Monday, 2 August 2021

Hot off the press!

A package arrived for me a few days ago... filled with advance copies of The Fire Portrait!

There's nothing like opening up a box to reveal the fruit of several years' work in all its glory. As I've said before, writing a book and seeing it published is like having a baby over a very long period. In this case, more than three years' worth of writing, research, re-writing, agonising, tweaking... so that when the book finally arrives there's an enormous sense of relief at a successful birth.  

Having examined the contents, I'm happy to report the safe delivery of The Fire Portrait, on-time and without too much last-minute intervention.

Here are the vital statistics for the new arrival:
Weighing in at a respectable 430g, the book is 21.5cm long and 13.5cm wide. There are 62 chapters, making for a tome 3cm thick, and 415 pages long. Phew!

The novel's cover was a particular challenge for my publisher's clever designers. While wanting to show an element of starkness to reflect the rural setting, we also wanted to convey the hint of fire without resorting to flames licking the edges of the image. Subtlety was required rather than a sledgehammer. And I think it's been achieved. 

Publication date for the paperback in the UK is 19th August. On the 22nd August, the e-book will be released worldwide for readers with tablets and e-reader devices. The paperback is scheduled to be released in South Africa from September, and from November in North America, Australia and New Zealand - although, my spies abroad have said they've pre-ordered and their copies are due to arrive soon. However you choose to read, I hope The Fire Portrait will kindle some warmth and light a few flames in your heart... 

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Breaking news! A new novel!

I'm thrilled to announce that my new novel, The Fire Portrait, set in South Africa, will be published on the 19th August 2021 in the UK, and released in South Africa in September, and in the rest of the world from October/November. While the paperback is being released gradually, the e-book is available worldwide from the August date.

Both formats can be pre-ordered from your favourite bookshop or online supplier so do get ordering! Here's why: I'm unable to do much face-to-face promotion at the moment due to the pandemic, so your pre-order will help to propel the book up the ranks of online searches - and give it a vital boost.

In The Fire Portrait, the action moves to a fictional hamlet, Aloe Glen, set on the railway line heading north from Cape Town. It’s a place of marked contrasts… in climate, culture and customs. When Englishwoman Frances McDonald sets up home there in the 1930s, she's regarded with suspicion by the community and seeks an outlet by painting the stunning landscape. Soon the spectre of war threatens to divide not only the country but the hamlet itself – and scupper Frances’s hard-won acceptance.
When she reunites unexpectedly with a former love and her husband leaves to fight for the Allies, she gains a child but loses her home in a moment that will change her life. Out of the smoke and ash, she's propelled on a journey that will take her from the arid veld to the bright lights of London and beyond. 

The Fire Portrait hangs in a gallery in London.
'Haunting portrait hints at turmoil', headlines one newspaper.
'An omen', says another.
A modern classic is the consensus. 

This book has been a few years in the making, much of it during the pandemic. For me, writing was a chance to escape the grim headlines... and out of this sad period has come a fresh story.  For all of us, I suspect, this has been a time of reassessment. And in the absence of close contact with those we love, the lockdowns have reminded us of the reassuring company a book can bring.
I hope that The Fire Portrait will offer that to you.
More next time... 

Friday, 18 June 2021

Seeing through the clouds...

This is the dockyard in Simon's Town, setting for The Girl from Simon's Bay, on a foggy morning. Appearing through the mist are the SA Navy's state-of-the-art corvettes, and in the background the SAS Protea, a hydrographic survey vessel, some thirty five years older than her sleeker neighbours. I used this photo a while ago to write about the eerie fog that often sweeps in from False Bay but I failed to look closely enough... 

How many corvettes you can see?
There is one on the foreground, moored on the far side of the yacht marina. But take a look at the seemingly four-turreted vessel beyond... it turns out that it consists of two corvettes, one moored inside the dockyard and one against the outer wall. This simple oversight got me thinking about objects and events that are not quite as they first appear... and may obscure what lies beyond.

Take fire, for example, which I wrote about in my previous blog. The damage to the University of Cape Town's buildings and historic collections was tragic. But fire plays a part in the regeneration of the famous indigenous fynbos vegetation of the Cape, like proteas. Flames break down seed pods, smoke encourages germination, and the arrival of seasonal rains starts the circle of life afresh. 

They say it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, so perhaps we should look further than the events that face us every day and which play out so vividly on the news. If we can see through mist, fire, flood - and pandemic - perhaps we can tackle the bigger challenges that await. And avert tragedies that destroy rather than regenerate.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Something in the water...

Simon's Bay, setting for my novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, is part of greater False Bay, at the tip of Africa. Myriad fishy species enjoy these rich waters, from urchins to seabream to octopus (a kelp forest nurtured the star of Oscar-winning 'My Octopus Teacher'), to penguins, seals, dolphins and Great White Sharks, which occupy top spot in this particular food chain. Until now... 

