Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Book Review: Pursued by Lynn Gardner

As I have mentioned before, it's not easy or cheap for me to get my hands on LDS fiction, so when I buy a book I choose carefully. I bought Pursued because Lynn is a friend and fellow V-Formation blogger, but also because it is set here in the UK so I thought it might be interesting.

Lynn must have either spent a long time travelling round the Cotswolds, or done exhaustive research, because the descriptions are spot on. I've never been to Wells cathedral, but I have been to several others, and she does a great job of conjuring up the gothic architecture and rarefied atmosphere. Her characters are also well constructed, from the tenacious, slightly manic Maggie, to easy-going Rolf who is obviously just along for the ride. What Maggie goes through in the course of the book -not wanting to give any plot spoilers, but the least of her shocks is discovering that her long-lost brother is a terrorist about to blow up half the world - made me very glad she had a tame psychologist in tow. The drama starts on the very first page and it doesn't let up.

Unfortunately, two things spoilt the experience for me. First, while I am generally happy to suspend disbelief in the interests of entertainment, this book was just a little too implausible for my tastes, with rather too many amazing coincidences and bizarre occurrences.
The second problem is one of the cultural setting. I think it's very brave of Lynn - and indeed any writer - to set a novel in a country they haven't lived in or perhaps even visited, because when it is read by natives of that country, one little mistake can wreck a carefully built illusion and interrupt the flow of the story.
To cite an example, I recently read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. All the elegance and romance of the original, with added violent zombie mayhem. During one scene, the Bennett sisters are making their way to Meryton when they are startled by a sound they suspect might be "unmentionables" (zombies). But Lydia is able to reassure them when it turns out to be nothing more than a chipmunk. And so they continue on their way.
Hang on a minute. A chipmunk? In nineteenth-century England? Zombies crowding round Netherfield I'm prepared to accept, but chipmunks are just a step too far.

Similarly there were some little cultural mistakes I was prepared to ignore in Lynn's book, especially, as I have said, given the staggering amount of research she has done. These included the use of the verb "to visit" in the American sense, and the fact that both Arthur the butler and Grandfather Rathford own handguns. Handguns have been illegal here since 1996, with the penalty for owning one a ten-year prison sentence. But then, the guns were crucial to the plot, so I could overlook the criminal tendencies of an English country gent and his faithful butler.
One issue on page 115, however, actually stopped me in my tracks as I read and, like the chipmunk in Meryton, made the entire book lose credibility for me. More than that, it made me upset and, dare I say it, a little angry.
In the passage in question, Damon Rathford, who is British, is discussing his father's health problems, and says, "It's his gallbladder. He's scheduled for surgery in two months, but with our socialized medicine, the waiting time can kill the patient."
So first off, what is "socialised medicine"? I asked several friends and no one knew. All they know is that we pay our taxes and from that money we get libraries, schools, a police force, roads, doctors, hospitals, medicinal care, parks, and a great many other things which we don't consider to be "socialised". It's not a term we ever use, any more than Americans are likely to complain, "Because we have socialised education, a lot of our young people are illiterate."

Secondly, it just isn't true. The National Health Service operates on a triage system, and although there are waiting lists for non-urgent procedures such as hip replacements and bunion removal, anyone with a life-threatening problem has no wait at all. If Damon's father was truly likely to die imminently, he would be in hospital scheduled for surgery within hours. I know this from experience - my mother had gallbladder surgery, with no wait. I have never heard anyone British say a bad word about the NHS, and Damon Rathford lost all believability as a character from that point on.

Of course, Lynn has no need to worry about this. Her book will sell well, and those who like romantic thrillers (and there are plenty of them) will love it. Because it is so difficult to buy LDS fiction in the UK, very few British people are likely to read, and be offended by, that particular line. While that may be comforting to Lynn, it isn't to me, because lots of Americans will read it at face value, and may even believe it. I don't feel that an LDS fiction novel is the right place for political propaganda.

So if anyone reading this out there wants to write a novel set in the UK but has the slight handicap of never having been here, send me your manuscript! I can ensure that you don't have alien vegetables such as rutabagas or acorn squash in the larder (as in Josi Kilpack's English Trifle) and that British characters don't make outrageous, scandalous, false and unpatriotic statements about our wonderful NHS.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Typos

Whilst I decry the poor standards of literacy these days, it also extremely entertaining seeing the mistakes that are made. This morning I received two items in the post which caused me to laugh out loud. The first was a letter from the NHS national blood service telling me about a venue change for my blood donation sessions. It included the sentence, “In order to make this change as inconvenient as possible we have included with this letter a map detailing the new venue.” The second was a Christmas catalogue which had, among the many lovely things advertised, a pair of lighthouse bookends. I considered getting these for my brother-in-law, who is passionate about all things maritime, until I read in the description that “these na├»ve bookends will look delightful in any room in the house”. I’m sure James would not appreciate bookends which are immature and innocent about the ways of the world.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Bradshaw's Books!

