FAR AWAY SHORT LISTED FOR HNS INDIE AWARD 2016

I’m thrilled to announce that my novel FAR AWAY has moved from the long list to the short list of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016 and so I get to show off with another lovely logo.

HNSIndieShortlisted2016[1]

I am very honoured and keeping everything crossed! Many,  many thanks to all those of you who have read, reviewed and supported me with the book. It has meant a very great deal to me and as the glorious Janet Webb (the woman in the green dress in the clip below) used to say at the end of the Morecambe and Wise show ‘I love you all.’  Well, she doesn’t actually say it in this clip but she looks so gloriously celebratory I thought this one would do!

FAR AWAY LONG LISTED FOR HNS INDIE AWARD 2016

A great  review of my book FAR AWAY by the Historical Novel Society (see below) and the fantastic news that it’s been long listed for their Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016. I’m thrilled because it means I get to show off with some delightful logos.

Isn’t this one lovely?

!!Eds Choice

Ooh … and I might take a moment to drool over this one too!

!! HNSIndieLonglisted2016

Here’s the review:

Far Away

BY

Far Away by Victoria Blake
Find & buy on

Far Away tells the story of two men, Michael Armstrong and Harry Maynard, thrown together in an Italian Prisoner of War Camp following the fall of Tobruk. Though having little in common, they agree to keep a notebook of their experiences. Michael concentrates on the day to day deprivations they suffer and life in the camp together with the hope of release or escape, whilst Harry – a professional writer prior to the war – decides to tell a highly allegorical ‘fairy story’.

Michael survives the war but Harry does not and seventy years on, Michael’s son, Ian, finds the notebooks and learns more about his father – and his part in the war – than he had ever been told.

Victoria Blake has drawn heavily on the experiences of her own father and those of another man who was the inspiration for the notebooks. Yet this is three stories in one: the lives of Michael and Harry in captivity, the tale of Pelliger in the fairy story, and of Ian who has the harrowing task of sorting through his father’s effects following his death.

I can say no more other than that this is a beautiful book, very well written, with the three stories carefully woven together to form a matter-of-fact version of war as seen by one who took part and without any graphic incidents.

I thoroughly recommend it.

THE TITLE THAT GOT AWAY

I make lists of possible titles as I go along. The crime ones came easily enough. Bloodless Shadow (my first crime novel) was from a book of poems, The Rooster Mask, by a friend Henry Hart and he had it from Homer or Virgil. At any rate one of those scenes when the classical hero goes down to the underworld and the bloodless shadows (the dead) cluster around him.

Poetry is a particularly good source for titles because of the way poets crack open language. They jam words together in arresting and muscular ways and that’s what you want from a title. Something that grabs the attention, unsettles , fizzes.

The title of my most recent book Far Away is the least dramatic of my titles but  it persisted and in the end I was satisfied with it.

On occasion regrettably you can come across the perfect title for your book after it’s published. This happened to me the other day when I was reading Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. I came across this quote from Uys Krige, a South African war correspondent, captured in Africa like my father and a POW in Italy. Here’s his description of what being a POW was like:

“This is a dead world, a lost world and these are lost men, lost each in his own separate limbo, banished from his memories, exiled even from himself. Here even dreams are dead.”

From this short passage I found four titles: Dead World, Lost Men, Banished From Memory and Even Dreams are Dead.

Even Dreams are Dead is the one I like best. That is the title that got away!

Uys where were you when I needed you?

If you’re a writer how do you find the titles of your books or short stories? Does it come easily?

If you’re a reader tell me some of your favourite or least favourite titles.

ESCAPING CAPTIVITY WITH CROWS AND STEVE MCQUEEN

In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.

1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?

So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.

The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :

6-8.30 watching

Breakfast/parade

9.30-12.30 more watching

lunch

1.30-5.30 watching again

Tea

6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper

That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!

In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:

‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’

Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.

Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.

In the film The Great Escape  there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.

Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?

Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.

HENRY JAMES AND THE TROUBLE WITH NAMES

How do fiction writers name their characters? I’m frankly a bit rubbish at this and tend to change my mind a lot. With my crime novels I finally settled on Sam (‘Samantha’) Falconer as the name of my main character, the Sam coming from Sam Spade and the Falconer from The Maltese Falcon, one of my favourite films.

