Back in 2013, I attended a Novel-in-Progress workshop at the Singapore Writers Festival. This weekend, I was back as an author to promote the very same novel, my debut, All the Little Children. I thought I would share these author-eye images from Asia's biggest literary celebration.
Are you ready for Halloween? Once you've prepared a ghastly costume, decorated your lair, and cooked up finger food in the shape of... fingers, why not settle down with a book that'll scare you into next Tuesday?
I was delighted to see ALL THE LITTLE CHILDREN on a Woman's World list of mystery novels to get you in the Halloween spirit. Check out all their suggestions - if you dare!
These thrillers, mysteries, and horror novels will get you into the Halloween spirit. See the best mystery books to read as Oct. 31 gets near.
It's a dream moment for every author - the book launch of their debut novel. Mine was hosted by the mighty Kinokuniya at their flagship store on Singapore's Orchard Road - the equivalent of Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue - so an exciting place to introduce my book to the world.
From my spot behind the podium, it felt a bit like a wedding as I spotted friends old and new in the crowd. I was particularly delighted to see so many fellow authors from the Singapore Writers Group, as this inspiring bunch have been staunch companions on the journey to publication.
Likewise, my "Brownies" - a critique group that emerged from a short Curtis Brown course at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2013 - were out in force. Another writer friend, the Bridport-prize winner Elaine Chiew, brilliantly compered the event.
Maybe I'm not very good at this book marketing business, but the event for me was more of a personal milestone than an opportunity to sell units - though I'm grateful to everyone who went home with a green and orange cover inside a linen tote! Several people bought a whole stack for Christmas presents, which I think is excellent planning.
People often ask what is the hardest part of writing a novel and I say "not stopping". There are so many logical reasons to stop, especially that first novel. It feels like you're running down a dark tunnel with no idea if there's a light at the end. It's an act of blind faith. I've been to so many book launches and readings and signings over the years, wondering how you get to be the one behind the table. Turns out that the hardest part is also the simplest - you don't stop writing.
In his deservedly lauded novel, Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a teenage girl who escapes from a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia where she has been enslaved all her life. Her friend, Caesar, leads Cora to the Underground Railroad.
Historically, the phrase described a network of abolitionists who aided escapees. In Colson Whitehead's fantasy, it becomes a literal railway with an unpredictable timetable and secret network of stations; a bizarre, steampunk, hellish vision of uncertainty: public transport for people with nowhere to go and no-one to trust.
Cora sets off on an Odyssey, never knowing if the mysterious railroad will deliver her somewhere better or worse than the last stop. She's told to look out of the train window to see the real America, but as her hope of finding sanctuary fades, she comes to realise a bleak truth: all she can ever see out of the window of an underground train, is more darkness.
Colson Whitehead's writing is lyrical but devoid of hyperbole. Instead he leaves you with snapshots of cruelty; I had to put the book aside for a short while after reading about a slave who was whipped for the duration of the plantation owners' dinner party, prompting his guests to amuse themselves by eating more slowly. The use of real historical 'Wanted' notices from slavers seeking run-aways makes the reader painfully aware that these snapshots could well be Polaroids from the past.
There's so much to say about this novel - theses will no doubt be written - so I have narrowed it down to three reasons why everyone should read this book.
1. The language... Colson Whitehead pulls off some kind of magic trick and I will have to re-read the novel to work out how he does it with such subtlety - the modern language is tinged with the antique. He never degenerates into broad stokes of sepia-tones or patois-laden dialect, but the historical filter is strong.
2. The genre... already an author renowned for criss-crossing genre boundaries, Colson Whitehead seamlessly incorporates his vast imagination into Cora's Odyssey. The railroad transports her to 'paradise' and hell, and each of these worlds is unique, fully-formed, and yet blends in.
3. The reality... the book has been described as magical realism or fantasy, but is steeped in realism. Cora hides in an attic in a clear allusion to Anne Frank and the holocaust. The plight of the slaves is compared to the genocide of Native Americans. Colson Whitehead makes no direct comment on modern racial politics in the US, but he doesn't need to: it's all there on the page, in black and white, for anyone with a heart to read.
