elliott & Thompson.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Salt Publishing's JustOneBook campaign--update

I've just received this message from Salt. If you've been following my periodic posts about literary fiction on my other blog and are still baffled, why not take this opportunity to read some cracking examples/

Here's the message:

The JustOneBook campaign continues with a further sensational August deal.

In order to keep Salt on track through the wet British summer, we're offering you another special deal throughout August. All Salt books are available from us at 33% discount yet again. That's a third off all Salt titles, and free shipping on orders with a cover price of over £30 or $30. Offer ends 31 August 2009.

Simply enter the coupon code HU693FB2 when in the store to benefit.
As before, all we ask is two things—

1. Buy one book. Or perhaps another one ... go on.2. Pass it on. Share this offer with everyone who loves gorgeous books and likes a bargain (whilst saving independent literature).

Happy shopping!

Love from Salt

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Do yourself a favour and buy one of these four short story collections. Collectively called Ox-Tales (and individually, Earth, Fire, Water and Air) they contain stories by such literary luminaries as--are you ready?--Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Coe, A L Kennedy, Joanna Trollope, John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, Esther Freud, Zoe Heller, Helen Simpson--and more. Riches indeed.

Nip over here to order one or even, if you're feeling generous, all four. Each one only costs £5.00, of which £3.50 goes to support Oxfam's work around the world. Value for money, I'd say--and all in a good cause. What's not to like?

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Balancing on the Edge of the World

I hope Elizabeth Baines will forgive me if I use this review of this anthology of stunning short stories in part to say a little about the nature of literary fiction that I'm in the throes of addressing on my other blog.

And before you're sitting comfortably and before I begin, can I once again urge anyone who wants to read fiction that's different, quirky, varied but most of all, brilliant, then they should take a look at Salt Publishing. You may remember that Salt were facing difficulties so had this clever idea to get as many people as possible to buy just one book. I do hope it was successful but even more I hope everyone has now well and truly caught the Salt bug. I know I have. In April of this year I reviewed Tania Hershman's The White Road and I will shortly be looking at several others including Some New Ambush by Caryl Davies, Vanessa Gebbie's Words from a Glass Bubble and The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert. Salt books are not just good to read, they feel great in the hand and have the most brilliant covers too.

From what I've heard or read, those who claim not to like literary fiction condemn it for its wordy floweriness and pretention. 'I have to keep a dictionary to hand,' they say. 'The writer's just showing off.' So let's just look at the opening paragraph of Condensed Metaphysics, and my favourite story in this collection. Oh and don't let the title put you off either; all is explained in the story. A science degree is not necessary or the Concise Oxford!

"We're all drunk and Ellie's drunkest. She runs up to the guy with a begging cup outside the Babylon and asks him to lend us some money, we're hungry and want a pizza and none of us has any money."

Not a flower in sight and to exemplifies what I love about Elizabeth's writing. She draws you immediately into the story and the voice of the narrator and doesn't feel the need to explain what's going on because she trusts us to work it out for ourselves (or rather she has the skill to make it easy for us!) And look what she's done in two simple sentences. If you want to teach yourself how to write effectively and clearly but with depth and nuance, make a list of what you've picked up already about where we are and who these people are, their ages and their lifestyle. Whilst having to think too hard when reading can be a turn off, a little bit of effort is well worth the satisfaction from being a partner in the process. Novels that tell me what I should be thinking or 'emoting' (hate that word) are a real turn off for me. Especially when the author feels the need to say the same thing on every page as if we've got the attention span of a gnat.

As Condensed Metaphysics progresses, we move to a late night pizza parlour. With the deftest of brush strokes Elizabeth introduces a rich variety of characters and and awful lot of humour. Who says literary fiction is po-faced?

Another (misplaced) complaint about literary fiction, especially short stories is that there's no plot and there's never any conclusion. Unsatisfying, they say. Not at all, IMHO. This is because literary fiction traditionally doesn't tell you how to read the story and what you should get out of it. What it does is paint a picture and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I suppose a simplistic way to describe LF is that it's 'a slice of life.' I don't much like the expression. Besides, life is never complete. It's always ongoing; even if we die others carry on.

Many of the stories in this collection are about childhood and family, particularly the darker undercurrents but without melodrama or sensation. I was particularly impressed by Compass and Torch which tells of a camping trip a boy takes with his estranged father. Again these supposedly simple tale exposes the conflicting and complex emotions the boy feels. Again there are no conclusions. These are the final lines:

"Neither hears the horses moving around the tent in the night. For years to come, though, in his dreams, the boy will see their wild fringed eyes and feel the deep thudding of their hooves."

Did anything happen overnight? Was there a tragic accident? Possibly. Or not. Perhaps the horses represent the boy's fears about his father's inadequacies. The writer leaves it up to us. WE can make it our own story. And if anyone wants to know what I mean by clear but stunning writing, this is a fine example. Wild fringed eyes says it all for me. (Oh and I can't resist stressing the absence of adverbs!)

The very purpose of Into the Night is its ambiguity. To put it simply, it tells of a typical and ordinary one-night-stand. It ends as the woman wakes the following morning and wonders dreamily whether they'll both go their separate ways or begin a relationship. I didn't feel short-changed. Quite the opposite. It captures that delicious point of balance where the future is unknown and anything is possible.

