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Wonderful review

I’m so delighted to have received this excellent review from Canada’s leading newspaper, the Globe & Mail:

Pillars of Light

By Jane Johnson, Doubleday Canada, 479 pages, $24.95

Even in the midst of war, wrote Rumi, lovers find ways to make transactions with beauty. This is the essence of the epigraph for Pillars of Light, and a truth that pulses at the core of the book. The novel is an epic feat that weaves the ill-starred love story of a young Jewish doctor and a Muslim girl with the trajectories of two men who are drawn toward a war that isn’t theirs, but that will soon change them irrevocably as they travel to Syria to help take back what no one has a right to steal. Billed as Diana Gabaldon meets Ken Follett, Pillars of Light is timely, stirring, and romantic – but there’s more to this book than a tale of love. Johnson is a former publisher and bookseller who was behind the publication of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1980s and ’90s. She possesses an impressive understanding of how to tell a story well – characters are revealed through action, revelations are carefully doled out – and her strong writing is bolstered by meticulous research, particularly when it comes to her retelling of the Siege of Acre. Riveting, enlightening and painful, this novel reveals the senselessness of warfare and conflict and provokes reflection about current events. But it’s also about the resilience of love and the hope, the capacity for goodness, that exists in everyone.

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Everyone’s talking about…

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Court of Lions

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On this day in 1492 the last Moorish kingdom in Spain fell to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, heralding in – according to Lorca – disaster, darkness and cruelty – ‘the day Granada lost its soul’. They broke the treaty they made with the young emir Abu Abdullah, who fought for an accord to allow his people worship as they would and be treated kindly, and soon the Inquisition was rampant throughout the region, separating the rich Jews and Muslims from their money and their bodies from souls…

The new novel – COURT OF LIONS – is progressing nicely, love winding a golden path through the darkness in the 15th and 21st centuries.

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So delighted to receive an author copy of the new novel from my lovely Canadian publishers, Doubleday at Random House, today. It’s out in January in North America, and already the advance reviews are among the best I’ve had:

“A masterpiece of historical fiction”

“Famous names and locations spring to life in all their glory and grit”

“Destined to become a classic”

“A scorchingly powerful story of warring nations and forbidden love”

“Johnson’s talent for unlocking the senses allows us to experience the wonders of exotic worlds, the powers of alchemy, and the aching sweetness of honey”

 

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UK and foreign editions to follow through 2016 – I will post up publication dates as soon as I have them.

 

But in the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and that the New Year will bring you everything you wish for yourself and your loved ones.

 

 

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From Lamorna to the Alhambra

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Escaping the noise and crowds of Mazey Day in Penzance, I decided to walk in the opposite direction early this morning and sat eating my cooked breakfast with a lovely view of Lamorna Cove. Over a succession of cups of coffee I wrote half a chapter of my current work-in-progress, COURT OF LIONS, then set off up the coast path back towards Mousehole.

 

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Walking through tall clouds of wild mustard and red campion, I was suddenly assailed by a tiny zeppelin, which buzzed lazily around my head for several minutes, before settling on me. I love rose chafer beetles: they are such an extraordinary colour. We get them in Morocco too, where they are even larger and even slower.

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I shared some musings with some lizards and the resident buzzard, and wandered home again. My Fitbit has heartily congratulated me on my efforts, but I can’t find anywhere in the app that logs wordcount… 13000 steps: but more importantly 2500 words, and I’ve sailed past the 100pp mark.

My double life…

A very nice feature article in the Western Morning News:

http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/incredible-double-life-author-Jane-Johnson/story-26584251-detail/story.html

 

The incredible double life of author Jane Johnson

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10 Years: From There to Here

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It’s a long way between there and here, and a huge transition between cultures. As we made our slow progress back to England, passing from the Berber heartland to Europeanized Agadir – a long drive over the mountains – Abdel told me about one particular phenomenon that is singlehandedly changing the way Berber women view their own lives. Magnificent Century is a Turkish soap opera that has been showing all over the Arab world for the past 3 years, and it has Berber women in its thrall – resulting in burned dinners, arguments, divorces, and huge societal changes. The women in our traditional, agrarian culture in southwest Morocco – used to rising at 5am to deal with the livestock, make the bread, milk the goat, gather forage, tend the crop, all before the rest of the household stirs – have downed tools, seeing the gorgeous indolence of the women on the TV, and are complaining bitterly about the hardship of their own lives. One old woman in our village, unable to discern fiction from the real world, upon seeing one of the sultan’s courtesans throttled to death for her lies, demanded the telephone number for the Turkish police so that she could report the murder, for: ‘I saw it with my own eyes!’ I expect by the time I return to see handsome black eunuch-slaves, bare chests and scimitars gleaming, to be stationed around the town…

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In fact, it’s not just the women here who work hard or endure tough conditions. As we drive past the striking perched village of Ida Ougnidif we see a road gang out widening the precipitous road through the mountains, and pass their camp, where they are housed in little square ‘tents’ of wriggly tin, which must be iceboxes by night, ovens by day. The dust generated by their assaults on the granite hangs balefully overhead, waiting to descend and reclaim its place.