There can be distinct problems however if the name you give a character in a story titled The Liar is a particularly rare and unusual one. This is how Henry James tried to get himself out of trouble in response to an ‘amiable inquiry’ (I wonder!) by a member of the Capadose family on 13 October 1896:

My dear Sir

You may be very sure that if I’d had the pleasure of meeting a person of your striking name I wouldn’t have used the name, especially for the purpose of the tale you allude to.

It was exactly because I had no personal or private association with it that I felt free to do so. But I am afraid that (in answer to your amiable inquiry) it is late in the day for me to tell you how I came by it.

The Liar was written ten years ago – and I simply don’t remember. 

Fiction-mongers collect proper names, surnames, etc – make notes and lists of any odd or unusual, as handsome or ugly ones they see or hear – in newspapers (columns of births, deaths, marriages, etc) or in directories and signs of shops or elsewhere; fishing out  of these memoranda in time of need the one that strikes them as particularly good for a particular case.

“Capadose” must be in one of my old note-books. I have a dim recollection of having found it originally in the first columns of The Times, where I find almost all the names I store up for my puppets. It was picturesque and rare and so I took possession of it. I wish – if you care at all – that I had applied it to a more exemplary individual! But my romancing Colonel was a charming man, in spite of his little weakness.

I congratulate you on your bearing a name that is at once particularly individualizing and not ungraceful (as so many rare names are).

I am, dear Sir,

Yours very truly

Henry James

The old smoothie. No wonder they called him The Master!

Are there any particular fictional names that you like or dislike?

If you’re a writer do you find it easy to name your characters?

A COMPETITION – A PRIZE

So here’s the question. Part of my novel FAR AWAY is set in a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War and part of the escape described there (based on what actually happened to my father) involves five men hiding in the roof of one of the prison huts.

So in order to win a copy of my book answer this question: How long did they manage to stay in the roof? This includes the day they got in and the day they got down.  The camp was in Sulmona in southern Italy and the month was October 1943. The roof’s proportions were as follows: 14′(L) x 6′(W) x 3’6″(H) – yes, that’s right they couldn’t stand upright.

Here’s a rough sketch from Beverley Edge’s diary; he was one of the five. I’ve coloured the men in orange.

A sketch from Beverley Edge's diary of one of the huts in Sulmona POW camp in Italy

A sketch from Beverley Edge’s diary of one of the huts in Sulmona POW camp in Italy

The person who gets closest  will be the proud winner of a signed copy of FAR AWAY. I mean how can you resist? I would particularly encourage people to enter who have never won anything in a competition before – that would be me, by the way. My father, on the other hand, only had to sneeze on a raffle ticket to have a bottle of sherry winging its way to him from the church fête.

A great deal of luck was involved in his escape and maybe it stayed with him afterwards.

If you’d like to read about the book please click the link below for a lovely review from the Manchester Military History Society:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1360145221

ALBERTO MANGUEL AND THE IDEAL READER

Read this book!

In Alberto Manguel’s book, A Reader on Reading there’s a very funny chapter titled The Ideal Reader and I thought I’d pick out a few sentences and interact with them. Here goes …

Alberto: The ideal reader is not a taxidermist.

Me: Alberto, excuse me but is that by any chance a typo? Even if it’s not I’ve got to disagree with you there. What have you got against taxidermists? Personally, I don’t care. I’ll take a taxidermist any day of the week. They might have been stuffing an owl a day ago but if they follow my blog or buy my book or even borrow it from a friend they are my ideal.

Alberto: The ideal reader has no interest in the writings of Bret Easton Ellis.

Me: Really? What have you got against poor Bret. Oh dear, look what I have in my hand. A signed copy of Glamorama … how on earth did I get that? I have absolutely no recollection … none whatsoever… maybe I was drunk … maybe … oh, no, now it’s all coming back to me… It was 1999. It was a dark and stormy night. I had just closed the bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The seedy lights of Soho beckoned as I turned up the collar of my coat and headed north …

Alberto: The ideal reader has a wicked sense of humour.

