WordPress tells me I’m five this week! Not a message I expected to see when I wrote my tentative Welcome in 2016. Right now I’m very preoccupied by what’s best described as a Demanding Family Event so will keep this post brief (at last! you sigh). It’s a quick rundown of the posts you and I liked best every year. Thank you for travelling with me; do please revisit and return, and I’ll do my best still to be writing for you (and me) in 2026.
2017: Most popular post: The Best Independent Bookshop in London. Could be subtitled How to Bring up a Bookworm. If you are more or less raised in a good bookshop, your welcome to the world of words is assured. Runners up in my own mind are diversions into UK travelogue: an exploration of “my” corner of East London called The World in Four Short Blocks and Marsh Frogs Sing Loudly in the Ditches which came from a trip to the ancient Sussex town of Rye. I also wrote a little about cultural appropriation as I worried my way into The Magic Carpet. I wouldn’t dare start writing that book now, but it has its merits and I hope Getting It Right expresses the sensitive dilemma so many authors face.
2018: Most popular post: I was surprised but pleased for my German translator to find this was Sought and Found in Translation, after the publication of Der Infinity-Pool. But I also enjoyed exploring an unusual POV In a Nutshell, and was humbled and proud (if you can be both at once) to be asked to start a fortnightly books column for Smorgasbord, one of which is here. I kept that up for a year or so before asking to contribute more occasionally so that I could get on with my own writing. But I was so pleased to be asked and Sally and her crowd of co-bloggers have become good and supportive friends. Finally, although sometimes along with many of you I feel as though I Can’t be Bloggered, I did have a bit of fun giving a backward glance to Prologues.
2019: Most popular post: The Magic Carpet – Standby for Landing. This is one flight that hasn’t been cancelled so if you haven’t bought it yet… I also had the interesting experience of a blog tour in 2019, and there are a couple of posts about that. Not sure what I was doing otherwise, there seems to be a six month gap in blog posts.
2021: …when as I say an ongoing family event has taken most of my time and attention, and my most popular post so far is from people revisiting my Easter Eggheads quiz of a previous year. My post on a workshop with Sophie Hannah did well though, and if you look back through there are others on writing courses each year. I’ve learned a lot in five years. Please stay with me, even if we’re both erratic, for the next five.
I mostly get my non-fiction fixes from news and media, but by mid 2020 I’d become tired of Covid related items. I wanted more varied food for thought, and entertainment. Also Novel 3, despite wonderful, polite, positive comments (“a beautiful and bracing read” said an editor from one top publisher) wasn’t finding a contract. I needed to reconsider what makes a book readable and saleable, whatever the subject. So I turned to five popular non-fiction bestsellers published or revised since 2018.
In my school chemistry and biology lessons, I pushed worms aimlessly round Petri dishes, larked about with Bunsen burners and stayed ignorant. Now being stalked by Covid rang alarm bells. I’ve “passed (my) existence in this warm wobble of flesh and yet taken it almost entirely for granted”. It was time I learned how my body works and I decided Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants would be a good teacher. He is full of awe and wonder: “The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze…and yet, everything else (in your body) is just plumbing and scaffolding.” I can’t remember all the details, partly because as Bryson tells me, my ageing cells are pre-programmed to die. But the book has an excellent index and I should have time to reread it because “compared to other animals, we are awfully good at surviving.” Bryson is always a comforting presence for grim times.
I bought Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race months ago, because I thought I should tbh. Having been paid extra in urban schools to develop diversity policies, I smugly thought I knew what Reni Eddo-Lodge would say in this book derived originally from blogposts. (Although I did at least realise my white person’s racism awareness came from study that I could drop at will rather than from personal daily experience.) Then I heard her on Woman’s Hour, when she took the UK non-fiction number 1 slot as Bernadine Evaristo headed fiction, saying this double black success was more bitter than sweet in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in the US. She writes from a perspective white people can only imagine. She’s rightly angry that the aggression that killed Stephen Lawrence in 1993 is still rampant. She dismisses handwringing like mine. She links feminism, class, and racism. She relents somewhat, suggesting how white handwringers can help. She does see positives ahead, though rightly commenting (and note my preamble above): “So much of touring this book has involved regulating other people’s feelings”. Anyone who wants to comment on race should read this book first and remember, as quoted: “We are here because you were there”. I’d be amazed if your comments didn’t alter in the light of it.
“Something you may not ever have given any thought to is how you would fund a criminal defence. But you should.”The Secret Barrister also began as a series of articles about injustice. This anonymous practising barrister-author is alarmed by how little the public understand the law. He’s amusing, informative and angry. The system can destroy, bankrupt, or madden anyone: defendant, witness, legal professional or plaintiff. This book explains anomalies, anachronisms, and the effect of underfunding, overwork and random priorities from headline chasing governments, analyses serial offending and reveals shocking court and prison conditions. Defending a client in the magistrates’ court is often like “pitching to the admissions board of a 1980s country club”. Politicians and sentencing guidelines get even more stick. This isn’t (mostly) a dry read. He’s compassionate towards the accused and passionate on their right to a fair defence. Individual case histories, humour and the lucidity of a disillusioned expert channel Dickens, but 150 years later, our legal institutions should serve and be served better. “How we treat..ordinary men and women who have been fed into the justice machine, mangled, battered, confined and, years later, spat back out onto the streets, is inexcusable.”
