Hazel McHaffie

Children in trouble

Eh dear, why did I decide to write about pathological parenting? It’s causing me a fair few troubled nights, I can tell you. I’m currently trying to get inside the skin of children … parents … professionals … involved in these disturbing situations. And boy, is it harrowing!i There’s a heavy cloud hanging over me just reading about these traumatic experiences.

With all this in mind I was instantly drawn to three novels by Susan Lewis which I discovered in a charity shop quite by chance on my way to a hospital appointment. I zipped through the first two chapters while I waited to be called.

I’ve always marvelled at the ability of social workers to bear the burden of troubled families where parents may not be the best people to look after their offspring. Deciding when that line is crossed, taking them away … dealing with criticism whichever way they go, threats, physical harm … I’m not made of that kind of courage and stamina, that’s for sure. So it was profoundly disturbing to walk alongside overworked and under-appreciated Alex Lake as she lurches from problem family to problem family in No Child of Mine.

Alex is a social worker, passionate about protecting children from those who mean them harm. In No Child of Mine, there’s a veritable A-Z of toxic situations: abandonment, alcoholism, broken relationships, desertion, drug addiction, Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers, mental illness, murder, paedophilia, physical abuse, sexual violation …! Yoiks! How do social workers ever manage to switch off? How do they preserve professional barriers? If they don’t care, are they in the right job? If they do care, what price do they pay for emotional connection? How do they cope with being principal scapegoats for the press and public? If, on top of that, they carry the additional burden of an horrific history of their own, as Alex does, what then?

Challenging tales to say the least. Taut, sinister, intense. I wanted to wrap Alex herself up in a comfort blanket and smuggle her away to a safe place, never mind the children! Small wonder that Susan Lewis found this one of the hardest stories to tell (… caution there for me!). And we’re left wondering if the fragile solution at the end can possibly hold. Which is why the author chose to continue the story in a sequel: Don’t Let Me Go. Since both books are a door-stopping 580+ pages long, I guess it’s lucky for us she split the story into two parts!

By now Alex has reinvented herself as Charlotte Nicholls and moved to the other side of the world. Life in New Zealand in a new family helps to heal deep wounds, but then suddenly, dramatically, her entire world is blown apart. Do pure motives ever excuse illegal actions? Should a vulnerable child become a victim all over again just to ensure the paperwork is all shipshape? What price is too high in the search for justice? I was on tenterhooks to find out the fate of a terrified and traumatised four-year-old. How would she react to being ripped from the heart of a family who loved her so deeply? And handed to a series of strangers, strangers who held none of the keys to the doors that protected her from her own private hell? And how would the law deal with a professional who had knowingly flouted its diktats? I’m relieved that we got to hear how the situation was resolved, although it’s sobering to realise that neither Chloe/Ottilie nor Charlotte/Alex can ever erase the traumas of their early lives.

I might well quibble about some dubious elements of this story – there are issues with time frames and professional boundaries – but such is the compelling nature of the storyline that I found myself well able to suspend disbelief in order to focus on the underlying messages. And as a result I have even more respect for the brave souls who spend their lives working for the good of these vulnerable children, too often unseen and unsung – like our emergency services dealing with this terrible spate of atrocities and tragedies. And for authors like Susan Lewis who help us to understand in our hearts as well as our brains.

NB. The third book, Stolen, didn’t resonate in the same way and I found the story line too far fetched to be plausible. But since the subject matter is less relevant to my own character development or research, nothing lost there.

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The Undertaking

Imagine a book opening with consecutive sentences starting like this:
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘She …’
‘He …’
‘But he …
‘The ground …
‘He …’
‘The man …’

Yep, visions of primary school teachers underscoring with red ink imploring pupils to vary their structure … A-Level students receiving a begrudging scraping pass … a manuscript landing with an irritable thwack in the publisher’s waste bin, unread beyond the first page. Definitely a no-no in most people’s handbook of good writing.

And then there’s the complication of three German soldiers working alongside each other, sharing experiences and food, sharing a mission ‘to clear the communists and Jews from Russia‘ – all three surnames beginning with the same letter: Faber, Fuchs, Faustmann. Who thought that was a bright idea?

