Jilly: Independence Daze

Happy Fourth of July to the other Ladies, and to all American readers of 8LW. It’s been a year like no other, but I hope you found a suitable way to celebrate.

Here in Merrie England we’re also enjoying a very special weekend. The Prime Minister announced an easing of covid-19 lockdown measures, beginning yesterday, and suddenly all kinds of socially distanced fun and games are back on the cards.

Now that so many suspended activities are possible again, it’s been interesting to see which ones I’m desperate to return to and which ones I’ve decided can wait a little longer.

Home Visits
We’re allowed to receive visitors at home now, though outside is better and social distancing is de rigueur. We’re expecting an in-person visit from a real, live friend this afternoon. We’ll sit in the garden and keep our distance, but the idea of an in-the-flesh social interaction is thrilling. Humans are social animals, aren’t we? Zoom, Skype, and Facetime are better than nothing, but they don’t come close to a face to face catch-up. We’re expecting visits from another friend, maybe two, before the end of next week and I couldn’t be happier.

Restaurants
I don’t feel tempted to check out smart city center restaurants, but we’ve missed our weekly visit to the local Bangladeshi eatery. It’s part of the fabric of our neighborhood—everyone goes there. The food isn’t fancy, but it’s tasty and consistently good. The people who run the show are great—smart, hardworking, and kind. Dinner there is part of my routine, like taking a grocery delivery or writing a blog post. We like to eat early, when it’s nice and quiet. I’m looking forward to getting into that groove again.

Hairdressers
It’s been four months since I had a haircut. Normally I get fretful if I hit the five-week mark. I’ve been going to the same stylist and colorist for around 20 years. I’m good friends with both, and with many other people at their salon. My stylist is a great supporter of my writing. He loves to talk creativity and gave me the germ of the idea that became the elan stories. My colorist usually works with celebrities around the world and is a great person to quiz for the latest ideas, trends and insights.

I can’t wait to see them, but I’ve been checking up on the covid-secure rules for running a salon and don’t envy them the task of putting the necessary measures in place. They’ll be trying to do everything right, delivering their best work while keeping their staff and clients safe. Balancing a waitlist of demanding clients while keeping the salon half-empty and adhering to their long list of protocols. I’ve decided to give them a few weeks, maybe a month. If the salon has settled into a new normal by the end of August, that will do nicely.

Dentists
Our dental surgery re-opened. Whoo! My husband and I have appointments next week for check-ups that were canceled months ago. The experience is likely to be weird. Our dentist is chatty. His practice is friendly and informal. It’s going to be strange to see him kitted out in PPE and talking through a visor. I like him a lot, but I’ve never before thought of a dental check-up as a treat. I snapped up the first appointment I was offered and am feeling ridiculously excited about it.

Travel
From today people in England are allowed to travel for pleasure and to stay overnight in hotels, campsites and B&Bs. That was a popular decision—yesterday there were huge tailbacks on roads heading to the coast and well-known beauty spots.

We’re also starting to relax quarantine rules for arrivals from various countries. Airlines are scheduling flights, and apparently optimists are rushing to book holidays before their children go back to school (in September, assuming that goes to plan).

I’ve always enjoyed travel, and dear lord I’d love a change of scenery, but right now I feel no inclination to buy a train ticket or book a hotel, let alone hop on a plane. It’s partly the health risk, but at least as much the knowledge that the world could change again in the blink of an eye and we could find ourselves stranded, far from home, possibly for a very long time and potentially uninsured. I’m glad we’ve taken some very special trips over the years, because I can’t see us straying far from home unless/until the dust settles, and I’m guessing that may take years rather than months.

It’s exciting to feel that we may be returning to a kind of normality, though as I’m watching the rest of the world I have a sinking feeling that this may just be a lull before the next storm. I hope I’m wrong.

So…how’s your weekend going? And have you noticed a change in your priorities during these crazy days?

Jilly: The Murderbot Dilemma

How much would you pay for an ebook? Or a series?

I’ve been trying to decide whether to invest in Martha Wells’ Murderbot books. I don’t usually dither over book purchases, but this series has me hovering over the buy button.

The community on Argh Ink (Jenny Crusie’s blog) loves Murderbot. Jenny loves and re-reads the series. These are smart people. They read a lot. They’re sharply observant and constructively critical about their recommendations and DNFs. They tend to like the kind of stories I like. So that’s a strong positive.

