Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival

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‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ is an anthology of short stories and a couple of philosophical essays centred on a single theme: adversity.

Its contributors are authors, journalists and figures from the British media, and the topics it covers are broad.

I enjoyed reading ‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ for a number of reasons but not for the ones I was expecting. If you love – as I do – to leaf through the overcoming of hardship – the long-earned joyful walk to all kinds of personal victories – then this may not be the book for you.

This anthology, travels, instead – to borrow a term from Pilgrim’s Progress – to a series of ‘sloughs of despond,’ personal difficulties which its writers have experienced and then invites us to take a look around. This may sound bleak – and many of the tales here are predictably dark – but there is also something deeply connecting in reading of another person’s ‘Struggle’, ‘Self’ and ‘Striving’ (the titles of each section of this anthology) without necessarily learning of their happy ending.

Indeed, despite the occasional musings on personal transformation and some beautiful philosophical insights (the elliptical title is borrowed from Nietzsche), this anthology could not be classed as ‘uplift lit.’ Healing, or even transcendence of past pain is not the focus of this collection.

This said, the writing (and editing by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska) is fabulous. There are breathtaking lines to take away – language which takes us closer to what it feels like when life’s sharpness moves us to the edge.

The exquisite surrealism of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Three Wise Women’ is a huge treat:

‘I sat in train carriages watching for a far-flung white calla lily to manifest from a rip in a seat.’

Okojie’s storytelling is utterly compelling – poetic and precise – and her descriptions of ‘winter’ searing in the way which they evoke the alienation of an anxious mind.

Alex Christophi’s piece, which is both of the mind and rooted in the flesh, takes us through the recreation of memory and its accompanying thoughts. His words on coming back to present stillness are arresting:

‘…when they finally stop running, they can actually feel the world spinning.’

The meditations on ‘disappearance’ which appeared throughout this anthology were also a thrill to read:

In Ed Mitchell’s story of alcohol addiction, ‘Not Wasted’ where he describes how he went from an affluent lifestyle as a television presenter to living on the streets of Hove, he writes:

‘I disappeared for a year: a sea front ghost.’

‘A Disappearing Act’ by Kate Leaver is a moving account of overcoming an eating disorder, clear-sighted on what it meant to withdraw from ‘the act of living my life’. She writes:

‘It was my best effort to vanish.’

And I particularly liked Hazel Gale’s exploration of leaving one’s own body in ‘The Last Fight’. Her disappearance (and later re-appearance) in her own physical reality, is the story of reclaiming her personhood:

‘What I’d been calling the Self was forged solely of what I thought was required of me by the Other.’

Memory’s disappearance is acutely studied in Emily Reynold’s ‘My Unremembered Life’:

‘Trauma simultaneously erases memory and rewrites it,’

while Elitsa Dermendzhiyska’s tale of using economic theory to try to make uncertainty vanish from her daily life, lured by the ‘promise of an underlying order’ contains great beauty in its truth and vulnerability.

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Peppered throughout this collection are nuggets of inspiration, on our personal agency in not just surviving adversity, but the ways in which we might exist in its wake:

‘If I don’t want to go back to prison,’ writes Cathy Rentzenbrink, on tending to herself sensitively in recovery from PTSD, ‘I have to make sure I keep the conditions of my bail.’ and for each of these writers – and for many of us – this keeping out of the ‘prison’ of self-protective suffering might look quite different.

Ben Saunders explores the futility of ‘striving’ in the last section of the anthology, through his piece ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ His is a gripping real-life adventure to the North Pole full of grit and grimness, where the true prize cannot be gained externally.

Nature is also at the forefront of A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight.’ Facts and images of the sun weave beguilingly through this powerful account of living with panic attacks.

The stories in ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ neither sugarcoat nor glamourize the difficulties encountered by its authors. There is courage in these very personal tales, many as raw as the pain they’ve endured.

Rory Bremner’s essay is a beautiful description of living life with ADHD, both sensible in its advice to those experiencing similar, and celebratory of the wealth of expression he feels the condition has brought him. His refusal to see ADHD as a problem, instead as a part of himself to be loved, is key to the way that he chooses to live.

In his essay ‘No Cure For Life,’ Julian Baggini takes a characteristically rationalist approach to suffering, shunning the notion of the ‘happy ending’ sold to us by self-help evangelists. He observes the uneven way in which life’s slings and arrows appear to be handed out, and seems to underscore some of the thoughts of M. Scott Peck in his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled:

‘Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.’

However in Peck’s book he goes on to say:

‘It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.’

While ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ isn’t generally about transcending the adversity it portrays – it reads more as a panorama of lived experience – the gems contained within make it well-worth a look.

