Sunday, July 29, 2012

M Scott's Books of a Lifetime

Recently a publicist contacted to ask me if I was interested in reading Manda Scott's next book, the third in her Rome series. Of course I was interested. I loved her Boudicea books, but wait.... third book? How on earth had I missed the fact that she had a new series out and that she is up to the third book! One thing led to another, and this Books of a Lifetime post was born. Oh, and Manda Scott is back on my TBR list.

There is a wonderful space in a writing life when the latest draft of the latest novel has been handed in but there has not yet been any editorial feedback. Often, there's another novel that needs to fill the gap, or a screenplay, or a short story, or, increasingly a blog post or two, but once in a while, there's a day when the 'to-do' list is empty, when all the books on the TBR pile have been read, at least, all the ones that are ever going to be read, and there's time to clear the bookshelves.  

In our household, this point comes round often enough that the two local charity shops close their doors and run in panic when I turn up. No, they don't want half a dozen Czech versions of Dreaming the Hound (why ever not?) but they may be prepared to take something in French and Polish is very popular. They haven't realised there's a market for ARCs even when I read them carefully and don't crease them, but I'm educating them slowly while stripping the bookshelves back to those things that will never leave; the Books of a Lifetime.

They are arranged more or less in the order they came into my life and so very first, always, on the far left of the top shelf, is James Fennimore Cooper's 'The Last of the Mohicans'; the first 'adult' book I was allowed to buy, with my first ever book tokens. It had been on the television with the wonderful Philip Madoc as the Huron warrior with the famous hairstyle that later, in one of those anachronistic ironies, was named 'Mohican' after the tribe he helped to eradicate. I read an article that said he'd learned Huron for the part and while he might have been reciting shopping lists while speaking, every single word was authentic. The BBC version was so many streets ahead of the dreadful Daniel Day Lewis cover made decades later, that it should be made required viewing for film students, and my precious copy has a still from one of the mid-forest scenes on the front cover. I re-read it roughly once every ten years and find new things that I didn't notice in the previous decade. I occasionally wax lyrical and say that my desert island book would be Mary Renault's Alexander, or, more recently, Wolf Hall, but really it would be impossible to leave TLotM behind.

With 'Mohican's, I discovered John Smith's in Glasgow; a beautiful, ageing independent bookstore that thrived in the days when those things were possible. I used to take the train in after school and the assistants knew me well enough to let me stand there and read a book cover to cover before I went home. It was in one of those marathon read-ins that I found the next book along; Alan Garner's 'Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and its sequel, the 'Moon of Gomrath'. What can I say? Alan Garner is one of those publishing geniuses whose books should have been made into film long, long before LOTR or Twilight or anything else full of cliche. His elves are scary. His magic feels utterly real. His 'Wild Hunt' is terrifying. I spent years after, trying to follow the mythic threads he'd woven in his tale of two children who find magic on a cheshire moorland, but it's the prescient environmentalist agenda that makes them truly magical. In among the high magic and the low dwarven magic and the terrifying Morrigan and the pony with the red eyes that haunted my dreams for decades, was the message that the elves were dying out because we were poisoning their world. It was heartbreaking. It still is.

The magical theme held most of my childhood; growing up in a raptor rehab centre where the kestrels were put to bed at dusk and the owls brought out (in the kitchen) and vice versa, might have had something to do with it. Next along is Mary Stewart's 'Crystal Cave' trilogy which, to my mind, is the best Arthurian series ever written and continued my education in how to write magic that feels integral to the world that has been created. Her Merlin - aka Merthyn Emrys - took me out of childhood and into an adolescence where woods and streams and the things that inhabited them were imbued with gods I could almost reach. It was thanks to her I started performing hidden ceremonies to Mithras before hockey matches at school. As far as I can remember, no heavenly bull-god appeared on the hockey pitch to help us defeat the opposing team, but it felt good at the time and it cemented my image of Arthur for years, until someone gave me the Rosemary Sutcliff version, 'A Sword at Sunset' and I saw the foundation on which the Crystal Skull and others had been written. Sutcliff's is the better book, but it should have been given the room to breathe that a series allows, so Mary Stewart just edges up in terms of overall impact.