I must be honest and say I found one or two of the stories didn't appeal to me but I wasn't bothered. In any anthology, like a box of chocolates, there are always some centres you aren't too keen on. (anything with a hint of orange or strawberry fondant goes straight in the bin or a conveniently passing dog.) The overall impression, though, is rich and satisfying. Every word counts, every image shines. And yet it all feels effortless. (Which to my mind is at the heart of all good art.)

One story differs a little from the rest in texture and tone. In The Shooting Script a single mother is offered an opportunity to write and create a film for television. She is to be helped to write her script and work with a 'mentor'. Only she finds that charismatic, troubled Bob Deal is not as easy to work with as she imagined and things don't go to plan. The characterisation is so good and I laughed all the way through it even as I winced. The satire is as sharp as a stiletto. Although it's about film-making, it brought to mind a f publishing enterprise I predict will end in tears--but not those of the organisers, alas. There are plenty of Bob Deals around.

And to dispel any myths that literary fiction written by women expresses 'politically correct' views, then read How to Behave. The wronged wife and the mistress meet and gang up against the male chauvinism of the man they share. This is sisterhood at work, right? Only it isn't. One of them is a calculating bitch out for revenge. On the other hand, Who's Singing is one of the saddest stories I've ever read.

I am delighted Elizabeth sent me her collection to review and I don't hesitate to recommend them. I am both in awe and inspired. Thank you, Salt and thank you, Elizabeth.

PS. I'm having trouble with my links today. If they're broken, please bear with me. I'll fix them eventually--if and when Blogger decides to co-operate.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Beachcombing by Maggie Dana

If you follow this blog you'll know that my tastes are wide and various. I have no agenda, although whatever I read has to be good of its kind. I can't bear sloppiness, laziness or lack of attention to detail. That aside, what I read depends greatly on how I'm feeling at any one time. It's the same with TV and clothes. I will watch the X-Factor with relish (whilst suspending my disbelief) and then switch stations and be absorbed in a scientific discussion about global warming followed by a dramatisation of a Chekhov play. I will slob about in elastic-waisted trousers, T-shirt and trainers one day and then decide to wear a flowing hippy skirt and lace blouse the next.

Since my accident, I must say I haven't been in the mood for anything too taxing on the brain. Maggie Dana had sent me this novel a while back and it hadn't quite worked its way up to the top of the pile when I decided it looked just what the doctor ordered. And how right I was. Here's a modern fairy-tale romance for-ahem-mature ladies who still have a spring in their step (metaphorically in my case at the moment)--but with enough astringency to prevent it all from becoming saccharine.

Jillian Hunter grew up in England but a hasty marriage took her to Connecticut, where after the birth of two (now grown-up sons) and a divorce, we find her in her fifties living alone in a rickety house on the shoreline with only an opinionated cat for company. However, she has a successful freelance career and good friends. But she finds herself suddenly thinking about her first love, gorgeous Colin with the floppy hair and dimples who disappeared suddenly from her life. So when chance brings them together again, all is set for their love to be rekindled and fulfilled. So far, so lovely and romantic and indeed, erotic. But there are issues from the past that need to be resolved and love--or is it lust--is blind; Jillian almost loses everything, friends, job, money and self-esteem in pursuit of a happy ending.

It must be said that I am too much of a cynic to enjoy romance for romance's sake, but having said that, I really enjoyed Beachcombing. It is an easy read but is by no means simplistic. There is pain and heartbreak but also a lot of humour and common-sense. The settings are well-conveyed, whether it's an American beach town, Cornwall or London. (And I love Jillian's ability to rattle off the Latin names for flora and fauna!) My favourite character is Jillian's straight-talking but loyal friend, Lizzie. And if at the end good fortune seems to fall into Jillian's lap a little too easily, well, who cares?

Maggie Dana should be justifiably proud of her first novel, published under Pan Macmillan's excellent New Writing Scheme. I am sure it won't be her last. The standard of writing is as professional as any in this genre , in which I would include Katie Fforde and Elizabeth Buchan; and indeed beyond. It's time we had more novels where the heroine is an independent woman in her fifties; women who are just as sensual and silly, stupid and clever, confused, unsure and witty as those in their twenties. Women of my age have the double responsibility of ageing parents and children embarking on their adult lives. It's all too easy to lose one's own identity, being both mother and a child turned carer and I applaud Maggie for tackling it head on. This is the perfect novel to lose yourself in either on the beach or by a cosy fire while storms rage outside (there's both in the novel) but it also makes you ponder life and its choices. Nice one, Maggie. (Love the cover, too!)

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

This is a hold-up

Many apologies for those of you who have sent me books to review here and are wondering what's happened. If you don't know already, I recently fell and broke my hip and contrary to what everyone tells me I found it impossible to read in hospital and haven't done much since I got home. This, I think, is because the powerful painkillers I've been prescribed are dulling my brain and also making me fall asleep at the drop of a hat.

I'm off on a week's holiday in North Wales this weekend and hope, as I slowly recover, to spend most of my time reading--especially as I will only have limited internet access.

Normal service will be resumed eventually. Promise.