Friday, 31 August 2012

Locked out!

We went for a walk over the Bank Holiday weekend. Picked up the keys, slammed out of the house and halfway down the drive realised we'd picked up the wrong set of keys. Duh. Fortunately we'd left the windows open and hadn't engaged the security alarm. We usually do both, but luck was with us this time. Hopefully we knocked at a neighbours door. Did he have a set of ladders long enough to reach an upstairs window? Amid much laughter, he did, and climbed in through our bedroom window, came down the stairs and opened the door for us, grinning.

For those who are interested in the current trends in reviewing, here's another link:
This one has lots of spin-off links and makes an interesting read.

As for me, I'm away up the hill to visit the Bank Manager this morning, so I can't dilly-dally here for much longer. We've been out walking every day this week so far, and it certainly pays off in alertness, though I can't say it helps with sleeping. I still do most of it after 1am. The radiators warmed up this morning for the first time since May, which means we had a very cold night, and certainly there's been frost on car windscreens. Summer's over, folks. Autumn is here, so look out for falling leaves clogging the drains and Virginia creeper leaves turning a gorgeous dark red. Ours hasn't, as yet, but it will, it will. All the rain this summerhas turned our garden into a crazy jungle in which I've been hacking and tearing all this week. Untold bags of vegetation have gone to the household waste recycling plant (otherwise known as The Tip) and there's loads more to do. And yes,before you ask, interspersed with all this activity, I've edited a good many chapters of my book about Matho.

The pic? Durham Cathedral from the south yard. We were there on Tuesday, and it was a gorgeous day - for an hour, and then it all went to hell in a handcart...

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Death knell part 2

Elvet Bridge at Durham
My Monday post on reviews was not some kind of feeble attempt to make reviewers feel bad or guilty for speaking their minds. It wasn't even intended as a form of censorship, or intimidation against those who refuse to gush and hand out four- and five-star reviews when what they have read is trash, or close to it. 

Far from it: my intention was to alert people to two things:1) Amazon weights things in curious ways, and 2) reviews, particularly on Amazon, have more clout than most people suspect. In effect, poor reviews do become a form of censorship, even if that was not the intention. The poor review sends the book down the lists, where eventually it goes so far down it is lost among the millions.

Though some may not believe this, I was brought up to say nothing if I couldn’t say anything nice, so if I read something I don’t like, I just let it go. I don’t feel the need to tell the world when I read something bad. A week later I can’t remember it, (if I ever finished it) and I shrug and say, oh well - there may be a lot of people out there who actually enjoy that sort of thing. I do write the occasional review, and I try to do it honestly, without using fulsome praise unless it is deserved. I've come to realise that even respected publishers have been guilty of using authors in their stable to recommend other authors who write for them. To me, and for reasons I'm sure are obvious, that is valueless as a recommendation.
Bestsellers become bestsellers because lots of people liked them, and say so in reviews. Word of a good book travels like wildfire. There will always be divergent opinions, which are fine in a book group or private conversation. Telling your friends you didn't like book x is fine, a personal view, something we all love. But putting those negative views online to be read by thousands, has consequences, especially if done in a hurried, skimpy way.

The big name authors can stand a few knocks in the shape of a poor review, and often get it from newspaper reviewers (and their peers these days) but authors without a publisher behind them, struggling to write after a working day, with few resources to fall back on – then it seems to me like hitting out at someone who can’t hit back. Some may argue that if putting up a good review is acceptable, then it's only fair that the negative ones should go up too.
Once, when I was only a reader, I would have agreed with that statement. Now I remember the people who raid the Amazon Free lists, pick everything and then publically slate the titles that don’t suit them. Gortner, who wrote the initial piece that sparked my thoughts on this, has, I assume, suffered from trolls, or knows people who have. R J Bennett is another and his blog is amusing ~

There is a difference between a bad review which claims I didn’t like this because it annoyed me/it didn’t excite me/and I hate thrillers anyway….