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We chug up onto the high plateau, our borrowed 20-year-old Renault stinking unhelpfully of diesel and criminally underpowered for the hills, and as we crest the last rise of the Anti Atlas Mountains we can see the High Atlas blue and hazy in the distance, snow still glazing the tops as a last reminder of the hard winter. Every so often the rear speakers blare into unexpected life, as if a wild boar has suddenly woken in unfamiliar circumstances in the boot. It’s a miracle anyone from our community travels far from home. Between Tafraout and its nearest exit point – the airport at Agadir – lies a challenging 3-hour mountain drive involving such hazards as wandering sheep, goats and feral dogs, men sitting side-saddle on donkeys, women on mule-carts, rockfall, flood-damage, roadworks, and highly decorated lorries adorned with talismans to ward off the Evil Eye and keep the driver safe as he barrels along with little regard for other road users even when the tarmac narrows to pinch points and sheer drops.

It would be easy to be discouraged by the prospect of undertaking this odyssey – and that’s before adding the random bureaucratic hell of acquiring an exit visa in the first place: having to be accepted by your wished country of destination, even for a 2-week visit, of your ‘cultural and social ties’ to that country, of the health and independence of your bank account and body, and the sheer physical stamina to withstand multiple journeys to consulates more than 500 miles away and the rude, blank officiousness of the consular staff and guards. And all this in the teeth of the bigotry, discrimination and irrational fears brought about by the West’s ‘war on terror’ – at once the most distorted piece of political chicanery and the most ridiculously ungrammatical misnomer of modern times.

Yet here we are, Abdel and I, a decade later, bowling northwards to the airport, driven by a cousin in a borrowed car, ready to take up life again in our ‘green country’, after several months here in the ‘red country’. We’ve endured the worst floods the region had seen since Noah’s time (costing the lives of over 50 people), the hardest winter, the worst tourist season as the geographically challenged expect IS to abduct or shoot them even in this peaceable and liberal country, and we’re leaving during the hottest April temperatures for a Britain still beset by winter weather. Farewell Maroc!

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As we passed under the Lions Head at the outset of our journey this morning, I gazed up at its shaded right eye and briefly remembered that gut-clenching traverse, with the rock shield my climbing partner and I were perched on hovering over 1000 feet of yawning void; of that strategic retreat via abseil to the gully for that terrifying, freezing night on the mountain, before our joyful return to the warmth and hospitality of Abdel’s restaurant. What a journey it has been, and continues to be. I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

 

Moroccan food & cooking – some of Abdel’s recipes!

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If you’d like to add a bit of sunshine and spice into your kitchen why not have a look at my husband’s wonderful new website, on which he blogs about Moroccan cuisine, tells stories about Berber life and culture and gives up some of his favourite recipes? I guarantee you’ll love the food!

http://gabrieljj.wix.com/abdel#!Moroccan-Corn-Tart/cmbz/468634C5-4A46-49BF-A0B6-CE9F69

The Talisman: a very short story


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“This is to protect you wherever you go in the world,” his mother said to him as she pinned the talisman box on his cloak with a long pin, for this was in a time before he wore it on a string around his neck. And it was also at a time before it was damaged so that it would no longer open. The talisman was square. Its four corners indicated the compass points, and were sharp, to ward off djinns and the Evil Eye – “because you attract their attention with your light eyes,” she explained.

Abdullah had been born light-eyed. It was a rare thing in their village, but not unknown, for a baby to have light eyes even if the father didn’t, but they usually darkened with time. Abdullah’s did not. This fact made his mother fear for her reputation, but worse: she feared her baby was possessed. As he grew she feared more: he was a strange boy, given to collecting odd objects – pebbles and feathers, stray cats and sun-bleached bones. And he made stories about them, weaving words until truth blurred and was lost. She prayed for him and ranted at him, but the words slipped off him like water from a cat’s back (and this more than anything persuaded her he was true born, for he was just like his father, who had always been a storytelling rogue).

