More Words – 2020 Reads

Reading in 2020 has had some unique challenges. Finding the time hasn’t been one of them, most of us have had plenty of time on our hands one way or another, but it’s not always been quality time. Hopelessly distracted time, yes, quality time, no. Even so I’ve read more than a dozen books again this year, despite moving across a continent, changing many aspects of life, and of course, still writing. The reading has had some unplanned parallels to last year, some real duffers (not included in this list) and some surprising hits. As usual the list includes both recent and less recent work.

Fiction

Design For Dying by Renee Patrick (2016)

An off-beat detective story featuring, fictionally, the real life costume designer Edith Head. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, this rolls along at a good pace and avoids clichés. Design For Dying has an obvious appeal for anyone with an interest or connections to the world of film, but it’s an enjoyable, untaxing read. Good for beach holidays, long flights, trains across the continent – but who does those things any more?

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod (1999)

Here’s the first parallel to 2019. No Great Mischief is deeply rooted  in Atlantic Canada, as is First Snow, Last Light. This is Cape Breton, Nova Scotia rather than Newfoundland but the lives charted are similar in so many ways. Alistair Macleod needs no introduction for many: he is a supreme story teller although this is his only novel. A brilliantly told family saga, No Great Mischief gives us the lives of the MacDonalds from 1779 to the present day. Intimate details, tragedies and joys illuminate every character and it also says much about Canada’s journey from then to now. One of the great Canadian novels – if not the great Canadian novel.

Così Fan Tutti by Michael Dibden (1996)

And here is the second, unexpected, parallel – Midnight In Sicily was the book of my year in 2019. Così Fan Tutti uses that same intensely Italian backdrop with all its flavours and scents, all its contradictions and crime from a particular era. There the similarities end, for Così Fan Tutti is closer to the opera than to Midnight In Sicily. In many ways it’s closer to farce with all its layers of lies and impersonations. Sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who, but none the worse for that. A very enjoyable read.

Turn of Mind by Alice La Plante (2011)

Is there any other work of fiction that so well captures the personal catastrophe that is dementia? Hardly promising ground for a whodunnit either, but Turn of Mind is compelling on several levels, not least the exploration of that tragic illness. Beautifully written, it takes us closer than we might like to the nightmare of memory loss with great sensitivity that suggests more than good research by the author, it suggests personal experience. Highly recommended.

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson (2020)

A real delight of a crime mystery novel, cleverly and plausibly constructed around eight other classic murder-mysteries. Eight Perfect Murders delights in pointing the reader in the wrong direction and does so with some crisp writing. The story moves quickly from crisis to crisis as the murders accumulate. The protagonist’s list of murder stories appears to be the template for a new serial killer, and yet . . .
A thoroughly enjoyable read, the more so if you are even vaguely familiar with any of the classic stories that make up the list.

Lost & Found Stories of Morley Callaghan (1985)

I’m attracted to short story collections, especially those from writers I don’t know (even if I should). That’s how this collection came to be in my reading list this year. Although the collection was published in 1985, many of the stories go back decades before that, so some feel understandably dated. As stories, setting aside the context, they stand the test of time: intriguing and insightful, teasing and winking at the reader to share the joke. There is a uniformity to the collection, Morley Callaghan didn’t change his style much, and plenty of humour shines through. A well enjoyed curiosity rather than a track-this-down-at-all-costs.

The Book of Dust Vol II – The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (2019)

Volume I, La Belle Sauvage, was a mild disappointment, all set-up and helter-skelter chase. In The Secret Commonwealth the chase continues. Lyra has grown into a moody twenty-something who seems more like a moody teen, so the reader’s sympathies don’t always lie with her. The shadowy Magisterium remain her deadly adversary, we follow her and Pantalaimon (her dæmon) separately across a half-familiar Europe via one scrape after another, but in the end we are seemingly no nearer to a conclusion for all the miles covered. At this point it feels as if The Book Of Dust would have been better as a single, albeit fat, volume rather than billed as a trilogy. Fans of His Dark Materials will enjoy this but it’s not on a par with that masterpiece – but then, what is?

Swann by Carol Shields (1987)

Swann is an unusual book, far from the typical crime/mystery format, perhaps all the more engaging because of that. Carol Shields gives us four people who become closely connected to the deceased Mary Swann – or rather to Swann’s slim legacy of poetry. Even the crime at the centre of the story – Mary’s violent death in a remote farming community – becomes secondary to other, lesser, crimes surrounding her poems. A good read and an insight into the world of rare books and academic pronouncement on little-known artists.