I loved the style of Lily Bailey’s ‘The Lily Show’ and found her stream of consciousness sentences a brilliant vehicle into the hellish reality she employs to keep her safe.

‘Maybe…they’ll smash through the set walls and rescue me..’

This is as real an account of mental illness and its attendant isolation that I have ever read.

But what I loved most about ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is that it points to other books as safe crossings and scaffolds when life gets tricky. There are some great book recommendations here – from JD Salinger to Clarissa Pinkola Estés – so many of the writers in this anthology finding solace in the printed page.

It has indeed been my own experience that there is a deep hopefulness in the occupation of reading – in seeing the story of another played out and repurposed purely for our benefit – which can be like a hand-hold through life’s sometime rough terrain.

‘Reading was, as ever, an ally in taking my mind away from itself,’

writes Cathy Rentzenbrink.

And it is this which makes ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, a valuable book shelf addition; each of these 15 pieces – while simultaneously distracting us – draws us closer to our own humanity, especially in this time of societal introspection.

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us,’ writes David Whyte at the start of the anthology, and in celebrating the beauty and plurality of each of these writers’ challenging life experiences, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ empowers us to find our own possible steps when life feels like a struggle.

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound, available to purchase here (among other outlets) from 11th June 2020.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

Please note – I am currently reviewing selected books whose launches have been affected by the current Corona virus outbreak. If you are an author or publisher please feel free to get in touch (see below) if this is of interest.

If you’d like to email me, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

When the Earth breathed

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They say that creatures, usually shy and prone to verges, walked cock-sure into cities and sniffed the air

And birds circled above airports, painting journeys into empty streams of sky.

There was an opening,

despite the closures,

In every living room a bargaining with the self, a move towards the possible,

(beyond the tryings of the mind.)

They say that even as men and women lay frail, recognition flashed across their faces, as they absorbed the efforts of hospital-workers, taxi-drivers

Dedication reigned. In supermarkets, pharmacies, in ordinary apartments

People sat still and… zoomed,

reached o’er-washed hands across the void and remembered that touch is also metaphysical.

In every twitter feed and insta show, in all the whatsapp chats:

this new world unpicked, re-understood.

Trees swayed easy from the lack of traffic fume

As the readers and the listeners drank from this seclusion

like milk

A tiny virus, spikey as a medieval morning star

was harming and enjoining, harming and enjoining

Entreating all to only think of

It.

Rivers meandered, unpolluted

Children danced on their own, not immune but almost so, and the elderly took extra steps

One morning the caretaker of our apartment building said his mother died

the week before in Kerala.

I could not cry, he said. Could not go home to say goodbye.

Ocean galloped to shore.

Okay, it said, sonorous, and grey

Okay, said the spray

Leaders showed themselves in all colours

Rainbows drawn by children dried to crisps

in the sunshine of watched-through windows

Parks shone, un-littered emerald, their silence only pandered to by rain

And the streets housed an Edward Hopper Sunday glow,

all lines and light without much traffic, onward flight.

It was a time, they said, when the Earth began to breathe again

Released its ever outward prayer,

Received the purest inward air.

Out of Touch: Book Review

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Thank you to Net Galley for sending me an Advance Reader Copy. Note to readers: there are details from the novel mentioned in this review but (hopefully) no plot spoilers!

Out of Touch by Haleh Agar is a soulful story about two siblings, Ava and Michael, and the ways in which they try to make sense of their family’s past.

Michael lives in New York. Ava, England. And as their current lives unfold we are given glimpses of the way things were between their parents when Ava and Michael were growing up.

Towards the end of the novel, their father, Lee asks ‘What do good families do?’  and it is this uncertainty, this search for a happier future to eclipse a tricky history which seems to fuel both brother and sister in their daily lives.

Earlier in the story, a request is sent by Lee to see both his adult children urgently. As readers we are intrigued to discover how this part of the tale will develop.

The scenes in New York where Michael lives with his partner and son are vividly told, ‘everything in mason jars’ and with a straightforward realism which is compelling and enjoyable to read.

And the appearance of an artist neighbour who is able to see into Michael’s apartment adds an interesting dimension – a twist on the idea of the male gaze – for as she watches him and his young family go about their daily life, it is the female gaze making Michael conscious of his actions, affecting the choices that he makes.

Out of Touch is well paced and yet there is a captivating stillness to its prose, an acute sensuality reminding me of the film, ‘Yes’, by Sally Potter which also looks at shattered family dynamics and cultural crossings.

The international angle is delightfully told, not just through the dual scenes set in the U.S and UK but via the backgrounds of the characters themselves — Lebanese, Greek Cypriot and Iranian. Culturally-specific details add texture to our understanding of the main characters and a liveliness to their histories.

