Friday, April 30, 2010

Blackheaded Seagull - Industrial habitat

Chroicocephalus ridibundus Industrius

Over here you're mute. I see you wheeling over us, watching us as we pack and unpack, shift boxes, lift crates, reverse lorries, lay out more track, concrete, asphalt.

I see you watch, see you turn your head to get a better view: bottles and cartons, plastic bags blown up like something bloated, something dead.

You home in then. Scavenge. That's what you do. An avian fungus feeding on what remains. The end of a chain. A scrap merchant in a black mask.

Once I saw you in your proper place having a party. There were lots of you. You called out, plunged down into the sea, played games. There was a kind of joy in how you flew.

But here it's serious. Here is where the rot sets in and you're monitoring it like an official. It's spreading, you say, being washed up on beaches everywhere.

Too much, you cry, enough. And someone looks up, wonders at seeing you this far inland and why, suddenly, you're calling.

(Written this morning in response to Chester Grosvenor's Museum call for creative works describing wildlife in their Cheshire Habitat)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees...and Hay

I am going to be at the Hay Literary Festival this year courtesy of my publisher, Seren. Between 1pm - 2pm on Sunday 30th May I shall be in the Welsh Academi 'pod' presenting an installation based on my novel A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees. Please drop in if you're passing!

I've also booked to see Paul Murray and Tiffany Murray (who have both been short-listed for the Wodehouse prize for a comic novel - together with Ian McEwan's Solar)

and Owen Shears and Russell Celyn Jones who are going to talk to Jon Gower about their updated versions of the Mabinogion.

So I should have a very good day...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras

One summer's night, a long time ago in the remains of Orange's Roman ampitheatre, I saw a play performed in French. Although I understood very little I have never forgotten it. The actors talked in intense sentences barely stopping for breath. It was as if their thoughts could not be contained but were spilling forth in words. I was reminded of this in Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras, kindly sent to me by One World few months ago, and which I have only just found time to read. As with all One World Classics, the cover is beautiful.

It is a very short novel and reminded me of one of those dances in which the couple part then come together again and again. A woman hears a woman being murdered while her son is taking a piano lesson and is drawn toward the scene. There a young man has witnessed it and they begin talking. The woman becomes obsessed with the murder, returning again and again to the scene, begging the witness for a little more information each time. Slowly their relationship evolves too, although it is never stated or even referred to by either of them. It lurks there between what is being said; the strange oblique questions and answers clearly pointing to more.

It is a little like watching an artist at work. At first he might lightly sketch the scene, then he might apply a wash and pick out a little detail in a tree. Next he might add flecks of light. He passes over the scene again and again, each time picking out a little more until the whole painting is complete.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Salon: Serpent's Tail Classics and a Competition.

Yesterday Serpent's Tail kindly sent me a selection of their 'classics' which are to be published on the 6th of May. Each of them look interesting in their own, quite different, way.

Serpent's Tail, says the accompanying press release, is 'committed to voices neglected by the mainstream since 1986' which seems to me to be a valiant concept. Sometimes I find the mainstream to be a bland place full of people being too careful, and so wary of insulting anyone they forget to say anything at all. I suppose I like my books to affect or at least educate as well as entertain me and it looks like this selection of books will do just that.

Two are crime novels: Walter Mosley's debut, Devil in a Blue Dress brought an African American voice to crime fiction when it was published in 1990; and Shoe Dog is by the author who has won fame for writing the acclaimed TV series The Wire. I'm looking forward to reading both of these.

It is Fernando's Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet which intrigues me the most, however. Apart from having a gorgeous cover (this picture really doesn't do it justice - the head is heavily patterned in silver) I really like the description: ' an icon of modernism' and an 'existential hero'. I think this will go to the top of my reading pile.

As for the last one, Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, well I've read it and I think it is a stunning book, and perhaps the most deserving winner of the Orange prize I've read (and I've read most of them) and so I'm offerig it as a prize in a little competition: tell me, in less than 200 words, which example of cutting edge fiction affected you the most and why. The deadline is 11.00am next Sunday (GMT).

