Two new Ali Mercer novels due out in 2019 from Bookouture

Ali Mercer reading as a child

Book news!

I’m delighted to announce that my new novel, My Lost Daughter, will be published by Bookouture in May 2019.

It’s an emotional family drama about Rachel, whose life has unravelled since her husband has been given custody of their young daughter Becca after a messy break-up.

There’ll be another book from me out from Bookouture in September 2019.

I think my younger, book-loving self (pictured above, big fan of Enid Blyton and Bunty) would have been thrilled if she could have time-travelled to pick up the news…

Here’s some more of what my brilliant editor, Bookouture associate publisher Kathryn Taussig, had to say about My Lost Daughter and my writing (OK so this is the part when I get ready to blush):

‘It’s such a rare thing to find an author who can write family drama well, and for this reason I’m over the moon to be publishing Ali Mercer. Her writing is beautiful, thoughtful and moving. Her characters are believably flawed and yet endlessly relatable and her stories are engrossing. My Lost Daughter is a perfect fit for Bookouture and I know it will delight readers of Jodi Picoult, Diane Chamberlain and Kerry Fisher.’

Bookouture are brilliant – they’re forward-looking and fast-moving but they take their time looking after their authors and getting their books just right, and they really know how to develop author’s brands and build the relationship between readers and writers. And Kathryn is a star. We’re both up for a bit of strong emotion, twisty drama and suspense, and we’re both fascinated by what makes families tick and what goes on behind closed doors. There’s no secret like a family secret, and no secret is quite as explosive as one that has been suppressed but comes out in the end…

Here’s the full announcement from Bookouture about the publication of My Lost Daughter. Cover reveal due to happen early spring… I really hope you’ll enjoy it – and then there won’t be long to wait till the next one!

Other blog posts you might be interested in…

The moment I found out about my son’s autism

Women writers who changed my life, part I: Enid Blyton to Antonia White

Steve Shirley on autism, the Kindertransport and the most loving thing a parent can do

Kramer vs Kramer: the impossible choice
What makes a great love story?

Staying silent, speaking out: reading around After I Left You

A short list of books to turn to when you’re stressed

the stressed-out reading list

from the stressed-out reading list…

A right hotch-potch, this: a former Spice Girl, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a titled historian, an academic, an experimental novelist and an Irish poet and playwright looking back on his time in Borstal. These are the people behind the books that have helped me through troubling times. I offer this list up to you in the spirit of a mixtape, in the hope that if you pass over one item, another may catch your eye and provide some much-needed distraction or solace when you are suffering from insomnia, anxiety or helpless waiting.

Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan I single this out for the catchy motto: ‘**** the begrudgers’. I find this sentiment helpful.

The Faber Book of Reportage, edited by John Carey This is one of my most treasured books. It’s a collection of eyewitness accounts of different moments in history. Chiefly, what comes across is how very uncomfortable it is being there when history is made… ‘May you live in uninteresting times…’ Reading it is a very good exercise in perspective. When I’ve been in a fix, or thought I was, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be reminded how very much worse things could be.

The Assassin’s Cloak, a collection of diary extracts put together by Alan Taylor and Irene Taylor, is fascinating and restorative in the same way.

Demon Barber and Mostly Men by Lynn Barber You’ll go a long way to find better character studies than these volumes of Lynn Barber’s interviews. Excellent for late-night dipping.

The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England by Antonia Fraser I read this when I was in the late stages of pregnancy with my second child, sleeping badly and not much looking forward to giving birth. Worked in the same sort of way as The Faber Book of Reportage, in that it made me think, well – at least I’m here and now, rather than back then. Oh – and you know it’s sometimes implied that women back then, at a time of high infant mortality, were used to the idea of babies or children dying, and somehow became less attached to them, or were more hardened to the idea of losing them than we might be, or less distressed? Not so, according to this book. (Of course not. Why would they have been so different? We’re always closer to the past than we think.)

Remainder by Tom McCarthy I read this when I was staying in hospital with my son, who was three at the time, and suffering from a mysterious and virulent infection (turned out to be a ruptured appendix). It is a strange and strangely compelling book, and helped me to keep from going out of my mind with worry.

Learning to Fly by Victoria Beckham I read this alone in the waiting-room, late in the evening, while my son was having his appendix removed. His was the last surgery of the day and it took a long time. Posh Spice kept the time passing until I was told the operation was all done and had gone well, and I could go in and see him. Sometimes, when the dark is really closing in, you don’t feel like reading at all, and all you want is comfort. That’s when it’s time to watch old episodes of Friends…

Anyway, so there it is, a bit of an odd list! I’d love to know what other people like to read when they’re anxious and in need of distraction.

