‘Mary Renault – A Confession’ by Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago

9781844089611“I have a confession to make. I’m not a life-long fan of Mary Renault. I didn’t read her books feverishly as a teenager; I came to her quite late. To be honest, there was some reluctance as I never thought historical fiction set in the ancient world would be for me. But that shows just how wrong you can be. I like having my assumptions challenged. And I’m enormously proud to publish her on the VMC list.

The first book of Renault’s that I read was The Charioteer which, despite its title, is not one of her historical novels, but set during the Second World War. It is a book that I love – an intelligent, tender portrayal of a young man discovering his sexuality. A courageous, compassionate book, especially when one considers that it was published in 1953 (her American publishers refused to issue it). The Charioteer is unapologetic – there is no shame, no guilt, and no penalty – which, for its time, makes it unusual.

The Charioteer was Renault’s sixth book, and it marked a cataclysmic turning point in her writing. Perhaps writing it made her brave. After this novel, she would leave the twentieth century behind, immersing herself in the world of ancient Greece – in the battlefields of Sparta, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the teachings of Socrates. It was a bold move.

To fully appreciate the risk she took, one needs to know that she was already a successful writer with thousands of loyal readers, and understandably her publishers were apprehensive. To so completely change tack took courage. Up until then, her novels were well written and well received, but they were fairly conventional contemporary romances. That is not to say that they aren’t good books – they are – but when you know what is to come, the novels for which to this day she is justly famous, you can’t help wondering if all that time she had felt constrained and hemmed in. It was a gamble to follow her passion, but it paid off.

Despite The Charioteer being a groundbreaking and for its era a controversial novel, there is still some restraint. By setting her fiction in the ancient world, she won herself freedom: freedom to stretch her imagination; freedom to push the boundaries of what was expected of her; and freedom to write about homosexual relationships without censure. With The Last of the Wine she broke free of her tethers, and from here on in her novels have a vibrancy and pace that readers of her earlier works would never have imagined. On the page, she reinvented the past and made it pulse with life. Indeed, because these novels are such sweeping, thrilling page-turners, it is easy to forget just how much skill went into their creation: the characters are psychologically robust; the plots are imaginatively bold; and every detail is backed up with solid scholarly research that Renault uses with such a light touch, it is only when you read historians on her work that you realise it is there at all.

When we first acquired rights to publish Mary Renault, the more I spoke to people about her, the more I realised just how influential she is – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue, Madeline Miller, Sarah Dunant, Charlotte Mendelson – all are in her thrall. When Renault took that first step into the past – with The Last of the Wine – she secured her immortality.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

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September Book of the Month: The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

the-glass-painters-daughter-9781471151880_hrToday we’re delighted to announce our September book of the month, The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore.  First published six years ago, this has become a reading group staple and we’re delighted that Rachel will join us later in the month to take part in our very own book club chat.  And don’t worry if you’re not a member – look out for more exclusive blogs throughout September and for your chance to win a copy of the book.

We’ll leave it to Rachel to tell you more:

rachelhore“The first glimmerings of the idea that eventually became The Glass Painter’s Daughter came to me late one evening as I walked through the backstreets of Westminster. I was with my husband, returning from a party to a borrowed flat where we were to spend the night. It had been raining steadily for some time and the wet streets of Victorian houses with their black iron palings glistened with silver beauty in the soft streetlight. We turned a corner into Vincent Square, where the field at its centre was cast in darkness, and I stopped dead, struck by the odd sensation of stepping into my own past.

It was here that I had worked in a publisher’s office in my twenties, and now powerful memories of the passions I’d felt then, frustrated ambition, the pain of a love affair that went wrong, washed over me with such freshness I almost gasped. Later my mind was to roam back to that night-time incident, and to the gothic atmosphere of the web of streets between Victoria Street and the Thames, the hidden garden squares, the churches with their lovely stained glass windows. It came to me that it was the perfect setting for a story about the agonies and ecstasies of youth.

