Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Stroppy & Crabbit, Tomatoes and Tight Briefs

Once a year in February, the SAS gathers in a secret location to exchange tips on how to storm bastions, rescue colleagues and generally improve chances of world domination. The location is so secret that, although this year it was held near Peterborough, it was referred to in code as "Coventry."

Don't let that deceive you into thinking that meant no-one could be talked to. On the contrary, There were people there like "Stroppy Author" and "Crabbit old bat", so code-named after their blogs, who were much talked to and about; I even saw them talking to each other. It was obviously top secret stuff, since I heard the word "agent" said a few times. There's also a rumour that the Crabbit one has been awarded some sort of medal for outstanding service and grace under fire.

Stroppy & Crabbit sound like lawyers but don't be deceived; still, you'd always want them on your side. (There was a lawyer there - one who knew something about pirates).

I'm not allowed to show you the one photo I managed to take between sessions, meals and quaffing. But I can show you a picture of me with my camera, which sort of proves I was there, wherever there was.

Photo by Keren David
I also have a cup of coffee, which is one reason I have taken off my balaclava and am looking so happy. But in the interests of fairness, I've told you that Keren David was there too, because she took the photo. (Clearly that's a pseudonym).

There was also a veteran from the SAS's very beginning - a founder member - who talked darkly of murder notebooks and dead time. And the Scribble Central Citizen, who had been taming beasts in America and feeding beastly pirates to the Crow, or something.

There was pirate connection to another operative, known as Swords and Sandals, because of his gladiatorial fitness and physique.  And others too numerous to mention.

It's no good having a secret location, secret agents and code names without a secret weapon; I can now reveal what it was - an item worthy of Q:

I'm not going to tell you what it does. But be afraid, be very afraid: it ticks! What I can tell you is that since the weekend it has become the weapon of choice for SAS members. I have received many enthusiastic, even evangelical reports on its efficacy.

There were murmurings about "Lakeland" which were obviously designed to confuse the enemy; it's an operational pseudonym for a whole heap of tactics.

There was also considerable mention of "Tickle" which must be another such code word.

One of the Balaclava brigade was clearly on a recruiting mission - let's call her the WP operative. There was mention of large sums of money available to those willing to adopt "tight briefs." Now, that sounded rather uncomfortable to me but several members seemed interested.

By the time balaclavas had been re-donned, plans were already being hatched for next year's conference.  Operatives CJ and PL will be in charge. I can't wait.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Feminism and the Shrew

Yesterday afternoon, I saw a most enjoyable production of The Taming of the Shrew at the main house in Stratford. Here is the amazing Lisa Dillon as Katherine, leaving Cranford's Mary Smith far behind her as she drinks, smokes and even urinates on stage! (Really? or was it a different kind of bladder, a prop).

But I can almost hear a sharp intake of breath from the Sisters, not to mention my daughters. How COULD you enjoy a play about the subjugation through deprivation and humiliation of a strong-minded woman?

I ask myself the same question.

Firstly, this is a fine, energetic production that defies carping. As well as Dillon, there is an actor I didn't know - David Caves - as a sexy, muscular, charismatic Petruchio, striding round the aptly-named thrust stage as a convincing Alpha male.

(It was a tad disconcerting that he and his servant Grumio - not to be confused with Bianca's suitor Gremio - were both Irish, especially since Petruchio mentions frequently that he is from Verona. A little known colony in the 1940s in Italy, where this production is set? Ah well, what the hell? They're both Catholic countries, aren't they, as the programme points out?)

Secondly, this is Shakespeare and it never does to underrate him. The play raises many questions and sets up an interesting scenario. An intelligent, opinionated woman is constantly unfavourably compared to her bland, simpering, younger sister by her father and others. She becomes not just wayward but wild with frustration and spite. Into this mix is thrown a man unlike all the others in Padua, someone completely unfazed by Kate's tricks.

She would certainly be intrigued and she is. His treatment of her - not the "rough wooing" but the with-holding of food and sleep, the insistence that she agree with him even when he says black is white - or in this case the sun is the moon - is all part of a game which she comes to understand and outwit him at.

