We Need New Names by  NoViolet Bulawayo
 a Guardian first book award nominee for
Photograph: Mark Pringle
Novels sometimes grow out of short stories. In a previous blog, I talked about Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrell the 900 page fantasy that only got noticed after its author, Susanna Clarke, had a short story published. NoViolet Bulawayo has experienced something like this; she won the Caine Prize for African Writing with Hitting Budapest a short story which tells the story of poverty-stricken children on the hunt for food at any price. Now she’s been shortlisted for the Man-Booker with what feels like an expansion of this tale; We Need New Names. A great title, by the way, as it both demonstrates the major theme in the book but is also uttered by one of the children in the story as they play their games around a grim shanty town ironically named Paradise. Bulawayo uses the eyes of ten-year-old Darling to portray everything she believes is wrong with government policies in her home country, Zimbabwe. Her characters are destitute – and desperate – they no longer have a school or a house, or even enough food, since the police bulldozed their township.

Darling, and her gang of friends, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina may be children, but they have experienced a lot of life. Chipo is pregnant after being raped by her grandfather - later in the novel we watch her childhood disappear as she matures into a very young mother.

Playing in the scrubland, they see a body suicide hanging from a tree. They steal the woman's almost new shoes to sell for bread.Then  Darling's father returns from South Africa with AIDS and she empathetically describes how the children respond to a terminally sick person. 

In the Guardian, reviewer Helon Habila, does raise the issue of cramming into the novel every ‘African’ topic” …as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning's news on Africa…  ( this is a good point, new writers should always do well to avoid the temptation to ‘tell all their world’, but I think she pulls this off using a brilliant combination of continued action with a fine sense of rhythm and use of language. Bulawayo uses original images to portray her scenes of Darling’s world…the bulldozers appear boiling… constructing a powerful ‘voice’ for Darling’s narration, which imbues her with dignity, resilience and a fighting spirit. In a tense chapter, the gang are ‘scrumping’ for guavas in a posh neighbouringsuburb, when, still up in the trees, they witness a pro-Mugabe attack by black partisans on the whites living in the huge houses, binding their hands and taking them away, chanting "Africa for Africans!”

Darling has been promised that she will be sent to America, where her aunt Fostalina lives. This move is needed in the novel – Bulawayo clearly wanted to contrast Darling’s two lives – but I enjoyed the first half of the book a lot more.

Being a very real pre-pubescent girl, Darling soon reinvents herself as a typical US kid, and this weakens the link with the core themes of the novel. Even so, we’re reminded just how much work that might take…“The problem with English is this: You usually can't open your mouth and it comes out just like that--first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right.
But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it's as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it's the language and the whole process that's messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don't know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying…

Darling naturally begins to forget her old land and previous love of her old friends, although not so completely that we can’t keep tabs on them in the book; during a Skype call Chipo tells her, “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?”

 NoViolat Bulawayo is the pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele. Born in Zimbabwe, In 2010, she gained a fellowship after completing her MA in Creative Writing at Cornell University.  This short, very readable book that bravely recounts a life in a country we’re usually allowed to know very little about.
 Sarah Hilary, Someone Else’s Skin

copyright Linda Nylind, photographer

Sarah Hilary admits she thinks of dark things. ‘I do have a dark mind…’ she’s quoted as saying, ‘a friend of mine pushed me into crime writing, saying…‘your mind is in a dark place already, you should make some money from it’.’
I love dark minds. I have one myself, especially when I’m asleep. My dreams are a deep recess full of images and actions useful to a writer.  I dream of torture, of lost babies, of running at night from beasts, of hiding from men with guns. One morning I woke to discover I’d scribbled something at three am, before falling back to sleep. The words ran down the page like oozing blood – death and mayhem all night long.
So Sarah Hilary’s first novel, Someone Else’s Skin – a brilliantly apt title, by the way – was right up my dark alley, absolutely my cup of hemlock. Everything about the story leads to darkness. The symbols are disturbing; a woman blinded by an acid attack, a hand severed by a scimitar, a victim chained, waiting for torture. The themes explore hate, violence, misogyny, and sadism. Her characters are women fighting for some peace – some justice from men who have attacked them – but they all have inner demons to contend with. Even Hilary’s fiercely intelligent investigator, DI, Marnie Rome, has memories of a violent family event, and losses she’s trying to forget while she’s doing her dark, dark, job. Her partner, DS Noah Jake, is black and gay, which isn’t a problem to anyone except dyed-in-the-wool homophobe, DS Carling. However this is not a formulaic police procedural. KTW readers will know how I love my crime novels (read and written!) to be about why crime is committed, and what affect that has on victims, investigators, bystanders and even the perpetrators.
On the WH Smith Blog, Hilary says: ‘Marnie Rome walked fully formed into a story I was writing two years ago. She was undercover, in biker boots and a black wig, but she was unquestionably Marnie. I recognised her at once. Later, I came to realise how many secrets she was hiding.’
According to C G Jung everyone has a ‘shadow aspect’. This is a repressed area of the unconscious reflecting the side of us we don’t see in our conscious selves. He wrote: The less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is I don’t know Sarah Hilary well, but she looks a lovely cheery person in her photos – slightly quixotic, in fact, rather ethereal. If, like, me, she’s fundamentally a sunshiney person, it stands to reason your shadow aspect is going to be a cold sweat of despair and agony. 
Jung believed that we should endeavour to be aware of our shadow aspect, so that we grow into balanced people, and I have a theory that writers have a way of gaining that balance, even without knowing it. They draw out their shadow aspect in their writing. That might explain why nice people end up writing about the worse sides of human nature. Ann Cleeves, a crime novelist and judge of the 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, which Hilary won with Someone Else’s Skin, said… ‘she has this dreadful sense of horror, but it is done delicately and subtly. It always stops just as your imagination takes over.’
Rome and Jake want to interview a resident of a women’s shelter in Finchley, Ayana Mirza. They want her to testify against her own brothers, who have driven her to the shelter with violent intimidation.  But as the detectives arrive they witness a stabbing. A husband has sneaked in, bringing flowers for his wife, and now lies bleeding on the floor. In that moment, the book gains its delightful complexity, because Rome and Jake thought they had one, cut-and-dried crime to investigate, and now they also have a mystery. Was the knife inside the flowers? Has Hope Proctor just saved her own life, or did she always plan to attack the husband she’s been hiding from? The answers to those questions are dark and twisted, and the story will spiral out of the detective’s control before they’re answered. As Simone, another woman who has sought refuge remembers in the book…‘He thought he'd broken her in a thousand pieces, but sometimes... when you are broken... You mend hard.’
No Other Darkness is available from Amazon
Domestic violence has often been lumped under ‘misery memoirs’ and it’s refreshing to see someone take the subject and create both a complex, crime novel and serious examination of the problem, without descending into cliché. Hilary writes with understatement. She doesn’t shout out her messages, but when she wants to describe violence, she does it with such power…Mum's bread knife, its steel teeth full of tattered red skin…Despite its subtlety, Someone Else’s Skin has its terrifying moments, the sort you have to hide behind the sofa to read. I read this book on Kindle, and right now it's only 99p on Kindle if you click here.
Since its publication in 2014, Hilary has published the second Marnie Rome novel, No Other Darkness, and I believe she’s ready to publish the third. I can’t wait to read them – I have my sofa all prepared to hide behind as I do so.

I could tell The Chimes was written by a poet, as soon as I opened it and started reading – long before I discovered Anna Smaill has also had a book of poetry published. The language here is lyrical, with the introduction of words that add to its strangeness, the narrative necessarily fragmented and filled with sensory impressions. But it’s perhaps because Smaill is a violinist, that in her first novel, she’s deeply imagined what a world without writing, but full of music, might be like. 

She describes a dystopian future, where Britain’s democratic government has been swept away by a catastrophic event called the ‘blasphony', and replaced with an autocratic, musical ruling elite in Oxford, known as the Order. The written word has been replaced with the ‘Carillon’, a vast musical instrument made from palladium, the ‘pale Lady’, a rare metallic element, which sweeps away people’s memory, leaving them with a life that feels the same each and every day. At times, the pitch of ‘the chimes’ causes physical collapse followed by death

Anna Smaill Photo Credit - Natalie Graham
Simon Wythern has inherited a gift from his mother, who died of ‘chimesickness'. Like her, he can see other people’s memories. Now, he's heading for London, his memory bag over his shoulder and a melody in his head that leads him along…

‘You going in to be prentissed?’ 
I shake my head. ‘I’m going in to trade.’ 
He studies my farmclothes and my single roughcloth bag and is tacet awhile. ‘And a ride back?’ he says. ‘You’ll be looking for one, I suppose?’
I meet his look and there’s nothing in my eyes. I don’t need a ride back. I have a name and a song to find, a thread to follow. But it’s not something to share. With my gaze I dare him to ask again, but he turns to the front and hitches the reins. We go forward and the cart’s bumping goes through me…

Simon joins a pact of urchins, run by a boy called Lucien. They mudlark the Thames riverbank and search ‘the under’, the abandoned subterranean city tunnels, for the Lady, which they can trade for food, not knowing that this trade maintains the Carillon which oppresses them.

Simon’s friendship with enigmatic Lucien becomes a beautifully described love affair, as they begin to piece together the memories Simon’s mother left him, with the memories Lucien has of being a gifted musician in the Order. 

Rather like Pullman’s His Dark Materials, every small child in The Chimes learns to play an instrument and finds the meaning of themselves through the music they make. This creates a focus for the novel, a point we can understand about this complex world; 

I pick up my recorder and I start to play, even though I don’t know how to make the voice that is missing. When I have played all my feeling into the first part of the tune, I still don’t know, but by then it is too late and I no longer care, so I just play it. I play it high and reckless and free so that it flies above all the others. I play it with some of the anger I feel and some that I throw in for extra. I play a voice that has never known anything except for luck and beauty…

The Thames from Oxford to London

It took me a little time to get used to Smaill’s use of music as a controlling, menacing force, but I loved the way she used musical terminology in her character’s speech. Above the story, which starts out as an absorbing read, is a wider theme of shared  memory and how important that is for a cohesive society, and the dystopia she creates is very believable.

But as Lucien and Simon travel to Oxford, bent of destroying the Carillon, the plotting thins and loses its connection with the body of the story. When Smaill needed to ‘up’ the dramatic tension, as we reach the climactic end of the book, her plotting doesn’t quite succeed as well and her rich writing style. I can vouch for how hard it is to create a convincing, plausible and yet thrilling end to a story, tying in the loose ends needed to be tied, while yet not knotting them up too tightly or letting them unravel completely, and keeping the reader believing in the tale and its inhabitants. I wished Smaill had spent a few months sorting out what was wrong with her denouement, but it didn’t stop me enjoying the world she’s invented, the language she uses, and the glorious characters who inhabit The Chimes.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller won the 2012 Orange Prize for ‘fiction written by a woman’...but this novel told through the eyes of a man; a gay man; a gay man living over 3000 years ago. Patroclus doesn’t have a large role in the Iliad, but he is a large part of its story. His death at the hands of Hector, the Trojan hero, sparks his friend Achilles into action after months of refusing to fight in the war. He steps out from the Greek camp and slaughters the prince of Troy, then drags Hector’s body behind his chariot in triumph. The second half of story of the Iliad is mostly centred on Priam’s need to get his son’s body back from the Greeks and give it a proper burial. In the Iliad, Patroclus and Achilles are described as good friends – it is never actually stated they are lovers – but how far does one usually go for a drinking buddy? The rage Achilles clearly feels at Patroclus’ death explodes from the pages of the Iliad...the first ‘written’ piece of ‘fiction’ (or rather, life writing in storytelling form). Partly, this anger is related to who is to blame for his it Hector...or is it Achilles, who unwittingly pushed Patroclus into going out to battle in his friend’s armour, representing Achilles in a bid to strengthen the moral of the Greek side?

Miller tells the story through the eyes of Patroclus, rather than any of the big guns of the Iliad. This has been done before, Mary Renault uses the device in her tales of Alexander the Great, which are narrated by Bagoas, his catamite. Starting when Patroclus is nine years old and finishing long after the Iliad finishes, Miller uses an intimate first-person present tense narrative, and fair rips along, making it an extremely easy read for such a long book. A young reviewer for the Guardian Kids’ Fiction pages said she’d finished it in a matter of hours.It is without doubt my favourite read this year; it feels a long time since I so enjoyed a book; was so unable to put it down. I loved the way Miller plays with the solid classical pedigree of these Greek stories, how she builds figures that long ago became archetypal into real characters, and how she re-imagines the world of bronze-aged Greece and Turkey. However she does have her critics. The Telegraph describes her narrative as... swoony soft-porn prose...Patroclus’ early years are a bit Judy Blume-ish ...The Guardian seems to agree...Miller’s book is unashamed to be a - not a bodice-ripping, so let’s call it a breastplate-ripping – romp...The Telegraph points out that...Miller’s book doesn’t swell or ripen into a meaningful engagement with the ancient literary tradition, as any serious attempt to appropriate the classics... I have to say that I didn’t think Miller was trying to do so, although she is a classics scholar. However, the Guardian goes on to admire, as I do, the clever twist at the end (I’d been wondering how she’d end it, as Patroclus dies some time before Achilles), But, as the Guardian review says...The book reaches a more thoughtful level when it continues to give Patroclus a voice after he is killed. Here it creates its own beauty, and achieves a sense of the uncanny which is otherwise lacking.
This is Madeline Miller’s debut novel, the second debut to win the Orange Prize in that number of years. In 2011 it was Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife which I enjoyed but have to say didn’t rate all that highly. I thought this was far better; better plotted, better structured, better researched with stronger characters. And it saw off 
off strong competition: I’ve also read the short-listed Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick, and Ann Patchett’s slick State of Wonder, which I have to say I enjoyed equally, but The Song of Achilles won the prize and it seems more than a little churlish to moan at it, when it truly is such a remarkable feat. One thing the reviews seem to have bypassed is the title. The story isn’t about Achilles as much as it’s Patroclus’ autobiography, but the haunting title comes straight from the writer’s first source; The Iliad’s subtitle is Song of Ilium. 

