In which I suspect I am a bad feminist.

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The longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction came out yesterday, and the feminist literary blogosphere is very excited.  But, as is their wont, the feminist literary blogosphere is also reflective and occasionally cynical.

As columnist Kira Cochrane tweeted this morning:

tweet1To which writer Kate Long replied,

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And this made me a bit concerned, because most of my protagonists have been male.  Three novels I wrote at university had female protagonists – one was Mary Magdalene, and one was a projected version of my future self.  The third, who was one of the heroines of a novel I wrote with my best friend Catherine Martin, was blatantly an idealized version of myself.  She was a compelling character, who developed her own flaws along the way, but there was a certain element of wish fulfilment in there.

Of these three, only one still really resonates with me – Maddy Harrigan, the MI6 agent in the novels I wrote with Catherine – and I’ve written a few stand-alone stories using her, one of which can be read here.

But both A Merry Requiem and the new series I’m working on have male protagonists – the female characters are many and varied, from writers to wives, actresses, mistresses, villains, political activists, nurses, and so on.  But the stories don’t revolve around them. The three times I’ve tried since the Maddy Harrigan stories, I’ve abandoned the book partway through because I’ve found it’s become too hard to separate the female main character from myself – where in the past I could base someone on myself as a starting point and then find her going off in her own direction, in the last ten years I’ve found I just get muddled up and lose my objectivity.

I do think it’s important to have books out there that tell women’s stories, but I seem less able to write them than I used to.  Is this a betrayal of feminism?  Do I have a duty to write novels with women at their centre?

Coming soon …

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A Merry Requiem, Part II: Saint-Antoine will be available from Amazon and Smashwords on April 15th!

Here’s the cover, and a sneak preview …

1819_Portrait_d'un_artiste_wikipedia - CopyThis is Michael Martin Drolling’s 1819 painting “Portrait d’un Artiste” and I have to say I fancy the hell out of whoever his model was.  Come to mama, you well-dressed 19th-century dish!

Ahem.

I’m all right now, I promise.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a sample of what you have to look forward to in Part II!

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“I want to write another play,” Philiipe says.  “I am in a fever and have nothing to show for it – I live and breathe Isabel and politics and forget that my chief usefulness is in creation.  I want to write a play and I want you to appear in it.”  Without thinking, he is calling her tu instead of vous – she notices, and says nothing.

“I would like that above all things,” Jacqueline says softly, and then they are north of the river and winding their way eastwards, in a fantasy where there is no king, no social season, only theatres and ink and somehow the money looks after itself without your thinking about it.

“… Isabel as a heroine is growing blander in my imagination; she is the persecuted innocent, nothing more.  She becomes great through her suffering, and she has some degree of moral complexity, but it is all in the service of undoing the great miscarriage of justice perpetrated against her.  I want now for my hero or heroine to be human, with all the faults and contradictions thereof.  I am not now certain I can make a principle out of steadfastness, when I have been so recently forced to recant my previous opinions – nor can I make a virtue out of victimised morality, when I know so well my own sinfulness – and believe nevertheless that I deserve mercy from God.  How can I elevate human perfection, a hero entirely good, without hypocrisy?  No, this heroine will be sinful, will be fallen, but will be no less the worthy of mercy.”

“Perhaps a woman who has borne a child out of wedlock.  Perhaps abandoned or sacrificed it.”

“Yes – an aristocrat, bound by all the conventions and social expectations of her class.  Fearing beyond anything that her secret will be revealed.”

The streets grow more Medieval as they walk eastwards, narrowed and twisting and with old wooden houses leaning at surreal angles over the streets, blocking out the moon, and there are no streetlights.  Philippe steps in horse manure more than once, swearing, and on one occasion, a drunken woman follows them for three blocks, screaming “Va te faire encule!  Va te faire foutre!!” at the top of her voice, “you cunt!” she shouts, staggering against a doorway, “stop looking at me or I’ll give you a punch!”

“I am glad I did not leave you here alone,” Philippe says.  Jacqueline glances up at him with a quick smile.

“It is you that is in danger,” she tells him, “I may pass unobserved, but a gentleman like yourself is a mark for every pickpocket and cut-throat of the Faubourg.  By heaven, you are fortunate I am here to protect you.”

At the door, she turns to thank him, and finds herself suddenly kissing and being kissed, her hands naturally finding their way to his hips, his shoulders, like they are tracing a route on a map she already knows well – for him, he is struck with a strange unreality; as though he has danced for ages on the edge, forcing against any change, while all around him the world has slung itself into new and unfamiliar shapes.  And now, kissing Jacqueline at three o’clock in the morning in January in Saint-Antoine, he has stopped fighting it.  Stopped pretending that there is any corner of his life that has not changed.  Held his breath and taken a step onto the tilting world.  And he knows that there is no reversal, there is no undoing – the whole world looks different on the other side.

“It is warm inside,” she breathes, and he nods – helpless, almost automatic.  He is not walking in reality, but in a strange dream where the air is thicker and he is not himself, not Philippe Etienne with a wife and child and a house and a career but this shapeless self that has no history and no context.  The shapeless thing follows Jacqueline upstairs, watching her petticoats over her boots as she walks, watching the worn heel on one boot that makes her walk in a lopsided way, the dingy grey eyelet on the petticoat edges.

