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Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly


A tale of sorcery and passion in seventeenth-century London—where witches haunt William Shakespeare and his dark lady, the playwright’s muse and one true love .

But now I want to tell you my story. About Aemilia, the girl who wanted too much. Not seamed and scragged as I am now, but quick and shimmering and short of patience. Abut my dear son, whom I love too well. About my two husbands, and my one true love. And Dr Forman, that most lustful of physicians. The silk dress I wore, the first time I went to ask for his predictions. Yellow and gold, with a fine stiff ruff that crumpled in a breath of rain. How my skin was set dark against it; how the people stared when I rushed by.

Published by Myriad Editions in March 2014
Pages – 434

Goodreads Summary

The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favourite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair.
A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favour and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself.

Reviewed by Sophie Duffy for Serendipity Reviews 4th April 2014

Aemilia is a woman born out of her time and yet she is a woman for all seasons. She is beautiful and beguiling, sought after by men – but what happens when a woman gets older and her looks fade? The novel is pitted with hags and harridans, pox-faced doxies with powdered clown faces, like good Queen Bess herself. Aemilia knows she must use her looks while she can.

But Aemilia is far, far more than her beauty. She is classically educated, quick-witted, intelligent, and fully self aware that she, as a woman, holds a precarious position in life, balanced on the whims of the men she is dependent on, and a life that can be struck out by plague, fate and God himself. Life is about bargaining – with landlords, publishers, lovers, and even the Devil. Rent for sex, a plague cure conjured up by magic, Eve’s apple for the Fall of Man. Aemilia understands this only too well.

From a modern perspective, Aemilia is a Feminist. She believes women are born equal to men but knows that they are blamed for Eve’s temptation (how does Adam get off so lightly?) and must therefore live a life of servitude, where hopes, dreams, passions and talents are quashed at every turn. Despite this, she becomes the first published female poet in England.

O’Reilly blurs fact and fiction in a most believable way. Her atmospheric descriptions and realistic characterisation pull the reader deep into the story, puts us right there beside Aemilia, feeling what she feels – anger, hopelessness, fear, passion, overwhelming love for both her son and lover. (There is a wonderful scene when the dying Queen calls Aemilia to see her.)

The novel is set out like a Shakespeare play – the dramatis personae, the acts and scenes, the characters, the magic and mayhem, comedy and tragedy, love, hate, revenge, and a message that speaks of all time. Its language crackles with intensity and the words are so vivid and vibrant that they dance in your head long after you’ve put down the book. And Aemilia, the dark lady, lives on.

A fantastic novel that could make an amazing film…

Brucie’s Played His Cards Right

Bruce and Anthea

Bruce and Anthea

It’s no secret that I love Sir Brucie, have done since I was four years old, living above a sweetshop in Torquay. Saturday nights. Fish and chips. The Generation Game. Happy times, sitting on my dad’s lap, watching a family programme.

I am happy that Sir Bruce has taken the decision to step down from hosting Strictly Come Dancing, pleased that he is managing his ‘retirement’ on his own terms. Just because he is in 86, doesn’t mean he should give up the love of his life: the stage. And he’ll be continuing to perform.

He comes from a generation of grafters and has a firm place in the entertainment elite of Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and co. But he’s still here; he’s still going. And I hope to see him in his one man show. I hope to catch him at the stage door and push into his hands a copy of my novel The Generation Game, a homage to all those old telly programmes that bring together the important people in our life, even if it’s just in front of the box. (And if you’ve ever watched Gogglebox, you’ll know watching TV with loved ones can be hugely social, educational, and affirming.)

I feel a huge amount of nostalgia that Brucie won’t be there on a Saturday night in my living room. The end of an era, the last of his type. Though I am sure there will still be surprises to come. Who would’ve thought his cameo hosting of Have I Got News For You in 2003 would regenerate his career and catapult him back onto our screens for another decade?

Have I Got News for You?

Have I Got News for You?

It’ll be nice to see you again soon, Sir Bruce.

Award Winning


So glad to meet you both. All the best with your writing.