Non-fiction

Flying the Red Duster by Morris Beckman (2011)

The single non-fiction title in this year’s list (but not the only one read) and a good read too, despite a few awkward passages that could have done with a better edit. Flying The Red Duster has a special resonance for me, the son of a merchant seaman who served in the Battle Of The Atlantic among other WWII theatres of war.
Morris Beckman gives us the gritty details of life on an ageing merchant ship struggling across the Atlantic in 1940. If enemy bombs and torpedoes didn’t sink them then the food and the cockroaches might. I already knew the bones of my father’s war service, Flying The Red Duster put some flesh on those bones. Altogether a good read and an invaluable historical insight.

That was 2020. The hawk-eyed will notice Cloud Atlas is not among the reviews, nor is Trail of the Griffon. Cloud Atlas remains unread, maybe next year. And the book of my year? No Great Mischief, Turn of Mind and Swann are my three to choose from. Alistair MacLeod and Carol Shields have more than enough accolades and awards, so my vote is for Turn of Mind by Alice La Plante.

For 2021, The Man Next Door by Britt Holmstrom, Pontoon by Garrison Keillor, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Underland by Robert Macfarlane are all on my bookshelf. What other delights might be uncovered?

 

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In A Few More Words

Another year in reading. In 2019 my list was heavily influenced by attending the Left Coast Crime conference in Vancouver, BC where delegates were showered with books – some better than others.

Fiction

4321 by Paul Auster

If, like me, you are a Paul Auster fan you will need no encouragement to read 4321. If you’re not a fan, this very lengthy novel is probably not going to convert you. It is more like four novels, as the title suggests, but each one is a different life of the same man – Archie Ferguson. This is surely the ultimate ‘what if’ novel – how would life have been different if this or if that? It’s a masterpiece, bringing alive Auster’s beloved New York of the second half of the twentieth century and exploring all the angst of childhood and adolescence. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

A thriller with what seems like a ‘ho-hum here we go again’ set-up but this is far more original than that. It’s probably helped by a different setting with different threats from the standard ‘airport bookstall’ fare. This is Australia and the threat of crocodiles is ever present. Hardly likable, falsely accused ex-cop Ted Conkaffey leads the charge against the baddies, more than ably assisted by the anti-heroine and all round weirdo Amanda Pharrell. The story could be a little tighter and some clues are heavy handed, but it still gets my recommendation.

First Snow, Last Light by Wayne Johnston

Who knows anything about Newfoundland? Certainly not me, although I know a lot more now having thoroughly enjoyed this novel of family, of loss and of the emptiness of not knowing how or why catastrophe has struck. Ned Vatcher is the luckless boy who loses his parents in 1936, First Snow, Last Light tells us his story, how the loss shapes him, how memories haunt him, and most well done of all, how others see him. Strongly recommended.

Full Disclosure by Beverly McLachlin

Another thriller, this one featuring a lawyer with a hidden past and an unwinnable case. There’s not really much to it despite a wealth of detail and the inevitable stretching out provided by the court processes. The major twists seem too well signposted to be classed as such, some of the violence seems to be there only for effect, likewise the sex. The writing comes across as formulaic rather than felt, but it’s competent in the way that formula fiction so often is. There are plenty worse you could pick up for a quick read, but plenty better too.

It Begins In Betrayal by Iona Wishaw

This whodunnit seemed so full of promise: the setting struck a cord – Canada and the UK; the timing was good – 1947; the set-up perfect – a wartime incident come back to haunt the Canadian hero. But It Begins In Betrayal never quite works, partly because for a reader brought up in that post-war Britain there are simply too many mistakes. If you don’t know such things as where the Spurs played, or what towns are served by what London stations, you won’t get jerked out of the story by the inaccuracies. If you know nothing of post-war Britain and like improbable melodrama this might be for you.

Murder-A-Go-Go’s by Various Authors

Confession 1: I know nothing of the music of the Go-Go’s. Confession 2: I’ve read most, but not all, of the stories in this collection. Perhaps I’d like the music more than the stories, which are based on the titles of the band’s songs. Perhaps the music is as dark and repetitive as the writing. Perhaps I’d like it, but having read what I’ve read, I’m not tempted to try it. Teenage agonies, sex, violence, more sex, more violence, more agonies. If that’s your thing this collection of crime stories is right up your street.

