About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Antique Textiles and Embroideries - Stitching Fiction

I have been mad about vintage and antique textiles for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, my mother - who avidly collected china and porcelain - used to haunt jumble sales. After we moved to Scotland, she would go to auction houses and she would often take me with her. Later on, when I became old enough, I would even go along and bid for her from time to time. I found it all very exciting. But the things that excited me most of all were the old textiles of all kinds - wall hangings and embroideries heaped into odd corners of the saleroom, the ancient shawl folded on the table at a boot sale or antique market, the heaps of linen, crammed into cardboard boxes and sold in bulk, just as they had been removed from drawers and chests.


It wasn't too long before I found myself buying some of these things for myself when I could afford them - and I often could afford them, because back then, nobody much wanted them. It's different now, of course, but there are still occasional bargains to be had. Then, I found myself writing about the textiles in my fiction. There was something about them that seemed to lend itself to stories, the sense perhaps that somebody, some woman somewhere, had stitched emotions, hopes, fears, into a hanging or a garment, a handkerchief or - in the case of the Curiosity Cabinet - a heavily embroidered box, a casket in which a woman had kept her most precious possessions. The Curiosity Cabinet isn't really a cabinet at all. (And yes - I know that a real curiosity cabinet used to be a case in which some collector, usually a man, kept specimens of all kinds.) But at some point, I think, I saw an embroidered 'raised work' casket in a museum with its contents displayed alongside, and it struck me that the contents were all 'women's things' - uniquely and powerfully female. And as all writers do, I started to tell myself the story behind them. A story of my own invention. 
Later on, I acquired my own fairly extensive collection of old textiles and for some years spent part of my week dealing in them. It was  - and continues to be, albeit less intensively - what allowed me to buy time to write, even when cash flow was a problem. No surprise then, that in my new historical novel, The Physic Garden, embroidery also plays its part - a key part in the story. I'm no seamstress myself. My late mother was a fine embroiderer, but I'm afraid I've never had the patience. Instead, I try to stitch words into something worth having - just as the lady who originally made the embroidered casket in The Curiosity Cabinet tried to stitch something of her own story into a small work of art, making it for herself and her own satisfaction, but also - I think - with some thoughts of other people enjoying it in the future.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Inspirations for The Curiosity Cabinet: The Isle of Gigha

Whins - with an overpowering scent of coconut.
My fictional island of Garve, in The Curiosity Cabinet and also the unnamed island in my later novel, Bird of Passage were certainly inspired by the little isle of Gigha, which lies just to the west of the Kintyre Peninsula and is the most southerly of the true Hebridean  Islands. It's pronounced Gi-ah, with a hard 'g', in case you were wondering!
My husband, Alan, first introduced me to this island which was to become such a significant and inspirational place for me. Years before we met, he had been fishing for clams off Gigha with his brother-in-law when the boat's engine had broken down. Some of the island fishermen had come out to rescue them, given them generous hospitality and one Willie McSporran had managed to repair the engine with spare parts retrieved - precariously - from the little island 'tip' at the north of the island. After that, and over many years, Alan would return to Gigha whenever he could. He exchanged fishing for work as a charter skipper on a series of yachts and whenever they rounded the somewhat perilous Mull of Kintyre, Gigha was the place where they stopped off.
I still hadn't visited the island myself, although I had heard a lot about it over the years.
Then, when our son was three or four, we had a summer holiday there, staying in the B & B at the island post office and shop, which was then run by Margaret and Seamus McSporran, the famous 'man of fourteen jobs' - and also Willie's brother.
It was bliss. A perfect place for a holiday with a small child. Safe, friendly, beautiful. We walked, we picnicked, we paddled, we fished. My memories of that time involve digging furiously for lugworms on the beach. Or sitting on the rocks in the sun - the climate is very mild here and quite often the rain leaps right over the island to fall on the mainland beyond.

