Blackwater Island, off the Devon coast, is the storm-lashed setting for W.C. Ryan’s World War One murder mystery. It is the home of Lord and Lady Highmount, whose sons have been killed in the trenches. They arrange a séance in an attempt to contact their sons, to which the mediums Madame Fader and Count Orlov are invited, along with codebreaker Kate Cartwright and the mysterious Donovan. Kate and Donovan are agents under the watchful supervision of British intelligence, sent to investigate the rather less unworldly theft of military intelligence by the Germans. Kate carries with her a secret – she sees the spirits of the dead as they wander the earth. These apparitions are well-crafted side characters and Ryan manages to write ghosts in an unexpected and interesting fashion.
‘The only thing he might have expected to find but hadn’t was a bible. On the other hand, Scardale was so cut off from the rest of the world, they might still be worshipping the corn goddess here. Maybe the missionaries had never made it this far.’
‘…a sentence or a passage is rhythmical if, when said aloud, it falls naturally into groups of words, each well fitted by length and intonation for its place in the whole and its relation to its neighbours. If you’re writing prose, the best guide is to cultivate an instinct for the difference between what sounds right and what sounds wrong, a syllable-by-syllable attention to sound, a feel for rhyme and breath.’
Despite the incontrovertible fact that reading about writing inevitably (in the short term at least) makes one less productive, it is a habit I frequently fall into. Whether it is writing whilst standing up (Hemingway) or scribbling to the smell of rotten apples (Schiller) it is tempting to believe that if we change one or two writing rituals we will find ourselves blessed with inspiration or writing for sixteen hour stretches. So it was that I added ‘How to Write Like Tolstoy’ to a modest collection including Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ and Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.
‘“We believe that there is some kind of conspiracy, some kind of secret organisation working against the Party, and that you are involved in it. We want to join it and work for it. We are enemies of the Party. We disbelieve in the principles of Ingsoc. We are thought-criminals. We are also adulterers. I tell you this because we want to put ourselves at your mercy. If you want to incriminate ourselves in any other way, we are ready.”’
‘Like a witch’s lair in a fairytale the ancient manor house crouches in its tangled garden. I can’t take my eyes off the ivy-choked window above the front door. It was from that window in 1913 that 16-year-old Maud Stearne watched her father set off down the steps with an ice-pick, a geological hammer – and murder in his heart. We’ve all heard of Edmund Stearne. We’ve marvelled at his works and shuddered at this crime. Why did he do it? Did he confide his secrets to a notebook? Why won’t his daughter reveal the truth? For more than 50 years Maud Stearne has lived the life of a recluse. I’m the first outsider who’s met her and been inside Wake’s End. What I’ve learned blows her father’s case wide open.’
‘Every book about Gypsies that I have studied mentions the people described above, give or take a few other hardy stalwarts, but no one else. Writers stay in their comfort zone; when writing about a subject that they know little about, they keep to familiar ground. The reason for this, as I’ve mentioned before, is that few writers ventured into the caves, dark forests and far out-of-the-way places where the bulk of the Gypsies and Travellers existed. Instead of exploring the lives of these individuals they chose a few famous characters from the herd and ignored the rest. What a different story I could tell if more attention had been paid to the Gypsies of old as a community where strong baskets were woven, horn spoons carved from sturdy rams’ horns that would last a lifetime, earthenware, thick and watertight, was fired, ropes twisted that were strong enough to circle hay bales, brooms made to sweep a fine skelp of farmyard, and pot-scourers that could scrub a pot clean and would last for ages, with washing pegs able to prevent the wildest winds from roaring off with the weekly wash.’
‘One last thing: writing this novel reminded me that a writer should not undervalue any tool of her trade just because she finds it easier to use than the others. As you get older you learn not to look a gift horse in the mouth. If I have any gift at all it’s for dialogue – the trick of breathing what-looks-like-life into a collection of written sentences. Voices that come from nowhere and live on in our consciousness, independent of real people…It’s this magic, first learned in the playroom, that we can never quite shake off, and which any true lover of fiction carries within him or her somewhere.’
‘…the American commitment was fatally flawed by its foundation not upon the interests of the Vietnamese people, but instead on the perceived requirements of US domestic and foreign policy, containment of China foremost among them. The decisions for escalation by successive administrations command the bewilderment of posterity, because key players recognised the inadequacy of the Saigon regime upon which they depended to provide an indigenous façade for an American edifice.’Continue reading “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 | Book Review”→
‘Catherine had never been in a church this late. The place was dim – a quarter lit to save electricity. One bulb in four. Sounds were magnified – a candle dropped, high heels on marble, the swing doors whumpfing closed. Coughing, with echoes. And old women whispering prayers full of esses. A coin dropped into the box of a candelabra – from the noise it was possible to tell how full it was – clink for full, clunk for empty. The sacristy lamp burned steadily in its red glass container – symbol of the real presence of the tabernacle. Jesus in flesh and blood.’Continue reading “Grace Notes | Book Review”→