Tag Archives: Fiction

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce.


I rather enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so I was interested to read the companion book, from the perspective of the woman Harold was walking to. Queenie is in the last stages of her life and uses her ‘waiting time’ to write a letter to Harold, as she is no longer able to speak. Some of it is a little surreal and morphine-addled, lending veracity to her narrative. Colour is provided by the other residents of the hospice, but it’s heartbreaking as they inevitably die.

“If only memory were a library with everything stored where it should be. If only you could walk to the desk and say to the assistant, I’d like to return the painful memories about … and take out some happier ones, please”

The story of her time with Harold is moving – an absolute classic of unrequited love. Though Queenie has a secret, and she must keep writing until she gets to it. The thing I enjoyed most in the novel was the vivid description of her sea garden: a monument to her life in driftwood and shells.

The ending took me by surprise – something I hugely admire in a novel. I highly recommend it.

Have you read it? What did you think?

The idea of a novel taking place during another novel, but from a different perspective, was very interesting. The parallel story enhances the first. Are there any other novelists that have done this? I’d love to know.


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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

MiddlesexThis Pulitzer-winning novel is pure excellence. It’s literary in a wry, self-aware sort of way and is among the best family sagas written. The novel details three generations of the Stephanides family as the elders pass down narrator Cal’s genetic mutation. I think this might be the only fiction I’ve read with an intersex protagonist. Please recommend me more. Gender identity is one theme: the American Dream, immigration and assimilation are also deftly displayed. Social commentary successfully plays through the Greek epic allusions.

The narrative is impressive. It’s a mix of sardonic wit and verbosity, imagining details and events at which the narrator couldn’t have been present. He acknowledges his fabrications; when omnisciently recounting his father’s thoughts moments before his death in a car accident it feels like magic realism has taken over. There’s just a great ‘LOOK I’M DOING A BOOK’ attitude about this novel which I loved.

Middlesex is a modern classic.


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Thirteen Thoughts On Dialogue

Readers love dialogue, or so I’ve read; apparently the white space is less daunting than solid paragraphs. In your novel make sure dialogue is achieving something – plot or character development. The dream is to create a level of naturalism.

  1. frozenInclude interruptions and partial sentences. In real life people often tail off, or leave the other person to fill in the end of their sentence.
  2. Think about how each of your characters would speak.
  3. People’s vocabularies vary with up-bringing, situation, where they live or have lived, level of education etc. Give your characters different vocabularies, though avoid stereotyping.
  4. Related to this, it is worth considering whether they would use different colloquialisms, sayings, cultural references or slang. Evan Kingston is excellent at this.
  5. To create pace with your dialogue and to reflect stress in the characters keep it short and sharp. To create more intrigue and drag things out use longer exchanges.
  6. Sadness or anxiety can be expressed by someone stammering or falling over their words, not quite knowing what to say.
  7. Dialogue is as much about what characters don’t say as what they do. Subtext and mystery will keep your readers intrigued.
  8. Avoid expository dialogue: the dreaded ‘info-dump’. Never let one character lecture another with information just because you want your audience to know it. Make it an exchange of questions and answers. Leave things unsaid or imply them.
  9. Make sure your characters don’t stop or sit down to have conversations. In real life conversation happens while people are doing other things. Please don’t have dialogue meetings.
  10. Use adverbs sparingly when you’re not using tone or accompanying actions to show mood.
  11. To check whether your dialogue flows like real human conversation, read it out loud. Get your friends to join in and make an evening of it. If it doesn’t sound like you intend it to coming from your volunteer thespians, then it probably won’t read right either.
  12. Dialogue should be realistic, but as with everything in novels, it can be more exciting, quicker, wittier and more convenient than real life.
  13. funny-english-men-drinking-teaRelated to the above, do start chapters or sections in the middle of conversations. The start can be dreadfully dull. If books were real life we’d be twelve pages in and still only have established that everyone is fine, weather is happening, and we’d all love a cup of tea, if it’s not too much trouble.

Do you have any further thoughts on dialogue? I would love to see them in the comments. Please do like or share if this has been of any use to you.

If you’d like to have a dialogue with me, I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.


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My Policeman by Bethan Roberts

my policemanI have a fascination with books set in Brighton. My familiarity with the city means novels set there instantly have keen verisimilitude. In My Policeman, Marion, Tom and Patrick live round the corner from me, sixty years ago. Inspired by E. M. Forster’s relationship with a married policeman, Roberts’ novel is at its heart a love story. Marion loves Tom, a young policeman who swims in the sea each morning. Tom loves Patrick, a curator at the museum. Patrick loves Tom too, very deeply. Being gay was illegal in the 1950s, so Tom marries Marion for respectability, but Patrick is an ever-present third party in the relationship. It is a difficult situation with multitudinous consequences.

