Singapore Sling

My coffee with Connie, like all good tales, begins with the birth of a baby. Constance was delivered two and a half years ago, not by stork, but by the delicately named ventouse. She arrived purpleish and screaming with piercing blue eyes and long fingers. I suspect a piano maestro in the making…..

Since then, she has become a bit of a pal and has now accompanied me and her dad, Tom, to the golden isle of Singapore. We have been slung here due to Tom’s work and are busy awaiting the arrival of Connie’s sister in June. To pass the time meanwhile, Connie and I invariably end up having lattes and apple juices respectively in various coffee shops around town. We have a bit of a chat, a bit of a ride on a Bob the Builder toy, a bit of a cry if we’re feeling over tired (this applies to both of us) and generally discuss our plans for the week and interesting things we can get up to.

Assuming that many other Mums must indulge in these kinds of shenanigans with their sprogs, I thought it might be useful to pool some resources on thoughts, links, groups, tips etc. I may not look like Gwyneth Paltrow of GOOP fame, but at the moment, I have the same amount of time on my hands so here goes……..


Bitter Fruits COVER

So, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted….many apologies….!

I do have a good excuse however. I’ve been squirrelled away finishing up the edits on BITTER FRUITS which will be published by Penguin Random House on 2 July!

BITTER FRUITS is a murder mystery set in Durham where the murder of a first-year student at the University shocks the city. The victim, Emily Brabents, was from the privileged and popular set at Joyce College, a cradle for the country’s future elite. As Detective Inspector Erica Martin investigates the college, she finds a close-knit community of secrets, jealousy and obsession. But the very last thing she expects is an instant confession…

The picture of Emily that begins to emerge is that of a girl wanted by everyone, but not truly known by anyone. Anyone, that is, except Daniel Shepherd. Her fellow student, ever-faithful friend and the only one who cares. The only one who would do anything for her …

The book has already had some very positive reviews on Twitter and Good Reads so I nervously wait, with bitten nails, as to how the rest of you all will find it….

You can pre-order now on Amazon and ITunes otherwise it will be available in all good book shops in London and Singapore from next Thursday 2nd July 2015.

If you’re Singapore-based, I’ll be doing a signing at Mischief Bar down at The Esplanade on Saturday 27th June from 3pm as part of a Books & Beer Event. Check out Books&Beer on Facebook for more details.

Hope to see you there and let me know what you think of the book!

Travellers and Writers: The True Outsiders

Another year and another chance to enjoy the delights of The Singapore Writers’ Festival…..This year, the theme was the Prospect of Beauty. But for me, the real essence of the talks that I went to, lay in the writers’ unabashed delight in being an outsider; an observer, something at the very heart of being a writer.

The first author to talk about this was Karen Joy Fowler, recently nominated for the Man Booker Prize for We are Completely Beside Ourselves. She said she knew few writers who didn’t feel like outsiders.  She came to writing late – it wasn’t until she was thirty years old, standing in a line with her two young children, wondering what to do with her life, that she realised that the only thing she could do was write. Prior to that, there had been a general dissatisfaction with life. A feeling of not quite fitting in.

What comes first though? The chicken of feeling on the outskirts? Or the egg of utilising that distance to observe life and write it down?

Later that day, the indomitable Paul Theroux took to the stage. He had first been to Singapore in 1968 as an English teacher at NUS. Then, the now bustling hubs of Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah were empty of cars; a trip to Jurong was a trip into the jungle. Singapore is a city transformed. But the real transformation which took place for Theroux at that time, was in himself. When he arrived here, he said he didn’t know what his subject was – he didn’t know what to do to find the truth of himself.

Theroux had come to Singapore from Africa where he had been known as being caught up in the anti-colonial movement. Prevented from publishing articles in Singapore, Theroux took a different approach. He decided to write a novel where he would merely set down what he observed. He wrote the novel Saint Jack which acutely describes Singaporean society and all the things which Theroux was seeing around him at that time. That process, for Theroux, made him a writer. The art of observation gave him a purpose; it gave him a subject.

During his talk, he spoke of Jung’s ideas of individuation; of the necessity of leaving your home, your comfort zone, in order to find out about yourself.

But was that what Theroux was advocating, I wondered? That writing necessarily involves a stepping outside of yourself, a visit to a strange and tropical country? What about Eliot? Or the Brontes? Amazing works of fiction rendered from tiny stone cottages in the middle of nowhere…their extraordinary imaginations the product, perhaps, of a need to entertain, to invent worlds beyond that which actually surrounded them. Theroux says that travel is a mode of enquiry, and that is certainly true. And perhaps it is also true that to challenge yourself, to find out the nub of your character, you have to be tested and see what it will take for you to grasp the nettle. But isn’t it possible to do this solely in your head?

