Reading Diary: Feb. 18-Feb. 24

isbn9781473655980The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.

The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781682190760There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.

womenFinally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.

Me in Shiny New Books: A Novel Calling


I wrote a new feature for Shiny New Books’s Bookbuzz section this month! It’s the first installment of a series entitled A Novel Calling, where people write about the books that they feel were written just for them—that resonate strongly with their lives or experiences or tastes somehow. My offering starts as follows:

In February, I read an advance proof copy of Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, and although I’d never seen a word of it before, it felt somehow familiar. She wrote about everything I cared about: poetry, music, a faith that is rooted in but not identical to religion, France, chronic illness (her daughter has cystic fibrosis, I have type I diabetes), the curious experience of having a partner who is significantly older than you are. It was brilliant and disorienting; I felt as though Stevenson were living my life, albeit from a slightly different angle. It was like seeing a water-blurred reflection in a pond: not quite the same, but very, very similar. I loved reading Love Like Salt, but some of the things that Stevenson included in it cut so close to the bone that I almost couldn’t bring myself to review it. I identified with it so closely that telling anyone about it felt like reviewing myself, then asking people whether they agreed.

I discuss three other books, too; if you’d like to know what they are, you can find out by reading the rest of the piece.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Sadiq Khan: the new Mayor of London, a self-identified feminist and lover of chocolate HobNobs (aka my kind of guy)
  1. Didn’t do one of these last week because I just hadn’t written enough about books to justify yet another . So this is a two-week catch-up.
  2. The Paris Review interviews with famous authors are all online and free to read. I had no idea. I thought you had to buy the four big fat volumes of them. I might do that anyway, but for now, holy shit, it’s the Grail.
  3. The BBC and Netflix are collaborating to re-produce Watership Down as a four-part series starring John Boyega and James McAvoy. I don’t know how to feel about this. I’m feeling all the feelings.
  4. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Which…just…I mean, there’s nothing left to say about this, really. Although the ever-illuminating Samantha Field’s analysis of Trump from a progressive Christian point of view gave a name to many of the horrors of his candidacy.
  5. Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London: the first Muslim mayor the city’s ever had, and nice to see Labour back in City Hall after eight years of Conservative buffoonery in the form of Boris Johnson. I voted for him (Khan, I mean.) I wasn’t used to voting on paper—I’ve only ever voted postally in this country, and my memories of accompanying my dad to the American polling station as a kid involved those shonky-looking electronic voting booths. It was kind of amazing to literally put a pencil mark on a piece of paper and stick that paper in a box. It made me feel closer to the democractic process, somehow.
  6. Brown eyeliner. Is a thing. That I actually rather like. It’s a softer look than my usual aggressive line of black, and has the added advantage of not rubbing off on the Chaos’s face/shirt/forehead (although that may just be because it’s a better brand.)
  7. Last week was basically pretty shit. A family member died, I felt like a disappointment at work, and I barely got any writing done. The only thing that was okay was that the weather was so beautiful, I went to Parliament Hill Fields for lunch every day.
  8. We went out to dinner in Great Portland Street with some old college friends on Friday. The restaurant was lovely, the tasting menu was delicious, everything was going well, until loud angry shouting noises began emanating from the kitchens. They were repetitive, and seemed to be relating to the fact that a delivery driver was demanding cash payment immediately, without the approval of a manager. After about two minutes of this (and the restaurant was so small that literally everyone could hear it), Lydia, who is a police officer, stood up and—in her glittery night-out top, holding her warrant card—wordlessly walked into the kitchens. It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. She came back five minutes later and, when questioned, said only, “I told him to shut up and go away unless he wanted to be charged with a public order offense.” Our friend Adam asked, with disappointment, why she hadn’t arrested him, to which she replied, “On a night out? Think of the paperwork!”
  9. Last weekend, the Chaos was going to be in Cambridge on Saturday. Given the bad week, I was really worried I’d spend the whole day in bed, eating cookies. So I made a plan—and then it was gloriously upended by my cousin Sarah, who is a tour guide at the National Theatre. She put out a Facebook plea for people to turn up on Saturday so that she could do an Architecture Tour, which is partly outside (it was gorgeous weather). In the event, I was the only person there, so I got a private tour, which was great: I learned loads about the building (including the rationale behind its ugly design), and we went into the tech workshops, where she showed me a half-finished set and loads of props, most of them horrible and gory (severed heads, bloody leg bones). I also saw one of the horse puppets from War Horse, which is hanging from the ceiling in the backstage area behind the Lyttelton Theatre. It’s just as complex and beautiful a piece of machinery as you’d expect.
  10. Do you guys know Tinyletter? It’s sort of an email subscription service, I think. I subscribe to one called Friday Poem: does what it says on the tin, is often beautiful and always timely. Here’s a different one by Helena Fitzgerald that really rang true with me, on public grief for celebrities as a rehearsal for the real thing.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

