My latest hypnotic read: The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

The Porpoise is a book of two halves, two worlds, two dimensions, myth and reality, now and then, all of which blends into one whole and then unfolds outside the boundaries of time and space.

A mother dies in a plane crash and her baby is cut out of her womb. The baby-girl’s father transfers to her his love for his dead wife, but his love (or perhaps it is veiled hatred) is selfish and warped, expressed through incest. A young man tries to save the girl, but is discovered and pursued by an assassin sent after him by the father. The girl is trapped but, at a great personal cost, escapes into the ethereal realm of her fantasies, thus freeing herself from the unbearable reality she has been forced to share with her father all her life. And this where each of the characters crosses into the other world. That world isn’t kinder or better. It is equally dangerous and even more brutal – a typically fatalistic setting of a Greek myth. Their stories continue under a different guise: the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre (inspired by the play by Shakespeare), starring Pericles himself and his faithful companions, as well the incestuous King Antioch, the treacherous Dionyza, the tragic Chloe, hers and Pericles’s daughter, Marina. They all face cruel challenges, survive betrayal and death, and are tested and punished in ways that have nothing to do with what we would consider justice.

The writing is urgent, taut, engrossing. The book is written in the present tense, which lends it even more urgency. No time is wasted on the conventions of dialogue, or on superfluous adjectives. I was gripped by every new development and swept away in its current. Even though the plot jumps between different characters and eras, it all seems so immediate and intimate, and the characters are so vividly drawn that I had no problem re-engaging with them. The descriptions are dynamic – you watch, rather than read them, like this marketplace:

“He is in the alleyway again. A blind woman is doing conjuring tricks, coloured pebbles appearing and disappearing in her dancing hands. He turns a corner. A boy has stolen a loaf. The baker curses but does not give chase. The boy is a rabbit vanishing into brambles. He turns another corner. A donkey lifts its tail and sprays wet shit all over the white toga of a man at the adjacent stall. The crowd applaud. Pericles leaves the market through the triple arch of the eastern gate and stumbles down the zigzag cobbles to the agora.”

Last night I read well into the early hours of the morning, unable to tear myself away from my kindle until the last full stop. An unstoppable and highly original tour de force.

The Thieving Writer’s Syndrome

I imagine every writer suffers from this affliction: wherever we go, whomever we meet, whatever we hear, see and read – we steal it. Whatever we touch turns into a story, which we write greedily and for which we claim sole ownership.

It’s called “copyright”.

We don’t want others to copy our work. We make them pay for it even though, in the first instance, we have stolen it.

I do it all the time. It has become a habit of which I am barely aware. Every person I ever got to know will sooner or later make it to my books. So, beware! Avoid me if you care for your privacy. Or your mortal right.

The same with places. I nick every place that I visit. At some point I will pull it out of my back pocket and it will become a setting for my story.

All writers do it.

On my recent trip to the Canary Islands I discovered that a lot of stories that I would like to write had already been stolen and written by others. Like so:

1. The Odyssey (Sirens calling to Odysseus)

P1080655

2. For Whom the Bell Tolls

P1080666

3. Robinson Crusoe

P1080645

4. Guns of Navarone

P1080668

5. The Old Man and the Sea

P1080667

6. Treasure Island

P1080633

The Testaments – how to write a perfectly original sequel

P1080718

It is often the case when a sequel to a novel or a film is just a watered down version of the original. It has the same protagonists facing the same dilemmas with a few tweaks to the time and place setting, and a few flashy gimmicks and new characters thrown into the mix to refresh the plot. Think Star Wars.

Authors (like myself) who write series have to be very conscious of templates, repetition and stagnation. Yes, the heroes of the series grow on our readers and yes, they have to be presented with consistency. But everything else in every new sequel has to be fresh, surprising and curious: a new bookish land yet to be discovered and explored. Otherwise, it all becomes stale like the same stretch of the same congested road a commuter gets stuck on every day. Even the most ardent fans will grow bored and frustrated.

The Testaments are a lesson on how to avoid the pitfalls of sequels – the curse of the sameness. The first-person narrative moves away from June. It is now the infamous Aunt Lydia, and two teenage girls (one brought up in Gilead and the other one in Canada), who take the centre-stage. Their stories are vivid and engaging. I was guessing, I was speculating, I was biting my nails – all the things you do when the plot draws you in. The thought-provoking message of The Testaments did not detract from Atwood’s cracking story telling.