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me …

Dressed in an oriental robe and a white skin-suit scribbled all over with the predictions of a medieval English magician, I cried out those lines in a fit of madness. 

I was playing Vinculus, a character in the amazing, intriguing and compelling book called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A group of 10 of us, all lovers of this 1000 page (if you include the copious footnotes) work of magical fiction, had gathered together to enact, discuss and explore this amazing achievement. Acting out a huge piece of fantasy is not as daunting as it may seem; the same group of people have acted out Tolkien’s work and all of Homer’s, using a three day period to do so. In that time, we eat, dress and sleep the book in question. 

 Susanna Clarke writes about her invented world with such ease; it’s easy to believe England could really be like this – filled with magic and romance. It has been described as  'Harry Potter for grownups’ but that really does not do this eloquent and momentous work justice, although adults who adored Harry Potter will be impressed with the rich characterization and the great finale to the story.

Clarke has a flair for language, utilising the right words at all the right moments. She chose for her style an emulation of Jane Austin, (including archaic spellings). Some passages made me laugh aloud – Austin was funny, and here is another layer spread upon that ironic wit. 

I’m not alone in loving the book; Neil Gaiman said,  Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It's funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical...

This was Clarke's first book, although she’d prepared the ground by writing some short stories set in her parallel universe – a world that has the same history as our own, except for the fact that England was once filled with magic and magicians, and the North of England was ruled separately, by the Raven King – John Uskglass – a man who had been spirited away to fairyland as a child and returned full of fairy magic.

Ready to dance till dawn
 at the Fairy Ball in the kingdom of Lost Hope
But all that was centuries ago. When the book starts in1806, England is struggling with the Napoleonic war, and practical magic has faded into the nation's past – now magic is only studied ‘theoretically’.  But two of these students discover that Mr Norrell can really do magic. He’s studied the books all his life, and his displays of magic lead him, and his mysterious servant, John Childermass, from the north of the country to the bustling city of London. After he successfully brings a beautiful woman back from the dead and  terrifies the French army with a fleet of ghostly ships, he is taken to the bosom of the rich and fashionable. Gilbert Norrell is dedicated to book-learning and he's trying desperately to ignore and forget that in raising Lady Pole from the dead, he has awaken an amoral fairy king, who is now strutting around our world, enchanting people. When Jonathan Strange, the 2nd magician in the prophecy emerges, a dangerous battle of wills begins. Strange is young, dashing and daring, and not at all interested in only learning magic from books. While Norell,  a reclusive and cautious man,  is trying to get rid of any taint of dangerous fairy magic, Strange is actively bringing it back. He has no idea what a menace the fairy king posses, especially to his own lovely wife.

I was soon hooked on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the first time I read it, even though you need to get through at least the first 200 pages to even begin to see where the plot is going. Reading it again for the weekend event made me love it even more. All its depth and humour and the true cleverness of the carefully crafted plot became even more clear. One thing I really loved was the vast history of magic Clarke invents for England. Long after I finished it, I was still thinking about the menacing settings,  the wonderful characters, the brilliant narrative development and the history she creates.

Of course, I also watched the TV series, now available both in the UK and the US to watch again.  Bertie Carvel who plays Jonathan Strange so well, said; I read it years ago and loved it … They've preserved the scale and majesty of the story … So you have credible, fully imagined characters recognisably of the same world we inhabit.  Paul Kaye, who played my chosen character in the film said, I read the book and loved it. It sort of obsessed me for a while and I felt an affinity with what turned out to be my character, Vinculus. I found the footnotes addictive! If there wasn't one on the next page I would be disappointed

You can watch the TV adaptation at:

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist is set in Amsterdam, at the end of the 17th Century. I was rather expecting Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracey Chevalier, HarperCollins,1999) all over again, which, for me, was a beautifully written romance, but a romance, none the less. The endorsements to this debut novel, which are plastered all over the cover, should have told me otherwise. “Full of surprises” says SJ Watson. “Fabulously gripping” says the Observer. 

I was hoping for exquisite detail…miniaturist detail, in fact, and that I got, but I also found I was reading an absolute page-turner. I  turned the pages of this book all the way from Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, to Barnsley, in Yorkshire, on some very slow, long-and-winding, cross-country trains. I hardly noticed the dark, satanic mills, the still snow-capped Pennines or the little towns that moved past my carriage window, because I was in Holland, where silk rustled and sumptuous feasts were consumed as deals were done for the slave sugar of the West Indies…and Nella, eighteen, innocent but savvy, hopes that married life will be the tulip bed she dreamed of as a child. Romance of any kind fails to blossom, and she soon discovers that Jonhannes, the wealthy merchant she’s married, has secrets which will lead them into escalating danger.  In fact, the only the thing that her husband gives her in their marriage is a cabinet house; a doll-house sized, but vastly expensive, replica of their home in Amsterdam. An elusive miniaturist creates tiny items to fill the house, each of which eerily predict the shocks Nella begins to experience.

Despite the fact that The Miniaturist soon became an international best seller, I've taken my time about  reading it because my first encounter was last summer’s Guardian review –

Rachel Cook was not particularly nice to Jessie Burton's first book, and I have to admit, she put me off. But the word-in-the-library was of a wicked page-turner, so in the end I threw reviews to the wind and read it. 

The Miniaturist has flaws, that's undeniable. I understand exactly why Cooke says, “somehow it fails to convince. Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. We are expected to take so much on trust…Emotionally, they move from A to Z in the blink of an eye, and nothing in between.”

In writers’ terms, this single problem is the result of a little bundle of plotting issues, which beset us all, and which take time and effort to overcome; implausibility. Like Rachel Cooke, there were times I felt like echoing Victor Meldrew, from One Foot in the Grave, crying; I don’t believe it!

I’m not going to tell you which bits of this book I couldn’t believe. It’s a cracking read, with a vivid period setting, distinctive, even striking characters and a story so seductive and outrageous, it drags you in by the collar of your coat. But, having read the book yourself, you might, as a writer, want to ask yourself what you can learn from its problems. Are there sections of your own stories that are implausible? And if so, what can you do to alter that, so that your eventual readers don’t turn into grouchy Victor Meldrews who long to throw your novel across train carriages?

Naturally you want the reader to feel fully committed to what’s happening on the page. But some confusion arises between being convincing and suspending disbelief, which is what happens when readers are so caught up with the fiction, that they are prepared to go along with what the narrator is telling them, even when it patently could not happen ‘in real life’. New writers mistakenly believe that they can be as implausible as they please, and readers will suspend disbelief when reading their work. Completing a fictional tale isn’t a magic key to the good will of the reader. They will suspend disbelief for you, but you have to work hard to gain their trust beforehand. I recommend five strategies for this problem; 

  1. The reader needs to feel grounded within the story. Overload of information, or conversely, lack of relevant information (usually because the writers hasn’t taken into consideration that the reader isn’t familiar with what the writer is telling them), are two major factors. The reader needs time and help to absorb the details of the story. In The Miniaturist, Burton researches her time-period very well, even adding a glossary. But, Nella, as Rachel Cooke points out… “has a sensibility more akin to that of a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one: outspoken, determined, reflexively feminist.” This cut me adrift from her as I read – was she really from the 17th Century?
  2. Communication with your reader. Stories (or parts of a story) appear implausible because the writer has assumed that the reader ‘will understand’ what they are writing about. Don’t ever assume that; check as you go that your plot is comprehendible and that there are clear links as you move along it, filling in details that will help your reader to keep up with plot developments. It annoyed me, when Nella recalled, towards the novel’s end, all the ‘thrilling conversations’ she and Johannes had, because the reader hadn’t been privy to any of these. We’d barely seen them communicate and when they did, Johannes would peremptorily curtail the dialogue. And yet, Nella seems to gain an affinity with him that I could not credit. 
  3. Character development and identification. It’s often the character, especially the narrator, who convinces the reader the story is believable. Your characters should be well-developed on the page, so that the reader can identify, possibly emphasize with them. This links closely with communication above; it will be the narrator who communicates the plot and fills in those all-important linking details. Rachel Cooke writes; “We know their tastes, but little of what lies in their hearts; we know all about their failings, but their motivation remains elusive.” 
  4. Cause and effect. When the causes of character action are solidly imbedded in the story, leading directly to the naturally realized effects, the story is likely to feel convincing and believable. There is one plot-line in Jessie Burton’s novel which is never fully explained, and as that concerns the title of the story…the miniaturist who makes strangely predictive furninture for the cabinet house…I felt decidedly let down by this. However, I must commend Burton for the ending to her book. I thought her denouement and final flourishes were cracking – not only plausible, but shocking and perfectly balanced. 
  1. Motivation should always be driven by character emotion.  Cook writes, “I had the sense that the novel's characters were simply figures (from a doll's house, perhaps) to be moved around on an Amsterdam-shaped board.” I agreed At times, Burton concentrates too much on her fabulous plot, and forgets the emotional motivation of her characters.  Motivating your characters successfully isn’t easy, but here’s a little template that will help you make that check:
    1. The author wants certain things to happen. This creates poor motivation.
    2. The actions further a character’s objectives. This creates strong motivation. 
Please don’t let me put you off reading this amazing book. The Miniaturist is a popular choice with bookclubs, and I can see why. It would generate discussion about the era and setting, the story and characters, but especially the themes and events of the book, which are unsettling and powerful. And anyone searching for aphorisms will find an abundance within this story, which is why I’ve chosen Burton as my “Quote of the Month”.
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
This book will go down in my experience as the one that took me back to writing Haiku (occasionally, and mostly on twitter). It was all because of an ordering mistake online; I saw what I thought was a very cheap copy of the novel, and being both cheap and impatient myself, clicked to order a completely separate book. What I received was The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho, a 16th Centuary Japanese poet, which describes his journeys and relates through his haiku. I loved this book, actually quite a lot more than I loved Flanagan's. His Booker prize-winning story was described, by the judges described The Narrow Road to the Deep North as a book that "kicks you so hard in the stomach it takes the breath away." I felt kicked in the stomach, but not in quite the same way. The book is unwieldy, and fails to get inside the male characters in a way that this female didn't warrant. The story is too similar to others set at the same time with the same prisoner-of-war events, but for me failed to deliver in the same way because the panoramic view doesn't ever get in deep enough. 

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). I read this directly after Satanic Verses. At that time I was writing short stories and thinking of how I could write a novel for children. Rushdie's books made me realize anything was possible. Okay, I cannot reach Rushdie’s dazzling heights of invention and literary prose, but I loved how he used his own personal experiences, while pushing the novel form to extremes. Rushdie was born in 1947, a year before the transition to independence in India, and used that moment in time to create a dazzling, game-changing novel of a young man born at the very moment of Indian independence. “Let your mind go,” Rushdie seemed to be saying directly to me, “and you can write the things you want to say in the way you want to say them.”
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I’ve chosen this book from the series because its publication in 2002 was the moment things changed in the children’s book market. Children had always been ready love nr newly-pressed books, but these books, including the first three of JK's series, were usually about 200 pages long. Goblet weighed in at more than 600 pages and kids gobbled it up. Publishers finally realized that children loved to read and could read enormous books, as long as the words on the page moved and excited them. 

Rowling has her critics, but she is the master of 3 important areas of writing; she can extend plotting, theme and structure to allow seven long books to reach their own climax yet take you on to a final, gripping finale where all important threads are tied. She can handle a vast cast of characters, in which the least has a personality potentially as big as the protagonist. And she makes you laugh. 

The Alchemist. I read this a long time ago, loving it to bits and lending to everyone as something they must read. This book is an epic allegory about finding and pursuing your purpose in life and  has millions of readers across the world for a reason – it’s inspiring and motivating. Published in 1988 by Paulo Coelho, it was apparently written in 2 weeks, because the writer had ‘found it in his soul’. It follows the journey of Santiago, a shepherd boy, who journeys to Egypt to seek a promised treasure. As he moves across the desert and through the market places, he meets a series of people, who, to me, represented all humanity. Its basic plot, with its remarkable ‘twist in the tale’ is ages old, though, apparently first seen in The Thousand and One Nights

Recently, I read it aloud to my husband who enjoyed it as much as I had. But a strange thing happened as I read it again. Perhaps I’d grown older and more cynical, but I saw nothing but flaws – simplistic, artless writing and prosaic plotting. Don’t let that put you off reading it. At the right moment in your life, it is a tremendous book that can mean everything. 

Rose Tremain; Trespass
Rose Tremain has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year and been short-listed for the Booker Prize. So what is she doing, writing a crime thriller? Because you can hide the fact that Trespass, published in 2010, is a novel about murder. 

Maybe she didn’t realize that’s what she was about. Perhaps she thought this terrifying and bleak story documenting the cultural clash between rich, cultured English people and a provincial French family was the usual contemporary literary fiction that is expected from Tremain’s pen. After, the narrative is beautifully written, the language deeply satisfying.  But I don’t think so. She knew what she was doing. After all Tremain is now in her seventies and so just the right age to take over the Crime Writer’s Crown from P G James. And her take on a crime thriller is edged with noir. Each character is filled with deep psychological pain and the opening is classic crime fiction;  a young schoolgirl sees something in the waters of the river. She runs, screaming. The book then takes us from the beginning of the story that leads up to the event which made her scream.

