Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Lord of the Rings – Britain's favourite book – and mine.

Lord of the Rings

A few years ago, BBC2 ran a survey called The Big Read, where viewers were asked, first of all, to nominate their favourite books. Out of this, 100 top favourites were chosen. The next stage was a vote to select a top ten, and after that, with various celebrities speaking week by week in favour of one of these ten books, a final vote for the winner. I was torn in two, because several of my favourite books were in there with a chance.

JRR Tolkien in 1916
At the end, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were level pegging, and I found it very hard to make my mind up which to vote for. In the end, I went for The Lord of the Rings, and as it turned out so did a substantial majority of other people, making it the nation’s favourite book at that time. No doubt the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s films, with the relevant publicity, helped, but it’s surprised me for years how many people, some of them very unlikely ones, love Tolkien’s masterpiece.

I suppose the best way to come to this book is after reading The Hobbit. However, like many others, I only heard of The Hobbit after I’d read the trilogy.  I was at university when a young and enthusiastic English lecturer started pushing The Lord of the Rings at me and my fellow students, telling us what a marvellous book it was, and that it had an enormous cult following. I borrowed it from the library, loved it, and a couple of years later, as a young married woman, managed to afford to buy the set while on holiday in a caravan in Portrush (a seaside resort not famed for its literary atmosphere, but with at least one bookshop at that time.) I’ve gone on reading it at regular intervals ever since, and have just finished the current re-reading. (Followed by The Hobbit.)

As always, I’ve been freshly amazed by how good this book is.  To me, the characters of the hobbits, and of Gandalf, and of Strider when we first meet him, are the main things which bring this story to life. The Shire, a version of England in the Middle Ages (but without the poverty and sickness and the dictatorial role of the upper classes) is such an attractive place; and the characters at this stage of the book are real people, whether or not they are labelled ‘hobbit’ ‘wizard’ or ‘man.’ Later in the book Tolkien introduces elves and so on who are far from human and if it were not for the earlier characters the trilogy would lose a great deal of the realism and believability which keep us reading on.  Merry and Pippin in particular are down-to-earth, likable and enjoyable characters, but so are Sam and Frodo until nearer the end. Gandalf develops into ‘The White Rider,’ and becomes less and less the Gandalf we know, cross, inclined to joke, and very much an individual.  Strider, a blunt, straight speaking stranger who may or may not be trustworthy, develops into Aragorn, the King, and becomes, like Gandalf, less real. But by then we are prepared to accept this sort of thing, and the ever present hobbits keep us pinned firmly down to earth, even if it is ‘Middle Earth.’

Don’t misunderstand me. One of the most attractive things about The Lord of the Rings is its atmosphere of poetry and magic, and the sense that we are living in a world of long ago.  But the down-to-earth hobbits (representatives of ourselves, whom we can relate to) are essential, to allow us to enjoy the rest of the environment.

It’s highly appropriate that the trilogy ends back in the Shire; and although Frodo can no longer live there, Sam can and does.

Always, I particularly enjoy the maps at the end of each of my three volumes. I constantly unfold them to check whereabouts the current action is taking place, and by the time I’ve finished the third book, I feel as if I know every inch of the ground which the travellers have covered, and am at home there in a way which is both satisfying and exciting.  Alas, some years ago the map from my first volume was first of all accidentally torn off, and then eventually lost. I feel bereft without that initial map, a close-up of the country covered in Volume 1, of the journey through the Shire, the time in the Old Forest and the Downs, the events at Bree, the attack on Weathertop, the Flight to the Ford, and the first part of the Nine Companions’ journey as they attempted to cross Caradhras.  The map in the second volume orients me from then on, but that initial part is sorely missed.

How many people, I wonder, avid fans of The Lord of the Rings, read it purely as an exciting adventure, and miss the inner meaning? The struggle of good against evil, the fact that even the good, like Boromir, may fall – this is probably clear enough to most. As John Bunyon said in The Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘Then saw I that there is a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.’  Probably most readers pick this up without difficulty.

But the death and resurrection of Gandalf, who thereby is able to defeat the power of evil as portrayed in Sauron – do most readers understand the allegory set out in this event? I wonder.

I can’t finish writing about this marvellous book without quoting some of the poetry which adds so much to the magical ambience of the whole. Right at the beginning is one of the best examples:-
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Morder where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Like all good poetry, this says more than the simple words convey – it plunges us immediately into the atmosphere Tolkien wants us to feel.

Then there is Sam’s song in Book Three, another simple and beautiful poem, but this time conveying an atmosphere of hope and peace, ‘In Western lands beneath the Sun…’ and Frodo’s farewell to the Shire early in Book One, ‘The Road goes ever on and on…’  Everyone will have their own favourites, and I must stop quoting mine or, like the road, I might go on for ever.