This is one of the most intimate pieces of writing I have ever shared: a love letter to Switzerland, the country that welcomed me for seven years, where my children and my novel were born. Thanks to my colleagues at The Woolf Quarterly over in Zurich for prompting me to write it: digging into the emotions that inspired a whole novel was a challenge, but cathartic!
They say 'write what you know', and when I came to write my debut novel, All the Little Children, I wrote a location I know exceptionally well - the British West Midlands. The city of Birmingham was my home for several years, while I worked for the BBC. As a reporter, I pounded its streets and backwaters. It was there I met my husband, who comes from neighbouring Shropshire. The majority of the action in All the Little Children moves between these two contrasting landscapes - the remote forest and the urban jungle of England's second city.
When I was back in Birmingham recently, I popped in to the BBC to record this interview with my former colleague, Drivetime presenter extraordinaire, Paul Franks. Oddly enough - considering I worked in radio for such a long time - I felt nervous before the interview. But as soon as I stepped into the studio and heard Franksey's dulcet tones, I was back in the saddle!
The interview starts around 19 minutes into this playback - but why not settle down and enjoy Franksey's A-Z selection of holiday tracks?
The latest gripping read from Kate Moretti starts with an eerie spectacle: thousands of dead birds fall from the sky onto the sacred ground of a small town's baseball field. It's the first act of desecration in a story that navigates the grey areas of abuse of power and defilement of trust. The panic over the birds sparks a chain of events that unravels the bonds of the whole community. Told from several points of view, the story circles around Nate Winters, a beloved teacher and baseball coach who is accused of taking too close an interest in one of his students. The languid atmosphere that Kate Moretti conjures up in her crumbling town, wilting under its poverty and summer heat, belies the pace and verve of this nail-biting suspense.
A unique genre-bending thriller that offers as good an explanation for the atrocities of our times as any other popular belief system. When FBI agent Will Brody is killed by a bomb while hunting a serial killer, he wakes up in the afterlife: an eerie Echo of the Chicago streets he just departed, populated by ghosts of those who also suffered violent deaths. Brody's FBI boss -- and love-of-his-life -- Claire McCoy soon hunts down the suspect; but Brody knows the killer is not what he seems. Via an excellent plot twist, Brody and McCoy are reunited, and need all their combined crime-fighting skills to face a battle of epic proportions.
Sakey's imagination is both ambitious and savvy, tapping into contemporary concerns, such as seemingly meaningless tragedies and the control that all-powerful entities hold over us. Happily, his vision is also vast enough to conceive of a female character with real guts and heart, who shares a carefully-drawn relationship of genuine respect and affection with her male work/life partner. Extra stars awarded for that!
It’s always a delight to read novels in situ - enjoying a work of literature while immersed in the landscape of its setting adds value to both experiences.
My first stop on arriving in the Scottish island of Orkney was Skara Brae - a site of neolithic houses, beautifully preserved in the sand, which pre-date the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. While sheltering from the ubiquitous Orcadian wind in the gift shop, I chanced upon treasure and gave a squeak like an archaeologist uncovering an ancient hoard: a book set here in Orkney.
The Outrun describes Amy Liptrot’s journey from her island home—and the kind of childhood that involved galloping on horseback across the sands behind Skara Brae—to a ten-year period of alcoholism in London, then back home to Orkney and sobriety. Rather than the misery memoir you might expect, Liptrot engages in a psychoanalysis of Orkney itself. The Outrun is a detailed, beautiful and compelling paean to the place that made, broke and healed her.
