Monday, 16 December 2013


Every year Anne and I make one or two trips to Otmoor, in the hope of seeing starlings.

 Usually we're disappointed.

Sometimes we're too late, and have to trudge back to the car park by torchlight.
Sometimes it's too wet.

Once we walked out to the hides in ice and snow, and were rewarded by seeing millions of birds fly straight into the reeds and stubbornly refuse to entertain the watchers at all. 'Too cold,' said one of the more experienced observers. 'They won't waste energy displaying in this weather.'

But last week was perfect.

It was mild and clear with no wind. And they came.

Just a few at first, rising like smoke from the distant trees. 

As they approached, smaller flocks pursued larger ones until they met, merged and coalesced into bigger clouds of birds.

They wheeled and spun above the reed beds, their wings making a sound like waves on the sea shore.

Then as if at some signal they funnelled down into the reeds, chattering and rustling as they settled.

A satisfying afternoon.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Quaker underpants

The latest Book Group choice was mine: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. It’s had mixed reviews, always a good sign for a reading group, as it means there’ll probably be plenty to discuss and a stimulating range of opinions.

 The reviews pages showed an amusing spread of people who thought it included too much quilting/not enough quilting; too much about contemporary politics/not enough about the workings of the Underground Railroad of the 1850s; and convincingly/unconvincingly portrayed the convictions of a nineteenth-century Quaker.

 The aspect which irritated me most was mentioned by only one reviewer, which suggests that it’s an editorial nerd thing: the use of ‘thee’.

Quakers used what George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, called ‘plain speech’. Before about 1650 the formal ‘you’ (like ‘vous’ in French) was used towards one’s betters, and ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ was the familiar form. It was already dying out when the Quakers began to address everyone as ‘thou’. They did this to reflect their belief that everyone was equal in the sight of God, and it was regarded as dangerously subversive if not downright anarchic.

Of course Honor Bright, an English Quaker, and the Friends she meets in America would all have used plain speech. But Chevalier has all the characters using it ungrammatically – nothing but ‘thee’, even as the subject of a verb: ‘Thee hadn’t’ instead of ‘Thou hadn’t’.

This took me off onto a fascinating exploration of Quaker usage. Selma Sheldon, an American born as late as 1942, says she remembers Quakers ‘theeing and thouing’. Apparently some Quakers in the New York area did start to use ‘thee’ for all cases (nominative as well as accusative), but only fairly recently, and only locally as a sort of dialect. Certainly at this period and among the English Quakers it wouldn’t have been used wrongly.

Which brings us to underpants.

At the same time as The Last Runaway I happened to be reading Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: a writer’s and editor’s guide to keeping historical fiction free of common anachronisms, errors and myths. Susanne Alleyn deals with a wide range of issues, from Roman soldiers riding with stirrups (not widely used in Europe until the Dark Ages) to women wearing underpants any time before the middle of the nineteenth century. She’s particularly strong on the exact design of the guillotine in revolutionary France.

To my delight, Alleyn devotes some space to the grammatical use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, for the edification of historical novelists.

Of course, Chevalier may have been (and probably was) fully aware of standard American Quaker usage, and the difference from English Quaker usage, and decided it was a refinement too far. There’s a limit to how much historical accuracy you can include without totally confusing or alienating your readers.

Which is a whole new discussion: how much historical accuracy can readers bear?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

When the bookshelves are full...

What do you do? Operate a policy of ‘one in, one out’? Have a massive cull and take a rucksack-full to the charity shop? Buy a Kindle (so as to add surreptitiously to the store of available books)?

I’ve done all of the above.

But the roofer comes next week to replace the roof-tiles on our house, so I thought I’d better check out the loft. And among the Christmas decorations, old drama props, files of Things that Must be Kept for the Tax Man (self-employed people must keep seven years' worth of financial records), old sails and boat bits, I found several boxes of books.


The answer is that The Professor and I have a fundamental incompatibility. He can’t throw out books, and I can.

A book I think I’ll want  to read again obviously has to stay on the shelves. Reference books stay on the shelves. A book I’m pretty sure I won’t bother to read again goes to the charity shop. But what good is a book that lives in a box in the loft?

He thinks that one day he’ll want to look at it, and there it will be. I think it’s doubtful that he remembers what’s up there, and it would be too much trouble to get up there and find it even if he did.

But as those books are ones he’s bought, I don’t feel I can make an executive decision and just dispose of them.