Inside is shabby but more elegant than he’d expected.  There are three rooms – all small, all cold, all with plaster coming off the walls in places and windows that are covered in grime, but there are curtains on them, and the bed is made, and there is even a painting above the fireplace, though the grate itself is empty.

“Would you like something to drink?” she asks – how ridiculous!  This artifice that there is proper entertaining going on, this way we must all always dance around the true purpose of why we are here, pretending to each other and often to ourselves that when we fall to bed it is an unexpected impulse of the moment, a thoughtless accident that causes us to be strange and stilted the next morning.  I hope it will not be so tomorrow – I hope he will smile.  It is best when they smile.

“No,” he says, but his throat feels dry and he thinks perhaps he should have accepted.

And perhaps after all, he tells himself, it does not matter quite so much now.  Perhaps I have already – in incremental measures, through shared understanding and society, through a longing or lustful thought, through a kiss and a walk home, already so irretrievably betrayed Helene that it matters little what I do now.

              And then the other half of him replies, it does, though.  It matters enormously.  But only to that other Philippe, who is dead.

When he kisses her again, it is different – it is not the thing itself, as it has been before; it is only the beginning of something else.  He breathes her in – the fresh, uncomplicated scent of her bare skin (no rosewater now; she has used the last precious drop of it months ago, and nobody has given her any more), the slightly bitter remainder of wine on her mouth and tongue.  He is not thinking of what they have been, of what he has been, only stretching more and further into this new life, this new self, this unfolding future of what will be.

And is it strange that I desire her so, when she is not the mysterious Feminine, as Helene was on our wedding night, when I am not bound up in symbols and sanctified but only here and present with each particular moment of this particular woman?  When I feel I know her as my own self, ache for her as I ache for myself, want her not for that she is different from myself but for how she is the same?

20 Questions: Sandra Balzo

 

sandra-balzoSandra Balzo is an award-winning author of crime fiction, including nine books in two different mystery series from Severn House–the Wisconsin-based Maggy Thorsen Mysteries and Main Street Murders, set in the High Country of North Carolina and featuring journalist AnnaLise Griggs.  20questionsBalzo’s books have garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, while being recommended to readers of Janet Evanovich, Charlaine Harris, Harlan Coben, Joan Hess and Margaret Maron. A Wisconsin native, Sandy now splits her time between South Florida and North Carolina.

Find Sandy online at www.SandraBalzo.com, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter (@SandraBalzo).

1.       Where do you do your best thinking?

When I’m running and swimming. I go out early in the morning and there’s a lot to be said for being trapped inside your own head with no electronic devices to distract. The downside is trying to remember those great thoughts until I can write them down.

2.       If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

I spent most of my life in Wisconsin, which I loved—except for long months of cold and snow.  I think I have it about right now, climate-wise. Summers in the mountains of North Carolina and the rest of the year in South Florida.

3.       What are you most scared of?

Heights. I’ve tried to make the best of it by giving AnnaLise Griggs, my protagonist in my High Country series, Main Street Murders, the same fear. Both of us are white-knuckled driving the Blue Ridge Parkway.

4.       Which book do you wish you’d written?

Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Mertz). It’s the book that made me want to write. She’s a master of combining “scary” and comforting.

5.       How did you find your first agent?

She sat next to me in the audience of a panel at my first Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention.  That particular woman is no longer my agent, but I met my current wonderful agent at a Bouchercon as well.

6.       What is your “guilty pleasure” reading?

When my mom was still alive, I’d “borrow” her National Enquirers for poolside reading. Shh.

7.       What are you most proud of?

My kids. I never considered myself the Kool-Aid Mom of the neighborhood, so I’m not sure it’s because of me or despite me, but they both turned out to be great human beings.

8.       What is the worst job you’ve ever had?

Working in the dish room of a nursing home when I was 16, scraping the plates before they were loaded into the dishwasher. Yuck. Once I found someone’s teeth on the tray. I had a crush on the boy who loaded the dishwasher, though, so it had its charms.

9.       Which of your characters would you most like to have a pint with in real life, and why?balzo1

Maggy Thorsen, the owner of my fictional coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds. After seven books in the series, I still love writing her because she’s not your typical amateur sleuth. She’s quirky and cynical and funny and…well, I just plain like spending time with her.

10.   Which character of someone else’s would you most like to have a pint with, and why?

John Francis Cuddy, Jeremiah Healy’s private investigator. Jerry and I are engaged, and I think it would be great fun to chat with John Cuddy and maybe get some dirt on his creator.

11.   Who was your first literary crush (author or character) and why?

Jim, who was Honey Wheeler’s adopted brother in the Trixie Belden mystery series. Trixie and I were both secretly in love with him.

12.   Which literary romance/friendship do you most wish you were a part of, and why?

The “family” that comes together to save Sara in Ammie, Come Home. Why is too long to go into here, but I talked about it in my essay for Jim Huang’s great book, Mystery Muses: 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers.

13.   What is the first thing you remember writing, and how old were you?

I wrote a book about a bunch of kids on a cattle drive following Route 66. Since I was about nine at the time, I have no idea if the so-called “book” was more than twenty pages, nor if I knew where “Route 66″ ran other than on CBS Television every Friday night. Which is fitting, since my information on cattle drives came from “Rawhide,” another CBS show.

