I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

Slap And Tickle In Novels

I don't want to be crass and offend the taste of ordinary folk. Or maybe I do? This has always been a difficult point for me when considering the novel I want to write. What do we do when the characters need to get close? I mean, sweaty close? Some people don't make it easy for us.

The Literary Review has just announced this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The hapless winner - though they normally bask in the limelight and their profile increases markedly - is Iain Hollingshead, for a passage from his book Twenty Something. Here's the offending bit, which the judges are supposed to have found unnecessary and cringe-evoking, if that's a proper term:

She's wearing a short, floaty skirt that's more suited to July than February. She leans forward to peck me on the cheek, which feels weird, as she's never kissed me on the cheek before. We'd kissed properly the first time we met. And that was over three years ago.

But the peck on the cheek turns into a quick peck on the lips. She hugs me tight. I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly, She slides one of her slender legs in between mine. Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair. She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I'm inside her, and everything is pure white as we're lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.

Now, I agree that sex in a novel just for the sake of having a bit of sex in a novel leaves me cold. And how many people can write good love-making scenes? And how graphic should they be? How honest? Do we care? Are we turning readers off? Should we even be posing the question, as encouraged by The Literary Review?

I have a sex scene in the novel I am trying to sell, but I argue that it is necessary to show a crucial turning point: my protagonist has been grappling with a kind of impotence and it's near the end of the book that this is confronted "head on". I have to admit that I found it difficult trying to get the right balance, to neither go overboard nor shy away from the task at hand. I also wondered about what the reaction of the reader would be, let alone think about the reaction of those respectable people who know me and think that I am such a "nice young man".

I would be interested in getting your reactions to this short scene. I will be happy to accept next year's Bad Sex in Fiction award, because it will mean that my book is on the shelves! So, sit yourself down and dim the lights. Here it is:

He didn’t know how it happened. One minute they were coy and reclining, quite a way from each other, him going through the details of the past few days, and the next thing he was dragging his firm lips across her neck, pulling her hands down away from her fringe. He couldn’t tell who started it. His heart raced. His legs ached. She was composed and still, seeming to wait for his movements and initiatives. The
connection sent small charges into his skin.

‘You smell good,’ he said. ‘You smell so good.’ He tenderly bit her wrists and then held them up to the light, as though he needed to verify that it really was her, the raising up of a glittering, coveted prize. Her fingers seemed long and delicate like chopsticks. The soft hair on her arms lit up like sparkle dust. She stayed loose and showed no resistance, seeming to leave everything up to him.

She pushed down the top of her jeans, letting her head tumble back. A small metal ball in her bellybutton suddenly appeared like a beacon of light. He went down onto his knees and took it between his teeth; he never imagined a piercing would ever excite him. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a condom wrapped in a black wrapper, which she hastily tore open. He was ready. It must’ve been the first
time in 18 months that he’d actually gone hard when consumed by the promise of sex. Then he was petrified that his ruminations would cause him to lose his nerve. His trousers fell easily, the button already undone after his massage with Didier. With style, he unrolled the condom effortlessly onto his glory and then eased Sandy down onto the sofa, slipping a cushion beneath her head.

‘I want you to be gentle,’ she whispered. ‘I want something loving.’

He nodded and teased off her top, and noticed that she smelt of peaches. She raised her head and kissed him on the lips, which surprised him. She whispered something, but it was broken up by the kisses. She breathed into his mouth and seemed to fill him with something powerful. When he wrenched himself up on top of her he was pleased to feel that he was still hard, his glory pushing into her inner thigh. He placed her right arm up behind her head and buried his nose in her armpit – that was something he’d loved doing in his early days with Joyce. She giggled and told him to stop. She was thin across her stomach and around her thighs, yet her thick coating of skin and her ample breasts were enough for him to hold onto and move under his palms. He never liked it when the skin was too taut and a woman didn’t move with him. He loved to explore something of substance.