SpaceX’s launch of Falcon 9
  1. You all should read this four-part series by Tim Urban at WaitButWhy (the link goes through to all of the content in one place, don’t worry) on space exploration (/colonisation) and Elon Musk. Not least for the two incredible videos of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers landing on Mars. I suggest that, once you get to the part about the Hubble Space Telescope, you soundtrack your reading for as long as it takes to listen to this.
  2. I saw my lovely friend Ella (long-time readers will recall her former incarnation on this blog as the Duchess) for a quick hour-long lunch last week, and it was great. She teaches in Vermont, so I haven’t seen much of her, except on FaceTime, for months. She was back for her mother’s birthday, and we went to a little Italian cafe on Kentish Town Road where the inefficiency of the service is compensated for by the outstanding quality of their pasta. We had lasagna and chorizo-mushroom penne and talked about office politics and our families and laughed a lot. I’d been having a particularly shit morning that day, so it was especially nice to just let go with an old friend, even briefly.
  3. My old college had its annual black-tie ball this weekend. This is the first year I haven’t gone. I went last year with some friends in the year below me, even though I was no longer a student or even participating in the life of the college much (despite still living in Oxford), and it was, overall, a mistake. I think one of the hardest things about graduating is knowing when to stop going back (at least for a few years); this is the time. I’ll probably return with some other friends to use High Table dining rights this summer, and it was great to see pictures of people I did know enjoying themselves and looking fly, but it’s not my place anymore. Or at least not in the same way. And that’s okay.
  4. Prince died, and even though I don’t think I’ve ever consciously listened to any of his music, let alone been a devotee, it seemed really, really sad. He was obviously a taboo-breaker and an outrageously talented instrumentalist: one of my coworkers reminisced about seeing him, in concert, hurl himself across the stage, lean backwards over a piano, and play, while upside-down, exactly the right chords at exactly the right moment. That kind of gold dust shouldn’t die at 57.
  5. I’m writing fiction again. That’s all for now. Hooray.

The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton

By the time the tangy tomato sauce nips at the back of my tongue, I’ve already worked out the headline that will bring Freya down.


~~here be a few spoilers; I’ll warn you when they’re coming~~

It’s a slightly weird experience, reading a book in uncorrected proof. There are usually a lot of forgotten quotation marks or left-out commas, which (you can be pretty sure, though not always) will be added in during the editing process; there’s often quite a lot of repetition, which you can think about likewise. Still, you don’t actually know what the book will look like, as a finished product. You can just hope. Most of the advance review copies I get are corrected and bound proofs, which means they’re essentially the finished book, which just happens to not be on sale yet. My copy of The Exclusives, though, is uncorrected, which means this review will be a sort of time capsule. I’m not reviewing the book as it is now; I’m reviewing it as it was in January. Take any criticisms, therefore, with the knowledge that the book may well have changed.

The “exclusives” of the title are Josephine Grey and Freya Seymour, two privileged girls at a prestigious (and fictional) English boarding school; the “exclusives” are also, by implication, boarding schools themselves, and the bizarre bubble that surrounds their inmates from reality. That bubble extends to the world outside of school: Josephine’s father works for the Prime Minister and gets her an interview with the PM for the school newspaper, while another character, late in the book, says that she’s sure her father will be able to ensure her place at Oxford. Unlikely as it seems that David Cameron would give an interview to a school newspaper, consider that my friend Ella, who went to an elite girls’ school in north London—not the same thing as Eton or Cheltenham Ladies’ College, but still—experienced regular talks by the likes of Imelda Staunton and Emma Thompson. This world exists.

