Tuesday 31 March 2015


The last fortnight has been rather frantic.  The Infant Trefusii and I have our birthdays in a mid-March Piscean cluster, which always creates its own kind of chaos, I hosted Andrew O'Hagan at The Books That Built Me, went to the Basel Watch Fair, collapsed in a heap, picked myself up, went to Paris to see more clients, and today I'm in Milan for a lunch at Villa Mozart, the beautiful home of jeweller Giampiero Bodino for a lunch with the super-yacht owning readers of Boat International.

Added to which, a number of work deadlines fell on top of me, like opening the door on an untidy cupboard, leaving me clutching my season ticket to The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. The best one can say is that all the travelling has given me an excuse to escape into novels, making a journey into someone else's imagination is the only holiday I can take at the moment. 

The Dynamite Room is Jason Hewitt's first novel, the thoughtful, polished product of his Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa: a follow up is due in June. Set in a remote Suffolk village during the early part of the Second World War, it tells the story of Lydia, a resourceful eleven year old, who has made her way back to her family home after running away from Wales where she'd been sent as an evacuee.  She reaches her house only to discover her family has disappeared and the surrounding countryside is deserted. Soon she's joined by a German soldier, who will kill her unless she does everything he says. Hewitt deftly conjures a convincing portrait of a serious, determined little girl, coping in her own way with being held hostage by the mysterious German, as we slowly uncover his past and his purpose as the novel builds to its tragic conclusion. You know it can't end well, but nor can you look away. I like it very much for the ambiguities it sets up - we're awfully sure the Germans are the baddies, but in any war, does belonging to the opposing side automatically make you the enemy?

I'd like to draw lots of interesting parallels between The Dynamite Room and Lissa Evan's Crooked Heart - both novels feature unlikely relationships between rather lonely, precocious children and grownup strangers, and are set against a backdrop of wartime Britain, but I might save this for when I write about the next Books That Built Me - Lissa Evan's is my guest at The Club at Cafe Royal on 28th April (click on the Books That Built Me logo top right for more details). In the meantime I'm very much looking forward to Hewitt's next novel, due in the Summer. 

Fortunately, Paris Gare du Nord is the end of the Eurostar line, or I'd almost certainly have missed my stop, so engrossed was I in Eliza Kennedy's debut novel, 'I Take You'. Lily Wilder is getting married, but as her wedding day draws rapidly closer, her behaviour is much closer to a wild-eyed party child than a bride to be, drinking from dawn to dawn, and shagging just about anything that takes her fancy, including her brilliant archaeologist fiance. I've made it sound like chick lit, and it does have all the page-turning pleasures of an airport novel, but Eliza Kennedy is a much more accomplished writer than that, with a quick, dry wit and an ability to break all the novel-writing rules without breaking the novel. There are few novelists, let alone debut ones, who are able to create an appallingly badly behaved, utterly transgressive heroine and then allow the character to carry the story first person. What I loved is that really, one ought to find Lily Wilder beyond the pale, and yet one loves her despite her self-made car-crash of a life.

Anyway, if I don't post this, I'll end up on another plane and I can't write and fly at the same time - the seats in front are too close and I'm so long -sighted that I need the laptop at some considerable distance if I'm to be truly comfortable. I was looking at some bloke, hunched over a very high powered looking powerpoint, amending a sales pitch to a massive multi-national, and I saw he'd written 'The Basic Tenants of Our Proposal' which sent me apoplectic. For two pins I'd have corrected him, but imagine if he'd flipped out - aeroplanes are very confined spaces, and people don't always take kindly to Being Told.

Thursday 5 March 2015


I started off writing a post wondering how it is that, eighty seven years after Universal Sufferage, forty years after the (not awfully effective) equal pay act, fifty five years after the introduction of the pill, forty eight years after the legalisation of abortion, thirty six years after Britain got its first woman Prime Minister (whatever you might think of her politics), and twenty four years after the criminalisation of marital rape, we seem still to be  ceding power to men? 