As I consulted books about the area’s history, the clearance of its slums in the mid-Victorian period, the building of the churches and the missions to the poor, a group of fictional characters began to form in my imagination. The Reverend Brownlow and his family have suffered the loss of a darling daughter and their story begins when he commissions a stained-glass window of an angel to commemorate her. It’s told from the point of view of the dead girl’s sister, Laura, who falls in love with the young artist who designs the window, but happiness is impossible, because he is married with a child. In the Brownlows’ tale of loss, confusion and yearning, there is still hope, however, and the glass angel shines out to tell them so.

This angel became the centrepiece of my novel, linking the narrative from the Victorian past to another that takes place a century later, when the window arrives in shattered pieces at a small stained-glass shop round the corner from the church. Here, Fran, daughter of the shop’s owner, and fellow craftsman Zac take on the painstaking task of repairing it. Through old papers, artefacts and a diary, they learn the story behind the window. This part also involved some careful research on my part, not only excavating some fascinating accounts about Victorian stained-glass making and artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, but taking evening classes in the craft myself, learning how to hone glass into shape without injuring myself, to solder strips of soft lead together and cement them down.

As I wrote, the subject of angels began to fascinate me and the quotes that head each chapter are the fruits of my reading: about the Biblical perception of angels as messengers of God; about nineteenth century ideas of guardian angels; and stories of people today who claim to have been helped by angels. Those readers who are interested might like to consider how some of my characters engage with different aspects of the angelic . Both Laura Brownlow and her mother, for example, struggle in different ways with the Victorian ideal of woman as ‘the angel in the house’. By giving a pure young girl, Amber, a job in the stained glass shop Fran might unwittingly have obeyed the Biblical behest and ‘entertained angels unawares’.

It’s difficult to think about churches and angels without music creeping in somewhere, and I found that Elgar’s dramatic and moving choral piece ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, which Fran sings at her choir, ran through my mind as I wrote. ‘Gerontius’ is about the journey of a human soul after death to redemption and eternal joy, and for me it represented the story of a character who is present throughout the novel, but never speaks – Fran’s dying father Edward.  The secret that lies at the heart of ‘The Glass Painter’s Daughter’ is Edward’s, and only when it is discovered can he and his daughter Fran find peace and wholeness.”

The Glass Painter’s Daughter will be re-issued in the UK by Simon & Schuster on 24th September.  Follow Rachel Hore on Twitter at @RachelHore and find out more about Rachel and her writing by visiting her website.

August Book of the Month: A Better Man by Leah McLaren

Welcome to the CB Book Group’s second book of the month, which we are excited to announce is: A Better Man by Leah McLaren. This is a book we’ve already had lots of heated discussions about here, so we think it will make for a great book group chat. It’s one of Amazon’s Rising Star books for August, and is actually publishing this Thursday – so if anyone else wants to read along, let us know!

Maya wants Nick to be less of a workaholic, to come home earlier, to spend some time with his children. Nick wants a divorce. With his mind made up, Nick is determined to leave quickly and with dignity, but it comes as an unpleasant shock to realise how much it will cost him to walk away. As a stay-at-home mum, Maya is entitled to everything. Nick is resolute, so when an unlikely solution presents itself he gives it everything he’s got. If Nick becomes a better husband and father, if he encourages his wife to rediscover herself, the more self-sufficient Maya will become: and the cheaper Nick’s pay-out. But as Nick pretends to be a better man he becomes one. He remembers his connection with Maya, their ability to be a couple and not just parents who share a house. Everything seems to be back on track. Until Maya finds out exactly what Nick has been planning…

As usual, we’ll be posting blogs about the book from Leah’s editor, Leah herself and from us. You can follow Leah on Twitter at @leahmclaren. A Better Man is published by Atlantic Books on August 6th.

