Friday, 7 August 2015

Let's hear it for reviewers!

It's not the first thing you think of when you put down a book you've enjoyed reading.  I'm the first to admit that before I published my first book I'd never left a review on Amazon or anywhere else.  I'd tell my friends if I liked something enough, and they'd probably forget the title or the author, or both. Reviews are a more permanent record of a reader's reactions - for better or for worse!

Needless to say, I always make the effort to leave a balanced review these days.

I'm actually reading 'The Apple Yard' at the moment, alongside 'The Constant Gardener'.  I looked at a couple of reviews for both of these last night.  Curiosity, I suppose.  The first is a thriller, top ten bestseller (so it states on the cover), by Louise Doughty.  The second, a classic by John le Carre.  Both have a fair percentage of one-star reviews with comments surprisingly similar: 'sorry I paid money for this book'  'boring' 'unbelievable'.  My favourite: 'John le Carre has lost it.'

I reminded myself that the star rating used by Amazon ranges from 'I hate it' to 'I love it'.  Fair enough. If you need to hate something, I suppose a book is a harmless target for your venom.  Some of the reviews are articulate and make valid points, some are flippant, some downright rude.  What really does intrigue me is how someone can be so totally negative about a book.  How they can hate it so completely.  Perhaps the ending is a let down, but surely there are passages they have enjoyed, characters they have empathised with to some extent?

The Apple Yard is going passably well.  I do agree that the protagonist and her lover are rather cold fish, but there is tension to the plot and a solid grounding in the value of mediocrity in everyday life and relationships.  We can't all be thoroughly beautiful beings leading extraordinary lives all of the time.  I like the ordinariness of the woman who feels good about her freshly washed hair and her new, rather sexy boots that make her feel less middle-aged.  If the ending is 'disappointing' and the affair 'unbelievable' I won't mind that much.  After all, we all look for an ending that is largely unattainable. We want definitive, we think.  We're not sure about an 'open-ending'.  Endings should perhaps be multiple...  Choose the one you like best.

In my view, the Constant Gardener is a gem of a book in terms of beautifully written prose and totally engaging characters, some petty, some naive, some heroic.  Sandy is a triumph of smug bigotry and I cringe when he gives himself away so utterly as a man who has no idea of how much others despise and deride him. There is masterful use of irony, and imagery which is both surprising and which resonates so precisely it can interrupt your reading while you savour its effect.  The plot is secondary for me, although that's not to say I dislike the action.

The review system is perhaps a little too 'throw-away' for the average reader, who is, in Amazon's eyes, a customer.  And, as we all know (except if, like me, you live in France...), the customer is king.  If he wants to complain, let him.  If he wants to offer a wholly negative point of view, that's his prerogative. And long may it be so!

One-star reviews are only hurtful to the author.  But, the odd jolt can be beneficial in many ways.  I have to mention one I received for 'One Summer in France'  It read simply: To stupid.  Made me laugh for ages.

Anyway, I've had my say!  I started this post with the intention of directing as many people as possible to a couple of new reviews of my recently revised novel, 'The Undertaker's Son'.  I'm grateful for such support and hope that it will encourage people to download and enjoy (at least some of) my book.  To make the decision easier, I've made it free on 7th and 8th August.  Obviously, if you would like to give your personal and honest opinions in a short review I would be happy to read and digest them.

Here's the link to Alison Williams' review:  Review of 'The Undertaker's Son'

My book is also featured on Olga Nunez Miret's blog today: Review of 'The Undertaker's Son'

Thank you for visiting my blog!  Comments welcome.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Night walk II

Lovely crabstick salad!
(Note spare wine.)

Al and I did the Corme Royal ‘randonée pédestre nocturne’ last year.  Then, it was our first time. Tremble.  This time we knew what to expect, which is never quite the same experience. 

We set out just as the match I’d been waiting for all day began.  Andy Murray stuffed a tennis ball into his shorts and threw the other one up to serve.  Bugger! I thought.  I wonder whether I could just sit here and…  No chance!  The tickets had been paid for, it would be a serene family outing.  Not to mention a nice bit of exercise.

Outside, the temperature was still in the high twenties at 7.30 and we’d put on jeans and long sleeved tops against the mozzies.  There was Al, my husband, Alfie, our teenage son, and yours truly, already too hot and just a little petulant. 

Up to the recreation ground we went, stepping out enthusiastically.  We collected our tickets, tied them to our clothes with a thoughtfully provided red ribbon, and waited to be released into the French countryside in staggered groups (there were over a thousand of us, apparently).  

France in July. There were sunflowers everywhere.  There were also leggings filled by thighs and bottoms of all shapes and sizes, and merry banter together with the odd gasp from people who passed by (we are slow walkers and enormously tall). 