Don’t suppose she’s going to listen to me – why should she – but I think Tremain should keep going with crime. The late PD James said that A detective story can give a much truer picture of the society in which it’s written than a more prestigious literature.” And, interviewed, would you believe it, by Amazon Books, James is quoted as  saying “Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can make no reparation, and has always been greeted with a mixture of repugnance, horror, fear, and fascination. We are particularly intrigued by the motives which cause a man or woman to step across the invisible line which separates a murderer from the rest of humanity. Human beings also love a puzzle and a strong story, and mysteries have both”.
Novelist, Rose Tremain

So go for it, Miss Tremain. Your exquisite prose and consistently dark themes are perfect for creating crime noir, and I for one enjoyed Trespass as much as Music and Silence and Restoration. The characters are filled with real existence, despite being to a person damaged by their troubled histories. There is no sympathetic protagonist to latch on to, but even so this is a compelling story. 
The novel centres around Mass Lunel, a crumbling, ancient family farmhouse in the Cevennes in southern France, the home of Aramon Lunel, a man who is so ridden with guilt at the crimes he has committed  in his past and now sickening from a very unhealthy lifestyle. He hits on the idea of selling the house and land, which would net him more money than he has ever imagined. But he needs the help of his half-sister, Audrun, who has suffered a lifetime of abuse at his hands and is now exiled to an ugly modern bungalow on the edge of the land. She is horrified at the idea of selling the family home, especially as her home, and the forest land she inherited with it is threatened by the sale. Alongside this fear, she is already festering with long-term hate and resentment towards Aramon. 

We have already met  Anthony Verey, an elderly antiques dealer with a penchant for young men. When he hits financial trouble in London, he visits his sister, who is living in the Cevennes with Kitty, her lover. Kitty has never been able to stand Anthony and is suspicious of the close bond between the siblings. She know that Anthony would be pleased to break up their French love nest and his horrified when Anthony announces he’s going to buy a property in the area. It’s not long before he claps eyes on Mas Lunel, and he loves it from the start. But he does not love Audrun’s bungalow. He covets her land, too. 

Tremain makes this story a forensic study of the way the shadows from the past always catches up the present until the climax mingles loss of justice with issues of identity and the philosophy of what happiness really is.

This is a troubling book, because it takes crime seriously, examining it for what it really is; messy, dirty. No one comes out of the events within the novel very well. The complexities of all the various relationships and their secret agendas, flare up, as we reach the denouement of the story, and as the book closes, real flames flare, leaving the reader gasping with the strength of the symbolism within it. Tremain wants you to go on thinking about impasse she’s created, long after you close the pages. 

So, even though Tremain writes literary, prize-winning fiction, I recommend that you read this book as if it were a psychological thriller, and then you won’t be disappointed at all.

  • THE HELP by Katheryn Stockett. My book club read this book and there wasn't a member who didn't love it from page one to the epilogue. We all agree that it taught us so much about the lives of the women - both black and white - of the deep south of the US in the early sixties. But I am also in praise of it because of it's confident use of writing technique; it is a multi-viewpoint book, with three 1st person voices, all as engrossing as each other (although I can't help loving Minny best) and a single chapter writen in the omnicsient which worked perfectly...very hard to pull off. The plotting of the story drew the reader in, hooking them from an early stage - the first pages of chapter one, infact - as Aibeleen learns of the plan for each 'help' to be given their own 'bathroom' that the white families don't catch their diseases. The irony and balletic comedy between the white classes, who are clearly terrified of the black community that they dispise and pay despicable wages, is beautifully drawn. And the dramatic tension that builds as Skeeter becomes more and moresecretly involved with her black friends is terrifying and heartwarming at the same time. A first time author, Stockett is one to watch. 

Elizabeth Haynes  Into the Darkest Corner and  Human Remains
It hit me, only moments after I received the contract for my three Shaman Mystery novels; I really did have to write a book in a year. I had never written a book in anything less than – well, a decade – and the fear slapped me off my office chair. Luckily, it didn’t dry up my writing, it got me searching for help. I found that help with NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month which challenges writers to reach 50,000 words during the month of November. I wiped November off the calendar to achieve 2000 words a day; watching no TV and never going out in the evenings. On December the first I emerged, like something from a chrysalis, with battered but beautiful wings and 60,000 words; more than half the second novel in the series; Unraveled Visions. (Midnight Ink 2014).

I was delighted to discover that one of my favourite crime writers took the same route with her first published novel; Elizabeth Haynes and Into the Darkest Corner (Myriad Editions 2011). In an Afterword at the end of the book she admits to becoming a Nano bore; “it’s very different from the usual way of writing a book.”

Elizabeth Haynes
During this time, Haynes was pursuing a creative writing course at West Dean College near Chichester, and they encouraged her to submit Into the Darkest Corner. This is just the sort of incentive a new writer needs; it was soon being devoured by crime fans. It won the Amazon UK 2011 Rising Stars award, and became a New York Times bestseller. The Guardian review, describes it thus; “From its uncompromising prologue – a young woman being bludgeoned to death in a ditch – Haynes’s powerful account of domestic violence is disquieting, yet unsensationalist.

Into the Darkest Corner is a tense thriller with a clever structure; it is topped and tailed by two court transcripts; the first transcript sets you up to wonder just how sane and believable the narrator of the novel, Catherine, is. She looks back to 2007, when she met and fell in love with a charismatic police officer called Lee. Lee is vulnerable in a lot of ways; he’s also possessive and aggressive, and ultimately sadistic. We watch the slow but inevitable deterioration, until Catherine, like a lot of women in abusive relationships, is trapped. Catherine tells this story of this past while describing her life now, where she is controlled by a different jailor; OCD. She exhausts herself checking and rechecking everything about her life, but especially the security of her little flat. 

Her two stories, with alternating time settings, are taut as pieces of elastic that sting you if you flick at

Although Into the Darkest Corner is Haynes first book, it wasn’t the first of hers that I’d read; last year I read Human Remains (Myriad Editions 2013), which is even more psychologically tense and even more clever in its critique of mental conditions that make us dangerous to others. In Human Remains, Haynes explores NLP, a technique with is intended to be therapeutic and empowering, but her character, Colin, twists these aims chillingly. Haynes explains in the Afterword; “things that people actually want – to die without pain or fear – is accomplished in such a way that [Colin] can benefit too.”

I was impressed that, rather than running out of ideas or inspiration, Haynes’ work seemed to just get better and better. In her first book, I liked the way she brought abusive relationships to the fore as the main theme alongside obsessive, compulsive disorder. But I felt she’d reached deeper for Human Remains, and developed her writing, investigating the sad phenomenon of people who withdraw from society and end up dying alone…I wanted to explore the potential reasons why people make this choice…I also liked the idea of the roles of predator/prey and hunter/hunted.”

It’s almost unsurprising that right up to publishing Into the Darkest Corner, Elizabeth Haynes was a police intelligence analyst. “At the time,” she explains on her website, “I was producing a quarterly report on violent crime and as part of this I read a lot of accounts of domestic abuse. I was guilty of having very fixed ideas about violence in the home and the sort of people who were victims of it, and this stereotype was challenged in every way by the reports I was analyzing. I’d always thought of domestic abuse as something that happened to ‘other people’, but it affects many couples and families from every part of society and is often very well hidden.”  In Human Remains, Annabel is a police analyst, just like Haynes. She is concerned about an increase in people dying at home yet remaining undiscovered until the overpowering smell alerts a passer-by. And when Annabel discovers her own neighbour in this state, she seriously begins to investigate something that Colin is delighted to exploit.

Haynes says, “I’ve always felt the role of analysts within law enforcement has been sadly overlooked by fiction writers.” Well, no longer. I’m going back for more of Elizabeth Haynes; an unconventional approach to writing psychologically thrilling books that has crime reviewers singing her praises.

Lord of the Rings by professor  J R R Tolkien, published between 1954  and 55. I’ve read this book several times, often just turning to the songs printed within it and singing them. I’ve also loved the BBC Radio 4 serialization, which took most of those songs and put them to music, and the wonderful trilogy from Peter Jackson. 
At the time of  first reading as a girl, the book excited my young imagination. I use to believe it had changed the writing landscape – no fantasy novel had ever been written before this and no writer would ever create something so wonderful again. That 1st belief hold true, I think – there isn’t a writer alive today unaware of its impact, but probably not the 2nd and 3rd. Of course it wasn’t the first fantasy novel, and although for many years it was the best, Land of Ice and Fire may now have claim to a similar crown.
Published in 1956
with its iconic cover
by Edward Balden

The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch. This was her second book, but it was my first introduction to my number-one writing hero, which made me long to also write about love and power and goodness and beauty and what makes up a human being. Suddenly, at the age of twenty, I wanted to say great things, like Murdoch, who, being a professor of philosophy, has a far greater claim to be able to write such things than I will ever have. However, if we can’t be inspired by the great exemplars, what hope is there? 
Once I’d put down Enchanter, I went in search of all her other books, and then lay in constant wait for her to write the next, which she did, for years, every 18 or so months. Only her very last book, written while in the grip of Alzheimer’s, is not among my very favourite reads to this day. Enchanter isn’t her best book, for me that is The Sea The Sea, but it was the first I read. I loved Iris Murdoch from that moment on, and reading her made me think more deeply, write more avidly and dream great dreams

  • THE UNCONSOLED. Kasuo Ishiguro remains one of my favourite contemporary writers. His books are imaginative, inventive, strongly crafted and push the boundaries to the very edges. This my favourite of his novels, all of which I've read. It's a slippy book, disorientated in time and space and drenched in music. The book sank like a stone, which didn't surprise me, its messages are subtle, and unlike the feted Ian McEwen, who can do no wrong with the critics, I fancy Ishiguro is less liked - and I do (secretly) wonder if that is because he is less English.  Unlike his previous books, including, of course, Remains of the Day, and his subsequent books, especially Never Let Me Go,  now a film, The Unconsoled sank like an anchor after receiving universally bad reviews at the time of its publication. The Telegraph review said it was a sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work and the Guardian said it left readers and reviewers baffled.  One literary critic said that the novel had invented its own category of badness. Meanwhile, I was reading it with intense absorption and enjoyment, understanding exactly what he was getting least I thought I did...clearly a reader's interpretation is their own. The Unconsoled is set over  three days in the life of concert pianist Ryder, who has come to an unnamed European city to perform. His memory seems patchy and selective and he drifts from situation to situation as if in a surreal dream, unable to totally understand what is going on. 
    I'm glad to say that by 2005 literary critics were beginning to agree with me...they voted the novel as the third best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005,  and The Sunday Times placed it in 20th century's 50 most enjoyable books, later published as Pure Pleasure; A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. 
    One scene in the book has never left me; Ryder is in his hotel room when he notices that the rug is similar to the one he played soldiers on when a child. Suddenly, he realizes that the room is actually his old bedroom; he's back in his childhood. What follows is a tender, almost cherishing memory of better times which seems totally part of Ryder's life now. At the time I had just finished nursing my mother, who'd died of the advanced stages of a particularly psychotic form of Alzheimer's disease, and Ryder's problems and experiences reminded me of the twilight world she'd lived in, where real life probably invaded her dream world in unpleasant ways...she was happiest when imagining I was her sister, Beatrice, and that we were both in our twenties and living together before Mum married my father (Beatrice never married – in fact she came to live with the newly-weds!) Listening to Mum's mad conversations with herself gave me a wonderful insight into what life was like before the second world war (my mum was quite old when I was born). 
    I would recommend Ishiguro to anyone who hasn't yet read him...all his books. But The Unconsoled has a special place in my heart and will never leave my get your own copy!

  • Virginia Woolf
    • My copy of Virginia Woolf’s A WRITER'S DIARY seems to be a first edition of 1953 from The Hogarth Press. It has that smell of an old book about it – a mix of tobacco, spores and midnight oil. The original owner of the book has written her name in on the first page in slanting black ink...Marjory Todd...and dated it 1/1/54,suggesting that this was a Christmas present. Dipping into it on occasion, as I do, reminds me of  something Virginia wrote...What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in and found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could happily live here and read forever...Virginia Woolf’s diaries were kept over a period of twenty-seven years and after her death, her husband, Leonard, gathered extracts from them together. He went through 30 handwritten volumes and selected passages that related only to her writing life. They take us from 1919, when she was 36, to 1941. The last entry, just 20 days before she walked into the River Ouse with an overcoat filled with stones, finishes...I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down. 

     It has been suggested that Leonard kept the more intimate areas of Virginia’s diary from publication because she wrote of their relationship, her sexuality and the state of her mental health. But he maintained in his lifetime that the abridgement was far more to do with concentrating on the entries that demonstrated her art and intellect as a writer so that her reputation could be restored. It seems remarkable to me that this might need to be done, but in fact through the 50’s and 60‘s Woolf was not widely read and no university taught her work. She had lost her rating as a writer in the vanguard of modernism and English literature. And so the published diary accompanied her return to recognition; in the 80’s the full diaries were published for the first time and she become reinstated as a great writer.
    Woolf teaches the 21C writer through humility and humanity. She feels ‘like us’; we can empathize on the depressions and mood swings of a writer’s life...I’m a deal happier at 38 than I was at 28; and happier today than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel...(January 26th 1920)..the creative power that bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in...(May 11th 1920) I expect I could have screwed Jacob up tighter if I had foreseen, but I had to make my path as I went...(October 29th 1922 – all referring to Jacob’s Room). Sometimes she witnessess and records things that feel historic...It is a decaying village (Rodmell) which loses its boys to the town. Not a boy of them, said the Rev. Mr. Hawkesford, is being taught the plough. Rich people wanting weekend cottages buy up the old peasants' houses for fabulous sums...(September 25th 1927)
    Although she is modest in her own appraisal of her writing, clues to the homilies people have recently paid to Wolfe can be spotted. I was gripped to read on June 19th 1923...But now what do I feel about my writing?–this book, that is The Hours, if that’s its name?...Finally, Woof called the book she was writing Mrs Dalloway, but that The Hours was the title Michael Cunningham chose for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about three generations of women affected by Mrs Dalloway. 
    Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I’m often amazed at how organized she was. On April 12 1919, she wrote...Moll Flanders, which I finished yesterday in accordance with my time sheet...Not everyone likes to be so regimented in their work, but any of my students who have suggested to me that they can’t get a routine going will know I do recommend using tick lists, time sheets, work diaries and pie charts to get motivated – I would certainly recommend reading A Writer’s Diary as a wonderful way to inspire your own writing, and one of my OCA students, Helen Steadman, has been doing just that...
    I’ve had a Virginia Woolf splurge this month...she wrote to me... I particularly liked Woolf’s discussions about using her notebook and especially her entry on 20 January 1919 which talks about her freewriting leading to “the diamonds of the dustheap”...She went on to say how the diary contained lots of very useful nuggets of advice on writing generally and this led to me reading To the Lighthouse and Orlando....which has provided some helpful lessons in bending the boundaries of life writing and I was inspired by Woolf’s amusing observation that when the facts aren’t there, sometimes the writer has to make them up... Helen quotes Woolf in Orlando...We have done our best to piece out a meagre summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to use the imagination...explaining how this affected her  her own writing... With this in mind, I have conflated a number of events to create a more focused story... bringing techniques from fiction, I’ve used some stream-of-consciousness to try to convey the strangeness I felt ...