...and a review that offers constructive criticism about where the book went wrong (assuming it did!), backs it up with examples without giving away the entire plot, and does it from an objective standpoint, not forgetting to mention where the author succeeded.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The three star death knell

Chichester Cathedral

It's difficult, isn't? Here in the UK we're not given to praising something we consider good but unexceptional. We reserve our praise for the truly great, exceptional things that occur only occasionally. I had experience of this difference way back in the eighties when I went to Maine as a Summer Camp Counsellor and was astonished to hear a US counsellor praising a child to the skies for something sporty that I thought was pretty mediocre. Not that I would have told the child it was mediocre, you understand; but I wouldn’t have praised it, thereby letting it know that there was (lots of!) room for improvement.
We got to talking about it later, and I discovered that the US had a system of praising everything in the belief that all a kid needed was confidence, and given enough it would blossom and turn into a prize sportsperson if not overnight, then very soon. In the UK, I explained, a child would have its shortcomings pointed out and be told where it could improve. Ah, those American Counsellors said, that's hard on the kid. But then, it's hard to know which system works best in the long run - constructive criticism versus praise-no-matter-what. Perhaps it's a case of each to its own culture.
But I’ve discovered there are metaphorical playing fields where both sets of players meet head on, and that's the internet where writers, readers and book reviews are concerned. I read last night that Amazon algorithms give any reviewer the power to support writers - or to send them on the slippery slope to obscurity. Reviews of 4 stars or more are rated as good by Amazon. (Authors think they're good, too.) A three star review slips below Amazon's radar, and will penalise a book in the Amazon rating system; it may very well deter sales and therefore destroy any potential income the author would otherwise have received.
I don't know an author who doesn't read their reviews, nor would I believe them if they claimed never to look at them. I'm not saying a reviewer should lie, far from it; there are books that really don't appeal to certain readers, such a case, perhaps it's better to simply accept that in this case you didn't hit lucky, and not review it. After all, there may be many people out there who did like the book. If you decide you must write a review, tell what you liked about the book and where you think it could be improved, but don't give a mere three stars if you wish to read more from that author!
Almost as an afterthought, I should point out that until 1st September, DARK POOL, my book about Vikings and Christians in eleventh century Dublin, is available on Amazon Kindle at a special low price of £2.30/$3.61 from 26th August for one week. Check it out -

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Cross Stitch 20 years on

our walk yesterday
I first read Cross Stitch twenty-one years ago, or thereabouts, and thought it was original and exciting. Last week I found a new copy in the library and took it home wondering how it would read, given that I'd be looking at it with a slightly different viewpoint since I've started writing my own stories now.
I read it in long snatches and found it entertaining, if a little heavy on the anecdotes about Jamie’s childhood, a tad improbable that Claire could actually kill a wolf with her bare hands, or meet the Loch Ness monster. But then, most readers would agree using a stone circle as a time machine is not a great pointer to a story based on solid facts, and read on with glee, which is what I did.

In general, I thought the book wordy for today’s world, but having said that, the writing is better than most, the storyline is entertaining and there are incidents of great charm as well as menace. I’ve followed Gabaldon’s volumes as they’ve been issued, and the latest and eighth volume is due sometime in 2013 -

Gabaldon has her own unique style, and I shouldn’t think anyone could replicate it, but she has advice to offer that is worth reading. Here’s a snippet from her on how to write sex scenes:
Where most beginning writers screw up (you should pardon the expression) is in thinking that sex scenes are about sex. A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids. That being so, it can encompass any emotion whatever, from rage or desolation to exultation, tenderness, or surprise.”

 Read the rest for yourselves: while I start reading Dragonfly in Amber, the second volume in the Outlander series, and ponder which emotions my current hero and heroine are currently exchanging.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The North-South divide

The Tyne Valley
here's a link to Hazel's blog, in which she talks about the North-South Divide that exists and flourishes in this country.
Hazel lives just down the road from me, belongs to our local writers' group and has just published her second book, which is set in Northumberland. I was amused to see that even as someone not locally born, she notices and probably resents the total lack of knowledge about Northumberland that exists in this country - and probably in the rest of the world. The comments she mentions are ones I've heard frequently over the years. Even the weather forecasters on tv skip over the north of England, or they talk about "the north" and then mention Birmingham or Manchester.