My year of reading: favourite books of 2013

favourite books of 2013

My year in reading: favourite books of 2013

Revenge, injustice, unreliable narrators, psychic powers, power in hands that are good or bad or hapless or downright sadistic; not being able to remember how you got where you are, not being able to find a man because none of them can cope with your son, and having the chance to live your life over and over again. My 2013 has been filled with good books, and as it’s the season of lists and round-ups, I thought I’d return to some of them here.

This isn’t an exhaustive or particularly scientific list and I’m sure that as soon as I’m done I’ll be troubled by what I’ve left out, but over the past year these books have kept me gripped, made me smile, taken me out of myself, shown me the world as I never thought to see it before, and kept me up turning the pages because I just have to see what happens next…

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman. Oh! What a weepie. Beautiful, lyrical, elemental, epic. I believe it’s being filmed. A thing of beauty with a small and much-beloved child at its heart.

The Mistress’s Revenge by Tamar Cohen. This was the year I was introduced to the concept of ‘domestic gothic’, which I guess you could argue this and the next four books belong to. Home life isn’t all cupcakes and Mr Right; in this twisty tale of a woman scorned, it’s all about Mr Wrong. Darkly funny, acidic and obsessive, and one for anybody who’s ever been bitter or angry about the end of a relationship.

The Playdate by Louise Millar. How well do you really know your friends and neighbours? A paranoid glimpse of what can happen if those close to you aren’t as benign as you assume. The central character is a single mum trying to get back to work, with a really infuriating ex and a vulnerable child. If you’ve ever had to run to make the pick-up, you’ll find plenty here that’s familiar as well as a few of your worst fears.

Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly. So your friend’s child was meant to come to yours for a sleepover… and you forgot, and now she has disappeared. An edgy drama with a heroine who is warm but not always wise, played out against the backdrop of a small community in Cumbria. Expect some jaw-dropping surprises – including a startlingly excruciating dinner party scene – and plenty of menace.

Sworn Secret by Amanda Jennings. A dead teenage girl had a secret – and uncovering it will take her grieving family to the edge in this intense and suspenseful tale of the aftermath of loss. The vulnerability of adolescence is in the spotlight as her sister discovers love for the first time and struggles to make sense of the past. Who can she really trust, and who knows more than they are telling? The family’s ordeal is far from over, and as long as the truth is in doubt, it can’t be the right time to let go.

Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson. The heroine looks in the mirror and sees a middle-aged woman; where did all those years go? She can’t remember, because she forgets each day as soon as she sleeps… unless she writes it down. Can she trust the husband who seems to care for her so patiently? Includes one of the most unsettling sex scenes I’ve ever read.

Books Are My Bag

Outside Mostly Books in Abingdon. Books Are My Bag!

This Boy by Alan Johnson. I’m not one for political autobiographies – but this isn’t at all the kind of book you would expect a politician to write. It’s really a story about women – in particular a mother struggling in a rotten marriage, doing her best to survive, and her resourceful teenage daughter, who later manages to keep herself and her brother out of care.  It’s a tribute to women’s staunchness and resilience in the face of the odds, and a glimpse of a London of another time.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. She is such a good writer. This is one that will keep you on your toes – and up late. The prose is lucid, the people are opaque, and there is no predicting what may be revealed next.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. Twin psychics with very different attitudes to their shared gift. When there are intimations of an earthquake, are they right? A deliciously observed character study of two very different women who just can’t escape their interconnected fates (but can anyone?)

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. A brilliant study of the aftermath of a brutal crime on a Native American reservation, exploring what happens when justice loses its way on the border between cultures. Evocative and beautifully written.

The Boy Who Fell to Earth by Kathy Lette. Hats off to Kathy Lette for writing a funny, romantic, truthful novel about a single mum who is looking for love, struggling with an awful ex and trying to do her best for her son, who has autism and can’t help but tell her suitors what she really thinks of them.

Anything by George R R Martin. You know nothing, Jon Snow… I’m down to the last couple of hundred pages of the most recent book in the series. I’ll be bereft when I’ve finished. A monumental (and sometimes brutally gory) work of fiction, with a terrific cast of characters. A fully realised world that has plenty of parallels in the history and geography of our own.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman. Begins with a louty food fight, but will it end with redemption? They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. An Oxford novel that definitely does not romanticise the dreaming spires.