I read the first novella, All Systems Red, and really enjoyed it. I wasn’t desperate to read the next book immediately, but I haven’t forgotten it and moved on. I felt like that about Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles—had a hiatus of maybe a couple of years before I bought the second book—but that series became a favorite and one that I regularly re-read.

The Murderbot premise is great—an introverted, self-hacking robot protagonist who’s technically not a person but who has an engaging personality–fascinating, funny and conflicted. The author makes you care about the character. The writing is clever and complex. The stories are sci-fi, with lots of great world-building and action, but deeply character-driven. As far as I can see from a quick scan of the reviews, the first four novellas arc to a satisfying conclusion.

There’s really only one argument against Murderbot. The price. According to the many disgruntled reviews on the Zon, the first four titles are essentially one book, with each act published as a separate novella. According to Amazon US at the time of writing, they are: Continue reading

Jilly: Behind the Scenes

I enjoyed Michaeline’s post yesterday, about her love of secret passages and rooms, trap doors, hidden compartments and all kinds of mystery architecture. She loves them as a reader, so she likes to incorporate them into her own stories.

She set me thinking.

Mystery architecture is a wonderful tool for storytellers. There are so many good examples, but below are a few of my favorites.

The hidden basement and secret shelter in Jenny Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman.

The smugglers’ cellar and well-oiled trapdoor that Francis Crawford of Lymond uses to sneak into locked-down Edinburgh in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.

Another smugglers’ construction— the concealed tunnel between Darracott Place and the haunted Dower House in Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax.

All kinds of hidden delights, from ancient temples to sneaky palace passageways, in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its four sequels.

I like all that undercover stuff, but what really thrills me is an insider story. When I see a swan gliding serenely along, I want to see the feet paddling like mad under the water. I love, love, love to watch characters working on their craft. I need to share their setbacks, mistakes, failures and ultimate triumph. I like to write those stories too.

In real life I love it when restaurants offer a chef’s table so diners can watch the kitchen in full flow. I really like that pro tennis has been experimenting with allowing players to talk to their coaches mid-match—and we all get to hear their discussion. And some of my best trips to the Royal Opera House have been to watch working rehearsals, or to see costumes being made, props being constructed, and choreography developed. To give you an idea of what I mean, click here for a ten-minute video of the Royal Ballet working flat out on the big sword fight between Tybalt and Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo & Juliet.

One of my favorite movies ever is Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom—double dealing, dirty tricks and the private language of competitive ballroom dancing. Christopher Guest hilariously gives dog shows the same treatment in his mockumentary Best in Show. And for books, what about:

Faro’s Daughter (Heyer again), where the heroine is a gambler’s daughter who runs a fashionable gaming house with her delightfully clueless aunt; or

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor—half-goblin Maia loses his entire family in an airship crash and unexpectedly becomes Emperor. He has no training, no allies, and seems an easy target for every ambitious, manipulative, scheming courtier in the palace. Maia outwits them all by learning the system from servants, soldiers, airship crews, and other ordinary people that make his world work.

A hairdresser friend of mine once told me he’d never book a chef’s table. He’s spent his entire working life behind the scenes and he knows exactly what happens. When he reads a novel, or goes to dinner, or to a movie, he wants a finished product, all glossy and shiny. He’ll take the fairy tale presentation every time.

Where do you stand on insider stories? Are you a fan, or would you rather sit the other side of the curtain, watching the action from the plush seats?

Jilly: Ryder

I’ve been reading a lot lately and I’ve never been so grateful for the ability to escape reality for a while in favor of a world where you know the toughest challenges will be overcome and the good guys will prevail.

I’ve read new releases by authors whose work I like a lot, well reviewed first-in-series by new-to-me authors, and genre classics of yesteryear, but the thing I’m most enjoying right now is a new urban fantasy serial from the husband-and-wife team who write as Ilona Andrews.

I posted here a couple of months ago about their Innkeeper Chronicles “plague sale” (99 cents for the first three books; all proceeds, net of their literary agency’s costs, to be donated to the CDP Covid-19 Response Fund). The new serial is even cheaper. It will eventually be edited and self-published, but for now it’s free to read on the authors’ blog.