Bathed in the fragile tranquility of wide open spaces invaded by we walkers, and keeping an eye on the dust that rose from children who kicked it up in front of us, we entered into the spirit and smiled our way onwards.  The first stop was for sangria (very nice and very strong) accompanied by salty biscuits.  Alfie got squash – poor Alfie - the expectation of a Coca-cola on ice had been strong within him!  Still, it was a nice way to start our adventure and we set off again rehydrated.  Al and I felt distinctly loosened up, living on alcohol fumes from the bottom of our plastic cups, and raring to sit down and have another drink.

The conversation was football oriented and so I went into a daze and thought about my current work in progress, imagining clever twists that would be forgotten by the time I got home.  The views were most lovely and the air simmered up gently.  We were all looking forward to the starter before long.  The previous year there had been a delicious tuna salad.  This time, we were handed a nice looking mayonnaise coleslaw which turned out to be mostly sliced crabsticks.  I tried not to think about it – I was hungry.  Alfie just ate bread and attempted to hide his disgust (not very successfully).  Al said he hated crabsticks, although he didn’t really need to say anything (see above photo).  The highlight was being served by an authentically rotund Obelix, complete with two-horned helmet and an air of French pride at representing all that is good about France’s cartoon heritage.

"Encore du vin, Monsieur? Madame?"
"Bah, ouai!"

By this time Al and I were fairly tipsy, taking pictures of a caged gorilla, a playful caveman, and each other.  We were all enjoying the evening in spite of the after effects of the fishy dish.  So when we came to a field in which there seemed to be various games being organised, we plunged in on the basis that we were in for a penny and in for a pound.  We were intrigued by one game in particular.  It seemed to be a variation on blind man’s bluff, involving the enforced participation of a goose. Politically correct?  Not in the slightest. Several men and women wearing blindfolds were groping around for a goose that had been shown to them beforehand and then (much to our relief) removed.  How wonderful to have the welfare of the animal at heart, we mistakenly thought.  Moments later, the games master set down the bird, who was pounced on and almost throttled by an over-enthusiastic competitor. We lost the ending of the video (divine intervention?), but have the first part here.  Very funny (see for yourself). Note: the goose was not actually hurt.  There were another four geese - so they could have a rest between bouts. (Hmm.) 


 French Quacking

It was still light when we arrived to sample the main course and were handed a plate of ham and dish of beans.  And more wine.  We sat on hay bales and were entertained by backward facing horn players, some of them new recruits by the sound of it.  Fabulously different and all in good fun.  (See video.)


Darkness fell and there were stars.  We walked on through woods marked with luminous paint where a tree stump or rock may have tripped a walker.  The crowds had thinned and when we came to an enormous cornfield I found myself alone.  Al and Alfie had gone on ahead spouting names of footballers who had been bought and sold for millions of pounds, which was, apparently, quite normal.  I savoured the solitude, enjoying the sound of the wind in the corn, until I started to remember scenes from ‘Signs’ – you must know it.  Of course I wasn’t afraid.  There are no such things as aliens.  I just had an urgent desire to walk a bit faster, that was all. Al and Alfie were waiting for me at the end of the field.  They'd had the same thoughts – Mel Gibson swinging away with a baseball bat. 

By the time we saw the lights of the village I was on the verge of getting tired of walking through heaps of stinking dried grass, wondering whether I should have eaten all those crabsticks and beans and sure that this walk had been much shorter than the previous one (not complaining).  Al and Alfie investigated the desserts at the final stop, but left the slices of fruit tart alone in the end.  I think they’d been hoping for a nice ice cream or chocolate mousse.  It was getting on for midnight and I made hot chocolate when we got home just for a bit of sweetness to end the day.

We were tired and clammy, but very glad to have gone.  Andy Murray won his match and I had the chance to watch Federer make mince meat of the poor chap a couple of days later.

Many, many thanks to all the folk who organised the food and the fun.  No doubt the English giants will be back for more next summer.

fromage et vin - delicious


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Review: The Undertaker's Son

Cathy Ryan reviews The Undertaker's Son.  Set in France, this is the story of Martha Burton, who is ready to start a new life.  The people she meets have their own hopes and dreams, some not so admirable...  The people she doesn't get to know will nevertheless have a profound influence on her, none more so than Claude Cousteau, the undertaker's son...

Author's note: This review is of the original edition of The Undertaker's Son. The current edition has been substantially revised and edited with a new ending.