Anne Bradshaw, a fellow Brit, is so much better at blogging than I am. Not only does she blog every day (cough) but she has some fantastic giveaways on her blog, and she knows how to publicise her book properly using the fabulous tool which is the internet. I'm visiting the USA in April next year. Might have to visit Anne to have a lesson on how to use all this technology to further my efforts as a writer.

In the meantime, I've added a link to Anne's Blog. And I'm keeping my fingers crossed I might be the lucky winner of, well, anything really! (But my Mum would love the David Glen Hatch CD).

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Case for LDS Fiction

Our "local" LDS Bookshop (about 50 miles away) has started sending me regular emails about the special offers available, and the new releases now available instore and online. They've got some tempting offers, and it's the only place in the UK you can buy root beer, so I called there a couple of weeks ago.

The bookshop is in the gorgeous village of Godstone, near the London Temple (there's business acumen for you) but the downside of being an LDS bookstore in the UK is that everything you stock has to be imported from the USA, which makes it all extremely expensive, even with the tempting offers. So I usually salivate over the stock (Paper and stickers for a baptism scrapbook! Family Home Evening plaques on which you can hang the names of each family member! Salt Lake Temple tea light reflectors!) and plan what I will fill my spare suitcase with next time I visit the USA (April 2010).

I found, on visiting the shop, that there are only five small shelves dedicated to LDS fiction. It's not a big shop, and they have all those other lovely things to stock, but I still couldn't help wishing there were a few more titles.

I can see the reasoning; inspirational, spiritual and scholarly works are probably bigger sellers, and Church members can't get those anywhere else. Whereas, fans of fiction can go into any supermarket and pick up several really well-written (and much cheaper) novels. After all, a novel is a novel; surely it makes no difference whether or not one of the characters happens to be LDS?

I happen to believe it is very important. Speaking as a convert living in a place where few people have even heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it can feel like a lifeline reading about other members, even fictional ones, and the lives they live in far-off places where others don't view them as an oddity. What's more they are people who go through challenges and trials, romance and adventure, whilst staying true to what they believe. They set a good example, and they can inspire as much as anything in the more cerebral works. And fiction is so much easier and more fun to read!

Yes, the market is awash with secular fiction, and much of it is wonderful. But much of it, too, contains scenes which, if in a movie, would be given an 18 (R) rating, and unlike movies books don't show the rating on the cover. The characters often behave badly, make wrong choices without suffering consequences, and hold views which are contrary to the gospel. Whilst there is a great deal of very good literature out there (most of it over 50 years old) there is also plenty that offends the spirit. The discerning LDS reader might prefer to relax with a good good book.

I haven't read much LDS fiction (see note above about bookshop not stocking it) but what I have read has been every bit as good as anything by any bestselling author stocked in my local (1 mile away) supermarket.That is basically why I will be taking advantage of those special offers and buying at least one LDS fiction book every time I got to the LDS bookshop at Godstone (that's every month, when I go to the Temple). I want them to know just how popular well-written LDS fiction is. And when I go to Florida next year, I'll be taking an extra suitcase with me so that I can visit Boyd's LDS Books in Orlando and take home an entire case of LDS fiction.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Enter the Character

In 1990, Joanne Rowling was travelling on a train when Harry Potter "Just strolled into my head, fully formed." Nine years later began the phenomenon every writer dreams of - book sales breaking records, children discovering the joy of reading, and no financial worries ever again.

I don't begrudge her any of it - I love those books too. But until recently I was twisted with jealousy over the way her character, and presumably his story, came to her so easily. If you read these blogs regularly you'll know that I am struggling with my current work and even gave up on it a few months ago, before taking it out and dusting it off again with a sigh (and a sneeze). I think I'm finding it particularly difficult because my last book, Easterfield, was a joy to write - it pretty much just fell out of the ends of my fingers.

Two days ago I experienced an exciting flash of inspiration when the character of Amelia Druce swam into my head, fully formed. Yes, she really did swim, and not only was I able to see that she could do with losing a few pounds around the waistline and freshening up her hair colour, but I knew all about her failed marriages, her cossetted childhood, and her love of snow globes. I knew how she thought, which of her friends she liked the most, and exactly what funny things were going to happen to her in the course of the book.

