Friday, 28 December 2012

A special book give away!

To celebrate the release of my second novel, The Immaculate Deception this month, Amazon are running a special two-day deal for Kindle users in the UK and US. Today and tomorrow, you can download book one, Popular, completely free! 

If you've heard about Popular, a comedy set in my very own home town of Belfast, but you're not sure it's for you, then today's the day to try it and see. Please download it and I hope you enjoy it!


Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas book round-up

First of all, a happy Christmas to everyone and a very safe new year's, too. Thank you all for continuing to read this blog throughout 2012; I wish you and yours a prosperous Yuletide season!

I've said that I'd try to keep up with posts about what I'm reading, so here's a brief set of reviews of books I've read this autumn and winter. (With my own second novel coming out and rehearsals going on for a play in January, I actually find it's always a good idea to read somebody else's book in bed at night. To clear my head.)

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey - (By Leanda de Lisle, 2010). One of the best historical biographies I've read, Leanda de Lisle's take on the lives of the troubled Grey sisters is clever, witty and moving. Unlike many biographies which boast endlessly about their "new" discoveries, de Lisle's book actually does offer a genuinely different (and convincing) portrait of the Grey girls - particularly Jane, the most famous member of the family. The book is not biased, being fair to all of the major players, most of whom hated each other in real life. Compulsively readable and fantastically written, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen is my favourite historical book that I've read in 2012.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder - (By Evelyn Waugh, 1945). Nothing ever quite prepares you for Evelyn Waugh's lushly magnificent prose, even if you've read it many, many times before. Brideshead Revisited is, at heart, a love story between two men (what nature that love takes and how it expressed itself is still a subject of debate), but the label is not important here. It's also a story about choices, memory, the class system and the mysteries of the Catholic faith, played out across the life of a young middle-class boy called Charles Ryder who goes to study History at Oxford in 1922, where he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte, the gorgeous and flamboyant son of a Catholic marquess. In many ways, Brideshead Revisited reads like a paean of love to the aristocratic heyday of the inter-war years - a fact which Evelyn Waugh later regretted, claiming he'd written in such a hyperbolic way because the Second World War had made him hungry for "the days of plenty." It says something for Waugh's literary brilliance that the novel is simultaneously cited as being one of the great same-sex love stories of the twentieth century and the finest celebration of the Catholic religion ever written by an English author. Every time I return to Brideshead Revisited, I'm struck again by how beautiful it is, how clever it is and, often, by how incredibly funny Waugh made it. With a cast of unforgettable characters, Brideshead Revisited deserves its reputation as one of the finest novels of the last century.

Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father's Crown - (By Maureen Waller, 2003). This is the ugly side of the Glorious Revolution, the event still celebrated to the skies today by Ireland's Orange Order. By examining the events from the point-of-view of each major member of the Royal Family in 1688-1690, Maureen Waller delivers a devastatingly unpleasant story of filial betrayal and deceit. The one truly likable character to emerge from the entire sordid narrative is Maria-Beatrice of Modena, the Italian princess who was destined to become the last Catholic queen of Britain, when she married the future James II. In 1688, she was horribly traduced by her two stepdaughters, when they unfairly accused her of smuggling an impostor-baby into her rooms, to pass it off as the long-awaited Catholic heir. Armed with this smear campaign, Maria-Beatrice's son-in-law, William of Orange, invaded England, whipped up into anti-Catholic terror, and seized the throne, completing his victorious transformation into William III two years later at the Battle of the Boyne. Passionate, well-argued and moving, Ungrateful Daughters was a very good read.

