The Red Hill by David Penny

the red hill david pennyMy prelaunch tension means I have been struggling to read fiction lately but The Red Hill turned out to be just the immersive experience I needed.

It is the first in a planned ten-part series which covers the decade leading up to the fall of Granada to Isabel and Fernando (or Isabella and Ferdinand) in 1492. Thomas Berrington is an Englishman with a complex backstory, some of which is revealed in this book. He is an accomplished surgeon, equally in demand on the battlefield and at court. When the Sultan asks him to investigate a series of murders, he would rather continue with his surgical work, but how do you refuse a man who can have you decapitated on a whim? He enlists his friend Jorge, a eunuch from the harem.

The Red Hill gives you a vivid sense of the culture of Moorish Andalucia. It takes in everything from medicine to religion to the intrigues of the harem. There is great chemistry between the serious and thoughtful Thomas and the handsome, playful Jorge, and there are a number of colourful minor characters. I have spent some time in Granada and it was particularly enjoyable to revisit familiar locations through their eyes and to imagine the Alhambra as it would have been at that time.

You get a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of the Moorish world. But always in the background is the threat from Spain, reports of battles on an ever-shifting border. Our knowledge that this is a world which will soon end, knowledge which of course the protagonists don’t have (though some see the possibility) gives the book an added poignancy.

The Red Hill ends pleasingly as it both wraps up the plot and sends Thomas’ life in a new direction, setting things up for the rest of the series. Occasionally I felt that Berrington’s thoughts were over-explained, or the dialogue a bit wordy, especially as the tension was building towards the end. However this is a small price to pay for such an enjoyable and engaging story. When I finished this book I immediately bought the next two in the series, which says it all.

View The Red Hill on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with David Penny on the Self Publishing Journeys podcast.

Who cares for the widows and orphans? and other thoughts on self-publishing a paperback

Dan_Leno_Dressed_for_the_ParkI have a confession to make. I don’t much care about physical books (cue mass unfollowing). I don’t love the smell of new paper or the cracking of the spine. I like ebooks because they’re instantly available and portable and because I’ve reached the age where I look at a book’s font size before I read the blurb. I have one bookcase and when it’s full I scoop up a handful of the dust-gatherers and take them to the charity shop.

However, I have realised that, as in most areas of life, I am out of step with public opinion. People still love the book as artefact. Readers of literary fiction, in particular, like them to have and to hold, to cherish and even to read. For many, the sensation of holding the book, the cover image, the way you can see it in your mind’s eye and link it to the context in which you read it, all form part of the reading experience.

So, I accepted the inevitable and decided to publish my new novel, The Former Chief Executive, in paperback. And because my life is not stressful enough already, I decided to do a paperback of my last novel, Not the End, at the same time.

Of course I dramatically underestimated the work involved. I’ve formatted my own ebooks, so how complicated could it be to do a paperback? This brings us onto the vexed question of widows and orphans. I’d vaguely heard the term but hadn’t thought too much about what it meant till now. For those who are still in that blissful state of ignorance, briefly orphans are first lines of a paragraph at the end of a page, and widows the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page. (In all the years I’ve been reading books I’ve never stopped to notice these, although I was dimly aware that you don’t see hyphens splitting words over two lines like you used to.)

There is much debate about whether you should even bother to address widows and orphans. Some argue that the remedial steps taken (minutely condensing or expanding the text of the offending paragraph until you can force it into shape) could be just as unsightly. Others say that familiarity with ebooks means that people are used to a more fluid attitude to page layout.

Others argue that the effort of making these changes is unnecessary, because most readers won’t notice. However there will always be one person who will write a scathing review if you get it wrong (this is how I learnt that back matter should start on a right-hand page, thankfully before I committed mine to the left).

Once you decide to take action, you then find there are different standards about what must be changed (even the revered Chicago Manual of Style now says that orphans are acceptable, though widows are not). In the end I followed the advice of this excellent article by Christine Michaels. Widows were dispatched without mercy, while orphans were allowed to plead their case.

tfce and nte covers reducedIt made me wonder how many other traditions are being eroded by changing technology. Many ebook authors (myself included) don’t bother with an ISBN, although the official advice of the Alliance of Independent Authors is that you should have one for each format of your book. And the distinctions between editions and reprints and revised editions are breaking down. With an ebook, or even a print-on-demand paperback, you can easily pop in and change the cover or make a few amendments to the text whereas with a traditionally published book you’re stuck with it till the next print run.