We all need light relief. I find The Crown entertaining and, never a royalist, don’t really care whether it’s a true account. So I lapped up Lady in Waiting. Author Anne Glenconnor grew up in a stately home so huge that raw eggs in a bain-marie would be perfectly boiled by the time a footman had carried them from the kitchen to the nursery. Her account of working for Princess Margaret isn’t exactly warts and all – the worst you hear of Margaret is that she was so fascinated by everyday gadgets she once gave another lady-in-waiting a loo brush for Christmas. “’I noticed you didn’t have one when I came to stay.’ In fact, Jean had hidden the loo brush when Princess Margaret had visited and was rather upset by the gesture.” The reader is granted fly-on-the-wall privileges and this fly was buzzing, especially on the trips to Mustique.
The Five: The Untold Lives of Women Killed by Jack the Ripper isn’t (quite) as miserable as it sounds. Historian Hallie Rubenhold, one of whose other books became the TV series Harlots, deliberately doesn’t focus on the Victorian murderer. I regularly pass the London pub where some of his victims were last seen and the advertised tourist walks and memorabilia are ghoulish. Rubenhold remembers the women instead, describing “respectable” backgrounds, not the prostitutes the press dubbed them, with skills, children and circumstances shared by thousands (I recently discovered a relation who also had to leave a violent husband, only a few miles from Whitechapel at the time the Ripper was active.) Each individual woman is, in a sense, brought back to life in these accounts based on meticulous research and contemporary evidence, having first been “driven like piles deeper and deeper into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demands”. Despite The Five selling so well, the pattern continues. The BBC was recently heavily criticised for trailing a documentary series about Oscar Pistorius without once mentioning his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and in fiction we still analyse Othello’s tragedy more than Desdemona’s.
How could five such different books have bestseller appeal? Well, they all have variety. There is tragedy as well as royal gossip in Anne Glenconnor’s life; science and wisdom well as humour in Bill Bryson’s bodyscape. Humour lightens the injustices found in the court room and Eddo-Lodge has calm suggestions to balance her anger. The Ripper victims’ stories include fascinating social history of homes and workplaces, clothes and speech, and unexpectedly colourful episodes in apparently ordinary lives. Effective popular non-fiction spins yarns like any novel and plotting is key. Glenconnor is the heroine of her own story, childhood to old age. Bryson’s journey round the body includes medical heroes and villains, good and bad microbes, happy accidents and fateful events. My other choices have the compelling interest, emotional involvement and quest for resolution of well recounted true crime. These are valuable models for the fiction writer too.
With Christmas coming, I hope you’ll find something to your taste in my selection box and I’d be happy to hear your own non-fiction choices.
Please note: This blogpost interview with my translator is in French and English so you don’t have to read more than half of it! If you blog about books in the francophone world please see the full French text below and feel free to republish it (by all means share too if you blog in English). Also please do contact me for a free Mobi file if you would be interested in reviewing Infinitude.
Je publie cet entretien avec ma traductrice en français et en anglais, donc il ne faut lire que la moitié ! Le texte français est proposé à la suite de l’anglais et j’invite les blogueurs du monde francophone à le diffuser sans modération ! De plus, si vous êtes blogeur/se et que vous aimeriez écrire en donnant votre avis sur Infinitude, je vous prie de me contacter pour obtenir une version électronique gratuite de mon roman.
As this is my English language blog, I’m providing the English version first.
Faced with the horrors of Brexit, it’s a pleasure to have collaborated on Infinitude, the just published French translation of my first novel. As soon as I published The Infinity Pool in 2015, a translation was suggested. The German version appeared in 2018, and the French edition two months ago. You’ll find the paperback and the Kindle edition by searching any Amazon worldwide, or at: http://getbook.at/Infinitude
I owe huge thanks to Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, who’s patiently translated my first novel. She deserves great success with this project. This interview introduces her and explains the process of translating someone else’s book.
Hi Isabelle ! Where do you live and work ?Which languages do you use in daily life?
Bonjour Jessica ! I live in Valencia, Spain. I work here, and also in Paris or London when I’m lucky enough to be asked by clients. My mother tongue is French, but I spoke English from when I was about six years old, so we speak English at home too. Of course in Valencia I also speak Spanish (Castilian). My husband works a lot with German, so our house sometimes sounds like a real Tower of Babel!
How did you come across this translation project?
The project for this book was posted by a colleague on a translators’ forum. I already had wide experience of editorial translation and of translating non fiction. But up until then, I hadn’t had the opportunity to translate a novel, so I didn’t hesitate a second before buying the book and diving straight in. The story hooked me straight away, that’s what decided me!
Tell us about the process of translating a whole book. How do you start? What are the pleasures – and the pitfalls?
There’s no shortage of pitfalls. But I was prepared for them. The main difficulty is thinking you can translate something every day. It isn’t always possible to fit it in with the demands of other customers, and you have be be very disciplined. The other traps are more to do with language and the science of translation: you must remain aware that the translator’s role is adaptive, and not get discouraged when the French and English don’t match. For example, if you can’t find an equivalent concept or term in the other language, then you must return to the story and take a step back from interpreting the words literally. And when the English sentences seem a bit long and putting them into good French seems impossible, you mustn’t give up but keep formulating and reformulating…
Can you give us an elevator pitch for Infinitude/The Infinity Pool?
Serendipity, a holiday settlement on a Mediterranean shore, promises personal growth for body and soul. But this year, Adrian, the charismatic “guru” director, hasn’t turned up. His loyal disciples must fight their personal and 21st century battles alone. Infinitude is a novel about the importance of others.
Who do you think would particularly like this book? Is there a special place, or a particular time of life when it would resonate most?
I think it’s a novel for people aged 25-45. But there are no real age limits!
I know you’ve already translated one book from English to French. Can you describe it please (and provide link)?