He was inside her, before he even had time to reflect on whether he was ready to make the connection. The way they fell into each other seemed so right, as if there were no other position they could’ve taken up. His euphoria was increased when she moved beneath him, flexing the muscles around her groin. Her hands made delicate journeys across the divide of his back, spreading the perspiration around like massage oil. She writhed faster beneath him, her mouth wide and surrendered. She fully stretched, making the exposed cords and muscles in her neck seem like the base of a giant kauri tree, looking splendid under the light of the moon. He fell
backwards and saw whiteness, pure and plain whiteness, a warm glow that seemed to completely energise him.

They lay still for five minutes without talking, their arms and legs entwined, perspiration running like streams across their bodies, a soft after-sex smell hanging over them. He could feel a mosquito biting him on his side, but he made no
effort to remove it. He’d been rendered far too docile to react to anything. He coasted off into a light sleep and enjoyed the sensation of being lifted up high into the air. He’d been liberated from something, brought out of a cold cave
and into the warm light of day.

Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.

Confessions Of A Book Reviewer

You may or may not be up to speed on the controversy bubbling in the blogosphere about the attack on bloggers who dare to rise above their station and write book reviews. A summary of the debate so far can be found at Skint Writer.

Rachel Cooke's piece in The Observer - I don't know if she actually works for them or just sells her wares to them from time to time - really raised the temperature, and her motive for producing the piece was evident in her rambling opening paragraph:

"There are few things more enjoyable than watching bookish types acting catty, so it is with some glee that I have been following the row that has broken out between the critic John Sutherland, the novelist and uber-blogger Susan Hill, and an as yet unnamed literary editor of a national newspaper."

With a puerile opener like that, I wonder how was it possible that anyone expected an intelligent, measured or rational piece? Blimey! Talk about good writing and leaving it up to the professionals! This woman must be desperate for things to write about, to ensure that she is kept on that list of those writers receiving money for their "good" writing. By the way, Frank at Books, Inq is not included as a target for this post; he has stated his sound position very clearly!

I don't mean to be catty, honest! It's amazing how reading articles like that will put you in the mood for a cat fight though. And it's not even due to my "putrid bitterness" caused by "a very deep sense of exclusion", which she says bloggers suffer from. It just so happens that I'm a working journalist AND a blogger, paid handsomely for my words as well! What category, therefore, am I in, Ms Cooke?

It seems Rachel Cooke will always be the source of a raised eyebrow in my household, however. I remember back in 2004 reading one of her more "famous" articles. She interviewed the family of a missing woman in Texas in the US. Why? What was the news value for a UK audience? Oh, that's simple: the woman had the same name. Reporter Rachel in the UK says she searched for her own name on Google. It turned out another Rachel Cooke, in the US, was missing, presumed murdered. Our Rachel was so taken aback - never mind the news judgement - that she flew to Texas a few weeks later to report on her namesake. Journalists are still scratching their heads about this one. I say what a novel way to earn some more of that "good writer's" cash that she goes on about. Of course, no disrespect to the Texas family at the centre of that article; what's in question here is the UK reporter's motive for covering it.

I digress, however, which illustrates the power of cattiness! I'm sorry and promise to be good for now on! Purrrrr Purrrr. Let me give the last word on this to Norm, just as Susan Hill did. A sensible, intelligent piece on a blog. Fancy that!

Because what I really wanted to post were the details of a recent conversation I had with a friend who reviews books for a reputable publication. I won't name her, because she relies on this job to pay her rent. It's not Ms Cooke, and I'm not referring to The Observer. My friend has given me permission to quote her though, finding all this hoo-ha a "bit of a laugh".

- She says she was wined and dined last month by the publishers of four different publishing houses, the bills going through the ceiling. She says "of course I later wrote favourable reviews for them" because there are more restaurants "I'm keen to get a foot in".

- Her editor changes her reviews regularly, making them better or worse, depending on what partnerships, promotions or freebies are on offer. It also depends if the parent companies - reviewer's publication and book publisher - are linked.

- She has been told to write "favourable" reviews when the publication is keen to score an exclusive interview with a famous author. Bad review, no interview, ever!

- Publishers who don't advertise in said publication don't get their books reviewed.

- Bad reviews of books could mean publisher's adverts being pulled, or promotional-partnership events being cancelled, so they are all vetted by editor, who is vetted by corporate bosses.

- Sometimes a review will be favourable or bad depending on what a rival publication has written.

- She has had to write seven favourable reviews this year for authors with close connections to the publication.