Ardminish Bay, on Gigha

Since that first visit we have been back countless times, with friends, with our son, or just on our own to visit Willie and his wife. Every time we go, we seem to find something new to see and explore, which is strange, because this is a small island - only seven miles by one and a half wide. But it has some twenty five miles of coastline, so there is a lot to see. And because it was strategically very important, placed between the territory of the Lords of the Isles and the mainland, it has a complex and fascinating history.
At some point, it was also the subject of a brave community buyout. You can read all about it on the island's own website here. I've written my own big factual book about the history of Gigha - called God's Islanders, it was published by Birlinn in 2006. It was a labour of love and if you want to know all about the 'real' Gigha, then you could do worse than read it.  Largely thanks to lovely Willie McSporran who sat with me over vast quantities of tea and pineapple cake, and patiently told me all about the island history for many, many hours, it is as authentic as I could make it.
But Gigha was in my head. Which is why I found myself setting two of my novels on a small Scottish island that bore a strong resemblance to this one. In The Curiosity Cabinet, Garve is very like Gigha.
'The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.' 


In Bird of Passage, a more harrowing tale altogether, a Scottish set homage to Wuthering Heights, Finn comes to an unnamed island which - again - bears some resemblance to Gigha. It proves to be his salvation and his tragedy.

All the characters in both novels are, of course, entirely fictional in every way but one.
In The Curiosity Cabinet, Alys revisits the island after an absence of twenty five years and is captivated by the embroidered casket on display in her hotel. She discovers that it belongs to Donal, her childhood playmate, and soon they resume their old friendship. Interwoven with the story of their growing love, is the darker tale of Henrietta Dalrymple, kidnapped by the formidable Manus McNeill and held on the island against her will. With three hundred years separating them, the women are linked by the cabinet and its contents, by the tug of motherhood and by the magic of the island itself. But the island has its secrets, past and present, and the people of these islands can - so an old historian observes in the prologue to the novel - keep a secret for a thousand years.
That, I'm sure, is the absolute truth!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Curiosity Cabinet - Where Did The Ideas Come From?

Ardminish Bay on the Isle of Gigha
The Curiosity Cabinet (free on Kindle today and every day till Saturday) began as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4. They were broadcast in the Afternoon Theatre slot, although I can't remember when that was: late 1990s perhaps? I know that the novel was originally published by Polygon in 2005 so it must have been a few years earlier, because I sat on the story for a while, thinking about what I needed to do to it to turn it into a novel.
The production (by Hamish Wilson) was excellent, as were the performances, and the plays were well received. But all the same, I knew I needed to make some changes and it was a long time before I realised exactly what they were.

The historical story was fine, but the contemporary tale was only 'alright'. Half there. It involved a divorced woman, her small son, and an old islandman. But there seemed to be something lacking.  It took a few years of mulling it over, going back to it and rewriting it before I realised that the modern love story should in some way run parallel to the historical love story - not that they should ever intersect. This isn't a genuine 'time slip' novel. Nobody travels back in time. But all the same, there was a sense in which I wanted the problems and tribulations of the past to be - somehow - worked out, resolved, in the present. And in order for me to be able to do that, I would have to find some way of the present reflecting the past, a fragile web of connections. But I knew it also had to be very subtle. Anything too obvious, anything too 'clunky' and the whole delicate structure would come tumbling down around my ears.

There were a couple of other things that inspired the story though. One was the true tale of Lady Grange who was kidnapped and spirited away at the behest of her husband (she was becoming something of an embarrassment to him in all kinds of ways!) and held on St Kilda for many years. Lady Grange was much older than Henrietta in the Curiosity Cabinet, Henrietta is a widow - and Lady Grange's story has no chance of a happy ending. But what fascinated me was the clash of cultures, the struggle which a lowlander would have to adapt and adjust to living on a small island where nobody even spoke her language. Something that could, and did, drive a prisoner to madness.

Some island flowers.

Years before, I had also dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped (and its sequel, Catriona) for BBC Radio in ten hour-long episodes. Ten hours of radio. Can you imagine it? I don't think it would happen now! I loved both novels, still do - and both of them are, among so much else, an exploration of that clash of Highland and Lowland cultures. There is a scene, late in Kidnapped, where David Balfour and Alan Breck return to the House of Shaws to bring wicked old Ebenezer Balfour to book for his crimes. It always stuck in my mind for the little frisson it gave me when Alan Breck tells Ebenezer Balfour that David is his prisoner, and asks him whether he wishes him to keep or kill him. It is, of course, all a ruse, to get Ebenezer to admit his culpability (which he does!) But it struck me even then, how relatively easy it would be for somebody to disappear for ever into the wilderness of the Highlands and Islands.