Travellers and writers have similar qualities. They are both observers; they pick up scraps of humanity and ingest them. I think that what Theroux means is that that process for a traveller results in a shift in the soul. But the writer takes that one step further. They convey what they see. And they try to explain it in a wider context. Through their observations, their sensitivities, their ability to live in someone else’s head, they attempt to paint a landscape of truth.

Fowler finished by saying that every one of her characters has something of herself in them. But in the very fact of observing that, she has to know herself to begin with.

Theroux quoted Chairman Mao at the beginning of his talk: that all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. Travellers and writers are ultimately different creatures. Both observe life; both can be lonely pursuits, both are outsiders. But I believe writing is the indefatigable pursuit of capturing the truth, uncomfortable or otherwise. And that pursuit must always be undertaken from the side-lines. And the shift in the soul which results from that position was probably always there from childhood. Even if you only discover it many years later.


SWF BeautyPaul Theroux



Book Launches at the Ubud Literary Festival

One of the main features of the Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Ubud are the launches of books by individuals and groups of writers, chosen because their books encompass the theme of the festival. The organisers provide venues and publicity and it is fantastic to see so many entrepreneurial spirits diving into literature and publicising their own writing journeys.

I have already spoken (at length!) about the group I set up – The Singapore Writers’ Group – and our self-publication of our first anthology of short stories – ROJAK. The Malay word for an eclectic mix, the book is a reflection of the myriad nationalities of the members of the SWG and their experiences of life at home and abroad.

Reviews have already been positive with ROJAK described as an “…impressive first serving from a diverse bunch of writers who show that many cooks can dish up a tasty broth.” (Amazon).

Seven of the SWG authors travelled to Ubud to launch ROJAK at the beautiful and evocative Café Rouge on the third day of the festival. Comfy sofas, delicious mojitos and a glorious Bali sunset provided the backdrop for readings from the books and a question and answer session with the authors.

The audience was hugely supportive, amazed at such a thriving literary scene in Singapore. The SWG now has over five hundred and fifty members and is also launching ROJAK during the upcoming Singapore Writers’ Festival in November at The Arts House.

It is a credit to the festival organisers that they actively encourage these kinds of launches; eschewing the perhaps more typical ambit of literary festivals to purely laud celebrity and best-selling authors.

Another launch which took place the day before ROJAK at Café Rouge, was Tim Brennan’s Lucky Rice. A fictitious account of one man’s conversation with a Balinese rice farmer espousing a life philosophy, the book was the winner of the Best eBook: 2014 eLit awards for multi-media production. The prose is accompanied by glorious photographs of Bali and its rice paddies and has been compared to Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. Dealing with a person’s quest for enlightenment, the book transposes its philosophical ideas into an accessible and joyful conversation between East and West and invites the reader to discover how nature whispers her wisdom to all who care to listen.

Further information about Lucky Rice can be found at

ROJAK can be purchased at

Rojak 4

Slam Dunk!

So it was five days of glorious sunshine; inspiring writers and authors; book launches; and food events at the Ubud Writers’ and Reader’s Festival last week. It was an unmitigated success, rounded off in the spirit of the Festival’s theme of knowledge and wisdom – Saraswati – by the huge Hindu ceremony celebrated at the Ubud temple in the centre of the town.

The stand-out attractions however, and the events which increase in popularity, year in year out, are the poetry nights. Whether it be the regular Poet’s Club at the infamous Bar Luna or the hugely popular Poetry Slam Competition at the Betelnut: poetry, and its appeal to a broad and rowdy audience, has become the new rock and roll.

Into the Wilds, was the first event I attended. At a packed Bar Luna, the wine flowed as percussion was played behind the fast and furious words of the poets. Most impressive was Abraham Nouk, a former refugee, now living in Australia. Until three years ago, Abe was illiterate, unable to read or write. Now poetry falls out of him with the dexterity of a master wordsmith. Notable too, was Kosal Khiev, an American in exile after serving time in a US prison, now living in his native Phnom Penh. Having survived solitary confinement for over a year, Khiev spits words like nails, his anger at injustice propelling his audience into an aural maze.

It is perhaps these poets who impact the most – those with complex stories to tell; those for whom the freedom of poetry serves best. At the subsequent Q&A, I asked why they were attracted to poetry as opposed to other narrative forms. They told me that it was the absence of rules that appealed; the ability to say anything at all, unconfined by a linear and constrictive structure. If they couldn’t speak through poetry, it was said, they wouldn’t know how to live.