I shan't publish any entries until after that date.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Question of Voice

Yesterday I should have really taken my own advice (about small amounts of considered writing being better than reams) but I didn't. Instead I wrote 4,000 words and they didn't work at all. For this I blame Ian McEwan. I went to sleep the previous night with his audiobook in my head. The tinnitus had returned and I needed to drown out its continual booming. The voice entertained me and then, eventually, lulled me to sleep. But unfortunately the voice also lodged there. I know lots of authors say they do not read other novels when they are writing their own but I have never before found this a problem. Maybe Ian McEwan's was too strong, maybe it was because it was written in the third person and therefore more remote than the first person voice I am aiming for, but anyway I kept hearing that voice as I wrote and I think that is why it didn't work at all.

So today I have turned back to reading the voice that first inspired this chapter I am writing now and it is Dave Eggers's in 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius'. It is anarchic, self-indulgent and more youthful, and much more appropriate for the character I have in mind.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Slow Reading or the Art of the Snail

Earlier this week that mysterious gentleman of the internets, Dave Lull, sent me a link to the review of a book called Slow Reading by John Miedema. The review is written by Caralyn Champa in Libreas Library Ideas. Dave sent it to me because it has a snail on the front cover which, as the reviewer says 'elegantly expresses the idea of slowness'. I like this idea, and the article is thought-provoking.. Today there is so much rush to do everything, reading a book becomes another item on the 'to do' list and thereby changes from a pleasure to just another task.

Some books are better read slowly, I feel. They are carefully written. Each word is considered, held up to the light and inspected before being tweezered into place. That is the impression I have from watching a recent interview of Ian McEwan by Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show. It was a compilation of earlier interviews and in one of these he described how he would write in long hand on one sheet of paper and try out sentences on another. Maybe his techniques have changed now with the advent of the computer but I think there is evidence of such consideration in Solar. Listening to it on audio book forces the listener to 'read slowly'. I hear every word and the whole process takes hours. As a result I think I appreciate it more - and I am applying this to my own writing too - at least some of the time.

I used to monitor myself in terms of words written. I used to aim for two thousand and a day and used to be especially pleased with myself if I managed to accomplish six thousand. But I am wondering now if it is a good idea to count them at all. After all, one hundred words well written are better than ten thousand in a more mediocre order. I'm wondering too if that is a fundamental difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. In true literary fiction the words are considered nearly as much as those in a poem which is why they cannot be rattled out year after year. They have to be brooded over and revised. The words are there because they accurately convey feeling and impression rather than just drive forward the plot. They have been acquired slowly and are unlikely to be appreciated in this world obsessed with the number rather than quality of tasks completed. What seems to matter most now is that an ever-lengthening array of boxes is ticked - only to be filed away and forgotten. This sort of culture precludes true art and the acquisition of craft. It devalues anything that takes time and robs us of what is important - the tasks we complete slowly with fondness, even love.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Authors North Spring Meeting 'Fantasy and Horror'

The theme of the spring meeting of Authors North last Saturday was 'Fantasy and Horror' at the Queen Hotel, Chester. It was a rather upmarket venue, one of the oldest and grandest hotels in Chester, painted once by the children's illustrator, Ranolph Caldecott, when it caught fire sometime in the nineteenth century. (Ranolph Caldecott gave his name to the American version of the Kate Greenaway award for illustrated children's fiction and was born in Chester here.)

The hotel looked after us well, even going to the trouble of welcoming us with our own biscuits (which I photographed quickly before they all disappeared).

The morning talk was by the fantasy writer David Whitley who at the age of twenty-five has already written one highly acclaimed book called The Midnight Charter. It is part of a trilogy, published by Penguin in this country but also translated into many other different languages worldwide. It has also been long-listed for the Carnegie medal. The next book, Children of the Lost, is out later this year. The Midnight Charter is set in a superbly imagined city, Agora, where anything can be bought or sold, including children...and emotions.

American Cover.