 

Sarah Jasmon on The Summer of Secrets

Sarah Jasmon“It all started with my divorce. Before that, I’d been a writer who just didn’t write much. There’s a short story, I can’t remember by whom, in which a writer sits in his study and thinks about the stories he’s going to write. He plans them in great detail until it doesn’t seem worth putting them on paper, as they’re so perfect that he wouldn’t be able to improve them in any way, so moves on to the next. He’s supported in this by a wife who deals with all of the prosaic parts of life. When he dies and she finds no trace of his marvellous works, you’d think she’d be pretty angry, but instead she tries to get him a spot in Westminster Abbey, such is her belief in him.

I had nothing in common with him except the lack of actual, physical output. I was a home-educating stay-at-home mum without the discipline to sit down for odd half hours and make myself get on with it. At least my responsibilities gave me an excuse, one that was harder to believe in when I was given the time. Two mornings a week when my first daughter went to nursery. A whole summer when my husband had a sabbatical and we lived in a campervan in the grounds of a derelict house in France. The year when I had every Monday to myself. Didn’t finish a thing. Didn’t really start anything either.

This would have gone on forever if my marriage hadn’t broken down. I wouldn’t actively recommend it as a writing aid, but facing separation gave me space to consider what I really wanted to do with my life. At some point during the whole long, fracturing process, I picked up a newspaper on the train and read an interview with someone who’d taken an MA in Creative Writing and was about to get her book published. That, I thought, was something I could now do.

There’s a lot of talk around the effectiveness of CW courses, but mine gave me some very important tools. For the first time, I was spending time on a regular basis with people who took writing seriously. I had deadlines, both in the short term (essays and workshop contributions) and the long (a 60 000 word novel to complete for my portfolio). It gave me the incentive I needed to grab at odd half hours and just write. It also gave me a toehold within the local literary community.

My agent once told me that I was ‘just shameless enough’, which I took as a huge compliment. Gaining my MA and finishing the first draft of my novel only took me so far. Some part of me realised I had to get out there and build a network. I volunteered for Lancaster LitFest and realised that writers, even quite successful ones, will talk to you, so I started interviewing them for my blog. The following year I blogged for the Manchester Literature Festival, as well as volunteering for at various events. I joined the Notes into Letters project with the Royal Philharmonic Society, writing stories in response to music. I went to book launches and open mics and networking events. Some of this was displacement: my novel needed work before I sent it out to agents, but I just couldn’t see where to start. Being involved with and becoming part of the writing community, however, also meant I still felt like a writer, even though the MA had come to an end.

One other thing that the MA gave me was a boyfriend. His novel, A Kill In The Morning, was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award and, of course, I went along for the party. A party involving a whole bunch of publishing professionals… It turns out that editors are just as lovely to talk to as writers. Graeme didn’t win, but he did get a publishing deal. And I, as a direct result of those conversations, was put in touch with Carrie Plitt, who is now my agent. Too good to be true? Haven’t finished yet.

I’d swapped emails with another editor with the idea of keeping in touch for review copies from her list, and messaged her the next day to say how nice it had been to meet up. She replied, saying she’d been on my website and noticed I’d written a book but couldn’t find it anywhere. Yes, I admitted, because it was still just a file on my computer.

By the end of the summer, Transworld had made a pre-emptive offer and I’ve had the unmatchable experience of working through the editing process with exactly the right amount of support, guidance and input. It’s so exciting to be here at last, on the actual verge of publication. My ex used to say that at least he was giving me material to write about. What he actually gave me was the freedom to get out there and make a go of it, for which I am pretty grateful. And all that material? It’s composting nicely, thanks. Watch this space.”

The Summer of Secrets

The Summer of Secrets will be published in the UK by Black Swan on 13th August.  Follow Sarah Jasmon on Twitter at @SarahontheBoat and find out more about Sarah and her writing by visiting her website. 

The Scientist: a blog post by author Anthony Trevelyan

I’ve always been rubbish at science.  Mind you, for a long time I was rubbish at everything: my first teachers, at the lovely village primary school I attended, nursed fears I may turn out to be ‘educationally subnormal’ – or, as they put it in those days, ‘a bit of a sweetheart’.  I couldn’t count, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, when my classmates were emeritus professors of the spelling book and the times table.  I got there eventually – at the reading and writing end, anyway.  Not so much at the counting end, and not so much at the science end.