There is much depth portrayed in this novel but also a pleasing lightness to the writer’s style which makes it a book which is hard to put down (I read it in two sittings and I’m generally not a fast reader!)

It was refreshing to read how the twin taboos of physical and emotional pain are tackled and the myriad ways in which humans try to face or avoid them.

When something frightening happens to shake Michael and his partner’s family life in New York, his partner Layla responds by becoming overly cautious, taking a hammer on car journeys in case of an accident, deciding to try to become the ‘God’ of the family by checking everything she can. Layla’s anxiety which seems to stem from a disconnection from the nominal faith of her childhood is insightfully handled through the narrative.

While the difficult legacy of Michael and Ava’s mother, Elena, is portrayed in detail there is also space for complexity in our understanding of her. And it is this grappling with the dynamics of family and the way characters try to overcome their histories through new choices that this book is at its most captivating. We are given a window not only into the pain of the past but also the ways in which repair may occur in the present.

The love story at the centre of the novel plays out beautifully. Sam is earnest and believable, Ava wavering and confused until she has to make a decision either way.

There is something warm and life-affirming and ultimately important about the way human difficulties are addressed in this book. I was left at the end with the sense, as a reader, of being seen. The existential questions the characters face – whether it’s possible to make peace with the past (can old disagreements be mended?) and why a look at what happened long ago might shed light on our present responses – feel universal and timely.

I look forward to reading more from Haleh Agar.

Out of Touch is published by Orion, available to purchase from April 2nd 2020. 

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

Please note – I am currently reviewing selected books whose launches have been affected by the current Corona virus outbreak. If you are an author or publisher please feel free to get in touch (see below) if this is of interest.

If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

The Confessions of Frannie Langton : Book review

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(SPOILER ALERT… Contains some references to plot)

It’s been more than 2 years since my last blogpost… Reader, where has the time flown?

I’ve been working on a novel and was planning to return to this page in the new year, but I must confess I missed the buzz of blogging…

A character from fiction grabbed my attention. It was Frannie, heroine of Sara Collins’ debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton. 

A few weeks ago, as reviews filled the Twittersphere and The Confessions of Frannie Langton was ‘Book of the Month’, I was approached by a Waterstones bookseller saying he doesn’t usually read novels but…

‘Try this,’ he urged, holding the paperback pictured below.

I took his advice and bought it.

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The premise? A grand Victorian house in 19th century London, a young woman sent to work there from Jamaica, and the accusation of a crime, the double murder of her bosses, for which she may hang.

As she awaits her trial, Frannie gives an account of what actually happened before she was imprisoned. She hopes to set the record straight, taking us through a life spent resisting the servitude into which she was born.

At the centre of the intrigue is the love between the servant Frannie and her mistress, Marguerite, a French ‘eccentric’.

‘Knowing a person’s story, and how they tell it, and where the lies are in it, is part of love.’

And in each of their interactions, as in the rest of the novel, Frannie is determined to be treated as equal, in a household – and world – set on keeping her in her place. Her courage is the engine which keeps the pages of this mystery turning.

There are court testimonies by other dwellers of the house. Not just the masters but the staff too. We meet them in the kitchen and peek at the food that they prepare:

‘…the room was musty and dim, and still reeked of salt and old mutton fat. The cake made up for it. Golden and sweet, and no matter that I knew only too well how the sugar was made.’

Like the hit TV series Downton Abbey, exchanges between the servants are as central to the story as those of the family, but no cosy historical is this. Imagine characters, with grins and bones protruding, a little larger than life, and you get the idea. Much of The Confessions of Frannie Langton is decidedly gothic.

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We also see snippets of a journal written by Benham, one half of the murdered couple. This adds to our picture of Frannie, a forthright mix of bookishness and protest at her lot, an avid reader who even hides the pages of Candide into the seam of her dress so she may continue the story without being seen.

This devotion to literature gives Frannie the language of her oppressors, the tools with which to face them. It’s a wonderful surprise in this suspenseful novel to find that books are not just Frannie’s lifeline but her secret weapon, giving her the confidence to speak her mind, shocking those who would expect her ignorance, and compliance.

If you spend time writing anything lengthier than an email you’ll know that the mechanics of plot can be a challenge to get right. But Sara Collins has nailed it; the pacing of this novel is superb.

In one sense, it’s a classic ‘whodunnit’, but the language is so rich and the literary allusions detailed that another layer is added to what might have been a more generic mystery.

The descriptive passages too are evocative of a London we only usually meet, as modern readers, in the pages of a real Victorian novel (or perhaps a TV adaptation). Yet this book, published in the Spring of 2019, conveys life in the 1820s in exquisite detail.