Not all of the Booker Prize winners found favour with me as a reader. Some of them I started only to find myself overwhelmed with the heavy theme or the author’s eloquent philosophical referencing. So I wouldn’t bother to read on. Atwood has a message, but that message is delivered subtly, without overpowering the story or dwarfing the characters. And that is the beauty of The Testaments.

 

Anna Legat: My Guest Author: Attorney, Waitress, and Librarian – well-travelled Jill of all trades

Today, I am visiting the versatile crime and contemporary fiction writer and my fellow Headline-Accent author, Jane Risdon, to chat about Gillian, formally known as DI Marsh. Her latest case is that of Haji (aka Sandman) an Afghani wars veteran on a mission of revenge and destruction.

Discounted kindle and paperback of Sandman

Jane Risdon

https://www.facebook.com/AnnaLegatAuthor/ Anna Legat

Today I am really pleased to welcome Anna Legat back to my blog. We share the same publisher, Headline Accent.

She first appeared here in 2016 and she has written more books in her fab DI Gillian Marsh series since then…

Find out about Anna:

A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna Legat has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She read law at the University of South Africa and Warsaw University, then gained teaching qualifications from Wellington College of Education (Victoria University, New Zealand).

She inhabited far-flung places where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. She writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Read about the series she has written:

DI Gillian Marsh is the troubled heroine of my crime series, which include

View original post 1,042 more words

First, there was the Word – The Handmaid’s Tale

handmaid

Between watching the last available episode of June’s story and opening –with the utmost care, as the author urges me to do on the cover – The Testaments to read what happens next, I reread The Handmaid’s Tale.

The TV series is based on the book. In its own right the series is powerful, uncompromising, thought-provoking. It is also full of dramatic tension, twists, visual effects that burn into your skull, fast pace between now and then, as well as amazing acting – I mean, a-ma-zing. It is brilliant TV. There are very few writers out there who would refuse having their novels adapted for performance. Whether it is for the stage, the radio, television or cinema we want our stories to stay alive and continue to be re-enacted for our audiences, be it readers, listener or viewers. And looking at it from the other side of the coin, there is no film nor theatre or radio play without it being written first. As the famous first line of the most-read book in the world says, First there was the word.

But that doesn’t mean that novels should be written in scenes or film frames. The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t. Reading it, you would think that it is too retrospective and too abstract to ever qualify for adaption. But you would be wrong. Novels – great novels – provide inspiration, a theme, a focus, a feel. Adaptations run away with that and develop it into scenes, frames, events and twisty plots. One does not detract from the other. To the contrary, one feeds off the other. I took note of that as writer: it is written in big red letters in my little black book.

I loved both the series and the book though the series took several liberties with the characters and the plot. Despite that, The Handmaid’s Tale remains instantly recognisable.

The genre provides interesting dilemmas too. You may know from my earlier blogs that I am genre averse. At first sight you would be tempted to classify The Handmaid’s Tale as sci-fi – it is about the future. But it isn’t. Atwood refers to it as speculative fiction. This term fits perfectly. It is about our world today as it may or may not evolve. The chances are that it will. If you believe that, the speculation draws you in and it becomes your alternative reality (like it or not). And when the book your read becomes your reality, then you know you’re reading a masterpiece.

Sandman – an expert opinion

Sandman review Major AFAn email arrived in my inbox from a retired British army officer. He wished to share his thoughts with me about Sandman (book 4 in the DI Marsh series). I read his email with a flutter in my stomach: a mixture of excitement and trepidation. After all, this was an expert in the field of warfare, and he was referring to my book!

He wrote:*

“I am not able to offer an erudite, literate assessment of Sandman however on a visceral level the book is, well, it just …  ‘works’. It is entertaining, absorbing, addictive and well structured or, in other words a jolly good read. I enjoyed your book, my wife enjoyed your book and now my daughter is reading – and enjoying – your book.

Your grasp of the realities is sublime. The heaviness of a German Toy. The sullen, slack, dead weight of a body. Anger and adrenaline. Detachment and retreat from emotions.