Yes, thank you for the plug! I’ve finished translating“Les audacieuses”, an adaptation of “Rouge” which is a novel by Richard Kirshenbaum. It was inspired by the lives of Elsa Rubinstein and Estée Lauder and the troubled relationship of the two great women who invented modern cosmetics.
The novel won’t come out until 7 January 2021, delayed by the pandemic. I’ve also another project with a publisher who wants to introduce French readers to an American author who disappeared too young. It’s still under wraps…
Infinitude is partly about the effects of tourism on a traditional community. I think you too are campaigning against environmental damage?
Yes indeed. I’m very active in the struggle against plastic pollution and single use plastics, taking part in beach clean-ups. I’ve produced multilingual publicity for town halls and institutions to educate their citizens, and also poster resources for public use everywhere. I’m seeking financial backing for this campaign, and you can find details on my website: www.wordistas.net
What sort of translation do you do to bring home the bacon? How can we ask you to quote for a project?
I do mostly “adaptive translation”. I also specialise in “trans-creation”, which is creative marketing and publicity translation. And I have a special interest in environmental translation work. Please see my website (above) for more details.
Thank you so much, Isabelle, and especially for your hard work over the past few years. Let’s hope Infinitude is an infinite success for both of us!
Thank you too, Jessica, very much. Our mutual trust has helped us get this project finished. Now like you I wish Infinitude all possible good fortune and infinite success!
English readers stop here unless you wish to practice your French (but feel free to comment below).
A vous, lecteurs francophones!
En total contraste avec les horreurs du Brexit, cette belle collaboration avec le traducteur de mon premier roman a été pour moi un grand plaisir. Au moment de publier The Infinity Pool en 2015, l’idée de proposer une traduction a été lancée. La version allemande a été publiée en 2018, et la version française – Infinitude – vient de sortir !
Vous pouvez consulter et acheter le livre en version papier ou pour Kindle chez Amazon dans le pays de votre choix, ou ici : http://getbook.at/Infinitude.
Je souhaite tout particulièrement remercier Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, qui a patiemment traduit ce premier roman, et je lui souhaite ainsi qu’à ce projet la plus belle des réussites.
À suivre, cet entretien présente la traductrice et explique un peu le processus consistant à traduire un livre rédigé par quelqu’un autre.
Bonjour Isabelle ! Où habites-tu et où travailles-tu ? Quelles sont les langues que tu parles au quotidien ?
Bonjour Jessica ! Je vis à Valence, ou Valencia, en Espagne. Je travaille ici, mais aussi à Paris ou à Londres si j’ai la chance d’être appelée pour un projet par un client ! Ma langue maternelle est le français, mais j’ai commencé à parler anglais très tôt, vers l’âge de 6 ans, alors nous parlons aussi anglais à la maison. Et à Valence, je parle espagnol (castellan), bien sûr. Mon mari travaille lui beaucoup avec l’allemand, ce qui fait de notre maison une vraie tour de Babel parfois !
Comment as-tu entendu parler de ce projet de traduction ?
Ce livre m’a été proposé par une de mes collègues grâce à un forum de traducteurs. J’avais déjà une grande expérience de la traduction éditoriale et de la traduction d’ouvrages de non-fiction. Mais jusque-là, je n’avais pas eu l’opportunité de traduire des romans, c’est pourquoi je n’ai pas hésité une seconde et ai acheté le livre pour m’y plonger immédiatement. J’ai tout de suite accroché à l’histoire, c’est ce qui m’a décidée !
Raconte-nous un peu le processus de traduction d’un livre entier. Comment l’aborde-t-on ? Quels sont les plaisirs – et les pièges ?
Les pièges ne manquent pas. Mais je m’y attendais ! La difficulté principale, c’est de penser qu’on peut traduire un peu chaque jour. Ce n’est pas toujours possible quand on a d’autres clients, et il faut une grande discipline. Enfin, les autres pièges relèvent plutôt de la langue et de la traductologie : il faut être conscient du véritable rôle d’adaptation du traducteur et ne pas se décourager quand l’anglais et le français ne sont pas d’accord, par exemple si on n’arrive pas à trouver un concept équivalent ou un terme dans l’autre langue, auquel cas il faut se plonger dans l’histoire et prendre du recul par rapport aux mots en tant que tels. Et si les phrases anglaises sont un peu longues et que l’exercice en français semble impossible, il ne faut pas se décourager, formuler et… reformuler.
Est-ce que tu peux nous présenter Infinitude en 25 mots ? Un résumé en quelques secondes ?
Au bord de la Méditerranée, un lieu de vacances propose à un public un peu « bobo » de se ressourcer, corps et âme. Mais cette année, Adrian, le charismatique « gourou » de Serendipity, n’est pas arrivé. Ses fidèles « suiveurs » vont se retrouver face à leurs contradictions et à celles du XXIe siècle. Infinitude est aussi un roman sur l’importance de l’autre.
A ton avis, quels lecteurs aimeront ce livre ? Est-ce qu’il y un endroit parfait pour le lire, ou un moment de la vie qui correspond particulièrement pour le lire ?
Je pense que ce roman s’adresse aux 25-45 ans. Mais il n’y a jamais de limites d’âge !
