Monday, 28 January 2013

The Death of Henry VIII and something to mark it.

Today, January 28th, marks the anniversary of the death of our most unforgettable monarch. Henry VIII, love him or loathe him, changed England and the way we live forever. In life he was a king to be feared, a ruler never to be crossed, a man not to be questioned.  But, in 1547,  the inexorable hand of Death, changed all that. King Henry became mortal and his mind and actions, from that day to this, has been open to interpretation. Strip away the sumptuous trappings of kingship and we are left with a psyche that even today, evades conclusive analysis.

My next novel, The Kiss of the Concubine, opens at Henry's deathbed and to commemorate his passing I am treating you to a snippet.


The Kiss of the Concubine


January 28th 1547

It is almost midnight and January has Whitehall Palace clenched in its wintery fist. The gardens are rimed with frost, the casements glazed with ice. Like a shadow, I wait alone by the window in the silver-blue moonlight, my eye fixed on the bed. The room is crowded, yet nobody speaks. 

I tread softly among them.  The flickering torch-light illuminates a sheen of anticipation on their faces, the rank odour of their uncertainty rising in a suffocating fug. Few can remember the time that went before, and both friend and foe balance upon the cusp of change and tremble at the terror of the unknown. 

I move through heavily perfumed air, brush aside jewelled velvet sleeves. At the high-canopied bed I sink to my knees and observe his face for a long moment. He is changed. This is not the man I used to know. 

They have propped him on pillows, the vast belly mountainous beneath the counterpane. The yellow skin of mortality’s mask is drawn tightly across his cheeks. There is not much time and before death can wipe his memory clean, I speak suddenly into his ear, a whisper meant only for him. 
“Henry!”
The king’s eyes fly open and his eyeballs swivel from side to side, his disintegrating ego peering as if through the slits in a mummer’s mask. He knows me, and understands why I have come.

His whimper is that of a child left alone in the dark. Anthony Denny steps forward and leans over the bed. ‘Your Majesty, Archbishop Cranmer has been summoned; he cannot be long now.’
Henry’s fat fingers tremble as he grips the coverlet, his pale lips coated with spittle as he tries to speak. I move closer, my face almost touching his, and the last rancid dregs of his breath engulf me. “They think that you fear death, Henry. But it is me you fear me more, isn’t it, my lord?”
“Anne?”

The sound is unintelligible, both a denial and a greeting but it tells me what I need to know. He recognises and fears my presence. Those assembled begin to mutter that the king is raving, talking with shadows.

I sink into the mattress beside him and curl my body around his bulk and run my fingers across the coverlet. “How many times did we share this bed, Henry?” His breathing is laboured now and sweat drips from his brow, the stench of his fear exceeded only by that of his festering thigh. I tighten my grip upon him. 
“Did you ever love me, Henry? Oh, I know that you lusted but that isn’t the same. Do you remember how you burned for me?”
I reach out to trace my fingertip along his cheek and he leaps in fright, like a great fish floundering on a line, caught in a net of his own devising. One brave attendant steps forward to mop the King’s brow and pull up the covers as I continue to tease.
“Poor Henry. Are you afraid even now of what you did? To win me you broke from Rome, although in your heart you never wanted to. Even the destruction of a thousand years of worship was a small price to pay to have me in your bed, wasn’t it?”

Henry sucks in air and forgets to breathe again. A physician hurries forward, pushes the attendant aside and with great daring, lifts the king’s right eyelid. Henry jerks his head away and the doctor snatches back his hand as if it has been scalded. 

Even now they are fearful of him. Although the king can no longer so much as raise his head from his pillow, they still cower. How long will it take for them to forget their fear?

Deeply apologetic, the physician bows and backs away to take his place with the others. As they watch and wait a little longer the sound of mumbled prayer increases. “Not long now, Henry.” I whisper like a lover. “It is almost over.”

A door opens and Archbishop Cranmer enters, stamping his feet to dislodge the snow from his boots. He hands his outer clothes to a servant before pushing through the crowd to approach the bed, his bible tucked beneath his arm. 