14.   If people like your writing, what other writers would you recommend to them?

balzo2Hmm, it depends on which of my two series we’re talking about. Librarians and reviewers recommend my Main Street Murders series to readers of Margaret Maron, G.A. McEvett and Joan Hess. The Maggy books are most often compared to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. I see the words “witty” and “quirky” a lot in reviews for both series.

15.   What do you hate most about the writing process?

I procrastinate, so put myself under unnecessary pressure.

16.   What do you love most about the writing process?

It’s like running in that it’s often tough to get started but at a certain point you enter “the zone” and it becomes effortless.  LOVE that zone!

17.   Popcorn: salty or sweet?

Both. Kettle corn made fresh at High Country festivals is the absolute best.

18.   Do your books share your personality?  If they’re different, what’s the difference?

The do share my personality. Poor things.

19.   What do you do when you have writer’s block?

Push on. Mediocre words can be fixed. An empty page can’t be.

20.   What are you working on now?

The eighth book in the Maggy Thorsen Coffeehouse Mysteries, tentatively entitled Murder on the Orient Espresso. Maggy’s love interest, Sheriff Jake Pavlik, is invited to speak at a mystery conference and she goes along for the ride. As you might imagine, things get messy.

Bibliophile’s Gift Guide! (Part III: Science Fiction)

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Today, my dears, we prepare to enter the dark and dangerous world of Science Fiction.  It’s science-y.  And it’s fiction.  Full of parallel universes, allegorical commentaries on modern society, aliens, robots, zombies, ALIEN ROBOT ZOMBIES, questions of the nature of existence and consciousness, and, possibly, some really bad Vogon poetry.  So spacesuit up, make sure you know where your towel is, and get ready for a stellar (see what I did there?) tour through gifts for the Sci-Fi fan in your life!

Douglas Adams Pin

giftguide1Speaking of knowing where your towel is, this handy reminder of Douglas Adams’ one rule for successful space travel (okay, there was “Don’t Panic,” but this one is much more important) will run you £5 from the Literary Gift Company.

Cthulhu Plush Toy

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(Currently sold out, but you can sign up to be notified when it’s back in stock.)

If there’s anything more adorable than an enormous malevolent monster chained beneath the sea, then I don’t know what it is.  Great gift item for kids!  Besides being a fabulous toy, this item is also practical, as it can be used to convince a marauding returning Cthulhu of your devotion.  Though I wouldn’t suggest tickling his belly and going “hoooo’s a fuzzy wuzzy wittle monster?” as part of this campaign.

£7.50 for the smaller version, £14.50 for the larger one, at Forbidden Planet

Robot Tea Infuser

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This apparently simple product soon leads us down an ethical minefield once Asimov’s laws of robotics are applied to it.

The robot is ordered to infuse your tea.  The robot must obey the order, as long as it does not cause a human harm or, through inaction, cause a human to come to harm.

What if it is the robot’s carefully considered position that you would be better off without your caffeine addiction?  The robot wants to SAVE you from yourself.  But the robot realises the subjectivity of its opinion and possibly its own desire not to be repeatedly dumped in boiling liquid, which might be subconsciously influencing its opinion.

Give £4.95 to Imperial Teas and you can contemplate this quandary at your leisure.  Pair it with the skeleton mug from the Mystery Gift Guide for a truly unique – and vaguely post-apocalytic-robot-wars – caffeine-absorption experience.

H.G. Wells Classic Collection

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Includes The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon and The Invisible Man.

Gorgeous binding.  Beautiful craftsmanship.

Now don’t leave it on the bus, you moron.

£14.10 from Waterstones.

There’s also a Volume II.

War of the Worlds Poster

giftguide5If you know someone who is not content for their love of stories that caused mass popular chaos to remain hidden on the shelf, never fear!  Buy them this funky War of the Worlds poster and wait for them to reminisce about a simpler, kinder time, when radio news caused people to riot in the streets rather than run over to Twitter and MSNBC.com to verify its authenticity.

The unframed poster is £13.99 – cost of frames varies.

Steampunk Cufflinks

giftguide6Yes, you read that right.  STEAMPUNK. CUFFLINKS.

It’s like the Victorian era committed incest with itself and this is its unholy lovechild.

Patterns available: dirigible, steam train, flying man, flying machine, vintage car.

£25 from Not on the High Street.

The Physics of Superheroes

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Okay, you know that guy who’s always taking everything way too literally, who gets a kick out of finding every tiny little historical inaccuracy in bio-pics while you’re trying to talk about the story and characters, and who picks apart the science aspect of science fiction until you’re ready to stuff Superman’s sweaty tights down his throat?

Yeah?

Get him this for Christmas.

It will either shut him up or give him enough ammunition that he will become so insufferable you’ll be justified in cutting off all contact with him.  Either way, you win.

£7 from Foyles.

Salt and Pepper Bots

giftguide8THEY WIND UP AND MOVE.

Very useful for encouraging children in develop salt addictions that lead to high blood pressure and heart problems, while training them in such lethargy that moving your hand to pass the salt down the table is seen as a workout.

