Here’s a short video about the real English garden that inspired the garden of portals in The Secret of the Tirthas
Let me start by saying it’s not for the sales – although of course they are welcome! I write simply because I enjoy it. I’ve always written, starting with my own New Avengers and James Bond stories when I was eight, and later on casting my school friends as the heroes and villains of action stories and westerns. It was fun – and gratifying – to see them being passed round class.
After focusing on poetry in my twenties and thirties, I am back to writing adventure stories with The Secret of the Tirthas. I enjoy creating stories full of suspense, mystery and intrigue – and it’s always fantastic to get feedback from readers. Obviously, sales are a good, hard measure of how appealing your book is. But reviews, particularly on Amazon and Goodreads, and increasingly direct, face-to-face feedback from readers are both huge reward and encouragement. I was over the moon when The Guardian newspaper published a positive review of The City of Light by a 14 year-old-reader. And I have been similarly bowled over reading reviews by book bloggers such as Handsfull Mama in America and The Whimsy Bookworm in India.
But of all the direct feedback I’ve had, perhaps the most rewarding to date came yesterday, when an 80 year old lady came with her husband into Barton’s Bookshop, where I was doing a book signing event. This lovely lady had been given my first two books as gifts by her daughter, whom I met two years running at Pippfest in Dorking. I was delighted when she introduced herself with the words ‘I’m a fan of yours’ and we proceeded to have a long conversation about the inspiration for the books, including the real garden of rooms, my trips to India, and the Herefordshire countryside, which she and her husband knew well.
So, if you’ve read one of my books please write a review. And, if you meet me face to face, tell me what you liked (or didn’t) about the story. It means a lot to me.
Something I never expected in my wildest dreams when I began writing The City of Light was that one day it would be published in China.
But, thanks to the fantastic team at Fiberead, it soon will be, along with all the other books in The Secret of the Tirthas series, which are currently at various stages of translation / proofreading.
Here is the amazing Mandarin cover for The City of Light:
My last post was a collection of my Goodreads reviews of the best Young Adult and Children’s books that I’ve read over the past couple of years. In the same vein, here’s some of the books for grown-ups that I’ve reviewed in the same time period:
Jack, by A.M. Homes
One of the best coming of age novels. Jack’s initial mortification at his dad’s coming out is soon compounded by everyone at school finding out, and not helped by the anodyne wisdom of the adults around him. But his parents’ separation is just a springboard to greater worries about joining the ‘complicated, boring’ world of society. Jack is sure there’s an alternative, but he’s shooting in the dark. Will he make it? 5 stars
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips. 5 stars
The Crossing, by Andrew Miller
This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times. 5 stars
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
Beautifully written, strong on character and historical detail, but overall lacking in drama and suspense. The book didn’t live up to its fabulous title, with the serpent and related gothic trappings never really coming to life. The relationships were interesting, and I liked the ending, but again they felt devoid of sufficient tension to merit the long story. 3 stars
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
My only criticism of this fantastic book, the first Agatha Christie that I’ve read, is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless. 5 stars
In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware
Nora, or Lee as she was formerly known, has partially resolved a past trauma through her work and the isolated life of a writer. But it all comes back again when she is invited to a hen party, only to find that the her former best friend is marrying the man who broke her heart. The setting, in a remote, glass-walled house in a Northumbrian pine wood, adds to the tension. We know from the start it will end in blood – but is it going to be at the hands of angry locals, or someone in the party? A masterful suspense story. 4 stars
The Wine-Dark Sea, by Robert Aickman
The attention to detail in these stories and the deeply-knit tensions make you think you are heading for a full length novel, something that is going to take you to fantastic, dark places and give you all kinds of revelations. And you get some of that, but Aickman uses the short story to cut you off in mid-flow, to leave early, to depart in a manner that leaves you wanting more. There hangs the doom of foreclosure across all his tales, which I think is exactly what he wants. His glimpses, of the afterlife, of archetypes, of the dark and strange potential behind reality, are perfectly suited to the form. I haven’t read a book as compulsive, as strange, as brilliant as this in a long time. Read it! 5 stars
City of Light, by Lauren Belfer
A complex historical thriller set at the turn of the twentieth century, when the first power stations were being established at Niagara Falls. It was a time of great hope (with promises to roll back the darkness and let poor children read by electric light) and great conflict, between unionists, black people, and nature ‘preservationists’ against the powerful new industrialists. It’s all told from the perspective of the spinster head teacher of the local girl’s school, who bears a major secret of her own that commits her to engaging with the dark and dramatic events. Recommended. 4 stars
You can check out the books I’ve read, see what people say about The Secret of the Tirthas, send me a friend request, and more over on my Goodreads profile page.