In the talk David described how the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century inspired his writing; both the setting (the city itself inspired by Prague) and also the ideas. He then described many of the ideas of that age (described so eloquently in the first chapter of Seeing Further by James Gleik). This was an age of discovery and investigation, and David illustrated how this period, rather than the Romantic period that followed it, is a grand inspiration for fantasy.

At the end of the talk David was kept busy signing books...

Following lunch we had another excellent talk, this time from Ramsey Campbell (and introduced by Helen Shay) on the delights of Horror. This talk entirely changed my view of the genre. Ramsey Campbell is 'Britain's most respected living horror writer' according to the Oxford Companion to English Literature and he has been awarded the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association. He is also the President of the British Fantasy Society. A click on Amazon brings up 466 results.

photo by the chairman of the Authors North Committee, Colin Shelbourn.

Horror is not something I would normally read, but Ramsey has converted me. His selection of extracts showed the scope of the genre including several books that I'd actually already read (including the wonderful Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro) and now I really want to read more. He gradually led us through the history of the genre and included some entertaining examples from his own experiences, notably of ghosts. Although Ramsey recommended other people's books as a starting point, a quick look on Amazon made me settle on this: Alone With the Horrors - a compilation of Ramsey Campbell's greatest short stories.

Altogether it was a fascinating and entertaining event and many thanks to Sarah Burton of the Society of Authors for arranging it all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

John Murray's new creative weekends

John Murray, who I interviewed a few months ago, has now decided to start a new concept in creative writing classes - a sort of mini-Arvon. They will take place in his Cumbrian farmhouse and feature gourmet vegetarian meals. There will be a maximum of three people per weekend - ensuring, he says, individual attention - and a guest author on Saturday night. It all sounds most enticing to me.

There are more details on this website

Monday, April 19, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan (part 1)

I have just finished listening to the first part of Solar by Ian McEwan, narrated by Roger Allam . I am supposed to be reserving this as a treat for myself while exercising but it is so good I am cheating. I have read all of Ian McEwan's output and I think this is his best book so far. The word choice is perfect. It is witty and urbane...and it has what I used to think was a McEwan trademark (although lacking in recent work): a body. The characters are perfectly drawn, the settings interesting and convincing, the plot unpredictable and relevant. It captures the life of a scientist - all the grievances and frustrations - perfectly.

The narrator, Roger Allam, is also excellent. I didn't really think I'd like listening to an audiobook, but I am actually finding I like it very much. There are drawbacks, in that once or twice I have missed a little due to traffic noise, and since I have it on my ipod shuffle I can't rewind just a little, but in general I think I am appreciating Ian McEwan's sentence construction even more than I would if I read the text myself. However, I think I am going to have to buy the book in hardback as well as audio because, firstly, I keep feeling I need to see the words on the page as well as hear them to appreciate them more deeply and, secondly, I need to see the text in front of me in order to indulge in my annoying habit of reading a particularly good bit out to my long-suffering husband.

I've had a few frustrating days over the last week, but hearing this book has been such a pleasure - and there are two more parts (I think) to look forward to. I am a lucky woman.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Salon: About Reviews and Reviewing

There is an interesting article in today's newspaper about Orlando Figes, Rachel Polonsky, Kate Summerscale and Orlando Figes's wife, Stephanie Palmer.

Rachel Polansky wrote a savage review of Orlando Figes's book in the TLS in 2002. Kate Summerscale's book was awarded the Samuel Johnson prize beating Orlando Figes's book which was shortlisted.

Recently an anonymous reviewer on Amazon 'Historian' with secondary nickname 'Orlando-Birkbeck' gave negative reviews of the Polansky and the Summerscale books and a highly positive review of the Figes book. Now Orlando Figes's lawyer has issued a statement:' My client's wife wrote the reviews...'

This story of malice and oversensitivity interests me because in 2004 my last novel was reviewed by Eva Figes, Orlando's mother, in the Guardian. It was not kind. My American editor said he felt for me. I tried to laugh it off but in truth it destroyed me for a while. I lost so much confidence that I resigned from my teaching post at a local university.

