People have been asking whether there will be more adventures for Ruso and Tilla, and the answer is… yes! I’ve had a break from writing over the summer but a short novel/long story is about to go to the editor. It’ll be a return visit to the sunny vineyards of southern Gaul, where Ruso finds that his family are older, but not necessarily wiser. The story will appear as an ebook ‘special’ and it might – or might not – be called PRIMA FACIE. More news when I have it!
Meanwhile all eight books currently in the series should now be available everywhere in ebook and also in audiobook, read by the talented Simon Vance. They WILL all be back in print in the UK before long (I know I’ve been saying this for a while) but if you want a print copy right now and can’t find it, let me know and I’ll check in the box under the bed.
Last time it was the turn of British readers – now it’s friends in the USA who can get hold of the ebook of MEDICUS for a mere $1.99 throughout the month of October.
I suspect if you’re reading this you’ve already read MEDICUS, but if you know someone else who might enjoy it, please tell them that NOW is the time to download it!
Book News – and more – was recently circulated in NEWS FROM DOWNIE TOWERS, my somewhat irregular newsletter. If you’d like it sent direct to your inbox, here’s the place to sign up. Obviously I will never pass your details to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any time.
It’s hard to believe that we used to expect to capture a whole holiday with one roll of film that might hold 36 shots. I’ve had several trips away this summer and now even my computer is groaning at the prospect of downloading all the photos. (Who knew there were SO MANY Greek statues?) So a post about Greece will have to wait. Meanwhile, closer to home:
A pic from the weekend of the Alderney Literary Festival last year: standing with fellow-writers Jason Monaghan and Simon Turney on the wall-walk of The Nunnery – a set of buildings that may well be the best-preserved Roman fort in Britain. As we shivered in the March wind I had no idea that I’d be back the following year bringing pyjamas, sunglasses and a trowel. This time I had the honour of being able to tag along with the archaeology team investigating the Nunnery and its surroundings.
The easiest way to reach Alderney is by air: meet the new plane. It’s bigger than the old plane.
A glimpse into the cockpit revealed this warning on the dashboard.
I wasn’t sure whether to be reassured by this, or worried that anyone thought the pilots might need to be told. Anyway, thanks to their self-restraint and the kindness of Isabel Picornell-Garcia (whose many talents include archaeology as well as organizing literary festivals) I made it safely to the island and thence to the Nunnery.
Part of the Nunnery complex has just been refurbished as a hostel, and it’s a gloriously peaceful beachside retreat for groups of birdwatchers and heritage enthusiasts.
My own birdwatching efforts were not wildly successful:
Birds or no, the picnic table on top of the wall is a delightful spot for dining.
The peace of the view is relatively modern: these buildings have had many incarnations in the past, and most were military.
The one thing the Nunnery may never have been is… a nunnery.
The German occupation in the Second World War left a vast amount of concrete all over the Channel Islands: there are bunkers built in to the Nunnery complex itself and another one just outside.
Their remains are a poignant reminder of the captive labourers who were forced to build them.
How to disfigure a perfectly good fort: knock a hole through the wall so you can roll your anti-tank gun down onto the beach. (Initially I’d hoped to go back and get a shot without the cars, but in fact they give a good idea of the scale.)
Speaking of beaches…
Longis Bay is the best natural harbour on an island where much of the coast looks like this
No wonder everyone who has controlled Alderney over the years has wanted to guard Longis Bay.
The outer wall of the Nunnery on the side that faces the bay is no longer there – or rather, it’s no longer where it should be. It’s collapsed onto the beach, where it now serves as a breakwater and a handy place to secure some of the boats that still land there.
The back of the beach is walled with more German concrete. It was put there to withstand human invasion but may now be protecting the land behind it from the encroachment of sea and sand.
The week I was there, the archaeologists were checking out some interesting-looking blobs on the geophysics plot of a field just up the road. There’s an Iron Age site on the hill nearby…
…and we were very close to a site where a wealth of Roman and Iron Age material turned up only last year. Proving that you can never be sure what’s there until you dig, the team shifted at least a metre of golden, wind-blown sand from beneath the turf and found… not burial cists, but Roman walls. Plus a massive midden containing thousands of limpet shells. Apparently limpets don’t taste great, but if you are hungry enough you probably don’t care.
I’m not going to publish pics of the archaeology because that’s best left to the professionals – if you want to see what we found, check out the Nunnery page on Facebook, and also Jason’s blog (he’s an archaeologist as well as a writer.) But as a taster, here’s one of the first shards of Samian pottery that turned up.