Where it all falls down is that, having convinced him of her submissiveness, she should poison his pasta or slip a stiletto between his ribs, but by then she has discovered she is sexually attracted to him. Hmn, is this battered wife syndrome? No, it's a comedy. They all end in marriage and Caterina and Petruchio are as subject to the life force as any Shavian characters. When you look at the best Padua and Pisa have to offer - Gremio, Lucentio, Hortensio - drips, fops, old men, Petruchio at least begins to look like an interesting husband, especially once you've twigged what he was doing in his "courtship" and behaviour as a groom.

Of course it helps to convince when he looks like David Caves!

But Shakespeare never does this again (any more than he again uses confusing names like Gremio and Grumio in the same play). It was possibly his first or at any rate his second. And he is retelling, as he would so often later, from a given source; he didn't invent the plot. That goes back to Ariosto and beyond.

And yet ... as with the going one step further in making Shylock convert to Christianity, he gives Kate that wonderful, terrible speech at the end of the play.

No, after all I can't be comfortable with The Taming of the Shrew. But you won't see a finer production of it and it is worth it as a curiosity. Though I see the Globe is doing it this year too.

The stage at the RSC appears as a vast double-bed - Emperor-size you might say - which accommodates Christopher Sly in the framing device and various bedfellows. There's an article about Elizabethan beds in the programme and Director Lucy Bailey took the cast to see Shakespeare's bed in Stratford.

That underlines the point about the play's insistence on sex and the life force, as does the hilarious vignettes seen through opening doors and windows, like a saucy Advent calendar, of Bianca and Lucentio getting it on.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A visit from Rhianna Pendragon

Book Maven is hosting a very special guest today. Katherine Roberts never ceases to surprise me and she has done it again today! She looks like everyone's idea of a fantasy author - long loose hair, long floaty skirts and dresses, interesting hats and jewellery - but believe me, this writer has a core of steel.

She thinks nothing of writing 150,000 of a novel before getting a commission and is one of the most disciplined and determined writers I know. She also wrote I am the Great Horse, one of my all time favourite YA novels, so when I heard Katherine was venturing into Arthurian territory, I knew readers were in for a treat.

Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur is probably my desert island book; I have several editions and have read it many times, since discovering it at university. My Medieval tutor once set me an essay title: 'Malory, the least intelligent author ever to become an English classic.' That was Cambridge in the 60s for you - utter codswallop. (I don't think I used that phrase in my essay).

Sword of Light is out this week and I was naturally very happy to join in Katherine's (and Rhianna's) blog tour. But I didn't expect she'd plunge back into one of my books to make her points.

Read and enjoy!

Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award for her first children’s novel “Song Quest” (reissued this month by Catnip Books). She is the author of the Seven Fabulous Wonders series (now available as ebooks for Kindle), and the Alexander the Great novel “I am the Great Horse”.

With apologies to Malory… Sword of Light by Katherine Roberts

When the lovely Book Maven heard I was writing a series about King Arthur’s daughter, she kindly sent me one of her own Arthurian books – the beautifully illustrated “Women of Camelot”, which faithfully retells the stories of Arthur’s women from Sir Thomas Malory’s “Morte D’Arthur”.

Since my heroine Rhianna Pendragon is not mentioned in these stories, I thought it might be fun to send her through the mists on her enchanted horse to Malory’s Camelot, and see what the ladies of legend make of her.
Rhianna Pendragon
Igraine (Arthur’s mother)

Oh, a darling little granddaughter! I’m so pleased Guinevere has finally given my son a baby… to think we all believed her childless, when all the time her little girl was hidden away in Avalon with Lord Avallach and his wild fairies. I don’t care if she’s a girl rather than a boy as everyone hoped. She’ll make someone a lovely queen one day.

Guinevere (Arthur’s wife)

I didn’t have much choice. Merlin took my baby away when she was only a few days old, to keep her safe. He said if I didn’t let him take her through the mists to Avalon, that witch Morgan would kill her… better if she had. Now I can hardly recognise the child! She’s grown up wild. Worse, she’s got a fairy boy sniffing around – Elphin of the violet eyes – a totally unsuitable suitor for a princess of Camelot. We are going to have to have a serious mother-and-daughter chat very soon. I think there are going to be tears…

Morgan (le Fay)

Your own tears, probably, foolish woman! Thought you and Merlin could hide Arthur’s daughter from me, did you? I can see through the mists between worlds, so I knew all along where she was… I just couldn’t touch her, until Mordred killed Arthur and we lured her out of Avalon. Now she’s here in the land of men, and no fancy Avalonian armour or magic sword will keep her safe from ME! The throne of Camelot belongs to Prince Mordred. All other threats to the succession must be removed.

