Week 3: the Sense of an Ending vs Infinite Skies

This week’s choices are a good opportunity to explore the definition of a Bristol novel. When I was crowd sourcing the books for my list, I tried to impose as few limits as possible so the long list could actually be long. There just aren’t that many works of fiction associated with Bristol.

I didn’t know whether having a Local author or setting or theme would be the appropriate criteria and I was open to going with whatever seemed right.

I ended up thinking that the novel itself had to represent Bristol culturally and physically. A Bristol novel wouldn’t just come from the domicile of the authors but would be the fictional space the city occupies in the creative world.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I left a book on the list because the author lived in Bristol and I didn’t check the setting.

Infinite Skies is a novel from the Young Adult genre, written by University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA alumnus Chelsey Flood. C.J. Flood is 29 and likes to work in the Bristol Central Library which also occupies a big part of my Bristol heart.

Unfortunately that’s about as Bristolian as the amble about Infinite Skies gets. Its protagonist Iris is 13 and her mother has just left their home to travel around and, presumably, find herself. Older brother Sam is struggling to cope and dad is having a hard time and it all gets worse when a group of travellers move in on the family’s land. The story is set near Derby and not in the south west at all.

Any kind of interest or suspense in the story is slowly killed off with the overwriting however and it feels like technique is prioritised, rather than used for effect, which is the wrong choice to make.

The characters are all likeable enough but the storyline is not strong enough to compel further reading.

I’m stealing from someone else when I say this but it’s relevant if not original: similes and metaphors are used to help the reader picture and understand a situation. With access to so much information, these days, the need for these literary techniques has been drastically reduced.

Flood fills most pages with constant description, similes and metaphors and when we finally got to a sunset looking like Chinese pork, I had to give up pretending I could stand it.

When each scene feels like a creative writing exercise then the story has taken second place.

Power of expression: 7/10
Bristol content: 0/15
Bristol integration: 0/15
Well written: 7/10

Total: 14/50

I am sad to say that Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is this week’s winner because I disliked it, a lot. However it does have some Bristol content.

A group of boys form a friendship in high school, go off to separate universities, something a bit dramatic happens with friendships and girlfriends and that’s the end of part one.

Part two starts consists of our much older protagonist revisiting the past because of a discovery. He spends a lot of time being tedious on purpose, as he tells us. He has an unpleasant and judgemental ex-wife with who he is still friends.

He isn’t particularly likeable and he is forced to face an unpleasant letter he wrote as a young man when his girlfriend left him for one of his best friends. It seemed a perfectly reasonable time to be unpleasant, if you ask me. If you can’t be vile at that point in your life, when can you be?

The plot is very boring and I expect Barnes thought he was being clever by putting in an irrational and erratic ex-girlfriend to show off the unexpected behaviour in the past that our hero/non -hero was not even aware of. I found her behaviour in the end more than a bit ludicrous and pointless.

I had to force myself to finish it but there were two points which I quite liked. One, there was a good use of the Clifton Suspension Bridge as both a Bristol tourist spot and a theoretical suicide location; and two, in one of the literary bits, Barnes pontificates on a philosopher’s wish to a newborn baby, “May you lead a boring life,” and this resonated with me.

Barnes got his wish but it’s not much of one to bestow on a newly born piece of fiction. This is a boring book with barely a hero’s journey to speak of.

In 2011, The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker prize but then Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize while keeping people locked up without charge in Guantanamo and killing more people while in power than Bush did. Awards are wrong all the time.

Power of expression: 5/10
Bristol content: 5/15
Bristol integration: 9/15
Well written: 6/10

Total: 25/50

Why writing is better than thinking

Laptop full of stickers - I didn't add those!

I’ve known a few psychology students and graduates but only one has said something that I still remember over a decade later.

We were talking about the difference between thinking and writing and she pointed out that you write linearly. Linear order forces your writing into some kind of structure, but thinking, as Tony Buzan has written about, is more creative and less ordered.

I’ve found this distinction to be useful for me. When thinking about subjects I start off trying to find a solution and then my mind goes all over the place, just one more permutation of what Buddhists call monkey mind.

When writing, though, I can strive towards an end, and follow a path. There is an evolution of an idea, a progression and an actual conclusion. And most probably this helps provide some understanding. Often I don’t know where the topic has come from and how it relates to me until I’ve written through and reached the end.

I don’t rate thinking too much and prefer meditation or waiting for my intuition to kick in but writing seems to help draw both of these processes out.

My 3-year-old computer-hog doesn’t allow me too much access to a computer so I’m trying to get as much writing done as possible on my phone and then tidy it up later.

This post on One Man and his Blog got me thinking about why I blog (when I get around to it).

On being thoughtful

I’ve not written about how tiring being a single parent was because I could’t find any way to describe it. How do you describe a state of exhaustion which makes you too tired to think of similes and metaphors?

And then I read a post On Wanting and new exactly how to describe it. Think about the exact opposite of wanting anything, being enthusiastic about anything.

That’s how tired I was. Mersina didn’t sleep through the night until she moved into her own room at two years and seven months old. That was about nine months ago.

It took about two months of mostly sleeping almost normally and then not every night until I felt well enough to feel enthused about things again.

I’ve not been thoughtful for a while on this blog and it’s mainly due to a lack of sleep and energy and wanting.

When the new little person arrives in a few months it might be a swift transition to not-wanting again but I’m not a single parent anymore so it may not be as bad. I don’t mind either way, it’s just nice to recognise the symptoms.20140714-190941-68981356.jpg

Week 2: The Shock of the Fall vs The Choice

Pitting Susan Lewis against Nathan Filer is like making Tweetie bird fight Muhammad Ali and I just don’t have it in me. Well, I do but I’ll do my best to keep as bloodless as possible.

filer_nathan_shock_of_the_Fall_140225a vs susan lewis_the choice

The Shock of the Fall describes the life of a boy from Bristol dealing with his grief at the death of his brother and experience of mental health care services for schizophrenia. The Choice is about a young girl (21, not 19 as the blurb says) who falls pregnant, falls out with her parents and then is confronted by a choice no parent should have to make.

Whereas Filer’s first book is sparse and clear, Lewis’s writing is filled with adjectives, adverbs and every possible type of description she could find.

There are mischievous eyes, eyes full of mischief and eyes of grey lead. Hearts surge, worried faces light up, voices soften with tenderness, or are husky with pride. Cliches fill the pages, serving no purpose other than to provide fodder for those who don’t have the time to turn on their television at midday and catch another made-for-TV-melodrama.

We don’t even find out what The Choice is until about 300 pages in to a 500 page novel and then every possible plot combination gets thrown in for good measure.

In direct contrast, Filer shows and never tells. As the writer he doesn’t presume anything about our understanding. Every word in the Shock of the Fall is direct and helps the story. He is a storyteller because he has a story to tell and nothing more. Lewis’s 26th* novel is an example of pulp publication where words are put in one after the other and spat out to people who just want to stay distracted for a few hours and aren’t too fussed about engaging and growing with their characters.

One thing Lewis does do well, however, is write about Bristol. It doesn’t matter whether the story requires it, and it seldom does, but if you read the Choice, you’ll find yourself finding out all about Brunel, Corn Street, Broadmead, the Banana bridge, the ss Great Britain, Southville, the Tobacco Factory and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. All are mentioned quite familiarly by the Bristol writer and are well written. They add nothing to the story, however. Lewis could just as easily have set her story somewhere else and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

The Shock of the Fall is not inherently Bristolian but unlike Lewis, Filer touches on location only where he has to. The occasional mention of Kingsdown in passing doesn’t have to mean much but when his protagonist talks to a homeless man on the corner of Jamaica Street and Stokes Croft (not Cheltenham Road as he writes) we Bristolians, know exactly what he’s talking about and why it’s easy to make that mistake. The area adds to the story, to the characters, it needs no further explanation.

One of the most poignant scenes takes a Bristolian landmark and misses it. The protagonist Matthew Homes’ mother, tells him of how she had tried to find the Clifton Suspension Bridge when she was younger and in despair about what to do wanted to jump off it but ended up circling around Clifton instead. Bristol is integrated into the story, not an aside, not a random description. Filer does it beautifully. The Shock of the Fall won Best First Novel and Book of the Year at the 2013 Costa Book Awards.

The winner this week, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, was never in doubt but it’s interesting to see that even though Lewis wrote pages and pages about Bristol, the snippets which Filer uses add more to a Bristolian sense of his work than constant references used as filler.

Week 1: Heartman vs Colinthology

Round 1, between Heartman and Colinthology, may be the most Bristolian of all because it is full of the paradoxes that make this city what it is. From spring to nearly winter there is a festival every weekend and one of the biggest celebrations took place yesterday at the very heart of St Paul’s and the setting of Wright’s Heartman.

Heartman by M.P. Wright published July 1, 2014 Colinthology300

Neither M.P. Wright nor Colin Harvey were born in Bristol and it is fitting that immigration and bringing home to a strange place fits in well with both our works.

Joseph Ellington, the main character in Heartman is from Barbados and it is the African Caribbean culture that all of the city was celebrating yesterday at St. Paul’s carnival whose theme was ’Home – Inna We Yard.’

‘Home’ means different things to different people but a true sense of home will encompass a feeling of one being at peace. African Proverb ‘When you are at home, your troubles can never defeat you’ Cape Coast, Ghana.

Heartman’s Ellington is an ex-cop forced to flee Barbados in tragedy. He finds himself in Bristol, 1965, unemployed in his family’s community in Bristol’s St. Paul and forced to take on a private investigation by a Jamaican councillor.

In pursuit of the truth he, and we, come across murder, drugs, racism and the community spirit and rich culture of the African Caribbean families that live in St Paul’s. What starts off as Ellington trying to make some money ends up with a race to possibly save the life of a vulnerable young woman.

Heartman is a story steeped in Bristolian settings, mannerisms and cultural outlets. There is a sense that it couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. From pubs in Montpelier, the city centre and St Paul’s, to lunch at the very white cafe at John Lewis in Broadmead, this is a work so well written and researched that it could be a major piece of evidence in the case for time travel.

Colinthology, on the other hand, is a collection of short stories published by Wizard’s Tower Press as a tribute to science fiction writer and avid Bristolian, Colin Harvey. Each story is preceded by a personal tribute to Harvey who passed away in 2011.

This moving publication is a symbol of one of the most Bristolian attributes of which I know, that sense of a community created as a second family in a bigger city. From Clifton to Stokes Croft, Bristol’s suburbs are so well-established that they seem little cities all of their own.

In the same sense, the stories in Colinthology range from a classic tale such as Nick Walters’ The Man Down The Road, so well structured and written that it could be found adapted as an episode from The Twilight Zone to Graham Raven’s Biz Be Biz, the opening story that has a bit too much detail of the new world it creates and loses sight of the actual plot.

Regardless of the quality of the stories, and some such as K.J. Jewell’s Newfangled are exceptional, Colinthology is worth reading because I don’t think you can understand the space fictional Bristol inhabits without the science fiction and fantasy component so aptly edited by Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke. It is this very community that convinced me I couldn’t run a book tournament without including short stories and so this is more a Bristol Book tournament than a novel one.

Some works in Colinthology are quite Bristolian in place settings and dialogue but here and there other parts fail – the length is too much for the sparse plot or the action could have taken place anywhere. One component that is common between both Heartman and Colinthology is the emphasis on pubs, ale and making the strange familiar.

Wright and Ellington are both fans of Dragon Stout chased by rum whereas Harvey was well known for his love of ales and many of the stories and tributes take place in pubs or the writers include a mention of the prized liquid where they can. So from the King William off King Street to the Garter and Star in St Paul’s, this round was lovingly Bristolian but in the end there was only one choice.

Heartman by M.P. Wright, published with great timing on July 1st by Black & White Publishing, is the winner of Round 1.

Many thanks to Wright’s publishers and to Wizard’s Tower Press who helped kick off our first week. Now here is a treat to help you decide whether you want to read our winner. [see the video trailer below]

All proceeds from the sale of Colinthology go to the charity Above and Beyond which helps improve patient care in Bristol’s hospitals.

Bristol novel rankings

Group 1 – The Elites

  1. Filer, Nathan – The Shock of the Fall (2013)
  2. Freeman, Anna – The Fair Fight (2014)
  3. Benatar, Stephen – Wish Her Safe at Home (1982)
  4. Brown, Chris – Guilty Tiger , Bovver (2002)
  5. Carter, Angela – ‘The Bristol Trilogy’ (link):Shadow Dance (1966), Several Perceptions (1968) and Love (1971) – Locarno Ballroom.
  6. Manson, Mike – Where’s My Money (2008)
  7. Wakling, Chris – The Devil’s Mask (2011)
  8. Burgess, Melvyn – Smack (or Junk) (2010)

Group 2 – Literary

  1. Barnes, Julian – The Sense of An Ending (2011)
  2. Byrne, Eugene – Things Unborn (2001)
  3. Nichols, David – Starter for Ten (2004)
  4. Cusk, Rachel – Arlington Park (2010)
  5. Butler, Paul – Cupids (2010)
  6. Trewavas, Ed – Shawnie (2006).
  7. Nicholson, Christopher – The Elephant Keeper (2009)
  8. Lee, Jonathan – Who is Mr Satoshi (2010)

Group 3 – Crime

  1. Wright, M.P. - Heartman (2014)
  2. McNeill, Fergus – Eye Contact (2012); Knife Edge (2013); Cut Out (2014)
  3. Carver, Caroline – Gone Without Trace (2007)
  4. English, Lucy – Selfish People (1998).
  5. Ferguson, Patricia – Peripheral Vision (2007); the Midwife’s Daughter (2012)
  6. Lewis,Robert – The Last Llanelli Train (2005)
  7. Hall, M.R. – The Coroner (Jenny Cooper 1) (2009)
  8. Prowse, Philip – Bristol Murder (2008)

Group 4 – Murder and Others

  1. Flood, C.J. – Infinite Sky (2013)
  2. Tessa Hadley – Clever Girl (2013)
  3. Hardy, Jules – Altered Land (2002)
  4. Hayder, Mo — Jack Caffery series – Birdman (2000); The Treatment (2002); Ritual (2008); Skin (2009); Gone (2010); Poppet (2012); Wolf (2014);
  5. Mason, Sarah – Playing James (2003)
  6. Moate, Jari – Paradise Now (2010)
  7. Johnson, Jeannie (pseudonym of Lizzie Lane) – A Penny for Tomorrow (2003).
  8. Gregory, Philippa – A Respectable Trade (1995)

Group 5 – Short Stories mostly

  1. Clarke, Roz and Hall, Joanne (Ed.)- Colinthology (2012)
  2. Clarke, Roz and Hall, Joanne (ed) – Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion (2014)
  3. Harvey, Colin – Future Bristol (Ed.) (2009)
  4. Harvey, Colin - Dark Spires(Ed.) (2010)
  5. White, Tony – Missorts Volume II (2013)
  6. Maughan, Tim – Paintwork(2011)
  7. Boyce, Lucienne – To the Fair Land (2012)
  8. Lewis, Susan – The Choice (2010)

Group 6 – Historical and sagas

  1. Marshall, Emma (1830-1899) – inc. Bristol Bells (the story of Chatterton), Under the Mendips, In Colston’s Days and Bristol Diamonds
  2. Smollett, Tobias – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)
  3. Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island (1883)
  4. Burney, Fanny – Evelina (1778)
  5. Lane, Lizzie – Wartime Brides (2012)
  6. Steen,Marguerite – The Sun Is My Undoing (1941)
  7. Young, E.H. – The Misses Mallett (1922). William – A Novel ().
  8. Butler Hallett , Michelle – Deluded Your Sailors (2011)

Group 7 – Bits and Pieces

  1. Douglas, Louise - In Her Shadow (2012)
  2. Dunn, Matt – The Accidental Proposal (2011)
  3. Smith, Zadie – Martha and Hanwell(2005)
  4. Le Carre, John – Our Game (1995)
  5. Moggach, Deborah – These Foolish Things (2005), You must be sisters (1978)
  6. Godwin, John – Children of the Wave (2010)
  7. Mayhew, Daniel – Life and How to Live it (2004).
  8. Ames, Laurel – Castaway (1993)

Group 8 – the Unknowns

  1. Bouzane, Lillian – In the Hands of the Living God (1999)
  2. Random, Bert – Spannered (2011)
  3. Rowbotham, Michael – Shatter (2009)
  4. Sheers, Owen - Pink Mist (2013)
  5. Mitchell, Diane – Tainted Legacy (2012)
  6. O’Brien, Maureen – Dead Innocent (2004)
  7. Myles, Josephine – Pole Star (2012)
  8. Archer, Jeffrey – Only Time Will Tell (2011)

Order of play for the Bristol Book Tournament

The following table shows the order of play for the tournament.

Group 2 v Group 4
Group 7 v Group 1
Group 5 v Group 3
Group 8 v Group 6.

For the first month, for example, the books competing will be as follows:

  1. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending vs CJ Flood’s Infinite Sky;
  2. Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall vs Louise Dougas’ In Her Shadow;
  3. MP Wright’s Heartman vs Clark, Ros and Hall’s Colinthology;
  4. Marshall Emma v Bouzane, Lillian’s In the Hands of the Living God

Methodology:  I created eight columns and added the groups in order (Group 1 to 8). Then I created a random function which gives a number between 0 and 1 and sorted in ascending order. The following groups were selected.

Group 2 – Literary Group 4 Group 1 – The Elites Group 7 - Group 3 – Crime Group 5 – Short Stories mostly Group 6 – Historical and sagas Group 8 – the Unknowns
Barnes, Julian – The Sense of An Ending Flood, C.J. – Infinite Sky (2013) Filer, Nathan – The Shock of the Fall (2013) Douglas, Louise - In Her Shadow Wright, M.P. - Heartman Clarke, Roz and Hall, Joanne - Colinthology (Ed.) Marshall, Emma (1830-1899) – inc. Bristol Bells Bouzane, Lillian – In the Hands of the Living God (1999)
Byrne, Eugene – Things Unborn (2001) Tessa Hadley – Clever Girl Freeman, Anna – The Fair Fight (2014) Dunn, Matt – The Accidental Proposal McNeill, Fergus – Eye Contact (2012) Hall, Joanne (ed) – Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion (2014) Smollett, Tobias – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker Random, Bert – Spannered (Feeder Road)
Nichols, David – Starter for Ten (2004) Hardy, Jules – Altered Land Benatar, Stephen – Wish Her Safe at Home Smith, Zadie – Hanwell in Hell (Park Street) Carver, Caroline – Gone Without Trace (2007) Harvey, Colin – Future Bristol (Ed.) Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island Rowbotham, Michael – Shatter
Cusk, Rachel – Arlington Park (2010) Hayder, Mo – Wolf; Skin; Gone; Ritual Brown, Chris – Guilty Tiger , Bovver Le Carre, John – Our Game English, Lucy – Selfish People (1998). Harvey, Colin - Dark Spires(Ed.) Burney, Fanny – Evelina Sheers, Owen - Pink Mist
Butler, Paul – Cupids Mason, Sarah – Playing James Carter, Angela – ‘The Bristol Trilogy’ Moggach, Deborah – These Foolish Things Ferguson, Patricia – Peripheral Vision; the Midwife’s Daughter White, Tony – Missorts Volume II Lane, Lizzie – Wartime Brides (2012) Mitchell, Diane – Tainted Legacy
Trewavas, Ed – Shawnie (2006). Moate, Jari – Paradise Now Manson, Mike – Where’s My Money Godwin, John – Children of the Wave Lewis,Robert – The Last Llanelli Train (2005) Maughan, Tim – Paintwork(2011) Steen,Marguerite – The Sun Is My Undoing (1941) O’Brien, Maureen – Dead Innocent
Nicholson, Christopher – The Elephant Keeper Johnson, Jeannie (pseudonym of Lizzie Lane) – A Penny for Tomorrow (2003). Wakling, Chris – The Devil’s Mask Mayhew, Daniel – Life and How to Live it (2004). Hall, M.R. – The Coroner (Jenny Cooper 1) (2009) Boyce, Lucienne – To the Fair Land (2012) Young, E.H. – The Misses Mallett (1922). William – A Novel (). Myles, Josephine – Pole Star

What’s place got to do with it? Settings in fiction

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is not only the most prominent Bristolian landmark in tourism promotions but also a ubiquitous name-drop in Bristolian fiction. From Julian Barnes to MR Hall, it is a synonym for Bristol in a most dramatic way.

Yet, when I recently took part in the Bristol Central library’s literary walking tour from the centre to Clifton and back, we didn’t go to the bridge. Just a few hundred feet from Brunel’s design, we stopped at the little green next to Pro Cathedral Lane and near the Clifton Triangle while our narrator / actor read to us a scene from Nathan Filer’s the Shock of the Fall. The protagonist’s mother had tried to find the bridge to jump off but got lost and wandered around Clifton instead.

In Barnes’ Sense of an Ending we are told that the postcard perfect bridge is known for its suicides and in Hall’s the Coroner we are greeted with the sign from the Samaritans reaching out to anyone who may want to think again before taking their very final step.

Associating high bridges with suicide is not unique to Bristol, however, the two different meanings placed to the same landmark is interesting when you want to think about place as a space not only inhabited by its citizens but also created by us: “suicide spot” or “tourist destination” or “Brunel’s masterpiece” [explore]. There are three types of space: absolute space which is the physical presence around us; social space – the way we live in our surroundings; and conceived space – the space we create through art and representation. [The Production of Space]

The Bristol which writers create in their fiction inhabits this conceived space and all three spaces work together to create the actual city we know. But how well do we know fictional Bristol? When I first started searching for novels set in Bristol there were only a handful that would be offered as suggestions. These include Christopher Wakling’s the Devil’s Mask, Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade, Jeffrey Acher’s Clifton Trilogy, Angela Carter’s Bristol Trilogy, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall which had just won the Costa fiction award, Hayder Mo’s grisly tales and Chris Brown’s Guilty Tiger.

A year later I have tracked down 64 novels or sets of novels that are Bristolian in some way. They help create the conceived space of Bristol and they don’t seem to be much acknowledged for this.

I will review them one against one in 32 initial bouts to eliminate half and then proceed in this manner to find the winner of the tournament: that most Bristol of novels. The benefit won’t be in just discovering the final triumphant selection but in exploring what fictional Bristol tells us and others about our city and what elements the authors have taken and used. This is an examination of how writers create Bristol.

I find this a fascinating endeavour and I hope you will gain something from it as well. Many readers of this blog have helped me identify a lot of these works and it is due to you that I can do this.

Thank you.

Absolute Bristol in images


Apologies for the delay in the Bristol Book Tournament

The book tournament was meant to start on the 1st of June but as yet I haven’t published a thing. My apologies for the delay. About a month ago my computer broke down and it has taken a month to get it fixed again. By fixed, I mean I ordered a new hard drive and replaced it. Fought and battled with courier companies to bring the hard drive and the recovery disks for the operating system and then went ahead and installed Ubuntu because the disks didn’t work for me.

I’m now back though and while I haven’t been writing, I have been reading so the book tournament is back on.

Thank you for your patience and possibly forgetfulness.

10 minute creamy mushrooms with cous cous

Chop up a few mushrooms, as many as you fancy.
Chop up finely, half a clove of garlic. Rub some sea salt on it to grind it up a bit.
Melt some butter in a frying pan, add a tablespoon of flour
add the mushrooms
fry a bit
add a quarter of a stock cube
add some cream. Bring to the boil and then simmer for a bit.


Boil the kettle.
Put half a cup of cous cous in a bowl.
Add 3/4 cup of boiling water to the cous cous.
Add a pinch of salt.
Cover for five minutes.
Stir a bit.
Cover for five more minutes and then the food will be ready.

Add the mushroom mix to the cous cous.

Delicious and lovely.