Thursday, 30 July 2009

Veggie Books: Manhattan Nocturne

I won some Colin Harrison novels in a competition, and Manhattan Nocturne was one of them. Boy, am I glad I entered that competition. It's a great thriller, and the use of language lifts it to another level. As I read it I felt jealous, and embarrassed of all the times I'd used a tired phrase rather than try to think of something new. Everything about Manhattan Nocturne is fresh. I couldn't put it down.

And, of course, it has vegetables in it. This moment occurs when the lead character, journalist Porter Wren, goes to visit the place where the body of a murdered film-maker has been found a year earlier:

...But it was the garden plots that interested me; the corn husks, dried tomato vines, and rotted flower beds separated by curving paths of scavenged brick and festooned with Christmas lights and chrome hubcaps. A small Puerto Rican flag flew over the garden, and despite the cold, chickens pecked around a shack at the rear of the lot. To one side was a bench seat from a car. An immense and eyeless stuffed animal, gray from the weather - a bear or a dog - hung from the wall of the adjacent building, as if blindly guarding the garden or perhaps, more particularly, the statue of Christ standing in the small grotto planted with roses and hollyhocks. All had been blasted by the winter, but come spring it would be a place of lushness and color, of life.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What kind of writer are you?

Over on the Macmillan New Writers blog, erstwhile fantasy author Tim Stretton deliberates over his immediate writing future following the rejection of his latest novel, The Last Free City, by Macmillan and explains, following discussions with editor Will Atkins, that it's now more likely he'll follow an historical fiction tack (The Last Free City and its published predecessor The Dog of the North owe as much, if not more--as Tim admits--to historical military fiction as they do to fantasy, so this makes sense. Probably painful sense, but sense nonetheless. And didn’t I start this post with a very long sentence? More of those to come below. Tim seems inspired by the opportunities opened up by reconsidering his primary genre.

I, on the other hand—like Aliya—have been dabbling with speculative fiction for a number of years now, but also write ‘literary fiction’ (I hesitate to prefix that with the word commercial, as no one’s bought it). I have a novel, sent to the aforementioned Will at Macmillan, that I strongly believe in. (A revamped version of the original is with him now, hoping against hope that he finds a willing pair of hands to take the manuscript from him and kindle it into life, rather than turn it into kindling.) I’ve embarked on a subsequent novel, working a similar seam that, if by whatever chance that first book is picked up, shows I’m attempting to build on its relatively distinctive blend of literary romance and criminal underworld shenanigans.

In the meantime, the co-written contemporary science fantasy Aliya and I wrote together winged its way off to a likely looking agent, along with a sampler from a post-apocalyptic SF novel I’m working on. No, the agent says to the co-written piece, but, hang-on maybe, says the same agent of the SF novel-in-waiting.

So I’ve now made the decision to try and be two writers at once. I’m always working on far too many projects at once anyway, and trying to steer away for new ventures. Now it appears finally--thankfully--those various projects have converged into two very distinct strands. And furthermore, I’ve discovered something very welcome. I’m getting much better at research. I appear to have found a happy medium between learning trivia and writing none of it down, and gaining genuine knowledge about a topic I’m working on and being able to improve my writing in response to that knowledge.

If we were still on LiveJournal, that bouncy little icon at the bottom of the post would be saying ‘:) positive’.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Via Persona

Some nice posts on linguist Christina Wegman's blog, which has a lovely, calm atmosphere and lashings of etymological insight.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Snowboarding looks like fun

The title of this post is from David Isaak's recent look at POV's in fiction. Discussing third person viewpoints he says, '[Patrick] O'Brian makes omniscience look like great fun. But, then, snowboarding looks like great fun, too--but I suspect it's actually rather hard work.'

I'm just reading Mark Rowland's excellent book The Philosopher and the Wolf (How I missed this book on release I don't know, as I'm on Granta's mailing list and used to be a dog trainer with a special interest in spitz breeds (double-coated dogs with curly tails, like huskies, Akita's and the Samoyed I share my home with), and have an active interest in wolf behaviour and philosophy.

In one chapter partially meditating on happiness, Rowlands talks about happiness containing some form of pain or misery. He describes the process of trying to think an idea that is too difficult for you to think, but that thinking on it and around it, you can eventually manage to 'capture' it, or at least hone your hunting skills in much the same way as a wolf might stalk a rabbit. This opinion applies to writing too of course, but where it differs I assume from thinking is that with thinking (and to narrative plotting to a degree, I suppose) the pinnacle of the happiness comes in the Eureka! moment. A point that Rowlands' side-steps (I can't imagine that he would counter it as not being a facet of happiness) is that of finding the groove or being in the zone. He describes boxing as a way to find the zone, but obviously boxing also involves an amount of pain, so this meshes with his assertion of happiness containing a measure of pain.

