Friday, 9 August 2013

First Page Competition 2013 - THE RESULTS!

Huge thank you to all those who entered this year's First Page Competition, and thank you also to Sue Grafton, who kindly judged the entries and decided on the winners below. She has chosen to gift her judge's fee to a good literary cause. If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to post them in the comments below.


1st Place – Genesis by Kristen Coros
2nd Place – After the Argonauts by Robin Bailes
3rd Place- The Sound of Murder by Cindy Brown

And in no particular order:


John Wesley Hardin, Outlaw by Flora Gebre-Yohannes
Hunting the Light by Vanessa Savage
What Men Do by Euan Stuart
The Glorious Twelth Susan Kemp
The Grab by William L. Spencer
The Holiday by Sarah Line Letellier
Mazimdas by Pat Black
First You Survive by Suzanne Gochenouer
The Fury by Maia Cornish
The Birdman by Steve Amos
The Exchange by Julia Anderson
The Wishing Sea by Durga Walker


The Boy by Sophie Green
Into the Light by Sue Smith
Indian Summer by Celia J Anderson
Night Time Caller by Emma Norry
Jane the Magnificent by Michele Ivy Davis
Sandrah, with an H, and spaceships by Bryan Marshall
Justice by Michelle Parkyn
Improper Use of Human Remains by Alan E Taylor
Black Tongue by Rebecca Johnson Bista
Candles and Karma by Lorna D'Alton
Lindy's Story by Joy Manne
Waiting for Marie-Claire by Helen Meikle
Flicker by Jo Spencely
Thanksgiving by Jonathan Curran

Judges Report by Sue Grafton

1st Place – Genesis by Kristen Coros

I’m impressed with the confidence with which this writer set up the particulars of her tale. The tone is intimate. In essence, the narrator invites the reader to observe the relationship between herself, Allison Jane, and her younger brother, Cole, whose birth was unexpected, coming as it did ten months after the narrator’s own. Coolly analytical, nay even jaunty, she assesses the differences between them with a faintly self-congratulatory air. In her candor, she exhibits a sense of self-awareness that hints that she’s a heartless sociopath. It’s as though the reader is looking over her shoulder, caught up in a sibling rivalry that probably doesn't bode well for Cole.

2nd Place - After the Argonauts by Robin Bailes

I was taken with the historical setting for this opening in which the writer deftly establishes the protagonist and lays the groundwork for the action to come. The suggestion of the story unfolding is sure-handed and economical. The writer was clearly well-acquainted with the underlying mythology on which the tale proceed. The ‘voice’ is clear and the tone sustainable. The narrator comments from a position of omniscience, allowing the reader to observe from a distance events that I surmise will be fraught with conflict.

3rd Place- The Sound of Murder by Cindy Brown

This writer makes good use of dialogue, employing quick brushstrokes to establish the protagonist’s character, her current situation in life, and the setting for the story. An unemployed actress, she’s indebted to her uncle, a private investigator for whom she’s doing clerical work in advance of what she expects will be schooling in the finer points of detective work. The pitch is underplayed comedy with the suggestion of madcap adventure on the horizon.

The Winning Entries

1st Place – Genesis by Kristen Coros

My brother and I were born less than a year apart. As a child, I liked to imagine that the ten-week interstice between our respective tenancies in our mother’s womb owed to my birth being such an exciting and celebrated event, and to my being such a beautiful and delightful baby, that our parents felt moved to repeat the process right away. The truth is that Cole’s conception, though far from being immaculate, was an unplanned surprise. Our parents didn’t think a second pregnancy could occur so soon after the first; they were shocked to learn of his impending existence at a time when they were still coming to terms with mine.

Have a look at the baby books our mother made for us. Mine is practically bursting with photos, with locks of my hair, with handwritten observations: Allison Jane was born at 1:48 am! At 8 lb 6 oz, she is a beautiful and healthy baby girl! That same exclamation-studded tone continues as she records absolutely everything about me: My first smile! First time rolling over! My contrary first word (“No!”). That first small step – A giant leap for my baby!