Harriet by Jilly Cooper. My editor suggested I read this when I was working on After I Left You. It starts with an Oxford student whose randy tutor gets her to write an essay on which Shakespeare character would be best in bed. (You’d want to give Hamlet a miss, but Mercutio would be fun for a fling, or perhaps Benedict for a keeper?) After that I read Riders and Polo in quick succession. Robust, naughty fun.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. Sensuous and sensitive character study of an unravelled family drawn back together by a mysterious disappearance, against a background of simmering heat.

Small Talk by Nicola Lathey and Tracey Blake. Nicola is a brilliant speech therapist who has done lots of great work with my son, who has autism. This is a practical guide on how to help children learn how to communicate. A really useful parenting book, with expert tips presented in a friendly, accessible way.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, with an introduction by David Mitchell. Just beautiful. The world seen through the eyes of a boy with autism and translated back to us. Listen: ‘Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travellers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.’

The Reason I Jump

The Reason I Jump

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Deserves to be showered with prizes. Elusive, stark, sharply observed, compelling tale of life, death and chances that are never quite missed, and keep coming around again.

So – what am I looking forward to in 2014? Well – by and by I will read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and Susie Steiner’s Homecoming. I’m also looking forward to Alison Jameson’s Little Beauty, Sarra Manning’s It Felt Like a KissThe Best Thing That Never Happened To Me by Jimmy Rice and Laura Tait, In Her Shadow by Louise Douglas, Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing and Tamar Cohen’s The War of the Wives. And I have to read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; I bought it as a present for someone and after she’d read it she went straight off to the library to hunt for more.

img076

I love a bit of Victoriana – see the above illustration from my first ever novel for proof! So I’m keen to get started on Victorian crime mystery Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, described in The Scotsman as ‘fine, extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable’. It’s by William Sutton, who was a couple of years ahead of me at university.

Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square

Plus my friend Neel Mukherjee has a new book out in the spring, The Lives of Others, which I know is going to be brilliant. Here is the cover. Gorgeous!

The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and the writer as psychic

Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

On my desk right now: Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

I got into Curtis Sittenfeld because of the cover of American Wife, which featured a nostalgic photograph of a hopeful woman in a skirt, on a bike, against a backdrop of some arable crop – it could be corn, or maybe wheat – and sky. It made me think of Dorothy in Kansas, but all grown up and without the gaudy technicolour magic. I kept seeing that picture in the supermarket until I bought the book.

After that I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s first and second novels, and then I was left waiting for her next, which turned out to be Sisterland, which the postman handed over to me last week, as part of a parcel of books from my publisher. (Thank you Harriet.) I finished Sisterland last night and, as I expected, I loved it.

Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Sisterland is ostensibly about a story about a unique, even bizarre, situation but also, as if by sleight of hand – or, perhaps, in the shadowy room for manoeuvre created by a really strong hook – deals with something else. So American Wife answers the question, What is it like to be married to the President? And: What kind of woman ends up married to the President? But at the same time it tackles a number of other questions, which I can’t explicitly reveal without spoiling the book for you if you haven’t read it (in which case, get thee hence and tuck in), but which can be summarised as: what if you make a life-wrecking mistake when you are young? Can you recover, and if you do, will it still catch up with you anyway?

In Sisterland, the overt question – the narrative hook – is this: a psychic predicts a major earthquake. Is she right? Is it possible to accurately predict the future? But underlying that – at least, the way I read it – is another dilemma, and this is a much more universal one: is it possible to be feminine, a wife and mother, and also to use your gifts and be free? And if you have a gift and decide not to use it, what happens to you then?

Slippery doubles, twinship and writing

Sisterland sent me back to one of my favourite books about writing, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, which talks at some length about the use of doubles in fiction, and why writers are so preoccupied by them. (Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is largely about a fraught relationship between sisters – and Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of my Dreams also explores this. But to take it further, to make the sisters twins and psychic to boot, makes it ever more apparent that you are dealing with two mutations of one self.)

There’s a passage in Negotiating with the Dead where Margaret Atwood draws a distinction between ‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.’

She goes on to say, ‘I am after all a writer, so it would follow as the day the night that I must have a slippery double – or at best a mildly dysfunctional one – stashed away somewhere. I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person – the one credited with authorship – is certainly not me. She could never be imagined – for instance – turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread, whereas I . . . but that’s another story.’

The twins, or slippery doubles, in Sisterland are Daisy and Violet Schramm, except when Daisy leaves home she decides she wants to distance herself from Violet (and, by implication, from her true self), and changes her name. Marriage helps, and when we meet her, at the beginning of the novel, she has become the altogether less distinctive Kate Tucker, who, as Vi points out, sounds like a Puritan.

