Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New reviews and Reading Roots

I'm coming to the end of a big push (excuse the pun) letting people know about The Birth Machine, and getting back to the WIP. Some nice responses are coming in. Rachel Carter writes a moving post on her blog after reading the book, describing an experience of her own which very much endorses the protagonist's situation, and making some very nice comments about the book. While Rachel responds to the childbirth theme of the book, and several birth trauma groups are showing great interest, there's also another new 5-star Amazon review which says this:
I don't see it as a polemic about hi-tech childbirth, but rather a nightmarish parable about power and secrets. Zelda can make no sense of her surroundings, and is deprived and imprisoned, because of a Kafka-style conspiracy between a sinister authority and her loved ones.
It concludes: 'An excellent and unusual story. Highly recommended.'

My relationship with the WIP is still a bit wonky, I'm afraid. This week I spent two mornings putting back an episode I'd dropped for this draft - I must have been mad to drop it, I decided: it was so colourful, and it illustrated something important about my protagonist's situation. But as I was showering to go out yesterday evening I saw that I'd been right before: no, including it made a less streamlined story! So I spent this morning rewriting again to get rid of the episode - only to move on in the typing and decide that, in view of what happens in the story later, it did need to be there after all... Basically, you could say I've lost the flow, but I'm hoping to be able to concentrate on it a bit better from now on.

And if you're interested in my childhood reading habits, today I'm in the Reading Roots spot on Carina's Reading Through Life blog.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bookmunch review of The Birth Machine & Salt online store

Wow, a really great review of The Birth Machine by Valerie O'Riordan on Bookmunch. Can't resist quoting this bit:
A damn good read... It’s a cliché to say this is a must-read, but still, I’m going to urge you all to read it. And I’m talking to you, too, boys: it might have a lot of fairy-tale aspects and it’s undeniably about pregnancy and labour, but it’s got science, too! Seriously. Salt’s done the public a service in bringing this one back. It’s a rock-hard satire and a very, very, very good read. So, you know, read it.
In other news, Salt's local post office has had a possible reprieve, so they're keeping their online store open after all for the moment. So if Valerie's review has whetted your appetite, you know where to go...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Back to it

Well, life's getting back to something like normality after launching The Birth Machine. I'm still working hard on promotion, but it's now the more routine kind of work that can be done in the afternoons after a morning's writing and drainage of creativity - contacting mailing lists etc.

So in the mornings I'm finally back working on the WIP. I have to say I was dreading it, dreading that moment where you pick up the thing with which you were so obsessed two months ago - dreaming it at night and daydreaming it all day - and think: What the f***'s this all about? because you've long ago moved light years away from its creative space.

In fact, I didn't even remember where I'd got to in the story, leave alone all the thematic threads and connections I was meant to be juggling. I always write in longhand first, but type up chunks as I go in order to be able easily to look back on it, but I'd been so fired up, and then latterly so anxious to finish a whole section before I suspended work on the whole thing (I didn't) that I'd ended up with reams of pages untyped. So obviously the first task was to type that up, which it seemed would be a good way of getting back into the novel. But you, know, my writing's terrible, and the scrutinising it needed meant that I wasn't getting the flow, and so the next obvious thing to do was go back to the latter part of what I had typed up and read that. But guess what, I discovered I'd edited that with a black fountain pen, again without getting round to typing up the edits, and it was covered in blobby black scribbles which once again needed intent scrutiny. So that's what I'm doing now, typing up those edits, but it's so long since I made them it's taking me ages to decipher them...
And this afternoon I shall be doing something else I put off because I simply couldn't face it on top of everything else: spending the whole afternoon in the dentist's chair...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jim Murdoch reviews The Birth Machine.

First blog review of The Birth Machine this morning, on Jim Murdoch's Truth and Lies. As is to be expected from Jim, it's a very thorough, thoughtful review and he's done lots of research in order to write it, looking at the covers of past editions etc. To my utter bashfulness he sees similarities between the book and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, and he concludes:
I enjoyed this book very much. It’s the best thing I’ve read by her ... and I’m happy to recommend it, to men (and not simply fathers) as well as women (and not simply feminists).