The notes in Cole’s book are more scarce, also more sedate. He was born underweight, jaundiced, and anemic. His first portrait was taken through a cube of hospital-grade plastic; he stayed in the incubator for three days. These are the things I’ve tried not to think about: How our mother could not record for my brother, as she did for me, a healthy weight, a perfect Apgar score, an unshakable bond formed in those first hours of skin contact. How Cole may not have had these things because throughout his pregnancy, I stole our mother’s sleep, leeched nutrients from her blood and bones. How maybe if we were twins, he would have had a better shot; maybe then the riches of our mother’s pre-pregnancy body might have been distributed a little more equally. But maybe not – maybe I would have found a way to steal from him then too.

2nd Place - After the Argonauts by Robin Bailes

Prologue- At The Walls Of Troy

It was Aias and Achilles who first began to question the identity of the man calling himself Aeson.

No one seemed to know where he had come from, a volunteer at the walls of Troy. He fought alongside the Greeks, shared their tents, gambled with them, sang the old songs, drank with them and shared their hangovers. He celebrated victories with them, he bled with them, he mourned their dead. But somehow he stood apart. By night he was often seen standing alone, staring out to sea, listening to the beckoning waves, hunched, not by the years but by some unseen weight that rested on his shoulders.

It was none of that that made Aias and Achilles suspicious. It was nothing specific, nothing they could place; certainly not any familiarity of feature in the face hidden behind a mass of prematurely greying beard, nor in the tired eyes that stared from that face. Nor was it how he conducted himself in battle; charging into every fight like Ares himself; unafraid, the weight suddenly lifted from him, felling Trojans left and right. In the end, it was perhaps his manner, the air of command to which he had no right, that made those two great heroes look a little more closely and reach back into their memories. Could it be? They had both been children when they had seen him last, and back then he had been a different man, one who had led both their fathers. But take away the layers of dirt and the creases of age, strip back the years, remove the beard, uncrack the voice, unbend the back, re-light the fire that had once burnt in those empty eyes…

Still it was impossible for either to say for sure. And yet, truth be told, once the flicker of recognition had been ignited there was not a shadow doubt in either of their minds that they could put a name to the man.

And that name was Jason.

3rd Place- The Sound of Murder by Cindy Brown

I should never do anything pre-coffee.

“It was only a teeny fire,” I told my uncle. I sat outside on the steps of my apartment complex, talking on my cell phone and watching firemen carry equipment out of my second-floor apartment. Black smoke trailed behind them. The air smelled awful, like the time I’d fallen asleep in front of a campfire and melted the bottom of my sneakers. Except this smelled like an entire Nike factory.

“Teeny fire?" said Uncle Bob, “Isn’t that an oxymoron or something?”

“Nah. That’s firefighter language for no one got hurt. Right?” I said to an especially cute guy wearing a Phoenix Fire Department cap.

“Yep,” the fireman said over his shoulder. “Teeny. No one hurt.”

“Ivy,” said my uncle. “Stop flirting with firemen and tell me what happened.”

“Um,” I said, “I’m not entirely sure.”

I’m not a morning person. I think that’s one reason I became an actress. I rarely have to be anywhere before noon. Every so often I’d have a commercial audition in the morning or … 

“I got up early to come into the office, to go to that meeting you put on my calendar,” I said. 
Since acting didn’t always pay the bills, I worked part-time at my uncle’s private investigation business. Right now I was mostly filing and writing reports, but Uncle Bob promised he was going to give me some real detective work soon.

“You got up early?” I could hear the skepticism in my uncle’s voice.

“Eight.” There was a pause on the other end. “Ish,” I finished.

“Right. Go on.”

“I put the kettle on the stove …” A coffeemaker took up too much space in my minuscule galley kitchen, so I used a French press instead. “And got in the shower. Just like usual.”

Another pause. Then, “You usually do that? Turn on the stove and get in the shower?”

“Sure. Then when I get out, the kettle’s boiling and I make coffee. No waiting.” Not only was I not a morning person, I was not a patient person. Especially in the morning. “And since the water was running, I didn’t hear the smoke alarm.”

“That’s why you didn’t hear the alarm? You were in the shower?” said the cute fireman, who was going back up the stairs. I nodded, though it did seem sort of obvious. I was wearing only a towel. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Summers of Riot

by Catriona Troth

Riots, thankfully, are as rare on the streets of Britain as a long hot summer. But just occasionally, the two go hand in hand. The combination heat and frustration brews trouble. Warmth brings people onto the streets, where anger and discontent can be shared. Riots rarely start in cold weather.