The story has an official title, Blood Heir, but the working title is Ryder. It’s urban fantasy, in the Kate Daniels universe, and the story takes place eight years after the end of the bestselling KD series. The protagonist is Julie, Kate’s adopted daughter, who’s returning to Atlanta in secret with a new face, a new name (Aurelia Ryder), even a new scent. Her mission is to save Kate from a terrible, prophesied, but currently unrevealed, threat. When the first chapter was posted, the authors’ plan was to offer a snippet as a treat for KD fans. The response they received persuaded them to keep going, and now, twelve chapters later, they’ve confirmed that Blood Heir/Ryder will become a book, likely to be self-published in the first quarter of 2021. That news made me so happy!

They’re uploading each chapter as they write, more or less once a week. It’s classic Ilona Andrews—engaging characters, strong community, high stakes, fantastic worldbuilding, and snappy dialogue. I’m loving it so much. Every new chapter is a treat. If you like the sound of this, and you’re not already following along, check out the story so far here.

Have you read anything good lately? It’s a long time between Ryder installments. Any and all recommendations would be most gratefully received.

Jilly: Fix It With Gold

Just when you think 2020 might be getting a little better, it gets a whole lot worse. Elizabeth captured the zeitgeist perfectly in her Wednesday post, Living the Conflict Box. That’s exactly how the world feels to me every time I check out the news.

I spent much of yesterday staring at my laptop, trying to decide what to talk about today. Eventually, for reasons I hope will become apparent, I settled on the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi.

According to that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), also known as kinsukuroi (金繕い, “golden repair”), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

I’m not Japanese and I’ve never been to Japan, so clearly I’m not the best person to talk about this (hi, Michaeline!), but I can broach the subject and invite you to learn more. I’ve been in love with the idea ever since it was featured on BBC Four’s 2017 season celebrating all things Japanese.

Click here for an article from the BBC series, including some stunning photographs.

I’d love to own a piece of kintsugi, but it would have to be something that has personal significance for me. If I ever break a cherished vase or bowl, say a wedding present, maybe something that was bought for my husband and me by my parents (who aren’t around anymore), I’m going to see if I can find somebody who can fix it with gold.

The reason I like kintsugi so much is that it doesn’t seek to hide a fracture, or even multiple fractures. There’s no attempt to mend something that’s seriously broken by fixing the damage so that it’s invisible to the naked eye. Quite the reverse. The idea is that the breakage is an important part of the pot’s history and should not be hidden or forgotten. But if it gets fixed with care, and love, and valuable materials, the pot not only becomes usable again, it becomes differently beautiful—a celebration, a reminder, even a triumph.

I love the idea so much that I incorporated a version of it into one of the stories I’m currently writing—a novella about sibling rivalry and family fractures and reconciliation.

And I hope it doesn’t sound naïve or pretentious to say that it’s what I wish for our world. The sooner the better.

Take care, be kind, and see you next Sunday.

Jilly: A True Story, Brilliantly Told

Have you ever watched a great musician play? Wondered at the way they seem to be one with their instrument, physically and emotionally?

If you wanted to express the intensity of that connection through the medium of dance, wouldn’t it be inspired to use two dancers, one for the musician and one for the instrument? That’s what choreographer Cathy Marston did in her recent one-hour modern ballet The Cello, based on the life of renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

The role of the cellist was created for British ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson; the role of her cello was created for Portuguese dancer Marcelino Sambé, and the way they move together, almost becoming the music, is breathtaking.

The storytelling is inspired. Everything centers around the cello. The instrument is the emotional link between the cellist and her husband, the celebrated conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. Then it becomes the means to express the loss and heartbreak they suffer as du Pré develops the multiple sclerosis that cut short her career, and then her life. She died twelve years ago, aged 42.

Even if you’re not a dance fan, you might enjoy this four-minute discussion between the choreographer, the cellist who accompanies the piece, and the dancers who play du Pré, the cello, and Barenboim. They discuss the process of creating the story, including working from a selection of word prompts. Click here to watch on YouTube.

If that whetted your appetite for more, click here for a New York Times review of the ballet.

Best of all, if you’d like to watch The Cello, you can. It’s free to watch on the Royal Ballet’s Youtube channel for another 12 days. Have tissues to hand. Click here.

Sigh. Have a lovely weekend.

Take care, stay safe, and see you next week.