Manchester is somewhat closer to us, but it's still 3 hours driving time, in a car on motorways, to get there. In that amount of time, I can be over the border, beyond Edinburgh, cross the Forth Bridge and drive north to Perth in Scotland. Another three hours will take me to Inverness, and a further hour to Ullapool on the north west coast of Scotland. People down south seem to think we still have nothing but coal mines, slag heaps and steelworks, with maybe the odd shipyard thrown into the mix. I can't deny they existed up until the late fifties and sixties, but they're not there now. Green fields and grazing cattle exist where once the mines flourished. Forget the images you remember from films like 'Get Carter' and tv series such as 'When the boat comes in' or 'Vera' because they simply don't do the place justice.

The Olympics pointed out just how London-centric this country is. Some football matches were played here in Newcastle, and that's it. That's all we saw of the Olympics. When we go south on our annual trip to France, we're always horrified by the traffic volume, which starts to build south of Leeds and is truly horrendous by the time we reach either the M25 or the Southampton-Portsmouth area.So many people everywhere, so many cars rushing in every direction. Coming home, we start to relax once we've left Weatherby behind. I once applied for jobs in Chichester, Portsmouth and Crawley, went for interview and was disappointed when I didn't get the post. Now I thank the good lord that I'm here in the north...

Friday, 17 August 2012

Writing historicals

There's an interesting piece on writing historicals here for those who practice the art and those who enjoy reading them. Hilary Mantel has been speaking at the Edinburgh Writers' Conference recently about her trilogy on the life and death of Thomas Cromwell. She aims to have a turning point in every scene, she says. Lots of turning points. That's a good strategy, but difficult to achieve.

She also thinks it is difficult to give the reader historical information (ie background info) plus foreground information and character information as well.  I can see what she means. Add historical information for background, ie to set the scene in context of what is happening around the character, and critique groups start jumping up and down screaming Info Dump!

I exaggerate, of course, but there is a grain of truth here. The historical information must, it is claimed, be relevant to the character and their actions, and not inserted just because it is interesting in it's own right. But what of the claim that without a background setting, the character is meaningless? If he wanders through the story, swashbuckling left and right, but without reference to the happenings of the time, doesn't the story become a meaningless fantasy?

It's all in the balance, they claim. But my balance may want more historical detail than you do, and the person who lives next door might want no real history at all, but simply wants to skim through the story and wildly excited by the buckle and swash. I'm slowly learning to make more turning points, and to add my background information in an interesting, even lyrical way.
It's just a pity I didn't start all this thirty years earlier.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A summer night

Aproaching Lou Peyrol
Last night we downed a few kirs by candlelight in the garden because it was so warm and we suspected it might be the last opportunity of summer! We'd heard the weather forecast predicted lots of rain for the next few days, so we wanted to make the most of the warm evening.It was fun sitting talking in the dark as the little candles expired one after another... After a late start this morning, I look out of the window and see we have no rain. In fact, we have cloudy sunshine. There's no keeping up with British weather. Or weather forecasters.

After purchasing and reading Nicola Morgan's books on writing a synopsis and how to address an agent, I sent off two submissions yesterday. Even if I say it myself, they looked immaculate, but we'll see how they do out in the big wide world. I rewrote the synopsis and my query letter and think both are much clearer now, and therefore better, so that is down to NM's advice. I sent both submissions snail mail, because I'm not happy with receiving absolutely no response to e-mail submissions.

This week has been a bit of a spending spree for me, and I am noting it here because it is so unusual! I'm not by nature a big spender, but I bought a smart new suitcase and pair of lightweight beach shorts on Monday which will be fine for when we're at the beach house in Australia, and then yesterday, when I saw the turquoise cord jacket in M&S, I very much wanted it. (I'd always wanted one of those denim bomber jackets, but never found one I really liked!)  Pillowcases, one of those big, heavy two inch deep blades chef's use, and a new pair of shoes. All in one day! Phew!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Reluctance 2nd review

Reviews for Reluctance have been thin on the ground, so I thought I'd put this one up in full for your delight.

3.0 out of 5 stars ENGAGING AND MOVING STORY 11 July 2012

By AC - Published on

Amazon Verified Purchase

Something unusual happened to me when reading this book. I was extremely excited by this story, until I stumbled on a drastic and dramatic situation halfway through, and unfortunately I've never been a fan at all of such an occurrence (I will not elaborate more here) and I was quickly finishing the thirty pages in question, with a sinking heart ...! But against all odds, the author succeeded in recapturing my curiosity at a given time, which is a first because once my interest is lost, it is lost!

