Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester

fragrant harbour Hong Kong 1The most recent book to be read in my book group was Frangrant Harbour by John Lanchester. It was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. John Lanchester is the author of four novels and three books of non-fiction. He was born in Germany and moved to Hong Kong. He studied in UK. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award. He lives now in London.

Fragrant Harbour is, as its title would suggest, based in Hong Kong. It is a fictional fragrant harbour bookstory reflecting the history of Hong Kong since the 1930s told through the interlinked stories of four very different protagonists, full of rich descriptions and colourful characters, who reflect the changing nature of the society there. It gives an overview of the city’s history while telling a story as well. I did learn a great deal about Hong Kong from the 1930s through the 1990’s, but I did not find the story compelling. Reading Fragrant Harbour was a bit of a plod.

The tale is told through the voices of four different characters- a young woman from England who’s climbing hand over fist up the career ladder, a fragrant harbour authorChinese businessman on the brink of failure, a nun, and a man from England who manages and then owns his own hotel. Their stories all intertwine, and the choices they ultimately make raise questions about integrity, responsibility and compromise. Some of the characters are more well-developed than others, but Lanchester seems to shy away from digging deeply into the psyche of any of them, which left me feeling unsatisfied and made me wonder what I was missing since novel was included on the New York Times Notable Books list for 2002.

A long section of Fragrant Harbour reads like a history lesson of Hong Kong. Then, later the plot twist involving two of the major characters seemed to me to contain two main issues: firstly, it doesn’t really ring true for the characters and secondly, it seems to me to be an example of the author keeping information from the reader just to create a twist. That is cheating! This final section, therefore, is probably the weakest and dragsFragrant Harbour Hong Kong 2 the book down. It reads rather like a slightly stilted report of a business deal. The most interesting part would be how the grandfather reacts to the new business deal, but the book does not deal with this.

Fragrant Harbour did not seem to be so much about the Chinese experience of Hong Kong but how the Western world viewed it. Perhaps it would work better for anyone who has lived in Hong Kong, but it was not a book that I particularly enjoyed and on the basis of this, I would not seek out other books by John Lanchester.

Valerie Penny


Structuring A Novel: Chapters by guest author Lynette Davis

This article by Lynette Davis was first published on Writer to Writer on 22 May, 2017 at

When you get an idea for a novel it seems easy to develop it but once you start working writing bookson it, it turns into a jungle, a mess. You might find yourself trying to figure out how simple things work or trying to find explanations for some complex scenes you want to write but aren’t sure how they really fit in.

When plotting your novel you decide on where the hits are (emotional hits, twists, etc), but to make some order in all of it, you should spend some more time developing the structure, the plot and the story-lines.

I have a word-count method I use when writing stories and novels (helps more with novels) that is only ever meant to serve me as a guideline to where I am going.

To make something out of the mess in the author’s head, there are a few tips that will surely help looking at upcoming novels in a way that is less confusing.

First thing you must do is have a length in mind (note, length is measured in words, not pages – pages vary too much). To help you get an idea of how long your novel should be, use the link above.

Now that you’ve decided on the length of your novel and have your rough outline, it’s time to divide your novel into chapters. Chapters are parts of a novel that function like gears – every chapters brings a little bit so that the whole thing can work. Chapters are never just thrown in – more often they get thrown out if the whole thing can work without them.

writing penHave an approximate length decided for every chapter. I divide the number of words with the number of words I intend to have in each chapter (stay with me, it changes greatly afterwards) and that gives me the number of chapters. Say I want to write a fantasy novel of 100,000 words with every chapter at c. 2000 words – I get the space of 50 chapters. That’s an approximate number I work with.

Bear in mind, not every chapter is the same length – it’s not the 19th century. This calculation will dramatically change when you start describing your chapters.

Every chapter is a special story in one way or another – a chapter is either a series of scenes that go one after another in a logical way or is a perspective of a character in a scene – when the perspective changes so does the chapter.

Quick tip: keep your chapters short in a sense that you ELLE (I just used it as a verb) (enter late, leave early) – so, start your chapter with action, leave explanations for later or make them a logical conclusion from previous events, and exit on a cliffhanger.