It was the Shark Spotters, on their mountain vantage points, who first noticed that something was up. Or rather, down. A few years ago, they would regularly spot Great Whites and alert local bathing beaches. After all, there were several hundred known to be in the area and although humans were not their regular prey, there had been occasional attacks. But from 2019 no sharks were seen. And carcasses began washing up on-shore, intact but for the removal of their livers.
So... what was happening?
It was time to consider the possibility that False Bay's apex predator had been ousted by a bigger beast. Enter a pair of Orcas, or Killer Whales, seen cruising the waters. These ocean heavyweights (6 -10 tonners versus the 2.5 tons of Great Whites) have a particular love for liver, according to scientists. To sate their appetite, they are known to attack Great Whites via their pectoral fin and excise the nutritious liver. The pair in False Bay are now so notorious that they have been christened by locals as Port and Starboard, due to the particular slant of their dorsal fins. The appearance of the Orcas, the disappearance of the Great Whites and the shake-up of the food chain has left locals mystified; and is being studied by scientists to understand what it means for the seals (Great Whites' favourite prey) and those beneath them in the marine menu.  

But are the Orcas entirely responsible for the disappearance of the Great Whites?
One theory is that the rise of small shark fishing in the bay has removed another of the Great Whites' target prey, and that this may have pushed them to move on to less contested waters. And why did the Orcas arrive in the first place? Did changing temperature and sea conditions bring them to False Bay where they just happened to stumble across convenient prey? And will they move on now that the source of tasty liver has disappeared?
Watch this watery space...        

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

A Shaded Meeting

In the centre of Cape Town, overlooked by Table Mountain, and flanked by the Houses of Parliament, The South African Museum and the National Library, lies the historic Company's Garden.
Started in the 1650s to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to visiting sailing ships, the Garden now covers some 8 acres, bisected by a central avenue. While it no longer supplies passing ships, it lives on as the green lung of the city and a place for strolling and reflection. The original plantings have been joined by rose, Japanese, succulent and herb gardens; plus trees from near and far, like this mighty cedar I spotted on a recent visit.  

When I was writing The Girl from Simon's Bay, I needed to find a place where my hero and heroine could meet, away from familiar or prying eyes, before potentially spending the weekend together. The Company's Garden seemed the ideal candidate: it lies over an hour away from Simon's Town by train and, with its towering shade trees and secluded benches, was surely the perfect place for a discreet meeting. After all, nothing has been decided yet. Louise has brought an overnight suitcase but is nervous. As he waits for her, David wonders whether she will make the trip from Simon's Town at all. He refuses to see the colour difference between them, but she knows its significance, and the risk she is taking... 

I hurried along Adderley Street, keeping my face down. 
He was waiting for me on a bench in the Garden, beneath a line of trees. 
I glanced around. There was no-one about. 
"Louise!" He leapt up. 
We didn't embrace. We could never embrace in public. 
He glanced down at my suitcase. I felt myself flush.
"Thank you," he said, picking up the case. "Thank you."  


Sunday, 2 May 2021

When Fire strikes

This photo, courtesy of University of Cape Town Libraries, shows the recent fire which spread down Devil's Peak mountain to devastate the Jagger Library and its precious contents. The famous Reading Room was destroyed and the Special Collections, housed in the basement, have been damaged by the water that doused the flames. Conservation experts will have to be recruited to direct the salvage operation, given the age and fragility of  the documents and film records, many of which are irreplaceable and reflect South Africa's unique history. 

Seeing the tragic pictures, I was reminded of the times I've come across caches of documents without even the kind of sprinklers, fire doors and protection that the Jagger possessed. Many are at risk - not necessarily from fire - but from a quieter threat: apart from the owner, perhaps no-one knows of their existence or has been charged with ensuring their future. 

Owner-collectors are inspired by love for their subject. When I was researching my first novel, I was referred to an elderly man who had worked for the early railways in South Africa. He had collected timetables and railway records over many years, along with other memorabilia. His home was a treasure trove. But who would take care of this collection in the future? I spoke to the staff at the Cory Library at Rhodes University and I hope that, perhaps, a student may have taken an interest in cataloguing and preserving this unique record. I found a similar situation when researching my second novel. This time the documents had been lovingly curated into a small museum, but its future was dependent on finding a sponsor/curator who would keep the collection going for the next generation to explore. 

In all these cases, the viability of the collection required the spotlight of attention - and the availability of funding to secure its future. 
So... if you happen to find yourself wandering through a tiny museum or private, informal collection, ask about its future and make a donation if you can.
Even a modest contribution could make the difference between preservation and loss. 


Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Insta Connections!

Let's step back for a moment to my first novel, The Housemaid's Daughter. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of its publication in English, followed by translation into many languages. 

To my surprise, the book is still attracting attention, especially via social media platforms like Instagram, where captioned images are posted by readers using a hashtag of the author's name, in my case  #barbaramutch. This gathers a community who speak different languages, inhabit different corners of the world and yet are united by the fact that they happen to have read the same book and have an opinion about it! 

I can follow photos and comments in French, Polish, Spanish, Dutch, Croatian... traditional print reviews seem tame by comparison! The rise of new media and the opportunity it gives modern authors to connect - instantly - with readers is a huge change. I can see how many readers in France, Spain or Poland, for example, are posting about the book. I can read what they're saying (with help, at times, from Google translate!), and I can reply if I wish. The platform offers a dynamic snapshot of who's saying what, who's enjoying it, perhaps who's just had a coffee and taken a picture of their cup alongside The Housemaid's Daughter, or Kolor jej Serca, or Une Chanson pour Ada or La bambina dagli occhi di cielo... 
Welcome to the latest view of online reviews!