Which is - in a way - what happens to poor little Henrietta, in The Curiosity Cabinet, kidnapped to the fictional island of Garve. There is a Garve in Scotland. There are several Garves, since the name means 'rough' and there are plenty of rough islands. My fictional Garve is a little like the Isle of Coll, but it's also like the Isle of Gigha, which I know well.  It may be rough in winter, but in spring and summer the island is full of flowers.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you a bit more about Gigha, and how the island landscape helped to inspire both The Curiosity Cabinet and a subsequent novel, Bird of Passage.





Monday, February 25, 2013

Blogging, Branding, Aromatherapy - and a free download.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know (and perhaps be faintly annoyed, for which I apologise!) that I've been playing about with the design of it, trying to find something that looks right for me, reflects the kind of fiction I write and, perhaps most important of all,  is legible. I've been trying to avoid that glaring white text on a black background, which nobody over a certain age can read. Me neither.
It's harder than you think to get it right and yet appearance matters. Just as the cover images of my eBooks tell you something about what you might find inside, so the background of a blog or website tells you a lot about the person writing it.
Which is why I've been experimenting with available backgrounds.
But whenever I found one I liked and no matter how much I tweaked the settings, the text became quite difficult to cope with. I've spent hours at it. For the moment, I'm settling for this seascape especially since so much of what I write seems to have the sea somewhere in it - even The Physic Garden involves a trip to the Isle of Arran for my main characters!
Linked to this is the fact that I've been reading and trying to learn a bit about creating a brand. Not cynically, but with the intention of trying to target those readers who - for want of a better explanation - are the people who will enjoy the kind of books I write.
There's an excellent blog post about this here on Stephen T Harper's blog. The wonderful Seth Godin sums it up, when he writes, 'Unanimity is impossible unless you are willing to be invisible.' And goes on to say that we have to learn to say 'It's not for you.'
This doesn't mean that I want to deter anyone from giving my books a go. But it does mean that we don't all love the same kind of work. (Just as well really.) And as writers, we're always trying to connect with the readers for whom we're really writing, the people who 'get' it, the people who will get some pleasure out of it, become lost in the world we've created - and hopefully, come back for more.
Although we badly want everyone to love what we write, we have to accept that some people won't. Why should they? And we have to learn to say 'it's not for you, then. But that's OK.' and move on.
Which is hard, because most of us remember the occasional negative review far more clearly than any number of positive comments.
It can be an interesting exercise to go to a book by one of your favourite authors on Amazon, one with a lot of reviews, and glance at the one and two star reviews. You can be pretty sure that - even with the most successful writers - there will be a few, sometimes more than a few, negative reviews. Sometimes these are quite illuminating - especially when they are well thought out, well written, but still negative. You may not agree with them at all. You probably won't. Especially if this is a writer whose work you love. But if you pause for thought, you can see why  it may be that you disagree, that you're enthusiastic about a particular book while somebody else isn't,  just as you may adore a particular piece of music while somebody else can't bear it.
A few years ago, when I had aromatherapy massage, the therapist asked me if there were any herbs or scents I particularly disliked (rosemary, when it's too intense) and any which I particularly loved (neroli, always, but any variation on orange and orange blossom.)
She took these preferences into account when preparing massage oils.
I think it's the same with books really. I'm invariably on the look out for whatever the equivalent of neroli is in fiction.
Some of my close friends much prefer rosemary!
On the whole, it's all pretty subjective - and that's quite heartening. Even if you are writing for a tiny, experimental niche market there will surely be somebody out there who will say 'this is definitely for me!'
And why not? It's one of the joys of this brave new world in which we find ourselves.
Meanwhile, the trick with branding isn't to indulge in crazy blanket marketing. It's to find out about your own work, what it is, what it's like, what characterises it -. and then try to find and connect with those readers who have been searching for exactly this kind of book.
Which is all VERY much easier said than done!
(All helpful suggestions gratefully received.)
Meanwhile, for anyone who wants to sample the kind of books I write, The Curiosity Cabinet will be free to download for five days, from 26th February to 2nd March. Quite a lot of people already have this book in paperback, but this means you can get the Kindle edition too if you want. One reviewer has described this as a 'rich tapestry of a book'. Two stories, historical and contemporary are intertwined on a small (fictional) Scottish island. What mostly emerges from the reviews is that people have quite simply found this to be an enjoyable read, one which stayed with them long after they had finished the novel. That's more than enough for me. If you haven't yet come across it, give it a go. I hope you enjoy it too! If you're reading this in the US, you can click here  instead.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Insomnia