In the summer of 1981, a wave of riots fanned out across Britain’s cities. The flashpoint was Brixton, in South London, where a young Alex Wheatle was living. Twenty years after Wheatle was jailed for his part in those riots, he wrote East of Acre Lane, the story of Biscuit, Brixtonian youth, unemployed and out of options, making a little money selling ganja and dodging police and gangstas alike.

Thirty years later, in August 2011, a new wave of riots hit Britain. Motivated by her own anger at the ill-informed responses she heard, ex-investment banker turned writer, Polly Courtney, wrote Feral Youth: the story of Alesha, a fifteen year old from Peckham who, in the course of a few short weeks, loses the roof over her head, the friend she owes everything to, the youth centre that provides an occasional refuge, and the ‘rep’ that provides her with some flimsy protection on the streets.

Both books take you under the skin of a youngster living in desperate circumstances. Both open your eyes to the pressures and frustrations that can lead to an explosion of violence and destruction.

Two very different authors, writing about events thirty years apart. The parallels are striking. The differences are shocking.

East of Acre Lane is written partly in the Jamaican patois that was current on the streets of Brixton in 1981. The language of Reggae. The language of performance poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson. Feral Youth is written in a vivid South London street slang that is recognisably its descendant.

Both Biscuit and Alesha are young, black and disaffected. Both are making money from petty thieving and selling drugs, which brings them into conflict not only with the police but with those higher up the drug-dealing food chain. But Biscuit at least has a home and a family – a mother and a sister and a place to live. And Biscuit is eighteen. Thirty years on, and Alesha is only fifteen. Her poverty, and the extent to which she is living under the radar, make Biscuit’s life look sheltered by comparison.

Despite what you might think from reading the tabloids, for most of us living in Britain today, the chances of being the victim of violent crime are lower today than they were thirty years ago. But for kids like Biscuit and Alesha, in a few forgotten pockets of our cities, the level of violence they live with has escalated terrifyingly.

When Biscuit falls out with the drugs baron, Nunchaks, in the opening scene of East of Acre Lane, he is taken to the top of a high rise apartment building, threatened with a beating and left to imagine the possibility of being thrown from the roof.
The red-lit circle indicated that the lift had reached the 25th floor.  The two flunkies shunted Biscuit through a wire-meshed door that led the way to the balcony. Biscuit ran the scene through his mind in trepidation. This was the end; he could see his eighteen-year-old body crumpled on the concrete forecourt below, as lifeless as a black bag of rubbish.  He felt an asthma attack gathering force in his chest and his fear rendered him speechless.  Nunchaks was still fiddling with his lighter.

‘Wha’ yard number did you raid the uder day?’ Nunchaks demanded.

Feral Youth opens with one gang member being knifed and left to bleed to death.

Reggie Bell is dead. He was seventeen.  JJ says we saw him got shanked last night, but really and truly, I didn’t see nothing. It was all just a blur of hoods – a mad whoosh in the darkness.

I heard it though.  Reckon half of South London heard Reggie Bell die.  It was the kind of noise a cat would make if it was stretched and stretched ’til it snapped. Then nothing.  JJ says that’s when he died. He says the blood was leaking out of his body from the slit in his neck and when there was two pints of it all over the road, that’s when he died
Gang rivalry leaves Biscuit ‘trodding carefully,’ but for Alesha, those rivalries have sucked in whole neighbourhoods, affecting who she can talk to, which side of the street she can walk on. Carrying a knife and affiliating to a gang are just part of what she has to do to keep herself safe.

Nunchaks’ weapon of choice, as his name suggests, is the two-sticks-on-a-chain favoured by kung fu fighter, Bruce Lee. But he relies mostly on the threat of violence to maintain his power. Tremaine, the leader of the gang Alesha affiliates to, carries a gun and exercises that threat on a daily basis.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the sexual exploitation of women by gang members. In East of Acre Lane, Biscuit’s sister, Denise, is lured into prostitution through dates with the glamorous-seeming Nunchaks, mirroring the fate of the ‘skets’ Alesha despises.
They get all dolled up, hair and nails and underwear, then they drop their knickers for the first man that comes along. Most of them do it for the p’s. Some of think they’re going to hook a gangsta and get all the latest threads and ice and champagne on tap. Some of them do it to get knocked up.