Me: I’m with you there Alberto.

Alberto: Every book, good or bad, has its ideal reader.

Me: Well, that’s a relief.

Alberto: The ideal reader proselytizes.

Me: Darling Alberto, have I told you how much I love your book? I really love it. I would not have this blog post without it. Oh God, that’s fawning not proselytizing. How very embarrassing…

Alberto: The ideal reader is (or appears to be) more intelligent than the writer; the ideal reader does not hold this against the writer…

Me: No, I’m sorry you’ve lost me there … I can’t quite get my head around it. Am I the reader or the writer or an owl stuffer. Help me out here Alberto I’m floundering.

Alberto: The ideal reader is someone the writer would not mind spending an evening with, over a glass of wine.

Me: Ah, now you’re talking. Make that a nice bottle of Sicilian Grillo and I’m yours Alberto …

Alberto: Ideal readers never count their books.

Me: You’re beginning to annoy me now Alberto. But whatever you do, don’t read my last post. Ed McBain 21 Agatha Christie 18 Robert Parker and Margery Allingham 17. Look, I’ve no idea why I did it. It just sort of happened.

Alberto: Literature depends, not on ideal readers, but merely on good enough readers.

Me: What! You mean to say we’ve been through all that and end with the merely good enough? I’m disappointed in you Alberto, very disappointed.

On a slightly more serious note the chapter is worth reading in its entirety so I shall now prove my ideal reader credentials by exhorting you to buy Albert Manguel’s book and of course my own. The links are below. If you’re a taxidermist Alberto doesn’t want you but I do. In fact all taxidermists are particularly welcome.

Here comes the question you knew (with sickening inevitability) would be awaiting you if you read to the end.

Who is your ideal reader?

If that makes your brain ache and you’re interested in a signed copy of Glamorama (slightly scuffed, barely read, bit dusty) I’m open to offers.

FAR AWAY by VICTORIA BLAKE:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

A READER ON READING by ALBERTO MANGUEL:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reader-Reading-Alberto-Manguel/dp/0300172087

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel

GETTING RID OF CRIME BOOKS

A juicy eyeball from Agatha

I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it but I think a visit to your GP might be  in order.

It started to rain and a most rare and unusual thought entered my mind. Weed your books. I tried to ignore it, obviously. Usually this voice only occurs once every ten years after a Health and Safety incident. OK – let’s call that a big trip and I’m not talking safaris. Sometimes it can be brought on by the fact I can’t find a book I know I have because everything has gone TOO FAR. I stood up and went and looked at one of my bookcases. It was filled with crime.

It was a crime.

First my eye chanced to light on an author I am never going to give away: Kinky Friedman. Any man who titles a book Armadillos and Old Lace will remain on my bookshelves for ever. Then I seized all of Patricia Cornwell and all of Henning Mankell and marched them to the door. Why? Well, Patricia Cornwell irritated me with a book about a hairy man. I can’t remember which one now, and she got a bit grandiose or maybe that was Scarpetta and I vowed I’d never read another. Or maybe I just had ‘great room’ envy.

Don't touch that drink!

Don’t touch that drink!

Why Henning Mankell? I suppose because I  just know I’m never going to re-read them and those books are fat. I liked the Swedish TV series and the Kenneth Branagh one but re-reading is just not going to happen.

I decided to keep all of Ian Rankin and all of the following: George Pelecanos, Robert Parker, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Dominique Manotti, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Jake Arnott, C.J.Sansom, Donna Leon, PD James, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Val McDermid’s Kate Brannigan and Lindsay Gordon series.

What - not another eyeball!

What’s with the eyeballs!

I know Val’s other series is the big seller but I never got beyond a torture scene at the beginning of The Mermaids Singing which I have already disposed of. Wimp, you might say, Yes, I would reply. Torture scenes are not really my thing. Having said that I once wrote one in one of my own books, Bloodless Shadow, but I did it with my eyes closed and my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la, so I’m not sure it counts.

There are a few there I’d forgotten about – Pernille Rygg for example. A Norwegian writer who wrote The Butterfly Effect and The Golden Section. I enjoyed those.