     I can’t recommend Woolf’s diaries highly enough to any writer; it won’t matter one whit if you’ve not read anything else of her work...although reading the diary may entice you into the marvel of her novels. Perhaps we should end with Virginia's words; a marvellous description of the June 1927 eclipse of the sun...In our carriage were Vita, Harold, Quentin, Leonard and I. This is Hatfield, I daresay, I said. I was smoking a we plunged through the midlands; made a very long stay at York. Then at 3 we got out our sandwhiches and I came in from the W.C to find Harold being rubbed clean of cream....We got out (at Barton Fell, Yorkshire) and found ourselves very high, on a moor, boggy, heathery, with butts for grouse shooting...We could see a gold spot where the sun was, but it was early yet. We had to wait, stamping to keep warm...Then, for a moment, we saw the sun, sweeping - it seemed to be sailing at a great pace and clear in a gap; we got out our smoked glasss; we saw it, crescent, burning red; next moment it had sailed fast into the cloud again; only the red streamers came from it; then only a golden haze, such as one has often seen. The moments were passing. We felt cheated; we looked at the sheep; they showed no fear; the setters were racing round; everyone was standing in long lines, rather dignified, looking out. I thought how we were very like old people, in the birth of the world - druids on Stonehenge. At the back of us were blue spaces in the cloud. These were still blue. But now, the colour going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. Nothing could be seen through the cloud. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over - this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills - at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. If was like a recovery.

    Belinda Bauer – Blacklands.
    I like to read books that inform my own writing, so I was drawn to Bauer because I agree that moorlands are evocative landscapes, sometimes breathtaking…sometimes chilling. It’s easy to lose a body on a wide moor; sheep, even horses die unannounced, and it’s possible to imagine a walker wandering in bad weather until they finally lie down and are not discovered until their bones have turned white.

    We know murderers of the most evil distinction (presuming you can tolerate the idea that there are different levels of evil intent in murder), use moorland to dig shallow graves which even they won’t ever find again.

    Steven’s uncle is out there – buried somewhere on Exmoor. Steven is as obsessed with his dead uncle Billy as his nan – Poor Mrs Peters,  she’s called around Shipcott town – she lost her son to serial killer Arnold Avery, now languishing in a high security prison. The body has never been discovered, and Steven believes, with every sinew of his twelve-year-old body, that if only Billy could be given a proper burial, everything that is wrong in his family would come right again:
    His nan would become a proper nan; she’d smile, play with him, bake cookies.
    His mum would settle down with one man, instead of regularly chucking boyfriends out of their cramped house.
    Maybe, even, Steven would be more popular at school, not bullied, not ‘almost friendless’.

    Every spare moment Steven has, he spends out on the moors, digging with a ‘brute spade’, hoping to hit on his uncle’s skeleton. It’s a hopeless task, and Seven knows it, so he decides to enlist a helper. The only person who could actually tell him where Uncle Billy lies – Arnold Avery.

    Steven writes a letter to his uncle’s murderer. I loved the letters Steven composed in Blacklands. It’s easy, when using a child as a protagonist, to give them an intellectual maturity they would not really have, but Bauer doesn't do this. Steven’s letters totally convinced me. He’s not a stupid boy; he knows what he’s doing. Except, of course, he does not. Avery’s letters back to Seven are equally convincing, and utterly frightening. They  offer a series of connecting clues…and we all know how twelve-year-old boys love a quest.

    From almost the beginning of the book, the reader is in a lather of sweat over the safety of Steven. Avery will hunt him down; we understand that. He may be languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure, but that won’t stop him pursuing yet another victim.

    In the Moors (2013), the first book in my trilogy, The Shaman Mysteries, is set on the Somerset Levels, a moorland that stretches from the wide arc of Bridgwater Bay right across to the mysterious and esoteric Glastonbury, and I use all that landscape for the two following novels, Unraveled Visions (2014) and Beneath the Tor (out this year)Unlike Bauer, I use a single protagonist, Sabbie Dare, whose adventures as a modern-day shaman in practice as a therapist leads her to understand that she can sometimes help people who bring very dark problems to her…very dark problems indeed. Linda Bauer, on the other hand use the town of Shipcott itself as a link between her first three books, turning them into a trilogy set on Exmoor.  Bauer has gone on to write further ‘stand-alone’ novels, all of which are scary beasts – I hope to do the same! (see my previous post

    I had just a few plausibility problems with Blacklands, but these were nowhere near troubling enough to stop me reading, because there are two toweringly exquisite aspects to Bauer’s writing that make this a crackerjack of a book. 

    I loved Bauer’s writing style. It takes us deep into the minds of the characters. And, because of this, her characters are as real as people down the street; you feel their turmoil. In this extract, Steven tries hard to please his his nan, who has never recovered from the murder of her son and takes out her desperate misery on all around her. Steven has made her a new shopping trolly, working secretly with borrowed tools, using an abandoned pushchair; it was one of those all=terrain buggies, as if the parents who’d bought it were planning an ascent of Everest with their infant in tow…When Steven presented the rejuvenated trolley to his nan, she pursed her lips suspiciously and jerked it roughly back and forth across the floor as if she could make the wheels fall off this instant if she only tried hard enough.
    ‘Looks silly,’ said Nan.
    ‘They’re all-terrain wheels,’ Seven ventured. ‘They’ll bounce over stones and kerbs and stuff much better.’
    ‘Hmph. That’s all I need – some kind of cross-country shopping trolley.’

    Blacklands won the 2010 CWA Gold Dagger and it was the 2010 Channel 4 TV Book Club choice. The Guardian thought it had…“lucid, uncluttered prose” and was “genuinely chilling”.

    Bauer says that Blacklands is “probably my most personal, reflecting as it does my own memories and experiences of childhood. Into that mix I've introduced Arnold Avery - the most heinous monster any child could imagine. I wanted to write about the way a terrible crime can pass through the generations like ripples on a pond.

    This is an approach I appreciate, both as reader and writer. I don’t enjoy crime novels that concentrate on the gratuitous; that only show how terrifying   and shocking a murder is and how clever those who solve the mystery are. I like to hear the voices of those who are affected by crime, essentially the victims and their families, but often others who come close to the crime. In Blacklands, we are truly able to empathize with Steven and his family, and for me, that’s what makes this book a prize-winner.

    • My daughter recommended SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay, a book by a French author who is an expat American. Although her first language is English, this is the first book she's written that is not in French. A story about the 6oth anniversary of a dreadful moment in the days of Vichy France, which proves how culpable that government was for the fate of French Jews during the 2nd WW. It's written in a light tone using two main voices; Sarah, who is nearly ten in 1942 and Julia, a journalist who is doing an article on the round-up of Parisienne Jews...the Vel D'HIver. I'd recommend it as a book club read that would stimulate debate.

      • Reading ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson led me to SEXING THE CHERRY, and through her work to WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL, one of her most recent books. This tells the 'other story' told as fiction in Oranges; the search for happiness.  I have heard reviewers say that Winterson is not so much a novelist as an essayist; I'd agree with this. Her first book was autobiography; since then her novels have been only a hair away from being essays. This new book seems to be a bit of all of these; I'll report back when I've read it through!THE TIGER’S WIFE has been feted as a stunningly original novel. Tea Obreht is the youngest winner of the Orange Prize, and it is clear she had a fantastic imagination and can weave incredible tales. I did love the story, but there were times when the reading became difficult, not because it is a dense read or literary read, but because the writer, still only 24, doesn’t yet know how to take several short stories ( previously published) and  pull them into a cohesive story. We meet innumerable incredible characters but these never glue the novel into one, heart-thumping piece. Emotion seems to be painted on, and I’m sure that is because Obreht tried to plait her short stories together without remembering the one piece of advice I always give to my sure you know your own Core Emotional Truth. 
      Pat Barker; Life Class
      I loved Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, and this book, set at the beginning of the 1st WW feels like an addition to that canon.  The story looks at how people responded to the outbreak of war, and how it changes some lives, unsettled others and didn't seem to affect some people one little jot. 

      I didn't feel it was quite as well structured as the others. Characters move in and out of focus, as Paul Tarrant, a working-class strudent at the Slade, and Elinor Brooke, an scholarship artist from an upper-middle class background live their lives in detailed moments which give the story a slight 'journal' feel. The war comes quite late into the novel and, unlike some of her other work on this period, never really felt to me like  a 'character' in itself, but rather something incidental that was happening to Paul when he volunteers to drive an ambulance at the front. What seemed to be missing from the novel; and what I found most frustrating, are the mentions of Paul and Elinor’s professor, Henry Tonks. This man pioneered developments in plastic surgery by drawing patients pre- and post-operation, after leaving the Slade to go back to medicine at the start of the war. But not a lot of this is covered in the book, and Tonks, like Paul’s first love Teresa, slide out of view. I would have liked more of this, and I would have like a more traditionally conclusive ending, especially as we leave the characters as the war moves into full throttle. Maybe if you haven’t read any of Barker’s 1st WW books yet, you might start with this one, leaving the others to entice you afterwards.

      We are All Completley Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
      Witty, stylish, page-turning and very finely written. Fowler takes a startling subject and creates deeply-felt characters as well as a shocking twist in the middle of the book. The disturbing lives of the Cookes family consists of a pedantic psychologist father who specializes in animal behavior, an emotionally fragile mother and three children: Lowell, Rosemary and Fern.

      One daughter mysteriously vanishes, the other changes from a prodigiously talkative child to a silent adult; the brother runs away. And beneath the basic plotline lies a story as fantastic, terrible and beautiful as any Grimm's fairy tale.
      This unconventional, dysfunctional family can't be too autobiographical, but Bloomington, Indiana where they live in the novel is also where Fowler spent the first 11 years of her life.

      I found the ending didn't live up to the promise of the rest of the book, but that may be because I wanted it to be fairytale, and in reality, that woulnd't have been fair, right or very convincing.

       Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

      I’ve loved all of Adichie’s novels,” I read in one review of Americanah, “but not this one. It has no story.”

      The reviewer is wrong, in my opinion. Americanah has a wealth of story. Even the slightest of minor characters have stories they are bursting to tell. What the book does not have, is a plot.

      Plot and story are different things, albeit sometimes difficult to pull apart. In fact, in a well-plotted novel it should be damn-near impossible to separate them, because good plotting intricately intertwines its underlying stories into an almost invisibly woven fabric. 

      In the past, Nigeria’s war-torn modern history supplied Adichie with rich themes, giving her an abundance of story that neatly hid any absence of tight plotting techniques. But Americanah is set in a more politically stable Nigeria, in England and the Princetown campus of New Jersey. The novel doesn’t deal in war, tribal hatred or violent death. It is of the perceptions and emotions of her characters which she writes primarily.  

      Americanah has strong, over-arching themes that moved and informed me, and Adichie defines these in a straight-forward manner, at time using blog posts to strike them home. At its foundation, the book is a well-crafted polemic – that is a contentious argument presented to establish the truth of an understanding. Through her main character, Adichie explored her argument in convincing depth.

      Ifemelu is a young, educated Nigerian woman who fulfills her desire to travel, leaves her sweetheart and goes to America without a Green Card. She wants to embrace American life, ‘softening’ her hair rather than plaiting it and adopting a New York accent, but she’s struck with a difference she observes. In Nigeria, everyone is black. There is no discrimination over colour. What she experiences in the US – and then documents in her blog – is how colour prejudice survives in the enlightened, racially equal 21st century. It’s subtle, this prejudice. Understated. Sometimes, people seem embarrassed by their own racism. But Ifemelu notes it down, incident by incident. She describes herself as “the non-American-black”, commenting to Black Americans on their own naivety.

      The polemic of the novel, the quality of the writing and the strength of the characters powered me through the book, even though I’m less than fond of plot-less novels. Not that there is anything wrong in the idea of a novel without a plot. Some of the best literature in the world is substantially plot-less, including Ulysses and The Life and Opinion of Tristam Shandy. Some readers hate plot-driven books and many writers prefer to present ideas and explore character rather than neatly sculpt a perfect plot; I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of those.

      Readers  often get confused – understandably – with the differences between story and plot. But consider your own life as a story. Every life you touch also has a story. Story infiltrates the way we understand our’s almost how humans think.

      Plot, on the other hand, is a literary term defining the structure a piece of dramatic prose or poetry. These form a pattern or sequence of composed, causal events which are usually organized into and contained within a logical shape. They comprise six or so steps; the introduction, the conflict, the rising action, the crisis, the falling action, and the denouement and/or conclusion. Our lives occasionally take such causal paths, but mostly, like a plot-less novel, our story drifts though space and time, never really ending until we have.