You have quite captured the bleak landscape of killing. You have understood the realities of war, radicalisation, anger and the practicalities of survival in a foreign land.

Medals. Your Sergeant Butler won the Military Cross in the Falklands. […] at the time there was class distinction in all walks of life, even gallantry. Richard Butler would not have been eligible for an MC in 1982, his award would have been the Military Medal.

Magnum. The Magnum .44 is an awful gun. It is extremely heavy with a vicious recoil, making accurate shooting very difficult indeed. It is also very expensive and the ammunition is hard to obtain. It is however a superb weapon if one is very close to a target and one has strong wrists… !!

The Magnum? Good and bad – the parsons… A veritable conundrum. Dirty Harry, .44 Magnum cartridge and the power of a shotgun. But expensive, rare and hard to use. The S&W 29 is a blood heavy gun…

If your terrorist wanted a firearm, then something from the bloc would be far easier and cheaper. Makarov. CZ75. Second hand P38? Cheap, anonymous and easily found.

Or American – 1911, Colt. German – Walther.

The ending of your book, hard and fair. Have you left room for another chapter? Is the tale not yet complete? Or is there a new story to tell?”

I am so chuffed with this feedback that I could scream the roof off the house! It’s constructive and honest, and at the same time, it is positive! A jolly good read! he said.

It is often said, but not often enough, that book reviews are the writer’s life support. We feed on them. They help us build meaningful relationships with readers. Praise sends us orgasmic with pride. Brutal criticism has its value too, as long as it is constructive and not designed to hurt. Criticism is like bitter-tasting medicine – we don’t like it much, but once we digested it, we find that it helps us get better at our craft. So, dearest reader, never hesitate to share your reviews, no matter how short. Writers crave them. When they finally arrive we feast on them, get drunk on them, and crave more.

*I omitted personal detail – if the gentleman wanted to make them public himself he would have posted his thoughts somewhere on Amazon or Goodreads, though perhaps he is unfamiliar with those platforms.

 

The curse of genre and what’s wrong with the runt of the litter

P1080286

I won’t choose a book to read because it is of particular genre. I won’t read a book because of a label dangling from it which screams THRILLER, ROMANCE, HORROR or whatever else. The label means nothing to me. I just want to read a good book – preferably, a brilliant book. I want a book to make me think, laugh and cry, get angry, care for someone in the story and keep thumbing through the pages until the end. And after that I want to remember, reminisce and wonder: what a fantastic piece of fiction I have just devoured.

And, naturally, I want to write that book too. Many of them, to hell with genre.

But it seems people like the clarity of genre. The readers reach for their favourite genre before -if ever- they contemplate something outside their comfort zone. Publishers want that clarity, too. I’m such a lucky, bum-in-butter writer to have landed myself a publisher – the dynamic, feisty Accent Press. They gave home to my DI Marsh detective crime series and now to my new cosy crime trilogy, The Shire Mysteries. But they didn’t accept every book I shoved in front of their noses. Oh, I did have to deal with a rejection and I am still reeling from it. Remember Paula Goes to Heaven?

At first, I rejected that book myself – abandoned it like a prodigal mother leaving their new-born baby on the step of a church, hoping God takes care of it, because that baby isn’t quite perfect, not quite viable. It took me more than a year to go back to fetch my abandoned manuscript. I have been re-writing it, working hard to make it better. And I have been asking myself what is wrong with it.

It’s the genre, you see. That book does not belong to any distinct genre. It could be classified as women’s contemporary fiction but for the supernatural elements. It could be humour, but it is quite tragic in places. I could be paranormal fantasy, but it isn’t – not entirely. So, I think it’s the ambiguity of genre that renders it flawed. My heart bleeds for I love that book as I love all the others. But the others are happy and they thrive in the world. This one – this one is unwanted. I will make it better and I won’t give up on it, but sometimes you start doubting yourself and your commitment to that runt of the litter.

It is a little bit like that, isn’t it? Like with puppies. Most people want a pedigree dog with all the trademark characteristics its breed is supposed to possess. But, you know, cross-breeds can be wonderful. They ARE wonderful! They have it all: pointy ears and curly tails, shaggy coats and white socks. And they have as much bounce and give as much joy as your average Labrador, poodle or Yorkshire terrier out there. The same with books: their genre – their breed – shouldn’t matter as much as their unique bookish personalities and what they have to say.