Je crois que tu as déjà traduit un autre roman anglais en français…
Oui, merci de le mentionner ! J’ai terminé la traduction de “Les audacieuses”, une adaptation à partir de “Rouge” un roman de Richard Kirshenbaum inspiré de la vie d’Elsa Rubinstein et d’Estée Lauder et des relations houleuses entre les deux grandes dames qui ont inventé la cosmétique moderne.Visiter: https://michel-lafon.ca/livres/les-audacieuses/
Ce roman ne sortira que le 7 janvier 2021 à cause de la pandémie. Enfin, j’ai un autre projet en cours avec un éditeur qui veut proposer au public français de relire une auteure américaine qui a disparu trop tôt. C’est encore confidentiel…
Infinitude fait allusion aux effets du tourisme dans une communauté traditionnelle. Je crois que toi aussi tu luttes contre les dommages à l’environnement ?
Exactement. Je suis très active dans la lutte contre la pollution par le plastique et les plastiques à usage unique et je participe à des nettoyages de plages. Je réalise des écrits multilingues de sensibilisation citoyenne pour les mairies et les institutionnels, mais aussi pour diffuser auprès de tous les publics, et je suis à la recherche de financements. Ce que je propose est présenté sur mon site web www.wordistas.net
Et quel genre de traduction fais-tu pour gagner ton pain quotidien ? Où peut-on te joindre pour en savoir plus sur ce que tu proposes ?
Je fais le maximum de traduction-adaptation. Je suis aussi spécialiste de la « transcréation », c’est-à-dire la traduction créative pour la publicité et le marketing. Enfin, la traduction environnementale m’intéresse beaucoup.Mon site web est www.wordistas.net.
Merci beaucoup Isabelle, et merci encore pour ton grand travail de ces dernières années. Espérons une réussite infinie pour « Infinitude » !
Merci beaucoup à toi, Jessica. La confiance nous a permis de mener à bien ce projet. J’espère comme toi qu’il aura un succès infini. Alors bon vent à ce livre !
Last year I was asked to contribute to the Writers and Artists Guide to Self-Publishing. To be more precise, the publishers asked self-published authors to contribute case studies, I responded and they kindly included me. The pandemic delayed my author copies. My thanks now go to Eden Phillips-Harrington, Assistant Editor of W&A yearbooks at Bloomsbury Publishing, who’s written a useful chapter on how publishing – traditional and indie – actually works.
Like others, I didn’t plan to self-publish. But after not quite making it past the editors/gatekeepers of trad publishers despite my agent’s best efforts, that was how my first and second novels appeared and I’ve been learning how to go about it ever since. As for my contribution to this guide, I felt as Groucho Marx did about his club – any book that included my advice wouldn’t be one I’d want to read. Now I realise the guide is a readable mix of useful reassurance, information and “next steps”. Even my words of wisdom may help someone somewhere.
All such information is available online, notably at ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) but I did like holding it in one volume, reading from start to finish how the process works, and scrawling pencil notes rather than trawling through linked web pages. W&A is a highly reputable brand and this guide has a practical, no-nonsense approach from a bevy of well qualified and established experts (apart from me). A good general introduction for absolute beginners to the self- publishing world, it also contains information still unfamiliar to me after five years, explains concepts I was pretending to understand and signposts old and new tasks I must get around to (website! Email list!)
The very clear chapter on editing explains, with checklists, what different types of editor do, in which order, with timescales and tasks. Using an editor is non-negotiable. Self-published books have a rotten reputation, partly a hangover from vanity publishing days and still sometimes deserved. It follows that self-published authors have a responsibility to all colleagues and readers to ensure their product is of blameless quality.
As a contemporary fiction author who doesn’t need illustrations, tables, photographs etc, I’ll admit the detailed chapter on design made my head swim! It’s maybe best read after the chapter which explains both physical and ebook production. Providers include firms that undertake every aspect of production for you, including editing, design, manufacture, distribution and marketing, specialist services you can dovetail (you hope) together, and market giants like Ingram Spark or Amazon. Together these chapters start you off whatever your project, establishing when you can go it alone and when you’ll need to pay for professional input.
The distribution model, sales and royalties to expect (or aspire to) are outlined next. These differ widely according to decisions you take at the production stages; bullet pointed lists assist you. Two factual inaccuracies in this chapter highlight the drawbacks of a paperback guide to a constantly changing subject: since it went to press Bertram UK wholesalers, sadly, went into administration, and UK ebooks are no longer subject to VAT.
I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS! Fortunately, a sympathetically written marketing chapter has made me more receptive. I’m almost basking in the sentence Put the readers’ needs first and you won’t ever feel uncomfortable or like a salesperson. I’ll never write “I love marketing my books” but the checklists, practical suggestions and myth-busting do help. However, fourteen printed links to online sources is too many for one chapter. That’s fine for ebook readers, but…it would have been better to summarise what they say.
The authors’ case studies show the enormous amount of mutual help authors provide. I cannot stress this enough. It’s only human to envy others sometimes, but by and large self-published authors form a supportive and generous community, especially online. It’s also nice to see book bloggers recognised. These mostly unpaid reviewers and publicists give invaluable service and should be treated with care and courtesy at all times or they’ll give up and then where will authors be? Most people needn’t cover every item on the TEN PAGES of to-do lists, but they do mean you won’t leave anything out. As the guide says, “enjoy ticking them off”. The further information sources and glossary at the back should come in useful too.
Occasional statements beg for expansion. Some strong independent publishers prefer to deal with authors directly, says the Introduction. Since most self-published authors don’t by definition have agents, I imagine readers screaming “Who? WHO?” Although I do understand, in the present climate, how quickly details change.
Genre and cost are two elephants in the room. I think genre is within the guide’s scope as the closer a book fits a genre, the more likely a self-published author is to succeed. My own sales have fallen foul of not being crime, romance, horror etc. How did I fall into the quagmire of “general fiction” and is there a helping hand out there?