One thing I love about being an independent author is that I’m always learning something new. Even if you don’t do the work yourself (I’ve finally seen the wisdom of getting professionally designed covers) you still need to know enough to ask the right questions (I can now throw around terms like ‘spine width’ and ‘bleed’ and ‘gutter’ with at least a semblance of knowing what I’m talking about).

Now I have my books. I must admit that there is something nice about holding them in your hands. And if I’m ever on TV, I will be able to stand in front of my bookcase looking earnest, with my novels strategically arranged to be in full view. And that is surely the best use for a physical book (just kidding).

The Former Chief Executive is published on 8 June in paperback and Kindle and is available for pre-order. Not the End is on sale now.

*** After I’d finished my books (of course), I learnt that Reedsy has a free formatting tool. I haven’t used it, so can’t vouch for it, but will certainly be taking a look before I publish my next book.***

Tumanbay by John Dryden

The wonderful audio drama Tumanbay has returned for another series to BBC Radio 4. Here is my review of Series 1, which first appeared on my What Big Ears blog. You can listen to both series on BBC iPlayer or on iTunes.

If you want to know more about the real Mamluks, BBC Radio 4’s In our Time has a great episode on them (also on iTunes).

I haven’t got to Series 2 of Tumanbay yet but I’m looking forward to a binge-listen soon!

 

What Big Ears

tumanbayBBC Radio 4
Series – 10 episodes

In the Mamluk sultanate of Tumanbay, there is a sense of impending danger. The fearsome armies of Queen Maya are on the march, and her spies are believed to be everywhere in the walled city. There is constant suspicion in the city and the court.

Tumanbay is a society built by former slaves. The wise among them know their lives are contingent, that all they’ve achieved can be taken away. Their struggle is relentless, even – especially – if they are at the top. Nothing is as it seems and power is constantly shifting between competing factions. Torture and shame await those who fail.

This is wonderful drama, full of twists and moral ambiguity. There is a large cast, but the characters are vivid and distinctive so you soon know where you are, if not who to believe. There is Gregor, played by Rufus…

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the heart goes last margaret atwoodYou know how in novels we generally get to follow the heroic ones? And by extension to imagine ourselves in that position, being heroic? Atwood turns that on its head in this satire. Charmaine just wants everything to be clean and nice. Stan wants things to work out, for once. They want life to be simple. Like most of us.

At the beginning of the novel they’re living out of their car, having lost their jobs and their home after yet another financial crisis. Life is bleak and frightening, but they are offered a chance of escape. A prison has long been seen as the saviour of a deprived community, bringing with it secure and well-paid jobs. Consilience is an innovation. If prisons needs communities and communities need prisons, why not have a place where people are both? One month inmate, the next citizen. The only catch, they have to sign up for life, and once in, there is no way out.

In Consilience, Stan and Charmaine get to live every other month in a pastel, idealised, 1950s kind of a world, drenched in the positive thinking of modern corporate life (‘Shout out for the Brussels Sprouts team!’). Stan and Charmaine are safe and well fed and happy to play by the rules. And yet –

This book is bright and fast and funny but behind the humour it’s bursting with ideas. And that title. What a great title.

View The Heart Goes Last on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

the woman upstairs by claire messudIt’s not unusual to develop a crush on an entire family. It’s one of the rites of passage of adolescence, to fall not just for a person but the people who love them, the home that embraces them, their shared rituals and beliefs. You glimpse the promise of another way to live.

However, Nora, the protagonist in The Woman Upstairs, is not an adolescent. She is a professional woman in her forties, eaten up with bitterness and disappointment over the way her life has turned out. She wanted to be an artist, instead she’s a teacher, living alone. When she is befriended by Sirena, a professional artist, she sees everything that she is not. Sirena is a charismatic outsider. She also has a successful husband and an intelligent, attractive child.