And of course, there are still boxes of the children’s books discarded by our offspring, but which they asked us to store …

There’s something wrong somewhere. Do you have books in your loft?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Blog tour: Marissa de Luna

Marissa's novel, The Bittersweet Vine, has just been published by Thames River Press.

What inspired you to write The Bittersweet Vine?
After finishing my first novel, Goa Traffic, I was keen to start writing a second. One day, bored and looking for inspiration, whilst sitting at my desk, I thought to myself, What if I was abducted and woke in my bed with not so much as a hair out of place?  The thought got my creative juices going and the idea for The Bittersweet Vine grew from there. The book also examines the complexities of relationships between sisters, and having a sister myself, I knew I could explore this to its full potential!

How did you come up with the title?
Bittersweet Vine is a plant which is said to represent truth. The main character finds this plant growing around a house shrouded in deceit. The plant, and what it represents, reflects the main theme of the novel. Bitter-sweet is also good way to describe several of the relationships Maria, the protagonist, has in the novel.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I want readers to take away what they will from The Bittersweet Vine – even if it’s just a book to escape from reality for a couple of hours. I would like to think that the book prompts readers to reflect on their own sibling relationships as well as making them wonder whom they would trust in their darkest hour.

What books have influenced your life most?
I have always been an avid reader and I am sure reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as a youngster ignited my desire to write books loaded with suspense.
The first adult fiction novel I remember reading was Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. It had me hooked. I loved the description and plot line and I dreamed of seeing the world in such vivid detail as the author did. It also cemented my love for reading.
When reading The Brontes by Juliet Barker I was fascinated by the determination and ambition the sisters had. This has had quite an influence on me and I find myself today a pretty determined person. 
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is a book that I read more recently. This book made me want to pick up a pen and write. It portrays the wealth divide in India with such realism and wit that I found myself desperately unhappy when I finished the book. I wanted more and I wanted to create books like Adiga did.  

If you had to choose a mentor, who would it be?
Can I pick more than one?
I am currently writing another thriller, Poison in the Water, and I would love to be mentored by Sophie Hannah for this genre. I am sure she could give me some great ideas and more importantly critique my work!
I am also writing a light-hearted detective series set in rural Goa, and Alexander McCall Smith would be a perfect mentor for this. His No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series has really been an inspiration.

Are there any new authors who have grasped your interest?
I recently purchased Rachel Abbot’s best selling novel, Only The Innocent, on my Kindle. It was a thriller I just couldn’t put down. I will definitely be buying more of her books. I also enjoyed reading Saffina Desforge’s Sugar and Spice. The e-publishing revolution has been great for giving new authors a chance to get their work out there.

What are your current projects?
I am currently writing the first draft of Poison in the Water. It’s a novel set between the glamour of London, sleepy Thailand and the bright lights of Hong Kong. The main character, Celeste Renshaw, is living her dream but she knows that the higher you climb, the farther you have to fall. When Celeste stumbles on a dark secret her estranged husband has been keeping, she realizes too late that she is trapped and there is only one way out.
I am also working on a lighthearted detective series entitled The Chupplejeep Mysteries, set in rural Goa. The book follows the lives of the villagers and the somewhat bizarre cases Detective Chupplejeep and his assistant Pankaj have to solve.
My friend, Urmi Kenia, and I are also working on a collection of short stories to accompany beautiful photographs which have been taken around India. It will be an e-book published on Kindle later this year, called Indian Diaries.

The Bittersweet Vine (ISBN: 978-0-85728-094-7, Thames River Press and e-book)  is available now at Amazon or other on-line stores and in selected bookshops.  For more information see 
Find Marissa de Luna on Facebook 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Antisocial media

Life's been a little hectic this year, so I haven't been blogging much. And I've felt guilty about it. My own publishers (and many others) have always insisted that one should have a presence on social media.

You're supposed to advertise your skills, your books (even if you're only the ghost writer) and your availability for work.

You're supposed to keep in touch with your colleagues, friends and family (though surely talking to them would be better....)

(Photo courtesy of
So it was guilt trip time.

Then suddenly, on separate blogs, a different wisdom began to appear.

First, Stroppy Author explained that when Stuff Happens, and you're merely peering over the parapet, something has to give. She gives her own list of priorities, and very sensible they are, too.

Then the wonderful Nicola Morgan asked 'Have you got a life or have you lost it to social media?' Her very first point is: 'Put your writing first, life second and social media third. And if the social media thing ends up becoming your life and your writing, be afraid.'

How reassuring.

I will go and do some writing.