Producing my first novel cost nothing. A friend supplied the cover photo, a designer friend put it together, we uploaded everything to KDP and off we went. It sold 4000+ copies. Well done me, but I squirm now. Professional editing would have made a good debut better. Second time round I bought design, editing, proofing, a blog tour… maybe £2,500? Your budget is very important! You will be covering all costs yourself and you need to be clear what these are! says chapter 4. But the guide is coy about the sums involved until you reach some of the author case studies which – gulp! – give food for thought to would-be millionaires.
So – helpful, practical, a very good start or waymarker for any self-publishing journey. Now would W&A please publish a guide to using the updated WordPress Gutenberg Block Editor. It has about the same speed and flexibility as its namesake, a printing press designed around 1440. Apologies for any swearing that’s leaked while attempting to write this post. See you next time, unless I give up in despair.
There are two new gumshoes on the block. It would be a crime not to investigate them.
A good detective always looks for connections. Both these books are the first in a new crime series highlighting cities and the parts of cities you may not otherwise visit (especially now). Both are launching during this pandemic. Both authors have journalism backgrounds. The first reported from Sarajevo and the camera in his story is positioned much as a sniper would be. The second author once reported for Scotland Yard and there is a certain world weary delivery to his narration: I wasn’t feeling half as cool as I was making out, but I knew enough to keep a clear head and leave the worrying to later. Both new investigators are operating on foreign soil: Juan Camarón, who was brought up in Spain by a Cuban father, finds himself in Glasgow and Daniel Leicester is an Englishman in Bologna. Both authors make good use of the possibilities this sets up for misreading a situation but also understanding it more objectively, for mistrust and also misplaced confidence, and for light relief too. One of the murder victims Camarón investigates is called William McGonagall, but he doesn’t recognise the name. (Dismemberment, albeit fictional, seems an unduly harsh punishment for terrible poetry.) And Leicester, as he helps some tourists with a menu,reflects: There are few things more suspicious to an Englishman abroad than another Englishman abroad.
Let’s cut to the chase.
Kevin Sullivan’s The Figure in the Photograph has a fast moving, victim strewn mystery which Camarón, who narrates, is attempting to solve by making a photographic record of activity in the local area at regular intervals. It’s 1898, he’s excited by this new method and speculates that one day there may be moving pictures taken by cameras on the street. He’s aided and hindered by the local police, a professor of pathology, the neighbourhood chemist, a mortician and various strongly drawn sisters, wives, daughters and maids. He’s also deeply traumatised, having recently witnessed the murder of his own father. He tries to repress his grief in keeping with male expectations of the period, and this along with his foreign usage of English result in a terse, deadpan style of speech and a narration that stresses facts over emotions – making it all the more powerful when love and redemption do begin to seem a possibility. Camarón’s walks through Glasgow streets with their contrasts of road and river, poverty and wealth, proud Victorian buildings and tenement slums made me want to visit. My grandfather trained as a chemist in Glasgow only a few years later, and the dispensaries he worked in must have resembled the one in the book. So I have a personal interest, but this story and setting should fascinate anyone (the first few chapters take place in Cuba, which provides another contrast).
Buildings feature heavily in both books – the old cathedral of Santiago, the Glasgow shipyards, in Bologna decaying palazzi and practical (rain shelter) porticos. Outside the Bologna walls 1970s housing projects are the modern European equivalent of slum tenements. Both books feature a death in the streets attributable to poor health and safety – in one a man is run over on train tracks that cross the road, in the other a cyclist is knocked off her bike while not wearing a helmet. Both gumshoes have been recently bereaved.
A gumshoe should be vulnerable, a bit cynical, have a quirky view of the world, an interest in human nature, and hold strong principles that almost in spite of himself wish to see justice done, however flawed the human beings it concerns. In the present day Bologna of A Quiet Death In Italy, Tom Benjamin’s hero Daniel Leicester speaks fluent Italian but can still be tripped up by dialect or colloquialisms. He works for his father-in-law Giovanni “il Comandante”, an ex police chief running a private detective agency, and the case he’s on brings him into conflict with three powerful p’s – politicians, property and police. Mix in a dose of accidental anarchist death, as per the famous play by Dario Fo, and you have a mystery more tangled than a bowl of spaghetti bolognese (that’s tagliatelle al ragu to the locals. Like Montalbano in Sicily, Daniel Leicester and associates always have time for lunch).
So – two good reads, two promising new detectives, two sequels to look forward to.
I was going to say I don’t normally read much crime other than grandes dames such as Highsmith and Paretsky but I realise since I began blogging I’ve discussed all the books below and in the early days I spoofed a two part Agatha Christie tribute after visiting her house in Devon.
Two mysteries remain, the first a red herring. What was my motive for writing this post? If you answer correctly I’ll congratulate you privately but edit out any spoilers (two rules of crime writing – keep ’em guessing and give your reader resolution. The second is why I don’t write crime.) The other thing that’s fishy is why The Magic Carpet hasn’t soared to an Amazon number 1 while on promotion the way The Infinity Pooldid. Reader, you, your family, friends, colleagues and any random strangers you encounter hold the key to solving that one and you have eight days left before the price goes up again.
When a plot includes a pregnancy going to term or religious festivals that move around the lunar calendar it’s important to be precise with the timescale. I fine tuned my first two novels as I went along. Novel 3, currently under submission, is a response to a specific event, and ends at a point when the issues first raised begin to be resolved. All three books are “contemporary”, taking place not long before the projected year of publication.