Nora is an intriguingly untrustworthy narrator. She tells us she hasn’t led the life she wants. She has been nice and compliant, as a woman should be – but she doesn’t sound nice at all. She never had the chances she deserved – but then she describes opportunities that she turned down. She says she’s a good teacher because she has the open worldview of a child, yet her art is rigidly controlled.

Even as we see Sirena and her family through Nora’s eyes, we get a sense that their lives are not as idyllic as she suggests. Sirena faces her own challenges, as a woman and as an artist.

At the beginning of the book, Nora describes her life as like a hall of mirrors. Behind every mirror is another mirror. There is no end. The narration, like the hall of mirrors, constantly turns back on itself and challenges the reader’s perceptions.

From Nora’s personal relationships to her art to her memories, everything about her both illuminates and undermines the central question of how she came to be where she is now. Even at the end of the novel, when Nora appears to reach a resolution, you’re not sure whether to believe her.

View The Woman Upstairs on Goodreads

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin translated by Megan McDowell

Fever Dream by Samanta SchweblinTwo people are in a hospital. Amanda is feverish and believes she is near death. David is a boy who is not her son. David is pushing her to recount the events that led up to her illness.

She tells a story of her family and his. It begins as an innocent holiday friendship but has a sinister undertone. David’s mother tells Amanda that her son fell ill before they met, apparently due to exposure to something in the environment. She is convinced that she lost his soul when his body recovered, that this was a bargain she made with a healer.

The tension builds as the story unfolds in a long, breathless narrative (it’s a short novel, but conversely one very long chapter). As she tells the story, David pushes her to remember certain incidents, while dismissing others which she wants to pursue.

I read on, intrigued at first, then a little impatient, but anticipating that there would be clues and allusions to the meaning of the narrative. Is the story chronological? What is hallucinated and what real? Where is David’s mother and Amanda’s daughter?

Then I got to the end and it just sort of – well, ended. And I’m deflated. Am I being dense? Did I miss something? I didn’t expect a neat resolution tied with a bow, but I thought that there would be insights and inferences, ideas which would resonate and send me back through the key scenes to interpret them anew. Now I’m not sure what the themes of the book are, apart from ‘pesticides are bad’ and ‘parenting is scary’.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. Fever Dream is innovative in its form and beautifully written (and translated) but I feel like I wanted something more.

I received a copy of Fever Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Fever Dream on Goodreads

Want to know more? Read this interview with Samanta Schweblin on Lithub

 

Shaheed! by Will Miller

Shaheed! by Will MillerShaheed! is a fresh and original story set around a South London estate and the young people who live there.

It begins with Jahangir. He is a fourteen-year-old returning from Pakistan, where he has been living with his uncle. They have been trying to track down Jahangir’s brother, who was kidnapped by the Taliban, and in his time there, Jahangir has learnt a lot about weapons and conflict.

Lorelei is Jahangir’s sister’s friend. She is the daughter of a Croatian single mother with a troubled past. Lorelei’s mother is beautiful and enigmatic and frightened of the man Lorelei used to think was her father. When her mother suddenly wants to take her to Dubrovnik, Lorelei doesn’t know why, or whether she wants to go.

Jahangir and Lorelei’s stories become interwoven. The novel takes in gangs, sexual violence, drugs, religion, the terrorist threat and the response of the state. It’s a heady mix. There are odd occasions where it feels a little weighed down with exposition, or where the pacing could be picked up, but on the whole it has great energy and the characters are rounded and engaging.

There’s a nice balance here between realism and adventure, drama and insight. Jahangir, Lorelei and a number of their classmates have experienced trauma that many adults cannot imagine. This has marked them, but they also behave like normal teenagers, texting, teasing, flirting. The way the humour and the darkness coincide is sensitively done by the author.

I recently picked up a popular thriller and there was a young male character who was involved with drugs and gangs in London. He felt unconvincing, like something the author had seen on TV, a scan of a photocopy of a fading Polaroid. By contrast, Shaheed! feels authentic and vital. Even though I’m not the target audience, I learnt a lot and was gripped to the end.

I received a copy of this book from the author via a Librarything member giveaway.
View Shaheed on Goodreads