Cathy Ryan reviews The Undertaker's Son

Monday, 15 June 2015

Review: 'Morgrim's Wood' by Carrie Ann Lahain

Imagine the worst thing that could happen to you then tell yourself that you have to `move on'. Clichés can be cruelly euphemistic. Morgrim's Wood is the place Pamela German chooses to escape to so that her home can be transformed in her absence. Only then, can she come to terms with her grief. But in the family cabin in the woods, she is reminded of childhood memories that hint at clues she has missed until now. Clues that will lead her back to her daughter, Kate. Mysterious? It is. Packed with original and likeable characters, an evil that must be defeated, and centred around a personal story of courage and enlightenment, 'Morgrim's Wood' kept me (happily) prisoner for a couple of days. I love the magical kingdom, the time shifts, the battles. It reeks of imagination. No glaring errors here, either. I like an author I can read with confidence. More please.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I should mention first of all that I bought Station Eleven after reading a review on one of my favourite blogs:

It starts obliquely.  Nothing much happening apart from a middle-aged actor going through multiple mid-life crises and messing up his lines, before collapsing on stage.  Who would have guessed that it would turn out to be an end-of-the-world story? 

I would have said that I didn’t like post-apocalyptic as a genre.  But there is something more to Station Eleven than the gruesome demise of the human race, and I was delighted that Mandel didn’t go in for vicarious deathly detail.  Instead, she follows the survival of diverse groups of people who have made it through the epidemic and created various kinds of communities.  Some are more appealing than others.  All are leftfield and (in my opinion) perhaps a little esoteric. 

What really drew me in were Mandel’s observations.  A world without electricity, juxtaposed with the desire to flick a switch, just to bring back the memory of what it felt like to flood a room with light.  An obsession with travel and telecommunications -  in the new world there are children who have grown up not knowing about the miracle of the Internet, who gasp at the implausibility of rockets to the moon. 

And, there is ‘Station Eleven’ – Dr. Eleven and his psychedelic comic book story of a spaceship drifting in a parallel universe, its inspirational close-ups and bubble language building from the past and influencing the future in the most unpredictable of ways.  Its slogan and epitaph ‘survival is insufficient’ (borrowed from an episode of Startreck).

Like any good story, there are characters you care about.  Their hopes and aspirations cruelly shattered by the epidemic.  Mandel creates a retrospective poignancy with remembered lives set against a bleak future.  Many questions are raised about what it is that should be kept from the past and shared with the children growing up in the future.  The intimation that there will be a future is deeply consoling.

One of the most interesting reads so far this year.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Review: 'The Black Hours' by Alison Williams

I must say that I was gripped by this book.  There are parts that are so suspenseful that I had to sneak off and hide so that I could finish a chapter in peace!  The character of Matthew Hopkins is remarkably drawn and I note at the end of the book that Alison Williams did a great deal of research into the subject of witch hunting in 17th century England before writing this book.  Hopkins is both evil and almost childlike in his actions.  He never fails to justify his beliefs with logic that, to him, is water-tight.  His victims are helpless in the face of his practised undermining of their defence, and we are made to feel the intensity of their suffering and the terrors that await them.  The settings are beautifully drawn, the characters absorbing, and the story all the more devastating for being based on fact.  If you like great writing with archetypal heroes and villains portrayed with skill and sensitivity, this book is for you.  More, please!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

My French Life this week

Sunday 31st May

A downpour at nine this morning hindered my energetic leap into the garden for my regular jogging experience.  I like to run round the garden when I can.  I don’t like to wear lycra in public.  Why do I like to run?  It gives me something to tell my doctor when he asks whether I do any exercise and it helps me sort out my muddled mind.  Oh, and I can listen to music I enjoy without my two teenage sons’ unwanted comments.  

This week has been extra muddled because, apart from running a (shockingly unsuccessful) promotion on one of my books, which I fear has a misleading title and an inappropriate cover, not to mention a mere three (glowing) reviews, I have a teenage son who is revising for his Baccalaureate, another who isn’t (torture, torture), and a husband who has to fix the digibox connection that was broken as a result of the removal of bindweed from the satellite dish and cables.  It was my fault.  I apologised. Click on this link if you like reading about the difference between signal strength and signal quality: What?  I did, and it has led me round in several circles, all of them leaving me none the wiser.

Other highlights this week have included three visits to the Mairie to sort out planning applications for my sister’s house in the next village; catching a lizard who was hiding between my younger son’s mattress and bed base (remembering at the last minute that lizards can’t fly and taking it downstairs into the garden), and, finally, beginning to watch Game of Thrones with my husband, after the boys have gone to bed.  Oh, la la!  Episode five (and maybe six) of series one tonight.  Cushions plumped and corkscrew handy.  Who needs a digibox!

Which one can fly?  Answer: neither.

Happy Days!