Now, writing in New Normal times, the dates of the story are even more crucial. If the events I’m beginning to explore for Novel 4 take place before December 2019 the pandemic needn’t figure. Any story set later than that must now include the effects of Covid-19 on timing and location, wherever they belong on a scale from wispy background rumours to overwhelming. Otherwise it would be like setting a book in 1916 and not mentioning World War 1. So many political, physical and local variables govern the viral load infecting my story that I must factor them in from the start, or my timeline may be wrong, my characters unlikely and my events impossible for their setting and situations. I’ll sound as confused as our Prime Minister.
Although my chosen theme could work either side of the pandemic, so many of the story props around it will change that I can’t put off the decision. And, unlike for a book set during the Spanish flu epidemic, or during the worst of HIV infection, the number of victims is still unknown and the consequences and effects of lockdown haven’t been objectively measured. If I start my contemporary novel NOW, by the time it’s published my assumptions for how it progresses and ends could seem ridiculous.
Where have all the
Perhaps they’re on Zoom…
In my case I’ll probably cop out and either not write at all or set the story well before bells ring in the new year 2020. (The many writers of Brexit novels couldn’t see they had the same problem, although the agents and publishers who rejected them did. Nor did they realise readers might be bored or repulsed by the subject matter, or, if interested, would by the time of publication know more about it than the author.)
Are writers in other genres any better off?
There are some great possibilities for crime writers. Smuggling and doctored vaccines come to mind, although it would be hard to better The Third Man. But plots can’t include: empty domestic property (though lots of empty workplaces); meetings, rallies, parties, institutional education, entertainment, non domestic accommodation, public events or sports venues. There’ll be no unobtrusive shadowing people through crowded streets or detectives interviewing ancient relations in care homes. Characters can’t travel far from home, let alone internationally, or use public transport without sticking out like a sore thumb; and they’re unlikely to go to hospital unless they have Covid-19. The public, bored at their windows, will denounce anything out of the ordinary for the sheer fun of it before the plot can develop; hunches will be hard to follow up and helpful contacts go awol; the criminal fraternity will be preoccupied looking after number one.
Romance is online only. Strangers can’t find love in bars, theatres, parks or at dinner parties. Physical contact is ill-advised even if they do meet. Attractiveness, let alone kissing, is just not the same with everyone in face masks. The media and a vigilante public hamper running secret affairs. Office romances don’t work from home and young nurses are too haggard and stressed to catch the eye of hardworking doctors. Lady Chatterley is indoors social isolating with her vulnerable husband and even Mrs Bennett reluctantly recognises now is not the time for matchmaking. Blood vows and pacts, balls, weddings, or christenings? Certainly not! Whether cops or lovers, characters will have little change in routine or conversation to propel the narrative forward. No chance meetings, few coincidences, most of their time spent staring at screens. Today’s idea of a giddy whirl is solving a Sudoku while the lockdown beer loaf bakes, and optimism means hoping the Patience will work out.
It’s easier for some authors. In the Fantasy genre anything can happen. (That’s why I tend not to read fantasy; I prefer the tension of limited possibilities – though not as limited as currently.) History is already over, so barring differences of interpretation and fact selection, fictionalising events involves the same storytelling skills it always did. As for Horror, Science Fiction and Dystopia – well. That’s what we’re in now, isn’t it? I predict most 2020 novels will fall into these categories.
A week is a long time in pandemics so having had the idea for this post, I’m not waiting till my usual Friday to publish. It might be out of date by then. I also wanted to remind you that The Magic Carpet is on promotion at only 99p until the end of May, if you’d like to visit an unfashionable London suburb between early September – 14th October 2016. Bizarrely, it’s currently selling better in Germany than the UK, but those pre-virus, post Brexit referendum days, just after Eid 2016 and still pre-Trump, may now hold a strange kind of charm and they’re still just about contemporary.
Stay well everyone, and alert, although that’s not the word I’d have chosen.
Still determinedly sticking to the positives about this p**ndemic, the creativity it’s brought out in some people is amazing. Have you seen the tableaux of famous art made in response to the Getty Art Museum Challenge? And last week this clever storytelling game appeared online (read the titles on the spines in order). If anyone can tell me which clever librarians created this, I’ll happily credit them.
Of course I rushed off to see what I could come up with. I found myself immediately in sinister realms – by the way it helps if you add punctuation:
Some titles are easier to play with than others. Anything with that begins with “The” is tricky, but Invisible Women could have made multiple contributions, and I’m keeping an eye open for titles to go with, well, Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes. You don’t have to stick to books you have in the house. Swipe a few covers from Goodreads and away you go. It’s surprising how often the final title could just as easily go at the beginning.
Keeping an eye open
for whom the bell tolls
in the springtime of the year.
A different, easier game is to find as many titles as you can containing, say, colours, places or people’s names.
It’s a peaceful game, choosing the best cover – on Goodreads search for a book by title, click on “Other editions” on the picture of the cover and enlarge them to see which you like best. There were some strong contenders here; the book clearly inspired many designers.
As a household you could find titles with numbers in them and put them in order. How strict you are depends on your family – do you include ordinals and cardinals and can two or four include too, to, second, for, forth and fourth? The nerds among us might wish to print the covers and display them, or at least write out the titles…
…all the way up to… well, you could set a limit or be open ended. As my daughter’s friend boasted when she was about six: “I can count higher than you! I can count up to infinity!”
Other ideas for children could include finding covers with animals on them, or little girls or boys; stories about buildings or stories set in the past or “abroad” or somewhere magical. Or all the covers they can find that are mainly red, or have circles on them, or include the letter z somewhere in the title or the author’s name. If you don’t have many books available, try browsing online bookshops. Your children could use your books as well as theirs, with bonus points for putting them back exactly where they found them (adds the alphabetical nerd within).