£12 and your mealtimes will never be bland either in taste or entertainment again.

Science Fiction Writers CD

 

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£10 from the British Library.

A series of interviews with Science Fiction writers.

Pretty picture on the front.

What else do you need to know?

Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not as You Know It

 

giftguide10(See what they did there?)

Here’s the British Library’s summary: How has science fiction has responded to the impact of science, technology and socio-political change? This fascinating book examines this and other questions as it examines the scope and nature of science fiction over the last two thousand years.

From the works of Cyrano de Bergerac to Ray Bradbury and Mary Shelley to J G Ballard this book reveals the full heritage and wonder of science fiction.

For £16.99, this too can be yours.

Go forth, then, my children!  Shop!  Conquer worlds!  With your Sci-Fi themed gift purchases, turn this earth into a  post-consumerist dystopian wasteland, bereft of natural resources, only realising the irony of your error when it is too late!

Many many thanks to the fabulous Catherine Martin for help with the research on this post!

(Next time: Historical Fiction!)

20 Questions: Pauline Rowson

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Crime author Pauline RowsonPauline Rowson is the author of two thrillers and the contemporary series of mystery novels featuring the flawed and rugged DI Andy Horton set in the Solent area on the South Coast of England. Her crime novels have received critical acclaim in both the UK and the USA and have been hailed as the ‘Best of British Crime Fiction’ and ‘exemplary procedurals’. They have an International readership and have been translated into several languages. Before becoming a full time writer she ran her own successful marketing, media and training company. Born and raised in Portsmouth, England, Pauline draws her inspiration for her crime novels from the area in which she lives, which is diverse and never without incident. When she isn’t writing (which isn’t often) she can be found walking the coastal paths on the Isle of Wight and around Portsmouth, Langstone and Chichester Harbours.

For further information visit Pauline Rowson’s Official Website. 

You can also follow Pauline Rowson on Twitter.

Or visit her Marine Mystery Facebook Page

RDeath Lies Beneath

DI Andy Horton (No. 8 in the series)

Severn House

When ex con, Daryl Woodley is found dead on the marshes bordering Langstone Harbour the Intelligence Directorate believe his murder is linked to big time crook Marty Stapleton currently serving time in prison. DI Horton is not so sure. He attends Woodley’s funeral in the hope it will give them a lead in an investigation that has drawn a blank at every turn. It does but not in the way he or anyone expected. A body found on a rotting boat being salvaged in Portsmouth Harbour throws Horton into a complex and frustrating investigation. As the tension mounts to solve the case, Horton receives a chilling message; time, it seems, is also running out for him personally…  
20questions1.       Where do you do your best thinking?

Walking the coastal paths of the Isle of Wight and around Langstone, Chichester and Portsmouth Harbours where my crime novels are set.

2.       If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Where I live now in the Solent area of the UK; it’s vibrant, diverse, and in turn both beautiful and ugly but most of all it’s full of characters and a rich source of ideas for crime novels.

3.       What are you most scared of?

Failure.  But how you determine failure is another matter.

4.       Which book do you wish you’d written?

Still trying to write it.

5.       How did you find your first agent?

I didn’t because I don’t have one.

6.       What is your “guilty pleasure” reading?

Crime novels, although I don’t feel guilty. I particularly love the Golden Age of Crime from Christie to Simenon and many in between.

7.       What are you most proud of?

My marriage.

8.       What is the worst job you’ve ever had?

I’ve loved every job I’ve had, working in a shoe shop, a factory, as an usherette in a cinema, in a benefit officer, as a marketing manager and running my own marketing company before becoming a full time writer.  And I love that to. When I stop loving the job I stop doing it. I’ve met some fascinating people and I’ve heard some great stories, all fodder for crime novels.

9.       Which of your characters would you most like to have a pint with in real life, and why?

Without doubt Andy Horton, my DI. He’s fair, fit, flawed and almost forty. He lives on his yacht and rides a Harley. I’d forgo the pint although a glass of white wine would be nice but I’d settle for a sail on his yacht or a ride on the back of his Harley.

10. Which character of someone elsel’s would you most like to have a pint with in real life, and why?

bogard-marlowe

Any excuse to include a photo of Bogart. (Bogart as Philip Marlowe)

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow for his one liners, intrigue, mystery and moodiness.

11.   Who was your first literary crush (author or character) and why?

I had so many when I was discovering the delights of reading, devouring crime novels by Leslie Charteris featuring Simon Templar – The Saint, and John Creasey, a prolific writer of crime novels featuring The Baron and Gideon, amongst others. He was also the author of Westerns and I went through a phase of reading them too.

12.   Which literary romance/friendship do you most wish you were a part of, and why?

Apart from DI Andy Horton, and I’m part of that relationship anyway, I have no idea, maybe I’m not that romantic.

13.   What is the first thing you remember writing, and how old were you?

I wrote my first novel at the age of eleven, an adventure story in the style of Enid Blyton, but before that I was always writing stories and plays, the latter of which I’d stage with my friends and brothers in the garage at our family home.

14.   If people like your writing, what other writers would you recommend to them?

My writing has been compared by others to that of John Harvey, Peter Robinson, Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh. I’d also say that the DI Horton crime novels are like those of R. D. Wingfield’s DI Frost series.