The Midnight Plan Of The Repo Man by W Bruce Cameron

It’s an old cliché, that one about judging a book by its cover, but never truer than with The Midnight Plan Of The Repo Man. The cover’s poor, the format says cheap and trashy, the set-up (man with voice in his head) says don’t bother. Wrong. This is a great read, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s original and well written, the plot twists and turns, the expected doesn’t happen, the impossible becomes possible. And it’s laced with humour too. Put this on your list – in whatever cover it comes in.

What She Gave Away by Catherine Riggs

Despite initial hesitation over the form of the narrative, which alternates between the two protagonists, this turned out to be an enjoyable read. Some elements are a little predictable, the characters are mainly believable, but the writing is crisp and the plot bowls along at a good pace. I hope there’ll be more from Catherine Riggs.

Wrong Light by Matt Coyle

This was my first encounter with Rick Cahill, the private eye with a past (show me one who isn’t broke/has a past/bad at relationships/etc) and a penchant for spending time sitting in cars waiting for something to happen. Or following another car to see where it goes. Or begging favours in return for past generosity. This story runs very fast getting nowhere, it’s all empty action with little substance. That being said, if you like these fast-read, grubby private detective stories laced with a kind of dark romance you’ll like Wrong Light.

Non-fiction

Eyes Wide Open by Isaac Lidsky

Which might be subtitled ‘How To Meet Life’s Challenges Without Fear’. Yes, it’s another personal improvement volume, of which there are thousands begging for our attention. I read Eyes Wide Open because the author tells his own story of starting to go blind at the age of 13, which has a personal resonance within my own family. It was worth the read, even if all that Isaac Lidsky has to say could have been said in half the words. Repeating the point goes with this particular genre. For those with normal sight, blindness after having had sight seems a crushing blow: if nothing else Mr Lidsky demonstrates that it need not be.

Midnight In Sicily by Peter Robb

Part memoir, part travel book, part food guide, part thriller: brilliant. So much of this wonderful book reads like a novel it’s hard to remember to put this under non-fiction. The author provides mouth-watering descriptions of food of every kind and the places in which he eats it,  yet he makes the mouth dry with the everyday violence he recounts. All around him sumptuous art and lifestyles are undermined by entrenched corruption. He recounts an incredible time in Sicily, and not just Sicily, but the whole of Italy. Midnight in Sicily is the most digestible history lesson ever, more, it is an education in itself.

Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Here’s a really interesting book, all about the way we as individuals and as groups relate to other people or other groups, people who have a different culture, a different idea of the big things in life right down to the very smallest – like how you greet another person. These differences, these nuances of meaning are critical to how we behave in relationship to others. The book is full of examples from history, some ancient, some contemporary, where misinterpretation of another’s meaning can lead to catastrophic. There’s a few too many instances of sexual encounters and police action when other examples might broaden the view, but the message is one for everyone.

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

If you like books and quirky stories you’ll like this. The author is a seller of second-hand books in Wigtown, a small town in south-west Scotland. His daily diary is by turns funny and sad. He brings his customers to life on the pages and gives us a wonderful insight into his world of books. Such a diary is by its nature bound to encompass a complete year and one cannot fault it for that. My only criticism is that the year was too long, some editing of entries would have left me smiling rather than wishing for the end.

So, when it’s all done for another year, which is the book of my year? My three contenders are 4321, The Midnight Plan Of The Repo Man and Midnight In Sicily. Of these, Peter Robb’s Midnight In Sicily stands out as unique. Superb writing and an engrossing tale.

What’s waiting for me in 2020? All I know so far is The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, second in the Book Of Dust trilogy, Trail Of The Griffon by Richard J Thomas – historical setting in Ontario for a fictional thriller and No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod – more Canadiana from one of the country’s finest. What of Cloud Atlas, my permanently ‘to be read’ book? It’s put back at least a year probably more, in case it crosses paths with a story of my own that has begun to take shape but which may never be written. In which case it may be the perfect mirror to Cloud Atlas, one never read, the other never written.

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In A Few Words

2018 was the year in which I discovered that I can, after all, read fiction in parallel to writing it. Previously I was strictly on a non-fiction diet when writing, and I’m very happy to have that curse lifted.

This was my reading in the last year, a dozen or so books, mainly fiction and mainly finished. Here’s an impression of each of them in a few words.

Fiction
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
An extraordinary tale with an unlikely theme – studying philosophy. Highly recommended, but don’t try and understand everything, let it flow through your mind and enjoy the puzzles and paradoxes.