Set in 1803, Jen Black does a marvelous job at painting a very brilliant picture of the strangely attractive countryside of Northumberland that has a very important place in that story. I never visited that part of England but I definitely felt at home and ready to go there.

She has created a whole string of wonderfully lively characters. The two main protagonists, Frances and Jack, are a joy to observe and listen to as they interact. There's a very exciting tension between them that began from the first moment they met. There is a lot of emotion and drama with a magnificent and infamous villain who will let nothing and no one stand in his way; he's ruthless and he'll use all possible means to reach his nefarious goal.

Life is often unpredictable and these two people who both went through some difficult times and were not destined to be together, find themselves forced to deal with the accidents of life and at one point they'll have to decide what kind of future they want to build for themselves.

I have to admit that I do understand why the author developed her story the way she did, and the fact that I didn't like a little part of it doesn't diminish in any way the quality of this book. Ultimately I don't regret having read it. She was able to catch my attention again and to me it says a lot about her skill. This will not prevent me from reading her other books. In fact, I already have two on my reading pile ... Fair Border Bride and Far After Gold.

Overall I found this novel very engaging, attractive and moving with some clever and thrilling dialogs. I give 3.5/5.

Reluctance is available now from

Friday, 10 August 2012

Dear Agent

One of our walks
I'n blogging again today so I can get back on my normal Monday, Wednesday, Friday routine. I have to confess that not a lot has happened since yesterday, but this morning I went wild and made 4 purchases on Kindle!

I've just finished a book I bought for free - I often wonder if the verb to buy can be used when something is free - anyway, I acquired "Natural Causes" from the Kindle Free list, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author, James Oswald, publishes via Devildog Publications, which seems to be his own electronic publisher. (And that is Food for Thought right there.)

I acquired another of Oswald's free list this morning, and then went on and bought Nicola Morgan's How to Write a Synopsis and Dear Agent. They too are low-priced on Kindle at the moment. I love the way I click on Buy on my PC, switch on my Kindle and in a second or two - La! The story is there on my Kindle. So a big chunk of today will be spent in reading Dear Agent.
I don't know about anyone else, but I find holidays so disruptive to the working process. I've been home seven full days now, and I've very little to show for it. Yes, I'm ashamed of myself. Yes, I will sit in this chair and work all of the weekend until I have a new chapter to show for it.

Thursday, 9 August 2012


I have to say I'm wearying of the Olympics now. Twelve days, thirteen first it was great, but I'm starting to wish for something else to watch of an evening. Yesterday we had guests, and the day before that my new laptop arrived and I spent an afternoon setting it up, so my work rate has been minimal so far this week. A measly 800 words is my total creative effort, and I'm not sure that I want half of those. The scene I wrote is entertaining - but I would think that, wouldn't I? But the scene doesn't have conflict, there's no suspense, no drama and no emotional intensity. I merely had a little fun with my chief female protagonist. Sigh. The scene will probably hit the wastebin very soon.

Yet another deadline for an agent has passed with no response to my submission. No acknowledgement of receipt, no rejection, nothing. Did they ever receive it? Sending submissions by e-mail always leaves me fraught with doubt that it ever gets to the intended agent. I sent a follow-up query on Monday, and so far that has produced no response either. I'm surprised, since the agency always seemed such a well established firm.

The picture? The Mairie in St Laurent des Batons. Almost every French village has one of these, and they're usually very smart and well-kept; a sort of Town Hall and Information Centre.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Retail therapy

St Laurent de Batons
We got back into the swing of things by going shopping this morning. Our excuse, should we need one, is that we wanted a birthday gift for daughter-in-law. It was only after we'd got it that we sort of drifted away into retail madness. M&S in the Gateshead Metrocentre is probably my favourite shop for clothes, and the entire stock seemed to have changed since we went on holiday. I found two blouses and a skirt I liked, and splurged. It's actually the first skirt I've bought in years, because I seem to live life in slacks and jeans. Then it was off to find a new mattrass cover, then off to Lakeland where we bought a potato ricer (dh finds it such a strain to mash potatoes for fish pie!) which satisfied dh's liking for gadgets, and then into Smith's to buy a magazine about laptops.