It was embarrassing.  After all, my sister was good at science; my brother was very good at science; and my dad was preposterously good at science, because he was in fact a scientist.  (I don’t know whether or not my mum was good at science; but I know she loved her job at the village post office, helping the old dears with their plastic sachets of coppers.  She was a phenomenal counter: her hand a blur as it scraped up coin after low-denomination coin and squeezed them into brassy columns of exact value.)  My dad worked for a local glass-manufacturing company, modelling improvements to the glass-making processes – tweaks to furnace design, re-anglings of jet-heads.  For this reason he didn’t like you saying he was a scientist: he preferred the term ‘technologist’, because his work concerned the application of scientific ideas (technology), not the interrogation of the ideas themselves (science).  It didn’t make any difference, though.  We all just said he was a scientist.

More awkwardly, he wasn’t the sort of scientist who goes on about science all day (or the sort who stares mutely into space while other people do the talking); no, he was the sort of scientist who reads Dickens and pores over Turner prints and talks about the Middle East and Germaine Greer and Kanye West.  So, just as I realised I quite liked books and all that stuff, I saw I couldn’t take the traditional art-fart route of promoting the excellence of the arts over the sciences.  I couldn’t pretend that literature and physics were naturally and inevitably exclusive of each other, because my bloody dad had already shown that they weren’t.

Still, he did his best with me.  For my tenth birthday he bought me a junior chemistry set, no doubt hoping it would stir in me a nascent appreciation of the periodic table.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The little set, with its test tubes and ground crystals and powdered minerals, was a lovely thing, and I enjoyed it enormously.  But I felt not a jot of interest in chemistry’s underlying principles.  I just liked mixing up pretty colours, imagining I was distilling fantastic essences, magical potions.

These days I know a little bit – a very little bit – more about science; but I think my sensation of it remains pretty much as it was then.  I remember my feelings only a few years ago, when I impulse-bought an iPad on its first day of sale.  That night on the couch my girlfriend and I coiled round the luminous handheld pane, and I thought: This is magic.  I didn’t mean This is brilliant, though I thought that as well.  I meant This is sorcery.  This is old art.

Something else was the same: a slightly frightful rapidity of assimilation.  When I was ten I loved my chemistry set, and I mixed my colours and compounded my potions, and then I got bored of the thing and shoved it in a corner and never looked at it again.  That’s not exactly what happened with the iPad; I never got bored of it, though I did soon lose my awe of it.  In a matter of weeks an object that had felt like radiant contraband from a parallel universe became merely another household item, no more startling than a lamp or an umbrella.  It was assimilated, though – I think crucially – still not understood.

Later I thought about this.  If I didn’t understand it (and I didn’t), how had I managed to assimilate the iPad so quickly?  Was it because the setting in which I placed it, the familiar domestic context of lamps and umbrellas, is similarly inexplicable?  Because, though they surround me all day every day, I don’t really know how lamps or umbrellas work, either?  Because I have become habituated to living out my days in an environment that I not only do not understand, but that I cheerfully assume it’s not my business to understand?

It struck me that I may not be entirely on my own in this.  In our time and place it is a condition of life that we delegate understanding, and specifically scientific understanding, to others.  The science (and, as Dad would remind me, the technology) of our environment is too massively complicated for most of us to grasp without prolonged technical study.  And, let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to do that.  And so we are content to live in ignorance; intelligent, educated Westerners, with our esoteric knowledge of film and poetry and music, we remain glibly ignorant of the technologies every moment reshaping the world around us.  And that, I thought, has to be asking for trouble…

My ideas about where that trouble may lead, or how that trouble may come, resulted in a novel called The Weightless World.  The book isn’t really about science (or technology): more, it’s about our shared credulity in the face of miracles we don’t even try to understand.  And it’s about a pair of berks who go to India in the hope of buying an antigravity machine, which may or may not exist, from an inventor who, likewise, may or may not exist.