There’s a sensuality to the prose which makes the voice of Frannie visceral and true.

‘If it was a crime, then I am guilty of it and I confess it here. But I just wanted to keep that book as close as I could get it to my skin. Not to remind myself happiness was still possible, but to remind myself that anger was.’

The novel entwines entertainment and message to extraordinary effect, standing face to face with England’s legacy of racialism without flinching. It enlightens the reader on the part played by pseudoscience to fuel the pro-slavery agenda of the English ruling class in the 19th century.

In another blogpost I explore the challenges writers may face when attempting to marry a thrilling story with a serious point. In The Confessions of Frannie Langton the plot is so deftly handled that Frannie’s righteous anger is made tangible through every twist of the tale. Line after line so well conceived, I must confess I drank this novel.

It brought not just the pleasure of a great yarn – the joy of another world to go to – but a strong social message in the tradition of Charles Dickens.

Frannie Langton’s struggle against appalling cultural forces is made memorable through her bold, unforgettable voice, and the gothic imagery which abounds, shining a light on the ugliness of racial injustice while leading us through the most entertaining – and educational – of confessions.

…………………………………..

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is published by Penguin, available to purchase at all good book shops.

This blog recommends pairing this book with A True Story Based on Lies by Mexican-American author Jennifer Clement, which addresses class discrimination and female servitude in contemporary Mexico.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement. If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

Crafting a light bulb: Are you writing a novel or a manifesto?

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A few years ago I was talking to a friend and a light bulb landed in my lap. Not a real one – that would have been weird – but an idea I couldn’t ignore. It was a premise for the book I’m writing, whole as a nut.

The idea didn’t magically appear. It came after years of unearthing what on the surface seemed to be nothing at all. Until one day I understood a situation I couldn’t ignore, asking to be written.

Here’s a thing: Sitting with an idea is beautiful; crafting it into a tale is something else.

At the time, I was passionate for people to know what I thought about my subject. So much so that having laboured for months on the first draft, I realised my book – all 60,000 words of it – was in fact a lecture.

It got me thinking: Was I writing a novel or a manifesto? How could I give the reader space to think for themselves?

I didn’t have an answer.

But as I worked on draft three, some principles became apparent. So I’ve put together my notes on toning down message and amping up story. In case you’re going through similar (or curious!) here they are:

  • The reader is everything. When crafting a story, being like a courteous date and keeping their experience in mind shifts the focus to their journey (instead of the writer’s opinion).
  • When I wrote a manifesto for my beliefs (rather than a properly constructed story), feeding characters lofty speeches, I knew deep down that the part of my reader who was fired up to go on a journey would likely drift off…

Instead, I considered:

  • Asking questions. What if ones preferably. I just read a wonderful book (reviewed here) where the writer never answered her central question: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even? She generously left it up to the reader and her idea has remained with me ever since.

 

  • Investing in a brilliant book on plot (like the one in this post – here). Most writers need a map of some sort, to know where we’re leading you. Whatever your system, constructing a story which works will serve as a vehicle for your idea (and then you won’t have to lecture anyone!)

 

  • Your characters, after a while, may stop sitting on the page and instead fill your thoughts at the most inopportune moments. Let them. The more real they are, the more they will carry the story’s weight. There is an advantage in writing multiple drafts. You’ll really get to know the people in your story and they’ll start to work harder for you.

 

  • Research as much as you can. For me this involved travelling back to Madrid twice (here), note-taking verbally with a mobile phone at every location (feeling like Kermit the Frog in his reporting moments).

 

  • Readers like to travel without getting on a plane – if you can get them so immersed with the sights, sounds and smells of the story that they don’t notice your message until after they’ve put the book down, you’ve done it!

 

Storytelling – they say – is crucial to human survival. The strange thing that happened to me, might trouble you too. Or maybe you’re looking for a window into something you’ve never thought about before. Stories remind us who we are and were and want to be. They contain the type of glue that can stick whole lives back together.

So what are you waiting for? The manifesto in your mind, that premise you’re longing to explore, make a start. You never know whose life you might touch with your art.

 

I’d love to read your tips – writers – on how – if you’ve got a premise or a point to make –  not to lecture your reader in a novel!

Thank you to Quinn Dombrowski for the image, ‘Pontificating’ at the top of this post via creativecommons.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxiety’s cloak – Thoughts on ‘Love & Fame’

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In the 1980s, before fan-girling was officially a thing, YA author Judy Blume used to receive letters from her teen readers.

‘How did you know what we were thinking?’ they would ask, as though her novels had reached magically into their minds and located the things which mattered most.

Ever since I started reading Susie Boyt’s columns in the FT, the same thought has often popped up:

How does she know?