The Book of Dust Vol 1 La Belle Sauvage
by Philip Pullman
Pullman’s back with a prequel to his magnificent trilogy His Dark Materials. Some familiar names and places for fans of Lyra Belacqua and some of the old magic is also present, but so far this trilogy is a lesser thing than Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Still worth reading.

The Man Game by Lee Henderson
A very good book, set mainly in Vancouver, Canada in the 1880s with what feel like flashforwards to the present day. It’s a story of a man’s world of drinking, violence, prostitution and gambling told with great feeling and tenderness. And it’s also the story of the beautiful and clever Molly who makes a place for herself and her quadriplegic husband in this dangerous world. Highly recommended, even if you don’t like the sound of it.

Nothing by Henry Green; Living by Henry Green
Unfair to review two titles as one, but the stories are similar in many respects and the writing style takes some getting used to. These are two novels of social commentary written by British author Henry Green. Nothing (1950) is more accessible than Living (1929) if only because the language is more modern and middle-class. Henry Green was new to me and I’m pleased to have read these two books, not least because they demonstrate yet again in how many different ways this wonderful English language can be written. Recommended as an education in language and writing, the stories have less tension than we are used to reading in 2018.

The Ocean Container by Patrik Sampler
A dystopian novel of now, or the very near future, in which an eco-activist seeks refuge in a steel shipping container, encouraged into social exile by rivals and cut off from his wife and child by distance and fear. Set in the Pacific North West, resolution – of a kind – comes in the aftermath of an earthquake. Mostly enjoyable with some very perceptive writing, I really wanted this to be a bigger story than the author has squeezed it down to.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
John le Carré produced possibly the best spy novel of all time in A Perfect Spy and fans of the genre will certainly know the George Smiley titles. I didn’t enjoy A Legacy of Spies, the format seemed dated, the story felt like a rehash of old ideas and themes. Rarely for me, I didn’t finish this book. A big disappointment from a master storyteller.

20th Century Ghost Stories edited by Paul Guernsey
Some really good ghost (or at least, supernatural) goings on, along with a few lesser stories. They’re all pulled together by the editor from entries to theghoststory.com’s competitions. If you enjoy the theme, you’ll enjoy a lot of these spooky tales.
(Confession of bias: I have a story slated for inclusion in the next volume – see panel on the right.)

Non-fiction
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife
Not a great work of literature but none the worse for that. It’s a unique insight into what has become a Great British Oddity – the ravens of the Tower of London. The author debunks a few myths at the same time as he reveals the innermost workings of raven life at the Tower. Escapes and recaptured fugitives, deaths in custody and raven mind-games, but the show must go on. Easy reading with insight into a unique British tradition.

Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Who knew anything about the intelligence of an octopus? About their life cycle? About their emotions, their ability to learn, to recognise faces, sadness, anger, friendship, fear? Read this book and never eat octopus again. Unless you’ve studied the subject before, this will be a revelation. It’s not loaded with science, it’s very readable and personal. Every human should read this to understand that we are not alone with our ‘higher’ intelligence.

Unsolved Crimes by Sarah Herman
One of those dip-in lightweight bathroom books which describes many of the world’s famous unsolved crimes from serial killings (yes, of course Jack The Ripper is in there) to diamond heists and kidnappings. Great for what it is, but very light on new information or surprises. Enjoy it in a bathroom near you, it won’t delay you unnecessarily.

What’s on the 2019 bookshelf? 4321 by Paul Auster definitely, I’ve started and am spellbound – as usual – by his writing, The Diary of a Bookseller looks like fun (Shaun Bythell), Eyes Wide Open by Isaac Lidsky will have a personal relevance, and could this be the year that I do more than start Cloud Atlas?

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Success! (Or the lack of it)

For those who’ve never seen one – this is a rejection letter.

How on earth should we measure success? The book of the year? Top of the NYT bestsellers? The first invite to appear on chatshow-tv? Or the tenth? Any of these might be welcome, but would they demonstrate creative success – or merely successful promotion?

At the other end of the scale a single two-line review commending your work to others might indicate more meaningful success.

It’s all relative – not just to your starting point, not only when judged against ambition, and certainly not when judged in competition with others. Any writer who’s ever submitted anything to a publisher, magazine or competition, be it poetry, flash fiction or full length novel, should understand that the difference between success and the other thing (what – failure?) is wafer thin.