Luckily my book was also published in the United States and the reviews were all much kinder over there. It gave me back a little of what I'd lost.

The whole episode taught me an important lesson in writing my own reviews. I know reviews have to be honest but they don't need to be vindictive - and saying nothing is always an option.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Inside the butterfly house

It's been a pleasantly busy few days which included a trip to our local zoo (which is one of the best in the world). A recent addition is a butterfly house which included a display of Chinese oak silk moth caterpillars (Antheraea pernyi).

It was great to see the little animals chomping through leaves. Of course there were other butterflies too and I took pictures of the ones that sat still enough to stay in focus:

one black,

one piebald,

one delicately coloured

...and a group that arranged themselves like the eyes of something much larger.

Monday, April 12, 2010

An Interview with Lee Pennington of 7daywonder booklovers holidays

In anticipation of my visit to the 7daywonder holiday in Spain in September I asked Lee Pennington, who runs the course, if he would be kind enough to answer a few questions and he said yes!

I came to live permanently in Catalunya in 2005; my partner and I are expecting our first child this month. Since my time in France in my twenties I really wanted to live in a place of magic or creativity or like Derbyshire with olives and a clear blue sea. My passion and 'default setting' is to cook. My longest stint in someone else's kitchen was 7 months. I spent nearly 15 years working as a builder and gardener. Latterly, school was a drag and I was surprised to find myself at Uni doing English in the mid nineties after a spell farming. I grew up in the hills near Macclesfield and have a sister who is 9 years older.

CD: Why did you start 7daywonder holidays? What made you think of a reading holiday in particular?

LP: It´s really hard to be brief about this. It goes back to 1990 when I went to stay with friends in SW France (near Gaillac). They had a large farm with vineyards and a lake. They were trying hard to make ends meet and started doing some B & B. This was the first time I cooked for a group of people. I did this for several long summers. Big house, green space, swimming, good food, lots of people. Eventually someone there was teaching me how to paint and I thought that being able to go on a holiday where you could do 'something else' would be great. Those summers in my early twenties set the scene. After that it was just a matter of time until I made the opportunity to 'run' my own different holiday week - which at first was an experiment.

Ultimately I started this because I like to enjoy the good things in life around others doing the same ! Books. I love reading. And I think talking/sharing books is fantastic. The Booklovers week is really just an excuse to talk/listen. It´s also quite creative. We don´t just sit around saying why we did or didn´t like a book - often we really try and work a book... if you know what I mean... the way good conversation goes.

CD: What other sorts of holidays do you do?
LP: Stand-up comedy (4 nights), novel writing, singing & song writing, Dali tours (4 nights). Mostly a week and normally from June until late September. I´ll try any kind of holiday but essentially it has to have a creative heart.

CD: The settings of 7daywonder holidays are idyllic. How do you choose the locations?
LP: France is important because of my personal relationship with it... but Catalunya is the clear winner for me. It has everything for me and I think for the type of holidays I run: beauty, culture, history, Michelin starred food, olives, wines and fabulous people. I chose these places because this is where I choose to live and I want an idyllic life.

CD: The meals at 7daywonder are a particular feature (and delicious!) - how do you go about choosing the menu?
LP: The structure of the menu has been put together over several years. It´s partly about availability of foods etc and dietry req.s but it´s also about finding dishes that work for groups - I love cooking and I want the food to be really good. I work hard to try and surprise people with the quality, and often I´m cooking fairly classic dishes. I think the food has improved every year. But living in the proximity of world class restaurants and having a market of fresh food 3 times a week is a superb influence on my cooking.

CD: It struck me as a lot of hard work - please would you outline your typical day.
LP: 7.30am Drive to bread shop-buy bread. 8am Breakfast. 10am Sit with the reading group. 1pm Help (Debbie) with the lunch, tidy. I might get an hour lie down (here called a Migdiada) - then back to the kitchen to start cooking supper. Oh, and maybe I´ve zipped down town to buy some foods I forgot and then midway through supper it might be a quick pick-up (of a novelist) at the airport and then back to a glass of wine and make sure the guests are happy.