Playfully, I poke the end of Henry’s nose. “Time to confess your sins, my husband.” Cranmer takes the king’s hand, his long slim fingers contrasting with the short swollen digits of his monarch. As he begins to mutter the last rites I put my mouth close to Henry’s ear to taunt him.  “Tell the truth, Hal. Own up to all the lies you told of me; how you murdered and how you cheated. Go on…”

But King Henry has lost the power of speech, and cannot make a full confession. Gasping for one more breath he clings tightly to Cranmer’s hand and I know there is not long to wait before he is mine again. A single tear trickles from the corner of his eye to be lost upon his pillow.

“It’s time, Henry.” I whisper. “And I am here, waiting. For a few short years I was your Heaven upon Earth and now, perhaps I can be so again. Unless, of course, I should choose to become your Hell.”

***

The Kiss of the Concubine is a work in progress and, all being well, should be available by the beginning of 2014. In the meantime you might like my other books.

The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII:



Peaceweaver: 















Friday, 18 January 2013

Those I have Loved in 2012


The view from where I write
I don't remember a time when books weren't important to me. I grew up surrounded by them, they are the pivot of my life, the one constant unchanging thing. I have passed that love on to my children. I read What Katy Did when I was seven and, when it was finished, I put it down and picked up another. I have been doing that ever since. My library is vast, and still growing. I talk about books, dream about books, write books. Therefore I have taken Amazon's veto on authors reviewing the books of other authors quite hard. 

Every day I see the reviews I have written of other people's books being removed, and the reviews of authors who have reviewed mine are also disappearing. Well, we all know that Amazon are not to be questioned but I have no desire to stop reviewing. As an author I know that reader feedback is the most rewarding thing about writing. When a reader bothers to email me to say, 'I loved your book,' it makes my day.
I don't want to turn my blog into a review site, I like to keep it varied and interesting but I thought since 2013 is just beginning, there is still time to sum up my reading of 2012.

I have lost count of the number of books I read last year and the following selection is just a few of the very best, the ones I think should not be  missed. They are not all newly published, some have been around for years but I have only just got around to discovering them.

The books I am discussing here are the ones that touched me personally, books that I was sorry to finish, books I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about, books that resounded in my mind long after I had turned the last page, book I will want to read again. I thought I would share them with you. And, rest assured, my reviews contain no 'spoilers.'


VIII -  H. M. Castor

When I picked this book up it was listed as ‘young adult’ and I almost passed it by but, by the time I was two or three pages in I was hooked. Ms Castor presents an insightful, unique (first person/present tense) view of Henry VIII. In fact it is more like a Henry ‘experience’ than reading a story. I 'became' Henry in this book, and witnessed his growth (or perhaps decline would be a better word) from a frightened little boy into a disappointed man on a downward spiral into mania. Ms Castor emphasised Henry's irrationality and, as his fevered paranoia and fear increased, so did the pace of the writing. I loved how, in the last chapters, he dipped in and out of reality in a thoroughly convincing depiction of the shifting perceptions of the clinically insane. The author has penetrated Henry’s psyche, looking at events from his point of view from early childhood to death.
An excellent read and highly recommended.




Of Honest Fame -  M. M. Bennetts

I downloaded this while it was on free promotion and consequently lost the next two days while I wallowed in the Georgian world created by M. M. Bennetts. The author’s vast knowledge of the era never becomes a history lesson. Instead the authorial skill allows you to share the harrowing events with the characters. This book will rob you of sleep until you know the outcome. I suspect that many foolishly pass the little gem by because the treasure within is a little let down by the cover – My advice is Don’t Miss This!

May 1812 - M. M. Bennetts

Just like Of Honest Fame, this one is easy to over-look. M. M. Bennetts is not an in-your-face author, she does not constantly pester you with 'read my book' on-line marketing. It is of equal stature and quality to the above and once more cost me a few days during which I should have been working. If there was any justice in the world M. M. Bennetts would be topping the best sellers list. Both May 1812 and Of Honest Fame are a snip to download at under £2 and only a fool will pass them by. Superb; triumphant; marvellous.