A story discarded by one apparently highly qualified judge can just as easily delight another. What then is success? Persistence in submitting? It’s the same piece of writing, it just speaks to one reader more than another. Writing that resonates with even one other person can rightly claim success.

When I wrote my first novel it was a huge achievement simply to complete it, a success in its own right. A late-night, pre-computer, hand-written slog against the odds. It was not very good, despite the pride I took in it. Rejection was justified, even if I raged against it at the time.

A handful of people have read that story over the intervening years, mainly out of curiosity, but it remains a success on those original terms. And not only that, like all my creative efforts between then and now, it was a step on the path. Nothing that has happened since would have been the same without that experience.

As Rudyard Kipling almost said, If you can meet with success and failure and treat those two impostors just the same . . .

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Reasons to Write – Part 2

original photo credit kai Stachowiak “And as for fortune, and as for fame
I never invited them in
Though it seemed to the world they were all I desired
They are illusions, they’re not the solutions they promised to be”*

The first part of this piece gained a few approving nods, which is more than enough to encourage any writer. Even one approving nod is often sufficient for us to stop sulking and rush back to the keyboard.

The creative cycle of getting a brilliant idea, creating the art/music/story that embodies it, followed by huge depression at the work being worthless (and by extension you are also worthless), seems to be the curse of many creatives I know. Several are sublimely talented yet regularly racked by self-doubt. Conversely, the ones with lesser abilities often seem to be the most confident.

So why do it, aside from it being an addiction, and an innate part of who we are?

Thinking about that single nod of appreciation, I remember the first message I received from a reader other than a friend or family member, a few simple words thanking me and saying how the story had inspired her. Original photo credit Circe Denyer That was an important moment in my writing life, the realisation that a story can end up anywhere, be read by anyone and we don’t know the effect our writing will have. I still tend to forget it, I’m still surprised when a message from a stranger drops into my inbox. And it’s still hugely encouraging, a reminder that someone sees value in my work. Someone, somewhere wants to read your story, see your painting, hear your music. Create for them.

So, at last you wrote something you were happy with. Short story, poetry, a novel? It doesn’t matter what, doesn’t matter who read it and who didn’t, or who liked it: do it again. Write another story, novel or poem and make it better than the last one. Do deeper research, understand your characters better, know the new landscape in every season.

Your best work should be ahead of you, waiting to be written. If you have success by any measure – more on that another day – even on a small scale, don’t rest on it, be better, hone your skills. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does help.

Original photo credit George HodanWho knows, one day you might be a great writer. But don’t spend all those hours and all that energy with the intention of being recognised as great. Of course you’re allowed to imagine such a thing, to dream that you might be seen as such. But be careful what you wish for – great writers are usually dead writers, like their artist and musician counterparts. And don’t confuse great with popular as so many supposedly authoritative lists do. Don’t write with an eye on recognition, it will find you if you’re good enough, even if you may not be around to benefit.

And as for fame, forget it, dismiss it from your thoughts completely. Luckily, you wouldn’t recognise most famous writers if they rang your doorbell. Their names may be familiar (very few, though), but that is not the true curse of fame. Real fame is a burden, something to be continually worked at if you desire it or wish to keep it, something that’ll stick like shit to a blanket if you want rid of it. The Andy Warhol syndrome (“in the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”) may be a more common disease than Mr Warhol could ever have imagined, but writers are thankfully fairly resistant to it.

Coming soon: Success! (Or the lack of it).

Those * lyrics? Don’t Cry For Me Argentina Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice
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Reasons to Write – Part 1

“It’s not about money, if it were we wouldn’t do it.”

Laptop keyboard

Photo credit Fujifilm FinePix SL1000

An article I read recently described writers’ frustrations when achieving few book sales despite sometimes great expense and wide promotion. The author included an example of a book with thousands spent on it and which sold one copy. While much of the piece was well thought out, useful and informative, it completely ignored any other reason to write, culminating in ‘building a business round the book’. The implication was that selling books was the only worthwhile reason to write, otherwise don’t bother.

So what happened to all the other reasons to be creative? Here’s one that’s frequently ignored: it’s good to be creative, good for the creator and good for society. That premise used to be widely accepted, just as learning was considered a good thing. Now we are told to be suspicious of knowledge, of learning, of reason itself. Fake facts and alternative truths undermine scholarship and deny experience. ‘Truth isn’t truth’ will be a fine epitaph for this age we live in.