Kate/Daisy begins to move away from Vi as an adolescent because they put on a show together and she plays the feminine role, and is afterwards praised for her prettiness. Popularity and acceptability beckon. She doesn’t want to be weird, and she certainly doesn’t want to be like Vi, one of whose gifts is a robust indifference to what other people think. (Also, Vi is overweight, whereas Kate/Daisy is meticulous about hitting the Stairmaster.)

And so Kate/Daisy ends up as a full-time wife and mother who has done her best to abandon her psychic abilities (but has she managed to destroy them entirely? Not quite, as you’ll see – gifts have a way of passing themselves on), a woman who is dangerously flattered, at a crucial point in the novel, when someone tells her how pretty and nice she is. Meanwhile Vi lurches towards celebrity, or notoriety, with her very public earthquake prediction – much to Kate’s embarrassment and fear.

It turns out that writing about psychics is a neat way to allude to the business of writing itself. Writers intuit what might happen to characters as the story goes on, though they don’t know for sure until it happens – and Kate and Vi are in much the same awkward and uncertain position. It made me smile when Vi, having achieved some success as a psychic (though, as it turns out, only with Kate/Daisy’s help), is able to make a living out of her gift, having previously struggled along as a waitress; some of the members of her old meditation group, who have not been quite so lucky commercially, are rather jealous of her. (I was wondering if something similar might happen if one member of a writing group found herself in a position to make the writing pay for itself.)

The art of making it real

Sisterland is unsettling, and creepy and funny and melancholy, and pulls off the coup of being both startling and believable. When I read, I want to be introduced to a new world and recognise it as true, while at the same time knowing that I’m being shown people and places that I’ve never seen before; Curtis Sittenfeld has the requisite twin gifts of truthfulness and originality in abundance, which is why she is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years.

Within the first few pages of American Wife I realised I’d found a new writer that I really liked, which is one of the great pleasures of reading. The best consolation for coming to the end of a book you love is knowing that there are others by the same author that you can go on to; and reading a number of different books by the same writer helps to confirm your sense of what is unique about them, and what attracted you to them in the first place.

It’s like getting to know someone by seeing them over time, dealing with different situations and environments; you can satisfy your curiosity about what this person has done in the past, and if the writer is still going strong, you’ll be eager to find out where they’re going next.

For me, and I suspect for most of us, this doesn’t happen all that often – this finding a book you really like, and chasing up the writer’s backlist. Back in the 1990s, it was William Gibson (starting with Neuromancer ), Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin), Raymond Carver (the collected short stories),  James Ellroy (LA Confidential), Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), Jayne Anne Phillips (Fast Lanes), and Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde). Those are all terrific books, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to at least look them up – maybe you’ll get hooked on those writers the way I did.

More recently, there’s been Claire Messud (The Emperors’ Children), George R R Martin (Game of Thrones) and, of course, Curtis Sittenfeld. I guess you might deduce from this list that, on the whole, I love genre fiction and women’s fiction (or rather, fiction by and largely about women), and my heart is unstirred by much else, and you’d probably be about right. Why exactly it should be so I don’t know. What exactly it is that gets me hooked I don’t know. Sympathy for the underdog might be part of it, but only part; I suspect I also respond to writers who let their underdogs bite back.

The archetypal story you’ll end up telling, whatever you set out to write

I’ve been working like a mad thing on my second novel (title tbc) over the last couple of months. The second draft is now done, so I thought I’d take advantage of the respite to write about a book that I discovered thanks to the poet Ian Pindar, my other half, who has a knack for unearthing interesting things.

This particular find is called The Writer’s Journey, and it’s by Christopher Vogler. It’s primarily aimed at screenwriters (it discusses various films, from Star Wars to Pulp Fiction) but would probably be interesting for anyone who aspires to tell stories, because it looks at the mechanics of how stories work.

It does this in two ways: it discusses a number of archetypal characters, and then it sets out the different stages of the archetypal journey that any hero (even an anti-hero) goes on. If that sounds reductive, it isn’t – the book makes it very clear that it’s all in the telling. Part of what creativity is about, after all, is putting together elements that are familiar and shared (and what is more familiar and shared than language?) in new and unexpected ways.

I won’t set out to précis the whole book, because the edition we have runs to more than 400 pages… and if you’re keen to explore what it’s all about in depth, you’d probably be better off getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. But here’s a selective taster.

Heroes: not always heroic, especially to begin with

The hero is usually confronted with an initial call to adventure, and to start off with, often resists or refuses the call. The hero(ine) of my work-in-progress does a fair bit of this – it really takes a lot to get her over the threshold and into the next stage. It’s as if there’s a force acting to keep the hero in place, to preserve things as they are, and it takes extra impetus to get them to go forward and to begin to change.