My friend is also happy to be quoted as boasting the following - with hearty laughs: she is 26; never studied literature; never written a book; only ever reads the first 10 pages of a book, then dips in and out until she has enough to write her review; she admits she doesn't know "a lot" about anything, let alone books, as Rachel Cooke argues; her reviews appear under a pseudonym in the publication, because she is often embarrassed about what she writes; she swears that this is not an isolated case.

So, there you are. That's why I don't treat the entire mainstream reviewing machine as a sacred cow. Nor would I ever treat all blog reviews as a sacred cow. I will go forward with my eyes open and judge things as I find them. Long live diversity and free thought! And I will try not to be catty, as long as I'm not forced into it!

The Child Within

Yes, this is me as a toddler, for those who don't like the anonymous element of nameless blogs. I thought it might be nice to give Shameless some kind of face. I have changed a lot though, rest assured. This is proof that I once had hair (I have a "number one" now) and that I was fair-haired (I only remember having dark hair).

How many of you ever take the time to look at your childhood photos? Is it such a shameless thing to dwell on them, or even make them public like this? I like to remind myself of that time when anything was possible, when there were less boundaries, conditioning and baggage. It can still be like this, if we can just clear our minds and try to regain our innocence! I like to remind myself about the existence of that little child within, who is always welcome company in this world of having to be a man. Play and laugh! Play and laugh!

So, I hereby call on my fellow bloggers to share with us at least one photo of themselves as a child. Take yourself back to a good time (I know childhoods are not always easy). Make a new start. Get back in touch with your inner child. You'll be amazed what it can do for your writing. You'll be amazed what it can do for your general state of mind. Who will take up this challenge? Or will my baby face be the only one shining out from the blogosphere?

Let yourself go ga ga!

Blogs Can Give You A Fright!

This is not a pleasant story, but I want to share it with you to illustrate how this whole blog thing can end up meaning much more to us than perhaps we imagine.

About 18 months ago, before I launched my own blog, I was a regular visitor to a specialist blog - in fact, more of a website in the form of a blog - on a subject I'd taken an interest in. I visited about three or four times a week, becoming strangely addicted, connecting with the humour and the "personality" of the author. It became cosy. I was happy to follow the threads and the insight into the author and the subject she was shedding light on. I was impressed by the research this person was undertaking, saving the rest of us from doing some horrible, difficult digging. I thought it was incredible that this person could devote so much of her time to collating such valuable information. I was attached to someone I'd never met.

Six months later something strange happened: the blog seemed to freeze. It didn't change, except for the list of comments on the last post. There were no more updates. Regular readers like me kept returning, but kept finding the same post. I left a comment to ask "where are you?" and to enquire whether the author had managed to find the answer to a question I had asked. Two weeks passed. The comments dropped off. I sent an email to the address in the contacts. There was no reply. I didn't have any other contact information, not even a name, just a login name that began with numbers.

Another month went by and I genuinely became worried about the author. I wondered what had happened. What was going on? If she'd decided to give up the blog, surely she would've said so. How can someone write a post every day for years and then suddenly abandon everything with no explanation. There was no way of getting any answers.

Two more months went by and I popped in to the site out of curiosity, expecting to see the same tired post from two months earlier. I was absolutely shocked to read a new post, not written by the author but by her 15-year-old daughter. It said:

"I am sorry to announce here that XXXXXXX, my mum, has passed away. Sorry I could not let you know earlier, but I didn't even realise she had this web. I am very sad to find this out about her and I am reading everything now, right back to 2002!? I found mum's log and password in her diary that was secret, and not even her closest friends have known about this. Sorry to have to tell you this bad news. We had a lovely funeral in XXXXXXX but I wish we might have talked about this web. What hurts me as well is that many people had sent my mum some awful emails about XXXXXXX and the amazing work she was doing. You know who you are. I hope you are happy. Thank you to everyone else who made my mum happy in some terrible period in her life."

I think I almost cried, putting myself in the shoes of this poor teenager, discovering the blog that her mother had laboured over and loved. She was right to say how sad it was that her family and friends didn't see the passion she had for her blog. The website, in Canada, has since been taken down. It still makes me sad to think about that mother and daughter. I also would've liked to have known more about her and her final days. It's one of life's cruel lessons.