Originally posted on Raven's Retreat:

Today we got to do something we’ve never done before – attend a prize giving. Our Horsemen of the Apocalypse novel, Bleeding Empire was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize in January, so we were invited to the prize giving. We were a bit panicky – what should we wear? How will we cope? We were going to a town we’d never visited (not sure stopping at the services counts), on our own, to be in a room surrounded by complete strangers. For social phobics, this is what’s known as ‘flooding’.

The journey went surprisingly smoothly. We kept ourselves entertained with MCR & Rise Against & shouting “show us your babies!” to every farm animal we passed. Only the sheep complied. Yes we do this every time we pass farm animals on every journey we take. And we do it to the ducks and geese every time we pass Roath…

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Here is my review of Longbourn by Jo Baker
Published in paperback by Black Swan January 2014

‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’


As much as I have always liked the sharp wit of Austen, I’ve always preferred the brooding darkness of Hardy. Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t like both sharp wit and brooding darkness, and so maybe this tension is what drew me in so completely to Longbourn.

Longbourn is the story of the servants of the Bennet family who we all know from Pride and Prejudice. This retelling of a classic novel, loved the world over, is not fan fiction or gimmicky. Instead, Longbourn offers us an alternative viewpoint of life in Austen’s England – a country built up on the proceeds of trading, slavery, and empire. A country full of poverty, cruelty, and drudgery.

Baker shows us the relentless hard work of life downstairs – the early starts, the fetching of slop buckets, the laundry of five young women. The chilblains, the raw hands, the lice. But more importantly she shows us that these barely mentioned servants of Austen’s original, they too have hopes and dreams. They too face an uncertain future as Mr Bennet has no legitimate male heir. They must impress Mr Collins with their housekeeping, cooking, laundering, cleaning, serving, butlering, footkeeping…

Most of the time we are in the viewpoint of the maidservant, Sarah. She has been in the Bennet household since she was orphaned aged six. She has a dry sense of humour though must keep these thoughts to herself as her status does not allow her to share opinions. Better not to have opinions. Better to keep your head down and learn the satisfaction of a job well done. But Sarah knows there are other worlds beyond the narrow one she inhabits. For Sarah is lent books from Elizabeth Bennet.

Mrs Hill – the cook and housekeeper – is like a mother to Sarah though she is tough from a lifetime of servitude. She also harbours a secret thatflips our view of the family upstairs and accounts for Mrs Bennet’s ‘nerves’. Mr Hill, the butler, is a gruff older man but even he is given a backstory that makes you grateful you were not alive at this time. The youngest member of this downstairs ‘family’ is Polly, another young girl who Sarah takes under her wing, allowing her moments of childhood where she can wander off and play.

And then enters the footman with a mysterious past, James Smith. I warmed to James, his gentleness and love of horses, the way he looks out for Sarah and Polly, the quiet taking on of chores, the tough life he has previously led. And this is where Longbourn becomes a creation in its own right and not a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice. When the characters are not confined within the village of Longbourn, when they are out in the wider world, we see the realities of what it was like during the Napoleonic Wars, when you were subject to your superiors, half-starving, beaten, flogged. When you had to survive on your wits.

Baker is in great control of her craft as a writer and reader. She uses Austen’s famous free indirect speech, to give us her characters’ thoughts. Like Austen with Lizzy, Baker’s main focus is on Sarah. But she too switches viewpoints from time to time to give us information that Sarah couldn’t know.When the narrative takes us away from the village of Longbourn, the writing too becomes altered. Freed from the confines of Austen’s style and the structure of the plot, Baker’s prose glitters and her narrative shocks. For me this is the triumph of Longbourn. It stirs things up and I will never read Pride and Prejudice again in the same way. And, although it is a novel I know well, I am grateful for that. I needed to see the underside of the Bennet girls’ lace petticoats, the muddy soles of their delicate shoes. I needed to see the hearts of those not allowed to choose a life for themselves, whether above or below stairs.

Austen somehow leaves me more troubled than Hardy, maybe because I know there is far more going on below the surface of her stories than she would, or could, show us. Baker does something magical with her love of Pride and Prejudice, in a way that should add to its longevity and without diffusing its power.

(And I think the ending is perhaps one of my favourites of all novels.)

This review first appeared on Serendipity Reviews on Thursday 6th February.