And, I suppose, it’s about my dad, who died in 2013, just as I was starting the book (I’d drafted the first chapter when, one Tuesday morning, my sister phoned, and said I may want to sit down).  He’s not in it or anything, but I see now that it begins from a principle he had always set for me, to use however I could: the arts do not excel the sciences; nor the sciences the arts; and yet there are miracles, real miracles, in both.

The Weightless World will be published by Galley Beggar Press on June 18th in their distinctive black paperback and ebook. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @agmtrevelyan

Five Books about Mothers and Daughters

Today it’s our online book group discussion with author Jo McMillan about her novel Motherland, a mother-daughter novel of socialism and coming of age. In light of this, we decided to pick five books about mothers and daughters – tougher than it sounds!

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

We’re not quite sure why we’ve chosen so many books with a bit of magic in them – but this is such a special book we didn’t want to leave it off. Jack and Mabel are a childless couple living on a farm in 1920’s Alaska (NB this is also the first of two books set in Alaska on this list – not deliberate!), drifting apart from one another. One day, as the snow falls, their spirits are lifted, and they set about making a snow child together. The next morning, they look outside to find that the snow child they created has disappeared – and there is a young girl, Faina, running in the woods with a fox. And so they take Faina in, coming quickly to see her as their own, especially the lonely Mabel. But all is not quite as it seems, and the ending gives a twist to the idea of the magical fairytale…

2. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Can you tell that we love His Dark Materials over here? We’re determined to get all three of the trilogy into these lists one way or another. So, not quite your usual mother-daughter set up, but it’s one that’s interesting enough to include here anyway. Our protagonist Lyra Belacqua is an orphan, living at Oxford’s Jordan College and supposedly under the care of her uncle, the mysterious Lord Asriel, who is rarely there. So when he returns to the college with the enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, who offers Lyra the attention she’s been craving, Lyra comes to see her as a mother figure – planting the seeds for a relationship which echos throughout the trilogy…

3. Chocolat by Joanne Harris 

A mother-daughter image that’s become iconic due to the film starring Juliette Binoche (and Jonny Depp, lest we forget), this delectable novel tells the story of mother and chocolatier Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, as they sweep into a small, very Catholic, town and enchant them all with their chocolate creations. However, it’s not just the chocolate that causes a stir… With hints of magic and a mother-daughter bond that’s been replicated through the ages, this is a gorgeous novel of prejudice, change and chocolate.

4. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This is one of our all time favourites, and one which can be re-read over and over again. Bernadette is mother to Bee, a fifteen year old whose one request is to go to Antarctica, and wife to Elgin, whose TED talk is one of the highest ever viewed and is a Microsoft star employee. They live in Seattle where the supremely anxious Bernadette corresponds with her secret PA in India, mocks Bee’s classmates’ mothers and wages war over a hedge with her neighbours. Having aced her exams, Bee’s request to go to Antarctica is fulfilled – but then Bernadette goes missing. So, Elgin and Bee go looking for this award winning architect, adoring mother, and Bee’s best friend.

5. The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

We left this one until last as it’s not out until July, but we couldn’t resist including it as it’s – simply – brilliant. The mother and daughter in this novel are Yasmin and Ruby, who have travelled to Alaska to meet Matt, Yasmin’s husband and ten year old Ruby’s father, who’s been out there making a wildlife documentary. However, when they arrive at Fairbanks airport, they are met not by Matt, but by a policewoman who informs them that he has died in a tragic fire in the remote hamlet, Anaktue. Stubborn Yasmin refuses to believe it – and so, she and Ruby commandeer an Arctic lorry and set out across the bleak Alaskan wilds to find Matt. But – and here it gets tense – they are not alone. Another truck is following them through the darkness, and with no one else on the roads, they have to find Matt before they are found themselves. Yasmin and Ruby (who is, coincidentally, deaf) make a fierce mother and daughter team in this clever and compelling novel. Also, we can almost guarantee that once finishing, you’ll want to spend hours on the internet researching the issues it raises…

So, those are our favourite mother – daughter novels. Tweet us with your favourites that you think we’ve missed off (yes, we know we skipped Austen, for which we apologise!), @CBBookGroup.