Her latest novel, Love & Fame opens with a theatrical monologue. No sentence is completed, thoughts are left hanging, each one linking to the next like an echoing voiceover. We hear the incessant worries of a person who feels everything.

Newly married actress Eve and her husband, Jim, who is writing a book about anxiety, are honeymooning in Chicago. Soon we meet Beatrice (‘Beach’) a bereavement counselor and her sister Rebecca, a journalist. All are connected by the passing of Eve’s famous actor father, John Swift.

But it’s anxiety itself which gets the starring spot in Love & Fame. Eve’s new husband Jim writes about it but Eve, herself, is living it.

‘Is your conclusion that anxiety’s a bit of a dark hero in a cloak?’ she asks him, for beneath his research lies a premise: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even?

Eve thinks not. At dinner with Jim and his agent, Max, she allows her thoughts on the subject to overflow:

‘I would say anxiety has cost me some of the very best things in my life.’

Suddenly Jim’s earlier remarks about anxiety being like a helpful friend – the type who prods you when you’re straying from what you actually want – are re-cloaked. As readers, we are left to reflect on our own experiences.

Those who loved Susie Boyt’s famous FT column will enjoy the same detail and intensity in this novel. Like the ‘Legendary’ cheesecake which Eve passes on her nighttime walk, such delight is sometimes best savoured in small mouthfuls. And yet – as with the best confectionery – I found I could not put this down.

Its serious subject is lightened by a number of laugh-out-loud set pieces. Boyt is brilliant on middle class liberal do-gooding. Jean Swift, while deep in mourning for her husband continues to invite young ex-criminal mothers into her home to learn cookery. A couple of the mothers are described as ‘lovely ex-shoplifters’ – the book is peppered with surprising juxtapositions and one-liners. There is a warmth and love of human frailty in Max’s comment which could equally be true about Love & Fame itself:

‘Eve – this is really a book about kindness.’

Perhaps it is in kindness that the antidote to anxiety lives. In the forgiveness that Jim finds so easy, or in Beach’s endless listening. When grief is allowed to surface, anxiety beats a path to the back door.

Judy Blume used to answer her readers’ questions, saying that she wrote from the memories of her own childhood. “When I dream. I’ll frequently dream of the house where I grew up.”

Nothing in fiction is truly invented; there’s a reservoir of joy and pain and memory which in reading this novel, shimmers translucent. These are the parts of Love & Fame which move for it is in the story’s mining of these personal depths that as readers we find our own worries normalised.

This is a book so brimming with heart, its dialogue so finely tuned and touching that it felt like the best kind of musical. A triumph of love over suffering that I did not want to end.

In the opening scene when thoughts are rushing around the character’s head, tailing off in anxious uncertainty, I realise what a gift we have in Boyt’s prose. In answer to the question, how does she know? It is her characters who show us.

In funny searing chapters we are reminded how hard it is to be alive sometimes but that a listening ear can change everything. Anxiety, in the end, may be neither hero nor antagonist but a sign that there is more left to grieve. Only after tears have been allowed to fall – on Beach’s couch perhaps – may we see anxiety slink away, or at least begin to speak in a softer tone.

Love & Fame is published by Virago, available to purchase November 2nd 2017. Pre-order here

All views expressed in my posts are my own. If you would like me to review your book, please visit my contact page, here.

Developing Voice: How a singing teacher coached me into writing

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Yesterday I clicked on a Twitter post without reading the intro. I saw ‘Writing’ and ‘Advice’ and thought: This one’s for me. I must have been two paragraphs in when I realised I’d read this writer’s work before.

I glanced at his name and yes, I was reading the Internet’s Chuck Wendig. Instantly recognisable, his style mixes zany metaphors with random phrases. Like some kind of surrealist stand-up, it all feels crazy and at the same time serious and to the point.  If you want to get a sense of Wendig’s work, you can read his writing advice here.

One of the reasons I think his prose is popular is that he has mastered Voice. And Voice is one of those elusive things like Grace or the joy of two drops of rain in Muscat that almost defies description.

One Cambridge winter, before I’d started to sit down regularly to write, I saw an advert for a small adult choir based in one of the colleges. I was excited, a little apprehensive and went to the audition to sing my piece.

My hands fluttered as I battled through my chosen tune, trying to project my voice, only having sung for fun, I felt unsure of what I was doing.

You sang quite nicely,’ said the choir director,  ‘But I could hardly hear you. Work with me and you’ll be fit for the choir in no time.’

For the following few weeks she gave me terrifying private lessons. She taught me like the opera singer that she was, correcting my posture, the shape of my mouth, my pronunciation, stopping the piano and starting again, giving me homeworks of repeated trills which I feared might alienate my housemates forever.

