Thursday, 4 December 2014

A real book for Christmas?

Here I am in a South African bookshop with a copy of The Housemaid's Daughter.

Are we still giving books as presents? Or have so many of us moved on to e-readers that the physical book is threatened with extinction?

There's no doubt that e-readers are extremely convenient, especially when we travel. I remember hauling suitcases groaning with books in the past, but now I can download my reading list for a holiday in no time, and it only weighs an iPad's worth...

But I must confess that I still love a physical book. There's something about turning pages, about flipping back to a part that you liked, even about turning down the corner of a page (sorry!) to mark a particular spot. A book in the hand conveys so much more than its constituent pages.

Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s - but did you know that he wasn't the first to do so? The Chinese developed the technology in about 1040, then passed it on to the Koreans. They produced the first metal "movable type" printing in 1234. Once printing became established, the growth was phenomenal. Fifty years after Gutenberg's breakthrough in Europe, printing presses across the continent had already produced some 20 million books.

Let's keep the modern presses rolling!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Waves of Paintbrush Grass...

In The Housemaid's Daughter, Ada sees the African veld unfolding before her eyes when she looks out of the window on the top floor of Cradock House.

And once she leaves the suburban streets and walks through it, she is forever enchanted.

All about me the earth is clothed in waves of fragile grass with golden paintbrush tips. From where we stand in their yellow, tickling midst, I can look straight up at the koppie and watch the sun wander across the brown stones and make them shine.

The distant mountains, the endless sky, the distinctive plants that survive a harsh climate... the veld becomes a place of refuge and solace.
Later in the story, she passes on her love of untamed reaches to her grandson, Thebo.

I show him the furry dassies that sunbathe on nearby rocks.
He follows shiny ants along tiny paths.
He giggles at the grasses that tickle his legs as he runs.

And when Ada must bury her daughter, Dawn, she chooses a wild setting that reflects Dawn's mercurial character.

The cemetery is not fenced in but is open to the Karoo veld.
Low bushes and wild, golden grasses surround her.
The koppies look down on her, the Groot Vis (river) murmurs to her.
The trains heading for more exciting places go past where she lies.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Housemaid's Daughter in Foyles

Is Foyles the most famous bookshop in the world?!

Founded in 1903, Foyles is still the go-to bookshop in central London. It's moved over the years, most recently from 113 Charing Cross Road to a magnificent new building at no. 107 in June of this year.

I visited over the weekend and was captivated. There are 200,000 books, arranged over 4 floors in a wonderfully light-filled space. 200,00 is a lot of books - they require 4 miles of bookshelves which would stretch from Battersea Power Station all the way to the Tower of London! And the open display offers the best browsing I've come across in any bookshop... deliberately so, say Foyles, to allow for the "serendipitous discovery of new books".

I wandered amid architecture, music, photography, history... and spotted The Housemaid's Daughter!

When you've exhausted yourself along those many miles of shelves, head for the top floor and a stunning cafe.

By the way, can you see what I found, serendipitously of course, just below my book?

Friday, 17 October 2014

Website Shorts (2)

I wonder if you know that The Housemaid's Daughter has a website? No? Read on.

These days, it's not enough simply to write a book! Readers want to know the background to the story, what inspired the author, and what is special about the setting. I know that I would have loved to go behind the scenes of some of my favourite books/authors of the past... Daphne du Maurier, Gustave Flaubert, Nevil Shute...

On the website you'll find the family history that spurred me to write the novel, the geography and geology of the Karoo region of South Africa where the action takes place, the music that becomes Ada's signature piece - in fact, you can listen to a recording of the haunting Raindrop Prelude at the same time.

There's also an update on the latest published translations, and a variety of media articles and pictures from my travels to promote the book in the UK, South Africa, Canada and further afield.

Have a glance at the comments from readers, and see what the reviewers say, from the likes of National Geographic and USA TODAY right through to Bookworm Ink. And do have a listen to some of the radio interviews, especially the hilarious one with Sue Grant Marshall on Radio Today!