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published on July 2nd by John Murray Books.

Five Novels Set in Spain

Because despite our best efforts, just doing books set in Mallorca was very hard. So here are our five favourite novels set in Spain, inspired by one of our May book group picks, The Rocks by Peter Nichols. As ever, tweet us with books you think we’ve missed – @CBBookGroup. Let’s dive in…

1. The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Okay, this one is set in Mallorca, and is one of our favourite intelligent beach reads. The Lemon Grove is a novel replete with lust and tension – Jenn, a woman approaching middle age, is on holiday with her husband, step-daughter and step-daughter’s boyfriend, Nathan. So begins an illicit longing on Jenn’s part, as she struggles to navigate the volatile set of relationships that have suddenly arisen in their tight family group: her step-daughter’s burgeoning sexuality, her husband’s secret, causing stress on his part, combined with Nathan’s ripe masculinity cause Jenn to act in a way you know is going to end in disaster, but feels somehow inevitable. It’s a satisfying and finely observed novel set against the backdrop of a sweltering summer.

 2. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Though it’s not entirely set in Spain, the bull fighting in this iconic novel, which established Hemingway as one of the greats, makes it one that we simply couldn’t miss off.  Protagonist Jake Barnes, an ex-pat living in Paris, is a journalist who’s been wounded in WW1. However, what we’re most interested in is his travel to Spain where he and his  friends go to Pamplona to watch the bull fighting in some of the most recognisable passages in American literature (we think, anyway). Yes, Hemingway isn’t the easiest writer of all  time, but this straight talking American novel is filled with some wonderful quotes, and scenes which will make you want to jump on a plane and head to the nearest Spanish bar.

3. Winter in Madrid by C. J. Sansom

We feel like it’s fitting to put this book after Hemingway, as Sansom’s writing seems to channel an earlier style, akin to Hemingway, Greene or even, in places, Maugham. Set in 1940’s (you guessed it) Madrid, it’s a thriller with heart – a tense, supremely well written novel that charts the fates of a tangle of characters: Harry Brett, a British spy; Sandy Forsyth, an old school friend of Harry upon whom Harry is sent to spy, due to his involvement with the Fascists; Bernie Piper, presumed dead by everyone but Sandy’s ‘wife’, Barbara, who insists he is alive; and Sofia, Harry’s Spanish lover. Leading to a climactic ending, this is a clever and quietly compelling read.

 4. The Return by Victoria Hislop

A classic time slip novel, a genre in which Hislop excels, this romantic but fiercely researched novel is set in Granada, Spain, both in the present day and during the Spanish Civil  War. Sonia Cameron, a middle aged woman from England, has travelled to Granada to pursue her new found love of salsa, following the discovery of old pictures of her mother in  Spain. A parallel story emerges once Sonia reaches Spain – that of the Ramirez family during the 1930’s. Love stories, passionate flamenco dancing, the trials of bull fighting: it’s  all here in a novel of family and war which asks nothing more of the reader than to enjoy it.

5. The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon GoughThe cover of 'The White Goddess: An Encounter' by Simon Gough.

Is this a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it something else altogether? These are questions you’ll ask yourself repeatedly as you read – perhaps ‘experience’ is a better word – The White Goddess. The book is predominantly a telling of Gough’s interactions with his great uncle (or rather, grand uncle: ‘Great is for steamships and railway lines, don’t you think? Grand is for fathers and uncles, and Russian dukes, of course!’), Robert Graves, from whom’s book this one takes its title. A young Simon’s experiences in Deia, Mallorca, echo those of characters Luca and Aegina in The Rocks, as he encounters Graves for the first time aged 11 in the bohemian paradise. You can almost see Lulu there…

 

The Rocks by Peter Nichols is published by Quercus Books in hardback, and will be available in paperback on July 2nd.