I think I am going to make a point of noting down my login and password somewhere obvious, so my partner has the chance to explain things should I ever be unable to continue adding posts to my blog. I am also glad to say that I do rave about my blog at home! "Look at what I've just put up," I say. "And look at those lovely reactions from all of those lovely people."

A Pause For A Poem

drinks at number 17

37 ironed envelopes, sealed with a spray of lavender, the names luscious and curvy, the satin hue of Bombay; to Mrs Xinhua, Norris and his frisky labrador, the girl who works in the library, the Mexican potter who no one sees on the top floor, the young lad who plays a maniacal trumpet way after 10 o'clock; all sailing up and down the bannisters in eternal giddiness, limbless dances in the space that buffers them from the world; only four couples, the rest without commitment, assuming no one's managed 100 percent discretion, fooling the spies behind silent cracks in old doorways.

pleasantly cut exotic flowers, punch and spirits to suit all religions, in front of photos of well-meaning but distant relatives; samosas and Turkish delight made to look more plentiful, fanned out across the crystal platters; drinks at number 17, she'd written, from 5:30 until late; a chance to humanise the building, get to know who might be around when someone else's world stops turning, forge a bond for when the heat wave comes, when the lights fail, if bombs ever start falling, God forbid, or if a heart suddenly decides it's had enough of its reliable, regular rhythm.

no replies in person, nor is a note left in her box, although there are more hellos and goodbyes on the stairs, an indication that something heavy may've shifted; already squeezed into her Christmas dress, bought in better times in Paris, waiting on the piano stool, divorced from its lover; sitting by the front door, practising the tone and assembly of her greetings, remembering to include a few words from other tongues for global reach, the names and peculiars of the least obvious, some delightful titbits from her single and married years to tease out plenty of smiles.

the slayer of time creeps around the clockface though, leaving 5:30 back in the distance, making the food look wasted and sad, her dress exagerated and loud, betrayed by the lavender, the cleverness of her pen; not even a scratch on the door, nor a guilty hesitation on the landing, just urgent descents, feet content to be escaping elsewhere, selfish lives not wanting to be bothered by the eccentric notions of her at number 17; another gin flushes memories through her veins, bitter about those around her, for deciding to be in the race but not really a part of it.

and then, just below, the splutters of a trumpet, the growl of the excited dog, the cluttered harmony of voices, meeting, exploring; two flights navigated in a hurry, stopping in front of the merry din, realising with a squeal that 17 must've been mistaken for 11; the owner probably just went with the flow, taken by the unexpected good intentions of his neighbours; her knocking is confident, throat cleared, eyes wiped, heart strenghtened, the pleasure of knowing she has an amusing tale to share with her community, who just may, this new night, become something very important.

© Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.

A Shameless Review

Sometimes when I read a book that's not in my preferred genre - I find this is a good exercise, by the way, to keep across all types of writing styles - I have to make an effort to put aside old habits. I try to keep an open mind and enjoy what's in front of me, fighting off the demands and expectations that I might have when reading other genres. There's no point in going to a heavy metal concert, expecting to hear distinct classical forms.

I had this in mind when reading Dark Rain by Conor Corderoy, one of the first batch of six novels that came out of the new imprint Macmillan New Writing. The books seem to cover all different genres of writing: experimental; two types of thrillers (intelligent action and psychological); a contemporary family drama (kind of), a sweeping epic and a detective novel. Dark Rain was the detective novel.

For what it was, and bearing in mind the target audience, I think it hits the mark. It was the classic quick read: grisly murder, hard cop, lady in distress, non-PC language and stances, surreal violence and plenty of clichés. It was actually an entertaining read, which took no time at all to get through, and no punches were pulled.

The positive, for me, was the original setting. The story takes place in the future, with the earth soaked in constant rain, the rich living in domes with fake skies, the poor living out in tent cities. There were parallels with our current global situation. It didn't get too deep though, and the dialogue and narrative never betrayed the genre. I can see a film coming out of this book, which would be quite fun to see; everything was very easy to visualise.

