Tag Archives: 2013

Diversionary tactics

Because this month is a month of waiting, of waiting it out and waiting on response, of biding and tholing, I have little to share here. The circus is in town – the book festival in full swing, but I’m not going to much until the horror event much later. So for now, I thought I’d share some interesting links with you. So at least I might direct you to other, more intriguing places.


1. Matt Bell’s Tumblr. For writers it is a valuable collective of motivating quotes (sans sentiment) and interesting snippets of fiction. His new book, with a very long name, The House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, is out, and is something I have a mind to read, once the current mountain of books is climbed.


2. For Scottish writers and artists, this mountain residency in Banff, Canada, might be an appealing prospect. From the site:


The four artists will be resident for the period in the Leighton Artists’ Colony studios, which are located in a secluded, wooded area on The Banff Centre’s 43-acre campus, providing an ideal space for creativity and intense productivity. These independent residencies offer artists the ability to work independently, as well as to engage within the larger artistic community of The Banff Centre. The successful artists will thus also be able to work collaboratively should they wish.
Each residency will provide:
•    Board & accommodation in a residential artist’s studio
•    All travel expenses
•    All Banff Centre fees
•    Advice, support, expertise and access to sites, curated by the Banff Centre, appropriate to the resident and the project
•    A stipend of c.£1,200 (exchange rate dependent) for the 5-week residency.


3.  ‘Pictures of Lo‘, A thoughtful take by Mary Gaitskill on the problems of designing a cover from one of the 20th century’s most controversial novels, Lolita. While I don’t agree with Gaitskill’s argument that Nabokov was writing a love story (for how can obsession with the image, constructed by oneself and pursued until recognised be love?), there are some brilliant lines:



“For Humbert’s aesthetic infatuation is based on a tyrannical ideal, and cuteness is a kind of ideal — one that is heartless, breathless, timeless, and ageless as Bambi, static and hard-edged, perfect in its way, with all excess flesh and unseemly feeling cut out”


4. Would you like to read the journal of a woman migrant passing back and forth between America and Japan? What if her writing is lovely, full of aches and lyricism, psychogeographic takes, haunted senses of place, slipped moorings and meanings? Here, On The Border.


5.  Maybe you are just hungry. Looking for something that will make you smack your lips, a peanuty gingery warm salad with kale. Tried and tested, multiple times.  That sounds terribly scientific. It is not. Munchy leaves and a slick, satisfyingly complex sauce that takes hardly any time (or measuring) at all.


6. Last of all, and to keep you going into next week, the supremely talented writer Cari Luna has an engrossing – and important – series of interviews on her blog, called Writer, With Kids. Put a pot of coffee on, peer at your children as they watch cartoons or doodle or study for their exams, and read.





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In domestic hours



1. Not writing



2. Ordering work clothes: two simple dresses. It’s summer here. Muggy.



3. Planting a cactus garden. Dainty purple-tipped spikes and fat creamy yellow – blossoms? I’m not sure you can call them that. Growths sounds ugly. But they are an eyeful. A tin bucket full of living textures.



5. Waiting to write, wanting to carve out time to plan, to begin-without-beginning this brand new project.



Wanting to finish the last.



Two mindsets: the stained glass and the light passing through it vs the molten little bubble on the glass-blower’s pipe.


Trying, moreover, to give air to all. To take my time. To arrange things well. To walk outside while we have the light.




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Within new walls to begin again

sunlit window



This new flat is a wreck of unpacking, but  there are ways of disguising that in picture (this will never be an interior design blog). In corners the light washes everything clean. A South-Western facing flat that drinks in the sunset. A small place that feels airy, or will do, once it is set to rights. What it will become to D and I in time, we don’t yet know. Every flat begins again with new occupants, to a certain degree.


But for now it is a place in which to be productive. Since moving in, I have finished up my application for the University of Otago Scottish Writers fellowship and sent it off. It’s rare to find a writing opportunity that I might actually qualify for – but being of Scottish origin and having been part of the diaspora, I think I might be a good fit. But of course, I have no idea who else has applied. My chances are slim, but keep your fingers crossed.