The narrative is split between Marion’s letter to Patrick, written in the 1990s looking back on their lives, and Patrick’s contemporaneous diary. Marion got on my nerves all the way through, though I assume she is there to represent a sort of public conservatism and naïveté. I much preferred Patrick’s account, full of wit, love and pathos. The next real humans I saw had to endure me talking about the characters and their actions as if they were real, because it’s the sort of book that begs to be discussed. When I had just finished it I was frankly rather annoyed at it, but if it hadn’t been a strong novel I wouldn’t have cared enough to have such a reaction.

Have you read it? What do you think?


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Top Ten Books About Friendship

Yet again those blogging luminaries over at The Broke and the Bookish have challenged us to create top ten list. Here are the best, in my opinion, stories of friendship.

The-Perks-of-Being-a-Wallflower_Cinema_w_80211. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is not only a classic coming of age tale about the support of wonderful friends, at ball games, parties, and Rocky Horror re-enactments, but also, this epistolary novel is addressed ‘Dear friend’, drawing the reader into Charlie’s inner circle.

“We didn’t talk about anything heavy or light. We were just there together. And that was enough” 

goodnight2. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian places young, ill-treated evacuee Willie in the care of the gruff widower, Mister Tom. Their unlikely friendship grows as Tom helps Willie to become happier and healthier. ‘Mister Tom’ eventually becomes ‘Dad’ instead.

“It occurred to him that strength was quite different from toughness and that being vulnerable wasn’t quite the same as being weak.” 

of mice3. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I can’t even talk about it. Too sad.

“A guy needs somebody―to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”

4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery explores how friendship can alter lives. Renée, a closet intellectual, Paloma, a twelve-year-old outsider, and Kakuro Ozu, their new neighbour, are profoundly changed through their friendship, finding new meaning in life. Read my review of it here.

“Do you know that it is in your company that I have had my finest thoughts?” 

charlotte5. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is about the heartwarming friendship between a piglet and a spider. It couldn’t be lovelier.

“‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’
‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’” 

One day6. One Day by David Nicholls is a day each year in the friendship of Emma and Dexter, and properly reflects what many relationships are like: sometimes you lose touch, grow apart, are furious or delighted with each other. Sometimes, friendship becomes romantic love.

“’Can I say something?’
‘Go on’
‘I’m a little drunk’
‘Me too. That’s okay.’
‘Just….I missed you, you know.’
‘I missed you too.’

 silver_linings_playbook_cover_book7. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick brings together Pat and Tiffany, just when they need each other.

“She looks sad. She looks angry. She looks different from everyone else I know—she cannot put on that happy face others wear when they know they are being watched. She doesn’t put on a face for me, which makes me trust her somehow.” 

8. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants by Ann Brashares shows how a pair of trousers can truly unite people.

“You know what the secret is? It’s so simple. We love one another. We’re nice to one another.”

color9. The Color Purple by Alice Walker pivots on the relative liberation Celie gets from meeting Shug Avery. It’s complex and excellent.

“Sometimes I feel mad at her. Feel like I could scratch her hair right off her head. But then I think, Shug got a right to live too. She got a right to look over the world in whatever company she choose. Just cause I love her don’t take away none of her rights.” 

10. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a gorgeous, heartbreaking story of friendships lost and regained.never

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.” 

What’s on your list?





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When Rosa Came Home by Karen Wyld

RosaLook at that cover: isn’t it gorgeous? It’s the reason I decided to read this fabulous feat of magic realism. Young Angelita didn’t know she had another sibling until Rosa was brought home, unconscious, mysterious and accompanied by a circus-load of friends (human and animal).

Angelita is the perfect narrator. She does not speak and is therefore an ideal listener, naturally allowing the soliloquies of the visitors to flow uninterrupted. Gradually, Rosa’s time away is pieced together.

It is gentle and warm, with the feel of a modern fairy tale. There are certainly the tropes of classic folk stories and a good deal of dramatic irony: a favourite technique of the Grimms et al.

I highly recommend this book. Links to purchase in many formats are all here.

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The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

The Library of Unrequited Love

Translated by Siân Reynolds, this short French novel is an amusing soliloquy in the voice of a librarian. She finds someone who has been locked in overnight, and variously scolds, enlightens and lectures them on literature, subject hierarchies, book classification, and her secret crush. Stuck in the Geography section in the basement, she wishes to been allowed to work on History or Literature.

Here’s my favourite passage: ‘To know your way around a library is to master the whole culture, i.e. the whole world.’ As with previous best-sellers, I intend to tell you what I thought of it through the incisive prompts of the ‘Reading Group Questions’, which have be so thoughtfully provided in the back pages.

1. What did you think of the fact that the person found in the library is never named or described? Did you imagine the librarian was talking to you, or did you have a picture in your head of the listener? For some reason, I felt she was talking to a male person, so no, I didn’t feel like she was talking to me, despite the lovely use of second person throughout. I think it’s a great device, as essentially the person is anonymous to her too, which is why she feels she can monologue freely.