Friday, November 12, 2010

How (not?) to have a London launch (if you don't even live there)

First, you will have had one already, the previous year, for a different book, which was successful. For the current book you will have already had one in Manchester which was packed out, and where you sold all of the books the bookshop ordered, and more besides. This will give you confidence - although you are very aware of the unpredictability of these things, so maybe you are not so confident after all. Gird up your loins, though. First of all, be prepared to SPEND MONEY. This may seem to you crazy, ie to wipe out any profit on the books, and far more besides, before you begin, but remember: the point of the exercise is not so much to make money - something which is nowadays pretty much beside the point unless your initials are DB, eg - but to SPREAD WORD ABOUT THE BOOK. Book your return train journey. Book a hotel. Ask the bookshop to order in wine and nibbles, which you will pay for.

Begin inviting people. Start a month beforehand, in order to give plenty of notice. Send personal invitations to the following people: your personal friends and relatives who live within travelling distance of central London (this is not many), your writer and publisher friends: the two or three you have known for years, the ones you have met more recently via blogging and Facebook or on a writing course you went on once, and the several writers you know through currently having the same publisher, as well as the one or two you once published in a short-story magazine and with whom you are still in touch - altogether a good number. Be brave enough also to ask two very well-known writers you have also had dealings with in the last year or so, and don't forget your ex- but very nice agent who sold the book (which is a reissue) the first time round, and is thus part of its publishing history. Since the subject of the book is of particular interest to women (though not exclusively), contact a long list of London women's groups, and, since it has been studied on university courses contact a slightly shorter list of relevant London-based academics. And while you're at it, although it seems a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (but then the object of the exercise is spreading word about the book), contact a ginormous list of London-based reading groups. Get the event on Time Out listings.

All of this will take you several mornings and afternoons glued to the computer (you will need to reply to responses, remember). You will long ago have suspended work on your novel-in-progress or given up, for the present, any idea of writing .

A fortnight before the event, set up a Facebook event. Luckily, your publisher sets one up for you as well, because he has so many more Facebook friends.

What happens? Half of your very small number of relatives say they can't make it (you don't even invite your miles-from-London relatives as they would never travel). In spite of your having invited them so early, many of your writer friends write back to say that they too are already committed that evening - mostly to teaching: it seems that most creative writing tuition takes place on Wednesday evenings! Still, some say they'll come, but, frankly, you are counting on the fingers of two people's hands, and not using all of those fingers, either.

Your old agent sends you a very nice email to say that he, too, is already committed that evening, as do your old writing friends, one of whom will be embarked that night on an American tour. Neither of the famous writers with whom you are newly acquainted replies. Squash the horrible feeling that they are laughing up their sleeves at the thought of going to your launch, and remind yourself that they are probably extremely busy. About twenty people say on your publisher's Facebook event that they'll come (hardly any say so on yours), but you know that it's just so easy to click a button to look willing, and it doesn't really guarantee that any of them will come, and one of them lives in Colombia, you notice...

By now you are panicking. Your close friends and relatives tell you that it'll be all right, people always turn up, but you are not so sure. You stop sleeping properly at night. But then, you tell yourself, there are those 15 or so people who have said they're coming. And then there are those who haven't replied: maybe they'll come in the end... Though your gut feeling is that, actually, it means the opposite.

In the days coming up to the event, you spend time Facebooking and Tweeting the event, even though you are worried about breaking the code and being just too damn self-promotional and possibly therefore counterproductive. Also you write again to those who haven't replied, just in case they have forgotten all about it because you invited them so early - squashing the worry that they will just feel hassled, which will put them right off you and your book. Some of them do write back this time, to confirm your worst fears. Then several of the people who have said they're coming write to say that now they can't. The number of definites is dwindling.

But then you get a positive response from the University of East London who will circulate details, and from representatives of three of the women's groups who say they are sure their members will be interested. And to your delight, Beverley Beech, Chair of AIMS (the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services) writes to say she'd love to come.