      Note that characters are hardly mentioned in my definition of plot above; another way of thinking about the differences between story and plot is to consider how stories are always about people (or people substitutes) while plots are the structure such a story can assume within the narrative. Adichie gains balance by expounding her opinions through the development of her characters.

      There is, for instance, Aunty Uju is a village woman who educates herself and becomes the lover of  “The General,” living in luxury in Nigeria until it all goes wrong then escaping to the US where she finally finds works as a doctor. A favourite of mine was Ifemelu’s college boyfriend, Obinze. In the UK he has to undergo the humiliations of a person without status, but when he returns to Nigeria he becomes successful in the corrupt regime which he hates and offers the poorly paid workers he met in England a slice of that success.

      One interesting literary device used throughout the book is worth examining by any prospective writer. After 13 years in the US, Ifemelu is going home and she wants to braid her hair again. She travels out of Princetown to a shabby area where the hairdressers are illegal immigrants working in bad conditions. It takes over six hours for the braiding to complete, and in that time, the rest of the story, mostly in flashback, is completed too, making the braiding a great symbol for the weaving of a tale. Naturally, braiding African hair is also an important statement about blackness, but the contrast between Ifemelu and the hairdressers (she was once an illegal immigrant, like these girls, but now owns a condo in New Jersey), investigates a subtle underlying of the theme of discrimination; although the workers in the salon are black, there are bigger class differences between Ifemelu and the hairdressers than she’d wish to admit. She is the embarrassed one, thinking thoughts she wishes she wouldn’t have. She can barely force herself join in their conversations.

      You can’t beat Aristotle, if you need to sum something up, and he thinks that…the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole. (from The Rhetoric & The Poetics of Aristotle). Right on, Aristotle. That’s exactly what I was trying to say about plot.

      I recommend you read Americanah, then read the reviews, especially those from ‘ordinary’ readers, which you’ll find on Goodreads, Amazon and readers’ blogs. Note how different readers see the  book in various ways…as a love story, as a book about the black agenda, about isolation and immigration. Some people loved the book, some were disappointed, and this demonstrates what readers ask primarily of the authors they love. Yes, they want stories about people…brilliantly coloured stories of life in all its glory. But they also want causality – that cause and effect that encapsulates and ties together random events, making more sense of them than we could ever make of our own lives. They want plot – a structure that unites character and story together, perhaps not in too perfect a manner, but not so that the narrative is as amorphous as our personal life story.
      How to Be Both by Ali Smith, one of my favourite writers. How to be Both is almost two stories, intertwined, with more than 500 years separating the characters - one a Renaissance painter, secretly female, the other a modern teenager living in the UK and desperately in need of some love.  Smith suggests you can read them in either order, but I would strongly suggest you start with 'camera' not 'eye' as you're far less likely to give up! "As always, Smith is being playful and inventive 's work. How to be both, almost  eludes description, which I’m sure was the very effect Smith was aiming at. It’s well worth the slight struggle although not my favourite; The Accidental will remain that.

      I think Ian McEwan might be in a bit of a fallow period. I've read Chesil Beach, and Solar, and found the first distasteful and the second a bit of a piss-take; very funny, but rather disquieting, seeing it's remit, which was to write something about climate change. Sweet Tooth has been described on goodreads as 'boring'. Anyway, I started The Children Act with optimism and in a lot of ways I was rewarded. I enjoyed the factual details about Fiona Maye's job as a High Court judge in the family court and thought the start - which sets the subplot into action - was gripping. This fifty year old woman's husband is leaving her for his floosie because she hasn’t made love to him for seven weeks. Seven weeks! Wow, said hubbie (or maybe McEwan) should review what they expect of 50 year old wives, frankly. Anyway, off he goes and I thought his portrayal of Fiona, alone in her posh London flat was extremely empathetic. 

      At the same time, the main story kicks off. This investigates, sensitively, I thought, the dilemma the Jehovah Witnesses have when they need blood. A 17 year old boy is adament he’d rather die of his leukemia, than be tainted. She visits him in hospital and something sparks between them.

      I think McEwan is exploring, again, the way one person can have an explosive effect on another, at first meeting, previously examined in Enduring Love. He does this with intimate depth and with the consummate skill of an long-experienced novelist. But I did miss the twists and explosions of previous books, such as Enduring Love, Saturday and Amsterdam. Maybe he’ll have a little fallow period, in which we can all enjoy, but not really rave, about his releases, and they he’ll be back POW! hitting us with something amazing. 

      The Children’s Act isn’t it, but it’s certainly a lovely, absorbing read that deserves good reviews. 

      Jon McGregor and Salley Vickers: Glints of Gold
      In September I travelled to the cathedral city of Wells to speak at the Bishop’s Palace during the  I was bursting with pride to be asked to do so. I had been a prize-winner in their short story competition years ago
      and my brief was to give heart to the audience of writers, most of which had entered this years award, by sharing my success in writing since then.
      I told them about the day I’d received my prize. Salley Vickers had presented the cheques and had gone on to speak, telling us about the writing of Miss Garnet’s Angel, her first book. She’d spoken of how she’s had started this book, with a strong idea of the main character and her story. But although she had a story, she didn’t yet have a novel, there was no ‘glint of gold’ within it, no twist that would attract a reader. 
      Salley Vickers confessed she’d had the basic idea for Miss Garnet’s Angel, in her mind for years, without finding the spark that would turn it into a novel. Then she went to Venice, and got lost in the back streets, fell upon the most beautiful church. Inside, a panelled painting, recounting the story of Tobias and the angel.  This was her ‘Glint of gold; a flicker of inspiration’. 
      Vickers says…“the very old tale of Tobias, who travels to Medea unaware he is accompanied by the Archangel Raphael [is] powerful and evocative. It has the quality of a myth or fairy story, seeming to mean much more than its literal sense. In 'Miss Garnet's Angel' I tell the contemporary story of Julia Garnet, a retired school teacher, who comes to Venice prompted by the death of a friend. She finds the Guardi panels...”
      The majority of writers find it hard to compose something new. We are all waiting for the glint of gold - the flicker of inspiration that comes out of the blue.  So when I read Jon McGregor’s account of writing his first novel, I noticed he’d had a similar experience.

      Jon McGregor burst onto the scene in 2002 by being long-listed for the booker for his first novel, If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things. Once again, Bloomsbury had taken a risk with a new writer and it had paid off for them, both in sales for this book and the books he’s continue to write; interesting, original, contentious, often disturbing novels.

      McGregor is like Marmite no doubt about it. The reviewer's were soon at each others throats over him. The Telegraph, 17th September 2002 said; "You won't read anything much more poignant than this." McGregor was awarded 2002 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and a heap of other prizes for this book, yet Julie Myerson, in The Guardian, spat vitriol, as if it was her raison d’etre to make sure everyone hated the book. She called it doom-ladenoddly ungripping, colourless, unfocused, undoubtedly well-intentioned. She said the narrative voice was pompous, with a fatal lack of humour, its lifeblood sucked out by a Virginia Woolfish adherence to the fey, the pretend, the fortuitously elegant. She quotes the text; “An elderly, working-class man racked with lung cancer laughs and then "clutches at his throat, head tipped back, mouth gaping, silent, staring at the ceiling like a tourist in the Sistine Chapel", and says, “if the alarm bells haven't already rung countless times, then they certainly do at that sudden, gratuitous lurch into the world of art history. This is a novel where the contrived metaphor, the struggling simile, the romantic reference all come first. She had a book out herself at the time, and it felt like she didn’t think there was room in bookstores for both of them. I was expecting her to pull out a revolver any moment and mumble something about leaving this town by noontide. Even so, it did put me off reading the book at that time.

      Jon McGregor was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, went to Bradford University and began getting his short stories published, including on Radio Four. An agent heard the reading and contacted him, suggesting he write a novel. Don’t all new writers dream of such a contact? Once you have your agent on your side, it does get that little bit easier. Even so, you need your basic idea, characters, setting, plot...and a glint of gold.
       McGregor says… “In the summer of 1997, a boy was shot in Bolton, round about the same time that Diana died. This got me thinking about the significance that gets attached to people's lives and deaths, about perceived levels of tragedy and newsworthiness. I was interested in the anonymity of city life, the fact that I still didn't know my neighbours after three years, the damage that transience does to the community. And a few almost-terrible incidents in the street I was living in at the time gave me the magic.” He began to write If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things on a narrowboat in Nottingham.
      The character of the narrator - and therefore the hook and drive of the novel as a coherent whole - didn't come until May 2000, when I went to Japan to visit a friend and he showed me the Buddhist temple at Kamakura, where they have a shrine for mothers of stillborn/aborted children. This sparked off a chain of thought about what a responsibility and a fear pregnancy must be, which gradually rolled into a storyline able to tie together what was happening in the street. So in a sense I only really started writing the novel then.”

      Once I’d learnt that McGregor had been visited by the ‘glint of gold,  I wanted to read the book. Unlike Myerson, I was gripped and absorbed from the first page, because of the clever trick McGregor plays on that first page. He sets up an incident, and only by reading the entire book can you know what that dreadful moment really contained.

      I thought the book was as close to a kind of poetry as it is to prose. Its opening is evocative of inner city life everywhere. We’re in a North of England street, terraced housing packed with people going through the motions of everyday existence. This is almost the delight of reading Henry James all over again, although McGregor dips into their physical activities rather than their minds, and through this ‘show, don’t tell’ structure we see both mind and actions. McGregor writes in the book…You must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. There are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are. If nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?”  

      Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

      I’ve loved all of Adichie’s novels,” I read in one review of Americanah, “but not this one. It has no story.”

      The reviewer is wrong, in my opinion. Americanah has a wealth of story. Even the slightest of minor characters have stories they are bursting to tell. What the book does not have, is a plot.

      Plot and story are different things, albeit sometimes difficult to pull apart. In fact, in a well-plotted novel it should be damn-near impossible to separate them, because good plotting intricately intertwines its underlying stories into an almost invisibly woven fabric. 

      In the past, Nigeria’s war-torn modern history supplied Adichie with rich themes, giving her an abundance of story that neatly hid any absence of tight plotting techniques. But Americanah is set in a more politically stable Nigeria, in England and the Princetown campus of New Jersey. The novel doesn’t deal in war, tribal hatred or violent death. It is of the perceptions and emotions of her characters which she writes primarily.  

      Americanah has strong, over-arching themes that moved and informed me, and Adichie defines these in a straight-forward manner, at time using blog posts to strike them home. At its foundation, the book is a well-crafted polemic – that is a contentious argument presented to establish the truth of an understanding. Through her main character, Adichie explored her argument in convincing depth.

      Ifemelu is a young, educated Nigerian woman who fulfills her desire to travel, leaves her sweetheart and goes to America without a Green Card. She wants to embrace American life, ‘softening’ her hair rather than plaiting it and adopting a New York accent, but she’s struck with a difference she observes. In Nigeria, everyone is black. There is no discrimination over colour. What she experiences in the US – and then documents in her blog – is how colour prejudice survives in the enlightened, racially equal 21st century. It’s subtle, this prejudice. Understated. Sometimes, people seem embarrassed by their own racism. But Ifemelu notes it down, incident by incident. She describes herself as “the non-American-black”, commenting to Black Americans on their own naivety.

      The polemic of the novel, the quality of the writing and the strength of the characters powered me through the book, even though I’m less than fond of plot-less novels. Not that there is anything wrong in the idea of a novel without a plot. Some of the best literature in the world is substantially plot-less, including Ulysses and The Life and Opinion of Tristam Shandy. Some readers hate plot-driven books and many writers prefer to present ideas and explore character rather than neatly sculpt a perfect plot; I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of those.

      Plot, on the other hand, is a literary term defining the structure a piece of dramatic prose or poetry. These form a pattern or sequence of composed, causal events which are usually organized into and contained within a logical shape. They comprise six or so steps; the introduction, the conflict, the rising action, the crisis, the falling action, and the denouement and/or conclusion. Our lives occasionally take such causal paths, but mostly, like a plot-less novel, our story drifts though space and time, never really ending until we have.

      Note that characters are hardly mentioned in my definition of plot above; another way of thinking about the differences between story and plot is to consider how stories are always about people (or people substitutes) while plots are the structure such a story can assume within the narrative.

      I am of the mind that writers fall naturally towards one way of being or the other – either they love character and want to primarily tell story, or they love theme, complexity and construction; the use of narrative to build ideas and expound argument. There isn’t a right or wrong way, but knowing which way you are driven will only help balance your writing. Adichie gains that balance by expounding her opinions through the development of her characters.

      There is, for instance, Aunty Uju is a village woman who educates herself and becomes the lover of  “The General,” living in luxury in Nigeria until it all goes wrong then escaping to the US where she finally finds works as a doctor. A favourite of mine was Ifemelu’s college boyfriend, Obinze. In the UK he has to undergo the humiliations of a person without status, but when he returns to Nigeria he becomes successful in the corrupt regime which he hates and offers the poorly paid workers he met in England a slice of that success.

      One interesting literary device used throughout the book is worth examining by any prospective writer. After 13 years in the US, Ifemelu is going home and she wants to braid her hair again. She travels out of Princetown to a shabby area where the hairdressers are illegal immigrants working in bad conditions. It takes over six hours for the braiding to complete, and in that time, the rest of the story, mostly in flashback, is completed too, making the braiding a great symbol for the weaving of a tale. Naturally, braiding African hair is also an important statement about blackness, but the contrast between Ifemelu and the hairdressers (she was once an illegal immigrant, like these girls, but now owns a condo in New Jersey), investigates a subtle underlying of the theme of discrimination; although the workers in the salon are black, there are bigger class differences between Ifemelu and the hairdressers than she’d wish to admit. She is the embarrassed one, thinking thoughts she wishes she wouldn’t have. She can barely force herself join in their conversations.