The Last Summer - Judith Kinghorn

A wonderfully written, beautiful war time love story. I was totally absorbed by this book from page one and I didn't want to do anything else but revel in Judith Kinghorn's wonderful turn of phrase, her powerful description and her honesty. Ms Kinghorn has illustrated this transitional period perfectly and the forbidden relationship between Tom and Clarissa is depicted with all the pathos you could wish for. It is sometimes harsh, sometimes wonderful, and always totally credible. If you crave escape then this is it. Perfect holiday companion. Beautifully done.

The Bones of Avalon - Phil Rickman

I’d not read any Phil Rickman books so the supernatural element took me a little by surprise. The thing that prompted me to buy it was the era (1560’s) and the main protagonist, Elizabeth I’s astronomer, Dr Dee. It was refreshing to step outside strict historical fiction and enter a more mystical place and I loved it. The days that I discover a new author are always the best sort.
It was delightfully refreshing to find Robert Dudley illustrated, not as a broad shouldered, devil-may-care, wife-killing braggart, but as an ordinary man, torn, confused, afflicted with sickness and, throughout it all, a stalwart friend to Dr Dee and loyal to his queen.
I am not a believer in the supernatural but Mr Rickman had me doubting my own sound good sense. An undercurrent of human evil runs through this book, illustrating mankind's capacity to destroy that which they don't understand as an evil far stronger than the supernatural. Although the author never infers that supernatural power truly exists, The Bones of Avalon is unsettling; it has you looking over your shoulder. It is a book to read with the doors and windows locked.


Star Gazing - Linda Gillard

Marianne Fraser has been blind since birth, was widowed young and is now facing a lonely future. Mariane is emotionally isolated. She lives with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist although she longs for more independence. When Marianne meets Keir, she is delighted to have found someone unembarrassed by her condition. As the relationship develops he encourages her to experience new things. But when he invites her to visit to his home on Skye so that he can show her the stars Louisa is uneasy for her sister, believing it might be a step too far.

I recommend all Ms Gillard's novels but Star Gazing is my favourite. If you like well-rounded believable characters, vivid panoramic settings, deep insight into the human psyche and the sort of love affair that gives us all hope, then you will love this.
It is not often that I find a novel that totally satisfies me, there is usually some nit picking to be done, but this one, I have to say is quite ...perfect.


Emotional Geology - Linda Gillard

Haunted by her troubled past, Rose Leonard seeks refuge on a Hebridean Island where she can work and think, untroubled by the stresses and strains of the modern world. She finds however that no matter how far you run you cannot escape life. The healing does not start until she discovers friendship with a local man, a poet who also bears life's scars, and helps him to heal too.

Emotional Geology is a romance for grown-ups. It encompasses not just love, but the landscape we move in, the complexities of human emotion and the essence of art. Linda Gillard's ability to penetrate the human psyche is faultless and that understanding makes it impossible for readers not to share the trauma's of her characters. You will not just read this book, you will experience it.


The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber

Don’t read this book if you are offended by disagreeable truths. It contains explicit, unpleasant sexual content and is not for the faint hearted. It is a stark view of Victorian London– a stark-naked view that is very different to the image that Victorian London wished to project. The author rips away the pretty drapes and shows us, not just the legs of the table but the filth that lies hidden beneath.
The narrator takes the reader by the hand and leads you through dark alleyways to the places where only the destitute or the criminal live. Here you become so involved in the lives of the people you meet that you will be implicit in the crimes witnessed.
This is not a pretty story of simpering Victorian girls who lift their petticoats for a penny; it is an honest, unflinching, often brutal perspective of the darker side of human nature. As others have said before me, Faber takes his reader to the places that Dickens and Wilkie Collins could only hint at.
Every character is superbly drawn, warts and all, twisted, tortured, selfish and very, uncomfortably human. You will meet rich punters and the poorest of working girls and they are so convincing that you might think you have met them somewhere before.