You pack up your bags. Should you take some books? In Manchester the bookshop sold out, as did the bookshop at your last London launch, and on both occasions you ended up selling extra books out of your bag. It seems ridiculous this time. But then you never know: what if crowds of people off those mailing lists - and the bookshop's mailing list, and the Time Out listing - turned up? Every writer has to be prepared... So you do, you take a bag full of books as well as your other bags, and lug it on the train and the tube and up the steps of your hotel. As you are hauling it through your hotel room doorway the handle comes off, and on the way to the launch you have to buy another, and since this time you think you'd better get a stronger one, that's £50 added to the cost of the launch...

You're a little early, so you retire to Starbucks opposite the bookshop and transfer the books from your knackered bag into your new one. While you're sitting down, you look at your email. One of the writers you are expecting is not going to make it after all, as her babysitter has not turned up.

In the bookshop (Blackwell) the very nice Marcus has gone to a lot of trouble getting in the wine and nibbles and thoughtfully setting up for you in the medical section, most apt for the subject of the novel. Your heart is sinking at the thought that you will not make his efforts worthwhile.

This is what happens in the end: a few of the people who said they would come fail to do so, but a few others who said they couldn't, or didn't even reply, turn up out of the blue. Your lovely publisher comes (all the way from Cambridge in the freezing cold, her hands like ice), which makes all the difference, of course. And some of your oldest friends are there, including those who supported you all those years ago during the fraught history of the book. Although not a single other person from those mailing lists (or the events listing) is there, Beverley Beech comes, and is at the centre of intense discussions about the issues both before and after the reading. She tells you, both privately and openly during the reading, that the book is extremely current because the situation it deals with - that of the over-control of the obstetric profession - has got worse in the years since the first edition was published.

It's a small gathering, but it's a keen and involved one, and you are most surprised when at the end of the evening Marcus tells you that he is pleased with the number of books sold.

You even sell one copy out of your bag, because a dear writing friend arrives too late (and out of breath) to buy one from the shop!

And you are just arriving back at your hotel when your phone goes, and your son whose birth inspired the novel wants to know if you're all right, and you are all right, but so relieved of all the tension that you burst into tears...

(Pics here.)

*Crossposted to Fictionbitch

Reading Matters review of Too Many Magpies

Well, I was having breakfast in the hotel yesterday morning after launching The Birth Machine in London the night before, and an email came through on my iphone: notice of a wonderful review of Too Many Magpies on Kimbofo's deservedly respected Reading Matters blog - and I was so emotional after all the launching etc, that I burst into tears!

One of the nicest things about the review is that Kimbofo compares my writing to that of Jennifer Johnston, who is one of her favourite writers - and mine as well - and here's the bit I'll definitely be pulling for promotion purposes:
Smartly plotted and with not a word wasted, Too Many Magpies is an appealing, bewitching read, one that feels slightly dangerous and a little bit thrilling. It deals with predictable subjects in unpredictable ways, and for that reason alone it marks Baines as a British writer to watch. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign: The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Here it is : The Green Books Campaign, organized by Eco-Libris. 200 of us bloggers are simultaneously posting reviews, each of a different green book, that is, a book printed on either recycled paper or on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Here's a piece from the press release:
By turning a spotlight on books printed using greener methods, Eco-Libris aims to raise consumer awareness about considering the environment when making book purchases. This year’s participation of both bloggers and books has doubled from the event’s inception last year.

Founded in 2007, Eco-Libris (http://www.ecolibris.net) is a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices in the industry, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. To achieve these goals Eco-Libris is working with book readers, publishers, authors, bookstores, and others in the book industry worldwide. So far Eco-Libris has balanced out more than 150,000 books, resulting in more than 165,000 new trees planted with its planting partners in developing countries. To learn more visit http://www.ecolibris.net
My choice for the campaign is the historical novel, The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger, which is printed on FSC-certified paper by Serpent's Tail in the UK and McArthur and Co in Canada.

The Mistress of Nothing won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and was long-listed for the Giller Prize. It's a novel based on a striking real-life story, that of the unconventional Victorian intellectual Lady Duff Gordon, who was forced to travel to Egypt as a cure for her raging consumption, leaving behind her husband and children including a toddler. She was accompanied at first by only her maid, thirty-year-old Sally Naldrett, but once in Cairo, took on also the dragoman Omar Abu Halaweh, settling in Luxor and finally dying in Egypt of her disease. The whole time, she wrote letters home which were published and famed and I understand are in print to this day, and provide the springboard for this novel.