Now that you’ve done all of that, look over your plot and describe chapters one by one. While doing this you’ll see that those 50 chapters are too much/not enough to tell the story. You’ll know how many words you’ll need to set up the events when you start describing chapters and the whole math of writing your novel is done – it will be smooth sailing from there.wrting typing

Don’t hold back while describing chapters. If you get inspired, write a scene from the chapter you’re describing and if it still works when you start writing the novel, leave it in.

It all gets polished nicely after you finish your first draft. You’ll do some cutting and adding again and again until you realize your novel is done.

So don’t give up, keep working and keep writing!

Lynette Davis



The Silk Merchant’s Daughter By Dinah Jefferies

Dinah JI recently read The Tea Pleanter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies and reviewed it on this site at So when a friend recommended another book by Dinah Jefferies, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, I was keen to read it, so I took it on holiday with me.

Dinah Mary Jefferies is a British novelist, short story and article writerwho was born in Malacca, Malaysia in 1948 and she gives her novels exotic backgrounds. She is fast becoming one of my new favourite historical fiction writers. The Silk Merchant’s Daughter has a back ground in the Vietnamese War. In this novel, the author has created a beautiful story set during the fifties of Vietnam under French rule. Although I consider myself a history lover, I had known little of the war in which the French attempted to conquer the Vietnamese.

In 1952 Nicole was an eighteen year old half French, half Vietnamese woman living with her French father and older sister Sylvie. Nicole had always felt overshadowed by Sylvie and when Sylvie was given the family silk business to run on her own, with Nicole only receiving an old silk shop which had long been vacant, she was once again reminded of how inferior she was. She was resentful but determined to show her father that she could make her business a success without his help.

Her silk shop was located in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi; when she first visited sheDinah J book was shocked at the state of the shop but with hard work had it looking pristine. But she was nervous as well – the area was filled with rebels who were determined to end the French rule and the threat of war seemed imminent. Her father disagreed of course – he was disdainful of her worries, as was Sylvie. But Nicole was to discover a shocking truth about her family that changed her life forever. And in doing so saw her become involved with Tran, one of the Vietnamese rebels.

With Mark, an American silk trader making her heart flutter and Tran offering her a solution to her conflicted emotions, she had no idea who to trust. Nicole was uncovering secrets she had no desire to know; but once learned she had no idea what to do with them.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is a captivating tale of dark secrets, sisterly rivalry and love against the odds, enchantingly set in colonial era Vietnam. I really enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a really good read.

Valerie Penny


Time of Death by Mark Billingham

mark billinghamI bought Time of Death from Mark Billingham last year at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Festival, but my “to be read” file was so big it took me several months to get around to reading it. Mark Philip David Billingham is an English novelist, actor, television screenwriter and comedian whose series of “Tom Thorne” crime novels are best-sellers in that particular genre. I normally enjoy his books, but I found this one less interesting than most.

This is the thirteenth Tom Thorne novel, so Mark is probably entitled to an occassional “pot-boiler”. Time of Death is a story of kidnapping, the tabloid press, and of mistaken identity. Tom Thorne is on holiday with his girlfriend DS Helen Weeks, when two school girls are abducted in Helen’s home town Polesford in Warwickshire. This is a place full of secrets, where dangerous truths lie buried. When it’s splashed all over the press that family man Stephen Bates has been arrested, Helen and her partner Tom Thorne head to the flooded town to support Bates’ wife – an old school friend of Helen’s – who is living under siege with two teenage children and convinced of her husband’s innocence.

The plot is complex and there are, of course, a few red herrings to keep you on your toes.Mark Billingham book There are a couple of story arcs but I felt Helen’s personal story was a bit predictable, considering the issues in the news currently. It felt lazy, albeit that she brings attention to contemporary problems prevalent in our society. I did not feel it advanced the story. I love the characters of Helen, Thorne and Hendricks and have become very comfortable with these characters, their banter, their humour, sarcasm and intelligence, so I was saddened by this departure.

