Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The welcome rise of political fiction

I am so desperately excited to see Wolf Hall come to BBC2 tonight, although will it live up to the books?

Back in October I wrote an article for Conservative Home about how political fiction has become fashionable again, whether it be satirical or drama, novel or television, so with Wolf Hall hitting the small screen (yippee!) I felt it timely to reproduce the article below:

You may have heard, but a well-known writer has a new book out. A political thriller in fact, about the death of a Prime Minister (no, not that Hilary Mantel one) and an EU referendum. I sighed, frustrated it was launched just weeks before my own, but then it occurred to me not to be worried about any similarity (referendums are anathema in my book), but revel in the fact that political fiction continues to be on the up. Surely Fourth Estate wouldn't have banked on sales if there wasn't a continued demand for tales of dodgy Westminster shenanigans and the like?

In the wake of the huge success of House of Cards in the US and the satirical sophistication of Veep, there is now less of the Spitting Image-style lampooning and a far more intelligent approach to portraying politicians in fiction.  In an age where politicians are increasingly distrusted, the West Wing ideal of politicians doing good because it's the Right Thing To Do is outdated and is less fitting to the public mood. Although of course it was superb and remains eminently watchable, I can't help feel that the world has moved on. Flawed ambition, just about hanging on in there, deal making and breaking, raw political realities and selfish back-room manoeuvrings are the order of the day. To be good is to be boring, right? From a writer's point of view, it's certainly more fun to develop the antagonist, especially when you're competing for the Nastiest Politician in Writing award (yes, I of course made up this extremely niche gong, but you get my point).

(House of Cards, Wolf Hall and Veep)

Women are now taking lead roles in political dramas - ones where they no longer have to always play Margaret Thatcher. Borgen, Veep and The Honourable Woman are prime examples. Three very different series but all important reflection on modern politics. We have come a long way since the mainly male-dominated fictional Westminster skulduggery of the 1980s. Smoke-filled rooms are a thing of the past, figuratively and literally. Skilful manipulators and strong female leads are pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of politicians and those who circle around them; their equally ambitious advisors and even their spouses. House of Cards' Clare Underwood is certainly the finest portrayal of a modern-day politician's wife I've seen, and is as tough - if not tougher - than Underwood himself.

But one of the most notorious political antagonists is no piece of fiction. Hilary Mantel is currently dabbling in more contemporary political fiction in the highly controversial short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, but her Thomas Cromwell is an absorbing, complex and tenacious character whose fall in The Mirror and the Light is set to be as incredible as his rise. Like the present-day special advisor loyal to their master, low-born street-fighter Cromwell plays his enemies' weaknesses to his advantage at every turn. But, whether it be a 21st century Underwood or a 16th century Cromwell, with growing power comes growing danger. A political fiction writer's wet dream.

My own novels focus on the upheaval in a Conservative Party on the wrong side of the green benches after years in government. Opposition is fascinating as it elicits navel-gazing, the powerless desperate for the spoils of a war lost at the ballot box, but although it provides rich pickings for an author it is often neglected. For obvious reasons most political fiction writers prefer the allure of government, but I wanted to explore a party facing political oblivion after electoral disaster. Could a mainstream party, weary and desperate for salvation, stumble into being led by a morally deficient, narcissistic maniac who promises to bring it back from the brink at any cost? Like Mantel, I am living out through fiction a rather debauched scenario which I have pondered over the years, although unlike Mantel I have great affection for my subject.

When I wrote my last Con Home article on this subject two years ago, before the huge success of House of Cards, I predicted that the future for political dramas appeared bright. Thanks to the expenses scandal (The Duck House) and press misdemeanours (Great Britain), the stage (along with the successful This House and Handbagged) continues to attract biting political satire. The coalition has been perfect fodder for creative politicos, while the rise of UKIP, the huge turnout in Scotland and the approaching general election will no doubt keep up demand for fictional swipes at the political establishment. If I can continue to play even a small part in that, however affectionately, then I will be proud to have done my bit.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

My 2014 book reviews

Firstly, sorry about the strange text background colour - I can't seem to get rid of it!

Before 2014 I wasn't really one for many reviews, but I tried to up my game a bit last year and found I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing the excellent reads I discovered. Below I cover books by the fantastic Terry Tyler, Georgia Rose, Susan Buchanan, Vic Neal, Jenny Twist and Jane Thynne.

Wow! I was settling into this story on the train into work, really loving June and wanting it to work out for her, then got the shock of my life! Ms Twist certainly knows how to deliver the unexpected! So pleased I downloaded the sequel last week. I've started it, but now I know I won't want to finish it because the writing is so readable and the characterisation is fantastic. Yes, it's short, and I would certainly have kept on reading, but as there's a book 2 and a book 3 I can't complain too much!

If you want a short story with a twist (no pun intended, Jenny!) and an intriguing dose of Spanish folklore then read it - I guarantee you'll want to read all three!

When Natalie comes to temporarily run the Sugar and Spice bakery, things begin to change for everyone. Susan Buchanan has written a delightfully Christmassy story which revolves around the lives of various characters including Meredith the workaholic, Jacob who longs for a loving family, Rebecca who is going through a bad break-up and my favourite, Stanley, who is recently widowed and can't face life on his own. Natalie's arrival triggers good fortune for those around her, and I love how Susan has written her characters with such affection and care. The Christmas Spirit is an uplifting tale about the goodness of human nature, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves to curl up with a good festive read during the dark winter nights. Just don't forget a good slice of cake, as you WILL be hungry! I adore Susan's descriptions of food! I could vividly see Sugar and Spice in my mind, with its Christmas tree, gluhwein and every cake you can think of, and I would eat there every week if it was round the corner from me!