Jilly: Hay Festival Digital–Free Brain Candy

Another Sunday, another silver lining. I wrote a few weeks ago about free lockdown streaming from London’s National Theatre. Now summer’s approaching in the UK and we’re heading into festival season. For the great and the good of the arts scene that means the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts, usually just called the Hay Festival. I’d say it’s our most famous literature festival. Apparently in 2001 Bill Clinton described it as “The Woodstock of the Mind.”

Normally the festival would take over the beautiful town of Hay-on-Wye, Wales. This year the event is virtual, and it’s all free. Hay Festival Digital runs until next Sunday, 31 May. The tagline is free live broadcasts and interactive Q&As from the world’s greatest writers and thinkers.

You can register to watch any of the sessions, and if you join live you can chat with fellow audience members and send questions to the presenter, just as you could if you attended the festival in person. If you’re in another time zone and the live stream isn’t convenient for you, the recorded sessions will be available for a further 24 hours.

I watched an interview yesterday morning called Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen, by author and historian Greg Jenner, who also has a fabulous, quirky history podcast called You’re Dead To Me. The discussion was great fun and the technology worked well. I saw people from the US, Nigeria, and a number of European countries as well as the UK, chatting away and having a great time.

I’m definitely planning to catch another session or two. Continue reading

Jilly: Where Would You Go?

Another weekend in lockdown, at least here in the UK. How are you doing? I hope you’re safe and well and facing the corona-challenge as best you can.

This week we finally received confirmation that the 2020 Romance Writers of America  National Conference, scheduled to take place in San Francisco at the end of July, has been cancelled. That’s…kind of a relief, since I saw the writing on the wall a couple of months ago and refunded our plane tickets and hotel bookings. I’m sad it won’t be happening, but glad we won’t be missing out on the fun.

Last weekend I talked about the idea that a cancelled vacation is a double disappointment—you miss out on the trip, but you also miss out on the planning, which may be the best bit. No budget constraints, no logistical difficulties, nothing but good times ahead.

In last Sunday’s comments, Elizabeth said that since much of the fun is in the planning, we should keep working on our itineraries, enjoying the luxury of our virtual trips without being hampered by financial considerations or practical details. I think she’s right.

So. Once this crisis is over, if you could go anywhere in the world, money no object, where would you go? Continue reading

Jilly: Getting Away From It All

It’s a holiday weekend here. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and we’re in limbo, waiting for the corona-crisis to be resolved or at least assimilated into our post-pandemic daily lives. Wherever you are, I hope you’re safe and well.

Usually around now people in the UK get the first inkling that summer is around the corner. That promises vacation, relaxation, maybe a change of scenery, perhaps a beach read or two. Except this year relaxation is not an option, and the scenery is depressingly familiar. Mr. W and I had tickets to visit San Francisco at the end of July for RWA Nationals. We expected to meet up with California-based friends and to enjoy a civilized meander down the coast with Kay. Clearly none of that will happen. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to hop on a train and visit friends and family outside London.

Many of my friends have reported increased cabin fever lately, and I wonder if at least some of it is down to the loss of that holiday promise, the anticipation of a treat or just the idea, the possibility of something new. Chez Jilly we’d have shared days and weeks’ worth of fun planning our road trip, investigating possibilities online, talking to Kay about places to stay, discussing landmarks to visit, imagining food and wine we might sample. Planning a vacay is like a free holiday-before-the-holiday, with only the good bits—no budget constraints, no sunburn, and no jet lag. I think being robbed of that fantasy is almost as bad as missing out on the trip itself. Continue reading

Jilly: Traditional treats, surprising skills

Another week, another Sunday. I’d swear the days are dragging, yet blink! and here we are again. I hope you’re still keeping safe and well as we inch toward the new normal, whatever that may be.

An unexpected upside of the current crisis has been a surge in demand for various niche businesses. Amid the general gloom and depression, it’s been lovely to see artisanal flour producers, needlepoint tutors, hen-keepers and the like enjoy an unexpected moment in the sunlight.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that I’m a huge jigsaw puzzle fan. Jigsaws are traditionally regarded as a staid older-person’s form of distraction, but apparently in these stressful days of lockdown confinement they have seen a huge resurgence. Yay! Long may it last!

I always have a jigsaw on the go when I’m plotting a book. When I get stuck trying to figure out character arcs, world-building, turning points and plot holes, I take a time out with the puzzle and the challenge of identifying colors, patterns, and shapes seems to re-set my brain. According to the interwebs, this is because jigsaw puzzles Continue reading