Half-an-hour later I had not only written a whole introductory chapter about Amelia, but I knew how her story would intersect with those of her friends, and how her friends' characters complemented and contradicted hers. (Her friends didn't swim into my head - Maralee marched, Dolphin danced and Jen jumped. Tip for writers: always avoid affected, awkward and annoying alliteration - but when you get to know these characters as I have, you'll see what I mean.)

Unfortunately when I say "written", I mean "composed" because, as always happens with flashes of inspiration, I was nowhere near a computer at the time. I was, in fact, in the steam room at my gym, my second-favourite place in the world for quiet time, introspection and deep thought. (A banana for whoever can guess the first.) Not really somewhere I can take a laptop.

Even more unfortunately, Amelia Druce is not a character in the book I am currently labouring over, but the one I will start once I have finished it. So you may have to wait quite some time to learn about the tangled love lives of Amelia, Maralee, Dolphin and Jen. And in the meantime, as Dory would say, Amelia can just keep swimming. And I can be thankful that, once in a while, I can share the creative experience of a really great writer.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Taking a Gamble

Apparently, gambling is on the increase due to the recession. Online gambling is one of the few growth industries at the moment, and it seems that many people, finding that their money is earning little interest, are deciding to see whether they can generate income by gambling with it instead.

I can smugly say that I don't gamble. Well, not much. I have bought a raffle ticket as part of the entry requirement to a school fete on occasion, and once I won a bottle of champagne which I then generously donated back to the school, since of course I don’t drink alcohol. I'd like to think that they re-raffled it, but I suspect that there was, in fact, some unnatural merriment in the staff room on the last day of term.

My other foray into gambling came in the latter part of last year. The jackpot to the Euro Lottery was up to £92 million and finding myself in the Post Office with a pound in my pocket, I decided to invest in the right to dream for a day, and I bought a ticket.In my 24 hours of planning exactly how to spend such a huge sum, I discovered some interesting truths about myself. For example:
  • However rich I was, there is no way I would ever have any plastic surgery.
  • Similarly, I would never send my children to private schools. Not because I think they are elitist and out-of-touch with the real world (much) but because my children are happy and doing very well at the schools they attend now, and those schools are within easy walking distance.
  • I am nicer than I thought - the plans which most excited me were those involving anonymously paying off mortgages or giving large cash gifts to friends and deserving causes.
  • However much money I had, I would never buy a brand new car. Probably a car that's one or two years old (as opposed to the twelve-year-old car I just scrapped), but never something straight from the production line. I just couldn't face seeing it depreciate by half its value as I drove it off the forecourt.
  • There are no houses currently for sale in my area - even with asking prices of over £1 million - which I like well enough to tempt me to leave the home I currently live in.
What I really learned about myself, then, is that I don't actually want or need £92 million. I think discovering that was well worth £1. The punchline to this is that I won. I got four numbers out of the six, and won £6.10. So despite a considerable return on my investment for my foray into gambling, I shan't be doing that again. Hubby Dearest (who is an accountant, and thus genius) says that the National Lottery is "a tax on people who are bad at maths". Anyway, I promise faithfully never to gamble again (unless it's the only way to get into the fete), however much I find myself longing to pay off your mortgage.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

A Worthy Winner

When I started this blog I had hoped that I would be able to spend a good deal of time talking about books. After all, my degree is in English Literature so I love reading good books, and I have been known to write the odd novel here and there.

Unfortunately, my hectic life seems to leave little enough time for blogging, let alone reading books. Not only that, but the books I particularly enjoy are LDS novels, and with the nearest LDS bookstore over an hour away, they are not easy to come by.

Casting an eye over my bookshelf the other day, however, I discovered that I had an LDS novel I hadn't read. I had been sent it by a friend and absent-mindedly consigned it to the shelf, intending to read it when I had more time. So I picked it up, and I'm halfway through reading it.

It is wonderful! The dialogue is pacy and real, the characters are well developed and believable, and the plot just races along with a new surprise on every page. Just when you think you know who is playing whom, something else changes. I'm absolutely loving reading it, and can't wait to find out what is actually going on. It is fresh, different and wonderful entertainment. I heartily recommend it. And apparently so do a good many other people, because it won a Whitney Award last month. The book is Fool Me Twice by Stephanie Black, and deserves that award in every respect. Well done, Stephanie.

And a brief postscript that the friend who sent me the book is another Whitney Winner, and my favourite author - Kerry Blair. Congratulations to you too, Kerry.