But by the end of the month something had shifted. I didn’t join the choir although I had learnt a few skills, and I didn’t continue with the teacher. What changed is that I no longer felt afraid to sing in front of others.

When I consider written Voice, I think, of this. The willingness to show who you are.

It comes through in the words we choose, how we order sentences, the topics we want to explore, our humour, the rhythm of our prose and like singing, we can only control the sound we make up to a point. Half of it is in the ear of the reader.

Even if I disagree with him and Stephen King about adverbs (another blog post entirely), I think people like to read Chuck Wendig because he is being who he is without apology and that comes through in his Voice.  Becoming acquainted with, practising, and enjoying, one’s own writing Voice fulfills an important function for the reader.

When I lived in Greece, I shared an apartment with a couple. One evening they invited a friend over. I sat with them but my limited Greek made conversation difficult. The friend had a beautiful speaking voice. The kind of voice you can sit and listen to and never get tired, like the rush of bird’s wings when they take off all at once. I kept thinking, I’ll go back to my part of the apartment soon but I kept stalling and it was 1am by the time I retired to my room.

A well-modulated voice is pleasing to the ear. It’s much easier to capture what a person is trying to say when the tone is regular, the diction coherent.

Most writers I speak to have something burning to convey in their work. When I first started writing my novel in 2015, I too had an idea for a story but my message was weak. It’s only as I figured out the themes behind the action -what mattered to me most -that I felt able to start working on a suitable Voice for my novel.

Voice grows as we use it, shedding the fear again and again that how we come across is somehow not okay. Too this, or not enough that.

And it’s vital in allowing us to convey the thing we want to say.

When I think of my favourite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Disgrace by J.M Coetzee, they are filled with great stories and memorable characters but without a carrying Voice in each of these, I would not have got past page one.

Advice-givers often tell writers to ‘fake it till you make it’; ‘if you haven’t found your own voice, just copy another writer’. Reading widely is undoubtedly a good idea but if we look outside ourselves for who we are, we’re liable to focus so hard on another’s melody we end up writing out of tune.

That evening in Greece, the thing I enjoyed about the way my friend spoke is that it was unique. I had never heard another person sound like this. Speaking from our authentic selves is powerful because it gives everyone else permission to do the same. The writer who is centred in Voice is trusting us with who they are. Without copying or hiding or feigning.

Voice takes practice, reading aloud if that’s your thing, confidence that the energy coming from  inside is more real than what others think about it. This is the paradox, for the closer we get to expressing our truth, the more it resonates with others. And the beautiful thing about writing is that no one needs to hear it till you’re ready.

If we imagine a conversation with someone we know, how do we know when they’re being truthful, genuine, real? What are the ways in which they speak which make us want to listen?  Or ‘read on’? My guess is that the answer to all of these is when our friends or writers or any folk are being most themselves.

If we listen hard enough we will hear this unmistakably in their Voice.

Dear readers, I’m going to be giving this blog a rest for a few weeks while I do an editing job on draft two of my novel. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified when the blog’s up and running again 🙂

Tokyo Taro at Al Falaj Hotel: restaurant review

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Forty years ago when Muscat was transitioning from rocky territory to modern city, a hotel was built in the East of the city – in Ruwi – the height of modernity in the early eighties.

Before the great chains dotted themselves around the capital, there was The Falaj Hotel. Named after the ancient canals which snake across the country, and the nearby Falaj Fortress, it had a grandeur seen only in India and the subcontinent, and was thus the place of choice for business people and travellers at leisure.

Wander in to its lobby today and the ancient air of the Arabian peninsula comes wafting through. Dhow ships of wood sit below seventies style lighting, the lobby is large, its odour of burning perfumed stones, (the local ‘luban’ – frankincense), unique as a signature.

The restaurant we are looking for is located on the 8th floor, in an unassuming room which has been there since the hotel began.

Its interior is simple: seventies-style structured lampshades overlook canteen style booths. Tables are divided by a noughts and crosses wooden lattice. Each setting is furnished with a tiny jug of soya sauce and condiments.

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Until very recently Tokyo Taro was frequented weekly by large groups from Muscat’s Japanese business community and it’s easy to see why.

Even eating gluten-free, there is plenty to choose from. The avocado maki rolls are soft, rice fluffy; biting into one is a dream. The teppan-yaki chef cooks exactly to order and I am left wondering how stir frying vegetables on a hot plate can produce a dish so tasty. The accompanying sesame and cashew sauce (instead of wheat- containing soy sauce) works well with it too.