15.   What do you hate most about the writing process?

Copy-edits and proofs

16.   What do you love most about the writing process?

All of it, the research, the plotting, the crafting of the first draft and the revisions

17.   Popcorn: salty or sweet?

Never touched the stuff.

18.   Do your books share your personality?  If they’re different, what’s the difference?

I write from the male point of view so my heroes don’t share my gender (although there are strong female characters in them).

My crime novels contain quite a lot of dialogue and have been described as a ‘punch in the ribs’ rather than bogged down with long descriptive passages.  They contain action, are fast paced with a touch of wry humour, so maybe they do reflect my personality!

19.   What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I knit. Knitting is great for stimulating the creative juices.  It’s something to do with hand and brain co-ordination and not only does it help when thinking through plots and characters but you also get a very nice cardigan at the end of it.

20.   What are you working on now?

The tenth novel in the DI Andy Horton series. Number nine in the series, Undercurrent is being published by Severn House in the UK in January 2013 and in the USA in May 2013.

Bibliophile Gift Guide! (Part II: Mystery)

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For the second edition of our gift guide, we bring you trinkets, tokens and trifles for the mystery lover.  Decorum prevents us from mentioning that therapy might be an appropriate gift for those of us who find ourselves irresistibly drawn to tales of murder, mayhem, gunpowder, treason and plot, but etiquette is a harsh mistress, and so I will say nothing.

And now, Watson, let us consider the significance of the following clues:

Agatha Christie Typewriter Pin

Stylish, retro, and a little bit creepy, this pin is a fabulous accessory for all occasions.

Okay, maybe not for a first date.

Or a job interview.

But other than that? Perfect.

£5 from the Literary Gift Company.  They also have several other typewriter pins with quotes from Sylvia Plath, Haruki Murakami, William Blake, Virginia Woolf, and others.

Sherlock Cufflinks

Sherlock Earrings

I could get carried away just with Sherlock memorabilia, even if I eliminate everything that includes the non-canonical phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson,” anything that includes a deer-stalker hat, AND anything with Benedict Cumberbatch’s picture on it.  So I’ve had to be ruthless, absolutely ruthless, in choosing which Sherlock-related Christmas tat I promote here, and these cufflinks are so fabulous that I had to include them.  They are scans of actual 19th-century manuscripts of Sherlock Holmes stories and come with the seal of approval from the Conan Doyle estate.

If the gentleman in your life does not wear cufflinks, you can buy these for yourself and crouch in the corner cooing over their prettiness and whispering “my preciousssss.”  That’s MY plan, at least.  Alternatively, you could just get the earrings.  For yourself.  Or for the gentleman in your life.  I don’t judge.

Earrings or cufflinks can be yours for £22 from Jezebel Charms and come beautifully gift-wrapped.

Dead Write Notepad

If you like your message-taking and grocery-list-making to have that little frisson of danger, this is perfect for you.  It’s also brilliant for traumatizing any small children you may have around the house when you ask them to write down the stuff they need to remember for school or something like that.

£8.99 and the bloodstained pen is included.

And can I just say, as a literary mystery nerd, how happy I am to finally have the chance to use the sentence “the bloodstained pen is included”?

Stabbed Man Knife Holder

For those people for whom one “person fatally impaled on sharp objects” kitchen accessory just isn’t enough, we have this Stabbed Man Knife Holder.

The only place I could find it was Amazon, where it’s selling for £65.99

You people need help, you know that, right?

“By My Wimsey” shirt.

Men’s versions available as well.

I know, the Wimsey family motto is “As my Wimsey takes me,” not “by my Wimsey,” but YOU try Googling “Peter Wimsey gifts” and see what you come up with.  There’s remarkably thin pickings for those who prefer the derring-do of the occupant of 110A Piccadilly to that of a certain Belgian or any residents of the Marylebone area.

So take this vaguely inaccurate, probably-infringing-on-copyright offering from CafePress and BE GRATEFUL.

It’s currently on sale for £12, down from £25.

“Chilled to the Bone” mug.

Well, this is nice.  Personally, whenever I’m sipping a lovely cup of tea, I’m thinking “all this experience is lacking, really, is the contemplation of my own impending mortality.”  But now, no more shall I be plagued with such petty musings as “that’s a nice song that bird is singing” or “I wonder what’s on telly tonight” while I have my cuppa.  Instead, I shall be properly considering such topics as “if I were to dissolve a body in an acid bath and then hang the skeleton in the Science department of a school, I bet they’d never find it.”

All is now well.

This reminder that all flesh is as grass will cost you £10 at the Museum of London shop.  But hey, you can’t take it with you, right? So you might as well spend it on stuff like this.

“A Recipe for Murder”

Do you like cooking?  Do you like death?  How about cooking some dishes that remind you of death?

Seriously. That’s what this is.  A collection of recipes inspired by murderers and villains of literary history, from Lady Macbeth to Hannibal Lecter.

The publisher swears the food is delicious, but you might want to have someone else there to taste it for you first, just in case.

£16.95 from the Literary Gift Company.