The novel however does not take Duff Gordon's viewpoint, but most interestingly consists of the first-person account of the maid, Sally, about whom in reality very little is known. The book elaborates, as Pullinger explains in an article in the Independent, on a single curious paragraph in a biography of Lucie Duff Gordon, which points however to a dramatic story involving Sally and the dragoman Omar. (I'm not linking to the article, since to savour fully the tension of the book you'd be better not to read the paragraph beforehand.)

The Sally of the novel is the devoted lady's maid and nurse, orphaned and then abandoned and sent into service at an early age, who views Lady Duff Gordon, a colourful and expansive figure who treats her servants with generosity and concern, as something of a saviour. Of an adventurous and curious nature herself, Sally is perfectly happy - indeed excited - to be accompanying her mistress on the journey to Egypt. As they journey south along the Nile (in search of drier air for Lucie's lungs) and settle in Luxor, European conventions fall away: first Lucie and then Sally adopt Arab dress, and they abandon their formal relationship, reading together in the afternoons and brushing each other's hair. It seems, to the reader and also to Sally herself, that they have become less mistress and maid than companions. And yet the moment Sally steps over a line she had not realised was there, her mistress turns against her and brings to bear on her the full force of offended rank, with tragic consequences.

The story is told in the plain language of a maid taught to read by her mistress, generally formal while very occasionally - usually in moments of emotion - swinging towards the demotic, and marked by the emotional restraint which Sally herself confesses characterises her: she had been taught at an early age, she says, to bite down on her emotions. It is a testament to Pullinger's skill, therefore, that, via this medium, she conjures a vivid, indeed emotive picture of Egypt, and the very restraint of the account makes Sally's predicament all the more moving when it occurs. The mode of telling does exact a certain price in terms of story/plot: Sally is never clear why there is such a dramatic reversal in Lady Duff Gordon's attitude to her: is it that Sally has misconstrued her all along, or is Lucie's reversal an understandable inconsistency resulting from Lucie's own personal trials, including jealousy? And if that last, jealousy of what, exactly? Sally asks herself all these questions, but is unable to answer them, and the reader, restricted to her viewpoint, must remain as uncertain as she. The ending leaves us with another uncertainty: Sally's predicament hinges on Omar's dependence on the good favours of Lady Gordon Duff, and we do not know whether the lady's death at the end releases the pair from her strictures. But then the novel, having plucked Sally and Omar out of obscurity into the vivid world of story, thus finally re-enacts the uncertainty of the trajectory of their real lives, and in this way is very moving indeed.

You can read the other reviews here.
To see how many books were saved in the printing of The Mistress of Nothing and for more information about the environmental characteristics of the paper used to print it, as well as to take the green book quiz, visit Webcom, the print provider for McArthur & Company Publishing.
Please take part also by leaving comments on the blogs, and pass on the word and your opinions via Twitter and Facebook.

Big day today...

Tonight is the London launch of The Birth Machine, and I'm also taking part in the Eco-Libris Green Books campaign which kicks off at 1pm Eastern time (6 pm in the UK) - 200 bloggers simultaneously posting reviews of green books. I'll be swiftly putting up my review of Kate Pullinger's prizewinning novel The Mistress of Nothing before making sure the wine is sorted for the launch - do log on if you're not at the launch, and of course do so immediately afterwards if you are!

A reminder of the launch details: 6.30 pm, Blackwell's Bookshop, 100 Charing Cross Road (nearest tube Tottenham Court Rd). Please do come along: all are very welcome.