Last in the books of my childhood, is the Dorothy Dunnett, Lymond series; the books I read and re-read through the quiet tedium of my Highers while I studied to go to Vet School. I read them in English and in the German translation, and for a while, knew the plot points, the development, the characterisation as well as I've ever known any of my own books. They've faded a bit now; they were good books for adolescence: wanting to become Francis Crawford of Lymond pushed me into a neatness of thought that I've never replicated since. For those how haven't read them, he is tall, ice-blond, has eyes of cornflower blue, is super-neat, and highly intelligent. I, by contrast, am small, black-haired, brown eyed, *female* and neither neat nor highly intelligent, though in my quest to turn myself into him, I took more care with exams than I might have done.

And so into vet school. If I read any fiction in those five years, I don't remember it. I was either reading text books, or out discovering life, the universe and the joys of unfettered freedom. I was at college, but spent most of my free time in Edinburgh, with a nascent druidic group, still hunting the truth behind the Hollow Hills, still toasting Mithras at the May dawns on Arthur's seat in Edinburgh. There's nothing quite like the freedom of university, though a writing life comes close, with mortgage payments instead of the threat of exams. On the whole, I think I prefer it that way.

Post qualification, my first job was as a surgical intern at Cambridge, and it didn't start until September, so I had a summer free and made the most of it by reading every single thing Carlos Castenada had written up until then which was an interesting way to step outside reality for a while, and probably made the transition from student life to working life easier. I still have the entire set on my shelf; more, now, to lend to my shamanic students as a warning of how sadly off-beam you can go: for sheer misogyny they take some beating although there are key concepts that are none the less valid. Taking the cubic centimetre of chance when it is offered - and seeing that it is there - is always a wise move, as is living with death as your advisor and ally. 

There's a gap of about ten years now, the shelf is filled mostly with poetry books, that would otherwise be filled with text books on general surgery, anaesthesia, equine neonatal intensive care and general equine reproduction, and finally anaesthesia and intensive care in a great deal more depth. A novel may have the shelf life of a yoghourt, but they don't become obsolete with quite the speed of scientific text books: I've given most of those away, just keeping the 'Five Minute Consult' which is useful when any of the animals goes down with something less than obvious that might require a trip to a referral centre.

And then we have Mary Renault's 'Fire from Heaven', the book which, more than any other, set me on the writing life. There's a well defined limit to how many horses you can anaesthetise without going quietly mad, and transferring to small animals and presiding over total hip replacements in over-bred labradors doesn't make it a whole lot better. I was teaching at the Vet School in Cambridge when my resident gave me Renault's book - she was tall and blonde and blue-eyed and fantastically bright and about as close as I was ever going to meet to a female version of Francis Crawford and she introduced me to some of the most perfect writing I have ever read. When she left to go to the States, to sit yet more, harder, exams and to teach at institutions that could better harness her intellect and enthusiasm, it seemed like a good time to be looking for another career. I'd always planned to write novels as well as be a vet, it was just that the being-a-vet had rather got in the way. For a while, after I started writing the contemporary thrillers, I thought that I'd be able to fund my own way through a surgical residency: If you spend ten years watching a series of surgeons of varying quality, it's not hard to imagine you could do it better. But there was Mary Renault, and a lyrical, flowing prose that made days spent sorting out bulldogs with inadequate airways seem.... less than perfect.

In any case, life is what happens when I'm busy planning other things. Fay Weldon lead a writing course and told me to write for television, (on the shelf: The Cloning of Joanna May). Terry Pratchett led another and said if I submitted my three chapters and a synopsis to the competition, I would win (on the shelf:Nation; it will stay). He was close: I was shortlisted. Then they cancelled the competition. But I had an agent by then and that novel went on to be short-listed for the Orange Prize that year, an event on which I totally failed to capitalise, largely because, being a vet, surrounded by vets, I'd never heard of the Orange Prize. Nor had they. We all assumed it was something to do with Jeanette Winterson and they rolled their eyes and we got on with another list of hip replacements and cruciate repairs. I headed off to the post mortem room with a notebok and asked the pathologists how they'd kill their mother in law so that no other pathologist would be able to tell that it was murder and took notes while they talked at length and in exquisite detail: research came free in those days. I read Val McDermid and Ian Rankin and discovered the amazing wonder of Andrew Taylor: his novel 'The American Boy' is next along the list; for finer writing, sense of period, achingly clever plot and sheer poetry of style, it is unsurpassed. 