At this point the hero may encounter a herald, who announces the call to adventure; a threshold guardian, who makes the barrier between the hero and the next stage – the special world of the adventure – even harder to get through; and/or a mentor, who is there to help the hero on her way. All these roles are fluid, so the same character might take on more than one function in the story at the same or at different times; they are like costumes or masks that may be put on or discarded.

The mentor: the quasi-parental figure who disappears when no longer needed

The mentor can be a teacher, protector or guardian, serving a quasi-parental role; they are there to give the hero whatever insight is needed for the next stage of the action. The mentor’s part in the story may come to an end as soon the hero has taken sufficient information on board.

So, for example, in Game of Thrones, Sylvio Forel teaches Arya how to fight. His last piece of advice to Arya is to run, and she does, as he holds off the soldiers who have come to capture her. We don’t actually see him die (I don’t know whether any more detail emerges about his fate later on); we assume that he has been killed, but Arya thinks back to all the advice he gave her about how to be stealthy, alert and brave throughout her time on the run, so it is almost as if he is still with her.

Arya’s not the only character on a heroic path in Game of Thrones, mind you, not by a long chalk – it’s an epic spaghetti junction of individual journeys, at least some of which end in death. I’m only on the second book, and that goes for two of the heroes already.

Sometimes whole stories turn on the hero-mentor relationship – the film The King’s Speech is a good example. And sometimes the mentor function’s of imparting knowledge is partly accomplished by the hero spending a couple of hours on the internet, as in the sequence in the film of Twilight when Bella does her research and figures out what Edward really is.

Mentors aren’t always lovely and kind and inclined to do the best for their charges, either – they may not even want to let them go. Jeremy, Tina’s blunt and rather appalling boss in Stop the Clock, is a mentor of sorts, as is her married lover, but they are not exactly straightforward role models, and the lessons she learns from them are ambiguous and uncomfortable. Perhaps they both include a tinge of shadow (of which more later).

The special world: different to the ordinary world, not always in a good way

On to the next stage: the hero’s arrival in the special world. I love this concept: the special world is the world of the story, the place where change is possible, but it isn’t necessarily magical – it’s just different to where the heroine started out.

So, for example, Sara in A Little Princess starts off rich, and finds herself reduced to poverty and servitude, from which she eventually emerges having learned, among other things, how differently some people will treat you when you’re well-off compared to when you’re not (in the words of the song, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out.)

Jane Eyre goes through more than one special world: Lowood, Thornfield Hall, the moors after her flight from marriage to Rochester, and St John Rivers’ house. For Thelma and Louise, the special world is the road trip; for the king and the therapist in The King’s Speech, it’s the treatment room.

Once you’re through to the special world, you’re particularly likely to encounter allies, tests and enemies, and the shadow may make a particularly forceful appearance. Jane Eyre’s already had Mrs Reed and John, her horrible cousin, to deal with: in Lowood there’s Mr Brocklehurst, shadow par excellence, whose hypocrisy and cruelty represent a kind of false goodness – false Christianity, even – that Jane will set herself against as she learns to trust her own heart and instincts.

Bella has James, the tracker, on her trail – and he finds her at the conclusion of a sequence which confirms her (sometimes unstable) alliance with the Cullen vampire family (when they go out to play baseball – what an all-American ally scene that is! – showing that they’re on the way to becoming a team.)

Here’s an interesting point about something that often happens at this stage: the visit to the watering hole – often, literally, a bar, as in the fantastic alien space bar sequence in Star Wars, which is probably one of my favourite film moments ever. The watering hole is a place where characters can clash (or flirt) and the truth may be revealed, like the cafe scenes in Stop the Clock when Natalie finds out more about Adele. (Allies – the pack of friends – have a huge role to play in my work-in-progress, and it has a lot of watering hole scenes.)

The shapeshifter: doubt, suspense, romance

Adele in Stop the Clock is a shapeshifter – Natalie is never really clear about what she wants, or intends (but then, Natalie is uncertain about her own desires too). Shapeshifters often crop up in romance: Mr Rochester even goes so far as to dress up as an old gypsy woman. They may be lethal (the femme fatale type). They bring doubt and suspense and are a catalyst for change (Adele is most certainly that).

The Twilight saga is full of shapeshifters, obv. I guess Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades books fits the bill, too, with a bit of mentor and shadow thrown in – is he a lover, or a horrible controlling sadist? He’s certainly in charge of an occasionally alarming special world.

The shadow: depending on your point of view

So… what about the shadow? Shadows aren’t necessarily all bad, and, indeed, in their own eyes, they may be perfectly reasonable (I’m sure Mr Brocklehurst thought of himself as a good man, a hero even, and regarded Helen Burns as a repository of villainous tendencies). Their function is to challenge and oppose the hero… and the hero may behave in a shadowy way himself at times.