But as Alesha learns, sexual violence can also be used as a form of punishment and control.

Into this world desperation and extremes comes the spark that detonates an explosion. In Brixton in 1981, it was the rumour that the police had stabbed a black youth they had tried to arrest. In Tottenham in 2011, it was the police shooting of Mark Duggan. In Courtney’s fictionalised version, it’s the courts’ ignoring audio evidence that the police beat up a black kid.

As the word of the injustice spreads, anger spills over. People gather on the streets. In Biscuit’s world, it’s word of mouth. In Alesha’s world, Blackberry Messenger speeds the flow of information. But the result is the same. What was a targeted response becomes an eruption of scattergun violence. Police lose control.
A roar goes up in the crowd and we bust our way up the street, pushing the fedz further and further back.  They’re running scared now.  There’s a steady stream of ammo:  wheelie bins,hubcaps, doorframes, bits of twisted metal from burning shops.  It’s all lying there in the street as we roll through, so we use it again and again as we go.  I pick up all sorts and hurl it, not even bothering to see where it lands.  Chuck, chuck, chuck.  I’m so hyped up now I don’t care what happens.  I don’t care if I kill someone.

When the 2011 riots happened, a common response was, “These yobs don’t have the reasons to riot they had back in 1981.” Reading these two books, comparing Biscuit’s life to Alesha’s, I see a frightening poverty of understanding in that comment. If Biscuit’s story lays bare the reasons for Brixtonian anger in 1981, Alesha’s story takes a hefty slice of those reasons and multiplies them by a factor of ten.

Alesha’s life has more in common Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist, or Jo the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, than anything I can relate to in modern life. But Alesha is not a phantom from Victorian London. Polly Courtney worked with Kids’ Company when she was writing Feral Youth, and Kids’ Company works with kids like this every day. So how the hell did we allow that to happen, when sixty years ago we built the safety nets that were supposed to prevent it ever happening again?

Books like East of Acre Lane and Feral Youth can show us better than any study full of facts and figures how riots start and what drives young people to those levels of desperation. If as many people read them as once read Dickens, we might again start to change the way we think about lives in our inner cities.

If you’re interested in a non-fiction, but still personal, account of riots, then I’d recommend Tales from Two Cities, by Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy. In September 1985, Murphy was living in Birmingham, in a bedsit across the road from the Villa Cross pub, when the Handsworth riots kicked off. The book contains a first-hand account of the days before, during and after, and serves to underline what a predictable pattern such events take.

 Catriona Troth’s forthcoming novel, Ghost Town, is set in 1981; the Brixton riots and the events leading up to it, form part of its background.

You can read Catriona's extended review of Feral Youth on her blog:

The Origins of L-Space: Terry Pratchett returns to where it all began.

by Catriona Troth

As any reader knows, there something powerfully magical about large concentrations of books. As Terry Pratchett wrote in Guards! Guards!:
A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read

Libraries and bookshops are entries to L-space, and in L-space, anything can happen.

July 17th, 2013

Beaconsfield Library may not be big, but it’s special to Pratchett. As he tells an audience of around 70, crammed in on the hottest day of the summer, he didn’t like school; so he came to the library to read. A lot. Wycombe library down the road was bigger, but it was full of ‘fierce women in leather corsets’ who wanted to tell him what books were ‘suitable.’ At Beaconsfield, he could read what he liked. And he did.

He read his way through all the bound volumes of Punch, learning from the masters of humour. (“You’ve taken them away? Where did they go?” he protests, when one of the librarians admits they no longer have them.)

Before Punch, it was The Wind in the Willows. (“I read that three times, one after the other. I realised it was made up. It was one big lie. And it was better than the truth.”) And Moomintroll. And 1066 and All That.

“You grow up when you start to read grown-up books. Always read books that are a little bit too old for you,” he tells the children in the audience.

He wrote his first short story for a supply teacher, which was then published in the school magazine. “The kids loved it and the headmaster hated it. It was great!” Not long after, he ran away from school, became a journalist for the Bucks Free Press, and had the story published in Science Fantasy Magazine. “And I was down the slippery slope. You read until your head is full to bursting, then God puts a finger on you, and you’re a writer.”

These days his illness necessitates that he uses dictation software (Talking Point and Dragon Dictate) to write his novels. He and his assistant, Rob, (“some days I feel like Drumknott, other days like Willikins...”) swap stories about training the American-written software to write arse not ass.

