Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Things we choose to hide

Today I’m delighted to have on my blog fellow Capital Writer Jane Riddell answering questions about her new novel Things We Choose To Hide.

After ending a long-term relationship, Rachel Grosvenor goes to stay with friends in Florence, where she meets the attractive Sicilian businessman, Tommaso. Despite her friends’ concerns, she marries him weeks later, only to learn at the end of their honeymoon, that he’s been less than honest with her. Gradually she stumbles upon more unpleasant secrets in his life. Set in Italy and India, this is the story of one woman’s experience of deception, jealousy and finding love in unexpected places.

1. There is a fantastic sense of place in the book, Jane. I’m guessing Italy is a country you know well? And Positano in particular?

I love Italy, both the northern lakes and parts further south.  When our son was little, we had several holidays in Positano which is a particularly charming old town on the Amalfi Coast, near Naples.

2. It looks wonderful! The sights and sounds and smells of India and Kashmir jumped off the page too and were a great contrast to coastal Italy. Are these countries you have travelled in?

Yes.  After living in New Zealand and Australia for several years, my friend and I travelled back through SE Asia and India. One of the highlights was Kashmir where we stayed in a houseboat on Lake Dal for four days. The thing I remember most clearly was the fantastic purply light in Srinagar. My memories of other parts of India during that trip are vivid but more mixed. On the one hand there were wonderful buildings and landscapes and a sensual magic everywhere.  On the other, was the brutal poverty confronting us. 

3. What came first – the location(s) or the character of Rachel?

The location.  I did what I’ve never done before when writing books.  One afternoon in Positano, I decided to locate my next novel here and sat on the beach, determined to think of a storyline. This was many years ago, and for a long time this novel was my “go to” one whenever my current work in progress was being read by friends. On many occasions, just as I was easing myself into writing it again, I’d receive feedback on the WIP and return the Italian book to the back burner.  I’ve always been determined to finish it, but the final version is markedly different to the original draft.

 4. Rachel rushes into marriage with Tommaso despite her friends’ misgivings – and she manages to distance her own doubts too. There are other times throughout the book too when she ignores signs that everything is not as it should be.
Do you think the traumas she suffered in her teenage years made her hope, despite the evidence to the contrary, that things would turn out well?

Having seen how close her parents were, Rachel was keen to find someone who could make her equally happy and I think she would have felt like this even if she hadn’t lost them at a relatively young age.  A bigger influence in her choice of partner, however, was her frustration at the limitated relationship with a steady but perhaps rather dull man. After this experience, she was amenable to falling in love with a more exciting and less predictable man.

5. Apart from Tommaso, there is someone else in the book who is keeping a huge, life-changing secret. Is that lack of communication between couples something you like exploring (fictionally!)?

Very much so.  In general, I am intrigued by the communication in romantic relationships: the surface interactions and what underlying tensions and secrets may be bubbling away underneath. 

6. There is a feeling, I think, in the first-person narrative almost as if Rachel knows she is a heroine in a book and so is writing rather dispassionately about the events in her life. Did you ever consider writing her in the third person?

No, I always planned to tell the story in first-person because of the immediacy this can bring to it.  In wanting to guard against having a protagonist who bemoans her situation too often, I may have ended up with one who appears to be dispassionate about what has happened to her.  However, this wasn’t my intention!  One thing I’ve learned about characterisation is that readers will have varied reactions to the degree of emotion displayed by key characters.  What one reader considers to be overly emotional, another will view as being lacking in feeling.

7. Following on from the above, your lovely writing, the character of Rachel and the perfidy of some of the men around her, remind me of Anita Brookner’s novels. Would you go along with that?

Probably not.  I don't regard Rachel as being similar to an Anita Brookner female protagonist who has settled for a relationship where her love is returned with indifference.  The men she becomes involved with do love her and in the case of the one she marries, keep their secrets through fear of losing her.  Not that I’m justifying such behaviour!  In terms of style, there’s a delightful quiescence in Anita Brookner’s writing which she carries off this due to her rich and descriptive language.  I suspect I couldn’t be so successful, but thanks for the comparison!

8. The book covers about ten years in Rachel’s life and that of her friends and family. Did that time span take some working out or flow naturally? In other words are you a plotter or a pantser?

Essentially I’m a plotter but sometimes find that characters take off somewhere without having checked with me that this is okay…  As long as they return to the “main road” I am fine with this.   The time span did cause some headaches from time to time.