A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria - (By Katie Whitaker, 2011). This is a book I have been meaning to read for a while now, so I was pleased I got the opportunity. It is a dual biography of Charles I, the king who famously lost his head at the end of the English civil war, and his French wife, Henrietta-Maria, Louis XIII's youngest sister. Whitaker manages to be sympathetic to both, although the book probably deals with the Queen's life more than the King's. A Royal Passion is unashamedly a return to the "kings and queens" style approach to history; it's history from above, not below. But, as Dr. Whitaker shows, top-down history should have more of a place in today's studies, because the case of Charles I and Henrietta-Maria shows how important monarchy was, particularly in an age when it wielded such power. The biography manages to neatly balance the emergence of the couple's love for one another and it's very touching, alongside the mounting political problems that eventually led to the downfall of the monarchy and the civil war. Henrietta-Maria is treated sympathetically here, which I enjoyed, but her mistakes and occasionally erratic advice are not glossed over. A few minor elements of the story are not dealt with - such as recent evidence that suggests the possibility of the King having had an affair later on in the marriage, when he was in prison - but, overall, A Royal Passion is a fantastic portrait of a marriage that began in difficulty (Henrietta-Maria punched her fist through a palace window in rage when Charles dismissed her tribe of French-Catholic servants), evolved into a great love story and then ended in such a tragic way.

A Brief Life of the Queen - (By Robert Lacey, 2012). A short but succinct life of the current Sovereign, Robert Lacey's book is beautifully illustrated and a sympathetic approach to the life of Elizabeth II. A few members of the Royal Family, namely the current Prince of Wales, do not emerge too well from Lacey's narrative and he doesn't gloss over the Queen's rage at her courtiers' advice during the weeks after Princess Diana's death in 1997, but overall this is a fast-moving and convincing biography of one of the most successful leaders of the modern age.

The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland, 1740 - 1840 - (By A.P.W. Malcomson, 2006). A.P.W. Malcomson's account of marriage between, and in to, the Irish aristocracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a beautiful book to look at. Full of illustrations, Malcomson discusses the extent to which class, money, land and love influenced how the aristocrats of the Ascendancy picked their mates. He's particularly interesting on those who married "in" to the Ascendancy, although at times his attempts to be utterly thorough can make the book a little dry for the casual reader. For anyone interested in Ireland's (in)famous Protestant Ascendancy, and probably for someone who has already done a bit of reading on them, The Pursuit of the Heiress is a good recommendation and I enjoyed it.

Evita: First Lady - (By John Barnes, 1996). This is not a sympathetic biography of Argentina's notorious first lady, although it's nowhere near as harsh as Mary Main's book Evita: The Woman with the Whip, which proved the inspiration for the famous musical based on Evita's life and death. Barnes presents Evita as shallow, materialistic and addicted to fame. There are times when one questions how much of this book is original research, but it's written well enough and it's easy to follow.

Bring Up the Bodies - (By Hilary Mantel, 2012). I wasn't a huge fan of the first installment in this series, Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies made me remember why. The historian in me could obviously query why on earth absolutely none of Thomas Cromwell's negative qualities are in any way acknowledged in this hagiographic fictional adaptation of his life, but Hilary Mantel has clearly done her research and she clearly believes that Cromwell was nothing like the unpleasant henchman of popular legend. The main problem with Bring Up the Bodies was one which bedeviled Wolf Hall, too; it insists upon itself. I don't like novels that tell me what to think - that tell me which character to like and what view to take. That's one of the reasons why I like books like Brideshead Revisited. No-one knows if you're supposed to like or loathe Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain; pity or despise the glamorous Celia, etc. In this series, Cromwell is presented as irredeemably commendable and his opponents as equally awful. In order to excuse Cromwell's worst actions, Mantel made Thomas More an unrelentingly unlikable character in Wolf Hall; in Bring Up the Bodies, it's the turn of Anne Boleyn and Henry Norris. Bring Up the Bodies is written by a very, very gifted writer, but at times it felt like a lecture and I'd rather have been left to make my own mind up about the astonishing figure who stands at the heart of the story.

Farewell, My Queen - (By Chantal Thomas, 2004). First published in French and recently adapted into a movie, starring Diane Kruger (below) and Lea Seydoux, Farewell, My Queen tells the story of the last three days in the palace of  Versailles from the point-of-view of a fictional servant, whose job it is to read aloud to the Queen while she takes her morning coffee. The novel, narrated in the first person, gives free rein to the servant-girl's obsessive devotion to Marie-Antoinette and it brilliantly captures the rising tide of panic as the full impact of the storming of the Bastille reaches the court. This is my second time reading Farewell, My Queen; at times, it feels like the translation into English may have diminished some of the text's drama, but it remains a very good book.

Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr - (By Linda Porter, 2011.) I preferred Linda Porter's first biography, of Mary Tudor, but this biography was still a fine one. It helped remind me of why the life of Henry VIII's sixth wife is so interesting, despite the fact that she's often looked upon as "the boring one." Katherine the Queen is sympathetic, well-written and enjoyable.

Lost Liners - (By Robert Ballard, 1997). You could certainly say this book about the most famous shipwrecks of the twentieth century is written by an expert; Robert Ballard is the man who discovered the remains of the Titanic in 1985. The illustrations are by the ludicrously talented marine artist, Ken Marschall, and they are incredible. It's a short but beautiful book.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - (By J.K. Rowling, 2003.) For some reason, people seem to generally agree that this is the "worst" book in the Harry Potter franchise. It's also the longest, which may have something to do with it. I love the Harry Potter books and I have to say that I really rather like Order of the Phoenix. In the first place, Dolores Umbridge is such a good villain that I had to punch my pillow in rage at several moments; secondly, it takes a gutsy author to take the risk of making her eponymous hero as irritating as Rowling does with moody Harry in this book. Too much Hogwarts is never a bad thing.

Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century - (By John Boswell, 1980.) This is an award-winning but hard-going book by the late, great, gender historian John Boswell, an academic at Yale. At times, Boswell's insistence that homophobia only arose in the Christian church well into the Middle Ages sounds a little too forced; as if he is so determined to believe the best of Christianity that he cannot quite bring himself to admit how that darkness actually arose. All that being said, however, Boswell's book is still utterly fascinating. He finds ample evidence to suggest that prior to the twelfth century, the Church in the West evinced very little hostility towards, or interest in, homosexuality and he does find several instances of it actually celebrating male-male relationships and ceremonies performed to do so. (There is next-to-nothing, I should point out, on same-sex female relationships in this book.) Brilliant, ground-breaking and flawlessly researched, Boswell's book deserved the awards it received and the uncomfortable questions it asks (but doesn't always fully answer) remind us all of how incredibly complex religious, cultural and sexual history can be. Reading books like this reminds me not just why I love history so much, but why it's so important and why it should always be written by men and women who take it as seriously as John Boswell did.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Duchess and the Ascendancy

As part of the Royal Family and as wife to the future King, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is already a member of the Irish aristocracy. At the time of her marriage, she acquired the title of Baroness Carrickfergus. However, recent research into the Duchess's family tree has also discovered that Catherine is descended from the Marquess of Lansdowne (below), the Irish-born Ascendancy aristocrat who was British Prime Minister at the time of the American War of Independence. The Petty-Fitzmaurice family were later hugely influential in the Irish Southern Unionist movement and in the early twentieth century, the Marquess of Lansdowne was the Tory leader in the House of Lords, where he campaigned tirelessly to try and preserve Ireland's legislative Union with Britain. After the 1911 House of Lords Act, this was no longer possible and the focus of the Unionist campaign shifted to "saving" Ulster from the proposed Home Rule settlement. Many southern unionists, like Edward Carson, jumped ship at that point to join the controversial "Save Ulster" campaign, much to the Marquess's chagrin. His son, and another of Catherine's distant relatives, the Earl of Kerry, attended the 1914 Buckingham Palace Peace Conference, organised by King George V, to try and negotiate a peaceful solution to Ireland's mounting sectarian and political tensions.

The Duchess has thanked the amateur genealogists who uncovered this familial link during a school project in Australia, which also discovered ties to Sir Christopher Bullock, Winston Churchill's principal private secretary at the end of the First World War. 

The full Daily Telegraph article can be read here

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Good night, children, and God bless.

On the outskirts of the town of Yekaterinburg in mid-Russia, there lies a field, filled with lilies. The lilies bloom in summer, near the anniversary of a terrible act that happened near this peaceful spot, nearly a century ago. In the summer, when the lilies are in bloom and swaying gently in the breeze, the field is filled with the muted sounds of respectful pilgrims. Nearby, several small churches allude to the site's religious significance for many Russians; bouquets of flowers and hand-made memorials litter the field, giving the impression that what happened here was a recent tragedy. 