Even if book sales are zero, even if the story doesn’t get published, the pleasure of creation can be immense. Every writer (and other creative, I’m sure) knows that it’s never pure pleasure from start to finish, very often there’s what seems like regular torture in there too. But without a little sweat and a few tears, where’s the salt in our stories?

That sense of creation is very good for you, study after study shows how important it is to both physical and mental health. Google ‘therapeutic value of creativity‘ and read the evidence. My main interest is writing, but it’s true for every kind of creative endeavour from pottery to sewing, from music to flower arranging.

Two Pools by Stephanie Jewell

Two Pools – Stephanie Jewell. Creativity benefits mind and body whatever the medium. Photo Stephanie Jewell

Most writers I know have another good reason to write: they have a story to tell. A storyteller tells stories, right? Obvious. If you have a story to tell and don’t tell it you aren’t a storyteller.

The best advice I ever heard for a writer is a single word: write. It’s nowhere better expressed than where I first read it, in The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Eddy Canfor-Dumas, in which the would-be writer remains just that until he understands that the moment he actually writes he will become a writer and he can move from there to being a better writer.

Writers are lucky. We get a blank page and an infinite number of words and can put them in a gazillion different sequences. We can even make up new words. At any point in the process we can erase, change or add anywhere we choose. I could never have been a sculptor.

There are less good reasons to be a writer and the most common is the pot of gold at the end of the Kindle rainbow. Today anyone can write and be published. That’s good. But to be motivated only by the idea of wealth from royalties will distort your writing and almost inevitably lead to huge disappointment.

Kindle Reader

Photo credit – Nikon D7000

Recent info from Just Publishing Advice suggests there are close to fifty million titles on Amazon and a new Kindle title every five minutes. It’s a very tough place to get rich on royalties. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hope to earn something from writing, you certainly should and good luck, but don’t let it be the motivator. There are better reasons to write and they’ll make for better writing.

Coming soon in Reasons to Write Part 2 – readers, honing skills, expanding imagination, becoming a great writer and the false god of fame.

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Excess Baggage

ReadingGlasses1Or 6 essentials for the writer on holiday

Wondering if you can possibly be without a book or a notepad for even a week? And what about the laptop? What’s the wifi like at your palm-fringed idyll or your remote retreat in the woods? It’s a two-edged sword, having no wifi does release all those wasted Facebook hours, but without that vital piece of Googling you’ll be unable to write a single word of the short story you’ve been nurturing for a month.

So, what are my top six takes?

  1. The laptop is a must, even if it does extend the airport security nightmare while you untangle the nest of cables. If there’s wifi in your shangri-la then set an alarm as a reminder to Stop Wasting Time looking at pictures of cats being cats and dogs being treated as children. It’s meant to be a break from the norm. If there’s any chance you will actually write a few memorable words, take a memory stick for back-up.

  2. A dictionary, preferably a good one with usage notes. Convincing a non-writing partnerPenguinEDcropped of this can be difficult, especially if your choice tips the scales at more than 2kg, as does my all-time favourite The Penguin English Dictionary (3rd ed. which has such a perfect seaside picture on it). What!? A fat paper dictionary when there’s the web with everything you need? To which the answer is a) what if there’s no web? and b) nothing else comes close.

  3. OxfordLandrangerA map of the place you’re about to spend time in. Good maps are hard to find, so do your research on this and don’t be scared to spend a little extra. For the UK accept nothing less than the latest OS (online and in bookshops). And as for GPS, Google Earth etc, see comments above re The Penguin.

  4. Spare reading glasses. Sod’s law says if you don’t take any, you’ll need them.

  5. A book you’ve had for a while and never quite got round to reading. It can be fact or fiction – although fiction can be difficult when also trying to write it. Be prepared to return with the book still unread. SpivetSelectedWorksNo matter, it will be available again for the next trip. There are several on my bookshelf ready to play the part, but The Selected Works of TS Spivet will probably be the volume of choice this year. I was seduced once again by the meaningless words “New York Times Bestseller”. Bestseller it might be, but who’s actually read it?

  6. A good pen and paper to write on. Sounds so simple doesn’t it, there are ballpoints by the million, but few that sit well in the hand or are a pleasure to use. Likewise a right-sized notebook of creamy pages with a willing surface. Current favourites are a classic Parker retractable with a black gel refill and a hardback 7×9 journal. Both are guaranteed a place in my bag.ParkerGelBlack3

In my household there’s a further discussion about the merits or otherwise of taking the printer, but that’s not something that need delay most people . . .

