Wednesday, April 28, 2010


If books can be seen as immigrants into my house, I'm probably not on the BNP's Christmas Card list. In the past couple of weeks my border controls have been woefully lax, and since my household nominally runs on a "one book in, one book out" policy, all my recent immigrants have been illegal. My house is well beyond full up, with reduced opportunities to be read for the indigenous books.

In the past fortnight, the following have eluded the border police:

Philippa Gregory, The White Queen
RJ Ellory, The Anniversary Man
Alastair Reynolds, The Prefect
Mark Billingham, Bloodline
CJ Sansom, Winter in Madrid
James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain
Sean Lang, British History for Dummies
Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man
Paul Strathern, The Medici
Ian Mortimer, The Perfect King

I'm very pleased with that crop - a mixture of genres, and of writers I've been meaning to read for a while (Burke, Ellison) and some old favourites. Considering I haven't read all the books I read for Christmas yet, it's hard to justify gobbling up so many new books, but...well, if you're a reader, you'll understand.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Following my appearance at 'Bookswap' in Chichester last week, I can now be found as well over on the normblog, an excellent source of all things writerly hosted by Norm Geras.

Norm asked me to write a piece for "Writer's Choice", a chance for writers to share their enthusiasm on a favourite book with the wider world. If you can't guess who I picked, you're probably not from round these parts...

More than 250 writers have shared their choices, including MNW stalwarts Faye L. Booth, Alis Hawkins, LC Tyler and Aliya Whiteley. Be warned -- you'll lose many hours of your life browsing the fascinating pieces on display.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On changing tastes and re-reading

Earlier in the week I mentioned my admiration for the novels of Howard Spring, an enthusiasm shared by fellow Macmillan New Writer Frances Garrood. I wondered whether I would still enjoy his novels as much today, not having read them for 15 or 20 years. Frances mused:

Years ago, I read the whole of The Forsyte Saga, and couldn't put it down. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever read. Recently, I tried it again, and couldn't get through two chapters. It happens with old films, too. Does this mean that we have changed, or that the book/film isn't really as good as we first thought it was?
I'm sure we've all had similar experiences. We grow as readers, which means our tastes change; but also our critical faculties develop. Returning to an old favourite, then, is risky. I am not the same person who discovered The Lord of the Rings nearly 30 years ago, and that's reflected in my response to the book now--a rather less adulatory one.

The experience of reading a book is the filtering of a fixed quantity (the text) and our own emotional engagement with that text, which is variable. The Catcher in the Rye will act differently on a 15-year old reader to a 45-year old. If there is such a thing as intrinsic literary value (and we won't even attempt to debate that here...), that value won't change What has changed, then, is our own emotional or critical response.

As a youth, I read a formidable quantity of science-fiction and, simply through the law of averages, some of this was very bad and some was very good. In the intervening years I've re-read some of both: Jack Vance, of course, remains my touchstone of literary excellence, while E.E. "Doc" Smith is revealed as tosh, however amiable and energetic it may be. In this case, clearly, my critical powers have developed beyond those of my 12-year old self (it would be somewhat alarming if the converse were true).

The Lord of the Rings is a more complex case. For at least ten years this was my favourite book; coming to it again five or so years ago, it was a struggle to finish. I don't think The Lord of the Rings is a bad book; what's changed here is my literary taste. I can admire Tolkien while at the same time wanting to see the lightness of touch I find in Vance; and also I now view it through the deconstructive lens of revisionist fantastists like GRR Martin and Joe Abercrombie.

This latter point is significant too. Part of the reason our tastes change is that other writers are reinventing their genres, in a way that will sometimes date earlier work. While there could be no Abercrombie without Tolkien, the way we read Tolkien today owes something as well to Abercrombie. By a curious trick of perception, chronology becomes a two-way street.

By a circuitous route this brings us back to Howard Spring and AS Byatt. Half a century separates These Lovers Fled Away from The Children's Book, but thematically and structurally they are remarkably similar. If I now read These Lovers Fled Away, it's with the experience, the extra filter, of The Children's Book. That has the potential to reinterpret the first book, to redefine my experience. That, for me, is why we should be wary of re-reading old favourites.

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Monday, April 19, 2010


There comes a time when you've read so much fiction that every new book you pick up reminds you of something else. (If it's a Patricia Cornwell book, that "something" is usually her previous book). It's not necessarily a bad thing: there are only so many things to write about, and only so many ways of telling the story. Attempts to disguise this with innovative narrative stances often end badly. ("Hey, let's tell the story in second person plural!"*).

