Carrots and Jaffas – a book for big minds

Carrots and Jaffas by Howard Goldenberg opens with the heart-stopping scene of a child being stolen. The child is one of twins. While the story of the twins, their birth and their fates, is central to the narrative and binds the reader by a need to know the outcome, the book ranges over many other stories as it takes us there.

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Actually, it doesn’t just range, it digs deeply into these other stories. As the twins narrative progresses, the reader has a sense of entering several books in parallel. With each character, comes new subject matter and, personally speaking, new and fascinating information. The book manages to be both deeply moving and matter-of-fact. This is meat for the curious, manna to the open-minded and satisfaction for the intellectually hungry. It is packed with poetry, fantasy, humour and fact and I enjoyed every word.

Howard has set the book in his native Australia, and offers a depth of intimate knowledge about the continent and both its modern and indigenous peoples. This is a revelation to the non–Aussie reader (and you might need a map). He draws on his decades of work as a doctor with all these people. I am now happily anticipating reading his memoir, My father’s Compass, and Raft, his account of life as a doctor in remote, indigenous Australian communities. He also blogs entertainingly and with passion at

Reading, reading, reading

I think this article on libraries and reading by Neil Gaiman is clear, persuasive and wonderfully straightforward. I missed it when it appeared and was alerted to it by a Facebook post from a Swedish relative – vive la Internet.

Spoiled for choice – writer’s support network

My writing has been stalled because I had finished one project and was in desperate need of feedback on the other two.

The project, an article on my airman uncle (A Very Unlikely Hero) had been sent to a specialist blogger. My non-fiction (Writing to a Ghost: Letter to the River Kwai) was being read, as a favour, by a wonderfully meticulous friend and my re-re-re revised fiction book (Border Line) was in a queue to a busy writing friend.Two days ago my writing frustration peaked and I also felt a need of independent professional advice for some tricky chapters. So I sent them off to Sally Jenkins, who had done such a swift and helpful job on the synopsis, agent letter and first chapter of Border Line.

Later that same day the blogger, Pierre Lagacé, of Lest we Forget, came up trumps and starting posting a new blog using parts of my article on my Mosquito Navigator uncle at I am thrilled with this.

Yesterday my friend, Lesley, came round with a wonderfully annotated manuscript of my non-fiction book and some very good advice.

Today, to my amazement, Sally Jenkins came through with the critique of my tricky chapters in Border Line. Her speed of turnaround only equalled by the seriously helpful advice on my chapters.

Writing is something of a game of snakes and ladders. Today I am on a ladder. Back at my desk, I feel like a bee in clover – totally happy and busy though spoiled for choice about which manuscript to tackle first. It is this wonderful network of support from people we know and, in this new age, those we have never met that make writing possible.

This state of affairs has been very good for the house. DIY flourished, I have insulated a tricky section of bay wall with thermal lining, put up a pane of secondary glazing and ordered more lining, glazing panels etc.

(And my L reg. Nissan passed its MOT!)

The darlings he killed

A fascinating and salutary article about how life can sometime rob a writer. Mark Lawson, journalist, broadcaster, writer has had both fiction and non-fiction books snatched from him, half-written, by a variety of circumstances. In a his article he talks about each of these lost enterprises with modesty, humour and insight.

Novel People – Faulks on Fiction

Faulks on Fiction (Sebastian Faulks) is the kind of book you are so unwilling to stop reading that you read every last word – and discover that he would have preferred the title Novel People. 

This is a book about the people who inhabit fiction and it has walked straight into my personal favourites’ list for two main and several minor reasons. First, he uses, with delicious freedom, exactly the right word for what he wants to say. This is non-fiction, so Faulks is not constrained by his potential reading public or his characters’ vocabularies (or even an ageing brain) in his choice of words. He does not use obscure words, simply the right ones. The writing is also entertaining and fully accessible to the layman.

Secondly, as a reader and writer, to have all these characters from classic fiction (some of which I have read and others not) opened up for me to investigate both as people and as examples of their roles (e.g. hero, villain) in the stories they inhabit, is pure joy. This provides an extra dimension for a re-reading or a first reading of such books and an invaluable lesson in anatomy for a struggling writer.

The sections and chapters can be read separately and if you loathe Amis or love Austen (or vice versa) you can dip in and out. I find it very satisfying that he distances himself so convincingly from the ‘fiction is autobiography’ school. He has chosen a good eclectic mix of characters over the whole life of the English novel and he scans wider horizons each time he selects one.

Do I have any quibbles? My feminist side might have asked for a few more female writers. This book is a trawl through significant writers of the last two centuries. It will I hope become a school text. Many female writers are mentioned, but far fewer women than men make the cut and that saddens me. So Woolf, Zadie Smith, George Eliot and Mary Renault are mentioned, but Byatt, Murdoch and Drabble, for instance, don’t get a look in. These are not writers for whom I carry a flag and Faulks is very clear about the reasons for his selections. Also many great male writers are missing too. Still I am sad.

I will re-read this book over and over again. I will keep it among my dictionaries and style-guides for reference as a writer. I think it speaks usefully to writers of every level. As a reader, I will pick my way through the books it unwraps and that I have not yet read. As you can see I am struggling to put down.