It is hard work. It´s the toughest stuff I´ve done, and I´ve been around. I´ve done a lot of physical work like on building sites etc but this is very demanding. However, if I didn´t like it I wouldn´t do it.

CD: What aspects do you enjoy the most?
LP: The whole thing. It´s just me in my element. Cooking is probably the heart of it. Sitting with the group getting our teeth into a novel or sharing a glass by the wood-fire at night. I really enjoy every hour of the day.

CD: What sort of people tend to come to 7daywonder holiday?
LP: It´s hard to say - but in general the people that come (and really do come back) are looking for something different. It´s people (initially) brave enough to move away from the big brands and the well tramped places. They´re looking for a real holiday. There´s usually quite a few singles.

CD: Have there been any amusing or interesting incidents?
LP: Running comedy holidays means there´s lots of amusement, and over the years there´s been a few missed flights, lost bags, burning trains, etc. I think the less said the better about inebriated guests but last September I hired a classical guitarist to do a little concert - he was absolutely great, it was an incredible musical evening - however afterwards he proceeded to drink the place dry and tell stories until 4am... way past my bed time!

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
LP: Not really other than when I worked as a gardener I encountered a lot of them. And gruesomely when the eclipse occurred in 99 me and my pal were at my sisters in Devon - that same night we were stargazing (after a few ciders) looking for the perseids on a dark garden terrace, I just recall my pal Rob groaning with horror as yet another one cracked under his shoes.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
LP: I was very proud of the success of the first few 7daywonder holidays. I´m now very proud to have met and settled down with a Catalan (Carolina); I´m also proud that I still run 7daywonder after 7 not entirely always financially lucrative years.*

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
LP: I think that things happen all the time that are life changing. But here, I´ll say it was reading "Catcher in the Rye" when I was about 21 - that is ultimately why this September I´ll be sat talking books with a dozen or so people in a Catalan mansion.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
LP: One only has to turn the news on to hear of really sad things. There´s a lot of things that conjure sadness in the world and I don´t think I can name one over another. It saddens me that some people really don´t care.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
LP: Oooooooff! My credit rating!

CD: What is happiness?
LP: When you´re not thinking about "what´s next?"; laughing with someone you love; the almost soundless track down a snowy mountainside on a snowboard.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
LP: Monday-Friday, read the FT; then coffee !

*Just over a week after this question I must add that now the proudest moment of my life is being a father - I can't tell you how proud (and the rest) I feel about this.

Mar was born on my 39th birthday at 4.30 am.

Close to Girona...

I am delighted to have been invited back to 'Booklovers' at 7 Day Wonder Holidays. The week will be from 3rd -10th September this year and in Spain, close to Girona, and it promises to be a wonderful few days in a gorgeous location - as you can see.

It would be for me the perfect holiday: books, together with other people who love books - with plenty of room to mingle or not as you please. As a previous guest said: '...very relaxing while stimulating at the same time.'

This year Lee has invited three other novelists - two thriller writers and a horror writer - so I'm really looking forward to sampling their books in the next few months. They all sound excellent - and very exciting.

Here are the short biographies of the other guests.

Ann Cleeves has written over 23 novels. Her novel Raven Black won the coveted and prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger award and her books have been translated into 16 languages. Ann lives in Tyneside. Featured book: Blue Lightning.

Charles Lambert was born in Lichfield in 1953. After brief periods in Ireland, Portugal and London he settled in Italy in 1976. His debut novel, Little Monsters was for John Harding, of the Daily Mail, 'beautifully written and crafted, and more compelling than many thrillers.' Featured book: Any Human Face.

Adam Nevill lives and works in London. His debut novel was titled Banquet for the Damned: 'pleasingly steeped in genre, yet he consciously tries to swirl in something new.' He is considered in the industry to be 'one of horror's rising stars.' Featured Book: Apartment 16.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Salon: Kanthapura by Raja Rao

Kanthapura is a quiet village in India. Life has gone on much the same for centuries. There are 'quarters' (though there are more than four of them) where the various classes of villagers live: the potters and the weavers, for example, and the Brahmins and the Pariahs.