From perhaps a less dramatic background, was the Singaporean poet Stephanie Dogfoot, who wowed the audience at the Poetry Slam a couple of nights later. Her poems about satellites and stars; and breaking free from proscriptive parents were a cornucopia of inspiration and beauty.

Poetry is to do with liberty and self-determination, it seems. It is the very act of telling the truth despite the confines of your background that provokes the greatest respect from the audience. The majority of these poets did this in spades. Those less successful at it were those poets who seemed to be putting on an act as opposed to transposing a reality; the lack of truth was visible in their work and it diminished the power of their poems. That’s not to say they didn’t still turn on an engaging performance – but the poems lost their emotional punch; they didn’t connect with the audience in the same way.

Poems, like songs, have the ability to reach in and turn on a switch in the listener. Perhaps it is their brevity which enables this; that the words are chosen with exquisite care, in order to stab and shock and amuse in the most impactful way.
Whatever the reason, these poetry events are rightfully given pride of place within the Ubud Festival’s line up.

Long may it continue!

Ubud Flag

A Busman’s Holiday….

Here I am in beautifully sunny Richmond Upon Thames, enjoying some much-needed catch up time with family and friends. The girls and I are over here for nearly 8 weeks and we’ve been blessed with the most glorious weather. Britain has put on a show for us – crabbing on the coast, Punch and Judy shows in the park, a trip to the Tower of London where poppies are currently dripping from its walls like blood as part of the WW1 anniversary commemorations – and we have eaten more ice creams than I can possibly count.

Holidays are obviously great for unwinding and letting the brain cells recuperate, get some renewed verve. I can always tell when a holiday has been a success. I might go for a run or a walk, and ideas for stories or the novel will pop up like fireflies. It’s as if the calm that comes from relaxation allows the mind to grow fertile again – away from the noise and rabble of life’s normal routines.

But it has been a bit of a busman’s holiday….I did a week-long creative writing course which has kick-started the new novel. And via multiple emails back and forth from Singapore, the Singapore Writers Group has finally launched the sale of ROJAK on Amazon! This is our anthology of short stories – 19 of them of them to be precise. The stories are a complete assortment – a melting pot of genres, of backgrounds, of styles and origin. Hence the name we chose for the anthology – ROJAK – the Malay word for eclectic mix.

Here is the link, should you be minded to check it out. And it’s already received a 5 star review….!

We’ll be heading back to the tropics in a couple of weeks so see you on the other side.

Crimes of the Heart

Is crime fiction a lesser genre than literary fiction? Is fantasy fiction the poor cousin of science fiction? How do all the genres hustle up against (or on top of or beneath) one another?

John Sutherland, former Chairman of the Man Booker judges, has said that long-listing a crime novel for the prize is like putting “…a donkey into the Grand National.” And despite Tom Robb’s Child 44 being long-listed in 2008 and Peter Temple winning the Australian equivalent of the Booker (the Miles Franklin award) with his novel Truth in 2010, the donkeys never do seem to make it out of the stable into the literary prize-winning arena.

Whilst John Banville says that there should be no distinction between genres – there is merely good writing and writing that is not good – can the answer to crime fiction’s lowly reputation be sourced in its emotive content? Or lack of – according to Tony Parsons.

Parsons has recently been doing the rounds, flogging his foray into the genre with his new book The Murder Bag. In an interview with The Guardian and repeated on BBC Radio 4 on Open Book, Parsons claims he wants to put a new spin on crime fiction. He wants to write a crime thriller with “…the emotional power of a book like Man and Boy.” He says he wants to write crime fiction with heart.

This has sent myriad crime writers into a bloody tailspin, hurling various murder weapons in an attempt to prove that their brand of crime writing does indeed have the emotional pull that Parsons seems to have missed in his readings. Cue the amusing Twitter hashtag #tonyparsonscouldread – followed by whichever heart-rending crime novel you wish to suggest – from Rendell to Chandler to French.

I’m not sure Parsons is doing much other than creating a dust swirl to draw attention to his book. It’s clearly wrong to say that crime fiction has no heart. But it is perhaps a truism that crime fiction is patronised for what’s seen as its commitment to plot, rather than its observations on life.

