Here Be Dragons? - Writing About Poland


First things first. My Polish historical saga The Amber Heart is free on Amazon Kindle for three days only, from Wednesday 29th - Friday 31st March. If you haven't read it, now's the time! It's available to buy in paperback too, if you prefer to read in that format. 

Given that my new non-fiction book The Last Lancer was published a month ago, the response to it has been quite low key here in the UK. So far, I've done a detailed interview for Emma Cox for her excellent Journeys into Genealogy podcast. You can read my short guest blog about the process, with links to the podcast here. You can listen to the whole podcast from the links at the bottom of that piece  - especially useful if you plan to research your own family history in Central and Eastern Europe. I'll also be doing a session at the Boswell Book Festival in May, alongside a Ukrainian refugee, of which more later.

Perhaps predictably, the most enthusiastic responses have been from my fellow Poles. Two friends brought flowers and chocolates. A lovely Polish writer friend spread the word - and copies of the book. I sent copies to Poland and elsewhere, to the friends and relatives who had helped with my research. Not the easiest process in the world since Brexit. 

Early days, of course. But I suppose it's inevitable that my Polish friends will 'get it' in the way that many of my UK friends perhaps never will, even when they enjoy the book. Or as Polish Leftists more robustly wrote, on Facebook, at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - 'you will never understand us and how the experiences of multiple occupations shaped our societies and how that historical experience is present in our every day conversations and in our system of values.'

I fear that many of my UK friends might find the time and place I've tried to evoke in the Last Lancer just too foreign. Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. I had the same problem many years ago, when I first wrote the Amber Heart. 'Loved it, couldn't stop reading it, wept buckets' said potential publishers, among much else that was positive. 'But ... Poland?'

I thought times might have changed and maybe they have. We'll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, if you've read The Last Lancer or The Amber Heart and enjoyed it - do please leave a review on Amazon or elsewhere, even a short one. Once we've done the hard work, good reviews are our lifeblood. 

A Nice New Kindle


Here's my nice new Kindle in its nice new case. A fairly bog standard Paperwhite. 

This is my fourth e-reader to date. The first was even more bog standard - an early Kindle - but did sterling service. The second broke down but Amazon replaced it immediately. The third one has lasted for some six years of constant use. It was used for several hours every day, it was routinely dropped on the floor when I fell asleep while reading. It got lost among the bedcovers. It is a well travelled Kindle. But alas its time had come. 

It is still working. Just rather slowly as befits its age. And crashing a bit too much. And developing strange foibles. (I sympathise. Me too.) 

The case was in worse condition than the Kindle. We'd find odd bits of pink plastic in the bed. 

Anyway, I was attached to it, and postponed replacing it till - having been paid for some work - I thought the time had definitely come to find a new one. 

If you have an Amazon account, and buy your Kindle from Amazon, it is the easiest thing in the world to set it up. In fact my only problem was with our 200 year old house, with its immensely thick walls, and trying to set it up in in a part of the house where it wasn't picking up the hub properly.  As soon a I moved downstairs it worked like clockwork. Or better than clockwork, let's face it.

I love books. Have a room full of them, and overspill on shelves in the other rooms too.

But I love my Kindle even more. It goes without saying that the availability of books is wonderful - but I love the way I can dim the light a little, if I want to read in the early hours without disturbing my husband. Or change the font size.  I love the way it switches itself off when I fall asleep (even if it is tangled in the bedclothes.) But remembers my place for me. I love the way it is slim and simple and reasonably light, and allows me to take a whole library away with me when I'm travelling. 

Of course I can read on my phone and on my laptop if I want to and I sometimes do. But nothing beats my Kindle for ease of use. And no - I'm not being paid to write this! 

A Salutary Experience.


My latest non-fiction book, The Last Lancer, was published by Saraband, here in the UK, a couple of weeks ago. It's something of a companion volume to my previous book A Proper Person to be Detained, (the paperback is on special offer on Amazon right now) about the Leeds Irish side of my family, and the mystery of a murder in the family on Christmas Day, 1881. 

The other side of the family, the Polish side, was much more exotic, but even more tragic. I'd planned to write about it for many years, collecting material along the way. Fortunately I'd asked my father (that's him on the cover, with the goat) to write down what he remembered of his childhood on the family estate in rural Eastern Poland, a part of the world that is now Ukraine, all the borders having shifted. I'd done a lot more research since his early death in 1995. His anniversary is on 20th March, so he's very much on my mind as I write this. I researched and wrote in earnest during Lockdown. Then, last February, with the book almost completed and about to be submitted to my publisher, Russia invaded Ukraine. And the book suddenly became much more relevant in the saddest possible way. 

Our local branch of Waterstones in Ayr had very kindly hosted launches of my previous Saraband titles over many years. They had been joyful experiences, well attended, (local author and all that) and the shop had sold a lot of books.  Some of those attending had bought two or three copies as gifts for family members. However, since this year I've been invited to speak at the Boswell Book Festival, at Dumfries House in May, we thought that we might 'launch' Lancer at that event - for which Waterstones supplies books. All the same, because people have been asking me about copies, I'd assumed, in my innocence, that my local store would at least have a few in stock. 

Yesterday, finding myself on the High Street and doing my bit for bricks and mortar, I went into the shop, and had a brief look around. No sign of the Last Lancer. So I approached the young man absorbed in his computer behind the counter and asked - very politely - if they were going to be stocking my book. I had a handy copy in my bag. I may have waved it at him in friendly fashion. 

He glanced up at me and said 'Is this Boswell?' 

It seemed an odd response and I was a little taken aback, but I soldiered on. 'Well yes. I'm doing Boswell in May this year. But I wondered if you were going to be stocking any copies before then.' 

He shook his head.  'No. Just for the festival.' He glanced down at his screen. 'I could order you a copy if you like,' he said helpfully. 

I declined his kind offer. I have plenty of copies, ordered from my publisher's distributor. I've been sending them out to those who inspired the book or helped with the research and to a few close friends. That very morning, I'd received a beautiful postcard of thanks from one of my literary heroes, Neal Ascherson, whose novel The Death of the Fronsac had been an invaluable source of information. 

In fact I've been clinging to that postcard like Jack clinging to Rose's floating door, as evidence that I'm not some elderly imposter. 

Still processing the young man's 'just short of rude' response to me, I asked for a copy of HAGS by Victoria Smith - a book that has been widely praised and publicised across social media. This morning, Victoria was on BBC R4, speaking about it. I'd had a look for it while I was hunting for The Last Lancer, and hadn't seen it. 

'We should have it,' he said. 

As far as I could see, they had a single copy. We found it tucked into a corner, spine rather than striking front cover facing out, low down on the New Non-Fiction shelves. I bought it. 

Reflecting on this experience in the sleepless early hours of the morning, it struck me that there could be no better illustration of the thesis of this excellent book. I wasn't looking for recognition. Just a certain amount of interest and engagement. I hadn't become invisible. I had been all too visible, but as an older woman, I was utterly negligible. Or to quote from the introduction to HAGS 'You're still an object. You've just changed in status from painting or sculpture to, say, a hat stand.' 

Reader, I was that hat stand. 

By the way. You can find The Last Lancer, eBook and Paperback here. And if you'd like to read my novel on a very similar theme, you could try The Amber Heart also as an eBook or Paperback.

You could also buy HAGS while you're at it. I can recommend it.