Broken Pots

I was just driving back from Exeter, dropping my son to work as we have no railway line right now as some of it is in the sea (yes, we live in Teignmouth, the stop along from Dawlish). I was coming up Telegraph Hill through the rain and switched on Radio 4, the World at One, where Martha Kearney was interviewing women about FGM.

Did you know today, February 6th, is International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation?

I didn’t.

So I listened in shock to the speakers, one of whom was a remarkable GP who voluntarily runs FGM clinics. Work is begin done in Britain to tackle this practice. To treat women and girls who present with complications. To talk in schools. To educate GPs, social workers, teachers and other front line workers. But there is much work to be done to help heal the wounds and to prevent this crime continuing into the future. Much to be done.

We have to talk about it. FGM is carried out in 28 African countries. Girls and women come to the UK and they have already been cut. Some may possibly be undergoing this horror in the UK. It is barbaric and inhumane wherever it is taking place.

We have to talk about it.

It is 2014. Women all over the world are still treated as inferior to men. They are still not afforded equal rights. In some countries they are not allowed to drive cars. They must cover their faces, never feel the sun on their skin. They are battered and raped. They are cut in the genitals so that they may never enjoy a sexual life; they will suffer through urination, menstruation, childbirth. They may die.

Now, when I post on Facebook about the No More Page 3 campaign, this is something I feel passionate about. Some people have said, why does Sophie get so worked up about this? It is because this is an example of how women are objectified, reduced to a body part. The other extreme of this is FGM. When we view women as inferior to men, as objects, as things with no feelings, no emotions, no life, then we collude in these barbarous acts.

We are all human beings with the same hopes, desires and dreams. We must treat each other as we would be treated. We must be kind. We must go through this life with compassion, respect and love.

Please watch this moving photographic diary from WHO.

The Writing Process Blog Tour Continues – Sophie Duffy


Thanks, Elizabeth!

Originally posted on Elizabeth Stott - to Blog or Not:

This week is the turn of Sophie Duffy to talk about her writing process. Sophie is a novelist, and writer of prize-winning short stories. Sophie has an authentic and individual voice, an produces wonderfully evocative prose. I loved her novels: The Generation Game and This Holey Life.

Check out Sophie’s responses to the blog tour questions and enjoy her, often witty, observations on life:

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Blog Tour – The Writing Process – My Turn

We’re all different, us writers. So when it comes to the writing process, it’s fascinating to hear how others do it. The wonderful Elizabeth Stott kindly invited me to follow her in ‘the writing process blog tour’. I have to answer four questions, so do read my answers below. And check out Elizabeth’s blog. I have always been envious of both her distinctive voice and her glorious hair.


1. What am I working on?

I’m redrafting a novel. I wrote it in the third person but now I am trying it in the first person, from my favourite character’s point of view. It feels better already. I suppose I thought it more grown up to write in the third, and a challenge, but maybe I should stick to what feels natural. Won’t say much more now. Except: ‘students’.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t fit neatly into a box. My writing is about family and relationships. It is accessible and readable but I hope with some depth and with some questions about this game of life. My first novel The Generation Game explores this theme through the eyes of Philippa Smith who tells the story of her quirky family to her baby.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I don’t really know quite why I write what I do, other than I write what I am drawn to. I love reading novels that have both comedy and tragedy, a quick wit and a tear-inducing poignancy – books by writers like Sue Townsend, Kate Long, Laurie Graham, Kate Atkinson, David Lodge, Graham Swift. Books about everyday people with unique stories to tell. In This Holey Life, I wrote about a reluctant curate’s wife who has to come to terms with the loss of a child and a new way of life. This sounds very sad but my novels always have hope and try to see the best in life.

4. How does your writing process go?

Sometimes like a dog after a squirrel, sometimes slower than a Swedish art film. Both are valid. I have decided not to worry about word counts as more often than not I fail to reach them. So I am taking the pressure off myself. That’s not to say I’m running away from it or procrastinating (though if you see an earlier blog post of mine, you will see that that is exactly what I do do). But for me there are famines followed by feasts. And there is always a lot of reading, reading, reading and a lot of muscular thinking while walking the dogs or lying in the bath. When I really need to get in the work frame of mind, I hopscotch across the garden to my office, my haven and my sanctuary. My escape from my own quirky family.

Following me on the blog tour next Monday 3rd February is the marvellous writer and teacher Cathie Hartigan. Meanwhile do check out her website and blog and see what goings on happen down Exeter way.