The book doesn’t start in 1996, though—instead, we’re dropped into Josephine’s life in 2014, as she’s heading up an archaeological dig in Jordan. She’s successful in her profession, less so in her personal life: she’s maintaining a supposedly no-strings fling with a charming but irresponsible foreign correspondent. An email from Freya, however, throws everything out of balance: she’s found Josephine’s contact details, and she wants to talk about what happened eighteen years ago. We don’t yet know what that was—we won’t know for sure until the final twenty pages of the book—but whatever it was, Josephine absolutely does not want to revisit it. She’s forced back to England, though, by her mother’s illness: she’s thought to be dying, and Josephine is summoned to London to say her goodbyes, where she’ll have to face her past.

The novel is split-narrative, alternating its chapters between 1996 at Greenwood Hall and 2014 in London. Josephine narrates in both timelines, which at first seemed like a missed opportunity to integrate more perspectives, but which quickly came to seem like a very clever idea. It enables Josephine, and Thornton, to maintain complete control over what the reader knows, both about the past and about the present. The extent of that need for control tells us everything we need to know about Josephine: her strong will, her arrogance, her single-mindedness, her determination, her fear. The greatest terror of her life is that she will end up like her mother, a mentally ill housewife with no degree or accomplishments of her own, fighting off the voices in her head. The antidote to this fate, she is convinced, lies in winning a place at Oxford.

I have to say that, although linked scholarships were only abolished very recently, and may have been around as recently as 1996, I do not think that the Oxford admissions process has ever been conducted in quite the way Thornton describes it. When I applied, in the autumn of 2009, I did indeed have to sit an aptitude test (as all applicants for English literature, history, any foreign language, or biomedical science have to do) and attend an interview, but the idea that the interviewers might have gotten in touch with my school to say that my essay was “the best they have seen in years” is fanciful, at best. (Josephine is told by her headmistress that such was the opinion of the examining board.) Oxford tutorials depend on the ability of the tutors to manage and control the inevitable arrogance of their best students, which is not achieved by praising them before they’ve even matriculated. A tutor did once tell me about the excellent results of an applicant in the year below me (though she didn’t take up her offer, in the end), but I can’t imagine that she would ever have ensured that the applicant herself knew about that. And although we were never discouraged, we were also generally made to feel as though we could probably have done better, and perhaps would do so next week. It worked reasonably well as a corrective to callow youth.

Details aside, the major achievement of The Exclusives is the maintenance of suspense. Over nearly 300 pages, it’s hard to prevent your readers from guessing fully and completely what happened, but Thornton manages it, partly by providing two disasters. The first occurs on a night out in London; only Freya and Josephine experience it, and their differing responses to that trauma drive them apart when they return to school. The second disaster is precipitated, coldly and calculatingly, by Josephine alone, and is done as a sort of insurance plan against Freya telling anyone else about what happened.  That catastrophe is discovered and has repercussions in 1996, but the first one, the one that really sets everything else in motion, remains unaddressed, and festers, until 2014. When Freya and Josephine eventually meet—and, of course, they do, despite Josephine’s attempts to stonewall her former friend—the events of that night have to come out. In the end, it’s Freya who remembers for them both. Josephine has spent her entire adult life suppressing it: she has airbrushed it out of her experience entirely, as an example of imperfection, of weakness and vulnerability.

Now for the spoiler-y bit: I wonder sometimes whether I want too much right-thinking, too much political correctness, in the books that I read, or whether it’s okay to want fictional models of situations that happen in real life being dealt with healthily and appropriately. Disaster # 1, for instance, the disaster that starts the ball rolling, is a relatively uncommon experience. You are much less likely to be raped and beaten by two strangers in a nightclub than you are to experience the same abuse at the hands of someone you love and trust. Disaster # 2, on the other hand, is far more common: an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student is something that, I guarantee you, has happened at every boarding school in the country during some point in its history, whether that relationship has eventually been made public or not. The teacher in question is fired, but there doesn’t seem to be any uncertainty about coercion; Freya is presented as having been totally in control of herself the whole time. Maybe we’re meant to see this assertion as a coping mechanism, or as necessary self-delusion; I don’t know. I just find it difficult to take at face value, and not a particularly constructive interpretation of the events that we’re given, especially in an era when decades-old stories of coerced minors are finally coming to light. Likewise, I don’t think that it’s particularly constructive to perpetuate the myth that rape is mostly something that strangers do to you when you’ve put some E in your drink. Novels don’t have a duty to be constructive, I know. I still struggle with this.