A couple of weeks ago I noted the similarities between Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Barbara Vine's Asta's Book. I had a similar experience reading AS Byatt's The Children's Book, a thoroughly researched, beautifully written study of middle-class family life in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. It reminded me of Howard Spring, a writer who is all but forgotten today, although a best-seller in his time (the 1930s through to the mid-60s). In terms of period, evocative setting, ensemble cast, the melancholy unfolding of the generations and the exploration of the damage artists can inflict on their families, a synopsis of The Children's Book would be all but indistinguishable from There Is No Armour or These Lovers Fled Away. Byatt is more detached in her voice, where Spring has more narrative drive. As a story-teller, I prefer Spring; Byatt I find easier to admire than love. Spring was born in 1885, and so writes of a period he remembers, while Byatt comes from a later generation. With sometimes lengthy , if usually absorbing, disgressions on women's suffrage, public museums and anarchy, The Children's Book sometimes has something of the lamp, but Byatt rises to the arbitrary horror of the First World War.

A quick trawl around Amazon suggests that all Spring's work is out of print now, but if you haven't read him I'd recommend picking up a second-hand edition of just about any of his books: These Lovers Fled Away, Fame is the Spur and My Son, My Son! are all good places to start. Spring writes old-fashioned stories, unobtrusively plotted with vivid characterisation.

Sometimes it's good to be reminded of things you haven't read for years.

*I know Jeffrey Eugenides pulled this off in The Virgin Suicides, but even here I'm not sure it's because of or in spite of the narrative choice).
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writers' Tics

We all, as writers, have phrases or pieces of stage business which unconciously we use to excess. (After an early draft of Dragonchaser I was grateful to a reader who observed that I used the phrase "by no means" with irksome regularity). Writers are generally the worst at spotting their own comfort blankets. Used sparingly, they can be regarded as motifs, but they can become insidious habits with ease.

One of the oddest I've come across is in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. I've now read the first two books (the second good, but not exceptional) and, punctuating seemingly almost every break in the action, the character will pause and make coffee (invariably a thermos*) and a sandwich. It may be a bout of strenuous sex, a boardroom confrontation or a fist-fight with the villain; a spot of computer hacking maybe. Once it's over, on goes the coffee maker and out come the sandwiches. (The editor is as much, maybe more, to blame as the writer for letting this get into print). Thinking is difficult to dramatise, but in detective novels in particular, characters need time to reflect as they ponder clues and revelations; the writer needs to give the character something to do (mine, I suspect, sip from a goblet rather too often) while all the processing is taking place.

Editors have an important role in ensuring variety here; they're much more likely to notice the jar. The version of The Dog of the North submitted to Macmillan had two necessary eavesdropping scenes in relatively close proximity. I didn't help the reader by setting them both in the same place. Will, my editor, noted that this didn't work, and I moved the location of the second one.

What other writerly tics have the rest of you noticed?

*is this a translation issue? Or do Swedes really make a flask of coffee even when it's for immediate consumption?
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Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I am making a rare personal appearance next week, in Chichester at a charity bookswap. As the name suggests, you can bring along your old books, and swap them for somebody else's old books. Writers will be on hand to add gravitas and chat about the business of writing.

It's organised by fellow Chichester writer Helen J. Beal who is raising money to drive an ambulance to Mongolia, where it will then be donated to the local community. (I am not sure how Helen will then get home, once the ambulance is in Mongolian hands; but she is formidably organised and no doubt has considered this). Those of you outside of easy reach of Chichester can donate remotely to this excellent cause.

Helen's blog is full of interesting material and some very honest reflections on her journey towards publication; and even, for those of you of a masochistic nature, an interview with yours truly.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Today's entry shamelessy rips off other blogs crisply engages with other inhabitants of the blogosphere.

First up is an interesting post at the always provocative Bubblecow which tells us that most books don't sell many copies. As a writer this is something I've come through painful experience to recognise, but it's perhaps not such common knowledge in the outside world (even if perhaps not a "dirty little secret" as Bubblecow suggests).

The business model Bubblecow sets out is surely accurate enough - the proportions may be debatable, but publishing houses survive on the profits made by a small number of books, which subsidise the remainder. There's nothing ignoble in that - it would fit a house making money from celebrity biographies to finance haunting works of delicate grace which no-one reads - but it does have implications for writers. The main conclusion to draw is the most writers will not make money - certainly not enough to live on. Most published writers know this, and carry on writing anyway (we really don't do it for the money, although it might be nice to see some occasionally...). The lesson is most valuable for aspiring writers, who should ask themselves the question "Would I still be doing this if I knew I couldn't make it pay?". If the answer is "yes", then at least you're going into it with your eyes open; if it's "no", then a period of serious re-evaluation is called for. Put another way - if your motivation for writing is primarily artistic, you have enough to sustain you; if it's primarily financial, you are either very confident or very deluded.