      I recommend students read Americanah, then read the reviews, especially those from ‘ordinary’ readers, which you’ll find on Goodreads, Amazon and readers’ blogs. Note how different readers see the  book in various ways…as a love story, as a book about the black agenda, about isolation and immigration. Some people loved the book, some were disappointed, and this demonstrates what readers ask primarily of the authors they love. Yes, they want stories about people…brilliantly coloured stories of life in all its glory. But they also want causality – that cause and effect that encapsulates and ties together random events, making more sense of them than we could ever make of our own lives. They want plot – a structure that unites character and story together, perhaps not in too perfect a manner, but not so that the narrative is as amorphous as our personal life story.

      The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt deserved every bit of praise. It's a long book, and when I reached pg 100 I can remember thinking, 'thank heavens, I've still got 600 pages to enjoy...' it's that sort of read. Characters - so colourful and real and unforgettable Theme - clever and deep.
      Setting - contemporary and fascinating. Plot - tight, with a brill twist towards the end. It's the sort of book you want to start again as soon as you've finished. 

      The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
      Gaiman said in an interview that ironically, while he was writing a book for children narrated by an adult, he was also writing "Ociean" a book for an adult reader told through the eyes of a seven year old boy. This young narrator is captivating; he tells us about the adult world but he's reinterpreting what he sees so that he can make sense of it and this develops into a fantasy that pulls you along. Magical Realism rather than fantasy, in fact. A very competent story with a tight plot and good, strong characters. If you're looking for a book to keep you going on a long journey, as I was, this is ideal; fast compelling and quick to read.

      Candide by François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire, was published in 1759 during the European 'enlightenment’ and at the time was banned as blasphemous, and politically seditious – Candide pokes a lot of fun at the establishment of the day. Voltaire was a sharp witty man, and (the two don’t often seem to go together) a philosopher, who strongly opposed certain Enlightenment ideas about social class. Candide is a naive young man whogrows up in a baron’s castle. His tutor Pangloss teaches him that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide is discovered kissing the baron’s daughter, his secret love, and is expelled from his home. He wanders the world with Pangloss, surviving the most awful disasters and tortures, while Pangloss continues to describe life as ‘the best of all possible worlds”. Shortly after reading this novella, I saw the film Oh, Lucky Man, staring Malcolm McDowell, a sprawling musical intended as an allegory on life in the 20th century. I could not help linking the two stories. I still to this day believe that the screenplay takes its inspiration from Candide.

      "Marley's Ghost",
      original illustration by John Leech
       from A Christmas Carol

      A Christmas Carol. Did you know that when Dickens wrote this little novella in 1843 as part of his ‘Christmas Series’, it changed all our Christmases? Traditional practices were going out of fashion at the time, and the book revived them. Groaning boards of turkey and iced cake, presents, dancing and mistletoe were all saved for our enjoyment…or not! At the same time it was a clear comment on  early Victorian society, as when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children saying; “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

      For me, the book was a tradition in itself. Every year, as my children grew, I’d read it, over four or five nights, ending the story with Scrooge’s transformation on Xmas Eve. Heady days!

      Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

      I'm sorry, Kate; really, really sorry. I've loved all your other books, but this one just left me cold. Maybe it's the constant return to all that snow. 

      Winter of 1910, and a child is born; and keeps being born until she survives this first ordeal; and then keeps being born each time her life takes the sort of turn that leads us all at times to wish we could go back and try again. This is a book that tackles a tricky premis; I commend it for this. The concept of allowing a character to try at life until she gets it right – life after life – is an appealing one and one that has not been attempted overmuch. 

      The scope of this novel is vast; two world wars and the landscapes of England and Germany. But I never got to like any of the characters, especially Ursula and her irritating mother, Sylvia. Perhaps I was expecting something a bit more self-determining; Ursula may keep going back until she gets it right but quite a lot of the problems are random; if , as a small child, you drown in an undertow,  you surely learn very little (not to go paddling?) on your return. 

      I wanted to get closer to Ursula; see what made her tick, and was prevented by the sheer speed of the narrative. I wanted her to tell me why she did this; why doing this was any better than striving to live one, solid life.

      All the prize-givers loved this book; all the papers loved it too.  The Telegraph review tells us…Each time Ursula is reborn, she tries to prevent the traumas of previous lives. She’s not exactly conscious of what’s been before, but she feels looming dread and déjà vu. This leads her mother to pack her off to a psychologist who talks of Nietzsche and Amor fati (love of fate). I would have really liked the opportunity for Ursula to find herself discussing her strange life experience, of which she's not quite aware, but she can't; she not quite aware of it. 

      The Guardian reviews their own review of the book…This description of Atkinson's looping, metamorphosing narrative inevitably makes it sound tricksy, almost whimsical. Structurally, it is, but its ceaseless renewals are populated with pleasures that extend beyond the what-next variety.  

      I agree. Structurally it's tricksy. The emotional whimsy did not impact on me. So; 10 out of 10 for a clever idea, Kate, but sorry, sorry I didn't like the result.

      Grail Alchemy by Mara Freeman

      Mara Freeman is already known in Druidic and Western Magical circles as the founder and director of the Avalon Mystery School, and her life’s work has been to offer seekers on the path a profound route into their personal quest. Her earlier book, Kindling the Celtic Spirit is one of my handbooks for living the sacred wheel of the year, and I was keen to read her latest book, Grail Alchemy (Initiation in the Celtic Mystery Tradition), published by Destiny Books.

      Some books illuminate as you read; as if there are dark shafts and closed chambers within our minds which need a key to access the locks and a torch to light the sconces. No wonder Eastern sages describe such a process as ‘enlightenment’. Sometimes, as I’m reading a book that opens my thinking in this way, I can physically feel the lights going on and the doors swinging wide. Often, this involves no words, not even within introspective thought. Which is why the experience of bringing an inner journey into full consciousness cannot be properly described; it is too profound for our lexicon.

      I knew, as I began to read Grail Alchemy, that it would be a work of scholarship. Freeman’s careful research, combined with an attractive writing style that is never difficult to read, allows this – perhaps the most enigmatic story we have in the west – to be fully comprehended as history, literature, legend and, above all, myth. The book’s format explores the myriad symbols connected to the Grail…Fisher Kings and Loathly Ladies, cauldrons and silver branches among so many others. As reader, I was able to engage with these to discover meaning in both my inner life, and the life of the world; a profound method of making sense of how humankind inhabits this planet. 

      Early in Grail Alchemy, Freeman speaks of using ‘focus’ and ‘imagination’. The depth of that instruction is possibly one core of the book’s messages. By entering the ‘language of the soul’ through the exercises, meditations, VisionJourneys and rituals contained within the book, pursuing a meaning to the Grail becomes a personal quest that certainly connected me to my deepest inner parts, and from there, to moments where I felt able to reach the spirit of the Divine. This is not achieved by the physical act of reading the book, thoughtful commentary though it is, but through the work the reader will do around the text, including using that combination of concentration of will and the creative imagery of the mind to walk into the world of the beautifully spoken guided journeys that accompany the text. My intention is to return to each ‘VisionJourney’ time after time, reaching deeper into their magic.

      Freeman recently was quoted as saying ‘As the Soul of the World is feminine, so is the individual soul within each of us, so that to seek the Grail is to go in quest of the essential Self which has been devalued and disregarded in a world that values the material over the spiritual.’  I truly felt this, as I worked through the book, which for me has become a cypher to aid initiation into deeper mysteries not easily tapped – an unravelling which results in bolts being pulled back and sconces being lit within the mind.

      Joseph Campbell called the Grail ‘the founding  myth of Western civilization’, and Freeman’s working of this myth creates a possibility for the reader; that of truly being part of the spiritual path of the Grail traditions. This book feels exquisitely wise and, for the reader, transformative and inspiring.

      The Visitor, by Katherine Stansfield is written with an aching poignancy and vivid, intense descriptive powers. Set between the 1880s and the mid 1930s, it brilliantly contrasts its protagonist, Pearl, as a child, a young woman and an old woman on the verge of being sucked under  by dementia, which allows Stansfield to withhold essential facts until she’s ready to allow us to piece the clues together. The past is now clearer to Pearl than the present, demonstrated by Stansfield  through her clever structural weaving of past and present. 

      Stansfield now lives in Wales, but spent her childhood in Cornwall, and a major character in the story is  the beautifully described Cornish fishing village of Morlanow, where in the last century, huge shoals of pilchards made some people rich, while others are lost at sea. Now, between the two world wars, the shoals have gone and the village is preparing to look to tourism and holidaymakers for an income.

      Pearl has lived in Morlanow all her life, and her love of swimming, which she still sneaks away to do in her nightie, comes across as her enduring pleasure. Slowly, throught memory and the troubled times of her present life, it emerges that Pearl ‘lost’ her first and only love, and has lived through an unhappy marriage with Jack, hoping that her Nicholas will return. Now, she is certain that he will. She see the signs everywhere…

      I couldn't put The Hours, by Michael Cunninham, down, It's the perfect accompaniment to Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - which at one point she was going to title ‘The Hours’. It is also a great achievement in itself. Written somewhat in the Woolf style, it moves deftly, never making a shortcut, through a single day in the lives of three women. 
      In 1923 Virginia Woolf, living in Richmond, but longing to go back to London, is setting out to write the first words of her new book, about a woman holding a party. 
      In 1951, in Los Angeles we meet a woman with a small son and one on the way. Laura Brown is reading Virginia Woolf, struggling with her husband’s birthday cake and contemplating suicide. In 1990  in New York, Clarissa Vaughan a middle-aged woman with a grown daughter and a female partner, is planning a party for her friends, to celebrate her early love’s recent literary award. But Richard has AIDS and doesn’t want a party in his honour. 
      I saw the film before reading the book, but the book itself is the revelation. Stunning.

      The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
      Lahiri's short stories, which I love, often seem to ramble and have no tight point to make. But if one stops and thinks about them, not only does one see the point and see it clearly, but all those rambling make perfect sense; the entire thing makes perfect and satisfying sense and leaves you changed and pensive. So I did expect The Lowland to ramble; I did expect to have to think, long and hard, after finishing the book, to find the sense, the meaning and the point. And it's all there in the first chapter, which shows a scene of two inseperable young brothers up to mischief and punished for it. The brothers go their seperate ways, with different passions and in different continents and the decades pass. It told me a lot, eventually about love; how it works, how it pulls us to act and react, and how it can't be forced. 
      I was also fascinated to read about the Naxalite movement in India, something I knew nothing about until reading this book. That's something I love in a novel; learing something new.

      The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin 
      I read somewhere that if Toibin had written this book 500 years ago, he would have been burnt at the stake.  Although this is probably true of a lot of modern authors, it is also true that writers today still receive death threats when they write openly about religion.
      There is no doubt that Toilbin takes a good hard look at what Christianity has become by examining what Mary, the mother of Jesus, might have thought of her son's life. Toibin's Mary is pretty underwhelmed - in the way of mothers everywhere, this Mary thinks it was all a full about very little, that her son risked and lost his life for some 'fit in his head' that she still does not understand and still cannot tolerate. But now she's being hounded by the men who want to write the life of Jesus. Understandably, they want her to say the things they want to hear; she will only tell it as she sees it. 
      Toibin's portrayal of a mother is acute; her thoughts are a mother's thoughts, right down to the feeling one experiences at birth and the protection one feels for a child througout life. Mary only wants her son safe; Jesus ignores and rejects her council.  This story could be about any woman who has lost her child to a radical cause. It's as much a story for today as for 2000 years ago.
        click to go to goodreads;   

      Tracy Chevalier is a renowned author; I’ve previously read and enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn. For her most recent historical drama, The Last Runaway, she turns to the American slave trade.  Honor Bright is young, naïve, an English quaker who goes, in the 1850’s to the northern USA to live (Ohio).  Against her new family’s wishes, she befriends runaway slaves,  helping them escape to Canada through secret routes and safe houses. Torn between her conscience and the law, she become more plucky and determined when she meets other strong women.  It’s a good insight into the early Quaker settlers’ lives and the dark period of American history just prior to the Civil War, beautifully written in a ponderous read, but this is, in the end, a piece of historic romance. Chevalier does not care to dig too deeply into what the Northern States of America were like at that point in history, or into the slave trades excesses, or even, to be honest, into her main character’s mind. She is now often compared to Maggach and Philippa Gregory, downgraded from literary status; maybe she never wanted that anyway! This is an easy, enjoyable read; keep it for the beach.

      A Perfectly Good Man, the second book I've read by Patrick Gale, is engrossing. The story examins events from various character viewpoints, moving around in time seemingly randomly to create a rich canvas. The characters are finely drawn, and the theme is deeply mined. I'm steadily becoming a fan of Patrick Gale's work and  their fairly constant themes of Cornwall)  dysfunctional families,and his continual theme of religion and Man's struggle within the confines of its boundaries of morality. The perfectly good man of the title is destined to fail - not precisely become a bad man, but indeed a flawed one. He did this in gloriously with horrendous consequences for him, his family and the wider community.

      I love it when work (research) is also other words, I'm reading crime fiction. the emphasis today seems to be on Eurocrime; from the dark and slightly dismal north to the glowingly sunny south. As we are members of the EU, I’ve included the UK in this category, to review the books I’ve recently read. Each one has been read as a writer, as well as a reader of crime fiction; I’m looking at how other people achieve structure, plausibility, powerful, empathetic characters and maintain that sense of mystery right to the end, as well as appraising the ending itself; did it surprise, did it satisfy, did it droop and above all, can I later remember who did it?

      The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths from the series which feature an archeological pathologist. Griffiths’ books are always steeped in the past (her husband is an archeologist) and in the landscape of the Norfolk Coast, where the Seahenge was found earlier this century, so she’s able to use the wonderful flat lands, the looming mists and intricate waterways to good effect.