I could go on listing broken rules and yet … and yet … this book, The Undertaking by Irish author, Audrey Magee, was published by a reputable company, has been much lauded and admired, and was even shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Justifiably.

As reviewers have said it’s ‘An engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you’ve closed the book‘; ‘A violent, elegant, unsentimental journey through hell and halfway back’; ‘A moving journey through the emotional hinterlands of grief and guilt.

The language is sparse, the structure simple, the dialogue pared to the bone. But immensely powerful. Set in the time of the Second World War it tells the story of a German soldier, Peter Faber, fighting on the Russian Front who marries a photograph of a woman he has never met in order to get leave and a reason to survive the atrocities of the Front. Hundreds of miles away in Berlin the woman, Katharina, marries a photograph of the soldier to qualify for a war widow’s pension. When they meet, to their surprise and wonder, love and passion blossom, and they start to dream of a bright future in a new and better Germany with the Nazis in control. But war tears them apart and they both separately endure the terrible consequences of destruction, humiliation and defeat.

Such is Magee’s skill with language that we can feel the lice crawling in Peter’s scalp, smell his rank odour after weeks of wearing the same sweat-soaked uniform, cringe with Katharina as he begins his courtship of her in this unsavoury state. We hear the venom in the voices of soldiers who hound innocent Jews from their hiding places. We watch in stunned silence as desperate brutalised men commit acts of barbarity against animals and humans alike, as they ransack homes, violate corpses, fight against the treacherous winds howling across the Russian steppes, all on the orders of their leaders safe at home in Berlin.

It’s salutary to learn what it felt like to be German during wartime, bombed by the allies, but rewarded richly for unquestioning loyalty, on the receiving end of the largesse left by the Jews, flagging spirits rallied with falsehoods and bribes. How would we have reacted to the pressures and promises, I wonder?

The men on the battlefields believe they are in hell; wives and mothers left behind in Germany believe their own lives are a form of hell too. It’s all relative. And perhaps there could be no happy outcome in the face of such obscene suffering and futility. How can either ‘side’ really appreciate the atrocities the other has seen and endured. Many were unspeakable. Rehearsing them would only perpetuate the nightmare. Even reading the pared down accounts creates a despairing hollow in the pit of one’s stomach. Nevertheless I was left feeling profoundly sad that a love that had sustained Peter and Katharina through so much pain and horror, in the end could not survive the shame and consequences of an experience completely outside of their control.

This was Audrey Magee’s first novel and it’s a brilliant, sweeping epic of a book that compels the reader to keep turning the pages, to watch helplessly as injustice and hate and human frailty destroy lives and devastate families. It’s far from comfortable reading but I highly recommend it. And how right she was to keep her sentences sparse and simple, give us the bare bones or moral bankruptcy without adornment. This is one occasion where the rule book needed to be consigned to an inaccessible shelf.

 

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Creating a bestseller

I think I’m pretty realistic about my own potential as a novelist but it doesn’t stop me exploring the reasons for other writers’ phenomenal success. So I was intrigued by an article by Debbie Taylor, founder and editorial director of the women writers’ journal Mslexia, in the June/July/August edition. What is it about certain books that appeals to so many people that they become runaway bestsellers, she wanted to know? Ears pricked. Eyes wide open. Brain in gear. Is there any hope …?

Well, apparently researchers have textually analysed 20,000 published novels using a bank of 1000 computers (mind spins into boggle-mode) and come up with some answers. And such is the accuracy of their findings that editors and agents all over the world are apparently sitting up and taking notice. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, when ‘of the 55,000 new novels published in the US each year … just 200 reach the New York Times bestseller lists (0.3 percent) and only four will stay there long enough to sell a million copies (0.007 per cent)‘. An algorithm to improve on the odds? What’s not to like?

Ahhh, well … of course, there’s bound to be a strong cohort of discerning professionals in the real book world who’re understandably sniffy about an inanimate piece of kit being a better judge of literary merit than their finely honed, expertly trained, clever human brains. But Debbie T has stirred the pot and tipped in findings from a number of research teams and spread out a number of conclusions for us to taste and test.