So, any other friends want to send me great books?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Happy/Glad/Joyful/Cheerful/Content/Jovial St. George's Day

I recently unveiled my rather spiffing new website - http://www.annajonesbuttimore.com/ . On the “Tips for Aspiring Authors” page I included the suggestion that I have found most helpful in my writing career – adding the Thesaurus feature to the Word toolbar. Or, if you do not have the technology, investing in a good Thesaurus. Reading one of my favourite books, by one of my favourite authors (Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson) this morning, however, I discovered that speakers of languages other than English have no idea that such things as Thesauri exist. (or at least, that if they did they are now extinct.)

English has the biggest vocabulary of any language in the world. French has about 100,000 words in common use; English has double that number. What a wonderful blessing I consider it to be that English is my mother tongue. When I count my blessings each day, it’s right up there with “I don’t live in Rhyl”.

When I am attempting to write moving and pertinent prose, I have a huge wealth of words, nuances and subtle distinctions on which I can call. The incredible scope of the language affords the writer the opportunity to pack so much more meaning into a single word, just by careful choice of the appropriate synonym. (Why isn’t there another word for synonym?)

Take, for example, the words “She smiled.” Let’s say character A, a dashing gentleman, has just said something to character B, our heroine, and she smiles in response. Were I writing in Welsh – the only other language in which I have any proficiency – I would use the verb gwenu – “To smile”. As far as I am aware, it is the only word for “smile” in Welsh. Now look what happens when I choose to use one of the many synonyms available in English, and how much more it tells us about our heroine’s response to A’s words.

  • “She smiled” (She’s happy, or being polite)
  • “She beamed” (She’s really happy!)
  • “She grinned” (She found it funny)
  • “She smirked” (She’s disdainful; what he said wasn’t funny or clever)

Today is St. George’s Day, and is reputed also to be Shakespeare’s Birthday, so I thought it a particularly appropriate time to celebrate the wonderful diversity of the English language, and perhaps also the fact that I have the privilege of being born English, and thus don’t have to learn it the hard way!

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Pride Comes Before A Fall

I cancelled the piano tuner. It may not sound like much, but it was almost traumatic. He comes every six months to tune our ancient piano, and he charges £40 for doing so. But with the recession even reaching his usual workplaces of Russia and Azerbaijan, Hubby Dearest hasn’t had any work since November, so we are having to tighten our belts. That means luxuries like piano tuning, have to go.

Actually I’m tone deaf and wouldn’t know whether or not the piano is in tune. In fact, for all I know, the piano tuner could has been scamming me for years and laughing quietly to himself when I declared “That sounds so much better!” and handed over the cash equivalent of half our weekly food budget. But even so, it was very difficult for me to phone him up and ask him not to come next month, as scheduled, because we couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Whilst it’s easier to admit to the necessity of such cutbacks when everyone is in the same boat, it is never easy to tell others that things are difficult. Especially when those people also need to come up with cash for their weekly food budget. I was quite pleased to have to deliver the message to the answering machine rather than the man in person. (And if he has indeed been scamming me for years, it serves him right.)

C.S. Lewis once said: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” In other words, the only reason it was difficult for me to tell the piano tuner’s answering machine that I couldn’t afford to pay him his fee was because I somehow considered it important to be seen by him as someone who had plenty of money to splash around on luxuries like a tuneful piano. And now I think about it, that is about the crux of it.

About three years ago our Ward Choir was conducted by an incredibly talented Sister called Holly Carter. She knew all about proper warm-up exercises, harmonies, everything - she could evne tell when someone was singing out of tune! My eldest daughter loved singing in her choir especially when they performed the most amazing and complex piece absolutely perfectly for Stake Conference. I sought out Sister Carter afterwards and told her how proud she must feel.

"No," she replied. "I refuse to feel pride." And she directed me to a talk given by President Ezra Taft Benson in April 1989 by way of explaination. I am ashamed to say that I didn't read it then. Since then, several other people have referred to in in Sacrament talks and just general conversation, but I didn't read it.

Today I read it and it is as powerfiul as I suspected it would be. In a nutshell, President Benson tells us that pride is a sin. The entire message of the scriptures is that pride in oneself leads to destruction, and humility and repentance leads to eternal life. There is no such thing as "righteous pride" because pride is about trying to be better than others, and wanting to impress man rather than serve God. Pride destroys relationships, causes offence, prevents forgiveness, and is ugly.

I hope that my out-of-tune piano will serve to remind me of the dangers of pride for years to come.

Friday, 3 April 2009

School Holidays! Hurrah!

Any moment now, my thirteen year old daughter will come running through the door waving her hands in the air and cheering as though she's won the lottery (despite never have bought a ticket). I am anticipating her joy, and sharing it, because the schools break up today for the two-week Easter Break, and I love the school holidays.