Our waiter, Felrom, accommodates our many questions, serving my companions fresh, fluffy tempura along with a Spinach and vinegared cucumber salad. Sashimi, mixed sushi, grilled dishes are all prepared with the same high level of care. Portions are generous and for a mid-range restaurant (60 OMR for 4 people) we are left with a lovely choice of leftovers.

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While the city of Muscat has challenged olde world Hotels like The Falaj with a proliferation of world class places to stay (Muscat barely does mid range, let alone budget accommodation) Tokyo Taro remains, four decades on.

Yet the whole place feels like it’s already seen its golden age. Visiting the ladies, I leave the dining area and climb some back stairs. The walls and floor are painted institution blue, there are steel caps on each stair, a strange sparseness to the decor as though I have wandered via time-machine into a Victorian school. People with disabilities, wanting to access the facilities would not be well served by the lack of lift to the 9th floor.

The business folk who used to visit each week have long since stopped coming to Tokyo Taro, the waiters say. Though the food remains, apparently, as good as it always has, there is the sense that something needs to happen to reinstate the restaurant’s popularity. I, for one, would be pleased to return as regularly as required to help in this tasty diner’s comeback.

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Tokyo Taro at the Falaj Hotel, Ruwi, Muscat : Phone : (968)24702311 Email : reservation@alfalajhotel.com Website: http://www.alfalajhotel.com/muscat-restaurants/tokyo-taro-restaurant.html

All books, restaurants, events featured in this blog are chosen out of personal interest. No financial or other reimbursement is offered to me by the proprietors, authors or organisers.

Speaking in bombs: Book Review – Song of Gulzarina by Tariq Mehmood

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After three years of studying (yeah right) at Manchester Uni I decided to stay on another year. I couldn’t get enough of the Northern drizzle: gobs of fumey water threatening to turn everything grey. Sometimes the sun would appear and a bright blue blanket would cover the city, lighting up the red brick of the warehouses.

I arrived in 1996 when a bomb planted by the IRA had gutted the central Arndale Centre. Terrorism in England in the twentieth century was all about bins in railway stations, bombs in Wimpy Bars, the targeting of political buildings. Scary, yes, but somehow in parallel with normal life. Not at its centre.

Manchester is the setting of Tariq Mehmood’s recently published novel, Song Of Gulzarina, an absorbing read which travels between the North West of England and Pakistan, along with the main character, Saleem Khan.

The story picks up pace at a mill, in an incident involving unsuitable toilets at Saleem Khan’s workplace. The Pakistani workers request sanitary facilities. The white British manager, Mr Andersen abuses the men:

‘You filthy Paki bastards always sticking together.’ Mr Anderson picked up another pipe and hit Salamat Ali Teka across the face.

This racist violence paves the way for Saleem Khan’s journey through pain, into war, loss and eventual expatriation.

Love features too, in this novel, as Saleem falls for Carol Anderson, the daughter of his boss. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is the way the writer has his characters speak. As Carol and Saleem chat, she responds to Saleem by speaking to an invisible onlooker:

‘How did you find out?’

‘How did I find out, he says,’ she said leaning back into the setee.

Her turn of phrase is real and affecting, betraying something deeper than its outward flippancy. In fact I was originally drawn to review this book after Tariq Mehmood’s humour showed up on a mutual facebook friend’s page. Mehmood has a gift for pithy – often witty – dialogue switching between registers with pitch- perfect precision.

A few years ago I attended a workshop on writing dialogue at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. The take-away was that speech in literature is artificial but you have to make it sound plausible; each character should appear authentic and different (try it – it’s not an easy task!) Tariq Mehmood gives his characters language which is earthy, often coarse and angry and it makes his characters visceral, believable.

The sense of place in Song Of Gulzarina looms large. Not just in Manchester where:

The white pigeon with a black circle around its left eye is now perched on top of one of the toll gates, oblivious to the cold Mancunian wind.

but also in Pakistan where the depth and sensuality of the detail reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s descriptions of Bangalore in The White Tiger:

‘Other than the smoke from the exhaust of a rickshaw, nothing hit us.’

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——-SPOILER ALERT——-

The final section of the book – please look away if you don’t want a SPOILER – takes the character of Saleem Khan to a darker place:

If the book begins with racist humiliation, it ends in exile. The distancing of our hero from his own humanity, hell-bent on revenge, his heart closed and life little more than an alcoholic blur.

Ravaged by multiple losses: his wife, girlfriend, cousin, and the disdain of his daughter, Khan’s heartbreak has turned its face upon the world. He plans to avenge his disillusionment on the British ex Prime Minister, Tony Blair who has come to Manchester to speak. Strapped to Khan’s body are enough explosives to take out far more than the former PM.