Nimue (Lady of the Lake)

I must say it was a surprise when she turned up at my lake on her fairy horse, demanding I give her Excalibur. I’d expected a boy. I wasn’t going to give her the sword at first, but then she swam down into my underwater cave to take it off me! Not even Arthur dared do that. So I thought, why not give the girl a chance? I doubt she’ll complete her quest to bring Arthur back from the dead, since she hasn’t discovered the answers to all my riddles yet. The one about the Grail always gets them. But she’s certainly brave.

Lyonet (the Savage Damsel)

A girl after my own heart! I’ll train her to use that sword if Arthur’s knights don’t. More girls should learn to fight and stand up for themselves in this world. Then maybe evil men would stop imprisoning us in towers, and we wouldn’t have to be rescued all the time. Go, Rhianna Pendragon!

Morgause (Morgan’s sister, Mordred’s mother)

Huh! I’m going to be Queen Mother at Camelot soon if things go to plan, and the girl claims she’s never even heard of me! I was the one who slept with my silly half brother to sire that ungrateful little bastard Mordred so my sisters and I could sit him on the throne after Arthur’s death… yet apparently in her world, Morgan’s claimed all the credit, and Elaine and I don’t even exist! What did I do wrong?

Rhianna Pendragon (King Arthur’s daughter)

I’ve enjoyed meeting you all, but I’m afraid I can’t stop for dinner. I might have got the Sword of Light back from Nimue, but I’ve still got to find the Lance of Truth, the Crown of Dreams, and the Grail of Stars… and deal with my cousin Mordred, of course. Keep the throne warm for me. See you soon.

The Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur’s daughter is published by Templar with the first book SWORD OF LIGHT now available in hardcover

Katherine’s website is at www.katherineroberts.co.uk and you can follow Rhianna Pendragon on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PendragonGirl


Thursday, 2 February 2012

Vultures of Venice and other Coincidences by Michelle Lovric

Photo by Marianne Taylor
Michelle Lovric is my guest today as part of her blog tour for Talina in the Tower, her third children's book for Orion. And I'm very honoured because today is actually her publication day!

Michelle Lovric is a very versatile writer of novels for adults and children. She has particular interests in art, the history of medicine and Venice, where she lives part of the time and where all her novels are at least partially set. Her most recent novel for adults, The Book of Human Skin, featured on the 2011 TV Book Club. Talina in the Tower is her third novel for children, and she’s currently at work on her fourth, The Fate-in-the-Box. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art.  For more information, see her website: www.michellelovric.com

Over to Michelle:

This is what I saw on the Palazzo Grassi, the day I handed in the manuscript of Talina in the Tower, a novel that features a greedy vulture called Restaurant, who lives in his ‘stake house’ on a remote island in the Venetian lagoon. The stakes are what he uses to impale his victims, so that he may dine on them at leisure.

The vulture on the Palazzo Grassi, real as it looks, is not a live projection of my deadline-damaged imagination. It is, in fact, ‘art’, created by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, leaders of the contemporary Chinese art scene, who create sculptures and installations using a variety of unconventional materials such as cadavers, human fat tissues and waste material. According to the Palazzo Grassi website, ‘a perennial obsession with death in their work is blended with a macabre comic appeal’. About the vulture, the site explains, ‘This menacing animal humorously embodies the cruelty of the modern world: we become the carrion-eater’s potential prey – an unpleasant position, as vultures typically devour the wounded, the sick, or the remains of animals killed and eaten by other predators.’