8 Things Teenagers Have Taught Me

2013-07-24 00.35.16

1.Do not comment on their Facebook posts or they will de-friend you and how will you then spy on them? (That is if you are lucky enough to have been accepted as a friend in the first place. It is a privilege. Do not abuse it.)

2. Do not buy clothes from Topshop. Their clothes are designed for sprites, not women who have given birth several times. Don’t compete with your teenage daughter. Just accept you have to move on to M&S.

3. Do not buy underwear for your teenage sons. There comes a point when they should make their own choice in this department. Apart from paying for them and washing them, do not get involved.

4. Do not say anything about your own experiences as a teenager. It is embarrassing and futile. They will still know more than you.

5. Do not ask them about their friendship troubles. You won’t understand or be able to help and even if you do have some words of wisdom these will be met with a sigh and a huff.

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6. Do try and aim for at least one meal together as a family per week. It is extremely hard to round up all members and contain in one room for any length of time but give it your best shot. Failing that, offer to take them to Pizza Express or Yo! Sushi. That usually has the desired effect but obviously means you will be even more skint and your arguments can be heard by the general public.

7. Do agree to being taxi driver as often as you can. This is the best time for talking with your teen, when there is no eye contact and Radio 1 is pulsing in your ears.

8. Do believe that this time will pass and you will one day not lie in bed worrying about sex, drugs, booze, cars, exams, university applications, gap years, stripped out bank accounts and fridges. There will be plenty of other worries to be had in the future.

Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water

Do you ever think about the other life you might have lived? The other job you might have had? I love being a writer but I do sometimes wonder if I would be happier as a funeral director. I know most people squirm at the thought of seeing and, worse, handling a dead body, but I think it’s one of the most underrated jobs going. What an honour to lay out the body of a loved one, to liaise with a family during the worst time of their lives, to make sure the passing of a special person is marked respectfully, appropriately and smoothly.

Maybe I can attribute my interest in the dead to an episode when I was two years old – one which I don’t remember but that my mother has often told me about. We had recently moved to Teignmouth and our next door neighbour was an elderly lady called Miss Bowles. One morning her cleaner rushed to our house, knocking frantically, ranting ‘I think Miss Bowles is dead! Can you help?’. Mum said ‘I can’t leave my toddler here. She’ll have to come with us’. So we went into Miss Bowles’ house and she was indeed dead, lying on the stairs as if she were a rock climber. Mum called the emergency services and for the rest of the day I kept repeating: ‘Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead. Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead’.

Two years later, we moved to Torquay when my parents bought a newsagents. It was great fun living above the shop but we only had a tiny courtyard outside. So my brothers and I would go to the ‘Boneyard’ of the local church down the road to loiter and play. I loved it there, running in and out of the gravestones, picking flowers in spring and collecting ‘helicopters’ in autumn. The shop and the Boneyard were very important to me and thirty-odd years later they became the inspiration and setting for my novel ‘The Generation Game’.

So what else has drawn me to the dead? When I was ten, my father died suddenly and tragically. It was 1978 and children didn’t go to funerals. Especially awkward ones where the deceased had taken their own life. I’ve often thought about it and wished I had gone. The graveyard where Dad’s ashes are buried is in Selworthy, a beautiful, remote place in Somerset. I find great comfort going there, surrounded by Stenners, going back centuries, family members I knew, and those I have just heard about, and some I can only guess at. When I had an ‘episode’ two years ago, I left home and made my way to Selworthy and lay down on my father’s grave. It was January and night time and very cold but it was the place I wanted to be, a place of comfort and safety – though I have no recollection of how I got there. Fortunately I was hunted down by my husband and a good friend who thought to bring a flask of tea and some custard doughnuts. Without them, I would perhaps have died myself of hyperthermia.

Oscar Wilde's grave

Oscar Wilde’s grave

Over the years, cemeteries have been places of interest and I think that’s partly due to losing a parent as a child, and partly because I am a writer and avid reader (literature is of course scattered with death). I’ve visited Pere Lachaise in Paris to see my beloved Oscar Wilde. Much more interesting than the Louvre in my opinion. And when we lived in East Dulwich we used to go to Nunhead cemetery where once a year they had an ‘open day’. There was no exhuming but instead there were plant sales, woodturning exhibitions, and political organisations on recruitment drives. (Only in England.)