9. What are you working on now?
I am writing a humorous story about a group of people who come to a retreat which offers original therapies for their unusual problems.  It began as a longish short story, is now at novella length and may end up being a novel as more ideas come to me.

Thank you for answering my questions, Jane.

Things We Choose to Hide is available from Amazon – and here is another gorgeous view of Positano.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Six in February

I read six books in February.

On the Up by Alice O’Keefe
The first but probably not the last book I’ll read on how difficult it is for young (and not so young) people to afford to buy, or even rent, somewhere decent to live in the UK in the 21st century.
Sylvia rents a flat on a council estate in London with her laid-back, minimum-waged, ‘not-quite-husband’, Ove, their toddler and baby. She’s the main breadwinner but while she is on maternity leave she finds out the quango she’s worked for is to be wound up. Sylvia yearns for a house like the one she was brought up in but all she and Ove could possibly afford (if she finds another job) is one that is virtually uninhabitable and only a minute’s walk from a motorway junction.
However, shockingly, compared to others on the estate, Sylvia is lucky in that she has choices, although they may not involve house ownership. When her block is scheduled for ‘redevelopment’ (ie into properties none of the current occupants could aspire to buying) the council tenants are told they will ‘probably’ be re-housed in the Greater London area, or failing that, Birmingham.
The estate occupants come together to protest the development, aided by a lawyer friend of Alice’s, knowing though that the eventual outcome is inevitable and they will all go their separate ways.

Read on Kindle for book group.
‘The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff's professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.’
Family businesses are a great subject for novels (and TV dramas). This is the first one I’ve read set in the world of Chinese restaurants and it was a fascinating glimpse into the fiercely hot and noisy kitchens and the people who own them and the people who work in them. Well-written, touching, funny and sad.

Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce
Inspired by agony-aunt columns in women’s wartime magazines. Mrs Henrietta Bird is agony aunt for a failing magazine called Woman’s Friend – but she’s not much help to anyone in these troubled times. For one thing she’d rather be out of the office lording it on various war-effort committees and for another she refuses to answer any questions that involve what she calls Unpleasantness; this includes: marital relations, pre-marital relations, extra-marital relations … you get the drift.
Her new assistant, sparky Emmeline, seeing the genuine dilemmas and unhappiness of some of the letter-writers, decides to write back herself. Alongside this, there is Emmeline’s life outside the office with her friend Marigold, known as Bunty, and her other job in the evenings on the fire-brigade switchboard.
I thought the ending took a bit of swallowing but I loved the idea and the characters, and the tone which was rather reminiscent of girls’ school stories.
PS don’t look at Amazon reviews before you read this; some of them have a big spoiler.
PPS here’s a blog post of mine which has snippets of bracing advice from yesteryear.

The Holiday by T M Logan
From a charity shop to whence it was speedily returned.
Four women go on holiday to an Italian villa to celebrate their fortieth birthdays; one is on her own and the other three are with their husbands and children. Kate suspects that her husband is having affair with one of her friends. We learn from the tagline that one of the party is a murderer.
I thought I was going to read a tense psychological thriller with lots of build-up, but absolutely nothing happened until three-quarters of the way through this 496-page book. Until then you have to plough through banal interactions between characters who were all, whether grown-ups or offspring, unpleasant/obnoxious/spoilt/terminally boring*. A pity, because the reason for Kate’s husband’s suspicious behaviour turned out to be unexpected and original.
*other opinions are available – the book was a Richard and Judy best-seller.

The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb
I am a fan of KW, especially of her first book The Legacy.
I got totally into this one. She beautifully conjures up rural Wiltshire in the early 1920s and the heartbreak of Pudding whose beloved elder brother Donald has come back badly damaged by the war. When Donald is accused of the murder of a very popular member of the community, Pudding and a newcomer to the village try to prove his innocence.
And then – then I began a new chapter and was totally baffled, could not work out what was going on, even wondered momentarily if the binder had got pages mixed in from another book. I read on but nary a glimmer of light did I see. Only after I looked at reviews from others who had a similar reaction did I understand that this wasn’t the promised twisty ending but that there had been a sleight of hand all the way through. Was it very clever or was it cheating? The jury is out.

Midnight Fugue by Reginald Hill
The last, sadly, in the Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural series and it’s a corker.
It was a relief after the disappointments of the two books above to read one that did exactly what it said on the tin.