The Exclusives is like a nasty Malory Towers, or a grown-up version of the Chalet School, with the terrible striving at its heart exposed. It’s dark and cruel and in some places melodramatic, but it sure as hell makes you want to know what happened. When Josephine achieves closure and catharsis at the end, it’s a relief; maybe we, too, can finally come to terms with the mean and selfish things we’ve done.

Thanks very much to Emily Burns at Bonnier for the review copy. The Exclusives was published in the UK on 7 April.

Freya, by Anthony Quinn

“Did it ever occur to you that I might have different priorities? What about getting my first salaried job, or my first cover story on the magazine – aren’t they milestones?”


Anthony Quinn came to my attention last year with Curtain Call, which many book bloggers raved about. I still have only a limited idea of its plot, but I gathered that Quinn’s great strength in it was to evoke the 1930s London theatre scene without sacrificing any of the nuances of the historical setting to the murder-mystery plot (something that lots and lots of historically set works do. Lookin’ at you, Downton Abbey.)

His second novel, Freya, does much the same thing for the mid-century world of the highly educated and opportunistic. Beginning on VE Day, when Freya Wyley meets Nancy Holdaway in the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the novel tracks the two women through their Oxford years (or, in Freya’s case, one year; she’s sent down after failing to appear for Mods, her first-year exams) and into their adult years in London during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Robert Cosway, whom Freya and Nancy both meet at Oxford, is a third player in both their lives, while other friends and acquaintances from university crop up regularly too.

It feels a bit unfair to refer to Quinn’s novel as “good old-fashioned storytelling” (in part because prefacing anything with “good old-fashioned” is a great way to convince people it’s worthless, or that you’re a Little England weirdo). Nevertheless, that was the phrase that kept bumping around in my head as I was reading it. It’s not exactly what you’d call a pacy plot, although there are two subplots that could have made novels on their own: one is to do with the outing of a gay civil servant whom Freya was briefly in love with at university, the other to do with the death of a teenage model and It Girl during the London years, whom Freya has been profiling for a newspaper. The fact that Quinn doesn’t make his novel a domestic espionage thriller or another murder mystery is testament to what he’s trying to do instead: anatomize a particular slice of English society at a particular time in (relatively) recent history.  He’s also trying to write about female friendship. Freya and Nancy’s relationship isn’t always the most prevalent strand in the book, but it’s omnipresent; they define themselves through how they relate to one another. I read somewhere recently that books about “female friendship” are usually about how women hate one another. Freya isn’t. It wants to explore the fact that people construct ideas about themselves, how they choose friends who can reflect those ideas back to them, and how the deepest kind of friendship very often results in the recognition that your original self-image was skewed or flawed or incomplete.

Although the book is nominally about their friendship, the title of the book isn’t misleading: it’s really a novel about Freya. The Independent’s review compared it explicitly to William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, the protagonist of which is rather conveniently present (though peripheral) at many of the defining events of the twentieth century. Quinn doesn’t quite do that, but the first third of the book sees Freya chasing an elusive journalist, Jessica Vaux (possibly based on a Mitford sister?), to Nuremberg, where the world’s press have gathered to report the Nazi war crimes trials that are dragging on there. While there, she nearly misses Vaux altogether, but a chance encounter on the last night of the week leads to an exclusive, and she stays on, impulsively, for another three days (missing her exams altogether and consequently being sent down). It’s classic Freya: lucky enough to have had some connections, but also daring enough to make the leap, and arrogant enough to believe she’ll land on her feet.

Nancy, on the other hand, is a vaguer character, an aspiring novelist (and eventually a successful one) who tends to be amalgamated into little more than a series of traits: auburn hair, gentle voice. You could object to this, I suppose, on the grounds that she’s made into a sort of soft-focus “lady novelist”; some reviewers have. On the other hand, you could see that Quinn is approaching her characterisation this way because he’s writing from Freya’s point of view, and Freya is first and foremost concerned with her own appearance to others, her own success. She loves Nancy deeply and honestly, but she doesn’t often pay that much attention to her. When, late in the novel, she reads one of Nancy’s own books after a long estrangement, she’s taken aback by the sharpness, the perspicacity, in her friend’s prose. This is a woman with a gift for observation and analysis, one that Freya finds hard to reconcile with the gentle, encouraging friend that she knows.