The book is full of curiosities: such as the time a storm washed a seal clean over a fence. Or the fact that schools prevent the smallest children from playing outside in high winds for fear they will blow away. And the kindly neighbour who delivered a third of a cabbage to her isolated house because she’d complained that a whole vegetable for too large for a single person.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know where Orkney ends and Amy begins. Time and again, she frames herself, her illness (and that of her father who is bipolar), in terms of the landscape; glorious and deeply meaningful metaphors about tides, migratory birds, geology. At the start, she says: ‘I was born into the continual, perceptible crashing of sea at the edges’. By the end of the book: ‘I’m realising that times of anxiety are necessary and unavoidable and, in any case, I like the edge: it’s where I get the best ideas. The edge is where I’m from.’
The Outrun started as a column and the later chapters occasionally fall into a episodic pattern that suggests a compilation of articles rather than a continuous narrative. But Liptrot’s elegant prose, acute observations and straightforward honesty carry this memoir about life lived in the wild.
In the second of her police procedural series set around the Dublin Murder Squad, Tana French focuses on Detective Cassie Maddox, a traumatised cop who bears an uncanny likeness to a murder victim.
A former undercover police officer, Cassie is recovering from the fallout of a prior case. When her new boyfriend, the solid and dependable detective Sam O’Neill, is called to a crime scene where a woman’s body has been found in a broken down cottage, he at first thinks it is Cassie. Instead, the victim is identified as Lexie Madison, a mature student who lives with a group of intellectual misfits at a grand house in the nearby village.
Although the privileged and aloof gang has a knack of making itself unpopular, there is no obvious motive for Lexie’s murder. With no leads or clues, the police hatch a plan to take advantage of the similarity between Cassie and Lexie to solve the crime. What ensues reveals that the two women may have had more in common than just outward appearance.
This slow-burning suspense invests time in building up characters, motives and tension. With the large cast of housemates and villagers, French expertly allows us to ponder their possible involvement in the killing. The mood of eccentricity, elitism and anachronism that pervades Whitethorn House slowly casts even battle-hardened Cassie under a spell; although the friends will also ring bells with anyone who enjoyed Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”.
The most engaging element is the collision between personal and professional in Cassie’s mind - we, like her, gradually conflate the officer and the victim until we don’t know where Lexie ends and Cassie begins. This is the heart of the novel: Cassie identifying and healing herself in the guise of the lost woman. So much so that the resolution of the central mystery — who killed Lexie Madison? — is almost an anticlimax that gets in the way of the more compelling curiosity about how Cassie will ever step out from the shadow of her ill-fated doppelgänger.
I like to surprise myself now and then by venturing outside my usual literary stamping ground. I first ‘discovered’ Amanda Prowse when she became the latest big name author to join my publisher, Lake Union Publishing. Her back catalogue and the loyalty of her fan base made me curious about the ‘Queen of Family Drama’ - and what I might learn from her writing.
The Food of Love tells the story of the Braithwaites, a regular if somewhat bohemian family who don't have much money but compensate with a love of life and each other. Freya spends her days cooking and writing about food. When she’s called to her youngest daughter’s school by a teacher who suspects that Lexi may have an eating disorder, mum dismisses the concern. After all, who knows more about nutrition and healthy eating than a food journalist?
What ensues is a heart-wrenching and uncompromising portrayal of the way anorexia can tear apart a life and a family. Amanda Prowse has spoken of the research that goes into her ‘big issue’ novels, and you can feel it throughout The Food of Love: Freya and Lexi perform an intricate dance of secrets and lies, revealing the devious and destructive nature of the illness. Freya also displays the self-delusion of a parent who doesn't want to hear the truth—while this makes her character unsympathetic at times, I applaud Prowse for not offering easy solutions to a complex issue.
By its very nature, the subject of anorexia — whereby the patient may improve only to relapse — gives the novel a repetitive feel. Prose offsets that spiral with a mystery sub-plot—Freya, the father and the older sister write letters to Lexi ahead of an unspecified event. Could it be a wedding, a graduation - heaven forbid, a funeral? It keeps the action moving even while circling the main issue.
The Food of Love will interest readers who like the emotional lives of characters in the forefront of the drama.