There are some that have such cool titles I’ve never dared read them: Ken Bruen’s Rilke on Black for example. I just feel I’m going to have to start drinking whiskey and turn into Nick Cave before I crack the spine of that one. Or at least get a hair cut like Tilda Swinton.

Murder isn't easy if it involves a spider that big

I’m sorry but murder can’t be  that easy if it involves a spider the size of a canary.

The author I’ve got most of is Ed McBain (21) but Christie (18)  Robert Parker (17) and Allingham (17) are close on his heels. The Fontana 3/6 versions of Christie are my favourites because of their camp schlocky covers, that’s why they are liberally scattered through this post. I love the covers in the same way I love the pictures in Ladybird books and Janet and John books. The images must have hit my visual cortex at about the same time and therefore fill me with drooling nostalgia. It’s probably why I became a crime writer.

So now you know if you want to stay on my shelves

  • don’t irritate me
  • don’t solve your crimes with hairy men
  • don’t have torture scenes
  • do have a camp/kitsch cover, preferably from the 60s
  • do have a good title
  • do be published by Fontana for 3/6
  • Oh, and make me laugh

And then you’ll be mine for ever. Sorry, that last bit sounds a bit sinister.

At Bertram's Hotel

Honey, I know you said it had 5* reviews on TripAdvisor  but have you seen the doorman?

Finally, I’ll end on my all-time favourite Agatha cover. Can you get camper than a violet cream, held elegantly against a non-sweating palm, a bullet (yes, that’s a bullet not a cigarette) and that nail varnish … a cover to die for!

“Death and mystery among the muffins (could be Caffè Nero) and the best Indian tea … set in a hotel patronised by dowagers and bishops … Miss Marple knits and listens (that’s me crouched over a cappuccino with the crochet).”

The book is dedicated to:

“Harry Smith because I appreciate the scientific way he reads my books.”

I wonder if Agatha would appreciate the scientific methods I use to weed my books?

How do you weed yours? Or don’t you?

POWS AND CIGARETTES

File:Craven A cigarettes small pack, front.JPG

Cigarettes were an important part of the POW camp economy. In the 1940s the link had not yet been made between smoking and lung cancer and it was very unusual for soldiers not to smoke. My father didn’t but that didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in being sent cigarettes because cigarettes were a form of currency.

The aim of the Red Cross was to send each man 50 cigarettes every week. From 1941 to the end of March 1945 the Red Cross sent 6 million ounces of tobacco and almost 1.5 billion cigarettes to Italy and Germany.

As well as these, families and friends could also send cigarettes to POWs using tobacco companies which held special permits. The favourites were Woodbine, Players and Craven A.

Most things could be bought with cigarettes and a sophisticated Exchange and Mart system developed and as the war went on only cigarettes and food held their value. In gambling cigarettes were used as chips. Even the packets were used. They could be turned into packs of cards which were popular because they were easily portable.

If there was no tobacco, dried leaves, coffee grounds, grass and even manure was smoked and the leaves of a Bible or Pears Encyclopaedia were used because they were particularly thin. The aim was to produce something that gave the pretence of a cigarette.

Towards the end of the war when deliveries became more sporadic the value of cigarettes rose. A watch was worth 30 cigarettes, a gold ring 20 cigarettes and a safety razor 1 cigarette.

My father never did smoke cigarettes but he did take pleasure in the odd cigar. There was a phase when an ex-student of his used to supply him with Montecristo Cuban cigars, which he enjoyed very much despite being on the other end of the political spectrum to the Castro regime. The cigars came in wooden boxes which, when empty, were handed over to his children. I loved the smell  and the colourful labels  and used them as  pencil boxes or as a store for marbles.

FAR AWAY JUST GOT CLOSER!

IMG_20150714_182649_burst_01

FAR AWAY HAS ARRIVED!

An entirely gratuitous picture of me and my book! In fact it arrived a few days ago now but here’s the photo of me and FAR AWAY! If you’d like to buy it I’d be delighted and if you read it I’d love to know what you think. It’s available as a paperback: ISBN 9781784623401 and also as an e-book: eISBN 9781784629953.

Here’s the link: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

You can also order it through your local bookshop.