The next and now to be all-consuming thing is that my agent and I have started a back-and-forth edit of Flesh of the Peach. Amongst the clutter, I’ve begun to work at what she has suggested. Just the first five chapters for now. But what a great feeling it is. To make better, to sand the rough edges. Hands just as steady as they can be, though everything else might be in chaos.


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Endless Reads Review: Burnt Island by Alice Thompson

I went out to buy Burnt Island at the urging of a review by John Self in the Guardian – you can read his take here, if you like. It’s a toothsome take on the novel, summing it up on a quick heel-turn.


In short, because you might have taken my advice and gone off to read Self’s review (thank you for returning, by the way) Burnt Island is a weird, unsettling shard of satire, specifically on the writing life. The protagonist, Max Long, a long-term writer low on grand successes, wins a place on the mysterious, other-Atlantic Burnt Island.This is to afford him three months writing time, in which he plans to embark on shoving aside his literary principles and creating the ultimate horror best seller. Of course, the crumbling begins right away with Long encountering the warm, suspiciously welcoming recluse-author James Fairfax. and is beautifully done.


But where is the line to be drawn, between Long’s fictional reality and his fictional design?  Little acidic drips referencing The Shining fall early and with a Jack Nicholsonesq wink, as do echoes of many other film and literary horrors. The levels of rooms, the seabound setting of The Bloody Chamber. Though not strictly horror, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, as Self mentions. And The Wicker Man, with the isolated setting and slightly off-kilter locals. But why is Thompson signaling these parallels? When odd sights – or are they delusions? – start to plague Long, is this par for the course for a writer on the edge, or are we the readers submitting to the self-aware tugs of authorial intent? And why? The ground is tricky, but a tricky we can navigate, like a bog made of raincoats and signs pointing the way. The text remains slippery.


Yet Thompson rolls her tiny, dry sentences at us like circles of bone, all white and hard with marrow inside. Often with a dark, urbane humour. After Max is attacked by Skuas, he takes a visit to the doctor, who dabs the cuts on his scalp some TCP. The sting seems to hurt him worse than the earlier Hitchcockian incident:


He felt he had never known such pain since his agent, on reading his recent manuscript, asked him where the rest of it was.


The self-pitying writer is both willing and unwilling victim of his actions – as writer, as failed husband, as failure at faking his way to a blockbuster, as possible dupe – just as the police officer from The Wicker Man condemns himself by his investigations, and cold blind piety. And we await with puzzled glee the unraveling, in all its ambiguities. Receptive in the way of large, wheeling sea birds, above the jut of a stony, sinister coastline.



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Endless Reads Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson


You are born – hopefully not too strenuous a process for you. You grow up – living through various trials and joys and books and exams and pains of all sorts. You near the end, though you may not be old when the end comes – and you die. Again, hopefully not too strenuous a process for you.


But plenty of people believe the end is not the end. That you get a second chance; reincarnation. In the case with the life of Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life, reincarnation means a re-fleshing into the same life (small note for spoilers ahead).


Ursula, the ‘little bear’ is born countless times on a snowy February in 1910. She grows up in a charming English home called Fox Corner, plays with her variously boisterous and sweet and confiding siblings, lives through both World War One (though it has less impact on her) and World War Two (which has – several times – a literal impact on her), and, at some point along the way she dies. Over and over again. Sometimes with drama, such as her first death at her moment of birth. Sometimes the going is peaceful. Sometimes harrowing – London in the Blitz. Germany too. After each death comes the black bat of darkness, followed by an image of the snow that fell on her very first birthday.


There is reference made to the ouroboros. But throughout these reiterations of life, there is not the sense of smoothness implied in the image of the snake that eats its tail. At least not for the solidly enduring Ursula: she is not privy to the full story. She has only snippets, dreams, omens, to guide her. She makes mistakes. Lives that shatter and fragment too early. Cruelties relived when they could be avoided.  I started to wonder if the ouroboros referred not to her fate, but to that of the reader, rotating at a remove through all the lives lived. Though, of course, all books must end and none infinite, so maybe my analogy falls apart.