On a lighter note, I can do no better than end with this delightful cartoon from (filched from Ryan David Jahn), guaranteed to amuse pedants everywhere. (Click on the image to see full-size).

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Friday, April 09, 2010

Too many Tweets...

Some of my regular visitors enjoy sharing the majesty of their inner lives with the world via Twitter, an amusement I've never quite understood. (Even Margaret Atwood has got in on the act).

I rarely find my way to the Daily Telegraph, particularly during a General Election, but this cartoon from Alex raised a chuckle...

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

If you like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo...

A Scandinavian mystery, in which old records eventually reveal the solution to a crime a generation old. If you read yesterday's blog entry you'll probably think I'm talking about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Instead, I'm thinking of a novel with a different tone, but reminiscent of Larsson in many ways. This is Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell's) quiet but immensely absorbing mystery, Asta's Book. Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo put me in mind of it once again - a book that I've admired for nearly 20 years.

It's the story of Asta, a Danish immigrant settling in London in the early 20th century. Asta is lonely in her new home, and her husband Rasmus is not a great help. She begins to keep a diary, but she is an archetypally unreliable narrator, and she has one particular secret she does not share even with her journal. She also writes about a contemporary murder, and seventy years later her granddaughter comes to realise that the diaries hold the key to solving it.

Vine neatly captures Asta's loneliness:

When I went out this morning a woman asked me if there were polar bears on the streets of Copenhagen. She is one of our neighbours and she stands behind her gate waiting for people to go by so that she can catch them, and gossip. She thinks I must be savage and half-witted too because I'm not English and don't speak English well and stumble over words.
It's hardly suprising that Asta withdraws into herself, and her diary, at once direct and duplicitous, becomes a reflection of her character.

I don't write in this book every day. This is partly to keep it a secret from Hansine -- she would try to guess what I am doing and think of something grotesque, letters to a lover perhaps. Imagine it! -- and partly because it's not only a record of what I do but also of what I think. And it's about people.

Asta's Book is both thriller and character study. Vine nails Asta's voice to perfection, and marshals the complex plot with the skill of a career crime writer. Whether writing as Vine or Rendell, all of her work is worth reading -- but Asta's Book is head and shoulders above anything else she's written.
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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Recent Reading

My recent run of absorbing reads has continued over the past week with a couple of crackers. First up was Paul Strathern's The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior (Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia respectively). Anyone who's read my fiction knows my fascination for Renaissance intrigues, but this was the first book devoted to Renaissance Italy I'd read. Unsurprisingly, it resonated with me on many levels. As an exemplar of the charismatic villain, Borgia is hard to beat, his treacheries so extravagant that they would scarcely be credible in fiction. In one memorable episode, he feigned a reconciliation with several enemies, laughing and joking with them as they rode into his stronghold of Sinigaglia; whereupon he immediately ordered them siezed and shortly thereafter garrotted. Unappealing conduct, by any standards, but among contemporary audiences his cunning drew considerable approval. To be Borgia's friend was every bit as dangerous as to be his enemy.

Machiavelli, as a Florentine diplomat, came to know Borgia well. Although their interests were often opposed, Machiavelli came to have an admiration for his statecraft; his portrait of the ideal ruler in The Prince owed a great deal to Borgia.

As a change of pace I turned next to Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had reservations about such an hugely-hyped book. I need not have worried, finishing it in two sittings. Despite the occasional stylistic irritation, the story and the characters were so compelling that it's easy to understand its international appeal. Without descending to spoilers, the "cold case" plot structure is immensely effective, and unlike many such novels it is not marred by a weak ending. I can't wait to read the next two.

I'm now reading AS Byatt's The Children's Book. So far I'm enjoying this too. I admire the unobtrusively skilfull way Byatt manages a large cast without confusing the reader. There won't be many critics drawing a parallel between Byatt and Jack Vance, so this is my claim to originality for today. The distant omniscience of the prose and the dreamily impractical Fabian milieu both have a strong Vancean colour, and the startling puppet show Cinderella will strongly recall Holkerwoyd's puppet theatre in Emphyrio.When we consider that Byatt's novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it's a testament to Vance's skill that his work is not embarrassed by the comparison. (Here, to finish, is an extract from Vance's puppet scene, in which the seven-year old hero Ghyl approaches the puppet-master in the interval).