I’ve become quite a fan of the readers’ social media platform, Goodreads. I like it for three reasons:
- It’s a great way to get to know readers and writers, and to make friends. You can even compare all the books you’ve ever read with them, and see how similar (or wildly opposed) your tastes are.
- As a writer, it’s a great way of seeing what readers think about your books. Most users rate their books as soon as they finish them, and some do written reviews. Because it’s a social media platform, you get more reviews than on Amazon or other retail sites.
- It’s a great place to find out about books, as well as to log all the books that you’ve read and want to read. A friend once said that she wished she could write just a few sentences of each book she’d read as she finished it, because it’s so easy to forget books after a while. And it’s the perfect platform for that.
You can check out what people think about The Secret of the Tirthas, compare your books with mine, and send me a friend request all on my profile page.
Anyhow, I thought I’d share some of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years, which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads. In this first post: Young Adult & Children’s Books.
A Library of Lemons, by Jo Cotterill
A beautiful book about the mistaken routes we take to cope with grief and the long-term harm they do. Lovely, lucid writing – I particularly liked the image of the reclusive father receiving an invitation and looking like a hamster about to be plucked from its cage. Recommended for readers aged 10+, including grown-ups. 5 stars
Charlotte’s Web, by EB White
One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I didn’t come across it as a child, but thankfully have had the chance to read it to my own children. The writing is wonderful, rendering the beauty and sadness of nature with almost perfect precision. The ending is, of course, heart breaking, and my wife and I had to take it in turns consoling our six-year-old. But he understood bravely the message that (paraphrasing Dylan Thomas) whilst friends may die, friendship will not. 5 stars
The Last Wild, by Piers Torday
Gripping, harrowing, comical, exciting… and with a very strong message about how much damage we do intentionally and unintentionally if we don’t remain vigilant about our connection to the natural world. This is a fantastic roller coaster of a book, with heroic children and animals, and the animal world’s version of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the form of Captain Skuldiss. 5 stars
Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris
I really enjoyed this book. India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains and monsters, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, giant crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end. 4 stars
The Chicken Dance, by Jacques Couvillon
I love this book, it’s a fantastic take on the huge capacity for patience and acceptance that children have, and the things they’ll do to ensure that no matter what they’ll find a way to have fun and give their lives meaning. Don is a winning example of one of those kids who end up parenting their parents. His final act of kindness breaks your heart. My only criticism is that the book feels a little drawn out towards the end – but that’s not enough to knock it off the top spot. Surely the best book you’ll ever read about chickens, too. 5 stars
The Misadventure of Bolingbroke Manor: An interactive ghost hunting adventure, by Ellie Firestone
A great, well written interactive book, perfect for the creepy season! I’ve just read this with my son (age 7) and we really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, he came to a sticky end, but we will be playing it again soon. Recommended. 5 stars
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
I loved the concept of this novel, in which the author draws on the fascinating power of old photographs to weave his fantastical story set between Florida and a wet and windy Welsh island. In the back notes Ransom Riggs explains how the creative process worked, with sometimes him hunting through thousands of archives to find the right picture and sometimes the story being pulled in a new direction by a chance find. With a big idea like this I’m sure there was a danger of things not working out. No fear. This is a masterful story full of strong characters, inspirational settings and a plot that keeps you gripped right to the end. 4 stars
Rooftoppers , by Katherine Rundell
Structurally, the book felt a little unbalanced, some bits were overly long – but somehow this added to its sense of originality and poetry. I loved the tangential metaphors, particularly as they illuminate Sophie’s inner life. And the ending leaves you in a perfect spin. 5 stars
We Were Liars, by E Lockhart
A stylish novel that messes around with your expectations. Set on an idyllic island, four privileged teenagers find their lives shadowed by an accident involving the narrator, which she is unable to remember. The story is pervaded by a sense of disturbance – brilliantly reflected by occasional, explosive images – and reproach throughout. Who’s the subject of this reproach – the wealthy patriarch, his money-grabbing daughters, the idealistic, enigmatic Gat? Given the unreliability of her memory, does the narrator even know herself? Well worth a second read, loved it. 4 stars
All Aboard the London Bus, by Patty Toht
Can’t fault this lovely book. Excellent illustrations and poems, and a great introduction to London. 5 stars
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! , by Mo Willems
This has got to be one of the best picture books ever. The only time you will love hearing your children shouting ‘NO!’ 5 stars
The Dog in the Diamond Collar, by Rebecca Lisle
Read this with my boys aged 6 and 8 at bedtime. It’s a great story, full of laughs, with wonderful illustrations. The youngest couldn’t get over the name the three boys called the dog, Clinky Monkey (‘he’s not a monkey!’). I particularly liked the scene where they put the dog in a babygro and then wheel him around in a pram to get him into the zoo. When we finished, I asked the boys to mark it out of 10. 10 and, to quote, ‘Googol’ (10 to the 100th power) were the answers. 5 stars
Locked in Time, by Lois Duncan
I was drawn to this book by I Know What You Did Last Summer and the atmospheric Louisianan plantation setting. The story is enjoyable, with an engaging heroine who has to deal with the challenge of her father remarrying into an enigmatic southern family. The suspense is there, although perhaps not taut enough by today’s standards. 3 stars
When I was a boy, I remember having moments of flooded awareness, a sense that, whilst I was an innocent before, now I was fully sentient, someone properly aware of who I was and where I was going. I remember it occurring every year or two.