I’ve been to many country churchyards and many city ones – one of the most recent was the allegedly haunted Greyfriars cemetery in Edinburgh on a bleak, cold day. I’ve stood at the foot of many war memorials, silently contemplating the loss of so many lives and humbled at the thought that there are just a handful of ‘thankful villages’ in England whose men all returned. And I’ve visited tombs of the unknown soldier in honour of those whose bodies were never brought home.

There are many places still to visit: Highgate cemetery in North London. Sylvia Plath’s grave in Yorkshire. Keats’ final resting place in Rome (see epigraph above). Coventry cathedral. New Orleans. The pyramids. Jesus’ tomb. The battlefields of France and Belgium. Auswitz. Places where millions of people suffered and died and must never be forgotten. Not tourist destinations or places of morbid curiosity, but places of pilgrimage where we can contemplate those that went before and try to learn the lessons that their deaths can teach us about how to live our lives now.

I do think I would have made a good funeral director. I am not afraid of dead bodies or indeed of dying. But I do fear losing my loved ones as I know how hard it is to go on living when you miss a person so much. I think I would be of comfort to the bereaved.

I also think I’d have made a good Victorian when it comes to mourning.

If you feel so inclined, here is Emma Freud’s guide on How to do a Funeral. Its very good and I have cut it out to keep…

And this post is in no way intended to be flippant. It is written with honesty.

Writing, Procrastinating and Bleaching the Spoons

Right now I am in the midst of a rewrite for my novel, changing a rather significant part of it. (I won’t go into detail now as that would be procrastinating rather than getting to the point of this blog post which is after all about procrastinating.)But this morning as I got up, I found myself firstly up a ladder cleaning the dust from the top of my son’s wardrobe. Then before I knew it this led me to the wool basket in the corner of the living room, where I began to untangle a ball of very fluffy, fine wool. As I was getting frustrated with this task, I asked myself why I wasn’t actually getting on with my novel.

So I decided to write this blog post. (Yes, I am procrastinating but I am procrastinating by writing about procrastinating so at least I am writing.)

This is a blog post about procrastinating if you hadn’t already grasped that. It is particularly related to writing, and more specifically to fiction writing, and furthermore to novel writing. Why novel writing? Because that’s what I do for a living. I write novels. But I also put off writing novels. Writing a novel is like having a long term relationship. It is off and on. Sometimes there is love and bliss, sometimes annoyance, many excuses and downright anger. Right now, I am in a new phase, the one that comes after counselling and sound advice (agents are well aware of procrastination techniques even though we writers try in vain hide it from them). The new phase means I am trying again. I have good intentions. But I still have old habits to contend with, the worst of which is a horror known as ‘displacement activities’.

Exhibit 1: The top of my son’s wardrobe.
Exhibit 2: A ball of fluffy, fine wool.
Exhibit 3: This blog post.

Why do some writers of novels find displacement activities more alluring than writing their novel? Is it because they are scared of the blank page? Or because they have got stuck on a tricky plot point? Maybe they fed up with their characters? Or is descaling the kettle of greater excitement?

This reminds me of a story I love to tell about displacement activities. I was at a workshop about ten years ago given by the crime novelist Frances Fyfield. She was talking on this very subject. She said that one day she was doing some mundane task or other, trying not to write her novel. She then thought, I know I’ll phone my friend for a chat. Her friend was fellow crime novelist Val McDermid. Val answered the phone and Frances asked her what she was up to. Val replied: ‘Bleaching the spoons’.

Both these novelists are fantastic crime writers and hugely successful and critically acclaimed. So even they are prone to procrastination, so it seems.

But both Val and Frances must get on with it at some point because they are prolific and professional and they write flipping good books.

So yes, I might go and bleach the spoons but then at some point I will get down to it. I will give my novel another chance and I will write some words, not necessary in the right order but I will pin them down to the page.

A tangled ball of fluffy, fine wool. And my feet.

Next Monday I will be blogging about the writing process as I have been asked to do so by the wonderfully talented Elizabeth Stott. Do look at her link below to see how she does it.

What are your favoured displacement activities?


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