When he was seven, almost a man by the ways of their people, she cut his topknot off. “Now the angels cannot catch you by your hair as you fall, so you must wear this all the time,” she told him as she pinned the talisman box that had been his grandfather’s (also Abdullah) to his burnoose. Inside the box – for it had a hidden spring catch – she stuffed little morsels of paper: verses from the Quran, a scrap of the skin of a long-dead mountain lion for strength and dignity, the broken quill of a porcupine to keep djinns at bay; and a line of poetry from her desert ancestors – where love is, stay. Then, though her heart broke to do it, she sent him over the mountains to his father in the city. “He is a storyteller in the central square,” she told him. “You will have no trouble finding him, for he has a pet chicken that sits on his head as he tells his tales. He calls it Baksheesh because it brings him money.”

The family was too poor to afford a horse but Abdullah’s aunt lent him their ancient mule. Like the boy it had light eyes, which is a strange thing in a mule and not much prized. It was said to see things other beasts could not, so tended to spook at odd moments. It shied when a gecko scurried across their path and the boy almost fell off. After that he held on tighter. When a mountain hare jumped in front of them and the mule bucked, he laughed. “You won’t get rid of me that easily!”

They made good progress, so good that soon Abdullah could not even make out the conical hill on which his village lay if he looked back over his shoulder. But he would not cry. He would NOT. Blinking hard, he turned his face to the winding track, now pitching down at a fearsome angle. The mule picked its way steadily enough until suddenly it stopped, bristling and twitching. It snorted and rolled its light eyes. In the falling gloom, Abdullah saw a dark shape crouched across their path. Everything about it was dark. Except for its eyes, which were as light as the rising moon. A djinn, a giant djinn – perhaps the king of all the djinns, Abdullah thought. He clutched his talisman but felt no fear. And then the djinn gathered itself and roared like the sound of a mountain avalanche, the crashing of a thousand stones. The mule leapt sideways off the path as if pushed by the force of the noise itself, and Abdullah found himself airborne, then falling. He flew through the air until an argan tree caught his burnoose and almost ripped it from him with its spiky fingers. It slowed his descent, but then came the rocks. Abdullah steeled himself for the impact. He would never see his mother again. Nor reach his father, telling tales in the square with a chicken named Baksheesh sitting on his head.

And then, as suddenly as it had started, his flight stopped. Abdullah opened first one light eye, then the other. Nothing hurt. He flexed fingers and toes. Nothing broken. The rock was right in front of him, pressing against him – had he not been seven he would have said like a lover. He looked down. The amulet his mother had given him – his grandfather’s old talisman box stuffed with scraps of prayers, beasts and poetry – was wedged in a crevice in the rock, taking all his weight. His cloak was like a papoose and he a baby in its embrace. Carefully, in the dark, he found hand and footholds, extricated the magical box and climbed down to solid ground and slept pressed between two boulders listening to a quiet growling in the night air, with the amulet held tight in his hand. Where love is, stay…

Day dawned as day always does. The first thing he saw was his talisman box, its southern corner bent out of shape and the intricate engraved silver on it scraped away. It would never open again. The second thing he saw was the old mule, or what was left of it: a crumpled, bloody, much-chewed heap. The third thing he saw was not a djinn but an enormous black Barbary lion, a breed long thought extinct, sleeping with its head on its mule-bloodied paws.

Abdullah crept past it with his heart in his mouth and the talisman in his hand.

The lion did not wake up and he did not look back, not once, until he came to the city’s central square and found a man telling stories with a chicken on his head.

 

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 copyright Jane Johnson 2014, all rights reserved

And with my publishing hat on…

It’s been an intensely busy summer for me as a publisher, but one in which there have been some very memorable times and some notable successes.  It’s not left much time for writing, so I am hugely behind schedule with my current projects, but hoping to steal some time away to write soon.

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It was very gratifying to see Joe Abercrombie’s wonderful novel HALF A KING hit the Sunday Times bestseller list and stay there for a month, all the while garnering great reviews, my favourite of which was one from the Sun: ‘Another great tale from a master. His medieval, post-apocalyptic land is full of such brilliant banter it would find a laugh at a funeral. It is macabre, menacing and Machiavelli himself would have enjoyed the way half-handed “hero” Yarvi triumphs.’ We launched the book at David Headley’s wonderful first editions shop in Cecil Court, Goldsboro Books, and while it may look as if I’m addressing an audience of three, there was a good crowd gathered.