I know many parents dread them, but I have ten reasons for rejoicing about having the children home for a fortnight.
  1. I hate doing the school run. I don't have a car at the moment, so it involves cycling a total of two miles, often in the rain. Twice a day. Four times on Monday when Hari has Brownies too.
  2. My children are rubbish at getting up in the morning, and I don't like dragging them out from under their duvets when they look so cosy and peaceful.
  3. I don't like having to drag myself out from under my duvet in the morning either. If I don't have to get the children ready, I can have a lie in!
  4. Making sure their uniforms are clean, ironed and ready is a real chore. There is always a tie missing, or a button hanging off a blouse.
  5. Not having to take the children to and from school gets me an extra hour and a half in free time. That means I might actually get to write some novel!
  6. No more making packed lunches at midnight, only to discover that the fridge is empty and I have no idea what to put in said lunches, or that I've lost a flask.
  7. I struggle to help them with their homework. Gwen knows better than to ask, but Angharad likes me to help her with her Maths homework and, frankly, it is beyond my ability or understanding. Angharad is 8. But no homework in the holidays!
  8. I'm not very organised, and I can never remember who has a school trip, or swimming lesson, or needs to take their recorder.
  9. Since I finish work at 2.30 the afternoon is then free for us to do things together as a family.
  10. I love my children, and I like spending more time with them.

OK, so ten weeks from now I will probably be rejoicing that they are going back again. Watch this space!

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Safety in Numbers

Democracy works! I know, I was surprised too, and quite thrilled to have made that discovery last year.

Here’s how it happened: Recycling services in our area were really quite poor. The council collected paper, cardboard, glass and green waste, but most of us could never remember what was being collected which week, and what colour box or bag it was supposed to be in. And they didn’t collect cans and plastic bottles. Being a responsible sort of soul, each time I visited friends in the next borough (where they do have collection facilities for such items) I took along my empties. I was extremely popular, as you might imagine, arriving with three noisy children and four bin bags full of mouldy tins and festering milk bottles, then eating all the cheesecake and going home leaving the smelly rubbish, and occasionally a child or two, behind.

But last May I actually took the time to read through the “Vote for Me” leaflets which came through my door from potential local counsellors. You know the type – community minded individuals who have served on every local PTA, planted 50 trees, scrubbed graffiti off the village hall and raised £500,000 for the local hospital before lunch. One of them was promising that, if elected, she would improve recycling collections. So I voted for her. So did everyone else, it seems, because she won. And so now I can proudly put out my pink sack containing paper, cardboard, glass, cans and plastics, all mixed up together, safe in the knowledge that a gleaming yellow truck will come and take it all away to be recycled.

What this has taught me (and I know you knew this already) is that if enough people want something, and are capable of saying so, then it has a very good chance of happening. Now, I don't live in California (although I would love to) but I did follow all the fuss about proposition 8 with mild interest, and I'm finding it all the more interesting that those of us (well, you Californians, actually) who believe in the sanctity of God-ordained marriage between a man and a woman outnumbered those who don't. Democracy demonstrated this, and those who are making clear their unhappiness at losing need to understand that they can't have it both ways. If you live in a democracy you have to succumb to the will of the majority. Sometimes, that majority will include you, and sometimes it won't.

Right now I live in a democracy where marriage is only between a man and a woman (although the Government did rather sneak the whole Civil Partnership thing through the back door) and where my recycling is collected alongside my rubbish. So actually, I'm quite liking this whole democracy thing. And hey, isn't your new President cool!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

A Beautiful History

Last Wednesday I attended a meeting in central London, an hour away from home on the train. The meeting was held in a glorious old building in Westminster, inside which was a modern law firm. Getting there involved me walking past the Houses of Parliament. Whatever your opinion of what goes on inside it, the building itself is stunning. I walked past Westminster Abbey, which was also breathtaking. It was almost strange to see so many buses, taxis, cars and people plodding blithely past as though there was nothing to stop and stare in wonder at. Happily, of course, there were also plenty of tourists stopping and staring.

I’ve lived in the South East for many years, and been to London many times, but luckily I’m not yet at the stage where all the amazing ancient architecture is just some blargh background to my life.I was reminded on the way home that wonderful historic structures are not confined to London. Walking back from Rayleigh Station I passed “The Round House” which is indeed circular and is dated “1615”. And last weekend we drove through the Suffolk village of Somerleyton which seemed to consist of a handful of beautiful whitewashed thatched cottages set around a village green, and a large manor house in extensive gardens.