PS For The Birth Machine, I'm taking part in Eco-Libris's scheme to plant a tree for every copy printed.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Celebrations and rest

I'm writing this from a hotel room overlooking Brighton beach and my feet are actually hurting from the long walk John and I took to Hove this afternoon, and I'm still feeling slightly ill at ease/guilty about the fact that I'm spending several whole days away from the desk. Yesterday we travelled south for a great private launch party - that of Vanessa Gebbie's new story collection from Salt, Storm Warning, which looks wonderful. It was a lovely party, and so gratifying to see the piles of Vanessa's new book on the kitchen table, which by the end of the evening were all gone! And so nice to meet up with several writer friends, and very good (and brave!) of Vanessa to put up all those of us who had travelled from afar! Since my own London launch for The Birth Machine is on Wednesday, John and I decided not to travel back to Manchester in between, and since John had never before been to Brighton we've spent another night here in order to explore. And I'm so hungry after all the walking I've gone and thrown dietary caution to the winds and eaten the crappy hotel biscuits...

And now, very fittingly, someone is setting off fireworks on the beach.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Reading at Bolton Octagon

They're mad in Bolton - mad for literature, it seems. There they are up in what you might think were the wilds of the north of Manchester and they have this vibrant theatre and a university with an English department that has been running well-attended readings for the public.

Last night I was privileged to have been asked to be one of the readers, and John and I set out after dark to drive up the motorway. A week ago we'd driven at a similar time of day on the same bit of motorway, so we knew we'd be stuck in traffic, though as we went to the car through driving rain and huge swirling leaves, we thought we were being ridiculous leaving one and a half hours for a journey that should take only 30 minutes. Huh. It was after one hour and ten minutes in a rain-swept traffic queue on the blackness of the motorway that we pulled up outside the Octagon Theatre where the reading was to take place. It had actually stopped raining, but I honestly didn't think anyone would have turned out in such conditions to hear me and poet Tony Roberts read. How wrong could I be? People were already gathering when I got up into the room, and in the end the room was practically full, with not only university students but members of the public. All of them writers, it turned out, all of them madly into literature, all really keen to talk in the interval, and many of whom, bless them, eagerly bought books. (Pics below.)

It was a lovely evening.I loved being back in Bolton where I once taught for a while at the university, I loved Tony's reading - he and I swapped books, my Balancing for his Outsiders, which I am going to relish - I loved chatting to the audience members, and it was exceptionally nice to be introduced by poet and professor Jon Glover - who produced a copy of the original edition of The Birth Machine and showed it to the audience, and got me to sign it!

Sadly at the end we learned that the readings, which have continued uninterrupted for the past thirty years or so, have been affected by the cuts and are suspended for the moment. A very great shame, as they clearly provide a service to this literature-hungry community - I talked to Thomas, an A-level student very keen to be a writer, and to a 53-year old man who has done an Access course in English and is going on to do a degree. It is hoped, though, that the readings will start again in the new year.

Thank you so much to Lauretta Evans and Jon Glover of the university who hosted the reading, to the Octagon, to Sweetens Bookshop who sold the books, and to the great audience.

And we swept back down the nearly-empty motorway in 30 minutes flat!

Le Mans Crescent in the wet, snapped from the Octagon Hospitality Suite where the reading took place:

The audience gathers:

Jon Glover introduces us:

I read:

Tony reads:

Talking in the interval to A-level student Thomas:

The book piles going down:

The question and answer session:

Monday, November 01, 2010

Official Publication day for The Birth Machine and Amazon reviews for Too Many Magpies

Well, I've already had one launch and still have another to come (Charing Cross Road Blackwell's, 6.30 pm, Wednesday 10th November), so I'd sort of lost sight of the official publication date, and there I was about an hour ago typing it in an email: 'Publication date November 1st', and it hit me: that's today! Well, it so happens that I'm meeting someone for dinner tonight in Aladdin's in Withington, where you take your own drink, so I might just take along a wee bottle of fizz, even though, actually, I had decided to give up drinking for now...

And while The Birth Machine is now officially out, reviews of Too Many Magpies are still coming in: last week, to my great delight two more five-star Amazon reviews popped up. One of the reviewers, DotSeven says this:
I finished Too Many Magpies in three bedtime reads (something I rarely do!). Mesmerised from start to finish. As a reader I identified with it to a (sometimes) uncomfortable degree - loved the prose and the way the elements and characters were mirrored/entwined. A unique experience, seldom read anything by a UK writer that has had so marked an effect!
Honestly, what better reaction that that? Yup, fizz tonight defo...