      To be honest, the reason I read this book is because the reviewer who reviewed my book IN THE MOORS for the US review publication to the trade, LIbrary Journal, compared me to Elly Griffiths. 

      The Independent starts their review of the book thus…Funny it's so difficult to find a doctor on call when pathologists seem to be queuing up to sort you out once you're dead. Here comes another one, but Ruth Galloway, expert in Roman remains, is a special creation. She isn't a sexless zombie in a starched white coat; she is really, messily, female. And she doesn't always get things right: her pregnancy is a big surprise. It's even more of a surprise to her puritanical parents Ruth and her DCI [lover] face the big decisions: will she continue with her pregnancy, will he tell his wife? I closed the book wanting to know more about them as well as feeling the satisfaction that a really intelligent murder story…can give in

      Yes, a good read, but with one really sticky side issue; I do hope I don't make the mistake, of not properly researching a subplot; Griffiths' tame druid, a minor character in each of her books, is like no druid I know...and I know a lot of druids. No druid would celebrate Imbolc in May, Elly!!

      The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill is translated into English by Laura McGloughlin (who has to make do with the tiniest of mentions). This is the first of the ‘Inspector Salgado’ novels; a second, The Good Suicides, now awaits me on my bookcase. The first thing that struck as I began to read was the evocative prose. Even in translation, the narrative has a lyrical lilt with masses of Barcelonian atmosphere; you really feel the heat of the city’s summer. We begin the story by discovring that   Hector Salgado, living in Barcelona but from Buenos Aires is still recovering from a brutal beating by a suspect . A teenager's fall to his death and Salgado has to peel back layers of corruption until he’s able to reveal clandestine truths about history in polite Barcelona society. I like the way he links together two unrelated  cases on his books, to solve the crimes. The characters are large, but not larger than life. There is some empathetic understanding with the characters - in other words I did feel for them, even the unpleasant ones, but I found it hard to identify with all their motivations, and in the end, didn't quite believe in their actions, despite the fact that the author’s other speciality is psychology. The Independent’s review suggests this…seems to have arrived fully-formed with confidence and authority, peeling back the skeins of deceit and betrayal in a most satisfying fashion…but to be honest, I wanted a slightly less cliched mystery, with a more satisfying outcome. Maybe I'm over-particular - I’ll certainly be reading his second novel.

      The Guardian loved My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir; the reviewer says that Thora Gudmundsdottir is her favourite female slueth. Maybe the first book in this series was better; that is sometimes the case with second books, and the reviewer was still basking in that early warmth, because I couldn't take to Thora; as a person I found her underwhelming and super-irritating. The setting is a newly opened health resort on the Icelandic coastline, but I found it hard to imagine the setting clearly. Eurocrime reviewed this as...superbly plotted, Agatha Christie-style...Yes to the Christie structure because it is hard to create that archetypal plotline where 'everyone is under suspicion', but nil pois for the plotting, Yrsa. The architect of the resort’s renovations, Birna, is found dead on the nearby beach and meanwhile, the new owner is crying out that 'this house is haunted'. That sat uncomfortably with me. Why would Thora not even consider his protestations  might be a poorly thought through defence from the man who is under suspicion for murder?  Thora is an attorney by trade, but I could not believe her unprofessionalism. She uses the bunch of keys she is returning to their owner to get into Birna's room, searches and removes the murder victim's diary and does not tell the police she has this vital piece of evidence. I’d never let Sabbie Dare to that! (Well, not for too long, anyway…)As the clumpy clues built up, I lost patience entirely and threw the book down, so I never got to where her investigations...uncover some very disturbing occurrences at the frm decades earlier - things that never before have seen the light of day... Perhaps when I'm very bored, I'll finish this book but don't hold your breath; I found Thora extremely annoying.

      A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson delves back into a Nazi past to link with a present day murder. I knew nothing about Portuguese history in the 2nd half of the 20th century before I began this book, and I learnt a lot. I also learnt what wolfram is! 

      If as a reader you are a little nervous of lots of 'foreign' names, then beware, this book is bursting with characters, mostly of German and Portuguese origin with names that frighten...but the names are not half as frightening as the personalities, which are brutal, grasping, amoral and egocentric. Above this, shines Ze (joe in English) Coehlo, the detective looking into the recent rape and murder of a Lisbon schoolgirl. As we read his 1st person account of his investigation, we are subjected to the 3rd person narrative of the story of Felsen, an SS officer, who moves through WWII and its aftermath as the perpetrator and observer of all sorts of darkness and evil. 

      The NY Times described it as…a historically sprawling, richly distilled thriller…and I would second that. The book is long, complex, involved and passionate. It’s an extremely difficult read if you're not too keen on the most base instincts of humanity; through the long history recounted, we experience torture, rape, murder and paedophilia. No one seems to emerge unscathed. Even Ze has his faults, especially his eruptive and dangerous temper. I was beginning to sink below the ink-black waves when suddenly, right at the end, is the best twist ever. A very dark book with a very scary end and my favourite from this selection of EuroCrime.

      • NOTES FROM AN EXHIBITION is my first Patrick Gale; it won't be my last. I love novels that are 'about something' that inform as well as entertain, and the setting of Cornwall, and the theme of contemporary art was enticing. I also love unusual structures of narrative, and Gale uses  changing viewpoints that dot around in time and place, like  pieces of a jigsaw, but he's confident about showing the reader the way through the story.


                                                                         While engaged on a groundbreaking new series of paintings, Rachel Kelly dies of a heart attack in her loft-studio was an artist. Her son can remember giving her six stones collected from a Cornish beach and believes they were her inspiration for the paintings. Gale has a great writer's skill; he allows the reader intimate acquaintance with the inner lives of characters. Rachel is bipolar and this is a convincing device which demonstrates the upside of her condition; the mystery of creative inspiration. When free of medication she soars towards a high, producing great work. Her suicidal lows are considered by her family to be the punishment for so many things.

      One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,published in 1962. During the seventies, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was hitting headlines, I read most of his works. Some, likeThe Gulag Archipelago, are long and involved, and written to make people aware of what was going on in the USSR. But one of his smaller novels hit me the hardest. Denisovich is an account of life in a forced labour camp, and therefore of Stalinist repression. The book graphically illustrates what was happening behind the iron curtain – why people were thrown into camps and what happened to them there. Probably more than his longer non-fiction accounts, this was the book that forced the West to stop ignoring violent breaches of human rights behind the “iron-curtain.” Strangely, though, what struck me about it was its optimism, its emphasis on hope. I most clearly remember the scenes when, for instance, Ivan managed to gain a cigarette and inhaled the sweet smoke deep into his lungs. It seemed to sum up how humans will always seek something to cling to and make the most of the tiniest moments of joy.
      THE STRANGER'S CHILD I always notice, when I’m reading a Hollinghurst novel, that, despite the fact that I’m reading with ultimate pleasure, enjoying every word, gripped by the characters and their lives, there will be a moment, about halfway through the book, when I reaIize that nothing much has happened yet...
      This certainly happened to me with The Stranger’s Child. It’s a glorious novel filled with the colour of the last century and characters I took away from the novel and thought about in my quiet moments. But I was waiting for a clear denouement - a twist, a shock...towards the end I was praying for it. But I should know by now, this is Hollinghurst; his is a comedy of manners, and as such he doesn’t go for big shocks. He has always reminded me of the 21C Jane Austin, writing with a fine brush (although I don’t know what Jane would have made of his subjects and themes; no doubt taken them in her booted stride). He rightly wins all the prizes, and now seems to be edging ahead of Ian McEwan in the ‘best British Novelist’ stakes. I do wish they’d stop doing that, as such things are all so subjective. ‘One of the best...’ would be sufficient for me.As the situation in Libya increases in tension (21.2.11)
      • THE DISCOVERY OF WITCHES. Deborah Harkness is a new writer from the US. The book attempts to bring an adult feel to the subject matter that Twilight and Harry Potter fans. It did feel a bit like a fusion of the two series...except I think that's a bit of an insult to JK Rowling, who's overall plotting, theme and narrative is exceptionally rich and inventive...unless the author had previously watched True Blood, which has a very similar premise. Nothing much happens, but the hero, Matthew, a vampire is worth and dangerous.THE FINKLER QUESTION, Howard Jacobson. A shaply funny, but powerfully intellectual look at all things Jewish, from Zionism to Judaism. The 3 main characters share the story, in fact this is that rare thing; a contemporary novel successfully written from an omnicsient POV. I did enjoy it; more so, I did amire it, but its intense concentration on a world I know nothing about did leave me floundering at times. A comic novel filled with pathos.UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE. Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite 19C writers, and this is the only novel of his I hadn't read. I'd noticed that people fall into two distinct camps over this one; either they think its his best or his worst. Sadly I fall into camp two. This first novel is his 'juvinilia', with almost none of that fantastic, complex plotting that comes later, or the deep emotional identification which is present by the time of Jude the Obscure. But yes, you could love it for its fantastic characters; the minor players are more fascinating than the protagonists. Very readable and quite short (for him), it might make a good start for a teenaged reader, but on the other hand it might bore them solid, which later novels shouldn't do.A collection of Annie Proulx's short stories, FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS was described by the Telegraph as heartbreakingly beautiful. In some ways this is true; Proulx's prose is lyrical yet blunt, even brutal and the combination of rough settings and unfortunate outcomes (an awful lot of people die) does leave you gasping.Milan Kundera FAIRWELL WALTZ- This is one of those 'comedies of manners' that delights the literary theorists, I fancy, a lot more than it delighted me. I thought the characters were quite thinly developed and behaved in ways not explored within their psyches. Sort of Iris Murdoch without atmosphere - but to be fair to Kundera, an exhaulted figure in the workd of literature, translations can weaken a story.BLACK WATER RISING, on the other hand, Attica Locke's first book is resolent with the deeply explored, delightlfully flawed character of the protagonst, a black lawyer pracicing in the 1980's in a predudiced Deep South. It is a strong and lyrical thriller with an atmospheric miliue.