A while ago I tried to capture that sense of lucidity – long since lost – in a poem.
The school’s tapering windows turned golden
and I remember, after lessons one day,
when I was eight, or maybe nine,
and then again nine-and-a-half,
and probably ten –
a sense of arrival,
of no longer becoming,
of finally cutting loose
from that fine-but-somewhat-lacking
changeling of seven, eight, eight-and-a –
Now I was grown,
grounded in sentience,
one of those I’d always wanted to be –
finally, gazing through glorious Victorian windows
I was me.
I was almost right.
There was plenty more to come –
the simple discord of things devouring things,
of lust, love, faith, and Earth’s indescribable place –
but I’d had the thread,
realised that only with an attack of thought
could I pierce the realm of being
and get me nearer to me.
And now I’m closer still,
so close I swear
I’m almost there.
I’ve just delivered a few copies of The City of Light to Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead. This independent bookshop has been fantastic for me as a local writer. The owner, Peter Snell, and his staff (especially Cameron) have been incredibly helpful and supportive. I’ve done two signing sessions there and we’ve now got a third scheduled for Saturday 2nd December. They’ve sold over 60 books, with all four ‘Secret of the Tirthas’ novels on permanent display. And they’ve also put me in contact with the excellent Jane Dixon-Smith who designs my book covers. So if you’re anywhere nearby – go in and buy some books, and keep your local independent bookshop thriving!
The attention to detail in these stories and the deeply-knit tensions make you think you are heading for a full length novel, something that is going to take you to fantastic, dark places and give you all kinds of revelations. And you get some of that, but Aickman uses the short story to cut you off in mid-flow, to leave early, to depart in a manner that leaves you wanting more. There hangs the doom of foreclosure across all his tales, which I think is exactly what he wants. His glimpses, of the afterlife, of archetypes, of the dark and strange potential behind reality, are perfectly suited to the form. I haven’t read a book as compulsive, as strange, as brilliant as this in a long time. Read it!
“I can’t wait to read the next adventure of Lizzie and Pandu, and I would definitely recommend this book to my friends…”
I’ve just been looking back over some reviews of The City of Light. This one, which appeared in The Guardian, has to be my favourite:
“The outback was like a vast, beaten plate of copper stretching out around them, shimmering in the distance where the heat warped the fierce light…”
Uluru, the sacred Aboriginal rock in the heart of Australia, gets its first mention in The City of Light, when Lizzie discovers her great-uncle’s journal and reads about the inma, or initiation ceremony, of David Maturwarra’s son. But it’s not until the most recent book, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, that any action takes place there, when Ashlyn activates a garden portal and finds David and his friends. There she discovers the harrowing events that have taken place following the arrival of the terrifying Liru Snake Woman.
In 2001 I visited my Dad who was living in Sydney and subsequently travelled around Australia. I was stunned by the beauty of the country, from the vibrant cities of Sydney and Perth, to the grand walking country of the Grampian mountains, and the fabulous coasts of Cairns and New South Wales.
But above all, I was in awe of Uluru and the outback. I loved the way the legendary rock changed its colour gradually throughout the day. How its smooth and chiselled escarpment tugged images out of your head. And the contrast of the austere outback with the intimate, scrubby paths that encircled the rock.
It was stunning. All the pictures in this post I took then (on print film). The descriptions are from The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask.
“Uluru’s massive terracotta flank loomed up beside them, seeming to throb with a life of its own…”
“The rock was mostly smooth like the brow of a giant’s head, but in places it was punctured with scars and pits. One section looked like a giant spoon had gouged through it, exposing a honey-combed, chocolate-orange mousse below…”
“‘This is where Kuniya Python Woman fought the Liru Snake Woman,’ said David. ‘That crack is the Liru’s head wound, made by the Python Woman’s digging stick. If only she had killed her for good…’
From a distance, the place where the Python Woman and the Snake Woman fought looked to Ashlyn like a giant barracuda’s head, with a long gash almost three-quarters of the height of the rock for its slanted eye, and a large broken cavern at its base for its gaping maw. That was one mean fish.”
“Even the trees were desiccated, standing like straps of parched, twisted bone in the pulsating landscape…”