“We created our own command in Talking Point,” Rob tells the audience. “Get the Cleaners is supposed to remove all the formatting from a piece of text. Sometimes I can hear Terry’s voice in the office. ‘Get the cleaners. Get the cleaners. GET. THE. CLEANERS.”

“I’m not so sure computers don’t have souls,” says Pratchett. “They might be arse-souls...”

Someone from the audience asks who Pratchett’s favourite Discworld character is, and the answer comes back without hesitation:

“Tiffany Aching. I fell in love with her.

“It’s when a character starts acting as if they were living. That happened with Granny Weatherwax too. And Sam Vimes. If I wind him up, he’ll keep going so long as I keep him fed.”

Another Lancre resident had their origins not far away. “The lady who became Nanny Ogg came from Beaconsfield Old Town. She’d been a foundling and her life had been hard, but she was always cheerful. She had a laugh like a drain. My parents would take her out to dinner and she’d always go with them, even if she’d just had her dinner. And she sent my Dad girly pictures at Christmas.”

Writers are pack rats, he says, always picking up interesting things. But there is a darker side to it too.

“It’s what I call the Black Mill. When my father was dying and my mother was weeping and I was comforting her – there was a part of my brain that was going ‘so this is what it’s like...’ It’s all grist to the Black Mill. It’ll be used sometime.”

People write asking where he gets his ideas from but there really is no shortcut. (“You did once write a letter back saying, ‘there’s this little shop in Basingstoke...’” Rob reminds him. Pratchett chuckles. “He’s probably still out there, looking for it.”)

A young audience member asks what his advice for young writers is. “WRITE!” comes back the answer. “And have a second string to your bow so you can make some money.”

What does he do when he’s not writing? “What’s ‘not writing’?” he retorts, which leads off into stories of the gadgets he has used over time so he can write even when he away from his desk. A Toshiba Libretto. Palm Pilots. Blackberries. Toilet Rolls... (“I keep everything,” Rob confesses.)

Would he like to live on Discworld? “It doesn’t exist,” he stage whispers – and then he relents and says, yes, so long as Vetinari was his friend (which sounds entirely reasonable).

Having just emailed Pratchett’s current work-in-progress, Raising Steam, to their editor, Rob has an extract on his phone. He reads a page or two, from where the residents of Sto Lat witness the inaugural journey of Discworld’s first steam train. In the front row is a young boy with a steam train on his t-shirt, who seems to embody all the small boys in the story who stand goggle eyed while “the bystanders become by-runners and they by-stampeders...”

Then Pratchett returns to libraries and to L-Space.

“I came here because I support libraries and I support librarians. Google is good. We Google like nobody’s business. But Google is only good if you already know what you want to look up. You can’t browse Google.”

He looks sternly at one of the librarians.

“Libraries should be full of books. Old books.”

The money raised from ticket sales is go, at Pratchett’s request, to the library. “And not some central pot. This library. You can buy back some of those copies of Punch!”

Clearly those missing volumes are a sore point. But until they’re retrieved, any budding writers in the library could do worse than learn from a modern master– Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld.

You can read Catriona Troth’s personal exploration of Discworld in Travelling Widdershins.

Podcast: Disappearing Acts by Max Orkis

We've been a bit lax around here when it comes to podcasts lately.  [Hanging head in shame.] But we're going to make it up to you.

We have a brand new short story:  Disappearing Acts, by Max Orkis, read by JJ Marsh.

Max Orkis is a screenwriter, teacher, father and one of the original members of The Café Schober Writers from Zurich.

As for the story - something very strange is happening to Maria.  She is behaving quite out of character...

How to get a bum like Kylie’s

The poetry method (and other stuff about peer review) by Derek Duggan

We’ve all been there. You’re at a party and you’ve been introduced to someone and everything seems to be going along nicely. Then they suddenly say – I had this dream last night… You do a little bit of sick into your mouth, swallow it back, and fix your wide eyed polite smile on your face as they begin to tell you about it. The only thing that could have made it worse was if they had offered to tell you about the dream in the form of interpretive dance. Or worse again, in verse.