One of my biggest reading disappointments was The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. The set up was one of pure mystery – the unexplained death of a young child. Tartt mixed up the plot with her reflections on life and family in the Deep South but, for me, it never quite worked. The plot didn’t resolve and I was left unknowing and frustrated by the loose ends Tartt had woven throughout the book but failed to conclude. Was her book crime fiction? Or literary? It certainly didn’t work as the former – did that make it more of a read in literary circles? Is the lack of a plot something to champion in order to win prizes??

People denigrate crime fiction for its tropes – dare we call them clichés? The lonely booze-sodden detective; a penchant for music of one genre; an inability to maintain a relationship. In his interviews, Parsons talked witheringly about these – how his protagonist, Max Wolfe, would avoid them – no staring into a whisky glass for him, thanks very much. And yet he went on to say that Wolfe would be a single Dad so as to leave him free in the plot to be able to get it on with women young and old. Listening to him, I think this is genuinely what Parsons thinks of as putting heart into a book.

To use the Parson-ism, “heart” in a book – crime or otherwise – isn’t about merely having a character be a single parent, or lonely, or grieving, or any obviously signposted ways to make the reader think – “oh, this person feels things very deeply….” Think of the nuance in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone; the tortured ramblings of Rankin’s Rebus; even the moralising of Marple. These are fully drawn, fleshed out, beautifully written books and characters which can’t help to connect with the reader – isn’t that the nub of a great book? The heart of which Parsons means to speak? And let’s not forget that these books have more tightly knitted plots than a jumper sale at the Women’s Institute.

Wherever crime fiction stands in relation to the cool rankings of prizes such as the Man Booker is a subject that will incense as much as it bolsters self-regard. In my humble opinion, crime fiction is one of the hardest genres to write and certainly one of the best to read. It puts characters in space and time, gives them the slap in the face of life and death to contend with; puts them on the edge of humanity in that regard.

For any novel to succeed, it must be infused with heart – that which makes the reader care about it. Successful crime novels do this as well as other genres. And if not, then there it is that they, or any other book, will fail.

What do you think? Is crime fiction lacking in heart? How does it compare to literary fiction? Let me know!

Crawling Uphill in the Dark: The Novel Writing Process

I am on the fifth (?) draft of the novel and a writing course friend of mine has just read it. Thankfully, she really liked it but did think to let me know that in the course of it’s 87,000 words I have used the word “suddenly” 67 times. Looking through the manuscript for the millionth time, I came across not only “suddenly” but “all of a sudden,” and “at once” on more occasions than I care to count….

Georges Simenon, the creator of the detective Maigret, said that writing is not so much a profession as a vocation of unhappiness. And it’s at times like these, when I might agree with him. Listening to a recent Radio 4 Open Book programme, the novelist Edna O’Brien said that writing a novel takes three years. A pundit on the same show, Sid Smith, said that the process of writing a novel involves taking the same journey as the reader – but on your hands and knees. In the dark. With a broken leg.

So much for the glamour and the book tours, the Booker and the Hay-on-Wye literary festival goody bags. It turns out that writing is actually a never-ending slog – where eighteen months into the process, even with your slew of words upon the page, you discover that you now have to invent a zillion other ways of writing “suddenly.” Or not bothering with the word at all and trusting that your surrounding prose will spell out the change in nuance to your reader. Hands and knees in the dark? Yep, certainly feels like it at the moment.

Cue lots of articles spat out by Google on the wonders of honing your craft, of whittling a statue, carving a masterpiece – and lots of other physical analogies that mean nothing next to the tedium and loneliness of sitting at your desk alone every single day. It’s then that becoming anything other than a writer seems a whole lot more attractive.

The sun decided to shine at that point – dare I say it, “suddenly?” And so I went for a run and listened to the rest of the programme where Edna O’Brien goes on to talk about her life and her work and what writing means to her. And she makes it all sound sense by the way she talks about it, the lilting timbre of her voice, her descriptions of carving a mark on history – her history. Not for the tours and the prizes or even the idea of earning any money from it. But because it’s the only thing you can do. And that’s when I realised that I’d do 67 drafts if it meant that what I created at the end was what I wanted to say. Even if nobody ever reads it.

Writing is a vocation. And often you are crawling through the dark, dragging your limbs behind you – trying to catch up with your mind and what it actually wants to say. It’s so difficult and takes so long because the recesses of your mind are black and cavernous and on the whole, a thing of mystery. Which is what makes delving into it all the more extraordinary. And worth a lot of thought and time to fathom it all out.

So I struggle on. The word ‘suddenly” has all but dissipated and whatever number draft it is that I’m on nears even closer to its conclusion. It is an uphill process and often a lonely one. But it reaps its rewards. Here’s hoping…..!

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