The Christmas Spirit is a festive treat, and I would love to read a sequel to see what had happened to all the characters by Christmas 2014.

Set in the fictional Oxford University college of Goodfitz, The Corridor is a wry look at university life by someone who's been there and obviously seen it all! It reads more like a script than a novel, but that's what makes it so readable and doesn't detract from the narrative in any way.

The main characters include, predictably, a posh 'Beastings' (Bullington) Club member with delusions of grandeur (Ben), a 'socialist' who is at Oxford in order to bring it down from the inside (Rupert), a girl who lives for rowing (Lexi) and the 'ordinary' voice of sanity, a scholarship fresher who begins an online diary (Poppy). Oh, and we mustn't forget the eccentric life-long student, Albert, who has been writing his 'fascinating' thesis for years, and the Master, who constantly battles the students.

We never deviate from the setting, the same student hall corridor (hence the title), so the gaps in between the students going about their day are brought to life through Poppy's online diary and the emails from Ben and Rupert. Student politics is portrayed as petty and insular (a bit like Westminster!), and there are many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as more cringey moments, such as Rupert being duped by Ben (one of many times!) into emailing the college about the perils of a certain sexual practice, and when we learn exactly what a 'milk race' is...

The Corridor reminds me of the Channel 4 programme 'Fresh Meat': it is funny, touching and contains much about human nature at its worst (and, towards the end, its best). I would have given it four and a half stars if I could as there are some spelling errors later on, but that is a minor point, as it doesn't ruin what is an excellently written, wonderfully observed gem of a book which I am glad to have come across. I am looking forward to the sequel!

I am so glad I picked up this book. It's a slow-burner but it's worth it! It follows Emma Grayson from the tentative beginning of her new life after suffering personal trauma through to a budding romance filled with mystery. I truly love how Georgia Rose develops her character-driven story and although I know nothing about horses she writes about them in a very accessible way. I particularly like the images Ms Rose evokes about the estate and I SO want to live in Emma's cottage! I did like Emma very much and the first-person story although I must admit finding it hard to warm to Trent (although I suspect that was the idea!) and think he should have told Emma his big secret in the first place. I do hope he's not as 'controlling' in the sequel, which I have downloaded and am very much looking forward to reading.

Ms Rose does a great job with the supporting characters and I especially like Carlton, so hope he pops up in book 2. A great first novel - well done!

Wow! What a read! The exhilarating sequel to A Single Step, Before the Dawn is fast-paced from the start as Emma Grayson turns from loner to heroine. My heart raced as I hurried to find out what would happen next, and that was only half way through! I was pleased Trent up his game, I must admit to not being his biggest fan in A Single Step, but as Before The Dawn went on I couldn't help but find him rather tasty myself! Not that Emma needs him to look after her, she is right that she can take care of herself, and boy does she prove it! The other characters are well written (ahh, Carlton, bless!) and I love the manor; you can't help but feel happy for Emma that she finally has a new family around her.

Before the Dawn is full of suspense, action and romance and I'm looking forward to the final book!

It is fitting to call Kings and Queens a saga, a parallel between one of our most famous kings and how his life might have played out had he been head of a company in the late 20th century rather than of a realm in the 16th century, as it spans effortlessly over four decades.

The story begins in 1971 with the loyal, homely Cathy (wife number 1 and Catherine of Aragon) and ends in 2007 with the sensible and likeable Kate (Catherine Parr), who is definitely my favourite of all Harry's 'wives'. Harry himself remains illusive - we don't ever see events from his point of view, the nearest we get is Will Brandon, Harry's rock and best friend throughout his turbulent life. I was intrigued to see how Terry would deal with the infamous executions of Henry VIII's reign of terror, and I wasn't disappointed! There is so much detail and research in K&Q, and it would take hours of my own research to work out what of the smaller detail is based on actual fact and what is more artistic license, but why would you bother when you have such a rich tapestry of characters to love (Hannah, Kate) and loathe (Keira!) without needing to know all the history? I also loved the background detail of the decades; Terry really gives you a sense of time and place, one of her great strengths as a storyteller.

I enjoyed the final chapters the most, particularly the parallels between the blossoming of Harry's children and Tudor history. I'm very much looking forward to her sequel to see just how Jasper copes (although I think we can guess)! I hope the saga goes on and on, into Erin's 'reign' and beyond, but that might be asking a bit too much from Ms Tyler - although I do hope it's not!

I had been looking forward to the second instalment of the Clara Vine series since Black Roses, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. Set in 1937, four years after Black Roses, Jane Thynne presents a chilling and fascinating portrayal of pre-war Nazi Germany through the eyes of English actress Clara, who combines an acting career in Berlin with subterfuge against the Nazi state, and her American journalist friend Mary. Both women work to uncover the mysterious death of Anna Hansen, a bride at one of Himmler's sinister Bride Schools, only to discover a cover-up which goes to the top of the Nazi Party.

Vine's vivid use of description, her storytelling and scene-setting are a joy to read. I have a great interest in the Nazi hierarchy, so I particularly love the scenes involving real-life characters, including the eccentric Mitford sisters, the menacing Doktor Goebbels and the Windsors, who appear completely out of their depth in Hitler's Germany.

I cannot wait for book 3, which Jane Thynne has hinted involves Eva Braun, a woman even more enigmatic and shrouded in mystery than the Nazi's official First Lady, Magda Goebbels. (who features heavily in Black Roses). May Clara Vine live on!