I said last week that I hoped to have another post up before Christmas, and to my surprise, and probably to yours, I’ve succeeded in doing it.

Have a lovely time over the next week or so; and as Tiny Tim said, giving the toast at the Cratchett family’s Christmas dinner in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, ‘God bless us everyone!’

(And if you are one of the millions who buy or are given a Kindle this Christmas, don’t forget to buy Belfast Girls,

and /or Danger Danger,

my two Irish romantic thrillers, to help you have a really great time – says she modestly.)

See you in the New Year.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

It does you good to laugh. Jeff Lee and Barbara Silkstone.

It Does You Good to Laugh (as a well known comedian used to say.)

When I had my first book, Belfast Girls, up on HarperCollinsAuthonomy web site a couple of years ago, I labelled it, in accordance with their requirements, as “romance’, ‘thriller’ and ‘comedy.’ An American commentator said, ‘Why is this called ‘Comedy?’ Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any comic bits.’ After getting over my initial reaction (with difficulty), I courteously directed him to Chapter 8, where Sheila meets Francis and he ends up soaked by the lawn sprinkler while trying to seduce her.  Well, I think it’s funny, and so do quite a few other people. But it didn’t convince him.  But humour is such an individual thing, and American humour can be quite different from British humour.

Most of the books I enjoy are, if not funny throughout, at the very least full of witty comments – ‘wisecracks’, they used to call these. Nowadays we say ‘oneliners.’  And to me it adds a huge amount to a book if it’s amusing as well as gripping and exciting.  When (again! – it must have been a traumatic experience. It’s certainly left its mark!) I was on Authonomy, I was always very relieved, in between the regular diet of vampire books or serial killers (and often both in one), to come across an enjoyably funny book.  Two of these were Jeff Lee’s beautifully named The Ladies Temperance Club's Farewell Tour, and Barbara Silkstone’s The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland aged Forty-two and Threequarters.  In both these cases, the clever titles immediately told me that I was in for an excellent read.

Jeff Lee has recently signed a contract with Pfoxmoor Publishing, and his next book will be coming out under their imprint, but The Ladies is still available on Kindle and I can certainly recommend it if you like black humour and lively characters.  Vonda, Kay and Francine are friends who meet regularly to spend an evening together.  Vonda is only too glad to get away from her long-term boy friend, the unpleasant Jack, and to show off a bit to Kay, who knows no better than to order fries in a high class restaurant.  Unfortunately, at the end of one of these evenings the effect of the drinks consumed leads Vonda to hit Jack over the head when he is being particularly horrible. And her two friends determine to protect Vonda from the consequences of her action. Jack is stuffed into the freezer of their motor home, and the three ladies set off into the blue yonder with only the sketchiest of ideas as to what to do with the body.

Jeff Lee
Jeff Lee has a vivid writing style which brings his characters to life and wins them our sympathy. Vonda is far from perfect. Before she gets together with Jack, for instance, she is stuck overnight in a hotel when her plane is grounded by a winter storm. We’re told that Vonda didn’t mind.

‘She had several quarts of vodka and aquavit to keep her warm. As well as her plane’s pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.’ 

But Jack is such a dreadful man, and treats her so badly, that we feel he deserves everything he gets.

We are right there with Vonda when she takes her fatal swing at Jack’s head.  When she suggests that he might come out of his office and say hullo to her friends, he yells at her, ‘Why don’t you just take a hammer and cave the side of my skull in? I might enjoy that a little more!’ So Vonda replies demurely, ‘Whatever you say, dear,’ and takes a smack at him.

In another type of book, with serious treatment, this might be a moment full of horror.  Jeff Lee, instead, has us laughing.

I mustn’t spoil the rest of the book for you, the hilarious journey and the final outcome.  The scene in the Mall, in the Theme Land Restaurant, where Vonda loses her head, climbs on the table and starts throwing things, is one not to be missed.  The mousy Kay comes out of herself and sorts out the trouble by explaining that Vonda is upset because of a death in the family – she’s just lost her long-term boyfriend.

Well, yes.  So she has.

Jeff Lee’s next book, I hear, is set in Hollywood. Something to look forward to.

You can buy The Ladies Temperance Club's Farewell Tour here:

And then there’s Barbara Silkstone. What can I say?

Barbara Silkstone
When I first came across Barbara Silkstone and her Fractured Fairytales a couple of years ago on Authonomy, I was amused and impressed by the excerpt from her first book, The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland, Age 42 and Three-Quarters, which I read there. The title not only draws on Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice, but also links the book to the very funny Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and Three-Quarters which I read with joyful laughter when the series first came out, years ago.