The shadow’s story may be the inverse of the hero’s, with moments of triumph when the hero is at his lowest. I’ve just seen the film of Les Misérables, and was struck by how the relationship between the implacable policeman Javert and the former convict Jean Valjean follows this pattern.

Valjean goes on to forge a new identity, but Javert cannot bear to let him go. Valjean’s freedom torments him just as the prospect of a return to captivity torments Valjean. They represent wholly different and incompatible views of the law – Valjean believes in forgiveness, mercy and redemption, Javer only accepts the rule of right and wrong, and cannot contemplate the possibility that someone could be capable of change. Ultimately, one of them will have to be extinguished in order for the other to survive.

Shadows may come in unexpected (shapeshifting) forms; Cordelia in Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye is a monstrous shadow whose activities very nearly lead to the destruction of the heroine.

Ordeal and climax: life and death – twice over

Stop the Clock has a crisis scene that draws together the major characters about two-thirds of the way through. But that is not the end of the story, the final unravelling of the knots; for each character, there’s still a further confrontation to come, some more unfinished business to be dealt with.

The Writer’s Journey makes an interesting distinction between crisis or ordeal and climax. It quotes Webster’s definition of a crisis: ‘the point in a story or drama in which hostile forces are in the tensest state of opposition’. The ordeal effects a brutal and irrevocable transformation in the hero, and is a scene of death and resurrection. This is subtly different from the climax, a final confrontation, showdown or test which shows how the hero has changed and been reborn.

In Les Misérables, the crisis of the battle at the barricades puts Valjean and Javer on opposite sides of the uprising. It is followed by an astonishing sequence in which Valjean carries the injured Marius – his adoptive daughter Cosette’s hope of future love – through the sewers of Paris, emerging into the light to find Javer waiting for him.

There is a further climax to follow: Valjean must overcome his shame and tell Cosette who he really is. In doing so, he brings back not only Cosette’s mother Fantine – as if they have actually been a family all this time, separated only by death – but also the wider family of the comrades on the barricades. It’s like the sequence at the end of Titanic in which Rose returns the jewel to the sea and reclaims not only her long-lost love, but everybody else who was on board.

It may be that the point of the crisis is that it resurrects the hero, while the power of the climax is that it brings life back to everybody – even the reader (or viewer), creating a strange emotional rush that will send you on your way conscious that you’ve been somewhere else, and are now back in your ordinary world, but subtly changed. 

My best reads of 2012

The books pages are filling up with round-ups of what people most enjoyed reading this year, and here’s my contribution. Most of my choices are fiction, but there’s a bit of poetry and non-fiction in there as well – and only two books with a 2012 publication date. I tend to let the idea of a book grow on me, or go with recommendations or gifts, rather than struggling to keep up with all the latest releases… Or in the case of Game of Thrones, I watch it on DVD first!

I haven’t included Fifty Shades of Grey, which I couldn’t honestly say I enjoyed, though it did pique my interest, and it is currently the only book in the house hidden away out of children’s reach, so I guess that’s a testimonial of a sort. (Here’s my blog post about why I prefer Jilly Cooper’s Octavia.)

There’s plenty in the list below that has made me think, taken me out of myself, made me see the world differently, and, in some cases, prompted me to wonder how I could ever have left it so long before coming to the book in question.

Still, sometimes you just hit upon the right novel at the right time… So here are 10 of my favourite reads of the year, in no particular order.

1. Game of Thrones, by George R R Martin

I’m filled with admiration for this. The scope and boldness of it, the Shakespearean echoes, the vivid and entirely real characters fighting for survival in a fantasy world, the way each chapter is paced and shaped… Onto the second volume in the series now. Here’s an earlier blog post in praise of Game of Thrones.

2. Constellations, by Ian Pindar

My other half’s second poetry collection came out in May this year, and has just received a wonderful review (along with Emporium, his debut) in the TLS. Musical, beautiful, elusive, melancholy and profound. You can read more about it and about Ian’s other work on his blog.

3. Bing Yuk!, by Ted Dewan

This gets my award for the children’s book that gave us all most pleasure this year. My autistic son had spent a lot of time reading Jelly and Bean books with me, and they are amazing – he was able to decode them in a way that was simply not possible with other books. Then I read Bing Yuk! to him and he was absolutely charmed. (He is a much more fussy eater than Bing Bunny, who won’t attempt a tomato, but does like lots of other things.) ‘Bip!’ and ‘Sput!’ have pretty much acquired the status of catchphrases round here… Meanwhile, my daughter enjoyed the Harry Potter novels, which made for some later-than-ideal bedtimes.