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Don’t Judge a Book . . .

SoulofaWarriorCoverPicSurprise, surprise! Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an old saying but one that never dates.

To be clear from the beginning, this is not a story that I’d have normally chosen. The genre is completely alien to me, but I was lucky enough to be given a copy. And I was lucky enough to persevere through what seemed an unsteady and unpromising opening to finish what turned out to be a worthwhile read. Yes, Soul of a Warrior is flawed, but then it is rare for a first novel to be anything but. It seemed to be less in need of better writing than more diligent, perhaps harsher, editing and a few thousand words being cut.

The author, Denna Holm, has been ambitious, winding together a gritty slice of life from today’s familiar world with all manner of science fiction and fantasy. Not content with vampires, werewolves, aliens, and interplanetary transportation, she has added the spice of interspecies romance. This may all seem a bit too much and yet Ms Holm carries it off far better than the description might suggest. Indeed, the story is carried along well by the relationship between the main protagonist Kimberly and her unlikely alien suitor/mate.

Despite some slightly predictable outcomes, the author has also left enough room for both a sequel and the currently fashionable prequel. As might be expected, the themes offer abundant opportunities for descriptive passages painting the strange colours of other worlds and other beings. Although these are well handled, they could if anything have been a little more graphic, the imagination could have been allowed an even freer reign.

Perhaps the story was most enjoyable, most authentic, when it touched upon areas of personal interest. The idea of there having been previous – albeit rare – interbreeding between humans and aliens, was well handled, and gave a firm base for the fantastic. The sprinkling of details from family and social history gave credibility to the fiction.

If science fiction, fantasy and romance is your idea of a good read you’ll enjoy Soul of a Warrior a lot. I enjoyed it far more than expected, which proves yet again that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – or even its genre. The book is available in several formats but here’s the link to the Amazon kindle version Soul of a Warrior

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Sharing the Pleasure

AgricolaStreetLogoA warm welcome on a freezing night and the discovery of superb Apple & Gin sorbet.

It had been a dramatic, even traumatic, week. It was coming to a close after a Friday spent traipsing round used-car dealers in the biting cold with Halifax’s streets piled waist high with snow. Deeply weary, our greatest need was to sit somewhere other than a car, relax into some coffee and non-fast food. But where? A friend’s recommendation came to mind, a newish place on lately fashionable Agricola.

Few diners visible, an immediate and warm welcome at the Agricola Street Brasserie, but argh! It’s Friday! Of course – the tables are fully booked. No matter, we could eat in the lounge (a misnomer really), at the bar or the kitchen counter to watch the preparations. We chose the lounge, quieter we thought, a high table with high stools and better for conversation. It was not the best spot in the restaurant, but we had chosen it and would make the best of it. We sipped the promptly delivered coffee while considering the main event – food. Then, as luck would have it, a table has cancelled, would we like it?

This is a good space, interesting and well done without dominating the experience of being in it. By clever design (or simply good fortune) the acoustics are good. It’s easy to hold a conversation across a table without being drowned out or distracted by music or other diners, which is not always the case in a popular restaurant. And ASB – it’s already become an acronym – was certainly popular. In no time at all it filled with diners and a happy Friday night buzz.AgricolaStreetDinnerCropped

The warmth of the initial greeting was followed at every stage by genuinely smiling faces, people doing their jobs with apparent pleasure, happy to advise about the menu, pleased to bring the chosen dishes, sharing the pleasure we had in eating them.

That menu is not vast. This may be a strength rather than a weakness since it allows the kitchen to concentrate on what they do well. And they are doing it very well. Our sample of the menu included the lamb shank and the scallops followed by mille feuille and my own favourite, apple & gin sorbet which is outstanding. The food is excellent and not expensive, especially when you consider the quality, the service and the location. Eat very well indeed for under $30 (+tax).

ASB is doing a lot of things right. It would be so easy to become a regular if you live in the area or even an hour away. That may be important for the future of the business, since Agricola is not really on the tourist trail, especially in January. It will be Haligonians who make the restaurant a long-term success or otherwise. That said, visitors should definitely put it on their map, but call ahead and get a reservation, don’t rely on our luck.

Agricola Street Brasserie 2540 Agricola Street, Halifax, NS B3K 4C5 902-446-7664 agricolastreet.ca

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Last Lap

On the road againLeaving Yarmouth, it’s back on the road, which in Canada often means one thing.