I used to sleep like a baby. These days, I sleep like the baby I actually had, about twenty six years ago. Charlie didn't like to sleep at all, really. That was the problem. He was a lovely baby, but he could stay awake and then some. Hardly ever napped in the daytime and didn't even seem to want to sleep for too long at night. I got used to sleeplessness back then, so when he started being able to amuse himself with books until he fell asleep - that was after we'd read countless stories to him - I went back to restful nights again.
Not now. Now I wake up in the middle of the night and I'm wired. It's as though my brain has been working away - on novels, stories, articles - while I've been sleeping and dreaming, and after a while, it gives me a nudge, saying 'Wake up, wake up. I've got something to tell you.  DON'T YOU WANT TO WRITE IT DOWN?'
Sometimes it's because I'm in the middle of working on a novel or a play. Sometimes it's when I've been reviewing something. Or got so involved in reading a book that I wake up and want to get on with it. (See review of The City and The City, below!)
I don't think it's doing me a lot of good. I'm tired pretty much all the time these days, and keep making resolutions to get more sleep or better sleep or - let's face it - any kind of deep sleep at all.
I have this fantasy of going away for a week or so, to stay in some nice hotel with meals and drinks on tap and with absolutely nothing to do. No laptop, and not even very much sightseeing. (Our holidays usually involve complicated itineraries, visits, doing things, PLANS)
I'll take my Kindle and catch up on my reading. Or watch a bit of television. Or just look out of the window.
I'll read for pleasure, read for fun, read the things I want to read rather than the things I feel I ought to be reading.
I won't do anything I think I ought to be doing.
Not a single thing.
Meanwhile, here's something I woke up thinking only the other morning. Very early morning. Just beginning to get a little bit light, here in Scotland. And with the birds in the garden just starting to sing again after a long hard winter.
I didn't wake up thinking about the birds though. I woke up thinking this:
It isn't so much a problem of the numbers of not very good eBooks out there. I can avoid those easily enough. I have a sample facility on my Kindle.
No. It's the vast numbers of really, really good eBooks out there. My Kindle is currently stuffed with them. (Which is why I want that holiday.)
These are good reads by any standards: entertaining, original, engaging.
And you know what? Most of them were turned down by traditional publishing. Many of them were turned down many times over by industry 'experts'. Many of them were written by people who had once been traditionally published but were given what is commonly called the elbow, by those same  experts. These were industry insiders who claimed to know what they were doing. They said it often enough. They are still saying it.
Which is a scary thought.
It's enough to give you insomnia, isn't it?




Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Drowning in Linens

Edward Ellice 
As some of my readers will know, when I'm not writing novels and stories, I buy, sell and collect antique textiles. I quite often find myself doing talks about them - and writing about them as well. They're in The Curiosity Cabinet and they're most definitely in the Physic Garden. They are also, at the moment, in my house. 
A few weeks ago, I bought FIVE big boxes of old  Irish linen damask tablecloths and large dinner napkins, in our local saleroom. I don't know exactly how many tablecloths there are. Thirty? Forty? I keep losing track because I get distracted by the beauty of them. (And the weight. My God, but they're heavy!) And that's not counting the small mountain of napkins. Some are perfect, some are a little thin but on those, the patterns are so strange that I think they must be very old indeed. 
They are big tablecloths - more than big - huge, some of them 6 yards and more long,  old damask banqueting cloths in the finest, smoothest most beautiful linen imaginable. Old linen of this kind - grass bleached, I reckon - feels like glass under the hand. Cool, impossibly smooth. The patterns are woven in, intricate and very beautiful. I think they were laundered a very long time ago, stored away carefully in tissue paper and not brought out into the light of day for many years. Some of them date from 1870 (the date is woven into the ends) with the names of their previous owners, Eliza and Edward Ellice but some are clearly even older. All textiles have a story to tell, but some are more intriguing than others. 
A little research revealed that this was a late second marriage for both of them, that Eliza was Eliza Stewart Speirs in September 1867 (some of the linens have the initials ESS embroidered on them). Eliza was born to the 'beautiful Miss Stewart of The Field' as an old Glasgow book tells us. That must have been around 1817 or 18 and her father was Mr Hagart of Stirling. (Jean Armour was still alive, Robert Burns had died only some 22 years previously. ) Her grandfather was Thomas Stewart of the Glasgow Field, a calico printer. Was The Field, then, a bleach field? 
Eliza herself married Archibald Speirs on 22nd June in 1836 but he died in 1844 at the age of 39. They had two children.
Archibald's mother was Margaret Dundas, who was born in 1772 and who died (after her son) in 1852.
Somewhere in these boxes of linen is a set of her napkins, or at least they have her name woven into them.
Somewhere, too, is a fine but beautiful tablecloth woven with unicorns, lions, anchors and harps and the date 1849. 
Clearly, then, my boxes contain a whole collection of one family's linens, preserved, laundered, labelled and some of them very beautifully mended - obviously much loved pieces. And as you can see - I can never resist researching things, trying to find out something of their history. It's what brings them to life for me and - I hope - for their new owners. I love the rehoming aspects, because textiles, especially old linens, are so often thrown out, or cut up, or used as dust sheets for decorators! 
As a break from fiction (even I need a break now and then, much as I love writing novels and stories) I'm working on a little guide to buying and selling antiques and collectibles as a way of making some extra cash in these difficult times - not just textiles, although obviously, that's the subject I know most about!  It'll be a few more months before it's ready to go, but I've learned a lot over the last decade or so, and I reckon I might as well pass some of it on to my readers. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Physic Garden: How William Lang Told Me His Story.

The other day, somebody asked me THE QUESTION. It was a very nice lady, chatting to me in our local shop.
'Where do you get your ideas from?' she said.
Most writers will have encountered this question many times. Don't get me wrong. It's not irritating. Most of us love our readers and love to talk about the inspiration behind our books. But I also think most writers will  find that question - however often people ask it - very difficult to answer. Or if not difficult, then puzzling. Where DO we get our ideas from? Are we puzzled because we don't know, or is it because people who ask it are always genuinely surprised that we can make things up so easily - and it makes us wonder about it too?

The truth is that most writers have heads which are positively stuffed with ideas. We have ideas, characters, settings, stories, coming out of our ears. The problem is hardly ever the ideas. The problem is in making the time to get all those ideas written down in some form and then deciding which of them you want to live with and work with for the next year or so, which of them stay on the back burner, and which of them might as well be consigned to the dustbin. Actually, that's not strictly true either. Whenever you consign anything to the dustbin, you will invariably discover that it is exactly what you needed - but didn't realise it till now - for whatever you are working on at the moment.

I sometimes think it's a question of practice. The ideas, I mean. I remember doing a sort of 'taster' session for a lovely group of young mums, about writing. By the end of it, they had all created an imaginary character, and some of them were starting to have ideas about interesting things that those imaginary characters might do. Making stories for and with and about them. All of them seemed slightly surprised that - once they got over the hurdle of thinking there was some great mystery about 'getting ideas' - it was so easy to make something up. And so pleasurable. It's one of the reasons why writers carry on writing, in the face of troubles which include lack of cash and lack of time, but seldom lack of ideas!

Anyway, here's how it worked with my most recent project.