The intermission was to be ten minutes; Ghyl slipped from his seat, went to examine the stage at closer vantage. To the side hung a canvas flap; Ghyl pulled it open, looked into a side-room, where a small man in brown velvet sat sipping a cup of tea. Ghyl glanced over his shoulder[ …] Ghyl ducked under the canvas, stood hesitantly, prepared to leap back should the man in brown velvet come to seize him, for somehow Ghyl had come to suspect that the puppets were stolen children, whipped until they acted and danced with exact precision: an idea investing the performance with a horrid fascination. But the man in brown velvet, apart from a civil nod, seemed uninterested in capturing Ghyl.

Emboldened, Ghyl came a few steps forward.
“Are you the puppet-master?”

“That I am, lad: Holkerwoyd the puppet-master, enjoying a brief respite from my labors.” The man was rather old and gnarled. He did not appear the sort who would torment and whip children.

With added confidence Ghyl—not knowing precisely what he meant—asked: “You’re…

Holkerwoyd did not seem to find the question unreasonable. “I’m as real as necessary, lad, at least to myself. There have been some who have found me, shall we say, evanescent, even evaporative.”

Ghyl nodded dubiously.
“That story about Lord Bodbozzle—I’m not so sure I liked it.”

“Eh?” Holkerwoyd blew his cheeks. “And why not?”

“It wasn’t true.”

“Aha then. In what particular?”

Ghyl searched his vocabulary to express what was hardly so much as an intuition. He said, rather lamely, “A man can’t fight ten Garrion. Everyone knows that.”

“Well, well, well,” said Holkerwoyd, talking aside. “The lad has a literal mind.” Back to Ghyl: “But don’t you wish it were so? Is it not our duty to provide gay tales? When you grow up and learn how much you owe the city, you’ll find ample dullness.”

Ghyl nodded wisely. “I expected the puppets to be smaller. And much more beautiful.”

“Ah, the captious one. The dissatisfaction. Well then! When you are larger, they will seem smaller.”

“They are not stolen children?”

Holkerwoyd’s eyebrows puffed like the tail of a startled cat. “So this is your idea? How could I train children to gambols and artless antics, when they are such skeptics, such fastidious critics, such absolutists?”
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Research for fantasy writers

I'm back from my excursion to cold, wet North Wales, which I described with tongue slightly in cheek as a field trip. A question that I'm sometimes asked is how, as a fantasy writer, I can do research. The implication is often that compared to, say, historical fiction, fantasy is intellectually lightweight. As one of my relatives memorably, if idiotically, put it, fantasy is easier to write than other kinds of fiction "because it's all made up". Hard to argue with that, really...

The fantasy writer's research is not in practice dissimilar to that necessary for historical fiction. The reader who willingly immerses herself in Georgette Heyer has, unless she is looking very good for her age, no more direct experience of Regency England than the reader of Jack Vance has of the Dying Earth. In both fantasy and historical fiction, the writer has to make real a world which exists primarily in his head. You might come to Patrick O'Brian with greater or lesser academic knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars, but you're entirely reliant on O'Brian to make that world real.

To be successful, fantasy fiction needs to have the same sort of historical and cultural grounding. Things may happen in your fantasy world which are not generally regarded as credible in our world, but unless you give your creation both texture and internal consistency, you're doomed to failure. For fantasy writers in the European tradition, the starting point is often European history (although other cultures can provide some fascinating departure points), very often medieval or Renaissance. That's certainly the case for the kind of fantasy fiction I write.

Given that, it's self-evident that my work is strengthened by reading around that period. (In a future blog entry I'll touch on a stimulating study of Renaissance Italy I've been reading). I don't need to be a scholar of the Middle Ages to write about Mondia, but I do feel more comfortable with a degree of immersion.

It's only one stage further on from that to visit some places that give a sense of the period and, weather notwithstanding, North Wales is pretty damned good for that. This picture of Conwy Castle--one of the best preserved castles of the period in Britain--gives a sense of what field research is like in that context:

The shot deliberately includes the car park, because no matter how well-preserved the original, you still need to do some imaginative processing to strip out the 21st century. Conwy is magnificent: most of the internal walls of the castle survive, so it's easy to get a sense of the proportions of the space when it was in use; and the city walls are also largely intact. A morning in Conwy really gives a tremendous sense of what a medieval walled city and castle might have felt like (the white building to left also serves excellent, if thoroughly modern, hot chocolate).

All in all, the trip was a great success (although the drive back through a virtually snow-blocked Snowdonia didn't feel like it at the time), and it's one I hope readers of The Fall of the Fireduke will feel the benefit of in due course.

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