Sherlock Holmes Mystery Novel Cover Poster

Nancy Drew Mystery Novel Cover Poster

Poirot Mystery Novel Cover Poster

There are plenty of these around, in a variety of price ranges, depending on whether you want an unframed small print (which will cost you around £10) or a big framed print or canvas (which will cost you your immortal soul and your firstborn child).

NEXT TIME: SCIENCE FICTION!!

Bibliophile Gift Guide! (Part I: Romance)

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Oh, how I love holiday gift guides!  Aren’t they fun?  You categorize your friends using broad social archetypes, then assign them a monetary value based on how much you love them, and boom! Your shopping’s done for you.

In that spirit, as we approach the sacred season of Advent, let me cash in on the commercialisation of Christmas by presenting a GIFT GUIDE FOR BOOK LOVERS.

I’ll do a few, based on different genres.  I also have another 20 Questions post coming up, which I’ll sprinkle in somewhere like a dash of cinnamon in a delicious Christmas cookie.  (Oh dear God, somebody stop me.)

May I mention, incidentally, than a copy of A Merry Requiem, Part I: The Gathering Storm makes an EXCELLENT present for the book lover in your life, and is now only 99 cents at Smashwords?  All you have to do is go here, buy the book, and enter the code FW74R at checkout.  Smashwords has a “gift purchase” option that makes it very easy to buy their books as presents.

And now without further ado, the BIBLIOPHILE’S GIFT GUIDE – ROMANCE EDITION!

Song of Solomon Bangle

I need this.  This is, like, every kind of nerd-dom that I am.  Ancient love poetry, Bible stuff, and accessorizing.  Get this for me.  Okay, it’s £60, but surely I’m worth it. L’Oreal told me so!

The text reads “set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death.” – Song of Solomon 8:6.  Versions with words from the works of Christina Rosetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are also available.

The British Museum Collection of Chinese Love Poetry

(Also available: Classical Love Poetry, Indian Love Poetry, and Persian Love Poetry)

Do you love somebody?  Do they love poetry?  Do they also love China, Persia, India or the Classical period?  If so, this is the gift that says “I know you better than anyone else, which means you must take me upstairs this instant, despite the fact that I am crammed full of Christmas cookies, barely able to move, and sitting next to your mother.”

Ah, Christmas is kind to lovers, is it not?

This act of literary foreplay will set you back £9.99 at the British Museum shop.

Shakespeare in Love

Clever, romantic, and full of fun in-jokes for Shakespeare fans, this was one of the best romantic comedies of the 90′s – though it can’t really be called a comedy, since the ending is so crap for everyone involved. (Sorry, you’ve had 13 years to watch it – you can’t really cry “Spoilers!!” now, people.)  Judi Dench got an Oscar for 8 minutes of screen time, Gwyneth Paltrow got an Oscar basically for being young and pretty and rather posh, and my obsession with Joseph Fiennes (which peaked with me paying £6 for standing room at the National Theatre to see him in Love’s Labours Lost in 2003) was born.

The link is to HMV. Yes, they’re being shits about not letting their employees have tattoos, but my other option was Amazon, and they’re tax-dodging.  You see my dilemma.

It’s £4. The perfect gift for someone where you’re far enough into a relationship for the word “love” in a gift title not to spook you, but not far enough in that you’ll spend more than a fiver on them.

Romeo and Juliet Magnet

If you want to top up your cheap-ass gift with yet another cheap-ass gift to create one barely acceptable present, you can blow a further £3 on this “Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow” Romeo and Juliet magnet from Shakespeare’s Globe.

God, you suck. Who’d want to date you?

“Reader, I Married Him” Mug.

This would be a great way to propose to someone.  Put the ring box in the mug, wrap them both up, and put it under the tree.

Bit embarrassing if she said no, though.  I mean, then she’d have this mug and it would just be awkward.

This bit of agonizing social anxiety will cost you £9.95

Pride and Prejudice classic cloth-bound edition

This is part of a collection of 29 books, beautifully bound and with gorgeous cover designs.  I chose Pride and Prejudice because I haven’t yet played the Austen fangirl card, but if your love is of a more forbidden sort, you could go for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and if it’s more of a screwed-up sort, you could go for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or if you need something other than a ring to go with the mug, you could get Jane Eyre.

I’m trying to think of a romantic relationship that would justify the purchase of Dante’s Inferno, and failing.

£14.99 from Penguin’s website.

The Aphrodisiac Encyclopedia

I really really cannot improve on the alliterative delight that is the publisher’s summary: Of life’s many joys, the pleasures of the table and the delights of the boudoir are without question what make life worth living. Mark Douglas Hill has spent a lifetime in pursuit of foods that encourage friskiness and enhance the frisking. In search of the ultimate aphrodisiac dishes, over the years he has researched and refined, trialed and tested ingredients and recipes from all over the world. This compendium of culinary come-ons is the legacy of his unceasing quest. The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia is a veritable cornucopia of titillating titbits – from liquorice to lobster, figs to foie gras, and mango to mint. Along with mouth-wateringly tempting recipes, each entry is packed with diverse and diverting fact – historical, literary, biological and psychological – and the aphrodisiac and amorous qualities of each ingredient examined and appraised. Dig in and delight in the dainties unearthed for your delectation and deviation in this devilishly delicious cookbook.

How To Tell If Your Boyfriend Is The Anti-Christ.