Book title dominoes is harder, probably not so good for children. You can only build on to the list using the first or last word of a title, although different forms of the same root are allowed, eg animal/animals; farm/farmer/farming. I think for this you’ll have to search beyond what you have at home. See how long you can keep the thread going.
My family and other ANIMALS
BOY; tales of CHILDHOOD
I can’t continue to the left because I’m hard pressed to think of a title that ends in “my” – although perhaps there’s a board book for toddlers called “Mine!” and if there isn’t I’ll write it. But as I’ve discovered in the past it’s fun to see the juxtapositions you get…
End of Watch
…and there I had to stop because it was surprisingly hard to find books with titles beginning with You or even U (partly because one of my personal rules is it has to be books I’ve either read or would like to read now I’ve discovered them. That Lisa Jewell looks great). An easier version is titles that contain the same word but don’t necessarily match the first or last, or alternating opposites. Archetypal words work well here, eg love, nation, adventure, birth, world…
A ghoulish friend has come up with It’s not the books in your life, it’s the lives in your books. The idea is to replace real death rates with fictional ones on a daily or weekly news bulletin, depending how fast you read, tallying them up as you go and perhaps racing a friend towards a target score. Fortunately in my case Hilary Mantel provides a useful cast list you could use for this while reading The Mirror and the Light. If you decide to play, I don’t recommend choosing this time to bone up onHamlet….
…but a good stack of children’s books should do wonders for morale.
Finally, over on the TripFiction blog there’s a very cheerful post about books published with predominantly yellow covers. I don’t want to pinch their photos but do drop by and see for yourselves – or make your own. If you can perch an Easter chick or a daffodil on top (if not too late for that where you are) it makes it even prettier.
You know what, soon we’ll all be enjoying ourselves so much we’ll wish lock down would never end! Who needs charades? But I finished my jigsaw and here are the Elmers I said I’d make last time with pride of place on the piano I am no longer playing enough.
Today is one of the saddest days of my life. That is not “remoaning”, but mourning. If the Brexiteers can have a party in Parliament Square (though it doesn’t sound much fun, with soft drinks only and Ann Widdecombe for guest speaker), I can have a wake. Parties are for happy things – weddings, birthdays, to celebrate a new job or launch a book, start retirement or shout about a jubilee. A wake is to say goodbye to something or someone – millions of people – you are forced to part from by circumstances beyond your control. Usually that means death, but in this case it’s a vile mixture of xenophobia, narrow mindedness, triumphalism, misguided nostalgia, imperialism without an empire, and manipulation. Also gullibility, which is easier to empathise with – we’ve all been fooled over something in our lives.
So today’s post, because it falls on the day the United Kingdom (I wonder, united for how long?) leaves the EU, isn’t about books or writing and I won’t share it in my more usual book circles. Instead it’s a personal expression of despair, a chance to mark this day that I couldn’t ignore while I have this tiny platform from which to communicate my views. However, I have written about European books in Reading for Remainers and More Reading for Remainers. Perhaps if I’d called them Reading for Leavers, some would have been swayed. I dislike the name calling and abuse that Brexiteers and Remainers throw at each other as much as I dislike the insults leavers throw at Europe. Not having access to a good education does not make you stupid, and some who have had the best education money can buy persist in making stupid decisions (I’m looking at you, David Cameron). But it’s on record that the higher their education level the less likely a voter was to opt for Brexit. Maybe the authors I was talking about, with their range of thought, their ability to empathise with varying characters and to make stories out of moral dilemmas and historical lessons, would have been a bit much for the Brexit leaders, who in turn manipulated the confusion of so many others.
I’m not necessarily any brighter than they are, but I had the advantage of being taught French by my mother, who had stayed on a war-ruined French farm as a paying guest in the 1940s. I studied French, lived in Paris and Dijon, made French friends I still see forty years later. I added Spanish. My daughter studied Spanish, Italian and German. I visited her in Zaragoza and Palermo. I went to Poland for work and received the warmest of welcomes, as warm as the ones I received in Greece even at the time they were being squeezed so pitilessly by the EU (which is by no means perfect, but you improve institutions from within, not by throwing a hissy fit and stomping off). My first novel has appeared in German and what a pleasure it was to work with the translator. Europe isn’t just for holidays but I’ve had some fantastic trips since starting this blog and invite you along with me to revisit Barcelona,Lisbon (twice), Vienna (twice), Milan and Paris – not sure why I didn’t write blog posts about those two.
My European friends in London are rightly saddened, angered, bewildered. Why should an award winning chef who’s paid taxes and employed staff for 23 years be refused settled status? Why should my French friend’s mother, living here since the 1930s, have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of applying for settled status in her 93rd year? Why should child refugees now be kept from their parents, a casualty of changing laws that this untrustworthy government says will be “sorted out later”? Why, when there is more to unite than divide us, should ties be broken, trade deals stopped, links wrecked, friendship and help refused, cultures sneered at? Why would any sane nation reject easy trade conditions with its nearest geographical neighbours, and complicate collaboration on responding to health, science, environmental challenges which recognise no borders? Why would any sensible individual want to reinstate roaming charges, reject grants for anti-poverty projects and regeneration, create obstacles to staffing our farms, hospitals, restaurants and so much else? None of this is in my name.