Kylie Minogue stated in an interview in 2008 that how she kept her award winning bum in shape was by inviting people around to her house to recite poems at her. The involuntary bum clenches that accompanied her embarrassment were so strong that no other form of exercise was necessary. And all she had to do to insure they would keep coming back was to tell them how good she thought their poem was. This was apparently the trickiest part, but award winning bums don’t clench themselves into shape, so needs must.

What is it that stops us from simply running away when confronted with these situations? Well, many of us will have been put into stomach ulcer inducing embarrassing situations by friends or family when they get their kids to do a little show of some sort while you’re over visiting. Little Mary will be marched out to murder some song or other and you sit there and listen while willing your head not to catch fire. The torture comes to an end and that’s when the truly mental part starts – other friends and relatives burst into what sounds like genuine applause and then go on to gush enthusiastically about how amazing the child is. Several things go through your head – you wonder if the other people in the room have witnessed the same tuneless shouting as you just have. You wonder if perhaps the rest of the guests have shoveled a shed load of drugs into their faces pre-party in anticipation of this very event. But mostly you just hope that the wealth of encouragement won’t spur them on to do another fucking song.

Everyone takes a turn at heaping praise on the child and eventually all eyes rest on you. You have your chance to give an honest appraisal, but do you? Do you fuck! You say it was fantastic and hope you won’t be asked to elaborate. And it’s at that exact moment you realize where all the deluded nutters come from in the audition phase of The X Factor, and that you’re partly responsible.

Over time you can develop this ability to always stack positive praise on people no matter what the actuality of the situation is and if you get good enough at it you can go on to writing forums and do crits for people. Remember, people may ask for your honest opinion, but just like little Mary, they only mean that if what you’ve got to say is for the most part positive to the point of gushing. Any attempt to point out, even in a nice way, that the story, characters or premise don’t hold water will have you branded a troll faster than a vindaloo and eight pints of lager can pass through your body. The result of being branded a troll is that you will have few, if any, people who will crit your work for you and many of those that do will be operating on a level of spite normally reserved for people who post positive messages about being single on facebook.

Of course, if you play by the rules and say how wonderful everyone else is then you can reasonably expect equally nice things to be said about you. Not only that, but in return for posting a link to someone’s terrible book on facebook or twitter they will have no problem posting a link to your terrible book. And don’t forget, anyone who says that your book is anything short of excellent is a troll and their opinion is not worth a rub of one of Jordan’s knockers.

Does this mean that all those lovely crits you get from your virtual friends on your writers site are worthless in any kind of literary critique sense of the word? The short answer – Yes. The slightly longer answer – Yes, they are. The real question is – Does it matter? It’s not doing anyone any harm and it makes you feel good about yourself and at the end of the day whether your book is good or not will have absolutely no bearing on how it does in the market place. So long as you don’t believe the hype everything will be fine. Remember, you don’t want to end up being the undiscovered writer equivalent of one of the deluded people off the X Factor, who ends up being absolutely stunned when their manuscript is rejected even though they’ve been told by friends that it’s a masterpiece.

OK. Is everyone clear on that now? Good. Glad I could help.

The Grand Tour

From mid 16th century to mid 18th century, the well-to-do young graduate, usually male, would embark on a leisurely journey across Europe. Following Richard Lassels’s The Voyage of Italy, a tour of the key cultural capitals was considered vital to attain the level of "an accomplished, consummate Traveller".

A rite of passage into public life, one could improve one’s understanding in four areas: the intellectual, the social, the ethical and the political.
In reality, the experience was rather more hedonistic, allowing a nascent aristocrat a few years of intoxication, gambling and sexual abandon. (Much like InterRail.) “With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent. No one knows who came up with it, but their adventures soon had a perfectly appropriate name: the Grand Tour.” – Matt Gross (New York Times)

Words with JAM, no strangers to abandoned hedonism ourselves, would like to play Cicerone (that’s Cicerone, not La Cicciolina) and guide you in sampling some of the literary joys Europe has to offer. So pack your letters of recommendation, ensure your undergarments are laundered and the valet has labelled your trunk First Class, and let us depart these shores for The Grand Tour. Perhaps you should bring along a journal to record your Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, just like William Beckford, a most extraordinary sort.

As we sail away from the white cliffs, let’s read Matthew Arnold’s Dover, which includes the line, “Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land” to get us in the mood.