Jacqueline “Jacks” Morales is horrified to hear that her husband, James, has been killed in a car crash on the idyllic island of Maui, Hawaii. Adding insult to injury, he died alongside a young woman, Dylan, who appears to be his mistress. Reeling from a double-blow of grief and betrayal, Jacks agrees to accompany Dylan’s fiance, Nick, to Maui in search of answers. While Jacks anticipates an emotionally painful trip, she has no idea of the trauma and obsession that will escort them on their journey.
The location of Hawaii works especially hard in this gripping psychological thriller. First, it’s easy to share Jacks’ hurt—and sympathise deeply—when she learns that James took a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ with his bit-on-the-side. As soon as she arrives on Maui, the juxtaposition between the romance of the setting and the reality of her anguish is stark; and also ripe for conflict and the kind of confusion that keeps the chapters fresh.
The Good Widow is perfect for anyone who likes secrets and lies; and to keep guessing and second-guessing to the last page.
The Good Widow by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke is available on Amazon
Meet Horatio! He’s a character in my novel, All the Little Children. The girl is my daughter and she’s not in the novel, although her wit and wisdom provided some of the best lines spoken by my fictional children.
We met the dog five years ago at a riding stables in Switzerland and hit it off. He’s a sweetheart. And HUGE. This photo doesn’t quite do him justice. He's massive.
Some writers cast famous actors into lead roles, but I only ever cast Horatio. Looking back, I wonder why I gave such an important narrative role to a dog?
Here’s what I think was going on. The main character in All the Little Children is not an easy woman. Marlene Greene is brilliant in many ways – a success story who seems to “have it all” – but we see behind the scenes and behind the eyes. She doesn’t feel like a success.
Loving doesn’t come easily to Marlene. She wants to, but it gets stuck inside – as she says at one point, “like one of those sneezes that just won’t come”. The daily chaos that comes with running a business and a household of three children doesn’t make matters easier – it’s difficult to access soft feelings when life is hard.
When disaster strikes and Horatio picks Marlene to be his guardian angel, we see what she’s capable of, emotionally speaking. So Horatio is there to be loved. Although, pretty soon, Horatio has to prove that he’s a guardian angel too.
Reading Belinda Bauer thrillers when you're alone in the house is never a good idea. Reading her books when you're alone and supposed to be writing your own novel is a terrible idea. With the story dipping and diving between the surface tension of the plot and the depths of the characters, it is hard to come up for air.
Eve Singer is a TV reporter on the 'meat beat' as a crime correspondent. Although a fairly typical hack in terms of ruthlessness and cunning, her squeamishness and aplomb in the face of casual sexism from rival hacks give her instant appeal. Most sympathetic of all, her home life is almost as tragic as the news she covers day-in, day-out. When a serial killer bursts onto the scene - literally, he sees himself as an artist - Eve thinks she has a chance to make the big time. Until she realises that she might become the next item on the evening news.
The baroque nature of the killer, who bears a passing resemblance to whatsisname from Silence of the Lambs, is alluded to in the butterfly-strewn cover art. But that is perhaps the only over-familiar aspect of this elevated crime novel - Bauer rings unusual notes that lift The Beautiful Dead out of the realms of the ordinary; lashings of black humour, a sweet little romance, a touching father-daughter plot line, and a wonderful kick-ass female detective whose diminutive size belies her mad skills.
Fans of crime fiction will love The Beautiful Dead. Fans of a nicely-turned phrase will too.
On a perfectly normal family holiday to the south coast of England, I wandered to the edge of this cliff. It was the silence that drew me there - not until you get right to the lip of the land does the sound of the surf warn you of the danger ahead. After a few seconds - enough to film this video - my vertigo kicked in and I scurried back to the path. The sheep who sleep on the edge watched me retreat with disdain.
Later that day, I wrote a short story about a woman who stands on this spot, looking for her family, scared she may fall. Little does she know that she's already fallen.
The story, called The Lily Stains White, is available for free by clicking the orange banner at the top of this page.