It was here, in this field, in the panicked darkness of a July night in 1918, that the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, their five children and four remaining servants, were stripped, burned, disfigured with acid and buried. Later, the bodies were moved further into the forest, to avoid detection, but it is here that the gunmen who murdered the imperial family first tried to cover up the dreadful nature of their crime. The murder of the Romanovs became one of the most famous massacres of the twentieth century; at the distance of nearly one hundred years, it still has the power to shock and to horrify. Its lawlessness, its depravity, its disregard for human life and, perhaps above all, its contempt for the innocent blood of children, has helped fix it in the public's mind as a symbol "of the century we had." When the historian and writer, Jonathan Dimbleby, visited the field in 2008, his camera men picked up on one of the memorials in the field. It had been placed there by an English admirer of the Romanovs - a simple wooden cross, upon which was written the words, "Good night, children and God bless."

Yesterday in the Connecticut town of Newtown, a man who is presumed to have been 20-year-old Adam Lanza murdered his mother and drove to a nearby elementary school, with an approximate population of seven hundred. He entered the school with three weapons and gunned down twenty children and seven members of staff in the space of six or seven minutes. An employee risked their life by running through the school shouting warnings; another had the good sense to turn on the intercom to make the announcement. Teachers barricaded themselves in their classroom and did their best to save the students. Local law enforcement was on call swiftly and both the Governor of Connecticut and the President of the United States, clearly deeply moved himself, addressed a nation that was stunned by the horror of what occurred. Later, the people of Newtown gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the town's Saint Rose of Lima parish Church. They lit candles and sang Silent Night.

Inevitably, the debate will soon turn to America's gun laws and the second amendment of 1791. Some conservatives with more polemic than sense will insist that liberals are exploiting the tragedy of Newtown to criticize laws that they don't like and have never liked. They'll be accused of opportunism. What the proper political response is, though, I don't know. Only a fool, or an ostrich, would insist that after events like this that something doesn't need to happen. They are an all-too frequent occurrence in America and some tightening of the gun laws, I suppose, does seem inevitable - even desirable. That, however, is a debate for the elected representatives of the American people and one for the weeks ahead. On both sides of the aisle, we can dare to dream that there will be reasoned and thoughtful arguments; a proportional and fitting response to the reality of the circumstances. 

In the meantime, moving away from the politics of change, the most fitting testament to the fallen of Newtown are the same words on the little wooden cross in the field of swaying lilies in Yekaterinburg - "Good night, children, and God bless." It is heartbreaking. 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

New book; new website

"Sharp, hilarious and always right on the money." - Carly Bennett

"Hilarious, clever and very naughty, just like its author." - Emerald Fennell, author of Shiverton Hall

"Packed with wicked humour, glamorous characters and razor sharp dialogue." - ULSTER TATLER

By far and away the most important piece of news in Belfast this week, obvs... #awkward.

I am very excited to say that my new novel, The Immaculate Deception, is now available in paperback and Kindle in the UK, Ireland and the US. Its prequel, Popular, is also available, with a brand new cover and blurb.

The Immaculate Deception picks up three days after Popular ended and it follows six months in the lives of Meredith, Cameron, Imogen, Kerry and their friends. It's been published by MadeGlobal, who have also included a tongue-in-cheek guide to Belfast slang and humour at the back of each book - written by yours truly. They've also designed an amazing new website, which I love, promoting the books and letting people know where to order them and what's going on with the franchise.

I hope readers of the blog, if they can, will enjoy Popular and The Immaculate Deception. They're a labour of love and I have a fantastic time writing them.

The new website is

Readers from the UK and Ireland can get the Kindle version of The Immaculate Deception here and the paperback, here.

Readers from the United States, can get Popular in paperback or Kindle, and The Immaculate Deception in paperback or kindle

Happy reading and thanks to everyone for the messages of support!

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Duchess is expecting

It is a great joy to be able to post that the Royal Household has issued the following statement regarding Their Royal Highnesses, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. 

Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are very pleased to announce that The Duchess of Cambridge is expecting a baby. 

The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Harry and members of both families are delighted with the news. 