OK, so what does make a runaway success? Four main characteristics to start with it transpires:

  1. One signature topic per author
  2. One of the additional topics should be in conflict with the central theme
  3. A recognisably realistic setting/characters
  4. Emotional closeness between the main protagonists.

Hmmm. Nothing revolutionary there, I’d say. Moving on … What about the plot? A variety of aspects can be compelling, it seems:

  1. Emotional roller-coasters for the characters and readers
  2. Plenty of peaks and troughs to maintain suspense
  3. A protagonist with conflicting impulses
  4. Larger than life characters
  5. A central dramatic quest
  6. High life-and-death stakes
  7. Several intimate viewpoints
  8. An interesting setting
  9. A high-concept what-if premise

In short, authors need ‘to think about what readers want‘.

  1. Stimulation.
  2. Entertainment.
  3. Emotional engagement.
  4. Hooks and cliff-hangers. The kind of breathless ups and downs that films and TV series are made of.

And if that isn’t all too depressingly obvious, you don’t even need to be able to string a sentence together elegantly. Staccato sentences, limited vocabulary, predictable plots, can make it to the mega-bestseller list because … and here’s the nub … if it’s to sell in its millions a book has to be read by people who don’t read much as well as by confirmed bookworms. Intellectual readers might sniff at the poor structure and lack of literary brio but as long as they’re addicted they’ll all want more of the same.

It’s a cruel unjust world out there, guys!!

Elsewhere in the same journal, novelist and short-story judge, Deborah Levy gives her personal take on why one writer’s work is more compelling than another: ‘In the end, it is about the mystery of that thing called Voice … it’s about the particularity of the writer’s attention: how she is looking and listening.‘ Yes, indeedy. A slippery something but we like to think we’ll know it when we see it.

Oh, and I must remember to drop a few hints in appropriate quarters … according to this same edition of my literary magazine,  Kate Summerscale‘s publisher sent her ‘an extraordinary profusion of flowers‘ to congratulate her on a new book deal! Hello? VelvetEthics Press are you listening?

Chance would be a fine thing!!

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Martin Luther King: ‘I can do small things in a great way.’

As regular visitors to my blog will know I’ve read all of Jodi Picoult’s books (the single authored ones at least) and I was delighted when her style changed from being rather formulaic to more varied. Her twentieth one, The Storyteller, was an absolute triumph, as I wrote three years ago.

So I simply had to read her latest offering: Small Great Things. I confess, I’m not much enamoured of her title, but she had a very valid reason for choosing it. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr once said: ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way‘, and this book is all about the things Dr King fought for. A fair defence.

As ever Picoult combines a compelling storyline with an important and challenging issue, in this case racial discrimination and prejudice, still, it seems, a major problem in the US. And as usual it’s well-researched, cleverly constructed and both thought-provoking and insightful.

Ruth Jefferson is a law-abiding, hard-working, academically able midwife (known as a labor and delivery nurse in the US) and widowed mum. It’s racial discrimination that brings her before the courts indicted for murder. The opening chapters lead gently into the scenario. When Ruth comes on shift and takes over from a colleague, part of her caseload includes a new mother, Brittany Bauer, and her newborn baby son, Davis. She sets about doing routine tests on the baby boy but his father, Turk, registers a strong objection to a woman of colour touching his child. Ruth’s boss, Marie, who has half her years of experience but has been promoted over her, makes a snap decision to stick a hot-pink Post-it on the baby’s notes: NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT. So when the child collapses in front of her what is Ruth to do? At the time of his death she is one of several people in attendance, nevertheless she is the one the parents blame; the only black member of staff.

Picoult portrays the Bauers as ugly characters, aggressive white supremicists who think nothing of beating up Jews or homosexuals or black people. Humiliating others, hounding them, oppressing anyone who disagrees with their take on the world – that’s their modus operandi. It makes quite shocking reading.

By contrast Ruth and her son are peaceable God-fearing Christians with strong moral values. And her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, is a sympathetic happily married mother-of-one who has devoted her life to helping the downtrodden and under-privileged. I think my editors would advise blurring the lines between good and evil rather more but that’s a literary quibble. And unseen unexpected characteristics do emerge towards the end.