St Marcel du Perigord
That's where we came unstuck. We bought two things, and each time we were instructed to use the self-service till even though we didn't want to learn how to use it. We like the personal touch, the cheery smile from a sales assistant, and see no pleasure at all in doing it ourselves with some stupid machine. We probably won't patronise W H Smith's ever again until they change their policy.

Then, once we got home, we read the magazine, made a choice between two laptops, checked online and bought a different one. I must have one, without all the entertainment, music and film capability they offer these days. E-mails, internet and Word are what I want for when we go to Australia later this year. My poor old Sony has given faithful service but I've broken it - the hinges shattered one day. The Samsung Notebook I bought dh for Christmas three years ago drove me demented in France because there was so much it couldn't do. The technology has moved on beyond it's capabilities. It couldn't handle loading pics onto my blog very well, which is why you'll see a few more shots of France for the next few days.

Saturday, 4 August 2012


The Mill at St Pierre
In the last couple of days at the mill, the local farmer cut the small but ripe wheat crop only yards from the mill  - not that we noticed him until we went out for a walk to St Pierre and discovered he'd been and gone. He probably displaced a lot of creatures, which we think is the reason why dh suddenly said as we sat on the sofa watching the tv on Tuesday night, 'There's a mouse.'

There was; in fact there were two. They seemed totally unphased by our presence across the hearth rug. Dh put down some blue pellets (poison) and then we sat and watched the little things munch their way through them. Harvest mice are a lovely golden brown, and really cute. They can move like greased lightning, almost too fast to see. Left to myself, I would not have put the stuff down, but dh wouldn't hear of it. 'By the time Jenny and David come down, there'll be a colony of mice, not just two,' he said.

So next morning I made dh go into the living room first to see if there were any dead bodies, but he returned to the bedroom saying all was clear. We closed all the shutters, left all the internal doors open so the air can flow around the house and put all food stuffs out of reach of mice, because they get into the most peculiar places.

Our journey home was uneventful and stress free.
The miles flew by and we arrived in Caen far too early for the overnight ferry back to Portsmouth, so we strolled around enjoying the sunshine. Actually, the ferry port is not Caen, but eight miles away on the coast at Ouistreham - a place that seems to draw tourists to the Normandie beaches Sword and Juno, where the wartime evacuation took place during October 1944.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Last days

me, outside Lou Peyrol
Last days of holidays are always busy and always sad, but there’s also the readiness to go home. That’s how it is for me; I’ve enjoyed my three weeks in France but now I’m starting to miss my garden, my routine of work and being touch with friends.  So, we’ve decided what we want to wear for the journey home, packed the rest into the car, and swept out the mill to leave it clean and tidy for Jenny and David.

Last night we went over to Lou Peyrol again and this time we both had Kir Royales as an aperitif. We never have blackcurrent liqueur with champagne once we're home, but it is lovely to do it now and then, and I think Lou Peyrol is our favourite restaurant. The chef manages to get such intense flavours into the food that each course is a delight, from the amuse bouche and the tomato foam with a miniature savoury tart to the  ravishing desserts. Bill tried the ballotine de canard on my recommendation and groaned in pleasure. As it was our last visit for a year, he decided to treat himself and go for the steak and declared it the best steak he’d ever eaten, while I had the delicious monkfish on a bed of black rice and chorizo.  My chocolate dessert with roasted hazel nuts was the kind of heavy semi-solid mousse that sticks to your teeth, and Bill had a vacherin with strawberries and red fruit coulis…

Specials at Lou Peyrol
In spite of the Kirs and the wine, I drove home this time, hoping all the farmers driving enormous tractors pulling flat beds loaded with hay bales had gone home to bed, because they take up all the road and it's take to the heather time for any car in their path.
On the way we finally saw two deer grazing in the middle of a field. We thought the holiday was going to pass without seeing any at all, but these two saw the car, sped off and leapt the hedge into the forest. Wildlife has been scarce; we haven’t seen Monsieur Renard at all, the squirrel only once, though we caught him on our wildlife camera. Some creature left quite a large turd on the five-bar gate yesterday morning and I couldn’t believe it was the squirrel, though it is on his route across the house roof, down the bolly uprights and along the fence and gate to the walnut tree.

So tomorrow the mill will be quiet again, the grass will grow high and all the creatures will relax because those interfering humans will have gone, gone gone.