My first idea for The Physic Garden came years ago when I found a facsimile of an old book called The Scots Gard'ner, by John Reid, first published in 1683 by David Lindsay in Edinburgh and reprinted by Mainstream in 1988. I read it, intrigued by the poetry of it, by the beauty of the language and practicality of the advice. Later, I came across another fascinating book called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University, by A D Boney, published by Helm, also in 1988, clearly a good year for books about garden history. It was an account of the gardens of the old college, including the old botanical garden which had been polluted by the nearby type foundry. And that, in turn, sent me back to more primary sources. There were other books - a wonderful history of Scottish plant explorers called Seeds of Blood and Beauty, by Ann Lindsay, published by Polygon - which gave me some insight into the possibilities which might have enticed my characters - and another very old book, which I had to spend a somewhat traumatic afternoon in Glasgow University library examining - but if I told you all about that one, it would give my story away!

Part of a christening cape, embroidered with flowers.
At the same time, I acquired an embroidered 'christening cape' - I have it still - and I was told that it probably dated from the early 1800s, which is about the same time that this old cottage where I live and work was built. There seemed to be some correspondence in my mind between the beautifully embroidered flowers on the silk of this cape and the flower specimens which the gardeners were asked to provide for the botanical lectures. And that too fed into the story. Like so many of my novels, this one began life as a play, but it felt unsatisfactory. I didn't yet have the elbow room I needed. I wrote and rewrote but still it felt like a series of scenes from something much longer.

And then William Lang, the narrator, walked into my head and started to tell me his story. 'In his own words' as they used to say in school. 'Tell it in your own words.' Except that these were his words, not mine. Or that was what it felt like. That's still what it feels like. And it is a very Scottish story, with a handful of very Scottish words. I even thought about putting a little glossary at the back of the book, but finally decided that readers could probably guess what they meant easily enough. I plan to blog about it later though!

Some of the characters are very loosely based on people who actually existed, back in the early 1800s, or what little we know about them. But the book doesn't pretend to be true. Not even that curious hybrid called 'faction'. It's undoubtedly fiction. I made almost all of it up, although I hope the setting is authentic enough. William lived with me day and night for a spell, and told me his story as clearly as though he had been speaking into a recorder. I was reminded  of those slightly sinister tales of 'thought forms' that become so vivid that they assume a strange kind of life beyond the mind of the thinker. Except that with William, it wouldn't have been sinister at all, because he is such a lovely, honourable elderly man, looking back on his young self with wisdom and understanding. And that, in a way, makes it even worse. You see this is a tale of a terrible betrayal that permeates the novel, events that have influenced (although not ruined) William's whole life.


Where do such ideas come from? I suppose the answer is all kinds of sources and none, real life events and make believe. It would be nice to know what other people think. How does it work for you?


Monday, February 04, 2013

The City and The City - Miéville's Masterpiece

I've joined the Reading Between The Lines Review Collective and will be posting regular reviews here on my Wordarts blog of  'new books, old books, loved books, neglected books'. And if you remember where that quote comes from, you may well be even older than I am! I won't be discriminating against eBooks or self published books, but I'll be adding plenty of other books into the mix, and they won't all be new or even in print. In short, I'll only be reviewing what I like, when I like.

This week, I'm reviewing a book I like very much indeed.
I'm ashamed to say that the first time I became more than peripherally aware of China Miéville was when he delivered a keynote speech at last year's World Writers' Conference in Edinburgh, to which I was not invited, but a lot of which I followed online. You know how it is. You know about a writer, without knowing too much about what they write and keep adding them to the 'to be read' list.  If you want to know what he said about the future of the novel (raising a few elitist hackles in the process), you can still find it online here.

I loved what he said and have been quoting him ever since, especially this assertion: 'You don't have to think that writing is lever-pulling, that anyone could have written Jane Eyre or Notebook of a Return to my Native Land to think that the model of writers as the Elect is at best wrong, at worst, a bit slanderous to everyone else. We piss and moan about the terrible quality of self-published books, as if slews of god-awful crap weren't professionally expensively published every year.'

So after that, I just had to investigate his work. A younger friend and Miéville fan made some recommendations. The City and The City was my first taste of what he had to offer. It didn't disappoint. It is the most disturbing, exciting, moving and engrossing book I've read for a very long time, one of those magical novels that lodges itself in your mind and refuses to go away. One of those books you want to tell other people about, hoping against hope that they will appreciate it too.