Alice in Wonderland was probably one of the first real books I read, as opposed to picture books. (My little sister was awarded it as a Sunday School prize when she was a bit young to be able to read it, so I seized on it, read it from cover to cover, and still have very happy associations with it.) So Barbara’s book – what should I call it? A take off? A pastiche? Or perhaps a tribute? –  delighted me.  Her funny, feisty heroine Alice, reminiscent of Janet Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum, was a real find, and the thriller plot was gripping and page turning.

And now, here comes another equally attractive thriller with a connection to a much loved children’s book, Wendy and the Lost Boys.  Confession time – I’ve never actually read Peter Pan. (And why on earth not, you may well ask? I don’t really know!)  But I first saw the Walt Disney cartoon at quite a young age and was enthralled by it. I’ve since watched it with my children and found myself still loving it. So Barbara’s new book held an immediate strong appeal for me.

Wendy Darlin, like Barbara Silkstone’s earlier heroine Alice Harte, is funny, feisty, and Stephanie Plum-like, but, unlike most of the very funny minor characters, she is a realistically drawn individual whom we connect to straightaway and for whom we find ourselves rooting throughout the book.  Wendy is soft-hearted. She allows herself to be sucked into trouble with the terrible (but very amusing) villain Charlie Hook, captain of the Predator, a pirate ship in modern terms, purely because she can’t turn down the appeals for help from Marni. Wendy doesn’t even like Marni much, but she is the daughter of an old friend, and Wendy feels that she has to step in, and onto Hook’s yacht.  So here she goes, plunging into a set of events which are hair raising, exciting, and laugh out loud funny; and meeting up with a set of characters whose idiosyncrasies make them by turns appealing, revolting, funny and terrifying.

Beginning with her husband Croc (Hook’s enemy – representing the crocodile in the original) and Roger Jolley (attractive apart from his brown wingtip shoes, but introducing himself as one of the dreaded SEC people) Wendy collects a number of strange and fascinating people around her. The weird array made up of Joseph, Mary, Annie, and Granddaddy Earl has to be read to be believed – if then! We are in a fantasy world, with people – at least the minor characters – who, like those of Alice in Wonderland, are caricatures, but still in some sense real and easy to relate to. But at the end of the day, it’s Wendy herself who sorts things out, solves the mysteries, and defeats the villain, while solving her own past hang-ups at the same time.

Barbara Silkstone has a real knack of not only naming her characters, but also of creating their idiosyncrasies, to fit in with her original. Wendy’s long lost boyfriend, Peter Payne, for instance, left her because he didn’t want to grow up and face the real world. But Silkstone shows us the dangerous side of this attitude, not just its attraction, unlike Barrie. And the secret of The Lost Boys, and whom they turn out to be, is both original and convincing.

If you like your thrillers to be fast moving, full of action, and with a surprise ending, this is for you. If you like your heroines warm hearted, brave, with a desire for justice but with occasional foolhardiness, this is for you. If you like a writer to be witty, skilful with words, and able to throw in the odd touch of enchantment in her descriptive passages, this is for you.  (Mind you, you need to be happy with a fair bit of humour of the type not suitable for the original audience of Peter Pan or Alice, such as the recurring joke about Hook’s UpUGo, which I won’t spoil for you.)  And if you like an ongoing touch of romance for your heroine, with various candidates for her affections, and a bit of a mystery as to whom she’ll end up with, resolved beautifully at the end, this also is for you.

Sound like your type of book?  Wendy and the Lost Boys is definitely mine!

Like Jeff Lee, Barbara Silkstone has recently signed a publishing contract, in her case with Mark Williams' International Digital Publishing. 

Buy the book here.

As for my own books, they are mainly Irish romantic thrillers, but I’ve included wit and humour as the mood took me. Well. I find bits of them funny. Why not see if you agree?

My first book, Belfast Girls, is still selling steadily. You can buy it in eBook format here.

Or you might still have time to get the paperback for someone special as a Christmas present!

My second book is Danger Danger, also set mostly in Belfast, with excursions to Zurich. These are the eBook links, but again, the paperback would make a good Christmas present, especially for someone who’s read my first book.


I hope to write another blog next week, but if I don’t manage it, then have a marvellous and happy and blessed Christmas, everyone!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Rex Stout, the Slim King

Rex Stout was a thin, wiry man, not especially tall. But if you want his second name to be as appropriate as his first, you just need to think of his great detective, Nero Wolfe. If Rex is the King (as he is), then Wolfe is the fat, orchid loving, home loving, word loving gourmet who, says his sidekick Archie Goodwin, is the greatest detective in the world.

I first heard of Nero Wolfe when, aged about thirteen, I was playing a game of hangman during History class with my friend Anne Sterling. I had been winning consistently, until Anne came up with a name I’d never heard of before. ‘Nero Wolfe? Who’s he?’ I asked indignantly. I’d certainly started something. I heard all about Wolfe for the rest of the class, and the next day Anne brought me in Before Midnight, so that I could borrow it and see for myself.  Since then I haven’t looked back. (See how much we learn in school!)