I don’t know what everyone else thought when that appeared, but I was mightily relieved to see confirmation that there was something interesting down there and we weren’t just using our buckets and spades to dig a huge and very hot hole in the sand.
At one stage the buckets and spades weren’t sufficient. No sooner did we wish for a mechanical digger than it came trundling in through the gateway, demonstrating one of the advantages of working in a very small community. The driver lowered the bucket into the trench and lifted out a massive stone with all the delicacy of an Edwardian tea-drinker using silver tongs to select a sugarlump.
The dig went on for another week after I had to leave, and more of the site was revealed – including the splendid paved area you can see on the Facebook page. Everything’s been recorded now, and the digger has returned to backfill the trenches while the professionals go off to write the reports.
As often happens, the excavation raised as many questions as it answered. Clearly there’s a lot more waiting to be discovered about Roman Alderney.
UPDATE – WE HAVE A WINNER! Thanks so much to everyone who entered the “Win a signed copy” draw. It was great fun reading your messages and especially the entertaining offers of bribery (which of course I resisted)! Congratulations to G Goldschmeid, whose name was first out of the hat – please check your email as I’ll need to know where to send your copy of “Terra Incognita”.
We interrupt this broadcast to bring you news of rock-bottom bargain prices through July for UK Kindle versions of MEDICUS (the first book in the series) and MEMENTO MORI (the latest). 99p each! Yes, really! I think the recent sun here must have gone to somebody’s head. Whatever the reason, if you buy from Amazon.co.uk, you may wish grab one or both while you can.
Meanwhile for readers elsewhere who can’t access the UK bargains – a free book draw! The prize will be a signed copy of whichever book in the MEDICUS series you choose.
There’s a reminder of what the books are here. If you choose anything but MEDICUS itself, it’ll be an American edition hardback – MEDICUS will be a UK paperback because that’s what I have in the stock box.
How to enter – simply leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 8 July, stating which book you’d like if you win. (This is also running in my newsletter, so if you sign up for that you could enter twice.) Please remember – this is only for people who live outside the UK.
I’ve always thought of Parracombe as a peaceful and picturesque little Exmoor village, but when William of Falaise (relation of the more famous William the Conqueror) moved in sometime after 1066, he decided he needed a massive wooden castle to keep the natives in order.
The site is now called Holwell Castle and there’s a great view of it across the valley from Christ Church, where an information board helpfully explains what all the lumps and bumps are.
In case that shot from the churchyard isn’t entirely clear (and to be honest I was confused at first) here’s a close-up.
RED – the MOTTE. Anyone looking out from the castle keep that was built on top must have had a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.
BLUE – the ramparts of the BAILEY, which had a wooden palisade on top to protect all the buildings inside. You can still see (but not on this photo, sadly) the flattened rectangle of ground where a large hall once stood.
YELLOW – this is where you have to imagine a massive wooden gatehouse.
The site is on a private farm so you can’t usually visit, but yesterday afternoon we seized the rare chance of a guided tour. Fortified with the tea and cakes being served in the church, a large group of people set off in the sunshine to explore the earthworks in the company of an archaeologist. As I know next to nothing about the Normans, I hope I haven’t mangled his explanation too much.
The wooden structures are long gone but the earthworks, which were probably dug by reluctant locals, are brilliantly preserved.
Here’s part of the ditch that surrounds the motte, and although it’s silted up over the last thousand years, it’s still far too deep to see out of. (Note the lone model for scale and the absence of Large Group of People – they really were there, but it seems a bit rude to post pictures of innocent bystanders without their permission.)
William and his followers would have reached the motte via a drawbridge, but modern commoners have to scramble up the side. It’s a lot steeper than it looks.
The reward at the top: a temporary elevation to Queen of the Castle and a grand view of the valley and some dirty rascals down inside the bailey. You can just see the church on the right.
AND… as if that wasn’t a perfect enough afternoon (cake, countryside, sunshine, good company, archaeology) this was how the day drew to a close. Wow.
Nobody could accuse us of being stuck in the past here at Downie Towers. Well… not in the very distant past, anyway. Today we’re venturing into the daringly modern times of the eighteenth century, where events turn out to have some even more up-to-date parallels. I’m delighted to welcome Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, authors of the bestselling America’s First Daughter, to talk about their latest book, My Dear Hamilton.
Me: Can I get an embarrassing confession out of the way at the start? Having failed to pay attention in history lessons, when I first heard the title I thought you must be writing about Emma, lover of Lord Nelson. Of course I feel silly now. News of the hit musical has reached us even down here in the depths of the West Country. But in case any other Britons are wondering – “My Dear Hamilton” is the story of another woman altogether. Can you tell us a bit about Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and why she deserves to be better known?