Despite winning Singapore's most lucrative literary award with his first novel, Now That It's Over, the author O Thiam Chin insisted that he's most comfortable writing short stories. Ahead of the deadline for the 2017 Golden Point Award, he gave an afternoon workshop focused on short fiction at Singapore's beautiful Arts House.
This was my first workshop dedicated to short stories. In the past, I've started writing many short stories but found them too lean and slippery to pursue: the ideas whip away from me, snakelike. Novels, somehow, are more substantial and less mysterious. Like animals, the bigger the form, the simpler the creature.
Amid an unusually informal and interactive atmosphere, Thiam Chin shared writing tips, while weaving in exercises to focus the mind on craft.
Using a story by Mary Gaitskill, Thiam Chin concentrated on first lines; universally, we agreed, the trickiest point. The tone should be there from the off and a good start creates a mixed reaction in the reader. Gaitskill's story, The Other Place, starts at a pivotal moment, forcing us to wonder which way the story will turn. And there's evidence of the three Cs required in a strong Voice - it's consistent, compelling and has authorial control.
Her writing is deceptively simple - but Thiam Chin warned us about simplicity: achieving it is a lifetime process. At first, he said, build a lavish life on the page and cut it down to size.
Finally, we looked at how to get characters unstuck. Of his many suggestions to keep up the momentum within scenes - such as the Murakami trick of getting an unexpected phone call or a 'knock, knock' on the door - I liked the idea of introducing a stranger. "A stranger is a universe in himself," said Thiam Chin, which I found rather lovely.
Whether the new material that transpires makes the final cut or gets edited back in the pursuit of simplicity, the stranger is a two-way mirror through which to see our character afresh.
As I sit here now, on a hiatus from trying to edit a short story of my own, I'm grateful for one further example shared by Thiam Chin. The great Alice Munro, whose story The Bear Came Over the Mountain was subtly but meaningfully re-edited even after its first publication in the New Yorker. The impact was huge - not just to the story, but also to the audience in the Arts House. If Alice Munro feels the need to work and re-work her stories across the decades, then surely so must we.
The novel plays out during an evening meal at a fancy restaurant, while two brothers and their wives attempt to resolve a family issue. It's a masterclass in the unreliable narrator and the slow reveal, as we are lead to conclude that the main character is a cranky misanthrope with a long-suffering wife, a failure with a humiliatingly-successful sibling, a sociopath with violent tendencies, and worse... and worse... until the true natures of the individuals gracing the dinner table are revealed. It's impossible to like anyone in this novel, but it's equally hard to stop thinking about them after it's finished. Brilliantly judged, whenever its exceptional darkness threatens to turn the stomach, a wicked dash of humour cleanses the palate.
People very often ask for recommendations of books to read while in Singapore. Here are my top ten titles to prepare you for life in the Garden City.
And if I've left you wanting more, check out Singapore's vibrant poetry scene, especially my personal favourite, Cyril Wong.
Beautiful, lyrical, unusual suspense novel that perfectly walks the line between literary and thriller.
When we first meet Jake Whyte she is a lonely misfit, caring for sheep using her brutal strength amid the inhuman landscape of a Scottish island. Something is coming for the lambs in the night and we're not sure if it's a fox, a strange beast that locals claim inhabits the island, or something worse - something from Jake's past that may be connected to scars on her back. Then we move backwards in time, through Jake's sordid past in Australia, where every stage in her sad life is not quite what we expect.
Accomplished and moving novel, with an intriguing main character who upsets all our expectations of both women and literary tropes.
For more reviews follow my Goodreads author page: https://www.goodreads.com/goodreadsjofurniss
It's been a long time coming. Back in 2013, while studying for an MA in Professional Writing, I wrote a short story. I wasn't planning to focus on fiction (non-fiction seemed like a better development of my previous career in journalism) but I caught the bug.
That story became my final MA project - that 20,000 words became a novel - and that manuscript caught the eye of an agent in Chicago who took it to Lake Union Publishing.
Seeing a book cover feels like a milestone, a point on the road where I should pause a while and catch my breath. The view is great - a cover that captures the story as though plucked from my mind.