While I was disappointed with the lack of philosophical depth and the occasionally obvious turns – World War Two+what is effectively time travel = you guessed it: Let’s Kill Hitler – the story was so seamlessly put together that it was hard to object too much. All in all, Life After Life was in many ways the perfect book for my Hamilton-Edinburgh commute. Non-nonsense, fast-paced and written, in the way all of Atkinson’s books seem to be written, with an eye to the reader and a competent grip on the story, like a person driving with one hand on the wheel, another on the dog that is lolling its head out of the window gazing at the fascinating scenery, threatening to tumble out.




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Endless Reads Review: NW by Zadie Smith



In the midst of moving out of our flat and into our friend A’s place, I sit in a chaos of belongings, writing this review. It seems fitting for this novel – the idea of fragments strewn everywhere, or neat in bags, waiting to be zipped up to some conclusion.


I first began NW on a sleeper train to London, having got the book at its first availability at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August last year. My copy is signed by Smith, and I wrote about the talk she delivered here. Why the long wait between then and now? I lent the book to G, in London and two weeks ago we met up in Glasgow and she gave it back to me. It is a well-traveled object.


As for the book itself, I started back mid-stream, finding that I could remember much of what had happened to the characters. The multitude was engaging and fresh. One of Smith’s great skills is dialogue, and in fact I felt that this whole thing could be made into a radio play quite easily. Londoner phrases I’d never heard and some I knew from my friends, like to ‘bell you’ for phone, ‘gotta chip’ for have to leave now, sprung out. The differences in accents and grammar across different social classes and immigrant groups were also smartly recorded and subtly held up to the reader’s eye, though I have to admit I didn’t get it all – London being its own country, threaded and intersected in complex ways by all these Englishes. Smith, however, gets it.


Or almost all: The scenes with Annie, the ballet dancer aristocratic junkie stood out as a little tin thread amongst the seamlessness of the whole. She sounded like someone who only existed in a play, and only then a monologue, and only then a monologue at some basement showing during the Edinburgh festival, put on to an audience of three.


But that was the only off part about dialogue, at least, as far as it was apparent to a non-Londoner like me. There was maybe too much of it, but since it was so good, and since Smith’s writing doesn’t favour scenic descriptions (leaving the city ‘grey’ to me, a lot of the time – a system of tube stops and street names) it added a vividness that would otherwise have been missing.


So I swooped through this book, once I had it again, and was greatly enjoying it. Until the din of voices calmed to that of predominantly a single character, Natasha Blake. Who was in her own right not as interesting as I’d have hoped. A character can be unlikeable as anything, or as charmingly good as Bit Stone in Arcadia. But to be boring is a crime. She was dully married, dully seeking affairs online, dully wrecked everything, wondered if she had a self and felt dryly at a loss when the answer she judged was no. The last part of the novel, in which she walks away from all devastation and ‘becomes walking’, and brushes with a suicidal impulse, was also dull. It felt like the writer taking the plot out for one last walk before bed. I know that impulse myself, but if it had been new, or if Smith had been able to make the London Blake travels through come alive, then I would have devoured it like I had the rest.


Instead I read to read, to be done. There was a lot to love and admire in this – the effortless weaving of so many voices, the clever scattered pieces here and there – but in the end NW was not enough of a destination, too much a cul-de-sac street.

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Endless Reads Review at PANK: Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

Looking for weird, compelling tales? My review of this collection is up at PANK:


There’s a sense of wholeness to Errantry: Strange Stories which makes it appear, at first, easy to discuss. The subheading is ‘Strange Stories’ and strange they are. Ten stories make up this collection, ten distinct but obviously blood-related kin. Each populated by wonderstruck onlookers or sinister, eccentric figures. Each set in places – Woodlands, coast, mountains, cityscapes – that are uncertain grounds, warped by mysterious forces, but rich in realistic detail. There is a sense of accrual in each story. But what is being accrued is a sense of long lasting dis-ease. An enthrallment that is hard to shake or find out the edges of.


Read more…


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