Also includes handy information on detecting whether your paramour is a cult leader, polygamist, and much more.

Hey, sometimes a girl needs a little help.  Don’t judge me.

This potential lifesaver is £6.29 from Foyles.

NEXT TIME ON BIBLIOPHILE’S GIFT GUIDE: Mystery!  Agatha-Christie-inspired jewellery is just the beginning …

“Remember, ladies, writing drives you mad and sterile!”

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Hereford is one of the church's forty-three ca...

Hereford Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t posted to this blog for a few days, primarily because my day job has taken over.  As many of you will know, the Church of England just voted not to allow women to become Bishops.

The system of voting is set up to deliberately weigh votes in favour of the minority being heard – i.e., for something to pass, there has to be an overwhelming consensus.  A vote must pass all three houses – Bishops, Clergy, and laity (ordinary people in the pews) by a two-thirds majority.

This vote passed the house of Bishops and the house of Clergy by about 80%, and got 64% in favour in the house of laity.  Unfortunately, for those who know basic maths, 64% is not quite two thirds.

What makes it even more maddening is that this vote does not reflect the actual opinions of the ordinary people in the pews, 80% of whom are actually in favour of women as bishops.

So why am I talking about this on a book blog?

Well, for several reasons.  One is because I am sad and angry, and that sadness and anger are leaking over into other parts of my life.

But also because it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t THAT long ago when literature was considered an inappropriate pursuit for a woman.

Reading novels, it was said, would “excite our passions” and distract us from domestic responsibilities (okay, the second part is true, but still not sufficient to ban us from reading).  Women’s minds, it was said, were so frail that books might drive us mad.

one of the more common paintings of anne brads...

Anne Bradstreet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And women as writers?  Forget it.  Quick, name one female writer you know of BEFORE THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.

Anyone?

Bueller?

After a minute, I came up with Anne Bradstreet.

After another minute, I came up with Phillis Wheatley.

English: Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's Po...And that’s all I got.

Women only really began being taken seriously as writers in the mid 19th-century, and many of them hid their true, scandalous identity either behind anonymity (“Sense and Sensibility, by A Lady”) or a male pseudonym (George Eliot &c.).  Even now,

many women are told to make their main characters male, so men will be interested, or to use initials (J.K. Rowling, anyone?) to make their gender ambiguous enough that men won’t be put off buying their books.  And you do it, because you want to get your books in the hands of as many people as possible, not sacrifice yourself to make some kind of pointless stand.  And I don’t presume to judge any individual author for doing that – but I do judge the society that requires it of her.

Writing and the bishopric are both intellectual pursuits that require an ability to read and interpret text in the context of its genre and the time of its writing, and a broad understanding of and sympathy to humanity’s flaws and foibles.  They both require intellectual confidence and inquiry, and the ability to put forward your views in a way that will be clearly understood by, and meaningful to, your audience.  They are both vocations that require study, discipline, and thoughtfulness.

It’s easy for feminists to think that we’ve won the battle of being “good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”, and to focus on what seem like much more pressing and urgent issues like rape culture and the gender pay gap.  But I can’t help but feel as though, in both literature and the church, the idea that we’re just as smart and rational and thoughtful and studious as men still hasn’t quite caught on.

And that’s frustrating.

20 Questions: Chris Nickson

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First off, I apologise for the formatting issues at the start of this interview – I’ve edited and edited and can’t seem to fix them.  I’ll continue to play with it and hopefully fix it soon!

Chris Nickson writes in one of my favourite genres – historical mysteries – as well as non-fiction (music journalism and biography) and contemporary (okay, the 80′s, but I refuse to believe that counts as historical) mysteries set in Seattle.  Being an Englishman who lived in America, he’s sort of my opposite, so it’s been interesting to hear from him!

Come the Fear, the fourth book in the Richard Nottingham series, is out. At the Dying of the Year, the next book in the series, will be published in the UK in February 2013.
Emerald City, the first in the Seattle trilogy and set in 1988, is due to appear simultaneously as an ebook and audiobook in March 2013.
1.       Where do you do your best thinking?
The ideas seem to come to me either when I’m in the shower or standing outside, smoking in a cigarette (I don’t smoke in the house. I know, filthy habit). Walking is also good.

2.       If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Leeds. It’s where I started out, where most of my books are set, and where, I’ve discovered, my heart feels at home. I’ve lived in several places in England and America, some of them, like Seattle or Dronfield (on the edge of the Peak District), quite lovely. But next year we’re moving to Leeds, and that makes me happy.

3.       What are you most scared of?

Something happening to my son. No question there.

4.       Which book do you wish you’d written?

Where to begin on that one? There’s Divisadero or In The Skin Of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, where the language just knocks me over with its beauty. Or pretty much anything by Elmore Leonard – it’s like cream. And then the opening of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The whole book (along with its predecessor) is staggeringly good, but the opening is so audacious it took my breath away.

5.       How did you find your first agent?

My first agent was for my non-fiction, back in 1994 when I lived in Seattle. I had a real job and I was also a music journalist. A friend of mine had been offered a book that he didn’t want to write (an unauthorised biography of Mariah Carey, since you’re probably wondering) and asked if I was interested. It was money, and a book, so I was. It was being handled through the agent. In the end we did the best part of 30 books together, most of them quickie celeb biographies. Not art, but it paid the bills.

