Monthly Archives: September 2012

Lost in Translation? It’s the little things…

A few weeks ago I was in a bar in Cardiff. It was that time of night, stupid-loud and three deep at the counter, when a big guy in his late twenties loomed up at me, bent down and yelled into my ear, ‘You’re very fat!’

Yeah – nice!

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him so I gave a too drunk/too loud/whatever smile. But he thumped a meaty hand on my shoulder and said it again. This time I made the universal hand gesture for I can’t hear you, which I couldn’t properly. I was pretty annoyed though. What a thing to say to a woman minding her own business at the bar. I don’t think I’m very fat – I’m not particularly thin but am I very fat? Am I? Either way he seemed to want to keep saying it until I responded. Eventually I made an, ahem, ‘please go away,’ face and gesture. At which point he shoved past me and lumbered away.

I was torn between wanting to rip his head off and knowing it was better to forget it. Common sense won and I got my drink. Have I forgotten it, though? NO.

Some days later (listening to some boys talking about girls in Tesco) it occurred to me that maybe what he’d said was ‘You’re very fit.’ Okay. I don’t think of myself as ‘very fit’– I don’t think I’m really ‘unfit’ – but I thought I was looking alright and he was pretty drunk and it was stupid loud etc. Maybe it was a misunderstanding? Maybe that’s why he got so ‘annoyed’. Perhaps he was trying, in his lumpen-meat-head fashion, to chat me up when I’d given him the great two finger flag-off. Naturally, I prefer this explanation to the one where he just felt compelled to tell me I was a mega- bloater!

Maybe I missed the point – was one rogue vowel, an ‘I’ instead of an A, lost in translation, literally and metaphorically. It’s the little things…

Writing is a bit like this sometimes.

A lot can be lost between what the writer writes and the reader understands or takes from a novel. I should know. I had my first one star review this week – boy did this woman hate both my books! I was baffled by the intensity of her diatribe. She hated the female characters most, saying they were vain and self-obsessed and, well, not very nice! Sorry, but may I politely suggest that she, though completely entitled to dislike my books, maybe missed the point a bit?

I wasn’t trying to write about ball-breaking heroines, kick boxing secret agents or romantic outsiders harbouring secret yearnings for the gardener/vampire/fetishist next door.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with these characters, far from it, they’re just not what I was trying to create.) I wanted women with flaws and doubts and active self-interest and well, they’re not nice all the time.

Traditionally, stories have always had heroes and heroines but, be honest, how many of us fall into this category? Oh, we like to think we’re the headliners in the story of our lives (You’re very fat!? Bloody hell, I’m the likable, attractive plucky bloody heroine, mate! Aren’t I?)

But what if we’re not? If we’re not the hero or heroine? We’re the villain, or maybe even worse, we’re not either, we’re the supporting players, the ones there’s nothing really special about. The one’s who are neither very fat nor very fit?

In Telling Stories, my first novel, Lizzy asks, ‘Which lies are the worst? The ones we tell others or the ones we tell ourselves?’ I think I know the answer.

In Joseph Conrad’s turn of the century seafaring tale Lord Jim, Jim goes to sea and dreams of the moment he leap heroically into the fray and the realm of myth – his exploits will be remembered in sea shanties and by swooning women forever more. But the ship begins to sink – the moment comes and what does Jim do? I won’t tell you but suffice to say he spends the rest of his life reliving that one moment.

Faced with adversity are you or I really heroic and self sacrificing? Do we think we could be? Know we ought to be, but underneath are scared, vain, wracked with doubt and indecision? Which lies are the worst?

But can you still care about a character who does a reprehensible thing for the right or wrong reasons? Or is weak enough to allow questionable things to happen? I certainly think so.

Sympathy for the devil goes back a long way (before The Rolling Stones sang, ‘Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name.’) John Milton invented it in the 17th century in Paradise Lost when Satan was cast out of heaven, landing on the burning lake of fire, blackened and shorn of his brilliant ‘star of the morning’ Lucifer light. In Satan’s song of his own sorrow he has been unjustly punished for his love of a tyrannical God who demanded absolute obedience. He’s not the villain! He’s the victim! And he knows he’s prey to the coils of his own mind.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” he laments.