Where to start?
It begins with a murder. The body of a young woman is discovered on a piece of waste land in the Eastern (ish) European city of Beszel. And you think it's going to be a detective story, a police procedural in an interesting foreign setting.
Well, it's that. But there's more. So very much more.

The narrator - we get to know him rather well and like him a lot as the novel progresses - is Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad of Beszel. He's thoughtful, intelligent, moral, attractive in the sense of being a character with whom you can identify. You find yourself liking him. And that's just as well, because he is about to be your guide through a thoroughly disturbing world. I don't want to give the game away. And please don't plough your way through all the multitude of reviews on Amazon, if you want to enjoy this in the way the writer clearly intended. Although some of them are excellent and illuminating. But read the book first. For this is a novel like no other. It will stretch your brain. I read it far into the night for several nights. It's a long book, fortunately, because I didn't want it to end. I dreamed about it a lot, bizarre, disturbing dreams. Not nightmares, just immensely complicated dreams, indicative of my brain's repeated attempts to come to terms with the world the author has created. I would wake up again in the early hours and carry on reading, anxious to get back to the story, but perhaps even more anxious to get back to the world of Beszel and its neighbouring city of Ul-Qoma.

Is this Science Fiction? I don't know. It seems real. Ordinary in the sense that it's easy to imagine yourself there. A real place. Or then again, perhaps not. There are frightening, possibly supernatural elements. But they too are utterly credible. Is it dystopian? Maybe. It's dark at times. But most of all, it's a stunning evocation of a world which is so believable, so firmly lodged in the realities with which we are familiar, so manipulative of language itself, utilising the 'almost familiar' to explain new concepts, that it defies any easy categorisation. I have never struggled so much to do justice to a book I loved.

The writing is dense, rich, intricate and occasionally ragged in no bad way. It has to be. He plays with words, with ideas. He plays with your mind. Reading The City and The City made me realise just how many modern novels are edited to within an inch of their lives. So many widely praised books these days seem to have been edited until they are thin.  I'm not talking about popular fiction here. I enjoy popular fiction a lot. At its best, it's a well made blueberry muffin, or a light-as-a-feather croissant with jam, and there are times when that's exactly what I want to eat. But there are other times when I fancy something much more rich and strange. Unfortunately, you get the feeling that so many novels which began as something complex and strange and rough around the edges in the mind of the author, have been processed smooth by assiduous editors until they all seem curiously similar: bland, correct, predictable mush. You finish them, and you think 'Is that it then?'
Whatever you feel about The City and The City, you won't feel that!

The unease begins early on. Tyador has been at the crime scene, discussing the case with a constable named Lizybet Corwi, and then speaking to a group of journalists gathered at the edge of the waste land where the body has been discovered. He turns away from them, and quite suddenly, there it is.
'As I turned, I saw past the edges of the estate to the end of GunterStrasz, between the dirty brick buildings. Trash moved in the wind. It might be anywhere. An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance, I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself and looking.
With a hard start I realised that she was not on GunterStrasz at all, and that I should not have seen her.'
At that point, with that small, seemingly unimportant - but oddly disturbing - encounter, you start to ask yourself why? Why should he not have seen her? Why was she not on GunterStrasz?

The answer - gradually revealed, always consistent - is complex and mind-bending: a realisation of the nature of the world in which Tyador lives and works. But not once, as I read this novel to its inevitable and satisfying, but unguessed, conclusion, did I ever stop believing in the truth of it, even while my brain struggled to encompass it. It's not an easy read. Don't blame me if you don't like it. Don't blame Miéville if you don't like it. Just acknowledge that it isn't for you. But if you do like it, you may also find that your perception of your own world won't ever be quite the same again. You'll dream about this book and go back to it, and be intrigued by it months later. I found myself desperately wanting to talk to people about it, which is why I'm reviewing it now. I've read very few novels in the last ten years which have filled me with such excitement - even in retrospect. I'd be interested to know what other readers think!

The City and The City was published by Pan in 2010 and is available on Kindle as well as in paperback.
You'll find it on Amazon UK and Amazon US.


Catherine is part of the Reading Between the Lines Review Collective a group of professional writers committed to writing good reviews about great books!