In this last section, the reader is kept on tenterhooks as Khan wanders around Longsight and Wilmslow Road in this state ready to activate the mobile phone at any moment.

That our protagonist chooses Tony Blair as his target is unsurprising. There is a terrible irony that much of the IRA terrorism mentioned above was curtailed by an agreement in 1998 of which Blair played a significant part. Five years later, the invasion of Iraq and all of its rhetoric served not only an illegal war but a media machine which placed people like Saleem Khan in a cold and terrifying place.

Cast out by a British government acting with unspeakable hypocrisy, it is easy to understand why Fight or Flight became, for some, a way of life.  Add in the United States response in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism becomes a very real language. ‘We are here,’ cry the suicide bombers. ‘You thought you could ignore us. But: ‘Look at me. I’m the captain now.’*

That Khan’s decision to blow himself up is not associated with his religious beliefs but a quest for social justice is significant. In fact he declares himself an Atheist, his faith has long since died. “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.” wrote Baltasar Gracian in the 17th century. Saleem Khan’s self-rejection is so complete, hope so long-gone that he will go to any lengths. His radicalisation has come not from pious rhetoric, but from the sense that nothing will be lost when he kills and dies.

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For this is a novel about alienation, about looking for home and finding only estrangement. From the woman who treats Khan at Manchester Royal Infirmary and comments with horror at the amount of hair on his body, to his close white friend who runs away as they watch the events of 9/11 unfold on the telly; Saleem Khan is left without sanctuary.

Mehmood skilfully navigates the nuances of Islam in the West. When Khan’s daughter Aisha is aggressed by men in a passing car, the Muslim youths outside the mosque stand impassively. Khan chastises them:

‘How can you just carry on selling books?’ I ask the bearded youth, pointing a shaking finger. ‘You saw what they did to your sisters.’

The youth replies that all will be taken care of in the Hereafter – a view which ignores traditional Islamic belief (which highlights the importance of balancing both Earthly matters and a spiritual focus on the next life) – and instead of helping his Muslim sister, uses fundamentalist religious rhetoric to do nothing.

Towards the end of the book, Khan remembers seeing a snake as a child and playing with it until he was urgently warned to move away. As he walks, in the present tense, through Rusholme with explosives attached to his chest, he recalls his mother telling him of how casually he toyed with the serpent. The adults were afraid of the creature because they had experience but the child was safe in his innocence. Nothing had caused him to prejudge it, to antagonise it, and the snake did not attack.

Tariq Mehmood has written a powerful tale and his voice in the current political climate is important. Through a strong sense of the spoken word, an under-heard narrative gains momentum. This book is pure entertainment but it is also a cautionary tale. A question embedded in a Song. What happens when people are ignored and suppressed for too long? Where does that energy go? It is the reader’s gain that this author has used his considerable skill to create the compelling novel: Song for Gulzarina.

For more information about the book click here

Header photograph from the book Manchester, England (by Dave Haslam), by Aidan O’Rourke (www.aidan.co.uk)

*Words of the sea pirates in the film, Captain Phillips (2013)

The stories only you can tell

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Writing a novel is hard. I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky. It’s hard because it asks for everything you’ve got. Like trying to catch the world with a net: a lovely idea but daunting to know where to begin.

18 months ago I began writing a mystery set in Madrid. In January, I thought I’d done it. I closed the program, wrote a synopsis and sent it all to a publisher who had shown interest in my work at a Writer’s Festival .

I waited a month. No answer. I scanned through blogs which said ‘don’t nag editors and agents’ so I didn’t. Unwilling to take the rejection personally,  I thought, ‘Oh well, editors are  busy’, or ‘perhaps my novel isn’t up to much’. I worked elsewhere, convinced myself that once done, my book shouldn’t be revisited, after all I’d given it my best shot.

And then something strange started happening. Driving, teaching, chatting with friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about my story.  Not the plot (that’s a different problem!) but the thing I wanted to say, what’s mine.

I remembered the author Neil Gaiman said:

‘Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.’

And then I twigged. As much as I didn’t relish revisiting the novel I had put months of work into, I had no choice but to return to it if I wanted to air its story.

‘I’ve always felt you unearth story, like you’re on an archaeological dig’ wrote Stephen King in his seminal work, ‘On Writing’.

My story kept glinting from the earth, would not leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it.

So one morning last week, into my kindle,  like a kind of miracle arrived ‘Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel’ by Roz Morris, a guide so comprehensive that by the end of it I knew technically what I needed to do. I had a plan, a decision to go back to ground level, unearth the fossil of my tale and make it matter to a reader.

Writing a novel is hard, I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky, but the alternative is keeping something inside that only I am in a position to share. My story.

What would you do?