4. The War Against Cliché, by Martin Amis

I struggle a bit with Martin Amis, simply because he was a writer that boys, or I suppose young-ish men, liked when I was studying English and they were too, and I couldn’t ever quite get over the suspicion that they had appropriated him because they felt that in some way he was on their side and not on mine. It’s something to do with that scene in The Rachel Papers… (I should qualify this by pointing out that not all the literary-minded boys I knew at the time were diehard Amis fans – just enough for me to feel slightly irked…) Anyway, I read this collection of prose this year and must admit, albeit reluctantly, that it is blooming brilliant. Dammit.

5. Heartburn, by Nora Ephron

For humour at the edge of heartbreak: unbeatable. Memorable for, among many other scenes, the description of how the narrator’s family made its money, and her mother’s expletive-peppered reaction to finding herself in goyishe heaven after a near-death experience (she promptly decided to come back to life).

6. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I can’t believe it took me so long to discover this novel. Charming, dry, funny and sad coming-of-age tale in which the daughters of a helplessly blocked writer pit their wits against poverty, hunger and the inconvenience of living in a crumbling castle. A great book for any writer to read, since so much of it is about putting pen to paper (or putting it off).

7. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Ian told me he saw someone walk down the street reading this, and then cross over without looking up and carry on along the other side of the road. Dangerously addictive. Very carefully put together so as to maintain your sympathy for a heroine who might just have no choice but to kill.

8. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Horrible Miss Hilly finally gets her comeuppance… and Skeeter gets the help she needs to tell the story she wants to tell. The stakes are high, but in the end the truth comes out… The plot is driven along by a plan to write a dangerous book in the face of an impossible deadline, and there is plenty of anxiety about the book’s possible reception. Seems to me that Kathryn Stockett wrote her own fears about the story she was telling, how it would go down with her readers, and whether she was entitled to tell it at all, into the heart of the narrative – and that combination of dread and compulsion is part of what gives it its power.

The Help, I Capture the Castle, and Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart, which I’m going to mention later on, all feature in this blog post about the way writers treat the subject of writing in their fiction.

9. Merivel, A Man of His Time, by Rose Tremain

I read Restoration, which features the same hero, back when I was still at school, and associate it loosely with A S Byatt’s Possession, pre-Raphaelite paintings, and going to see a French film in London for the first time (it was Gerard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac, at, I think, The Lumiere). I’ve read very little historical fiction since, and I didn’t know what to expect from this new novel, which catches up with Merivel in middle age, but I certainly wouldn’t have expected a tale of queasy romantic compromise, near-starvation in Versailles, and a tragically thwarted attempt to save a bear.

… and some more great reads…

Top ten lists are a bit artificial aren’t they? It’s a format that lends itself to omissions. So here are some extras.

Bonus mention goes to The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is about archetypal elements of stories – the relationships between the hero and characters such as the mentor and the shapeshifter, the trials and setbacks that have to be overcome on the hero’s journey. It explores the fresh twist given to age-old archetypes by films as varied as Star Wars, Pulp Fiction and Titanic, but when you start to look, you can see the story structures he talks about all over the place. (I spotted some in Stop the Clock! And now I know why crucial scenes so often happen in bars!)

Among other storytelling tips, I took away from this book the advice that you should be sure to have enough hazard in your fiction. A hero has to be up against it. Up against nothing much won’t do.

Also this year, I enjoyed my first ebook, though I read it on PC rather than Kindle so I’m still lagging behind the times: A Matter of Degree, by local author Beckie Henderson, a story of romance and poison pen letters set in academia, which opened my eyes as to what might be going on behind the scenes in higher education. Here’s Beckie Henderson’s blog about being a working mother.

I’m going to wrap up with a shout out to the writers who are mentioned in the acknowledgements to my first novel, Stop the Clock: Jaishree Misra, who has written six novels; Anna Lawrence Pietroni, whose debut, Ruby’s Spoon, blends magic with a Black Country 1930s setting, and tells the tale of a girl whose longing for adventure is granted when a mysterious stranger comes to town; and Neel Mukherjee, whose novel A Life Apart follows the stories of an Indian student in England and an Englishwoman in India. (Ian Pindar, my other half, is mentioned in the acknowledgements for Stop the Clock as well, of course.)

Final honourable mention goes to The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays, edited by Ian Hamilton, full of gems like George Orwell’s essay on Englishness, and Martha Gellhorn’s account of Ernest Hemingway getting into a butch-off with a Spanish Republican Army general, in ‘Memory’.