There are other marvelous characters as well, including Nat Fane, an actor, playwright and impresario whose arrogance outstrips Freya’s and whose penchant for spanking is returned to several times throughout the course of the novel. Fane is fascinating because he could so easily tip into caricature; in many ways he genuinely is a caricature, albeit a self-created and self-maintained one. What Quinn captures, though, is the fundamental sincerity of self-creation, the deep investment that such a person has in others’ opinions. Fane may be supremely convinced of his own talent, but when he lands in London, his reputation as a “brilliant boy” doesn’t do him any favors. He finds his niche, but it’s not quite the one he expected to fill. There’s also Robert Cosway, whose charisma and coldness in pursuit of a story are also a match for Freya’s. The major crisis of the novel is precipitated by Robert’s betrayal of an old friend for a front-page scoop; Freya, whose judgment is as unyielding as her self-confidence, can no longer work with Robert or even see him socially, and the repercussions of her decision on her relationship with Nancy (who by this time has married Robert) are severe.

In the end, it’s the characters who really run the show. That major plot crisis is indeed significant, but only because we have come to know and care about the people to whom it unfolds. There is an incredible texture to Quinn’s world: colors, smells, architecture, music. Oxford squares and London streets are delineated with a casual precision that makes us feel we are really there, that we can see the golden stone of Banbury Road or the sooty brick of Islington. There is, too, a lovely resilience to the friendship of Freya and Nancy. Circumstances and principles may separate them temporarily, even for years, but by the end of the book, we know that their love for each other is the most important thing. The novel is crammed with incident, but the incidents aren’t as significant as the long, slow process of getting to know and trust another person. Other critics have seen it as a failure of plot; I prefer to think of it as a triumph of scene-setting, and of a subtle, masterful grasp of emotions.

Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Jonathan Cape for the review copy. Freya was published in the UK on 3 March.

In 2014

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2014, I have:

recorded a CD with Exeter College Choir

written my first review for Quadrapheme Magazine

danced at Burns Night

Burns Night

planned an alumni event at Freshfields on my own

met J.K. Rowling, and talked to her about her shoes

staffed Founder’s Day (hungover and on four hours of sleep)

endured sixteen consecutive days of fatigue, alcohol, singing, and jet lag

sung at the National Cathedral

made friends at a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City, in the company of my darlings Theresa McCario, Jonathan Giles, Chelsea Meynig, and Ella Kirsh, and new darling Michael Divino


attended a keg party

found emergency medical care in lower Manhattan

skipped May morning for the first time

met A.S. Byatt

shaken the hand of the Queen of Spain

gone drinking with a platoon of Marines

become poetry editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

Quadrapheme logo

performed the second most ludicrous gig of my singing life so far

purchased an ostrich feather wrap and a tiara

sung my final evensong at Exeter College naked (except for the cassock)

attended a white tie ball

ball me and N

danced around a bonfire with Will Michaelmas Watt

written my first lesson plan

marked someone else’s coursework for the first time

adopted winged eyeliner

started a novel

milked a cow

become managing editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

composed precisely forty job applications and cover letters (I’ve just counted)

moved house

This is not actually my house, but it is my street.
This is not actually my house, but it is my street.

gotten my first adult full-time job

learned how to use Twitter properly

vetted, purchased, installed and learned to use a new database

had a poem accepted at Boston Poetry

strategized, recruited for, and implemented a new after-school programme

stuffed 2,705 individual pieces of paper into ~540 envelopes

seen the Late Turner exhibit at Tate Britain

The Blue Riga, JMW Turner
The Blue Riga, JMW Turner

sung harmony with my little brother on guitar

read 102 books

I don’t believe in predicting the future, either: not five years into the future, not one year, not even six months. Experience has taught me that such predictions take a particular delight in confounding you. But I can say that I fully expect 2015 to fill the shoes of its predecessor.

2014 in First Lines

I was inspired to do this by this post at Annabel’s House of Books, but instead of quoting myself, I wanted to show a sliver of what I’ve been reading this year. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

January: “I was twelve years old the first time Master Georgie ordered me to stand stock still and not blink.”–Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is a tiny explosion of a book about the Crimean War, narrated from the point of view of the eponymous Georgie’s adoptive sister Myrtle, who follows him to war but has a terrible secret. I completely loved it. Start your New Year off right with this.