Sugar is not a stereotypical 'tart with a heart', she is an enigma, from her curious skin condition to her traumatised mind. One minute you will think she loves William, the next that she despises him and this keeps the reader hanging, on the edge of his seat, wondering what jaw dropping surprise she will reveal next.
Is she a champion of women or an anti-heroine? As a prostitute she is an object for the use of all men but she only really loses control of her own destiny when she ties herself to just one man – William Rackham; then her choices are taken out of her hands.
Sugar takes all her frustration and contempt for men and pours it into a hastily scrawled novel that is so overflowing with hatred, disgust and perversion that she knows she can never allow the world to see it, for they wouldn’t care to look.
Whether you want to or not, when reading this novel you will require all your senses. You will smell the shit, feel the cold; taste the hunger, hear the weeping of the destitute and scream with them, frustrated by the ignorance.
You will share the degradation that women like Sugar were subjected to and try as you might you will not be able to comprehend why so many prostitutes clung to their way of life. It is not possible for us to understand why they considered work in the factories to be so much worse. The choice was between a fast, gay life of sin and an early grave, or a life of drudgery and hunger that would end just as prematurely. For some women, things are not so different today.
Victorian London tried to conceal its darker nature beneath a fa├žade of respectability just as Agnes Rackham’s delicate beauty conceals a voracious tumour that is eating away at her brain. Sugar’s sexual allure conceals a deep, twisting loathing for the male species and everyone else is hiding something, pretending to be what they are not. Just as the broad leafy streets of the rich are a veneer on the crumbling tenements of the poor, so do the human residents of nineteenth century Notting Hill project a decent Christian face as they button their expensive waistcoats very tightly over soiled undergarments.

It is not exaggerating to say that Mr Faber takes all this ugliness and wraps it in the most beautiful prose I have ever read, and I have read many books. This novel is one to keep. It rests easily among the greatest novels of all time and will, without doubt, come to be a classic. The Crimson Petal and the White is not just a story, it is something real and that is why it makes such uncomfortable reading.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Foolishly I was swayed by the mixed reviews of this book and the high price for a Kindle download. Consequently I have only recently picked it up. Despite winning the Man Booker Prize in 2009 some readers have complained about her grammar, structure, others have found it boring and ponderous. Yes, Mantel’s punctuation is traditional and her writing style unique but what some people see as ‘rubbish’, to me smacks of genius. It is not a quick fix Dan Brown style book that so many readers seem to demand these days, it is a feast to be savoured. Her knowledge and intelligence stand out a mile and it was soon clear to me that I was in the hands of a master. I am about half way through the journey and so far I am loving every moment. I would say Wolf Hall promises to be ‘Simply Superb.’

Judith Arnopp is the author of Peaceweaver, The Forest Dwellers, The Song of Heledd, The Winchester Goose and Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens - all available in paperback or on Amazon Kindle.


Friday, 11 January 2013

Author Judith Barrow talks about the inspiration behind her latest novel



Hi Judith, thank you so much for agreeing to appear on my blog. It is lovely to have you. Could you tell us something about your writing and where your inspiration comes from.



I’ve been a compulsive reader for as long as I can remember. As a child, every Saturday morning I went to the local village library with my mother and carried home a stack of books that didn’t always last the week. My father didn’t believe in the television or radio, so reading was always my greatest pleasure. Books were both my passion and an escape. 

As I grew older they also became an inspiration for the writing I did in secret. I hadn’t the confidence to show anyone what I was doing; the short stories, plays and poems stayed firmly hidden. And, later again, like many women, work, getting married and bringing up a family was a priority for a lot of years. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in my forties, had gained a BA degree and a Masters in Creative Writing.