Stephanie and/or Laura (see how seamlessly they blend together?): Ah, it makes sense that British readers might want to forget our Hamilton, because he was an American Founding Father–probably known as a traitor to your king, if King George stooped to notice him. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t just a pamphleteer and scrappy American soldier, but also the economic architect of America’s modern financial system. And he didn’t do it alone. He had at his side a remarkably intrepid, loyal, and strong wife–Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, one of America’s most important and longest-living Founding Mothers.
Me: Thank you! What is it about Eliza’s story that you think will resonate with modern readers?
Stephanie and Laura: Our modern political world is ugly–and due to the nature of social media, we’re all constantly exposed to rumor, gossip, and various villainies. Eliza’s vulnerability was supercharged. As the wife of a firebrand who clashed with more or less every other Founding Father, Eliza found herself the victim of newspaper attacks and public opprobrium when her husband confessed adultery. In addition, the Hamiltons believed they were caught up in a tangible and immediate fight for the integrity and preservation of the American union, and we were surprised at how many times their fears and struggles seemed to mirror things going on in the modern political arena.
Me: Given my ignorance about Alexander Hamilton, let alone Eliza, should I read up on the history before I open the novel?
Stephanie and Laura: No advanced reading required! We’ll fill you in and fully introduce you to Eliza’s American revolutionary world–including Alexander. But we always encourage readers to learn more after they’re done and provide resources for them to get a head start.
Me (cunningly hoping to pick up a few tips):I’m guessing there was a LOT of research – how do you decide what goes into the book and what ends up on the cutting-room floor?
Stephanie and Laura: That’s the hardest part of the job. Especially with someone like Hamilton who wrote so much and did so much, and Eliza, who accomplished so much in her own right and lived so very long. In the end, we focused on those things that most shaped or were shaped by Eliza’s own lived experience. We wanted to center her, not her husband, and that often helped us determine what stayed and what had to go.
Me (now I’ve picked their brains about that, moving on to something else that fascinates me as a writer…): How does a writing partnership work? Do you write alternate chapters? Work together? Do you always agree, or do you move forward by arguing?
Stephanie and Laura: We have complementary writing strengths and we’re well aware of them, so we tend to dole out sections to each other based on what we each do best. But we also write to a deadline, so when one of us falls behind, the other takes up the slack and if one of us can’t make a scene work, the other one comes to the rescue. We swap chapters constantly, and edit freely. We debate and disagree sometimes, but we don’t really argue because we always start from the premise that the other person has a point. If we do come to an impasse, we talk it out and inevitably come up with a third solution that is better than either of us originally envisioned. That’s one of the most magical things about our partnership!
Me: How about “Hamilton” the musical – what do you both think of it?
Stephanie and Laura: We’re huge fans and think Lin-Manuel Miranda made some absolutely genius storytelling choices!
Me: Many thanks to you both for taking the time in a busy launch week to stop by and chat. In the time-honoured way I’d like to end by asking: what are you both working on now?
Stephanie and Laura: We’re working on a project on women of the French Revolution together, and Stephanie is embarking on her next solo project featuring the Marquis de Lafayette!
Me: Excellent – we can look forward to learning some more history the easy way! Meanwhile I’d like to wish My Dear Hamilton every success. I’m off to read the copy I bought here.
The launch of a new book is always a grand excuse for wandering around the internet pontificating on things, and I’m grateful to the hosts who’ve kindly let me loose on their websites. It’s been a delight writing the articles, and here’s the current publication schedule.
I’m delighted to say that MEMENTO MORI, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Aquae Sulis (Bath) should be available on both sides of the Atlantic today! You can read the beginning here and listen to Simon Vance reading part of the story here.
This is what it looks like in the US:
and here’s the British edition:
The small print – The UK is just ebook at the moment but paper copies should be out very soon. Someone’s just asked about Australia and I’ll be checking that later today. Meanwhile, off to celebrate!
Not long now till Ruso and Tilla’s latest adventure goes public! It’s the story of their fateful trip to the busy shrine at Aquae Sulis (Bath) and you can find out more here…
…or listen to Simon Vance reading an excerpt from the book at Tantor Media.
On the left is Bloomsbury’s beautiful US edition. The British edition will follow soon – the cover design is still under wraps but I promise it will be worth waiting for! Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know when it’s being released – if you’d like to join them, please sign up here.