Oh, and I won't bore those who have already read my previous comments about the lack of tight editing in some of these first MNW books, but I just wish there hadn't been two spellings for whisky (whiskey), for example, and that the main character's name hadn't gone from O'Neil to O'Neal at one point. There were other slips here and there, but I think my point's been made. There was still a lot of fun had though!

The Lions of Lyon (23)

Click on image to enlarge!

Here he is, after waiting so patiently in the wings: the latest in my lion series.
My blog just wouldn't be the same without my lions. What will I do when the series runs out? I reckon I have about another 10 to showcase; after that I suppose I will have to find an idea for another series!
Don't forget to start going back over previous posts to see which ones are your favourites because I still plan to hold a contest to find the best Lion of Lyon.

The Personality of Books

Call me old fashioned. Call me fuddy-duddy. Call me an anti-advancist, if that were a correct term. But I really can't see the day when I settle for the likes of a Sony Reader to digest my new books.

I have no doubt that these devices are going to improve with time, and already the Sony Reader looks like a superb creation, which gives the sensation of really reading paper. I've browsed through all the advance publicity and I'm very impressed by the technology. It's not enough, however, and I fear it never will be.

Sony lists all the benefits: impressive paper-like display; lightweight; amazing battery life; memory for hundreds of books; browse, purchase and easily download.
What they can't address is the little-discussed subject of how real books seem to breathe for many people, how they seem to have personalities and accompany us through life.

I couldn't imagine my living room without one of the walls lined with books. They are not just things that I read and then forget. These books hold certain memories. I buy books when I visit places. I love it when they're signed. Books remind me of different times in my life. They have become furniture pieces as well, decor that makes me "happy in my skin", as the French would say. I really believe we can feel like we're being accompanied by books; book lovers feel better when they're surrounded by them. The bookcase is just as important as the sofa and the table.

I'm not sure that a Sony Reader or any other similar device is ever going to be able to fill that gap for me. It may be fine for those who aren't that attached to their books, who don't like to stroke and smell the covers and pages (I don't mind confessing to it) and who want something easy and convenient, to take with them on public transport, for example.

What's more, my bookcase is like a large painting, a multi-coloured mural, the tapestry of my life, which I'm adding to all the time. That must be some food for thought for the good folk at the likes of Sony. Sorry I can't offer any solutions. In signing off, I have a flash: I can see someone in the year 2086, looking back at this post in blogger's archives; he can't believe what he reads, and then he has a good old laugh as he injects his Sony Reader into his arm!

The Wonders of Portugal

There's nothing like evolution. There's nothing like taking our blogs to new levels. If you thought this blog was just text and photos, think again!

I've had a bit of fun putting together a video of the best memories of my trip through Portugal over the summer. All you have to do is click the play button (sometimes twice). You can also increase the volume on the console. The music is one of my original piano compositions. What a bonus! Enjoy!

A similar video of New York is in the pipeline!

Camp Britney

A friend of mine, Rory Mulholland, has launched a website to promote a book he's written about his time reporting in Iraq.

Camp Britney, Tikrit is not your run of the mill book on the Iraqi conflict. This is about a bunch of reporters who spent a month in Saddam's former palace after his capture, and the daily task they had of trying to justify their placement there. There are many funny moments and it's a real 'behind the scenes' look at how news agency stories get to us from war zones. There are also some great photos.

Rory is a dear friend who seems to be attracted to the action at the front line. I tell him he's mad to want to risk his life like this, but I suppose someone has to do it.

A Shameless Book Review

I always get nervous when I come across a book in which the story takes place over a single day; often it means the author will have stretched things out to fill up the pages, with lovely strolls down side paths, into dense gardens, around difficult to describe bushes, into the murky waters of a fountain we don't care about. You get my point.

This was the sensation I had when I started reading Ian McEwan's Saturday, which opens with a bedroom scene, the main character waking up, musing about his lot. Here's the opening line:

"Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet."

I instantly had memories of a writing class I once attended. "Don't ever ever ever begin your novel with the main character in bed waking up!" bellowed the tutor. "It's ugly and it's boring and it will turn the reader off!" I'm not sure if he was right, but it means that I now can't judge those kinds of opening lines objectively. Ugly and boring comes to mind, even if they are not the real feelings I have. Therefore, Saturday didn't start well for me.