Why are only a quarter of MPs women? Why are there more male CEO's called John in the world than there are female CEO's named anything at all? Of the 1112 director positions in FTSE 100 companies, why are fewer than 18% held by women? What have we been doing for the past forty odd years that the corridors of power are still pretty much the exclusive preserve of men? How is this so in 2015? 

Anyway, I started off writing about all of that and realised that all I had achieved by writing it was winding myself into a coil of impotent rage. So I think I should stop being angry and start being effective. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to change the world in time for international Women's  Day on Sunday, but I'll have a go. 

Wednesday 4 March 2015


I'm reading a very funny book at the moment (mostly in the interstices between reading other, less funny, books). It's called Francis Plug: How to Be A Public Author, in which the eponymous anti-hero - gardener and would-be author - door-steps literary luminaries at various author events. Each chapter is prefixed by a picture of a book's title page, signed 'to Francis Plug from [author].

Francis is a singular character - I'm not at all sure I can do justice to his rather dubious appeal. It takes a few chapters for the book's subversive humour to get under your skin, but by the time Francis Plug, with a satchel slung across him full of manure from the Queen's horses adding an extra hum to his whisky-sodden trampiness, is marauding John Berger, you're hooked. I'm not sure Plug is one of the great literary comic creations, but the whole thing is so brilliantly, barkingly bonkers, it makes for original and entertaining satire. 

Plug's interior monologue occasionally veers off into delusion and hallucination so you're never quite sure of the line between eccentricity and mental illness. He's vividly drawn as the kind of plastic carrier bag carrying book-event going individual you'd rather die than sit next to, the smelly bus nutter. 

Anyway, below, is one of the more benign  musings of Francis Plug - 

Another big debate currently is whether digital books will replace physical books. Personally, I don’t think so. Wearing a digital watch was cool when I was a kid, and where are they now? My own theory is that digital books were actually designed by NASA for astronauts, to reduce bulk. The galaxy is also very dark, and digital books light up. But they’ve stopped the space shuttle missions now because they’re too expensive and they keep blowing up. This has left the digital book suppliers with a warehouse full of the things that they can’t shift, so now they’re trying to flog them to everyday earthlings.

[with thanks to Andy Miller - author of The Year of Reading Dangerously - for bringing Plug to my attention]

Monday 2 March 2015


I blame the planets: the stars are misaligned and the only tiny comfort in being locked in the perpetual teatime of the soul is to know mine's not the only cup I'm filling up from the dribbling teapot of angst. There's a plate of existential crisis sandwiches, and a slab of marble anxiety cake waiting for anyone who fancies stopping by.

It will pass, these things always do. It's a mood, not a disaster. Nothing has happened, particularly, it's simply that my head has taken it upon itself to interpret a relatively benign set of circumstances as spectacularly negative. I'm Eeyoring my way through til Spring, when things will perk up, they always do.

There are things I do when I've gone all Scandi-gloom (flatpacked for ease of self-assembly). I might email Belgian Waffling and ask her to fix us a Hemlocktini, and we'll indulge in a cheering gloom-off. I might listen repeatedly to the Goldberg Variations, on headphones, because if I concentrate very hard on each note, the hyper-critical interior narrator shuts up for a while - if I can't get rid of it altogether, I can at least switch off the volume. There are a few other strategies, some more effective than others. 

Anyway, since I seem to be feeling grumpy about feeling gloomy, I suspect I'm pulling out of it, but whilst on a little hunt for things therapeutic, I remembered I had these excellent anthologies [pictured], compiled by Daisy Goodwin, and containing a poetry prescription for every kind of emotional crisis. Some cheer you because they're funny, some because they're thoughtful, some because they allow you to wallow.

I particularly like this, below, by Vikram Seth


Voices in my head,
Chanting, 'Kisses. Bread.
Prove yourself. Fight. Shove.
Learn. Earn. Look for love.'

Drown a lesser voice,
Silent now of choice:
'Breathe in peace, and be
Still, for once, like me.'

Sunday 1 March 2015


SJ Watson, Second Life, 24th February 2015.
With thanks to Penhaligons, Prestat, Nyetimber
and Harper's Bazaar.