Right with you there, Satan!

So was it all a little misunderstanding in the bar? Has Satan really just had bad press? Did Jim merely need a second to get a rewind? Has something been lost in translation? Did Ms Terminator reviewer miss the point?

Don’t ask me. I’m STILL wondering if I’m fat or fit…..or maybe I’m neither…oh bugger…



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Even better than the real thing!

Yes, Downton’s back!  

Autumn’s in the air and the upstairs-downstairs shenanigans of England’s nicest turn of the century toffs will warm us as the nights draw in in Blighty. (For those of you living in a cave or not in Blighty this is the phenomenon that is ITV period drama Downton Abbey, see below).

A few posts ago I give my top tips for alternative English Lit classics for freshers (or freshmen if you’re from across the pond). You know, a guide to swapping those worthy tomes like Jane Eyre for more ‘user friendly’ and ‘fun classics’.  But with the return of Downtown it occurred to me that, if you’re not a student, then faux Victoriana/period drama can be even better than the real thing. Downton’s not based on an actual novel and is possibly all the better for it because the producers have free rein to introduce intrigues, cliff-hangers and lovely frocks without all that boring moralising and (too much) social commentary.

You can even have some laughs with recently penned period dramas. Look at Hunderby which aired on Sky Atlantic this month – a mental pastiche cum mash-up of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Monty Python.

Though clearly a ‘serious’ period drama Downton, and the ‘modern’ period novels, give more bang for your buck, so to speak (literally in the case of the saucy bits you can include that Bronte and Dickens would never have got away with).

But there is a fine line between drama and unintentional hokey Hunderby-ness. BBC and ITV have had a go at adapting some of the most fabulous faux Victorian potboilers in recent years, with varying degrees of success.

Take Sarah Water’s Fingersmith – Lawks governor, it’s a proper Victorian romp, and no mistake. More convoluted than a Christopher Nolan movie (remember Inception, or Memento?) it has whores, pickpockets, crones, foundlings, an asylum, but you’ll still never guess what it’s all about until the big reveal – then you’ll read it again. The BBC TV version ended up far more implausible and less fun though (and poor Sarah Waters’ other Victorian lesbian romp Tipping the Velvet was so badly parodied by comedy pair French and Saunders as to be un-rewatchable.)

But BBC got it right with Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White last year, with the lovely Romola Garai as Sugar, the tart with a heart and a head for business. The book is atmospheric, voyeuristic fun. It’s also completely filthy, in both getting to look at lady of ill repute’s private parts and in it’s excruciating detail of the Victorian reality of the world’s oldest profession.

Both these are highly recommended and don’t be put off by the fact they’re as big as bricks – that just adds to the classic feel!

But if you’ve already read/seen these two fantastic faux classics then try these 1800s homages:


The American Boy – Andrew Taylor. Edgar Allan Poe? As a child? In Stoke Newington?  Really? Possibly…Fact and fiction intertwine with family intrigue at the big house and dark deeds afoot in the formal gardens.

The Great Stink – Clare Clarke. Surprisingly enjoyable story about the London summer when the smell of the sewers caused ladies to faint and drove the MPs from parliament – oh with the added stench of murder and corruption.

Star of the Sea – Joseph O Connor. There’s famine in Ireland, the aristocracy are suitably underwhelmed as they journey to New York on the titular boat with starving refugees beneath their feet. But there’s a murderer on board and the sea and the ship are about to give up their secrets! Bonus – Charles Dickens has a cameo appearance.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. It’s early 19th century England but not quite as we know it. The Napoleonic wars are in full swing and top hats and good manners are all in place. But magical thistle-down-haired men are up to no good in mirrors and two super enchanters are showing off by dabbling in the dark arts – England expects…trouble.

With any of these six ‘five star’ novels you’re ready for a cracking ‘pretend classic’ night in.