In the Netherlands, we’ll start with a challenge. The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg tells the blackly humorous story of Xavier Radek against a backdrop of recent European history. It also serves as a salutary warning – never get circumcised by a myopic cheese salesman. WWII looms over Tessa de Loo’s The Twins, in which two sisters, separated at six years old, meet by chance seventy years later. Their respective experiences range across the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany and their attempts to understand each other makes for touching, enlightening reading.

Step off the train at the Gare de Nord, and for the full sensory impact of Paris, immerse yourself in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, or Andrew Miller’s Pure. Both set in the 18th century, these books bring the scents and stenches, colours and tastes, depravity and filth of the city in that period to brilliant life. More modern Paris and partly set in Vienna, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. This explorative memoir of his family history and the events which led to the preservation of 264 netsuke carvings is wonderfully detailed and will encourage a whole new appreciation of all things artistic.

And onto Switzerland. Time for some action in Geneva with Robert Harris’s The Fear Index. A fast-paced chase around the city with an ingenious plot and behind-the-scenes insights into the financial industry. Back to 1880, and Mark Twain’s endearing mixture of fact and fiction in A Tramp Abroad. Mountains, stories, observations and sketches and an appendix entitled The Awful German Language, this is a perfect Grand Tourist’s companion.

Through the San Bernadino Pass and into Italy, first stop Venice. For crime lovers, pick up any one of Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti series. Or delve in the atmospheric vision of the place as described by Thomas Mann in his novella, Death in Venice. It has an exquisite inevitability, much like the city itself. Don your white panama, and allow Thomas Harris to introduce you to Florence, in pursuit of Hannibal. Dr Lecter is up to his Machiavellian tricks in the cradle of the Renaissance. So much to see in Rome, one can get easily distracted, so short stories are in order. Settle down in a quiet square, order a Prosecco and indulge in some Rome Tales, giving you a glorious array of perspectives on the Eternal City.

Last stop before we return home to become fine upstanding members of society is Naples. So many books we could choose from, such as Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, which details his experiences of violent organised crime. But we want to end our trip on an up note, so it has to be A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. True, only one section is set in Naples, but it is such a terrific book, you’ll thank us anyway.

If you are the sort of person who likes to explore a place in a literary as well as physical sense, grab yourself one of the City Lit Series. Don’t forget to send us a postcard.

By JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. Short story collection out now.

60 Seconds with Stephen Clarke

Sixty seconds, twelve questions.
Each issue, we persuade, tempt and coerce (or bully, harass and blackmail) a writer or two into spilling the contents of their shelves.
Twelve questions on books and writing. Plus the Joker – a wild thirteenth card which can reveal so much. Be honest, what do YOU put on your chips?

A Year in the Merde, first published in 2004, follows narrator Paul West in his attempts to assimilate (mainly in order to improve his sex-life) also contrasts other aspects of French society, in particular French bureaucracy and higher education, with the "system" in Britain.

This was followed by
Merde Actually, (2005) and a second sequel, Merde Happens, (2007) and Dial M for Merde (2008) and most recently, The Merde Factor. Non-fiction includes Talk to the Snail, a little book that tries to describe French society according to ten “commandments” like “thou shalt not get served”; a history tome 1000 Years of Annoying the French (2010), and Paris Revealed. Stephen wishes it to be known that he still plays bass if there are any really bad rock bands out there.

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

The William books by Richmal Crompton. They made me realize that the hero of a story can have such great fun.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?

Anywhere where I can sit with a laptop. The space has to be filled with silence, otherwise I can't concentrate.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

The few people who turned up to my first ever reading of A Year in the Merde and started laughing. I realized how great it is to write jokes that people laugh at. The best motivation.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

Life is full of contradictions.

Who would play Paul West in the movie?

That, as someone once said, is the question. There is a script and I'm waiting to hear who would like to direct it. Some excellent names in the hat, but I can’t say more.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

L'Etranger by Camus. The teacher at school overdid the French existentialism theory but it's simply a fascinating story from the point of view of a man who commits murder for no reason. That and the manual for my computer.

How far did English teaching help with your fiction writing?

It provided some excellent bilingual jokes for my books. Like the French lady who told me that she made "crap" for her dinner. She meant crêpes.

Which writers make you laugh?

Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse, Elmore Leonard and any French writer who
starts wittering on about how they're revolutionizing literature.