2. Did you understand the librarian’s infatuation with Martin? Do you think she will ever speak to him about her feelings? Martin is a man who comes in regularly. All she knows about him is what he reads. It’s rather romantic, but essentially a flight of fancy. She will never speak to him: she is too shy, and it could shatter her imaginary ideal of him, which I think she sometimes enjoys. For example, she refers to a chair he never sits in as ‘Martin’s chair’ as that’s where she would like him to be. It’s a more satisfying image than the reality could ever be.

3. What do you think of the library as the setting of a love story, unrequited or otherwise? I think it’s charming. There are the clues to their personalities in the books they’re looking at; the stolen glances across the quiet study room; the light repartee that can be sparked by literature. There’s nothing more attractive than a firm grasp of the Dewey Decimal System. If I had a pound for every time someone asked me out in a library, I’d have £1.75.

4. The librarian has mixed feelings about her confinement to the Geography section. Which sections of the library would you never visit? I’m not very enamoured with local history; there seems to be a vast section of that, presumably due to the kind donations of local authors, who don’t realise that five other people have already written a guide to the history of cycle paths in their village. Food also fails to excite me. That said, I’m always open to suggestions.

I very much enjoyed all ninety-two pages of this witty and clever musing verging on diatribe. Have you read it? What did you think? Which sections of the library do you never visit? Comments please!

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Description – Don’t Leave it Too Late

Or, Avoiding the Longbottom Paradox

Readers who are invested in your story will begin to imagine the people and the places in it. This is what we want: for them to care about what you’ve created like it’s real. This means that, consciously or not, the reader is creating a picture in their minds. By adding detail too late on you can disrupt their absorption in your world by contradicting their image of it.

For example, if you want the reader to know that the character has an extraordinarily deep voice, or a strong accent, tell us that when they begin speaking. If you only share that after a significant portion of dialogue, the reader may feel as if they have been reading it wrong. Get your essential description in early to avoid reader upset.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: always cut off at the knees so you can't see he's standing on a box.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: always cut off at the knees so you can’t see he’s standing on a box.

It’s the same feeling you get when a film adaptation of a book comes out and the characters look nothing like how the source material describes them. Think of 6’5″ Jack Reacher being played by Tom Cruise. A brief Internet skim reveals that the opinionated masses believe that compared to the books, film Jane Eyre is too pretty; Katniss is too fair-skinned; Neville Longbottom looks too much like a young Clive Owen; and Tyrion Lannister is far too sexy for his (leather) shirt.

It’s fine for the reader to guess details that you don’t mention at all, it’s just when new information is introduced later that it can be annoying. 

That said, you are allowed  to surprise the reader on purpose, for example: ‘Betty swore internally at her alarm clock each morning, dreading another day of work. It was Monday and rain clattered into her windows. She dove further under the duvet; it was dreadfully cold. Well, no one can afford to heat draughty old buildings anymore. Eventually, the sound of her beloved dogs yapping inspired her to drag her weary legs out of bed. I suppose one must persevere, she thought, one is the Queen of England after all.’

What do you think? Has this ever happened to you when you’ve been reading?

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehogThis book made me weep. It was powerful, witty, profound and personal, and beautifully translated by Alison Anderson. The protagonists are a secretly cultural cat-lady concierge and a suicidal pre-teen genius who lives in her building. They both ponder what the point of it all is in their separate, but interconnected worlds. I think this book deserves to speak for itself, so the rest of this post is a collection of my favourite passages.

“Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve spoken or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognise a well-tuned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, to see it quite naked, in a way.”

french hedgehog“I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language. ”

“When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?”

“Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”

“I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”

“There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature.”

Have you read it? What did you think?


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Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Under the Wide and Starry SkyBy the time I got round to reading this book I had completely forgotten the synopsis and had no idea what to expect. I decided to keep it a surprise. Imagine my delight when Robert Louis Stevenson leapt in through a window several chapters in and I remembered that this is a fictionalisation of his remarkable life. Louis, as he’s know to his friends, falls for Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married American, who is in France to escape from an errant husband and learn art with her children. At its heart, this is a love story. As a reader, I grew to love Fanny and Louis, rooting for them through separation, illness, poverty, war and artistic differences. 

‘In the end, what really matters? Only kindness. Only making somebody a little happier for your presence.’

It was fascinating to learn about Stevenson in context – persevering with adventure stories when Zola et al. were driving a realist movement. Horan has excellently combined historical detail, world events and family moments. She interweaves neat prose with Scottish, literary and archaic language. I love being reminded of words I haven’t seen in a long time like, ‘gloaming’, ‘flageolet’ and ‘cairn’. New language is introduced again as they sail around the South Seas and settle in Samoa.  

I did lose track a little of some of the large supporting cast of characters, but such is the nature of real life. Horan has achieved a level of cohesion that is hard to impose on true stories. It is a long novel, but it captures a lifetime. It is authentic and natural, and yet still a great adventure. 

Treasure IslandThere are knowing touches that make this a true pleasure to read. For example, near the start of the book, before Louis has written his most famous works, Fanny’s young son turns to him and says: 

“Tell me a pirate story.”

Many thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for this review copy. 

I am really into fictionalisations of real lives at the moment. Do you have any to recommend?

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