How ironic that this week also saw Holocaust Memorial Day. I went to a wonderful concert at King’s Place, with Raphael Wallfisch the cellist. His mother, interviewed here, survived Belsen because she played cello for the Nazis. Where I grew up in Finchley, North London, my primary school class was around 50% Jewish. None of my school friends had grandparents. They had all died in the camps, after sending my friends’ parents over on the Kindertransport. Would the British shelter those children now? My own parents both had their education truncated by the war but were lucky enough to be just too young for call up; my father-in-law was a POW; my friend’s father traumatized at 23 after driving the ammunition truck behind one that was blown up during the D-day landings. Hitler had to be stopped; whether war was the only means to stop him it’s now too late to say. But the EU was founded to prevent another war in Europe, and has been successful. Thank you to Guy Verhofstadt MEP who has done his best to keep us together as citizens , thank you to Jolyon Maugham and others campaigning for associate EU citizenship; thank you to Terry Reintke MEP who has set up the UK Friendship Group in the EU Parliament. Thank you to many, many others. Please wait for us, we do care about you, and we look forward to a day when we can move freely around Europe again with another freedom – the ability we’ll have won back, through dignified, well informed, unaggressive campaigning, to enjoy being both British and European again. There is one such campaign here: please consider joining.
Sometimes I feel I don’t plan my writing career seriously enough. Although Novel 3 has gone to the agent, Novel 4 doesn’t exist yet, even as an idea, a germ of an idea or anything less tangible than that. An email from a list I should have unsubscribed from popped up today with details of a free short story competition and I thought I’d try a quick story based on an amusing episode over Christmas. There’s a 2000 word limit but who says you have to make it that long? I wrote the amusing episode down and filled it out a bit. I was only on 200 words and the amusing episode had been milked for all it was worth, plus I was having qualms about making hay from people who’d shown me nothing but goodwill. Short stories are hard to get right and one reason is wrongly viewing them as something you can dash off in answer to random competitions in an inbox. So sod the short stories (again). I was given several books for Christmas and my just-before-it birthday and if I read enough of other people’s writing craft perhaps I’ll be guided towards the place where Novel 4 lies in wait.
Of these nine books, I’d asked for five. I’ve already finished one, although I read it as slowly and with as much care as I could. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. There’s a slow cooking and slow eating movement, and there are mindfulness and internet-free days and reading Elizabeth Strout comes into a similar category, ideal for the limbo time between Christmas and New Year, probably less suited to commuting. She observes ordinary people in an ordinary place doing pretty ordinary things and she makes them extraordinary and universal. Olive, Again is an older Olive Kitteridge, which I’m now rereading to remind myself of her back story and those of other residents of Crosby, Maine. Olive is now on and beyond a second marriage. She has mellowed but her go-to judgement is still “phooey to you”. She’s kept her marbles (which she dreads losing) and she’s keeping her temper better than she was. The endearing, human thing about Olive and those around her is that they’re all still learning how to live and they know it. They’re by no means perfect and neither are their partners and at times they’re deeply intolerant of each other. Olive’s son, Christopher, is horrid to her and this may or may not be because she was a bad mother. Fortunately moments of humour and love redeem all this and Olive has a wonderful capacity for compassion and understanding when you’d least expect it. But even the meanest Strout character has the capacity to recognise their mistakes and try co-existing more helpfully. “It came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”
I also asked for A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier. If this is half as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn I’m in for a treat. I shall save it for after my next eye operation in mid February because in the lovely hardback edition the font is a generous size. I’m not sure whether to read Joanna Cannon‘s Breaking and Mending account of life as an NHS junior doctor before or after that – the care I’ve had from the overworked but always patient, expert, and caring staff at Moorfields Hospital has been excellent and although I asked for Cannon’s book it may not give me the sweetest of dreams as I trust myself to their care again. Another request was Edna O’Brien’s Girl,a fictionalised account of the experiences of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. I found her last book, The Little Red Chairs, almost impossible to read because what it described was so awful. But I can’t fail to respect an author who at nearly 90 years of age is still confronting injustice and violence against women with such uncompromising bravery, and who still crafts every word with such angry care. On a lighter note, I wanted The Binding by Bridget Collins because I’m a sucker for that sort of cover – I call them Paisley covers and there have been a spate of them recently. (It doesn’t look as though the contents are very light-hearted though, and reader opinion appears divided.) My partner coupled it with Jessie Burton’s newest novel The Confession, which I’m hoping will be as good as her first and better than her second. Another lovely cover anyway!
My ex husband and I still give each other books every Christmas and birthday. He’s a Harper Lee fan, and rightly guessed I wouldn’t yet have got around to Go Set a Watchman. (When my first novel came out it briefly whizzed past this in the Australian bestseller lists, a moment of author glory you must forgive me for harpering on about as there haven’t been many more.) He also gave me The Shock of the Fallby Nathan Filer, which has a plug on the back from Rose Tremain. Well, if it’s good enough for her…
And finally who wouldn’t want a David Nicholls Sweet Sorrow to look forward to? Bittersweet, poignant, coming of age… it sounds as though it will be much like the others but they’re all so well written and delivered. It will, I hope, be a comfort akin to watching afternoon TV when I was kept home from school as a child with a cold.
Finally, I’ve been an increasingly laid back gardener since reading Richard Mabey’s Weeds last spring. Knowing this, my partner found Wonderful Weeds by Madeline Harley. Next year we’ll (mabey) eat nettle soup and make nettle linctus for the compost, nurture the last remaining bees on dandelion nectar and feast on foraged forest fruits.
So what with operations and all the reading and stewing nettles, Novel 4 may not be along for a while. Phooey to that, as Olive Kitteridge would say.
Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.
Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”
As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)
Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair.
Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journalby Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.
One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)
A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.
My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.
I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.