February: “I am staring at myself in a hotel bathroom mirror.”–This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. One in a series of slim volumes called The Writer and the City, Cartwright’s book sees him returning to Oxford (where he was a student) some decades later, to discover how it and he have changed. As a recent graduate, I loved how clearly he describes the impact this city had on him, and identified completely with his love for and connection to it. Very much indulgence reading, because that’s what February is for.

March: “Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”–Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens. Dickens for winter, always. I got to him late this season, but as usual it was worth it. There is the usual infuriating feminine martyrdom (in this case Florence Dombey, who is a poster child for emotional abuse and daddy issues), but the writing, as you can see, is ace.

April: “The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, until such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.”–Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett. Read for a review in Quadrapheme, and, as you may be able to deduce, pretty tough going, although I found deciphering Beckett’s fevered musings pretty rewarding too.

May: “I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.”–Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Be careful with this book: an intense, frightening depiction of violence, hate and poverty in the rural South. It will move you. It’s very good. Maybe don’t read it if you’re already feeling a little delicate.

June: “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.”–Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. A light but touching and remarkably well-written novel about an elderly Italian man who goes searching for the story of the American woman he fell in love with fifty years before. A perfect summer read, proving that happy endings don’t have to be stupid or far-fetched.

July: “I’m not sure that I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet, even as its honorary twenty-seventh letter.”–Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones. Given that this novel is narrated by a little boy who is essentially bed-bound by a wasting disease, bits of it aren’t exactly fast-paced. And yet it’s sweet, solemn and captivating.

August: “You are the man with the slow resting heartbeat, the calmest person in any room, the best man in a crisis.”–Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: RSC Adaptation, by Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton. Sorry but do I even need to discuss this? It’s the play adaptation, with commentary on the characters, of two of the best novels written this decade. It’s amazing.

September: “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest invention, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”–The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. I only ever seem to read this book when I’m going through some sort of personal crisis. Maybe because, being about the comic book superheroes of the 1940s and 1950s, it provides some truly epic escapism.

October: “The two young men–they were of the English public official class–sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.”–Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. All the rest of the novel is in that precarious word “perfect”. Because when things are perfect, there’s nothing else to do to them except destroy them. This is a hell of a book, and very long, but the most authentic portrait of English society in the years leading up to, during and after WWI that I know of.

November: “It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.”–The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman. Pretty sure I’ve already discussed this here, but my God is this a wonderful, beautiful book. Like all the best fairy tales, it is not really for children.

December: “The Elite Cafe was entered by a staircase from the foyer of a cinema.”–Lanarkby Alasdair Gray. I’m still working on this; it’s not easy either, and it’s very long, and the section I’m in at the moment is like a weird hybrid of James Joyce’s Ulysses and those whacked-out cartoons that Monty Python did between sketches, but it’s becoming progressively more interesting. It’s also supposedly the greatest Scottish novel of the last century, so there’s that.

Looking at them, I wouldn’t say these are a perfect representation of my reading in 2014–it ignores the swathe of eighteenth-century novels and criticism I covered, the nineteenth-century social history and literature, and most of the best contemporary novels I read, as well as the poetry and the ridiculous number of war books I ended up with in the latter half of the year. But it does provide a slice, and suggests that my reading is pretty much evenly balanced along gender lines, although I need to do better with writers of color. I’ll be posting again soon about the end of the 30-day reading challenge and my personal top books of 2014 (who doesn’t love a good end-of-year list?)


The lease on this house is up tomorrow. The Duchess, with her father, leaves around eight. Most of the house is burnished, shining, ready for inspection. The kitchen and the hallways need a quick going-over; I’ll cover it tomorrow morning. I head out shortly after she leaves, for a house viewing–I need a new place to stay for next year.

Halfway down Marston Road, something pokes at eye height out of the pavement-side hedge. Out of instinct and habit, I duck, swerve my head aside to miss it, carry on. I’m nearly past the thing altogether before I realize what it is: it’s a blackberry vine. There are blackberry vines at home, in Virginia. They will be ripening in our top field now. We used to go out and pick them on stifling August days, armored in long-sleeved clothing to fend off the thorns and the iridescent, buzzing junebugs, sweating and swearing and getting pricked, sticky with blood and juice, with the brittle dry grass scraping up to our thighs.