The Duchess was admitted this afternoon to King Edward VII Hospital in Central London with Hyperemesis Gravidarum. As the pregnancy is in its very early stages, Her Royal Highness is expected to stay in hospital for several days and will require a period of rest thereafter. 

A few weeks ago, I did a series on the history of the British monarchy and I rounded it off by saying this. With today's happy news, I absolutely stand by it.

"Two hundred years ago, Marie-Antoinette remarked that she could never understand how people could emotionally invest in a republic. Her rationale was that in a monarchy the people know their ruler from birth; in a republic, they don't. Part of the British public's long-term support for the monarchy over the next generation will be because of their emotional investment in the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The couple are genuinely liked and they have managed to fuse the Windsor mission of public service done with dignity, with the modern monarchy's awareness of friendliness and managing the media. People feel an emotional connection to the future King William V and Queen Catherine; that connection will extend to their future children. That, coupled with the high level of respect and affection enjoyed by the current Sovereign, is the short-term reason for the monarchy's continued prosperity. (It now seems melodramatic to talk about its "survival," as one did in the mid-1990s.)

The long-term reasons, however, stretch back both in time and in psychology. The monarchy is in some ways an illogical institution or, rather, an incongruous one. It was, however, born out of realpolitik. It was essential in the Middle Ages and it validated all of that era's societal mores. To be without it was unthinkable. In the twenty first century, to be without the monarchy is no longer unthinkable. It is, however, unwise. The fate of countries who have abolished their monarchies are not exactly enviable, either in the long-run and much less in the short. The monarchy gives a sense of continuity. In an age of disillusionment with politics, the monarchy has been able to provide a sense of national leadership that is separate from questions of party and politicians. Britain's ambivalence, or hostility, towards its elected leaders makes it fundamentally unlikely that they would ever take well to someone who not only led the government, but also led the country. A combined head of state and government would most likely meet with derision in Britain. We quite simply don't have Americans' sense of hope and excitement about our new executive leaders. We're too snobbish and too skeptical  And, I suspect, we're too sentimental as well. Marie-Antoinette was right to say that the cradle-to-grave nature of royal life is part of monarchy's unending selling appeal. It taps into our belief in fairy tales, but more importantly it links the past to the present and it gives a sense of stable hope for the future. It removes the uncertainty of what's coming next; it provides figures of national interest, who can serve their country without worrying about currying for votes; the royals don't have to win anything, they can simply do. The monarchy gives people something to cheer about, to talk about, to identify with. It's by no means a perfect system, but I can't help but feel that it's still one of the best. Like Elizabeth I said five hundred years ago, it's a kind of marriage to the nation and in some ways, to me at least, that idea is still magnificent."

Sunday, 2 December 2012

"Popular" coming to the States!

I'm very excited that my first novel, Popular, will soon be available to order in the US! It'll be up on Amazon with a brand new cover, tagline and a special fun vocabulary section at the back. The brand new cover, designed by my publishers at MadeGlobal, will also be replacing Popular's old cover in the UK, Ireland and overseas. This is to mark Popular moving to MadeGlobal and in preparation for the release of its first sequel, The Immaculate Deception, which follows the same characters in the summer and winter after Popular

I'll be posting more news about the books and where they can be ordered, soon, but thanks so much to all this blog's American readers and I hope you can order, and enjoy, Popular and The Immaculate Deception. Working on them, and with my new publishers, has been a great joy.

"Packed with wicked humour, glamorous characters and razor sharp dialogue." - ULSTER TATLER

On the first day of September, 16 year-old Meredith Harper rules over the teen it-crowd of Belfast, Northern Ireland. But beneath the surface, Meredith's complicated web of manipulative lies and self-serving intrigues are slowly beginning to threaten her social position and she finds herself being challenged by the handsome Mark Kingston, the only guy in the school who's always hated her.

In a world where nothing stays secret for very long, Meredith and her friends will need all their skills to guess who's in, out, coming out, going up, going down, dating, cheating, lying and trying to cope...

Let the games begin!

"Move over Blair Waldorf, Meredith Harper rules the school now." - Danielle Binks, the ALPHA review 

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