According to Wikipedia it is a mistake to think that the Brahmins are just the priests. They are also the law makers and scholars. They occupy the highest position (below kings) in the Varna system (the old Hindu system of social classes). The Pariahs are the lowest social order, and the Brahmin and the Pariahs have very little to do with each other. According to some of the passages in this book it is believed that a Pariah can become a Brahmin in his next life by losing karma, but little can be done in the life they have now. It is a static place and system, and I expect some people are more content than others.

Unrest comes from an unlikely direction. One Brahmin, who so far has not directly featured in the novel but is only referred to, has become rebel. He thinks that India depends too much on the white man's money and this dependency is holding India back. He wants all Indians to commit themselves to spinning and weaving and using this labour to become self-sufficient. He also believes that the Brahmin should mingle freely with the Pariahs and there should be no social barriers. This Brahmin's name is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi.

This novel, which E.M. Forster describes as 'the best novel ever written in English by an Indian' is written in the style of the Indian folk tradition. Raja Rao said that Indians tend to think, talk and move fast and he wanted to convey that. There are long, beautifully poetic, passages of description and the dialogue is merged in with that. But for me, at least, this does not give me the sense of anything frantic but the reverse. It tends to lull me into thinking not much is happening and then I realise that something significant and dramatic has occurred and I have to go back and read again. It has taken me some time to get used to it and I am enjoying it more as I go along. Perhaps the most important thing I am gaining from reading it is that it is giving me an impression how it is to live in this ancient and sophisticated culture that is so different from my own.

N.B. For other Sunday Salonists (and there are 500 of us) see Debra Hamel's website here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Proof Positive

The proof of my novel arrived this morning - and it looks wonderful!

Also arrived this morning was the last of my current order of Anglo-Indian books:

Kanthapura by Raja Rao
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
and A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

I have dipped into the Naipaul and Desai ones already (and think they're great), but have been dying to read the Rao one ever since I ordered it - so I think that might be the one to start my weekend's reading.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

People on the River Li (1)

Rewind. Go back. Here is the river.

The cruise boats follow one behind the other where the channel's deepest.

A fisherman is curiously enlarged in his window

while he wades

and they bend double.

Something old, perhaps

and something new.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Animal Life on the river Li

After the dog, the sheep and the goats

then the water buffalo, maybe seven thousand years ago

on the Yangtze river, a Hunter- gatherer decided, instead of running, to entice a she-buffalo to him with soft words and promises.

He dampened her wildness by choosing her most docile calf.

and then her sweetest grandchild (the one who came to him with soft sorrowful eyes and nuzzling mouth) and after that the great grandchild, who lowed as though it dreamt of heaven, and the great, great grandchild who, as a calf, would offer his head to be held.

Later came the indenture of the comorant

- captured and then tethered in line - waiting to hunt but not swallow.

And last came the water fowl - an ambiguous relationship - tamely wild - gamely floating by obliviously and happily,

until it's time for lunch.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Having finished David Mitchell's book yesterday (of which I shall say no more because I'm really interested to find out what everyone else makes of it first) I turned to another book on my pile: GETTING THE PICTURE by Sarah Salway.

This turned out to be a good choice because it was completely different. It was funny, fast-paced and based almost entirely in an old-people's home (a great idea for a setting!). In the early 1960s two friends go to a photographer called Martin. One girl, Pat (although she prefer Trish because it annoys her mother) has come to have a rather risqué photograph taken. Her friend, Maureen (Mo) is shy and less adventurous. And as Sarah Salway's novel astutely implies: it is the unattainable that turns out to be most desirable. It is inhibited Mo, the mother of a young child called Nell and wife of accountant George, and who refuses to remove any clothes at all - who is the one that becomes Martin's fantasy and obsession.