Followers of these journeys through Nova Scotia will have noticed that they are regularly punctuated by food stops. The less pleasing (very few) are not mentioned, while the best are recommended. And yet only now, with the last few miles of the series about to be recorded, do I realise that one place, or rather one chain of places, has never been hinted at, and yet it is a Canadian institution. Yes, fast food, drive-thru coffee-to-go; yes, ‘have a nice day’ (or more often great day); yes, sticky doughnuts and wraps on wipe-clean tables and tubular steel chairs; and yes, scorned by some. Tim HortonsBut the coffee is good, the food may be formula but it’s fresh and tasty and very inexpensive and there’s a genuine friendliness about the places. So finally, step forward Tim Hortons, for a long overdue mention.

Now, back onto the #3 heading south, a Timmy’s safely stowed in the cup-holder, I drifted down through Arcadia, Plymouth, Tusket, Glenwood, Argyle and the Pubnicos, all the time playing hide-and-seek with the water. Not lakes here, but long fingers of the ocean, slicing the land into peninsulas and hump-backed islands. This is beautiful countryside, touring country, cycling country perhaps, with gentle gradients and the chance to do more than snatch a view between the trees.

One apparently unpromising place to stretch the legs is right on the county line where Yarmouth becomes Shelburne. Away across the mouth of the great sea-loch which is Pubnico Harbour is Pubnico Point, the sometimes controversial home to 17 giant turbines harvesting the wind straight off the ocean. A road leads down to a shingle spit at the end of which is perched another of those endearing Nova Scotian lighthouses. It’s worth wandering down the track and pausing to take in the sights and sounds of the water. Here the world turns a fraction less quickly.

Shag Harbour is the most southerly point of the journey, and almost of Nova Scotia. That honour goes to Cape Sable Island, which is not to be confused with that isolated arc of sand Sable Island, which is about 400km east of here, way out in the Atlantic. Now a trip there would be something to write home about . . .

And so to Shelburne. What do we really know of a place with only an hour or two spent in it? Well, we know it’s at the head of another great inlet, Shelburne Harbour; we know it’s at the mouth of the Roseway River; we know it’s pretty and historic and a delight to walk around; we know it’s a tourist centre but doesn’t feel like it; we know it’s strong on heritage without ramming it down everyone’s throat. Charlotte LaneAnd we know what a welcome feels like, we know when a place feels at ease with itself.

Which is all probably no more than a writer’s rose-tinted imaginings, but the welcome is real enough, probably nowhere better than at Charlotte Lane. A wonderful place to eat, with some of the best food of any found on these travels. At the back are a couple of tables on a patio. Sitting surrounded by greenery, the sun dappling through the trees, empty plates that didn’t tax the wallet, it was hard to leave. The exit is – as ever – through the gift shop. And worth it too, for some better-than-average items.

A stroll round the town to let the digestion work was interrupted by another discovery, one that will hardly surprise the regular reader: a book shop. But not just any book shop, the Whirligig Book Shop, a bookshop that describes its visitors arriving “either by automobile or boat.” Simply wonderful.
Lockeport, one of many beautiful spots around the coast of SW Nova Scotia

Dozens of other beautiful places and welcoming communities dot this coast, but for this trip I wanted to feel the sand between my toes at least once. Hurrying a little more than usual and leaving the winding #3 in favour of the more direct route gave just enough time to catch the last heat of the afternoon sun on Summerville Beach, another magnificent stretch of uninhabited white sand. Perhaps it is crowded on a hot day in the season, there’s parking for hundreds, it’s clean, it’s accessible, the sea is lazy and gently shelving. Summerville BeachBut wait, this was a hot day in the season: with the aid of binoculars it was possible to see 6 other people on maybe a kilometre of sand.

And so to the final stop of this series of journeys around the province. There can’t be many better places to watch the soft pinks and purples that follow a stunning sunset over a placid sea than The Quarterdeck. The food was excellent too, but the by now expected good service had an extra twist. The QuarterdeckDespite the passing of 3 years and thousands of guests, waitress Kristina not only recalled the previous visit but the table and the order.

Quite remarkable, but by now, who’s surprised?

This concludes the series of travels round the province, a series which started way back in Halifax in Jan 2012 with Nova Where? and has been a wonderful journey of discovery. I’ll return to Nova Scotian themes in the future, hopefully with more depth to particular places and people.

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