Picoult’s trademark multiple-points-of-view are useful for opening the eyes of the reader to the nuances of language and the many ways in which society can discriminate, and I loved the way Ruth took her lawyer on an ordinary shopping trip to show her what it felt like to be a black woman in a white society. And Kennedy’s own deliberate exposure of herself to the scary experience of being in a minority.

But best of all, this time Picoult adds a lengthy note saying how much she herself was chastened by what she learned while researching and reading for this book. Her career as a novelist has been driven by outrage and a desire to make people aware of injustice, inequality and victims’ stories. This time it’s particularly powerful because it has touched her personally. She was ‘exploring my past, my upbringing, my biases, and I was discovering that I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined.

‘So what have I learned that is useful? Well, if you are white, like I am, you can’t get rid of the privilege you have, but you can use it for good. Don’t say I don’t even notice race! like it’s a positive thing. Instead, recognize that differences between people make it harder for some to cross a finish line, and create fair paths to success for everyone that accommodate those differences. Educate yourself. If you think someone’s voice is being ignored, tell others to listen. If your friend makes a racist joke, call him out on it, instead of just going along with it. … I didn’t write this novel because I thought it would be fun or easy. I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know. As Roxana Robinson said, “A writer is like a tuning fork: we respond when we’re struck by something … If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us.”‘ There speaks honest conviction.

And of course, she teaches us in a most engaging way, which is why she is rightfully an ongoing best-seller. Small Great Things is a real page-turner. The author makes no claim to literary pretensions but she does drop in her customary occasional delightful turns of phrase.

The prosecutor is ‘about as jolly as the death penalty‘.

Ruth’s mother was a strict parent: ‘I remember how once, she put out a place setting at the dinner table for my attitude, and she told me, Girl, when you leave the table, that can stay behind.’

The science of creating another human is remarkable, and no matter how many times I’ve learned about cells and mitosis and neural tubes and all the rest that goes into forming a baby, I can’t help but think there’s a dash of miracle involved, too.‘ (I’ve delivered countless babies myself and I never lost this sense of wonder and awe either.)

The lawyer asks her junior: ‘How old are you anyway?’
‘Twenty-four.’
‘I have sweaters older than you.’

An author who always has something important to say and a way of leaving her characters tucked into your consciousness long after you’ve closed her covers.

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Blue sky thinking

Ten days of wall-to-wall visitors staying chez nous effectively put paid to focused writing, but happily the brain has still been ticking over in the region of the back-burner.

As I strolled in beautiful gardens …

and wandered through castles and mansions …

the plot thickened for my current novel (working title Killing me Softly).

Summary of non-spoiler points to weave in
* The reader doesn’t know who to trust
* More than one character doesn’t get what he/she wants and their situations just get worse and worse
* Authority figures are confused
* Conflict between the good guys further muddies the water

All elements of storytelling that increase tension and keep the reader gripped. Ahhah, itemising them reinforces one salient conclusion: the book is still on track for being a thriller then! Good to clarify that.

I anticipated this book would take some time to write, since I’m researching technique as well as specific subject matter, but maybe not as long as Archie Cotterell‘s novel which came out this month. As his wife said: ‘Everyone says they want to leave the City and write a novel … but I married the idiot who did.’ It has taken 17 years for him to get What Alice Knew published – as long as James Joyce took to write Finnegan’s Wake. I’m devoutly hoping I don’t have to struggle that long! Time will tell.

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Let’s hear it for the book!

It’s May … Christian Aid week again … which means the monarch of all secondhand book sales. Each year the St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in George Street in Edinburgh hosts this fantastic week long event to help address world poverty. Since it started in 1974 the sale has raised in excess of £2m for the charity.

Preparation goes on for weeks beforehand involving over 500 volunteers, local authors bring along signed copies of their work, some people bequeath whole libraries to them, countless anonymous people donate their discard-able tomes. And by the time the doors open to the public, over 100,000 books of every kind fill the sanctuary, balconies and both courtyards, rare and valuable items rubbing shoulders with the run-of-the-mill. 100,000 books! Bliss.

Unusually this year I went along on Saturday’s opening day just half an hour after the doors opened. There was already an excited buzz outside on the pavement …

as well as inside …

Plenty of ‘excuse me’s, jostling elbows/large bags, competitive reaching. Long arms and good vision a definite advantage.

This early on there was good evidence of order with books by the same author gathered into boxes, and I could only dimly conceive of the mammoth task that involved. And yet I still heard one customer asking if they were arranged in alphabetical order! The remarkably tolerant volunteer said apologetically, ‘Sorry. There just wasn’t time for that.’ Bless her. Of course, it was the beginning of the week long effort … and the rain was holding off … and the snell east wind had abated. She could still feel her fingers and toes and didn’t have rain dripping off the polythene covers onto her trousers. But even so.

So the customer must tour the tables, row after row after row of them, grouped under banner signposts to find the titles they’re after. Specialised non-fiction tomes and sets varying in price; most hard-cover novels £2 a pop; paperbacks £1. Amazing bargains. And I’m sure many people cheerfully stump up far more than the asking price.

Inside the stalls range from the obscure to the classical and there are phenomenal bargains to be had. Having just read about the illuminators of ancient Turkey, this intriguing book held my attention.

But despite the serious temptation, I limited my own purchases to one carriable-home-on-the-bus bag which included these novels …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But my biggest kick came from standing on the balcony watching all these earnest browsers digging into boxes on every topic you can think of. Wanting, buying, loving books! Yep, the real hold-in-your-hand hard copy book is certainly nowhere near in terminal decline. Half-way round I beat a retreat to the basement cafe to fortify myself for a second wave of literary rummaging and then discovering more lovely and unusual finds in the antiques and collectables department.

Huge congratulations to all who sustain this brilliant endeavour.

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Turkish delight

‘I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.’

How’s that for an opening line? Brilliant, isn’t it? And the first paragraph sucks you in still further:

‘Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.’

Wow! Who … where … why … what … how …? More please.

I’ve been to Turkey where this beautiful calligraphy was created for me personally by a talented artist just a stone’s throw from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The whole experience was utterly fascinating, so I’ve been keen to read something by the much garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and what better book than one about calligraphers in Istanbul! It just needed a decent slot of time without too many other distractions – it’s over 500 pages of dense small print. Imagine translating something that long! Hats off to Professor Erdağ Göknar who I imagine is often forgotten; his command of English has to be exceptional.

First then, the official blurb about My Name is Red to give you an overview: it’s the late 1590s …

‘The Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and the Ottoman Empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day – in the European manner. In Istanbul at a time of violent fundamentalism, however, this is a dangerous proposition. Even the illustrious circle of artists are not allowed to know for whom they are working. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their Master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?
With the Sultan demanding an answer within three days, perhaps the clue lies somewhere in the half-finished pictures . . .’

The now-dead man, Elegant Effendi as he is known, is one of the select few responsible for painting and embellishing books – illuminating the edges of pages, the borders – in Our Sultan’s workshop under the eagle eye of the Head Illuminator, Master Osman. Elegant is an undisputed master of his craft. But he has now been missing for four days, and his fellow miniaturists – Butterfly, Stork and Olive – are the prime suspects. The question is, which one? And why? Was the motive professional, romantic or religious? The man asking the questions, Effendi Black, is also pursuing his own love interests in delicate and difficult circumstances (his lady love, Shekure’s husband is missing in action not yet declared dead, and her father-in-law and brother-in-law are exerting a lot of pressure on her to stay within their family where she will in all probability become a sexual and domestic slave) giving the book a feeling of subtle layers and stories within stories which necessitate keeping all your wits about you to retain a firm hold on all the threads. Added to that, each chapter is written in the first person by a range of different players (20 in total) in this drama – not all of them human – so we know a great deal about motives and actions and dreams from all sides.

My Name is Red is at once a murder mystery and a meditation on love, artistic devotion, religious conviction, and the tensions between East and West. Tall order, huh? It has the ring of a long involved parable designed to explore deep truths – albeit in the Muslim rather than Christian tradition.

‘Allah created this worldly realm the way an intelligent seven-year-old boy would want to see it; what’s more Allah created this worldly realm so that, above all, it might be seen. Afterward, He provided us with words so that we might share and discuss with one another what we’ve seen.’

Sight/blindness, time/infinity, books/paintings are all recurring symbols.

‘Wherever the blind miniaturist’s memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of the blank page.
Blindness is a realm of bliss from which the Devil and guilt are barred.’

Europeans are ‘infidels‘ and their beliefs and practices are abhorrent to these people. They must take great care not to be tainted by such influences. So, it’s necessary for us to understand the strict rules laid down in the ‘Glorious Koran’ prohibiting the representation of the human image; divine will forbids ‘objects that mimic mankind’ and thus ‘compete with Allah’s creations’. Women’s faces must not be seen outside the family.

The writing is lyrical (thanks to both author and translator), the concepts deep and rich giving much to ponder. The minute detail Pamuk invests in this work, the delicate and subtle descriptions, seem in a way to reflect the exquisitely fine artistry of the illustrations demanded by the sultans, refined by the masters, every stroke given importance and meaning; a combination of inspiration, talent and patience. Though this level of minutiae makes the book long and complex, it needs to be savoured slowly, each idea given due weight – the fine line between right and wrong, good and evil, reality and fantasy, truth and lies, marriage and divorce, beauty and ugliness, life and death.

‘Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.’

It might be expected that these highly sensitive artists working for the Sultan would lead cossetted and protected lives, surrounded as they are by fabulous art and sumptuous wealth. Not so. The master binders and calligraphers whose ‘brushes made horses gallop at full speed and whose butterflies fluttered off the page‘ have suffered for their art. Their lives are fiercely controlled.

‘Only true artists like us who’d suffered throughout our apprenticeships merciless bastinados, random pummelings and fists so that the irritable master who drew a line incorrectly might feel better – not to mention hours of blows from sticks and rulers so that the devil within us would perish to be reborn as the jinn of inspiration – only we could feel such extreme joy by depicting bastinados and tortures,only we could color these implements with the gaiety of coloring a child’s kite.’

Perspectives and insights are the product of this upbringing. And over time, when these apprentices in turn become experts, and then masters themselves, with experience and the study of tomes of illustrations painted over hundreds of years, they come to possess a special kind of knowledge and understanding.

‘I came to know which artist had learned what from whom, in which workshop under which shah’s patronage the thing we now call ‘style’ first took shape, which fabled master had worked for whom, and how, for example, the curling Chinese clouds I knew had spread throughout Persia from Herat under Chinese influence were also used in Kazvin … but an agony lurked deeper within me, a melancholy and regret I can scarcely share with you for the belittled, tormented, pretty, moon-faced, gazelle-eyed, sapling thin painters – battered by masters – who suffered for their art, yet remained full of excitement and hope, enjoying the affection that developed between them and their masters and their shared love of painting, before succumbing to anonymity and blindness after long years of toil.’

For generations, for centuries, these rare skills have been taught in secret using vicious means of control and submission; rivalry, jealousy and backstabbing the norm. But when these highly specialised workmen fall victim to bitter fighting amongst the ruling and political classes, they become ‘penniless and destitute, homeless and bereft’, their rarefied world collapses, and in consequence ‘rapidly transcribed, hastily painted, cheap books appeared everywhere, matching the tastes of common soldiers, boorish pashas and spoiled princes’.

‘Just as the doors of houses are closed of an evening and the city is left in darkness, painting was also abandoned.’

New priorities, different jealousies emerge.

Having myself watched Dervishes whirling, and visited the Hagia Sophia, stared at the priceless jewels plundered from vanquished enemies, sailed on the Bosphorus, smelled the spices of the great souks, and been woken by the muezzin call to prayer, I could readily picture the scenes: Istanbul, the portraits of the Sultans, the fabulous Ottoman wealth. Without that experience I rather think I’d have struggled to understand the culture, the history, the nuances in this unusual and complex tale.

Seen through the eyes of artists used to precision, beauty and painstaking execution, the story has a poignancy, subtlety and depth of its own. Perhaps the narration itself has to aim for a pinnacle of perfection to be worthy of its message.