So close the curtains, stoke the fire (if you don’t have one sit really close to the radiator) and turn to chapter one. After Downton’s finished, of course!









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The film of the book of the song?

The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar!

Or so Paul Simon started singing the other day when I was in the middle of the hoovering.

Isn’t this one of the best song openers ever? As soon as you hear the intro to Gracelands and that lyric kicks in you’re transported somewhere else. At that dust-busting moment I was pinged back to the summer of my GCSEs – waiting for my results in my mum and dad’s back garden, listening to my Walkman (yeah, remember them?)

Singing along and boogie-hoovering in time to the music I realised that Gracelands is one of those songs that is not just a song (about going to see Elvis) it’s a narrative – a novel in miniature, if you like –set to music. There’s a brilliant opening line, a hinted at dysfunctional family, a woman leaving her man and a road trip with hopes of redemption. That’s just the first verse!

Listen again if you don’t believe me, but I bet you do cos if you’re a writer or a reader you know the power of words (and music) and a few well-placed phrases to work their evocative magic and create a world we can touch, taste and feel! It made me think of how certain music has influenced my writing, particularly the feel and tone of my first novel Telling Stories.  The tale is told by Lizzy, the heroine, in the present day but it flashes back to her student life at Cardiff University. There’s a definite haze of nostalgia (but it’s clear this is the beginning of something far more sinister.)

Lizzy’s Uni life is defined by the music of the Brit Pop 90s, the Blur and Oasis showdown, the weirdness of the Cool Cymru fad with The Stereophonics in the top ten and  Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews belting out, ‘Every day, when I wake up. I thank the Lord I’m Welsh!’ (How we laughed!) It permeates Telling Stories but the soundtrack I was writing to was something far more melancholy. American band Counting Crows, who’ve never been very big in the UK, were an integral part of my student experience and the writing of the novel. Their albums are the soundtrack that seeped into Telling Stories giving it a dark quality – it’s there in the longing, the regret and the disappointment.

Some songs are cinematic in the images and feelings they create. Crows songs have this quality because they’re fierce, regretful, resentful and often very sad, even when the guitars are wailing. My ‘beloved other’ calls it suicide music. As soon as I put it on he pulls faces and makes exaggerated sawing motions at his wrist.

He’s right of course – some of the best writing comes from being abandoned and filled with rage. No one ever wrote a heartfelt novel about being in love with a really nice bloke did they? Songs like Gracelands make us wiggle while hoovering but it’s often the other songs that make us sit down and write. Songs about the bad things people feel, feel guilty for feeling, try to pretend they don’t feel, or wish they didn’t feel.

So if you’re looking for emotional inspiration, don’t be afraid to crank up the stereo and get ready to write!  Here’s my mood-music suggestions for instant character empathy!

Counting Crows-fest

Suspect your hero’s girlfriend is a cold-hearted bitch?  – Miami from Hard Candy will give you instant pages of rage, regret and running away fodder.

Gotta get out of this town baby?  – Round Here from August and Everything After provides paragraphs of haunting, small-town teenage inaction angst.

Channelling old-fashioned tender loving? Colourblind from This Desert Life will make you want to undress someone, real slow..! Worth at least a chapter!


Best of the rest

Trying to channel an intense, destructive romance that won’t end well?

The National – any of the songs on the High Violet album, especially Runaway and Blood Buzz Ohio ( no one really knows what the latter is about but just feel that spiralling anger and impotence!) Multipurpose elegiac brooding for sensitive yet manly heroes! Swoon!


Trying to write about dirty-old-man thoughts? Your character feels old and unloved?

PulpThis is Hardcore from the album of same name – heavy breathing and used hankies abound! Instant sleaze!

TV Movie –lashings of wistful loneliness in less time than it takes to microwave that meal for one…sob!


Need background inspiration for an edgy, urban love story?

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid album (even the title’s poetic).

Try Grounds for Divorce for passion, poetry and thrown pints.

Or Mirrorball for ‘it’s not so grim oop north’ moments of bedroom bliss


Setting the tone for a coming-of-age summer road-trip?

Paul Simon – Boy in the Bubble, from Gracelands – strange and sinister, top-down, blowing through the bayou footstomper for that ‘this can’t last’ end-of-summer feeling.


Go on – get downloading now! Hankies at the ready!

Share your mood music with me on Twitter or leave a comment here.


*Okay I know I hinted last time I was going to ramble about dystopian fiction this week but sometimes you gotta go with the flow (or the beat). I’ll get round to it – it’s not as if the world’s ending…


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It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine!

My mum has always been a massive Charlton Heston fan (okay, bear with me). Many a childhood Saturday tea-time is synonymous with chips and egg on a tray watching Big Chuck on the telly.

For those of you too young to know who I mean, Chuck had the squarest jaw and the broadest chest on the planet. He didn’t half look ‘epic’ in a loin cloth, a robe, even a biblical beard. When he wasn’t playing Moses or Ben Hur or Spanish princes he was the lord of the Saturday Sci- Fi apocalypse.

My mum was the one who introduced me the mega movie events that were Planet of the Apes (adapted from Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet), Soylent Green (based on Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! Thanks for that mum, I still can’t listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral without thinking of the rubbish trucks full of corpses!) and The Omega Man (from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend).

There was something about watching Big Chuck in The Omega Man, wandering round a deserted LA beset by vampires with sunglasses, that just didn’t seem so bad – I was just a kid, not thinking of the impending lack of loo roll or the looming fish finger and Monster Munch shortage so it seemed really rather okay to have all the shops to yourselves, free clothes and the pick of the nice apartments.

Likewise, for the other movies. So what if there were chronic food shortages, Orang-utans in government and awful 70s music? There were no kids to bully you because you rode a crap girl’s bike with a Unicorn stenciled on it and wore catalogue-bought white trainers….If you were Chuck, you were invincible (well, almost, until the end) but before that you had a chance to be a hero, bash vampires/monkeys/cannibals, obliterate all the rubbish like homework and ropey Bros records, and start over.

Be it vampires, ecological disaster, zombies, pandemics, nuclear war or just too many goddamn people having babies, a little bit of the end of the world doesn’t hurt you. Why?  Because we all wonder which side we’ll fall on when the Big One hits – will we be heroes or villains, leaders of the new world order in shining apartment blocks or green snack biscuits?

I think I’d like to be the one with the gun in the reinforced compound.

Don’t believe a little bit of the apocalypse can be fun? Here are my completely arbitrary suggestions to get you started.

Winter’s coming, read the book or watch the film – it’s the perfect time to cuddle up with death, destruction and Chuck!


The films of the books

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson’s study of loneliness and science gone wrong was ‘reimagined’ three times, first with Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth, then by Chuck in a tan safari suit in The Omega Man and then by Will Smith delivering a poignant performance while doing shirtless chin-ups.

Soylent Green – Chuck:AAarrgggh ! Soylent Green is ….’

 The Road – Cormac McCarthy. Definitely not a date movie. Relentless, bleak and utterly compelling, with a bit in a cellar that will haunt you for years.

Blindness – Jose Saramago. People start losing their sight. The ‘sick’ are segregated and abandoned. Literal and moral darkness ensues.


The books

The Death of Grass – John Christopher. All the wheat and grass die, people starve, stiff upper lips tremble. Everyone goes feral in London and the Home Counties. It’s just not cricket!

Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban. Years after a nuclear war Riddley searches for meaning in a forsaken England. Even the language is post-apocalyptic, but stick with it -it’ll change the way you think about God, science and history.

On The Beach – Nevil Shute. The great powers have blown themselves up. But you’re in Australia. The radiation is coming any day now, so you’re waiting, and drinking booze, and trying to have sex and looking after the garden, but mostly waiting… (okay pedants, it was a movie with Gregory Peck – but a very old movie)


The book that’s just bound to be a film

The Passage – Justin Cronin. Vampire apocalypse! Tool up and practice your kick boxing.


The films

28 days later – A Danny Boyle pre-Olympic classic. The rage virus sweeps the nation and Jim and friends go north to avoid the blood spitting zombies. They’ll be safe with the soldiers won’t they …??

Sean of the Dead – Simon Pegg’s moment of un-dead genius. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll want to go to The Winchester for a pint.


Bet I missed one. Doooo tell…the fate of the world may one day depend on it. Leave a comment or tell me on Twitter! 

Coming soon – you think Britain is broken? Try my starter for ten in Dystopian fiction ( No, smartypants. It’s not the same as post-apocalyptic…and I’ll tell you why soon, if we live that long…)





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Great Expectations? Blame Richard Armitage!

Ah, tis that time of year! A new term begins. The Freshers are coming and quite a few of them are in Waterstones picking up the ‘classics’ off the English lit reading list – they’re the ones staring in abject horror at the size of Middlemarch – ready for the inevitable course on The Victorian Novel.

Now, we all know the BBC, and therefore the world, loves a good costume drama. But not many of these Sunday night staples are actually Victorian novels (okay, except Dickens at Crimbo – Gillian Anderson – weirdest Miss Havisham ever!) At least Dickens is caricature-and-family-secret- laden fun. But people’s expectations have been greatly raised (see what I did there) by these ‘fun’ adaptations and the biggest culprit? Mr Richard Armitage, actor – (doff of hat) step forward sir!

Why? Because a few years ago Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South was made into a series staring said actor. Who cares if it’s grim up north int cotton mills if  you’ve got our Mr Armitage, all smouldering like, with northern grumpy accent and making mutton shops look sexy again (almost). So great an impression did Mr A and his facial hair/trousers have on the womenfolk of Britain they set up the Armitage Army (and many other fan sites) to revel in his performance and tight britches.

Don’t believe me – take a looky here.

Mr Armitage is almost wholly responsible for falsely great expectations (oh, I done it again, guv) of the Victorian novel.

You won’t get many Mr Armitage -alikes on that reading list. Wait til you get to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles and discover Angel Clare…

But don’t give up hope… try the alternative list for some classical fun!

Scrap Tess – read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Penniless Michael Henchard sells his wife in a country fair while ‘in his cups, lad’, then gets rich and powerful. Blackmail, murder, sex, wife-selling – the bureaucracy of local government – the cosmic laughing of the fates – oh, the humanity!

Ignore Great Expectations – read A Tale of Two Cities. Tis a far, far better book (hee hee). Old crones, fops, the French revolution, La Guillotine, (quelle Horreur!) and the greatest sacrifice a guy can make for his mate when he fancies his girlfriend.

Forget Jane Eyre – go really gothic and read Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. You’ll be forced to engage with those feminist theories of Mrs Rochester and ‘the Mad Woman in the attic’ so why not read about a mad woman in an asylum with cracking baddies!

Swap Middlemarch for The Mill on the Floss. Well, you’ve got to have one George Eliot (note – she’s a woman!) It’s got class struggle, feminism, unrequited love and a tearjerker, symbolic, global-warming-predicting ending.

Go rebel and read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s secret – original Victorian ‘sensation’ stuff – sort of Eastenders in a crumbling country pile with shameless hussy heroine.  You can argue you’re using it to reveal the way the ‘the canon’ is determined by the received moralist values of the society in question – you might get an extra mark!

Try anything by Arthur Conan Doyle – the man who brought us Sunday night Benedict Cumberbatch, sorry, I mean Sherlock Homes. So what if he believed in fairies?? Deerstalkers on!

But do fall in love with WM Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – orphans, murder, slaves, poison, treachery, the Napoleonic wars, ‘conspicuous consumption’ (?) and Becky Sharp, the best heroine ever – if you don’t love this you don’t love nothing!

PS The lovely Richard Armitage is soon to be in The Hobbit movie – don’t even think about reading any Tolkien….

Don’t agree, Sir? Slap me in the face with a leather glove and demand a duel. Or leave a comment…


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