After I’d moved back to England I did briefly have an agent for my fiction, a tale I’d rather leave out. Then, after I’d published The Broken Token with Crème de la Crime, the company was bought out by Severn House, who wanted my second novel, Cold Cruel Winter. At that point I decided I needed an agent so I talked to several until I found Tina Betts with Andrew Mann, who’s turned out to be excellent.

6.       What is your “guilty pleasure” reading?

I’m not sure I have a guilty pleasure as such. If a book’s good, it’s good, doesn’t matter what the style is. When I want something light I’ll read Janet Evanovich, but she’s an excellent writer. Great dialogue, easy, strong characters and the ability to make you suspend your disbelief in the most unlikely things.

7.       What are you most proud of?

Of my son. But in writing, probably when Library Journal named Cold Cruel Winter one of the 10 best mysteries of 2011. I spent the rest of the day walking around in a daze, barely able to speak and waiting for my partner to arrive home from work so I could show her. It was a remarkable moment for me and completely out of the blue.

8.       What is the worst job you’ve ever had?

This one’s easy. In 1977 – about a year after I moved to the US – the job I had vanished and I ended up working in the office of a company that supplied uniforms to postal workers. Without any doubt, it was the most regimented and soulless place I’ve ever been employed.

9.       Which of your characters would you most like to have a pint with in real life, and why?

Probably Amos Worthy, although he died at the end of the third book in the series. He’s dead but he refuses to go away completely. Things about him keep coming back. As soon as he walked into The Broken Token I knew there was something special about him. I don’t think I’d want to stand right by him, though. Just in case – he’s a man prone to violence.

10.   Which character of someone else’s would you most like to have a pint with, and why?

Frederick Troy, John Lawton’s creation. He might not be the most social person, but to me he’s one of the best characters ever to reach the page. It’s a crime (no pun intended) that Lawton’s not a best-selling author. If you haven’t read his work, please do so.

11.   Who was your first literary crush (author or character) and why?

Brer Rabbit, when I was three. As an adult, probably Vida Kramer in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion. I loved that man’s work and the way his mind used to spin.

12.   Which literary romance/friendship do you most wish you were a part of, and why?

I’m not sure you can call it a friendship as such, but the group of characters who move to found Cochadebajo de los Gatos in Louis de Bernières Latin American trilogy. I re-read the books every couple of years, and they’re people with such joy for life that it’s impossible to resist them.

13.   What is the first thing you remember writing, and how old were you?

I’m fairly sure I wrote a few stories when I was seven or eight. But the first one I really remembers was when I was 11. It was homework – a story in three paragraphs. Mine was about someone who had to deal with an unexploded bomb and somehow using that structure just made sense to me and I was hooked. If the material seems odd, it was 1965, and in England the war didn’t seem that long ago, even though it ended well before I was born. We had an air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden and my father’s generation had all served in the war so it seemed quite tangible. But from there I wanted to be a writer. The only serious alternative was musician. I played in bands and solo – not for a living – for quite a few years, and I can safely say the world is better off with me as a writer (although some readers might disagree).

14.   If people like your writing, what other writers would you recommend to them?

My editor says my work is somewhat like C.J. Sansom, although different period and I don’t include any royals. Maybe Candace Robb’s Owen Archer books – wonderful and I learned a lot from them. Honestly, that’s a tough question.

15.   What do you hate most about the writing process?

About the only thing is going through the proofs. By that time I’ve spent enough time on the book to be sick of it, so it’s a case of forcing myself to be thorough.

16.   What do you love most about the writing process?

All the rest of it. I really mean that. I love sitting down at the computer in the morning and opening up the document. Quite often I won’t even have a clue what’s coming until I start. But it’s a joy, it feels like a privilege to do this. There are times it can be emotionally draining but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Even editing is a pleasure, because I’m making what I’ve done into the best book it can be.

17.   Popcorn: salty or sweet?

Neither – can’t stand the stuff.

18.   Do your books share your personality?  If they’re different, what’s the difference?

My books share my social conscience, I think, so they have my personality to that degree. But I’m not Richard Nottingham; I’m not that good a person. Really, all I do is write down the movie that’s playing in my head and hope it’s a good one.

19.   What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I’m touching wood very hard as I write, but I don’t tend to get it. Part of that might come from having been a music journalist and working on deadlines. At one period I was having to research – with interviews, background et al – two stories a day and satisfy one of the best editors I’ve ever had. There was no time for block, you got on and did it. I think that really helped in some ways.

20.   What are you working on now?

I’m writing the sixth Richard Nottingham book, provisionally called Fair And Tender Ladies. When it’s done I’ll hope my publisher likes it enough to want to put it out. And I’m preparing for the fifth book, At The Dying Of The Year, to appear in hardback next February, while the fourth, Come the Fear, is out in the US very, very soon.

On top of that I have something quite different appearing in March as a simultaneous audiobook and ebook. It’s called Emerald City, still a mystery but set in the Seattle music scene of 1988, just before the music that became called grunge exploded. I lived there then, saw many of the bands, and for several years I wrote for The Rocket, Seattle’s sadly-missed music paper.

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