The police believe they have their murderer in custody, but one man believes otherwise. With a girl still missing, Thorne sets himself on a collision course with local police, townsfolk – and a merciless killer. In Time of Death Mark Billingham has provided the reader with another well written, complex narrative that speaks to issues in the news today. The main plot is tense with realistic scenarios and main the characters are finely drawn and three dimensional who feel like people you know. The ending is satisfying as regards the original case of the missing girls which is cleared up. However, there is more going on that reaches beyond the last page of this novel that is not dealt with.

I was disappointed in Time of Death, but that is only compared to the very high standards Mark Billingham sets himself. I look forward to his next novel with renewed enthusiasm.

Valerie Penny



All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell

hilda_fleming_1296940fThis novel was recently book of the month at our local book group. I was interested to read it because, although I know Joan Bakewell as a presenter and author of factual works, I did not know she had written any novels. Although this novel was set in North West England, with a back ground of World War II, the girls school that is described in it was very reminiscent of the school I attended which was led by the redoubtable headmistress Miss Hilda Fleming. It is fair to say Miss Fleming in no way resembled Cynthia, one of the main protagonists of the story.  All the Nice Girls

Cynthia and Josh, the main protagonists with their tragic story, were quite well drawn but the rest never became more than cyphers and stereotypes for me. The wartime setting is well done, but that doesn’t make it a great book. The story’s a good one, well told, and this is an entertaining enough read with attempts to tackle some of the social issues of the day.

The novel also jumps from the period of the war to the present day in two threads and I tend not to be drawn to stories like that. However, I did quite like the little twist at the end of the book.

all the nice girls joanThis was not a great book, but I enjoyed it because it was so evocative of its time and the memories that returned to me as I read All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell. it is worth a read.

Valerie Penny


A Review of Katherine McCord’s Run Scream Unbury Save by guest author Sonya Huber

This article was first published on 11 May, 2017 on Brevity’s Non-fiction Blog,

Katherine McCord’s book Run Scream Unbury Save winner of the 2016 Autumn House nonfiction prize chosen by Michael Martone, is a whetstone of a fragmented and poetic memoir in bursts and paragraphs. You will emerge from each page emboldened to capture the exact this-ness of your day as a shadowbox-diorama with that exact plastic dinosaur and this exact wad of sponge for trees you colored insufficiently with a green marker (remember?). McCord’s work is “stream of consciousness,” but not a cup of tepid pondwater of raw free-writes or the journal stuff of “why am I sad today?” That stream isscream not the first pass but the final barrel-roll through the linebackers of an extended sports metaphor that flails like a wipeout on an icy sidewalk because what do I know about football anyway? McCord’s layered entries glance off narrative threads having to do with her family, crafting, her sister, texting, wasps, writing, the CIA, seasonal affective disorder, dreaming in horses, and teaching, among a million other things. The binding material here is a voice that flutters like a bird-heart, hurtling the gaze of the reader through the sky and dropping all pretense of packaged experience, opting instead for revelatory and intimate association.

Stream of consciousness as a phrase (William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890, thx Google) was first used in a literary sense to describe the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce (i.e. in Ulysses) and the work of Virginia Woolf (see The Waves for some awesomeness). Stream of consciousness reconstructs with careful attention and precision the feeling of thought with all its bright sparks and twists and rapidity. In contrast, my typical journal entry starts like this: “I’m feeling shitty and I’m not sure why,” (though it’s always vague catastrophes impending that I am sure I can predict) followed by an attempt to talk myself down from whatever current fear I’ve got whipped up into a healthy meringue. But the “meringue” in that last sentence—I wouldn’t journal with that word; that’s me talking to you, not me talking only to me. Beyond the sinkhole of my journal, the associations captured by stream of consciousness present a portrait of a moment and a mind. What I don’t write in my journal is this: These days I’m afraid because Trump just announced an increase of troops into Afghanistan. And that country—never been there—makes me think about the Soviet invasion of as reflected through the 1980s in Mr. Joe Miller’s history class (cinder-block painted in so many layers of yellow that it had started to look over the years like glossy cheese). The 1980s were also about fears, and the cassette “Songs from the Big Chair” from the band Tears for Fears, waiting for the bomb with every day being the day before the day after, and I felt like maybe those dark-eyed men wearing tons of hair gel understood. But what Big Chair? I could wonder about it for hours as if knowing which chair would keep us alive. What kept us alive in the era of the Big Chair was dumb luck, I assume, plus not having an erratic tyrant in charge with a hair like an orange meringue. (Too much? Or not enough? If I apologize, my dead socialist relatives will unbury themselves, run/scream/buy plane tickets, reconstruct their own skeletons to ship their German skulls over the ocean just to look me in the eye with their eye sockets and ask, “Too much?”)