One thing which struck me in London as being different from, say, America, is that our historic buildings are still in use. The Houses of Parliament are the seat of government, religious worship still takes place in Westminster Abbey, The Round House is occupied by Fay Laflin who shows curious visitors round her home once a week, and Somerleyton has a thatched primary school (see picture). There has been a lot of fuss recently about the demolition of a village to make way for Heathrow’s eighteenth runway (or whatever, I can’t keep up). The village apparently includes a sixteenth-century pub. Can you imagine a sixteenth-century pub in America being razed to make way for an airport? But because sixteenth-century pubs are ten a penny here it seems that losing one doesn’t matter.

We take our history and gorgeous architecture very much for granted here, and we shouldn’t. One thing I really enjoyed about writing Easterfield was imagining how things would have looked; picturing what Westleigh would be like, or Easterfield village square where the story opens, or the grandeur of Easterfield Hall. As I drive through the glorious English countryside I occasionally see houses, villages, or simple church buildings which, were Speilberg (or Halestorm) to offer me a large advance for the film rights, I might suggest as perfect locations. So much of our land still looks as it did 200 years ago - even if the 1615 Round House does now have Wireless Internet and gas central heating.

Friday, 6 March 2009

On Church and Community

I just finished watching a TV programme (www.aplaceinthesun.com) in which a couple from Salisbury with £300,000 (about $450,000) to spend on a house tried to decide whether to remain in beautiful Wiltshire, with Stonehenge round the corner and a thirteenth-century pub in the village, or to relocate to Orlando. First they looked round three homes in Salisbury. The one they liked best was a typical British brick-built box. Kitchen, living room and dining room downstairs, three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. No closets (let alone ones you could walk into), no pool (because when is it ever hot enough in Britain to want to swim?) and no ensuite bathroom to the master bedroom. The cost of their British dream home was £323,000.

Then they flew to Florida and saw three homes there, two in Dr. Phillips (my favourite area in Orlando, after Windermere) and one in Celebration. Their favourite in the Sunshine State had five bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a formal living room, dining room, and huge open plan family room with kitchen and dining area. Not only that but the master bedroom alone was the size of the entire ground floor of the Salisbury house, once you factored in the enormous fully-fitted walk-in closets, and the ensuite bathroom. And they had a pool, with spa, a view of the lake from the back garden, a triple garage and cathedral ceilings. It semed like a done deal, especially since it cost less than the Salisbury home.

But they were uncertain. And what it came down to is that they didn't want to leave their friends in Wiltshire. They didn't know anyone in Orlando, and whilst the weather, the house and the lifestyle all screamed "Yes" they balked. They feared feeling isolated and lonely.

I faced a similar move five years ago. Having lived in a small Welsh village for almost twenty years, where I knew everyone and everyone knew me, I decided to move back to the town where I had grown up. My childhood friends had long since moved on (even the ones I remembered), and it might have been a daunting prospect. But it wasn't, because I knew that I was coming to a ready-made community. I knew that my new ward would welcome me.

And welcome me they did. Three weeks after my arrival I threw a housewarming party, and about fifty people turned up, all bearing gifts, food and good wishes. Several neighbours in attendance wondered how I already knew so many people, and many expressed envy that I had such strong support and friendship so soon. A month later, one of the sisters in the Ward threw me a baby shower, and again twenty cars crammed into our little cul-de-sac, and a stream of gift-bearing friends joined me in anticipating the arrival of little Ceridwen (now 4).

Those of you reading this who have always been members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or have always lived in strong LDS areas, may not realise how lucky you are to be part of such a loving community. I joined the church only a short time before I left Criccieth, but I had learned enough to know that there were a couple of hundred people ready and eager to welcome me, wherever I should chose to go. Friendliness and openness does not come easily to us Brits, and I am pretty sure that had I not been a member of the church, my social circle would now be limited to a couple of old childhood friends and the parents of my children's schoolfriends, and my housewarming party would have been a damp squib.

Should I ever choose to up sticks again and move to Orlando (and believe me, I would love to) I would have no qualms about feeling lonely and isolated. Yes, I would miss my friends and family in Essex very much (although I bet they'd be queuing up to visit me) but I know that I would within a week, have been brought casseroles and flowers, invited to book clubs and social events, introduced to several pillars of the community, and generally feel as though I belonged there.

Now all I have to do is find £300,000. Considerably more difficult than making friends.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

On the Perils of Publishing

This may come as a surprise, but I don’t only write novels. This year, in fact, I will be a contributor to both The World Wide Ward Cookbook and Famous Family Nights. I also had an article published in LDS Living magazine a few years ago. However, the publications I am most often seen in are dull periodicals issued by the various branches of the British legal profession. My day job, you see – the one that actually pays the mortgage - involves regularly writing articles to advise British lawyers on subjects such as stress and alcoholism.