As a pretty incompetent musician, I have no illusions about my ability, and rarely have the time or inclination to practice enough to become in any way competent, but I am good enough to be able to jam with other people and hit the high of being in the groove. There's no pain involved as I have no illusions or expectation and I could apply the same principle to gardening. I suppose if you look at the entire process, writing for most of us does contain a level of uncomfortableness similar to that suggested by Rowlands, but if you strip away the publishing process, if you're a make-it-up-as-you-go-along writer or a planner with a plan in place, writing in the zone is one of the least painful forms of happiness.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Serendipity & Veggiebox - redux

For anyone out there who liked and is missing Serendipity, I'm resurrecting it, sort of. I want tweets of a magical realist nature addressed to me on Twitter (@neilayres) and I'll retweet the ones I like best. I'll also regularly include the very best in a post on this here blog, with a credit and short bio for the author. Poems and song lyrics are as welcome as prose.

Here're some examples of the kind of thing I mean:

The speaker is a little man, shrunken and bent, who seems to shrink and bend more and more every time anyone calls him

- Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Translated by William Weaver)

Troll brains do not hold many memories. Mostly their minds flicker and ripple like the glossy water in a forest tarn ruffled by the wind

- Kerstin Ekman, The Forest of Hours (Translated by Anna Paterson)

Holy ghosts and talk-show hosts are planted in the sand, to beautify the foothills and shake the many hands

- The Meat Puppets, Plateau

Along similar lines, you can address your veggiebook extracts to Aliya, and she'll no doubt do the same for the best quotes, breaches of copyright notwithstanding (@bluepootle)

Veggie Books: Mary Reilly

The idea of a film about a maid in the house of Dr Jekyll never appealed to me, so it was a surprise that I enjoyed the book so much. Maybe it was the picture of Julia Robert's thin downturned mouth atremble that was unappealing. But in the novel (by Valerie Martin) Mary is not a miserable creature at all. She has strong ideas about the relationship between servants and masters, and about how to be happy, and how to keep happiness. Her own happiness has been taken from her by an abusive father, and she sees something of the same theft occurring to Henry Hekyll at the hands of his apparent friend, Edward Hyde.

This is the month to plant garlic. Mr Bradshaw told us a story that the Queen's cook chews a clove of garlic and then breathes over the royal salad, which made our cook shout with laughter.

I have not spoken to Master, although I see him much. He is always with company or has his head in a book or is going in and out. He tells me a good day, might ask for this or that, or bid me carry a message to Cook or Mr Poole, but no more, and I feel when he sees me I remind him of the house in Soho, which, it seems, he wants to forget.

As do I. I want to tell him, but how can I? I know he has said all will be well, but how can I believe it when I know that between us, nothing will ever be as it was again.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

A man in need

Scott Pack of The Friday Project needs a new pen, and you can help him get one.

If anyone's listening, I'm a cheap ballpoint man myself. And fountain pens are no use, as, like Madame Whiteley, I'm a sinistral and end up with a sleeve smeared in ink and a blotty page.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Veggie Books: White City Blue

I've had this book for years and have only just got around to reading it. Bad me. Still, I'm glad I did. There's something quite passionate in the writing, a strong whiff of desperation about the main character that could be off-putting but instead becomes deeply involving. That's quite an achievement for a book that's about four blokes who like to drink beer and watch football. (I'm just not a football person, okay?)

We went to the pub after that, a big old barn of a place ten miles out into the deep suburbs - somewhere like Uxbridge or Pinner. Again, it was more or less empty, and we drank cold beer under parasols in the garden and ate Ploughman's Lunches with piccalilli and onions. By the time three o'clock and closing time came around, we were beginning to feel sleepy; the running, the sun and the aftermath of the cocaine had given us a kind of perfect languor.

I hear Tim Lott's first book, The Scent of Dried Roses, is also very good. I'll go and find a copy of that, I think. Because I like the semi-colon in the paragraph above.

Friday, 3 July 2009


I've only just found out about bookcrossing

Great idea, and good for authors too. I'm all signed up now.

American date format for registering by the way

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Reading habits

I don't seem to be very good at reading a bit of a book. I can turn off after a page or two easily enough and think, don't fancy that one, but I can also--and this happens more often than not with books I don't finish--try and like a book, and attempt to get into it, and then find myself well over two-thirds of the way through with absolutely no intention of finishing.

It nags at me though, all these unfinished books, maybe they had brilliant endings.

As the ladies and gentlemen from Cadbury's creme eggs would say, How do you do it?