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A few weeks later George RR Martin arrived to headline the Edinburgh Book Festival to sell-out audiences and despite arriving from the US just a day before managed to stay up till 3am and still beat me down to breakfast. I do find it grimly amusing that fans agonise over his health and worry he won’t finish A Song of Ice & Fire: he has immense stamina.

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I flew down from Edinburgh in time to attend Robin Hobb’s signing at the Forbidden Planet (300 books signed) and her publication dinner. It’s extraordinary to note that this is our 27th year working together, ever since I published her as Megan Lindholm with THE REINDEER PEOPLE. The new book is a return to her most beloved characters, Fitz and the Fool, as has been evident in the outpourings of love from hordes of fans at her tour events and the wonderful sales of FOOL’S ASSASSIN, so beautifully packaged with artwork from the brilliant Jackie Morris.

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It is so pleasing to see it sailing away on the hardback bestseller list and receiving such plaudits from the critics. Jane Shilling in the Sunday Telegraph: ‘Groping for comparisons, you find yourself in the company of the great compendious literary novelists. As the best writers do, Hobb shows us ourselves in her characters. Their longings and failings are our own, and we find our view of the world indelibly changed by their experiences. That is the ambition of high art. The novelists in any genre are rare who achieve it with Hobb’s combination of accessibility and moral authority.’  

The next day at Waterstones on Kensington High Street we saw another sell-out crowd arrive for the Grim Gathering, a unique event celebrating Joe Abercrombie, Peter V Brett, a rare outing for Mark Lawrence (whose marvellous PRINCE OF FOOLS I published in June) and Myke Cole.

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The next day (what a ridiculous week!) we celebrated 19 years of the Voyager list, with a wonderful party at the top of the Gherkin, a spectacular setting, and I was surprised when the speeches turned into a celebration of my 30th year in publishing, and suddenly there was Jackie Morris, come to see me given her beautiful painting of Robin Hobb’s wolf, Nighteyes, as my gift from HarperCollins. More of which later…

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Ten thousand fans converged upon the ExCel Centre in London’s Royal Docks for this year’s WorldCon, for which Robin Hobb was the author Guest of Honour (and worked very hard for that privilege). Five immensely busy days for the Voyager team and our authors – including Joe Abercrombie, Peter V Brett, Robin Hobb, Emmi Itaranta, George RR Martin and Peter Newman. I interviewed Robin Hobb on stage.

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And immediately after that was over came the biggest event of the year: those fantasy titans onstage at the Freemasons’ Hall, with me interviewing George RR Martin and Robin Hobb in front of a live audience of 1300. But first, time to take the chance to pose on a throne, because you don’t often get the chance, do you?

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Preparing for the event was especially nerve-wracking since George had told me earlier in the week how bored he was getting with the same old questions in interviews (since fame hit him, he is fielding interviews about GAME OF THRONES day in, day out) so I had to try extra hard to come at things from a different angle. In the end, since I am the UK publisher for both authors, and also write, I decided to go for a fairly intimate interview that went to the heart of their inspiration and practice, for the art and mysteries of writing, and in the end I think it turned into a very illuminating discussion.

The event was sponsored by Blinkbox (Tesco) and they also enabled a global audience to watch the event across the internet by livestream. There’s a link to the whole event here:

It was deemed a triumph (not my word), and for me an immense relief: all had gone as well as could ever have been imagined. There now remained a final special day: a trip to walk with wolves at the UK Wolf Conservancy Trust with Jackie Morris and Robin Hobb (and the painting of Nighteyes in the boot of my car). Megan (Robin Hobb) and I seen below with Jackie’s magic dragon-van (which also contained a Tibetan singing bowl and a gigantic tiger).

10562702_10152335490046314_5484962906807933731_o - Version 2   10547211_10152335486086314_829363371065418790_oJackie has been illustrating the Hobb book covers ever since a weird bit of serendipity. I had been sent by a friend a Christmas card during my first December in Tafraout (2005) with Jackie’s artwork on it and at once had said to Abdel: this artist would be perfect to do the new Hobb covers. After a lot of detective work I tracked Jackie Morris down. IMG_0870

But when I asked her if she illustrated book covers she was adamant. “No,” she said. “Never.” There was a short pause. “Unless it was for Robin Hobb!” “It is.” Thousands of miles apart, we both stared into our telephone receivers disbelievingly: what an absurd coincidence. And the rest, as they say, is history. Her artwork (and life) is magical: check it out here http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/

Now her beautiful gilded Nighteyes adorns my kitchen wall: what better view to inspire dreams while you’re washing up?

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