I dreaded the thought that I was going to be taken through the day to day stuff of someone I wouldn't care about - a wealthy doctor in London - and it would be too focused on his internal angst, heavy questions about how on earth can we fit into a post-September the 11th world. A writer who is not sure of his ability would probably never attempt this. The result could be catastrophic. McEwan must be sure of his abilities, and this is where he has some success.

The novel slowly pulls you in, with a quiet, unsettling tone. The doctor's world is turned upside down after an encounter in the street with a road rage thug. There is suspense, anxiety, but not too much pondering. It is inevitable that McEwan has to take a few strolls down some peripheral gardens - a squash game that goes into too much detail and goes on for too many pages; the ins and outs of medical adventure inside the heads of several patients; the curiosities of jazz music that only a fan would appreciate. Don't forgt this is McEwan though, and so he manages to pull the plane up at the last minute, just when you think you are going to crash into the mountains and you will slam the book shut. This is what he is good at. He can keep pulling you along, even if you get restless with his playfulness, his desire to explore the language, show off his wordsmith skills. Anybody else would have failed after 50 pages.

The book only runs to 279 pages - thank goodness, because one day spread out over any more could become tedious - and there is a plot and a climax worth waiting for. You do close the book asking questions, feeling a prickle on your skin, understanding what it is that makes us all feel nervous about the fragility of our lives. It is a nice meditation on our post-twin towers uneasiness. For me, it is not one of McEwan's best, but it is definitely something worth reading.

Falling For New York

'Step down, Sir!' said the girl for the third time, annoyed at my confused, pasty face, resentful that another customer was going to put salt on the wound of her already difficult 6th Avenue day. 'Step down, Sir!' she said again sharply, though managing to slip in the obligatory smile that so many people here seem to be trained in. Was I supposed to get down on my knees? Spread-eagle, ready to be frisked? Go down to a lower level and pay for the goods that I held guiltily in my hand? Was she agreeing with the newspapers in front of her, that Donald Rumsfeld should resign? A kind woman with a broad grin - and accent to match - appeared like an angel to act as translator, waving me up to the cashier. 'That means next customer, honey.' She laughed heartily, bemused by my unease, which she must have found so obviously foreign. No one warned me that I would need to learn the New York lingo before going there. After only a week, however, I was well and truly integrated into the club of mean operators who know the streets.

My literary blood was pumping when I arrived in the Big Apple, but unfortunately there was nothing to satisfy that longing. I did visit the famous Strand bookshop near Union Square - what a treat to get lost in between such cheap books - and I spotted the odd birthplace of great writers such as James Baldwin. However, my hopes of actually meeting in person some formidable writers at literary events evaporated, for one reason or another, and I had to be content with the usual touristy things that easily fill up a week. Seeing a show on Broadway - Chicago - and then dinner at the Union Square Café also made my birthday on Saturday memorable.

I put aside all the expectations, all the famous quotes, all the exercised anecdotes, to really try to see New York for what it was. My first impressions were mixed: there was a lot of grubbiness, with many surfaces crying out for a scrub and a coat of paint, and the traffic and sound pollution could be unbearable; on the other hand, however, instead of the rush and roar that I had imagined, there were relaxed, hearty people who had plenty of time to talk, help, laugh. At the end of the day, I bathed in a great sense of freedom - the streets felt safe, for example, and photography was permitted in museums. There is nothing but choice.

Being in New York felt like being at the centre of things, a chance to connect with a list of mankind's reference points, the things that symbolise so much about our civilisation. The attraction of this city, which makes it a place I want to explore to its core, is the atmosphere created by its superb mix of people, ideas, backgrounds, history. I have fallen in love, like millions of others before me.

All of these photos were taken by me. Don't forget you can click on them to enlarge them.

Getting To Know Dorcas

Look what was waiting for me in my letterbox when I got back from New York today!

The cover and quality of the printing looks great.
If anyone hasn't yet heard about the publication of this novel by fellow blogger Inner Minx, then you need to visit here.
I look forward to reading this, once I'm back on my feet and life is back to a normal pace.
It's great to see a new writer break through!
I wish you all the best with this, Skint and Minx.