Recently the two worlds collided when the Law Society Gazette published an article about solicitors who are also authors. Most of them were much more prolific and successful than me and yet they too still needed to keep the day job in order to pay the mortgage. There were two points raised in the article that made me start nodding furiously to myself and mentally muttering “Amen”. First, a quote by Sean Longley, a London lawyer and author, who said, “You are built up to the idea that [getting a book published] is great and magical and life-changing, and it’s not. It just becomes something that you have done.”

I have rarely read anything so true (with acknowledgements and apologies to Holy Scripture). Holding your book in your hands is a wonderful moment, but people don’t bow and scrape as I walk past, and I still have to trudge though the rain to collect the children from school. Once the “Oh, you wrote a book, how clever!” comments have run their course, everyone politely forgets that they have a genius in their midst, and no one really wants to hear about what I’m working on at the moment.

Another author mentioned in the piece commented “Staying published is as hard, if not harder, than getting published in the first place.” Further nodding and muttering on my part. Covenant just turned down my latest masterpiece, the once I designed specifically to appeal to their audience (exotic location, romance, comedy and intrigue) and before that it took me six years to get a publisher for Easterfield. Which, you’ll notice, hasn’t been shortlisted for a Whitney, because there are so many, many authors who are much better at their craft than I am. An author’s life is a tough one, and those who are good enough at it to be nominated to an award are worthy of my bowing and scraping.

Anyway, I have had something else published very recently. A Letter to the Editor of the Law Society Gazette, congratulating him on such a pertinent and excellent article.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

On Being British

I love being British. Much as I love America (and I do) I am very happy to live in a country where we don't have hurricanes, earthquakes, guns or fifteen-year-olds driving cars, and I rejoice in free healthcare, the BBC, and being able to get from anywhere to anywhere else by car in less than a day. Of course we also don't have Disneyworld, Taco Bell or drive-through banks and post offices.

I am well aware that most of my readers will be American. I think the map on the right proves that fairly conclusively. I could go on for weeks about the differences between the Brits and the Americans – in culture, outlook and language, but I’m going to choose not to. There are plenty of other blogs, sites and books on the subject - I especially recommend Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country and Notes from a Small Island. Until I find I’ve run out of material and need to comment on the fact that “momentarily” here means “just for a split second” but “in a few minutes” there, I will leave it at an observation that any American whose name is Randy would be well advised on no account to introduce himself to anyone British.

Rather than comment on differences, I would like to use this forum to ask a some of questions about America which have been bugging me. Feel free to reply in the comments section.

  1. If what we call Petrol here is called Gas there, what do you call Gas?
  2. Are American pigs a different shape? The only bacon I could find during my visits to the US was streaky. Why don’t you have lean bacon?
  3. When everything there is so much bigger than it is here – houses, fridges, cars – why are your bathtubs so small?
  4. How much annual leave do you get in a year? When we went to Florida we booked two weeks in our accommodation. This seemed to cause terrible confusion at the office, leading to us having to move to a different apartment halfway through our holiday. They explained that they never have guests who stay more than a week (but the place really wasn’t that bad.) I get 4 weeks off work each year, plus public holidays and the week between Christmas and New Year, and that’s pretty standard here. Do American workers not get much holiday?
  5. Please will someone bring Taco Bell and Wendy’s here? Oh, but Thank You for Subway. We’re going there tonight. It’s the only place in Britain where you get free refills for your drinks, and so we are darn well going to drink the soda fountain dry.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

On Barack Obama

I'm not American, but I couldn't help noticing that you've had some interesting goings-on over there. For one thing, a brand shiny new President, a very good-looking and charistmatic chappie whom everyone seems to like, even those who didn't vote for him.

I have no clue how American politics work. I once asked some American friends to explain the policies of each Presidential candidate to me so that I could work out who I would vote for were I entitled to do so. Basically, I explained, I would vote for the one who is going to ban abortion and guns, and bring in a free healthcare service like the NHS we rejoice in here. Apparently that was neither of them, so I would probably have been forced to abstain.

I find myself liking Barack Obama too, and not just because of the brave new world "I have a dream" thingy. (It's less of a big deal here because we never had the kind of racism America did. My theory is that it's because the British empire, at its height, included large swathes of Africa and Asia, so when the indigenous peoples started coming over here -bearing in mind that Britain abolished slavery in 1833 - we were terribly happy to see them. Here, after all, were British people with dark skin; brothers and sisters from afar; walking and talking evidence of the might and scope of the glorious British empire.) No, the reason I have so suddenly taken to Obama is because of his wonderful way with words.