My first book, Pattern of Shadows, and the sequel, Changing Patterns, which is due out in May 2013, could be described as sagas, the life stories of my characters. But, because they’re written during WW2 and in the fifties I think of them as Historical fiction as well. And there again there’s also touches of romance and crime … so, in the end I leave it to the reader to decide.

My latest book, Silent Trauma, is even more awkward to categorize; it’s fictional but based on fact. It’s a story of four women affected in different ways by a drug, Stilboestrol, an artificial oestrogen prescribed to women between the decades of the nineteen forties and seventies, ostensibly to prevent miscarriages. Not only was it ultimately proved to be ineffectual it also caused drastic and tragic damage to the daughters of the women. I learned about the charity (DES Action) some years ago through a relative and became involved. I wrote an article for the annual newsletter and mothers and daughters affected by the drug began to contact me.

The characters are a disparate group; their stories are run both in parallel and together and have been described by readers as ‘strong’ and ‘speaking with a true voice’.
Both Pattern of Shadows, and next year Changing Patterns, are published by Honno, brilliant independent publishers. But I chose to self-publish Silent Trauma initially as an eBook, mainly because, after years of research, I was impatient for the story to be told. Luckily, I was given permission to reprint an interview from the Independent on Sunday with two DES Daughters as the Foreword (which lends both veracity and authenticity to the book) and I’ve been given quotes from many women affected by the drug to use at the beginning of each chapter. But, ultimately the story is fictitious and has been described as 'a good read' and 'sad, fascinating and poignant'.
 
Research is extremely important to me; I need to know the physical world I’m going to let my characters live in. I need to know their homes and their surroundings. For my first two novels I actually traced over a street map of the town I wanted to use, adding a few places and renaming the roads and various places.

Most important of all I need to make sure of the setting in time is correct; that the period my characters exist in is true, real in every way to that decade.  And that each character reflects that in their uniqueness and in the way they deal with the conflict and tension in their lives.

I know what I want my characters to look like but I need to sort out their personalities first. I don’t think you can be a good writer without empathy for your characters. They can’t be one-dimensional; good or bad. I suppose, initially, they’re a mixture of people I’ve known but mostly they become rounded by their place in the book.  Once I have a clear picture in my head of my character’s personality I can feel free to tell the story. But it rarely finishes up as the one I have in the beginning; the characters lead the way in that; I can sense how they react to the events in the plot, how they feel, what they say, invariably means I change the direction of the story.

I’m an extremely slow writer. Even before I sit in front of my computer I carry and explore characters, ideas, a story in my head. If I know when and where events take place I will research that. And because I let myself be easily distracted by past characters and the history of places I inevitably emerge realising hours have passed and I haven’t even started writing.  But on the plus side I know my settings, the details of the background in my books are strong and a fitting place for my characters to live in.

When I don’t have a particular project to work on my imagination is triggered by something I see or hear; an expression of someone I pass; an overheard phrase or sentence.  I lead creative writing classes and often the exercises I set for the students will trigger something for me as well. Or the discussions we have can lead to an idea for a character. 

I also believe our memories are a powerful tool in writing; we have within us a subjective and original collection of past senses to draw upon; to transpose and merge, to form our experiences into our own words in order to evoke images and pictures for our readers. Mainly though I have to admit my imagination can run riot through some problem, an internal conflict I’m struggling with. Then I can conjure up wonderful dialogue for characters to use somewhere. 

I usually write very early in the morning before the day begins, but if I’m on a roll I can carry on all day, firmly ignoring all the domestic trivia, the housework, which is shouting at me from the other side of my study door. I’ve also been known to write all through the night.

Reading was my all-consuming passion in my childhood but now it also runs alongside my obsession to write. I’ve earned to give my creative self some time without feeling there are other more important things to get on with.

It is certainly important to make time for the rest of our lives but it isn't always as easy as it sounds. Thank you so much for talking to us, Judith. I do hope you will come back and talk about Changing Patterns when it is released. Good luck with the sales.




More information about Judith and her books can be found on her website: www.judithbarrow.com