Nip onto and see what you find!

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Housemaid's Daughter in 10!

We've reached a milestone: 10 languages!


Plus a couple of large print English versions.

For me, what's fascinating is the variety of covers. In most cases they have been designed to reflect the African heritage of the book - sometimes boldly, sometimes more subtly. But occasionally a publisher has taken a completely different tack, as with the Italian version. And beautiful it is, too. Several translations have paid homage to the music by including watermark musical notes in the background.

But the real difference between the covers lies in the human element: the portrayal of the heroines of The Housemaid's Daughter, Cath and Ada.
Sometimes they are both missing (Chinese and Spanish), sometimes Cath is romanticised (French), sometimes Ada has been made contemporary (Dutch) and sometimes - wonderfully - both have been caught in a moment of joy (Polish).
What do these interpretations say about national traits?
I wouldn't presume to know!
I'm just astonished at the creativity on display.

There are still a few translations to go... so watch this space!

Friday, 5 September 2014

Rescuing zebras, learning the alphabet...

There is a magnificent game reserve close to the town of Cradock in the Karoo, where The Housemaid's Daughter is set. It's called the Mountain Zebra National Park, and it has the distinction of having saved a species.

Zebras have always caught the imagination. "Horses in striped pyjamas", we think, when we first see them in picture books, or when they are co-opted to teach us our letters: Z is for Zebra. In my novel, Ada is introduced to the zebra in just that way.

But by the 1900s, zebras were in trouble, especially the Mountain Zebra, a species distinct from the more plentiful plains zebra. A sub-species called the quagga had already become extinct and it seemed that the mountain zebra would soon join it unless a tract of suitable land could be found where it would be safe from predators, particularly man.

In the nick of time, the Mountain Zebra National Park was proclaimed in 1937. A founder group of less than 10 animals was provided from local conservation-conscious farmers and thus begin the great revival. From that first vulnerable herd, the population in the Park has steadily grown to some 700 animals. What a success! Especially when we hear of the tragic decline of so many other species, like the rhinos and elephants being poached in other parts of Africa.

I wonder if Ada ever saw a zebra? Perhaps I should have contrived a meeting. After all, she loved the veld...
"I would put Dawn on my back and walk to where the sky met the earth, for the pleasure of being on my own and yet part of a company with the birds and the small animals that scurried about us.
When the sun was at its highest, Dawn and I would squat in the bony shade of a thorn tree... the heat of the veld stretched into watery mirages far ahead...

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Housemaid's Daughter goes Large in the USA

I have just received a copy of my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter, in Large Print for the US market. It has been published by Thorndike Press in hardback, with a beautiful African sunset on the cover. Thorndike is part of the Gale, Cengage Learning group, and sells Large Print books to libraries, schools, institutions and to individuals through their website The book is also available from conventional online vendors.

I'm always on the lookout for particular quirks in the various editions. In this case it was the the logo and seal of approval of an organisation that I had not come across before, the NAVH. This is the National Association for the Visually Handicapped. Digging a little further, I discovered that this body has specific guidelines for publishers if they wish to gain NAVH approval. Some are understandable - minimum limits on margin size, maximum limits on size and weight, opaque paper so that bold print doesn't show through - but there are other recommendations that address readability in more subtle ways.

It turns out that Sans Serif is the easiest font for visually impaired readers, with a type size of at least 16 points, but preferably 18, and with no short strokes on the end of a character. And then there is the business of "descenders", those pesky tails extending below j and q... these should definitely not be allowed to wander from the vertical or have any flourishes.

I sat down and read the first chapter and I have to say it really was a pleasure. The script leapt out at me, and I had no trouble finishing in double quick time. Despite the fact that the text clearly occupies more space, clever design of the pages/chaptering means that the book is not that much longer than most of the current hardback versions. I'm thrilled that readers in the US now have the chance to read my book in such a bold format!

So... if you happen to spot one in a library near you, have a look...