Saltwater And Other Stories

What a delight to have the Saltwater And Other Stories anthology published, the authors’ copies on their way and the first few sales clocked up on Amazon.

It’s always a privilege when writers entrust their work to you, and a great responsibility to see that their words are respectfully edited and properly presented on the printed page.

The result of all their hard work and my collecting and editing is a beautiful little volume of varied stories, united by the quality of the writing. Now, I just hope it reaches as many readers as the writing deserves.

My 2020 Reading

(First posted at InkOnDemand Jan 1st 2021)

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?

Pause For Thought

(First posted in November 2019)

With the little autumn book tour behind me, I turned my attention to some overdue correspondence. I recently received an email from a 92-year old from Chester, UK and as this is remembrance weekend it prompted me to pause for thought.

SS City Of Dieppe

SS City Of Dieppe (Allan C Green)

A few years before my family history fiction was first published, I wrote an article for a genealogy magazine about researching my father’s war service. It was well received and over the years has continued to attract the odd comment, most notably from people with a direct connection to my father’s war experience. Ted, the man from Chester, is the latest. In 1943 he joined the same merchant navy vessel, SS City of Dieppe, as my father and served alongside him for the two remaining years of the war in the Pacific.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear from Ted and a strong reminder that this weekend when sacrifices are remembered it is not only the military who should be counted as valiant. Merchant seamen, firefighters, railway workers, nurses, ambulance drivers and a host of others too numerous to mention, all answered the call to serve in their different and vital ways.

These ‘others’ are all to often overlooked in our increasingly militaristic world where the casualties are, more often than not, unarmed civilians. Perhaps we should give the military a rest this year and remember everyone else who suffered and those who continue to suffer in their wars.

When The Longlist Feels Like Winning

(First posted April 2019)

So what’s so good about not making the shortlist? Here’s what – any recognition is welcome, and when that comes from an international jury of respected writers and critics, making the longlist in a field of five thousand feels like winning.

The story, Sixty Clicks, was my third attempt at The Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize. As with previous entries, it was submitted with very little expectation, so making the longlist is a huge bonus. But not only that, the manner of being told was wonderfully encouraging ” . . . your story was one of 200 longlisted entries read and discussed by our international judging panel. We hope you take confidence from this, and continue to write . . .”

Really, that’s all we need to keep going – encouragement. So thank-you, Commonwealth Writers, the longlist is a prize in itself.

Nominated For Best Small Fictions 2019

(Originally posted February 2019)

Considering the quality of the stories published by Retreat West, hearing that Unforgettable has been nominated by them as one of the Best was a shock. What an honour, as if winning the competition in the first place was not good enough. Now it feels like winning it all over again. Thank you, Retreat West.

Speaking In Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

(Originally posted in March 2013)

I’m delighted to have been able to take up a long-standing invitation to speak at a meeting of the South Shore Genealogical Society in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

September 16th has been agreed with programme co-ordinator Cheryl Lamerson. It is hoped that the event will take place in the Ice House Theatre, part of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic.

Lunenburg has long been a favourite place to visit, and it is a special privilege to be invited by the society. The possibility of speaking in the museum which is at the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, is icing on the cake.

 

 

(Originally posted in March 2013)

Unforgettable

(Originally posted June 2018)

Very good to hear from Retreat West that Unforgettable has won their flash fiction competition. They have a lot of entries and they’re always of a high standard, so to come out on top is fantastic. Not to get too carried away though, because the differences between the longlist, the shortlist and the winners is frequently wafer-thin.

Bumped by Pam Ayres

(Originally posted in October 2012)

The lovely (and always supportive) Cirencester branch of Waterstone’s were pleased to fix the date – 1st December – for the first signing event with The Subtle Thief of Youth. What better place for a Cotswold mystery than the Capital of the Cotswolds. Then, with great apologies, the gig was cancelled. The celebration of the refurbished store was to be headed by another – and possibly more humorous – writer, Pam Ayres, and not DJ Wiseman!

Pam Ayres, with her Dexter Cattle

Short lived gloom, however, as we now get to celebrate the new-look store a week earlier on November 24th. There are certainly worse things in the world than being the warm-up act for the distinguished Ms Ayres.