There is something in the details that will save us in the face of the vague and imprecise erasure of the world. Details—like a horse trough somehow painted with glitter that McCord’s daughter uses to store her clothes in—offer the solace of the particular and the real. McCord’s details dredge this “stream of consciousness” that pursues its own fluid self with avid reckless attention, steering always away from abstraction and vagueness of emotion toward the shocking vivid precision of remembered sights, sounds, smells, slants of light, feelings, and street corners. McCord’s short entries string together, given a sense of propulsion precisely by her own breathless quest for honesty, confiding in the reader that she can’t quite find the thing she means to say and so she returns on each page with another angle, refracting and pursuing the quickening edge of life and consciousness itself.

Sonya Huber

Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

M C Nine Dragons authorI enjoy Michael Connelly’s crime novels and recently picked up Nine Dragons fron a charity shop to read on a holiday. Nine Dragons is the 14th novel in the Harry Bosch series and the 22nd book by American crime author Michael Connelly. It was published by Little Brown and Company in the U.K. and Ireland on October 1, 2009. Michael Connelly is an American author of detective novels and other crime fiction, notably those featuring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, which are my favourites.

In Nine Dragons, I particularly liked the human aspect at the beginning of the novel. M C 9Harry is called to the small Fortune Liquors store which is in a tough part of Los Angeles. The owner, John Li has been shot dead. Harry has known Mr Li for many years and is personally affected by the death.  One of the great advantages of a series novel is the instant rapport you have with a character where you have read the previous work and that helps this book get off to a tremendous start as you instantly know where you stand with Harry Bosch.

However, in the case, Harry is required to bring in a detective from the Asian Gang Unit for help with translation of languages and also of the cultural norms and expectations that guided Li’s life.  Harry uncovers a link to a Hong Kong triad, a lethal and far-reaching crime ring and receives a picture of his daughter, who lives in Hong Kong, tied to a chair. He then gets a frightened message from her and leaves for Hong Kong to help his ex-wife rescue the girl. Bosch puts aside everything he knows and risks everything he has in a desperate bid to outmatch the triad’s ferocity.

M C Nine Dragons KowloonOnce the action transfers to Hong Kong the pace of the story is very satisfying indeed. The author could have concluded on the return to Los Angeles but the fact he did not lifts the novel out of the ordinary.

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to others who enjoy Michael Connelly novels.

Valerie Penny



From Light to Dark and Back Again by Allison Symes

swanwick outsideI must immediately make clear the Allison Symes, the author of From Light to Dark and Back Again is a good friend of mine. We met at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. However, allison symes 3she as well as anybody knows I am nothing if not blunt! So when she sent me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review, I did tell her that is what she would get!

From Light to Dark and Back Again is a delicious cornucopia of very short stories, flash fiction. Flash fiction is difficult to write well because there are no words to spare. Some of the pieces are very funny, those include Jumping Through Hoops, about a party entertainer and The Circle of Life, about changing attitudes. Others, like The Outcome, are based on traditional fairy tales. These have unusual twists that bring them up to date and make them fun.

from light to darkHowever, several of the stories are very dark indeed. These include Pressing the Flesh and Punish the Innocent. Allison is an expert in manipulating a twist ending that, even in these short pieces, the reader will not expect. Several of the endings are cliffhangers. These are difficult to craft in any piece of writing, especially one as short as flash fiction. chandler's ford

From Light to Dark and Back Again does suffer from occasional misspellings and one or two grammatical errors, but these do not detract from the triumph of this collection. I am sure they will be eradicated in the second edition.

If you are travelling or looking for a short story to read at the end of the day, I highly recommend From Light to Dark and Back Again by Allison Symes. Allison writes in various forms: fairy tales with bite, novels, short stories, poems and plays. She is based in Eastleigh and is a member of the Association of Christian authors and the Society of Authors.