Four years, three more novels and one more shortlist later (The Edgar Award for best crime novel, for No Good Deed), and I was only a vet half time, with less of an inclination to become a surgeon. I'd read Dorothy Dunnett's 'King Hereafter', and I'd spent fifteen years studying shamanic practice and out of those, grew the Boudica: Dreaming series, the ones that let me give up the day job for good, that occupied my entire life for six years, to the exclusion of virtually everything else. I ended up teaching shamanic dreaming as a direct result and that, too, was life changing, even as I stopped writing about dreaming and took to historical espionage thrillers instead. So Kim is there, Kipling's wonder, and 'Quartered Safe out There,' by George MacKay Brown which is one of the best war memoirs I've ever read, and I read a lot before I started writing The Eagle of the Twelfth, latest in the Rome series. Which is why Sutcliff's, 'Eagle of the Ninth' is not on my shelf, but on my desk. Otherwise, it would be way back at the start, the book I took out of the library before I was allowed to buy one of my own, the book that opened the door to who we were before the Romans came, that showed me the Seal People and Esca, but didn't tell me what they had done, who they had been, before Sutcliff's kindly imperialists came and 'civilised' them. But the question was there, and the entire Boudica series was its answer, and then into Rome, to hunt down the origin of Rome's Fire, and then off into reaches of history I had never encountered, but which just had to be written.

We'll leave aside the text books: the shelves are heavy with Rome just now, and beginning to groan under the Hundred Years' War, but there are two new novels on the end of the list: Robert Wilton's, 'The Emperor's Gold' and AL Berridge's 'Into the Valley of Death'. Both are recent publications by new-ish writers, both are books that came to me through the HWA, and which I might well not have read otherwise, but am so very glad I did. Both excel in the hallmarks of greatness: prose that lifts the use of language into poetry, while maintaining a cracking pace of plot and a quality of characterisation that leaves me haunted for days after I read them. 

And so we come to the end. For years, there's been a 'desk-book'; the one novel that sits on my writing desk so that I can dip into it when the well runs dry and remember what truly great writing is about. Dunnett's, 'King Hereafter' shared that place for a long time with Mary Renault's 'Fire from Heaven/Persian Boy'. For sheer quality of prose, for excellence of characterisation, for that frisson that makes the hairs stand on my arms however often I read them, they take some beating. 

But recently they were supplanted, first by Patrician Finney's novel, Gloriana's Torch, which should be required reading for anyone who thinks to write about the Tudor period... and then by it's natural successor, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. For absolute quality of prose, for characters that spring fully-formed from the page, for density - and clarity - of thought, there is nothing to beat it. There is no page I can open at, which isn't magical, which doesn't fill me with awe and wonder and hope and inspiration. I have the sequel. Next week, I'll read it. The week after, I'll edit The Art of War, the last book (for now) in the ROME series, and then head into the wonders of fifteenth century France and Joan of Arc as you have never known her, but as I think she truly was; with luck, one day, it will sit on someone's shelf.

Find out more about Manda Scott at her website, Facebook, and Twitter


  1. Thank you for the update about Manda Scott. New author for me too.

  2. What an interesting post. Having just finished blogging my way through the Lymond Chronicles for the first time, I had to laugh at Manda Scott's comments about Francis Crawford (and her resident who embodied him in female form); they are fantastic books, though I wouldn't have got as much out of them if I'd read them as a teenager, I have to admit. Mary Renault's "Fire from Heaven" is another perennial personal favourite so I think I should dig out some of Manda Scott's other recommendations. Thanks for this!

  3. I am not doing so well with this author. I have books by her on my TBR but haven't read her before. Bad me!