I listened to his inaugural speech on a treadmill at the gym, as rock music played from a class which was taking place. The soundtrack was somehow very appropriate. Obama really knows how to use language. Metaphor, hyperbole and the most incredible rhetoric all delivered with conviction and determination. I have always maintained that language is a powerful weapon, and well-chosen words can stir emotions like nothing else (except perhaps music), and Obama is well aware of this. (Or his speechwriters are.) At the end of the address even I was moved, but I wonder how many of those listening could successfully paraphrase what he actually said. Lots of stirring stuff and a grand delivery, but really it boils down to "Things are going to change for the better because that's what we want, and we have to be nice to people."

I admire people who understand the power of words, and can use them to their advantage. I just hope, when it comes to foreign policy, none of it is lost in translation.

Monday, 19 January 2009

On Blue Monday

I wrote my last entry on Monday 19th January, and discovered, after writing it, that the day was known as "Blue Monday". Apparently someone has worked out that 19th January is the most depressing day in the year. It's cold and dark, Christmas is over, and the credit card bills for the excesses are appearing on doormats across Britain and in mailboxes across America. With this pesky credit crunch, banks making record losses, house prices falling and redundancy rates skyrocketing, this same bigwig reckons it's the most depressing Blue Monday ever.


Well, pardon me if I beg to differ. By all accounts it might have been a bad day for me. My family thrashed me at Wii Monopoly (still the only game I'm any good at), I discovered that the new kitchen being delivered next month is two units and a worktop short, and I started a diet club and found that I my BMI is 27, which classifies me as overweight, and only two points short of obese. Furthermore, Blue Monday was the fifth anniversary of the death of my former father-in-law, and the previous day would have been my grandmother's 100th birthday, were she still alive.


But here's the plus side. I had a lot of fun playing Monopoly with my family, and we have a Wii to play it on! I'm getting a new kitchen! I have so much food to eat that I have to join a diet club! And I have wonderful memories of two dear relatives who lived long and interesting lives, and who I know I will see again someday. To top it all, I started a blog! So forgive me if I refuse to give in to the misery of the season.

On Blogging

A year ago I didn't know what a blog is. Now I am the proud owner of one, and have only to figure out what to do with it. I like to think of myself as a writerly type, but coming up with something witty and inspirational three times a week is going to be a real challenge. All suggestions gratefully received.

The great Kerry Blair (www.kerryblair.com) wrote such moving, funny and entertaining blogs that our publisher, Covenant, asked for permission to publish them. The result is her bestselling book, Counting Blessings. Kerry is such a talented writer than her fans would buy anything she wrote. I include myself among them, and I am currently bidding on her shopping list. To such I aspire.

It strikes me that finding time to write is going to a be a problem. I'm not mathematically minded, but here's how my time is supposed to play out:
  • We are told that we need at least 8 hours sleep a night. That's 56 hours a week.
  • I work a five hour day at LawCare. That's 25 hours a week.
  • I am trying to exercise and get fit. The experts claim that we need to do half an hour's brisk exercise three times a week. I am a member of a local gym and my workout and swim takes a total of two hours, three times a week. That's another six hours.
  • A recent article in the New Era suggested that we spend an hour a day on personal prayer and scripture study. And let's throw in another half an hour for daily scripture study with Hubby Dearest, and an hour a week for Family Home Evening. That's 11½ hours.
  • According to the various TV experts, we need to spend a minimum of two hours a day tidying and cleaning our homes, doing laundry, washing up, etc, in order not to get behind on everything. That's another 14 hours.
  • The two school runs I do each weekday take 1½ hours, and I spend about two hours each day cooking and eating meals. Add another 21½ to the total.
  • I don't watch a lot of TV, but I do enjoy Science Fiction, Desparate Housewives, America's Next Top Model and the odd BBC documentary. So perhaps it's fair to say that my relaxation time boils down to an hour of TV each day. 7 hours a week.
  • I also try to write books. I am currently working on one I promised to finish by April, so I am writing for two hours each evening. Another 14 hours a week.
  • Last, but absolutely not least, Church. 3 hours plus an hour's travelling each Sunday, two hours a week on my calling, Visiting Teaching, Enrichment, and driving the children to Faith in God and Mutual every Tuesday. Another 8 hours.
  • We are advised to go on a date with our spouse once each week, and go to the Temple together each month. A Temple visit for us is a round trip of about 6 hours, and our dates are usually about two hours, so let's call it 3½ hours a week. And round that up to five hours when we consider that we are supposed to have "Mummy-Daughter" and "Daddy-Daugher" time regularly too.

So, adding those up, carry the 1 - makes all 168 hours per week accounted for. That leaves me no time at all to get washed and dressed, chat to Hubby Dearest, visit friends, take the children to ballet, Brownies or riding lessons, or write blogs. So if you're reading this, something had to give! (It was probably the housework.)