Valerie Penny

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Art of FieldingI often receive several books at Christmas, but this year, unusually, I only received one. It was from my sister and I was interested to get it as it was a book she had enjoyed: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. The story revolves around Henry Skrimshander, who attends  Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan. Henry is a  baseball star  who seems destined for big league stardom. However, a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are affected.

Large parts of the novel delve into the mysterious pleasures of playing baseball, whch leave me cold. Even at high school, I was not a fan! Unfortunately, I did not develop much of an interest in the main characters of this novel either. The main characters are: said Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop whiz recruited from rural South Dakota; Owen, his intellectual teammate and roommate, who is gay; Mike, a wise older student who mentors and drives Henry to excel; Guert, the college president who is enamored with Owen; and Pella, Guert’s petulant daughter who returns home after a failed marriage. If I had cared for them all and their struggles and exultations, I am sure I would have loved this book. That was not to be. I found it rather predictable.Art of Fielding Chad.

The Art of Fielding is well-written, the characters are interesting enough. However, it is a mediocre story without any magic. The story is one without any magic for me and I will not remember the characters’ names for long. I do not understand the fuss and fanfare surrounding this book. I feel, perhaps the many literary references and themes may have tricked academics into praising an ordinary book.

The author, Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin, USA and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1.

Valerie Penny

Owersettin by A C Clarke, Maggie Rabatski and Sheila Templeton

There is a poetry group in the village that meets once a month, led by my friend Ruth. We meet to share poetry we enjoy and some of us write poetry too. Occassionally, Ruth calls upon her wide variety of poet friends to come along and read some of their work to us. Last month, Maggie Rabatski and Sheila Templeton joined us and read from the new book they have published with A.C.Clarke, Owersettin. Owersettin is a Scots word meaning to say in another way or translate. owersettin a-c-clarke

AC Clarke’s collections include A Natural Curiosity (New Voices Press), which was inspired by the Glasgow Anatomy Museum and short-listed for the 2012 Callum Macdonald award; and Fr Meslier’s Confession, about the atheist priest Jean Meslier (Oversteps Books). She is a member of Scottish PEN and has won several prizes, including the Petra Kenney Poetry Competition and the Second Light Long Poem competition. She was longlisted for the 2014 National Poetry Competition. Her latest collection is In the Margin, published owersettin maggie-rabatski-2by Cinnamon Press 2015.

Maggie Rabatski is Hebridean by birth and upbringing but has lived in Glasgow for many years. Her first poetry pamphlet Down From The Dance/An Dèidh an Dannsa was short-listed for the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year in 2011. Her second, Holding, was short-listed for the 2013 Callum MacDonald Award. Both collections are published by New Voices Press. Her poem Sacrifice/Ìobairt was chosen as one of the SPL’s ‘Best Scottish Poems’ in 2012’. She writes in both Gaelic and English.owersettin sheila-with-mclellan-trophy-troon

Sheila Templeton is originally from Aberdeenshire and writes in both Scots and English. She is well published in magazines and anthologies and has won several prizes, including the McCash Scots Language Poetry Award… twice… and the McLellan Poetry Prize. Her previous collections are Slow Road Home, published by Makar Press 2004; Digging For Light, published by New Voices Press 2011; and Tender Is The North, published by Red Squirrel Press 2013.

Owersettin-catalogueThe concept of the book is that each of the poets wrote poems in their native language and the other two wrote translations or responses to these poems in their native languages. Ann Clarke hails from London and writes in English. Maggie Rabatski comes from Harris and writes in Gaelic, while Sheila grew up in Aberdeenshire speaking the Doric dialect of Scots.

For me, the poems between Maggie and Sheila worked best as they seemed to be closer to the poems each had written. Ann Clark wrote responses to the poems of the others that were too far from the originals for me to justify their inclusion in the book. Her poems are excellent, they just did not ring true as ‘owersettin’ of other works. They were completely different poems.

Having said that, I really enjoyed the reading and the poems in Owersettin are inspired. I highly recommend this little jewel of Scottish poetry.

Valerie Penny