Imagine dreaming of your own second life, a parallel world in which you follow a path you always longed for yet felt, for whatever reason, was impracticable. Imagine then, waking up one day and realising that the dream has become a reality, in ways beyond your wildest imaginings. It's exactly what happened to SJ [Steve] Watson, whose first book, the psychological thriller, Before I Go To Sleep, published as he turned forty, went on to sell four million copies in 42 countries around the world and was turned into a film with Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong. 

Such a successful debut sets a tremendously high bar for any follow up novel. Yet Watson need not worry - as we meet for The Books That Built Me, Second Life is riding high at number three in the Sunday Times Bestseller charts.

A nail-biting domestic noir, Second Life tells the story of Julia whose comfortable, conventional life begins to rapidly unravel as her own attempts to find her sister's murderer pull her inexorably into an addictive online world where no one is quite who they claim to be, least of all Julia herself. As Watson says, 'For me the title Second Life has several different connotations: what you might think of as a parallel life - you're one person at home with your family yet online you can be another person - and a sequential second life - I was one person and now I'm somebody else. I'm intrigued by that idea of can we ever really change, and is change ever so sudden that you can say, this is my second life, my third life, my fourth life and so on'.

Of course, with a first life as a respected NHS audiologist, and a second as that rare of rare beasts, a commercially successful novelist, it's tempting to ask if Watson doesn't regret following the writing dream a little earlier; 'For a second, I probably thought, why didn't I do this twenty-five years ago, but I also realised, I wasn't ready twenty five years ago. I'm just incredibly glad I made the jump when I made it.'

SJ Watson's Books That Built Me

Lord of the Rings: JRR Tolkien
This was given to me by a teacher after I got into CS Lewis and the Narnia Books. It's the book that first made me want to one day write and see my books on shelves. 

Written on the Body. Jeanette Winterson
I thought I read it when I was seventeen or eighteen but just discovered I was 21 when it came out. One of the books that rekindled my love of writing. So beautiful, and I loved the ambiguity of the ending, and of the sex of the narrator.

The Swimming Pool Library: Alan Hollinghurst 
I read this when I first started working in London, so I would have been about 22 or 23. I found this book incredibly moving and very sexy. Made even more affecting because I was working in Russell Square and socialising in the bars of Soho, where much of this book takes place, plus I read it during a hot summer. So I almost felt I was living the book, or wanted to at least.

Becoming a Man: Paul Monette*
Becoming a Man describes  a man struggling with his sexuality, trying to hide his same-sex attraction, the pain of unrequited love, and then finally seeing two men happy and in love and realising it was an option for him. I read it on the train on the way to visit my parents for the weekend, and on the Sunday before I came back to London I told them I was gay.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood
I knew nothing about Atwood when I read The Handmaid's Tale when I was about thirty.  I finished it and thought ‘Wow’ and instantly decided I need to reconnect with my desire to be an author. This book began the process that saw me write Before I Go to Sleep.

In My Skin: Kate Holden
Read about seven or eight years ago. Picked it up, not knowing anything about it.  It’s a harrowing, yet beautiful memoir of a woman who became addicted to heroin which led her into prostitution and made me really think about what writing can do. It also really made me think about how society treats those (particularly women) who are sex workers. Later I met Kate as we share a publisher and she’s wonderful and funny.

After Dark: Haruki Murakami
Currently I’m loving Murakami, and this book kicked it off. I like it because it’s short and weird, and it really makes me think about what writing can be and the places it can go. 

Above all, enormous thanks to Steve Watson for being such a marvellous guest - may Second Life continue to leap up the bestseller charts.

*Both Steve and I had great difficulty finding a copy of Becoming A Man. However, Waterstones Piccadilly has confirmed it has copies in stock.

And, huge thanks to Prestat for chocolate for the guest's goody bags and for the author gift, Harper's Bazaar for supporting The Books That Built Me, to Penhaligon's for scenting the space, to Nyetimber for the pre-event drinks reception. Last but not least, huge thanks to The Club at Cafe Royal for hosting the Books That Built Me salon series.

The next Books That Built Me is with Andrew O'Hagan on 17th March. Tickets available through eventbrite by clicking the big Books That Built Me logo on the top right of this page.