      • Alias Grace. Like Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood has taken an historical figure and fictionalized an account of their life. Grace spent thirty years in prison convicted of the murder, at just 16 of two people. Atwood makes an excellent fist of creating a riviting story around the basic facts, but I still think Mantel has the edge if one compares the books - perhaps one shouldn't compare the books!
      • WAITING FOR COLUMBUS, Thomas Trofimuk. I think this book is trying the same trick; take a famous life (in this case Christopher Columbus) and fictionalize the account, but in this case the writer goes further, creatinig an entire fantasy around the the events of so long ago. This makes it slot into what I think of as 'books that made a stir' for being original in their treatment; Lovely Bones, The Book Thief, The Time Traveller's Wife (all of which I've read, but not reviewed here), are others. I didn't think any of these books meric a 'literary' sticker, and I think they will all be forgotten in time. But Columbus is an interesting read, although I thought it dipped badly in the third quarter.
      • CARRY ME DOWN, M.J. Hyland. By exploring the emotional development of a dreamy young boy, Hyland uses very simple language to look at big issues; truth, marriage, and pre-pubescence. I enjoyed it enormously.
      • Delphine De Vigan NO AND ME This has been translated from the French - a slender volume which is clearly a crossover novel for young adults and teens as well as proper grown ups. The voice is young, innocent, vibrant. It flags a bit in the middle, and the ending was a teeny bit disappointing, but it is a lovely story of a 13 yr-old whose life - and that of her family - is changed when she meets a homeless girl.(France 2007)
      • Siri Hustvedt WHAT I LOVED. This featured on Radio 4's Book Club. I had never heard of this US author, but I was impressed with her flawless narrative voice (male) and the scope of her timescape. The story's plot is structured unconventionally - not exactly Holliwood material - but the depth of character development is stunning, and she does that sooo difficult thing; discuss and describe fictional visual art on the page.(US 2003)
      • Iris Murdoch  A FAIRLY HONOURABLE DEFEAT I read every Murcoch as it appeared in the bookshops and read this one when I was about 30; I re-read it recently to see if it had changed in my eyes and mind. Actually, I was surprised at how much I 'missed' the first time round and knowing the end (which I won't spoil for you) didn't matter at all, especially as I could not remember it perfectly. I knew what the tragedy was, but could not recall who befell it! I understood more of her philosophical insertions, and clearly saw how she was 'puppet master'. Murdoch was always my first love as an author and did not lose her currency as the count of books went up and up. If you've never read one of her books, choose from the early to middle period, as the later period is heavy and deteriorates, understandably towards the very end of her life (UK 1970)
      • Kate Williams ENGLAND'S MISTRESS. Subtitiled The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton. Kate wanted to write a definitive biography of Nelson's mistress after she discovered her personal letters during research for her doctorate. She was still very young when the book proposal was accepted, but this doesn't show; the writing is mature yet fresh. I loved the way she tells us about the life and times of Emma; the slum world of her childhood, the great monarchic houses of Europe when she lived abroad, the facts on childbirth when she was having her first baby, and the art world, because she was painted time and again. Nelson comes in late on, but then dominates the canvas. I soaked up every word, and felt I knew the 18C better as a result. (UK 2006)
      • Marina Lewycka WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE. Having read her first book A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, I was keen to see if this one would suit me better. I find some of her writing a little predictable and rather dependent on poking fun at eccentric (usually foreign) characters. Well, she continues to extract comedy in this slightly distasteful way, and I didn't find parts of this any more convincing that her first book, but it did make me laugh. A lot.(UK 2009)
      • At the other end of the spectrum, THE SHIPPING NEWS, by Annie Proulx, a lyrical, textured novel that is almost unrelentlessly grim but so beautifully told - like all Proulx's work - that it pulls you in and won't let you go. (USA 1993)
      • Clare Morrall THE MAN WHO DISAPPEARED. Having gained a shortlisted Booker place for Astonishing Splashes of Colour, Morrall has had to make do with being a TV book club 'summer read' with this one. But it is an interesting take on a crime novel, using solid psychology to endear us to the characters on both sides of the 'criminal divide'.  I enjoyed it at least as much. (UK 2008)
      •  CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN, Louis de Bernieres. I agree with most critics - an editor should have taken a massive red pen to this book to chop it into readable size. And although I admire alternative endings, this one seemed contrived to be as awful as possible...I just don't think that's cricket! However, its landscape is seductive and the characters wonderful. He does poke fun at the Italian fighting machine, but that was probably fair game.(UK 1994)
      • GOTHAM WRITERS' WORKSHOP FICTION GALLERY (Bloomsbury) is a wonderful array of US short stories, each with a summary and author's notes. There are some old favourites, but lots of new (to me) stories too. A definite must for the short story reader. (US 2004)
      • William Trevor THE STORY OF LUCY GAULT Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2002, I stumbled across this in a charity shop. But I can't say I enjoyed it, despite the beauty of the writing. It is a gaunt (redolent of Gault) tale, which has an unhappy beginning, middle and end. Some of the set-up didn't convince me and I didn't fall in love ...or even like Lucy. I am now reading FELICIA'S JOURNEY, which is an improvment. 
      • BIRDSONG, Sabastian Faulks most acclaimed novel attempt to reinvigorate the voice of the lost generation of 1st WW soldiers. It is unremittingly emotional - occasionally manipulative of the emotions, and there isn't much attempt at plot - the war is the story, and that remains shrouded in vague truth. But a gripping read and in my opinion, Faulk's best attempt at a novel. (UK 1993)
      • Peter James SWEET HEART men never quite get female characters right, do they? If I was desperate to get pregnant and had pregnancy symptoms, I'd think I was pregnant, periods or not. In this book the crime is in the past and a little supernatural element creeps in; but then, I can talk! 
      • Davide Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is a masterly attempt to weave several stories together through time and space. I enjoyed this more and more as I read into the book. The links are clever, but more importantly, the stories are great - thrilling, absorbing and full of brilliant characters.(UK 2004)
      • Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney (Eds) EMERGENCY KIT If you should want just one large anthology of recent poems, I would recommend this one, as it is both disturbing and exuberant and brings renown poets between the same covers as lesser-known ones. (UK 1994)
      • Carl Hiaasen SKIN TIGHT. Billed as funny, and yes, LOL, but I could have done with a bit more 'slowing down', it is so fast paced that it lacks atmosphere at times. I did not like the end. I felt it tried to aim for black (gory) humour, rather than stick with the characterization of the 'hero'. (US 2003)
      • Sarah Waters THE LITTLE STRANGER don't believe the critics, who are saying Waters latest book is her first without a theme of lesbianism. They are just blind! This tense thriller/ghost story held me from first to last, and her male protagonist was well crafted. This is not my favourite Walters; that remains FINGERSMITH, but it's a pretty good addition to the cannon. (UK 2008)
      •  Ali Smith THE ACCIDENTAL An extremely competent novel with a stream of consciousness format that sucked me right in. I wasn't completely convinced by the plot/setting - the idea that an odd girl wanders into a family's holiday and stirs things up completely - but stranger things have happened, I'm sure. What I loved was the structure, style and masterful narration techniques and the way the girl is cleverly used by the writer as a tool to understanding.
      • Kate Atkinson WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? - Atkinson knows that you can explore the deeper side to life and literature via the crime novel (UK 2007)
      • Christopher Brookmyre A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD PENCIL - a very funny writer, although this novel had an overload of lowland dialect (UK 2000)
      • FUGITIVE PIECES, by poet Anne Michaels won many awards and is just a beautiful read...rather like doing a jigsaw of an Old Master. A story of the Holocaust, but rightly so, we shouldn't forget. Michaels interlocks lives across cultures and generations.(CANADA 1996)
      •  Sue Grafton THE ALPHABET SERIES love or hate - these books are frothy and joyful, if you like mile-long runs and clever detection (US from 1980...still going!)
      • Frank McCourt ANGELA'S ASHES. Sorry, but I've got to churn out the cliche; the book is heaps better than the film that could not do justice to either the lyricism of the writer or even the true squalor of the living conditions. (US 1996)
      • I read THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS quite a while ago, when it won Booker Prize. It is both a joyous and tragic look at an Indian family through the eyes of 2 young twins.Its massive theme is love, and this is conveyed through clear prose and careful structure.(INDIA 1997)
      •  Sara Paretsky KILLING ORDERS - a loved US writer of good crime, however, although her creation, VI Warshawski is delightfully flawed, Paretsky is also no flawless as a writer. (US 1999)
      • VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE. What Paulo Coelho loves to do...what his readership love him for him to write fables. This book is built on the understanding that we don't really value our lives until they are snatched from us. It also describes mental institutions in stark and bitter terms My favourite Coelho novel remains THE ALCHEMIST, but this is a fascinating read. (BRAZIL 1998)
      • Frances Fyfield, in COLD TO THE TOUCH, spares no quality in her writing - she is the natural successor to PG James, but in my opinion her characters are more realistic and I can identify with them more closely (UK 2008)
      • I met Frances Fyfield and Mark Billingham during my week at Arvon. I really enjoy his appearances on Radio 4. But now, he's on TV, too! Billlingham's flawed detective Thorpe is a great protagonist. In LIFELESS, he goes on the streets to solve the murder (UK 2004)
      • Hilary Mantel WOLF HALL. I've followed Mantel's career with interest, after reading her very first book 20 or more years ago. That was brave and original. Wolf Hall is simply stunning. If you don't know much about the mid-Tudor period, you will if you read it. But if you do know a lot about that period, you will be even more impressed, as she constantly takes situations recorded in history and zones into them, interpreting them as fiction and making them zizz with colour. I was fascinated by the ending - rushing to my 'Kings and Queens of History' to check certain dates. I'm still not sure if she's saying what she seems to be saying, but it's certainly staying my mind as the most enigmatic ending...up there with Basic Instinct...(UK 2009)
      • WHITE TEETH is actually not my favourite Zadie Smith novel. That remains ON BEAUTY, which I think is more expansive and mature. But this first book catapulted Smith into favour, and is resonant with great characters, a broad vista and a compassionate tone. (UK 2000)
      • THE COLLECTOR by John Fowls. His first book, it has that controlled style and once-removed eye on the chosen fictional world that later brought us THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN. I do recommend it, especially if you enjoy books that uses an unreliable narrrator. (UK 1963)
      • THE LINE OF BEAUTY Alan Hollignhurst only just tips my admiration for his earlier work FALLEN STAR, with this much vaster and heavier novel. Both are filled with wit and sparkle, and both have graphic scenes of gay sex. The former is perhaps a little more acidic in the earlier book, the latter better handled in Beauty, where a hedonistic life style is well described. I think of him as the Jane Austin of gay fiction.(UK 2004)
      • HALF A YELLOW SUN. This is another panoramic novel, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie's most challenging and expansive, it tells the story of the Biafran uprising using several perspectives, returning to the start of the story half-way through to present a further point of view. Very thought-provoking.(NIGERIA 2006)
      • Donna Tartt wrote THE SECRET HISTORY,  a marvellous story of intrigue between pretentious students, which I very much enjoyed. She almost fell apart from the overwhelming responses, which were both good and bad and only produced THE LITTLE SISTER ten years later. This is also weighty and nicely written, but ponderously plotted and means less, I think. (US 1992)
      • There is only one way to read THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Onjaatje. Read it - watch the film - read the book again. Then read all the really lovely, lovely bits again. My favourite is the candles in the church.(SRI LANKA 1992)
      • Ian McEwan, ATTONEMENT. Having pilloried him for being loved, I'd better mention that I’ve really enjoyed all his books, but especially this one for its breadth of vision. Keira Knightley does well in the film version, but best read the book first. David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is a masterly attempt to weave several stories together through time and space. I enjoyed this more and more as I read into the book. The links are clever, but more importantly, the stories are thrilling, absorbing and full of remarkable characters.(UK 2004)
        • THE WILD PLACES by Robert McFarland is a rare treat; a piece of non-fiction written with a poet’s eye. McFarland chooses to explore wilderness landscapes of the British Isles with madcap pluck and a deep understanding of the natural world. Into this mix, he blends a knowledge of science and history with little snippets of his own memories. Betwitching. (UK 2007)
        echniques and the way the girl is cleverly used by the writer as a tool to understanding.
        • Andrea Levy's SMALL ISLAND is now well thumbed, I've lent it to so many people. I loved the way she keeps this weighty story of immigration and changing landscapes light, while still being thought-provoking. She perfectly capturing the dreariness of fifties England, compared to the colour of the Caribbean (UK 2004)

      • It must be dreadful trying to follow up a best-seller with a second book, and LAKE OF DREAMS  by Kim Edwards did try to be different at least, with this one, choosing fresh subject matter, settings and characters. I don’t remember The Secret Keeper’s Daughter being quite so beautifully written, actually; this is lyrical prose with brilliantly painted scenes, something that’s reflected within one theme...stained glass art nouveau. At 377 pages, it’s clearly a long book and complex in that she keeps several plot balls in the air at one time. Sadly, for me, after a good start in the symbolically rumbling and shaking world  of Japan, these ball in the air seem to float in slow motion for most of the middle of the book. She sets up some crackers of plots, mostly related to family dynamics now and in the past, but none of these are able to fully develop or be realized until the end, when she'd want her explosive finish.  I wasn’t precisely bored at any time, but I did begin to wonder when things would reach their dramatic climax. 
        I didn’t think the characters, especially Lucy, behaved in a plausible fashion for a lot of the time. Having been away for  five years, she hurts her brother by telling her mother that his girlfriend was pregnant after he specifically asked her not to do so, then calls him at 1:00 am (in bed with said girlfriend) to tell him that she thought that he was handling his career choice all wrong. Long overdue, in the final chapters she asks if she needs to apologise – unbelievable behaviour and by no means the only time in the book this happens. Lucy discovers her uncle has committed manslaughter and yet she does not contact the police...instead she gets away scot free with vandalizing his store. I recognise that she might be described as a multi-dimensional character with many conflicting personality traits, but by this time, Lucy was irritating me too much for me to be convinced. There is also too much coincidence. She finds an old package of documents in her mother's house; why has no one else found them and who put them there...we are never told, but her mother suddenly recalls that she found a baby blanket hidden in the lining of an old trunk in the barn twenty-five years ago, which had a note with the same hand-writing. I found this hard to swallow. But I did get caught up in the story that is revealed by the package and particularly liked the minutia of the Art Nouveau stained glass work Rose was involved in. I liked the end; at least this wasn’t forced.
        Sylvia Plath's only novel, THE BELL JAR, was a second-hand purchase from a lovely cafe we use as we head south east into Wiltshire...Dick Willow. I'd been meaning to read it for ever, and so enjoyed the wonderfully unself-concsious, almost artless tone which was lighter and funnier than I could have hoped. The story of a young woman setting out on her higher education and her life only to be beset by a dark emotional destruction of her mind and her subsequent incarceration in a mental hospital, it turned out to be a 'can't put it down' read. Like Angel at my Table,  Janet Frame's 3 part autobiography, (filmed by Jane Campion), it describes the desperate state of psychiatric care in the 50's and 60's. It has an upbeat end, which makes Plath's own end more poignant.
      As the situation in Libya increased in tension (21.2.11), Hisham Matar's Booker shortlisted IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN felt a very pertinent and current read. As Colonel Gaddafi's regime took hold in the seventies, a boy of nine watches his father taken away for questioning and does not know what to think, or whom to trust. The novel is writing in such deceptively simple prose, but powerfully examines themes of conflict, family ties and betrayal.
      • GODS WITHOUT MEN by HARI HUNZRUI had not encountered Hari Kunzru before, despite the fact he was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. In fact, I knew so little of him, that on starting the book he published this year, Gods Without Men, I wrongly presumed he was American; the control and confidence he uses within his setting...mostly an area of the California desert called the Pinnacles...convinced me he knew the US well. The breathtaking sweep of the novel immediately reminded me of Don Delillo, Tom Wolfe or even John Irving.
      The novel bobs back in forth in time, from 1778 to 2008. The main theme is that of Jaz, who has a Punjabi background and his wife, Lisa, who is Jewish. They’re from New York and live acutely New Yorker lives – Jaz is a computer whiz working within Wall Street. Their story is the tragedy of a disrupted holiday in a holiday resort close to the Pinnacles. Their autistic son, Raj, disappears into the desert, setting up a dramatic hunt that reminds the reader of recent media hype around ‘missing children’ cases.

      The modernity of these lives is counterpointed by other characters that are also drawn to the desert . These include mystic North American Indians, hippies, an eighteenth century Spanish official, a British rock star, a UFO quester called Schmidt, a man with murder on his mind and a shell-shocked soldier from the first world war. Hari Kunzru manages to bring all his characters together using specific themes and leitmotifs, together with a quote at the front of the novel from the desert there is nothing...C'est Dieu sans les hommes...

      I wondered, at first, as the myriad sections of the novel got underway, if this book was going to be too conspicuously clever for its own good, but Kunzru’s main objective, thank heavens, is to tell stories...they were all extremely readable and I was soon hooked by the characters’ lives, experiences and personalities, which allow the reader to become involved while the underlying text makes itself known.

      I thought of comparing this book to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; it has the breadth and quirky approach to structure that Mitchell likes to take, alongside a gripping narrative that delves deeply into the many characters. But in my opinion, the scope of Gods Without Men has even more control and heart than Atlas, and I loved Kunzru’s concentration on one landscape, which he describes so vividly that it becomes a character in its own right.

      Gods Without Men was not eventually short-listed for the Man Booker this year; I thought that was short-sighted of the judges. It also proves that taste in literature is a subjective thing...I’d be interested to hear what other people think.

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