My reading ambition for 2013: rationalise the books. They are everywhere, in tottering heaps round my desk, in the kitchen cupboards… The writing’s on the wall. Ebooks are the way to go.

In praise of Bond. James Bond

I haven’t managed to see Skyfall yet… though I very much want to as I am a big Daniel Craig fan, and I feel I owe something – some kind of loyalty, perhaps – to James Bond. Not so much to the films, perhaps, though it’s hard to separate out what the ongoing life of Bond owes to his various on-screen incarnations from the part played by the books. But it was to the books that I turned as a teenager – and here’s what I learned from them.

Growing up in an all-female household and going to an all-girls’ secondary school had the effect of making me hopelessly curious about men. But where was I to find out about these strange trouser-wearing creatures? When I got to 17, I finally discovered the answer, which was: down the pub. But till then, I had to make do with books. James Bond became a formative influence, a sort of ghostly proxy uncle, offering, or so I thought, a sneaky insight into what men were really like, and what they wanted.

So what do men really want? Nowadays, I would probably say: a quiet life, with suitable technological entertainments to hand, a comfy sofa and an amenable companion. (Same as women really, no?) But in the world according to Bond, men wanted danger: the lethal ski run, the underwater swim round the villain’s yacht with a Geiger counter in hand, sex with the villain’s girl.

Bond liked to gamble, and drive fast, and drink, and did not like to lose, or ever want to settle down: he feared boredom much more than death, and was not at all domesticated. He didn’t even believe in garaging his car, because fumbling round with garage doors slowed you down and broke your fingernails and, anyway, cars ought to be able to start in the cold.

‘What every man would like to be, and every woman wants’ 

The blurb on the back of one of the Bond books we had at home proclaimed, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between the sheets,’ or words to that effect. I suppose there’s a subtle, but important, distinction between what one wants (the sofa and a good book), and what one wants to be, or take to bed (the fantasy the book contains).

My attitude to Ian Fleming’s books is muddled up with the image projected by the Bond films. Back in the 80s, when I stayed up late in the run-up to Christmas, sitting close to the telly with the sound turned down low to watch whichever Bond was on that year, the films seemed exotic, glamorous, and, well – sexy. None of which was particularly British – and yet Bond was.

This was the era of Moonraker and Roger Moore, who played it all a little tongue in cheek, not that I was particularly aware of that. I remember the villain with the mouthful of silver teeth, a bit of crocodile-hopping, the soft, malevolent hands stroking a long-haired white cat, and, of course, the Bond girl who slept with Bond and then didn’t wake, because she’d been covered in gold. I remember, also, piranhas in the pool, and one of those classic masochistic scenes in which Bond is pinioned, spread-eagled and about to face damage to a crucial part of his anatomy, although in the end his manhood is preserved.

Even though the image of the books and the image of the films tend to blur, the books have a quite separate life of their own. Here are some glimpses of Bond and his world from the books that particularly stick in my memory (and I can only apologise if my memory has reinvented them):

  • Bond was kicked out of Eton at the age of 13 after being found in bed with a chambermaid.
  • Bond’s secretary, Miss Moneypenny, is helplessly in love with him.
  • Honeychile Ryder in Dr No is not in a bikini when she emerges from the sea. (She has on nothing much more than a belt and a knife.) Her nose has been broken and badly set, and she instinctively covers it up when she sees Bond.
  • There is then a scene involving the sucking of sea urchin spines out of someone’s foot, though whether it’s Honeychile or Bond doing the sucking I really can’t remember.
  • The opening of Diamonds are Forever: very short, something about a scorpion, no Bond in sight. Life is nasty, brutish and short, is the message.
  • Tiffany Case, the woman in Diamonds are Forever: tough, vulnerable, survivor… but a Bond who took to family life wouldn’t be Bond, so even though he falls properly in love with her, she has to be written out.
  • A scene in a health spa in which Bond engages in some rather brutal one-upmanship which leaves a fellow guest with third-degree burns.
  • Patricia Fearing, who was, I think, some kind of therapist at the spa, and ends up experiencing Bond on the back seat of her bubble car.
  • Somebody (perhaps Patricia Fearing? Or Mary Goodnight?) who impressed Bond as potentially more exciting than the other women she was with because she ordered a strawberry daiquiri rather than something non-alcoholic.
  • Bond turning down the option of an emergency suicide pill which could have been stashed in one of his teeth.
  • In The Man with the Golden Gun, Mary Goodnight’s arm smelled of Chanel no 5. Chanel no 5 has been my favourite perfume ever since.