Yes, I thought, looking at the vulture, my Restaurant is all that – thank you! The vulture is not the only coincidence to befall me in writing Talina in the Tower. The villains in the book are strange wolf-like creatures who seem to be French, seem to be magical and seem to have mysterious rights over the city of Venice. I coined the name Ravageurs for them because they ravage everything they come across and feel themselves entitled. Checking the name on the internet, I found that it was the name given to a small French parasite that preys on vines. That seemed entirely suitable. But more recently I discovered on the internet a perfume called Musc Ravageur, by Editions Parfums Frederic Malle. Poste-haste went I to Liberty’s to smell its tangy, vivid aroma, redolent of amber, lavender, bergamot, clove, cinnamon, Gaiac wood, cedar, sandalwood, tonka and musk. (My Ravageurs smell of raw rotten meat, unfortunately.)

Katie Puckrik, an eloquent perfume reviewer on YouTube explains how Musc Ravageur is legendary as a ‘man-catcher’ and ‘bird-snatcher’: it makes men come on all wolfish but has women feeling 'Hello Kitty'. From my own sniffs, I agree with her that it has a ‘soft warm monkey business vibe’ infused with a ‘delicious animalic muskiness’. Nevertheless, at £90 a bottle, it was a bit expensive as a writer’s self-gift. So I contented myself with a deep sniff and a little tranche of impregnated cardboard for the Talina research file.

The coincidences keep coming, and some are retrospective. Some recent discoveries have conferred historical veracity on aspects of a story I happily invented in The Undrowned Child. In that novel, the blind warrior Enrico Dandolo comes to life again in 1899 to help save Venice from my villain, Bajamonte Tiepolo. Now I have found out, researching something completely different, that there was indeed an old and deep hatred between the Dandolo and the Tiepolo families in Venice. Of course Dandolo would have wanted to kill Bajamonte. Another newly-discovered fact … it was Enrico Dandolo who sent Saint Lucy’s body back to Venice, having captured it in Constantinople. In The Undrowned Child, Dandolo goes to San Geremia to make sure her body has been revived for the apocalyptic final battle. Yet I had no idea of the very personal connection between warrior and saint when I wrote that scene.

The strangest coincidences always bind me to the incomparable Wellcome Collection. I am working on my fourth children’s book at the moment. It has a deadline as terrifying as anything I could invent. The Fate-in-the-Box is historical fantasy, and so mostly being manufactured in my head, though always set in Venice, of course.

Anyway, in a Venetian text, last year, I came across some information about seahorses and good luck in Venice: the Venetians used to carry little glass ones as talismans. Then, to my delight, I discovered that Venice’s newly reopened Natural History Museum features a lovely tank with live seahorses from the lagoon. So the glass seahorses as talismans were already in The Fate-in-the-Box, from the very first scene, as it happens. But I had never seen one of the old talismans in any of the Venetian museums, and didn’t really think I had much hope of doing so, given how fragile they are.

So imagine my pleasure when I entered the ‘Miracles and Charms’ exhibition at the Wellcome, and galloped straight to a collection of amulets and talismans made by early twentieth-century folklorist, Edward Lovett. One metre into the exhibition, I saw that Lovett had been in Venice, hunting amulets. Discovering the story of the Venetian seahorse good-luck charms, he had commissioned some glass reproductions to be made for his collection. And there they were at the Wellcome in London, among four hundred of Lovett’s amulets, choreographed (the only word to express the grace of her work) by the artist Felicity Powell: ‘my’ glass seahorses dancing in a wave of coins, rabbit feet, carved shells and even a gondola ferro.

Bizarre but in a nice way. Like so much to do with writing children’s fiction.

Miracles & Charms at the Wellcome ends on February 26th. Don’t miss it.

Venice’s Natural History Museum website

Musc Ravageur fragrance review

Michelle Lovric’s website

Talina in the Tower, is published on February 2nd 2012 by Orion Children’s Books
We have three copies to give away to the first three people to answer this question:

‘Why does none of Michelle Lovric’s characters use a bicycle?’

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Tomorrow is Candlemas

February 2nd, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and three good things happening for Book Maven! She and her friends all have books coming out - what is it about publishers and February second? Maybe the Presentation of Books in the Market has a sort of Biblical ring to it?

Book Maven wrote last week about the mass market paperback of David (Bloomsbury) but there is also Celia Rees's This is not Forgiveness (also Bloomsbury). Celia will be guesting on the blog next month.

We could have only one guest on February 2nd and it's Michelle Lovric, talking about her new novel Talina in the Tower (Orion). There's also a competition to win a copy. Don't miss it!

And Happy Candlemas!