‘There was a time when Allah looked upon the world in all its uniqueness, and believing in the beauty of what he saw, bequeathed his creation to us, his servants. The duty of illustrators and of those who, loving art, gaze upon the world, is to remember the magnificence that Allah beheld and left to us. The greatest master in each generation of painters, expending their lives and toiling until blind, strove with great effort and inspiration to attain and record the wondrous dream that Allah commanded us to see. Their work resembled Mankind recalling his own golden memories from the very beginning.’

‘… shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world’s beauty belongs to Allah.’

But through the esoteric world of these master-craftsmen we come to better understand fanaticism, how men can be driven to commit heinous crimes for their beliefs no matter how suspect the foundations of their conviction may be to an outsider. Salutary lessons for today, methinks.

 

 

 

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Are you sitting comfortably?

May Bank Holiday included a couple of National Trust properties for me this year – Cragside House in Northumberland and Acorn Bank in Cumbria – fascinating places with rich histories, each in their own way evocative of a bygone age. So I thought I’d give you faithful followers a little holiday too, take you to some wonderfully inviting places to sit, to write, to read, simply to meditate. (Apologies for the quality of some of the pictures – taken on my iPad so limited control.)

Imagine for yourself what the peace, the serenity, the ambience, would conjure up in your mind.

At Cragside

A sumptuous Victorian Country house, the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power. So let your thoughts roam free as you …

sit surrounded by fantastic gardens …

in elegant rooms …

beside roaring fires …

in the midst of enormous wealth and inheritance …

looking over fabulous views …

Acorn Bank

A virtually empty-at-the-moment 13th century building spanning occupancy by the Knights Templar through to the Sue Ryder Foundation before becoming a national treasure. So imagine again where your thoughts would roam …

sitting in a chair once occupied by a renowned writer …

snuggling up in window seats …

Feel any historical novels coming on?!

How about sitting alone in the fragrance of a well stocked herb garden …

The NT are alive to opportunities; I found seats beckoning me everywhere I went. What’s more the beautiful dovecot building at Acorn Bank has been given over to reading. It houses secondhand books alongside a lovely comfy chair and even 3-for-2 offers!

What more could a writer visitor from Scotland ask for? Well, maybe a book about Edinburgh …

Happy days.

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Odious comparisons

For the most part I don’t like to compare different authors. They aren’t in competition; they each have their own tale to tell, in their own way, for their own audiences. But this week in the course of reducing the number of books on my tbr bookshelves (ready for an anticipated influx next month!) I’ve been struck by the power of celebrity.

Stella Rimington? Yes, of course, we’ve all heard of her. Director General of MI5 in her professional life. High profile. Known name. But did I like her fiction? I did not. I chose At Risk – written when she’d got into her stride as a novelist. MI5 officer Liz Carlyle investigates a possible terrorist threat to a high security counter-terrorism meeting at Gleneagles. Looked promising given the author’s credentials. But … Style? No thanks. Plot? No thanks. Overall merit? No thanks. OK, this clever lady (Rimington, I mean), writing in her own area of expertise, may have successfully brought out 9 novels with bona fide publishers, but I have a sneaking suspicion her position had something to do with that. And I won’t personally be searching for more of her works.

Iain Banks? Yeah, we probably all remember his famous proposal to his girlfriend when he was terminally ill: would she do him the honour of becoming his widow. I hesitate to speak ill of the works of the dead but I’m afraid, for me, Banks has slithered into the same camp as Rimington:  Canal Dreams had little to commend it for me. A famous Japanese cellist with a fear of flying gets caught up in civil unrest in the Panama Canal aboard the tanker on which she’s a passenger. Alongside the horrors of being help captive by lawless violent men, she has a series of dark inexplicable dreams and flashbacks to various traumas in her life. Hmmm. End thought: what was there to commend this book? And yet, this guy has written and successfully published 24 novels. He is and will remain, famous. Happily he doesn’t need the endorsement of a nonentity like me.

So, my point thus far? Reading is subjective. I am not swayed by fame or fortune. I shall not like something simply because I’m told I should by others no matter how high they rank in the literary echelons. These writers don’t appeal to me. Simple as that. I did do them both the courtesy of finishing their books to give them a sporting chance (well, it’s a basic tenet of mine, not to say obsession, as you know) but that’s it.