At the same moment as I recognize the vine, the hedge breaks, there’s a field beyond it, and I can smell newly mown grass. In the field in front of some apartment buildings, a bunch of kids are playing kickaround with what I grew up calling a soccer ball. It is a football here. I turn up Jack Straw’s Lane; a new song comes through my earbuds, and suddenly my chest fills and tightens with something: longing, sadness, hope, something else I don’t know the name for.

The viewing at the potential new house is very good: the house is big, there is a garden, the people who live there are friendly and pleasant. I want them to like me. They’re interviewing ten other people, they say. I don’t want to sound desperate, but I reiterate again that their house is my first choice. I ask them to let me know when they decide. They give me a mug of tea. They assure me that they will be in touch.

My legs ache in the night air. It feels as though I have been walking for a very long time.

On the way back, I keep noticing things. The large lawn and yellow lights in the welcoming windows of number 20, Jack Straw’s Lane again. There are halos around the streetlamps, like chemical fog. The hazy moon, slipping behind a rag of cloud. A little girl in salwar kameez, skipping ahead of her mother. When she is nearly a block ahead, the mother breaks into a run, not wanting to let her get too far away.

I want to put these things together. I am a meaning-maker. I need things to be thematically coherent. There must be a reason all of these separate observations make such a difference to me tonight. There must be a thread that connects. I cannot find one.

When I get back to the house on St Clement’s, it is dark. The kitchen light is off. I turn it on. I sit at the table. The kitchen is stark, the countertops bare, the cupboards empty. The fridge and freezer, defrosting, gape hungrily at me. I take my laptop. I keep the music on. No amount of coffee, no amount of crying/No amount of whiskey, no amount of wine…Nothing else will do/I’ve gotta have you.

I write. I write this. I write until I can see clearly. I write until I can breathe easily again. I write until the taste of blackberries leaves my mouth.


In 2013, I have

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2013, I have:

climbed a fell

taken a Virgin train first class, for free (!)

given a speech at Burns Night

done four live radio broadcasts from Manchester, over a week during which, apart from the broadcasts, I did nothing except revise medieval dream poetry and watch baking shows with the Duchess

learned to lay a fire

gotten naked–for the children (and it’s not often you hear someone say that) (aka participated in the naked calendar produced by ExVac, Exeter College’s own charity which takes disadvantaged children for a week’s holiday in the spring vac)

woken up at 5:30 a.m. for May morning

drunk red wine in a mortarboard

This happened.
This happened.

contemplated suicide

revised for Finals

worn a corset in public

commissioned a dress

sat Finals

been trashed

graduated from university

applied to do postgraduate work, and been rejected, and been devastated about that, and then been kind of okay with it

swum naked in the Adriatic

danced in an Italian bar until two in the morning


sung Bruckner motets for bewildered but enthusiastic Italians, also at two in the morning

read seventy-nine books (beginning to end)

bought twenty-three secondhand books

met Philip Pullman, and chatted about The Faerie Queene with him

watched all three series of Game of Thrones

moved house

become identifiable by sight at Gloucester Green book stall

walked on the North York Moors


become unwittingly hooked on The Great British Bake Off (shoot shag marry: shoot Mel and Sue, shag Paul, marry Mary. Obviously.)

written eighteen different cover letters for job applications

interned in London, twice

joined Pottermore, and done absolutely nothing on it

discovered that the five-year plan I thought I had isn’t actually the five-year plan I want, and changed it accordingly

laughed so hard I spat water all over the kitchen

cried so hard I couldn’t see the next day

landed a job

gone out every night in a week

...and they all had red eye, The End
…and they all had red eye, The End

created a graph in Microsoft Excel

started to write poetry again, and submit it

won a mention in the Southwest Review’s poetry competition

cooked a Christmas dinner

flown home for the first time in a year

bought alcohol without being carded (in the States, no less)

started to realize that you can be happy and uncertain at the same time.

skeptical amiability
skeptical amiability

Happy New Year’s, you guys. I hope that Santa brought you everything you asked for, that your New Year’s Eve is safe if not sober, and that the coming twelvemonth (a word that needs bringing back) is good to you!

Happy New Year from (most of) L'Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who's taking the picture)
Happy New Year from (most of) L’Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who’s taking the picture)