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

Guilty, no. For me all writing is equal. There's just some I enjoy and some I don't.

You were a pioneer – self-publishing long before the Kindle phenomenon. How do you see the current publishing landscape?

 Self publishing has been made much easier with ebooks. And the demise of the bookshop means that soon self publishers might be on an equal footing with published writers. I see it as motivation to try and keep the standard of my writing as high as possible.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

William Boyd's latest novel Waiting for Sunrise. He never disappoints.

What’s the next project?

I don't know. He hasn't told me. Oh mine? I've just finished the first draft of a history book. One of the episodes covered in 1000 Years of Annoying the French that merited more detail. Lots of fun anecdotes about 19th century Paris.

Tell us your three favourite French words.

Merde, for obvious reasons. Oui, for equally obvious reasons. And bonjour because if you start every French conversation with it, life is sweet. The French are a polite people.

Interview by JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. 

60 Seconds with Evie Wyld

Sixty seconds, twelve questions.
Each issue, we persuade, tempt and coerce (or bully, harass and blackmail) a writer or two into spilling the contents of their shelves.
Twelve questions on books and writing. Plus the Joker – a wild thirteenth card which can reveal so much. Be honest, what do YOU put on your chips?

Evie Wyld runs Review, a small independent bookshop in Peckham, south London. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award. In 2011 she was listed as one of the Culture Show’s Best New British Novelists. She was also short listed for the Orange Prize for New Writers and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She is included in Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists 2013. Her second novel All the Birds, Singing came out in June 2013 from Jonathan Cape.

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

Cloud Street by Tim Winton

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why? And do you still sometimes write at the Royal Festival Hall?

These days it's more often than not a chain cafe - somewhere where I don't feel bad about taking up a seat on just one coffee. I have dreams of a lovely writing room, but it's hard to write from home, you need to be more disciplined than me. I can't find the space at the RFH anymore - I think everyone cottoned on that it was great and now there are toddler groups everywhere.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

I think shyness had a large effect - listening rather than talking, and watching things closely.

The last couple of years have seen black clouds loom over independent bookshops. Are you optimistic for the future of Review?


Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

I say 'awesome' far more than I'm happy with. I say 'no worries' a lot.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

Three and a half years so far.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

Yes - have always had a block with Austen - but I'm sure that just has to do with school. I've never started a book expecting to hate it.

How has your bookselling career aided your fiction?

Who knows! They are quite separate things to me.

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

Not a single one - I think that if reading something is pleasurable then it's a well written thing. It takes a lot to write something that someone wants to read.

You’ve been compared to Ian McEwan, Tim Winton, Christos Tsiolkas and Peter Carey. Do you think your writing has a masculine quality?

I try as much as possible, to be a person. Perhaps this comes out in my writing, I hope so.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

The Gamal
by Ciaran Collins

Will you write any more short stories?

I'm always writing short stories - I haven't published a book of them, but I'm always writing them.

If you were a dog, would you be a whippet?

I'd like to be a lurcher - in reality I'd probably be more like a bull mastiff.

Interview by JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. 

Review of The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
(Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym of JK Rowling)

This was a delightful find. On the surface, a classic gumshoe procedural, digging up secrets and doggedly pursuing every lead. Yet the book sidesteps cliché, takes a new angle on traditional tropes and creates some of the most endearingly likeable characters in the genre.
It’s got all the features of a golden age classic, but is set during the last decade. The insights into the lives of London’s wealthy and famous are seen through a man whose creditors are closing in. Cormoran Strike is dishevelled, partly due to the breakdown of his relationship and the difficulties of losing half his leg on a military campaign in Afghanistan.
His ‘temp’, Robin, who finds the world of a PI romantic, is no daffy Bridget Jones, but a competent, clever associate, who we desperately want to stay. The author avoids an office romance, creating a relationship which is believable, awkward and far more emotionally affecting.
The plot twists & turns kept me completely absorbed and as a good detective novel should, it takes an unpredictable turn towards the end.
One of the features I particularly liked was the use of the London setting. Keen observations about the city’s rich/poor divide gave me pause on several occasions.
I finished this with a mixture of satisfaction and loss. Delighted by an entertaining and atmospheric novel but sorry to leave this world. Thrilled to discover Cormoran will be back. I really want to spend more time with these characters.

By JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism.