Tag Archives: writing

Book review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

If Mr McEwan were a footballer, he’d be playing up front for Real Madrid, earning £300k a week – net of tax – and even Cristiano Ronaldo would be in awe of his fellow striker.

For here is a writer at the very top of his game.

The Children Act is his latest performance. At just over 200 pages of incisive prose, you may feel cheated when he’s substituted early in the second half, the game long since won by his mesmerising genius.

Don’t be. Just savour the time he’s out there, spraying the ball around effortlessly, developing play between vivid characterisations and subtle plot, before smashing the ball into the net with a heartbreaking, thought provoking finale.

The main protagonist is Fiona Maye, a 59 year old High Court judge. Successful, respected and compassionate at work, her childless marriage is under pressure at home.

A case comes before her which poses a moral dilemma: the nearly 18 year old son of devout Jehovah’s Witness parents is refusing a blood transfusion, which the medical profession knows would save his young life.

Fiona’s judgement has profound implications for the boy, and for herself.

The author’s meticulous research into the legal profession, as well as into medicine, music and the Jehovah’s Witness movement, underpins every word of the novel. Combine that with deft characterisations of complex, flawed people and The Children Act becomes a rewarding read, however short a cameo performance this is.

Enjoy the game.

 

Just Write

This humble website has been evolving for a few months now, since I hung up my abacus and started messing around with words.

Throughout a long career massaging numbers, my real passion was always really the written word. Like an unfaithful husband with a long-standing mistress, stashed away in a seedy flat at the end of the Victoria line.

I’ve shamelessly been using justretiring.com as a training ground, pumping out functional articles like an over-zealous squaddie spraying bullets from his first semi-automatic.

I’ve even had some stuff published, and I got very excited last week when I was invited to talk about my Hidden Paris articles on Silver Travel Advisor’s radio show.

But now it’s time to Get Serious. Fictionally speaking.

I’ve been stung into action by inspirational words from four published authors, performing on Saturday at a Guardian Masterclass on How to research and write your novel.

Alex Preston expertly curated the event, and talked about idea generation, researching and editing your novel. I read and enjoyed Alex’s first novel This Bleeding City when it was published in 2010, a parable for our recent post credit crunch times. Since then, Alex has written The Revelations and his latest book,  In Love and War, meticulously researched in bellissimo Florence.

Mirza Waheed spoke of the personal and the political.  Brought up in Kashmir, Mirza’s published novels The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves use that place’s troubled history as their backdrop. The Guardian’s offices near Kings Cross were a somewhat less dangerous environment, but in no way diminished Mirza’s message to an attentive audience of would-be writers.

Amy Sackville’s subject was writing place and character, which she has clearly done so evocatively in published novels The Still Point and Orkney.  A place – or space – can be used as a starting point for a novel, as much as character or plot. It can be used to impose constraint on the narrative, as much as unfolding an unending horizon.

Kerry Hudson talked of writing from life. It sounds as though a large chunk of her own life was transferred vividly to the pages of her debut novel Tony Hogan bought me an ice-cream float before he stole my Ma.  Kerry estimated 85% of Tony Hogan was plucked from her own childhood, with a mere 30% in her follow-up novel Thirst. Leave just a little of yourself a secret, Kerry!

Huge thanks to all of you, and to the Guardian. I may not be able to translate a passion for words into the creative spark of fiction, but you have at least given me the inspiration to try.

 

 

Book review – A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is probably best known for his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  It won the Whitbread Best Novel Award in 2003, received a stack of other prestigious literary recognition, and has since become a hugely successful stage play.

I haven’t read Dog. Yet. It’s famously narrated by a 15 year-old boy with Asperger’s. Although Mark says it’s rather a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. The book is not specifically about any specific disorder.

A Spot of Bother, published in 2006, is about George. 57 years old and retired, he just wants to spend time in the studio in his garden. But he has a nasty lesion on his hip, which he is convinced is cancerous. Even though the doctor tells him it’s just eczema. And he’s worried that his daughter Katie is marrying again – the practical Ray – for the wrong reasons. And his son Jamie is gay. And, oh yes, his wife Jean is shagging David, an old colleague of George’s.

George is something of an outsider. He sees the world in a surprising and revealing way. He has a breakdown. He edges towards madness.

Spot is a damned fine read. The plot canters on. Short sentences. Over 100 short chapters. But it’s all driven by the way the author peels away layer after layer of each colourful character’s  human frailties.

Darkly comic, Spot is brilliantly observed. Very funny. And a bit disturbing. Especially if you’re 57 years old and have recently retired. Like me.

But I haven’t got a studio in the garden. And my wife’s name is Gill. Although come to think of it, I did once work with a David…..

Paris – 5 things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor,  a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are 5 ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city, with a few more to follow in a separate article. Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a book along the same lines (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. Cinema La Pagode – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

http://www.etoile-cinemas.com/pagode/salles/

What would you do to impress the woman you love?

Take her to dinner at the hottest place in town? Whisk her away to a château in the Loire for the weekend? Paint those shelves she’s been nagging you about for 18 months?

How about building a completely authentic Japanese theatre for her in the heart of Paris, with an ornate pagoda and a romantic garden?

Photo Jardin 2

Thought not.

But that’s exactly what Monsieur Morin, a well-to-do Director of nearby posh store du Bon Marché, decided to do in the 1890s. He commissioned architect Alexandre Marcel to use the finest materials from the fashionable Orient (China & Japan, rather than Leyton) to create a little piece of surprising magic in the 7th arrondissement.

La Pagode is now a beautifully restored independent cinema, showing interesting films either in the main salle Japonaise (212 seats) or in the smaller salle 2 (180 seats).

Look for the VO sign (Version Originale) to see films in their original language, with French subtitles.

Enjoy the romance and history of this quiet place, take tea or champagne in the bamboo-forested garden before the movie….and forget that Mme Morin left her generous husband in the year of the Pagode’s inauguration.

2. Coutume – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

https://www.facebook.com/Coutume

CoutumeRightly or wrongly, I’ve always had the impression that the French are resistant to change. Some of their cafés and bistros, for example, cling proudly to their 19th century origins, or refuse to dust the chair Ernest Hemingway sat in for 15 minutes in 1926.

So imagine my surprise at finding somewhere in Paris that has embraced 21st coffee culture, where you can find an espresso micro-lot or an extraction à froid as lovingly prepared and à la mode as anything now on offer in the global caffeine hot-spots of Melbourne or London.

Coutume is on rue Babylone, a quiet backstreet in the 7th arrondissement. Along with your caffeine fix, you can grab an excellent breakfast or brunch….but it’s the coffee most people are here for.

It’s a very cool, understated place that immediately – though sadly only temporarily – makes you feel 20 years younger. Shabby chic décor, plain white tiles that wouldn’t look out of place in the loo, and hip music playing quietly in the background all combine in perfect harmony with your espresso from Brazilian and Burundi blended beans.

Head to the communal table and Slow Bar at the back of the café to hang out with the real coffee cognoscenti, sipping an aero-press as you swipe your tablet screen or argue about French politics.

3. L’Affineur’ Affiné – rue Notre Dame de Lorette, 9th arrondissement

You’re not going to Paris to enjoy a low-calorie, cholesterol-free, clean-living few days, are you?

Cheese, wine and bloody red meat are as de rigueur in Paris as a hamburger in NYC. Or as a lettuce leaf on a Champney’s detox break.

Sober vegetarians, tear up those Eurostar tickets now!

Take some time out to worship at the altar of cheese at L’Affineur’ Affiné on rue Notre Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement, just south of Montmartre.

With over 120 fromages available, the charming young owners Morgane and Matthieu will help you decide what to buy from the shop for your picnic, or to take back on the train if you fancy an empty carriage.

But for a really good experience book a table and linger in the small restaurant for brunch or lunch. From a limited but interesting menu, I went for the 5-cheese platter. They serve up what they think is “thriving” that day, together with a matched wine, like a sommelier recommending a Monbazillac with the foie gras.

 

I enjoyed decent sized servings of Sainte-Maure (goat’s cheese from Touraine); Tartufo (truffle-infused Italian from combination of cow and sheep); Napoleon (sheep’s cheese from the Pyrenees); Munster (creamy cow’s cheese from Alsace); and Roquefort (classic creamy southern French blue from sheep milk). All with excellent, unlimited artisan breads and a fruity jam. And a green salad to delay hardening the arteries for a few hours….

Eat in the recommended sequence. Drink a glass or two of matched wine. Die happy.

4. Shakespeare & Company – rue de la Bûcherie, 5th arrondissement

Love books? Hunt down Shakespeare & Company, a place with so much literary history you can hear Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller whispering in your ear…

Now located on the city’s left bank, just opposite Notre-Dame Cathedral, there are two separate entrances.

On the left is the antiquarian book store, with musty first editions and a space so so small they ask you to respect the 5-person limit.

Next door is the main shop, crammed to the ancient rafters with English-language books and well worth a couple of hours of your Parisian time.

The current premises were opened in 1951 by American Francophile George Whitman, on the site of an early 17th century monastery. I think some of the original floor tiles may still be there…

This reincarnation was founded to carry on the legacy of the legendary Sylvia Beach, another American who set up the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919, in nearby rue l’Odéon. Here the most famous writers, artists, poets and flâneurs of the day would gather, and it was only the occupation by the Germans in 1941 that extinguished the place’s literary spirit.

Today, Sylvia Whitman carries on the legacy of both her father and Sylvia Beach, preserving a very special oasis for book-lovers amongst more notable and well-trodden Paris landmarks.

Don’t leave without buying a book. They’ll affix a special stamp, insert a poem and a little piece of history from the many writers and travellers who have spent time at Shakespeare & Company for almost the last 100 years.

5. Hidden Paris Walking Tours – www.hiddenparis.fr

I’m sure all adventurous Silver Travellers enjoy exploring a city, wandering aimlessly from museum to museum, café to café, via labyrinthine streets and alleyways in which you’ll inevitably get lost.

But sometimes it’s also good to have a little local expertise to help you find your way around an area, and to dig deeper into the local history, culture, nooks and crannies.

Hidden Paris Walking Tours provide such insight, three Parisiennes leading walks around Montmartre, Saint-Germain-des -Prés, the Latin Quarter, Belleville and the Marais.

I went on the Saint-Germain tour with Eglantine. She led me and just two other inquisitive travellers through hidden alleyways, into exquisite chocolate shops and past the house where Monsieur Guillotin lived, practising his new invention out on sheep in the cobbled street outside. She showed us the cafés and bistros where intellectuals and artists have hung out for over a century. She led us into the covered market to chat with stallholders. And she took us to an underground car park, down several levels on a dingy staircase, so that we could see some of the original city wall from the 12th century.

90 minutes for just €20, and a discretionary tip. Good value for real local knowledge…especially if you can persuade her to give you the digital key that opens the door to all their own favourite secret places in Paris.

Movie review – Her

Wow, those actor types are good at, well, acting.

The same guy who was mesmerising as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and victimised poor old Russell Crowe in Gladiator, is unrecognisable as a quiet writer in Her.

A bespectacled and mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a master of words and technology who crafts romantic letters for others, while his own marriage disintegrates.

But he does find real love with his new computer operating system. Yes, he forms a deep relationship with the Artificially Intelligent Samantha, who caters to his every need and understands him in a way no physical woman can. Understandable perhaps when voiced by a throatily sexy Scarlett Johansson.

I won’t spoil the way the story develops, but Her is a perceptive allegory for our technologically driven lives, and wholly believable despite the outwardly far-fetched proposition. Well, almost.

Directed by Spike Jonze, with outstanding urban cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and a brilliantly evocative soundtrack from Arcade Fire, this is a thought provoking film that will make you look at your computer with new eyes. And want to upgrade your operating system.

Book review – Us by David Nicholls

I feel like I’ve grown up with David Nicholls.

Starter for Ten, The Understudy and the global phenomenon One Day. All written in a similar style, full of wit, poignancy and offbeat characters, I wonder how autobiographical each one is….

Us is a bitter-sweet dissection of the relationship between Douglas – a structured scientist and traditional disciplinarian – and Connie, his wayward, beautiful and artistic wife.

After 20 years of marriage Connie announces that she’s probably leaving Douglas. But they agree to go ahead with their Grand Tour of Europe, probably the last family holiday with Albie, their stroppy and lost 17 year-old son.

The holiday doesn’t quite go to plan and Douglas ends up confronting some of his demons in a series of helter-skelter misadventures across Europe, few of which were on his written itinerary.

As always, the writer’s characterisation is brilliant. Douglas is maddeningly unable to cut Albie much slack, trying to impose a scientist’s logical thinking onto a confused teenager in search of anything but structure, at the same time as Albie wrestles with his own challenges

The Grand Tour mishaps are neatly interwoven with the history of Douglas and Connie’s relationship, and other incidents that give some understanding of the present father and son dynamic. If there is any dynamism in something that’s so broken?

I embraced Us in much the same way I described bookish immersion here.  And I’m already looking forward to the movie version of Us, anticipating who might play the main characters in this deftly woven story.

And please don’t make us wait too long for the next instalment of your literary life, Mr Nicholls……

Book review – Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace

I’ve just finished one of those books where you’ve become so engaged – emotionally invested as the psycho-babblers might say – that you’re in a quandary over how to read the last 100 pages.

You’ve come to love the characters so much that you’ve finagled yourself into the narrative too. Well, they won’t notice, will they….?

You want to luxuriate in that booky pleasure and become one of their inner circle of off-the-wall friends….but at the same time you really want to know how the quirky plot will get resolved.

Welcome to the fun and immersive world of Charlotte Street, Danny Wallace’s first novel, published in 2012.

It’s all about a man who one night helps a girl. Just for a second. And there’s a moment between them. But then it’s over. She disappears. But in his hands, he realises he’s still got something of hers…

Her disposable camera. So what should he do? Develop the film? Or forget about her? He develops the film. Of course he does. And he looks at her photos. And that’s when he spots something very unusual indeed…

That’s the official synopsis, lifted from Danny’s website. But it’s really more about the characters than the plot. Well, the plot is clever and funny….but as you turn the 400 pages you live and enjoy, sometimes suffer, the characters’ lives with them long before the clever, funny plot resolves itself.

The narrator and central character is Jason Priestley. No, not the Beverley Hills 90210 Jason Priestley, as Danny’s Jason frequently has to explain.

He’s been a knob. He has a shot at redemption, but blows it. Several times. He gives up hope. He redeems himself just in time. He regains hope.

But wow, the story is weaved brilliantly around that over simplified summary of Jason’s character using some original plot development techniques and a motley crew of friends and passing acquaintances.

I get the feeling Danny is clever and funny. One of his writing techniques is clever and funny repetition…like always mentioning that Jason lives with his best mate Dev on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn’t.

But it’s a heartwarming, emotional, witty, sad, insightful novel that I know you’ll enjoy too.

And yes, it’s also very clever and very funny.