Many years later Martin is still writing letters to Maureen (even though Maureen is by this time dead) and has managed to find his way into a home alongside George, Maureen's husband. What follows is a carefully plotted story with a set of characters who are well observed and recognisable. All the information (except for the very beginning and the end) is conveyed by letter, email, answerphone, and sometimes by hastily scribbled notes. Like monologues, these one-sided conversations are effective - the reply and the reaction of the recipient remains in the imagination, and are all the richer for that.

I particularly liked the way my conception of the characters changed as they became more and more involved in the plot. Human weaknesses are exposed in a gently humorous way and the ending is satisfying. There are also some good pieces of writerly advice along the way. Altogether an entertaining story about unrequited love.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sunday Salon: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I am about half way through The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet now and thoroughly enthralled. The opening chapter was gripping, the first section a little slower with many foreign names that I found a little difficult to retain and distinguish (I do think a 'Thousand Autumns' bookmark would be an excellent idea. This is something my mother often does when she is reading a book with foreign names. She makes a list on a piece of card with a one-sentence summary of who they are, and finds it useful for keeping track, especially if she has to put the book down for a while) but after a while I decided to stop worrying and just go with the flow, and found that, very shortly, they became real and distinguishable - thanks, no doubt, to Mitchell's characterisation.

It was set in a small isolated Dutch trading post in Japan at the end of the eighteenth century. The characters are convincingly dishonest and the way some of them are introduced is witty with scenes I think I shall always remember. Conversations have a unique style (at least it is not one I have ever encountered before). The characters speak but as they do there is a short description of unconnected occurrences interwoven with the dialogue. It was like a film sequence in the hands of a skilled director, and to me conveyed an impression of timelessness, and also emphasised the petty nature of some of the human transactions: no matter how much we lie and cheat there will always be the purity of a bird singing or the wind rattling a blind. The world will go on despite all that we do. Maybe that is not what David Mitchell intended at all - but that is how it struck me.

The end of that first section was as stunning as the opening and now I am in the second section and in recognisable David-Mitchell-land, with the voice that I loved in the futuristic parts of 'Cloud Atlas' - although this is set in the past. It is interesting, I think, that the further we get from 'now' the more we are at liberty to imagine and a mythological past is just as satisfying as a fantasical future.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


My website designers have now updated my website which includes a page on my new novel "A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees" (and an extract).

Which gives me the perfect excuse to put the gorgeous front cover on my blog again.

My first audiobook

I have just downloaded Ian MacEwan's 'Solar' free from Audible.

I think this may be a solution to my problem of how to make exercise more interesting. Walking fast is supposed to be excellent weight-bearing exercise and, I hope, great to add a little variety to my exercise regime (which has recently been reduced to - at most - a couple of spinning sessions a week). And this way I get to imbibe more books too.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

Today I have been reading Elizabeth Baines's 'Too Many Magpies'.

Just as I admired Elizabeth's anthology of short stories 'Balancing on the Edge' I am delighted to say that I admire this novella just as much. She really does have a wistful, compelling style that keeps me turning the pages. I think in all good writing, no matter what sort, there is a recognition of truth, and it is certainly here again in this story.

As you can hear from this second excerpt read by Elizabeth, the story is about a young mother who feels herself bewitched by a man that she meets. She seems to be drawn to him despite herself, and there is a constant sinister edge to the descriptions, cleverly involving folklore about birds with their connotations of magical spells. The terseness of the short stories is still there, but so too is a sustained menace which reminded me a little of some of Alice Hoffman's writing.

Just as in her anthology, the protagonist seems to be balancing on the edge. She constantly struggles against her need to be a good mother, as well as a wife and lover. The Ancient Greeks recognised the end result of such internal conflict and Elizabeth Baines the resulting mental trauma convincingly and empathetically.

You can read an interview with Elizabeth Baines here.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Simon Singh wins

Today Simon Singh has won his appeal after two years of fighting. He describes the personal cost in this Guardian article here.

As the legal blogger Jack of Kent says to blogger James O'Malley it should not have taken so long.

The UK libel laws still need to be reformed, but congratulations Simon Singh!