On the other hand …

Marcelle Bernstein? Ever heard of her? Her name doesn’t crop up in quizzes, she doesn’t get major reviews, so probably not. Sacred and Profane has only one review on Amazon and yet it’s one of my top twenty favourite books. A nun collapses at prayer, crying out in agony. Thousands of miles away, a female prisoner wakes panic stricken at exactly the same moment. What links these two women? I was utterly gripped. Oh, and just so you know, Bernstein has in fact won awards as well as having many other strings to her bow.

And then there’s Jaishree Misra …? Me neither. But her book was on my shelf and I discovered this lady is high profile in India; and she’s published by mainstream publishers. Not my usual kind of reading, but I took a big breath and got stuck into Secrets and Sins by way of illustration for this blog. Riva Singh and Aman Khan meet briefly at college and have a short liaison. Now she’s a bestselling novelist and he a Bollywood heartthrob, both married to other people, when they meet again at the Cannes Film Festival. Will they follow their hearts or their heads? It wouldn’t feature on my top one hundred, I wouldn’t rush to find it’s sequel, but, viewed dispassionately, I found it easier to read that either of the celebrated works above.

However, best of all was my as-yet-unknown debut author of last week’s blog – remember him? I enjoyed his writing enormously even in its first draft form. Plot? Yes. Message? Yes. Overall merit? Yes indeedy. I guess I ought to put my mark against the day when he too is famous. You heard of him here first! He’s currently hard at work editing. Bring it on!

 

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Behind the scenes

As you know this week has been devoted to reading and critiquing a debut novel. All 587 pages, 230,100 words of it. A morning-noon-and-night job. And it has made me realise more acutely than usual how much goes into producing a book and how much we ought to value each one that survives the rigours of the writing process and is eventually published.

This author had the first germ of an idea for his magnum opus years and years ago. He’s already a published author of non-fiction, an expert in his professional world, but this is his first foray into the world of fiction. He’s studied technique, tried emulating a number of authors, adopted various tactics, abandoned most. And once having chosen the method that works for him, he’s been slaving away for month after month after month to reach this first draft stage. He’s been sorely tempted to give up at times, he’s hidden himself away, fled the country even! Experimented, scrapped whole efforts, rewritten, agonised, despaired. Picked himself up, dusted himself down, got back into the saddle.

And now … sacrilege! I’ve scribbled all over his precious baby – yes, with the proverbial literal red pen! Ahh, yes, of course with his permission. He requested my honest appraisal.

I’m handing it over today on the very morning he returns from three weeks abroad. (I’m devoutly hoping he’s totally refreshed and invigorated by the break! Suitably fortified against such an assault.) Then it’s over to him. To go through the whole thing word by word, line by line, deciding whether or not to take my advice or do his own thing. His choice, his responsibility.

It’s a beautiful story, cleverly plotted, meticulously planned, but parts of it I’m sure he will jettison – thousands upon thousands of sentences, words, letters he’s sweated blood over. Most of it he’ll edit and even re-write, darting back and forth, checking and rechecking that he’s being consistent, keeping his chronology right, being true to his characters. They too will subtly change as he firms up their foibles, rounds out their personalities, tinkers with their distinctive voices, authenticates their accents. Maybe even the thread of his plot will be subtly tweaked in places.

And day after day after day – nights too in all probability – everything will need to be checked again … and again … and again. Until the second draft is ready for critiquing!

Only when it’s as good as it can be will he be ready to offer it to a publisher or an agent. After which he’s into a whole new game. Weighing options. Waiting. Worrying. Delays. Disappointments. Rejections. Criticism. Harsh reviews. Probably all of the above.

Next time you think £7.99/£9.99 is a lot to fork out for a paperback, spare a thought for the bruised and battered guy who poured his soul into the story, who plucked the entire thing out of his own imagination, who worked for a pittance, who persevered against all the odds, to bring you that magnificent tale that made you laugh and weep and stay up long after your bedtime because you absolutely couldn’t put it down. All for the price of a single starter in a restaurant, or a ball of wool, or a small plant for the garden.

Here’s to writers everywhere!

PS. Downside for me: Now I’m so much in editorial mode, I’m desperately wanting to correct the Stella Rimington novel, I’m currently reading for recreation!

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