I thought of that when reviewing Ruth Rendell’s A New Lease of Death yesterday. It is categorised as crime fiction. It may well be, but it is so much more diverse. Psychology, society, family, prejudice, vulnerability – everything is there. Narrowing it down to a sequence of steps to detect the killer wouldn’t give it justice. Summing it up as a damn-good book would.

I may be wrong. Maybe it is important for a book to belong to a particular genre? Maybe classifications in fiction are as helpful as classifications in biological sciences? Are they?

Sandman, the conspiracy of outcasts

Sandman review Charlie Laidlaw2

Just off the genteel Quakers Walk weaving its way amongst rolling fields towards Devizes’ White Horse sprawled upon Roundway Hill, a timid narrow footpath dives into a deep wood. The path is frequented by shady individuals: most of them skinny and unkempt, dressed in threadbare garments, looking older than their actual years due to what one would describe as falling on hard luck.

I once followed that path. It took me down a slippery slope and across a lazy stream towards a well-camouflaged network of under-the-scarp caves. Their existence was betrayed by rugs flapping in entrances and sheets of corrugated iron wedged on top of them. There were also signs of a campsite, a stack of firewood and a few empty bottles and drugs paraphernalia scattered around. The place had a distinct vibe of alienation, depravity and wretchedness about it. It was the homeless’ colony.

In the bushes not far from the path, I heard grunting noises. A quick reconnaissance revealed a couple engaging in the act of fornication. Out in the open! In broad daylight! Those were my first indignant reactions to what I was witnessing. Later on however, upon further reflection, I concluded that I couldn’t really expect the homeless to go and get a room, could I?

That god-forsaken place would a few years later make a perfect setting for Sandman. Haji had to find a hiding place, hole up in there and stay under the radar for days. He had to hide in plain view. He had to blend in. He had to look like he belonged. An Afghan outsider in an alien land, he could not book a hotel in the city or waltz into a quaint village pub in search of low-key accommodation. But he could sit around a campfire with a bunch of like-minded outcasts, and look like he was one of them. They were as disenfranchised as he was. The pariah status was his and their common denominator.

But was their shared existence on the outer perimeter of respectable society enough to give them strength in togetherness – well, let’s see…

Sandman is out tomorrow, 11th April 2019, the fourth instalment in the DI Marsh crime series.

Inside the mind of a cold-blooded killer

Sandman (1)

When I decided that the hero – or rather anti-hero – of my next book would be a terrorist who crosses the width of the earth to inflict death and destruction on the West, I knew I had a tough nut to crack: getting into his head.

I didn’t want to make it easy for myself. It would be all too simple to blame it on the radicalisation of some hapless 16-year old by the social media frenzy. I wanted my villain to have a past, a life before he died inside, a background in the shape of a nation, a country and its history. I didn’t want a brain-washed, new-born fundamentalist or a convert who would need some external, divine intervention in order to grow his own backbone.

So, I found 60-year old Haji, an Afghan veteran of the Soviet War, a scientist educated in the best schools in Moscow, an agnostic, a man open to western values, a rational man, an artist, a family man. You could say, I found a good and ordinary man who turned to terrorism before my eyes. And now, I had to give him reason and credibility. I hope I succeeded on some level.

A lot of research has gone into Sandman. I knew of course first-hand of the effect Soviet rule had on all its satellite countries, of the oppression and the tight grip they had on their neighbours’ politics, security and people’s everyday lives. But I didn’t know the unique Afghan perspective: its rich religious, ethnic and historical tapestry. So, I read all I could about that country and I learned, and I was amazed. It is astonishing how little we, the so-called fat cats of the West, know of any other place on this planet! We are dangerously Eurocentric, and to survive, we have to reach out and find out how the other half lives. But that’s just a small reflection.

Going back to my research for Sandman, I must acknowledge a brilliant book by Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Without it, Sandman would be a shallow puddle of guesswork.

Sandman is due for publication on 11th April 2019. It is ready to pre-order on Amazon and with the Publisher, Accent Press.