I suppose Before Midnight is still one of my favourite Rex Stout’s. The title alone, with its evocative suggestion of thrills and danger, makes it attractive to any thriller reader. Then it has the added pleasure of a set of word puzzles within the overall mystery, always a great bonus. (Think of the cipher letter in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have his Carcase, for instance.) Before Midnight centres round a perfume competition, where the competitors have to identify the famous women referred to in twenty verses, one issued each week; with prize money of one million dollars.

                        ‘Though Caesar fought to give me power
And I had Antony in my grasp,
My bosom, in the fatal hour,
Welcomed the fatal asp,’

Archie quotes, and goes on to say, ‘Of course that was pie…’

And since it’s naturally ‘pie’ (easy) for all you guys, I won’t annoy you by giving you the answer.  But that was the first verse, and they got much harder quickly. A delightful book, and not only because of its plot. The real pleasure of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books lies in the atmosphere – thirties, forties, and onwards, in New York – and in the two main characters, Wolfe and Archie. Over the series of books, these two characters develop, and Rex Stout’s readers grow to rejoice in them and in their wit, their give-and-take discussions, and their occasional rows. They become our friends, and the type of friends, at that, whom we don’t often find.

Nero Wolfe himself is an interesting character, very enjoyable to read about. He never leaves his house on business – he has Archie for that. He is well read and his table talk is witty and clever. He is straightforwardly out for money, but at the same time he draws a line – he won't cheat anyone or go back on his word. He's a character who I love to read about. But Archie is the real centre of the books, both in the relationship we as readers build up with him and in the actual space he takes up in each story.

On my weekly bus journeys, during my teenage years, into the centre of Belfast to spend my pocket money, I began to look out for Rex Stout books, and before long I’d collected every one which was available at that time in paperback.  Recently I returned to the chase. A shop had opened in Dublin called Murder Ink which sold imported American detective stories, and on a trip to Dublin I acquired several. After that I added a few every time I was there.  I found that I already owned most of the full-length books, but that didn’t matter. Rex Stout wrote a great number of ‘long shorts,’ three of which made up a normal length book, and I became an addict of these just as much as of his longer work. In fact, Not Quite Dead and Black Orchids are among my current favourites.  Moving on to Amazon second hand sellers, I worked at completing my collection, and recently acquired Where There’s A Will. I now have all the Nero Wolfe books. Rex Stout wrote between 60 and 70 books. Some of these are his earlier romantic fiction – not quite so good, but still readable – but the vast majority are detective stories, whether in the Wolfe series or not.   He also wrote about another detective called Fox, and a female, Dol Bonner, so if anyone is looking for a Christmas present for me, the few books about those detectives would be very acceptable!

And talking about his female detective, Rex Stout is a strange mixture in his attitude to women. In the Dol Bonner books, and in Mountain Cats and Red Threads (non Wolfe books) where the puzzle is solved by a woman, he seems to support women as being intelligent and equal to men.  But Wolfe himself hates women – mostly – and Archie starts off in the early books, like Fer-de-Lance, as a complete male chauvinist pig; and even in the last book, A Family Affair, he is very opposed to the feminist character, Lucile Ducos.

It’s true that he develops during the course of the books, especially after meeting Lily Rowen, into a rather less chauvinistic person. Lily Rowan is an excellent character, and under her influence Archie stops thinking of women as sex objects inferior to men in every other way. Archie first meets Lily in Some Buried Caesar (one of the best books, in my opinion) when he hurtles over a high fence to escape from a bull, and hears a voice greeting him, ‘Bravo, Escamillo!’ (Escamillo was a well known bull fighter in those days.) Archie is naturally peeved with anyone who could make a joke like that when he had so narrowly escaped being killed.   Lily, however, can handle Archie with great ease, and over the course of the series takes complete control of him. But he still has his flaws.

So why do I like Archie Goodwin so much, and enjoy reading about him? Hard to say. Archie is the suave, sophisticated young man typical of the twenties/thirties, Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart, witty, debonair, brave and cool,but soft hearted and chivalrous, attractive to women, and admirable in nearly every way. His attitude to women is, alas, typical of his era, when in films the hero often spanked the heroine with a hairbrush with no sexual innuendo involved, except inasmuch as it showed that he could deal with her. Perhaps my enjoyment of Archie reflects a flaw in me. Well, if it does, I don’t care – I still like him a lot and rereading these books is still one of my favourite relaxations.

Excuse me – I want to go and finish rereading Champagne For One.

(If you’d like to read any of my own books, there’s Belfast Girls, a mixture of genres including romance and thriller, which has been selling quite well,

and my new one, Danger Danger, a more straightforward Irish romantic thriller which you can buy at these links.

See you soon!