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Kate Sidley

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

My Next Big Thing

I received this blog opportunity, the Next Big Thing, from Jo-Anne Richards, whose fifth book, The Imagined Child, was launched recently. Writers and bloggers answer a series of questions about their books and the writing process and, at the end of it, tag other writers who do the same. It’s a sort of treasure hunt around blogs.

I’m tagging a couple more authors for the Next Big Thing. Steven Boykey Sidley is the author of Entanglement and – just launched – Stepping Out. I might also ‘fess up that he is my husband. Which the more perspicacious reader might suspect from the surnames. Hamilton Wende is a journalist, television producer and novelist, and is not related to me at all. His new book, Only The Dead, is a gripping thriller, set in eastern Congo and Uganda, about the hunt for the mysterious General Faustin in order to free his army of child soldiers.

Now, here are my own answers to the Next Big Thing questions.

What is your title of your book?

The Agony Chef: Recipes and Advice for Life’s Pickles and Predicaments

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of the agony aunt and secretly hankered after just such a job. I’m with Gore Vidal: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” It struck me that an outspoken, slightly deranged agony aunt would make a funny character in a novel. So I started a novel with a character who was an agony aunt who solves vexing modern day problems. It didn’t work, but the character was even more marvelous than anticipated, so I ditched the novel and kept Delilah.

What genre does your book fall under?

Well, that’s a tricky one. I would put it under humour, because it’s funny (really, though I say so myself…), but because there are recipes in it, it is generally found amongst the recipe books.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Nigella Lawson – she is sexy, foodie and fun. Or perhaps Joanna Lumley in a toned-down version of her Ab Fab persona.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A fictional agony aunt solves vexing modern day problems, with recipes, advice and sardonic humour.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It has been published by Pan Macmillan.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I fiddled around with it for a bit and then showed a few chapters to the publisher. They loved it and gave me a very short deadline, about three months, in which to finish. (I may have given the impression that I was a bit closer to the finish line than I actually was) so I really had to knuckle down. Nothing like a good deadline to galvanize the mind. Actually, I just loved writing the book and once I’d got the format and the voice right it came quite easily.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Can’t really think of anything to compare it too, because it’s a strange cross-genre beast. I’d say it is a mashup between Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed and How to be a Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson, but with a good deal more humour.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always wanted to write a quirky, but also insightful social commentary, with jokes and cake. Who doesn’t?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It has so much helpful advice that you just wouldn’t find elsewhere – What is the etiquette surrounding the newly face-lifted? What do I feed my obese aunt? My son has come out of the closet, what do I make for lunch? Also, I invented a whole new thing – passive aggressive cooking – which is very handy. Also, T S Eliot makes an appearance. Truly, there’s something for everyone.

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Loving literature’s prime evil

We love the good guys, but the baddies in literature intrigue us. We probe their motivations, shiver at their evil, spit three times as they pass. Yet there’s something that lures us.

Perhaps we envy their flouting of convention; they don’t have to save the day or make lunch. In real life they are loathsome, but in film they are often attractive, albeit in a damaged way. The best are fiendishly clever.

Buffoons might be the muscle, but true villains are schemers, plotters, out-witters. In literature, the nastiest bad guy is cultured and sophisticated. Yes, he eats people, but Dr Hannibal Lecter appreciates opera.

In fact, the word “Doctor” should raise your suspicions. In the romance genre, he may just be a good-looking neurosurgeon with a secret heartbreak that only a first-year nurse with cleavage can cure.

But think Drs No, Faustus, Lecter, Frankenstein and – one of the most loathsome villains in fact or fiction – Dr Mengele, who, in Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, created an army of Hitler clones.

Now we are in the terrifying realm of the Mad Scientist – brilliant, complex, hubristic, challenging the natural or social order.

This alchemist’s dastardly business is divining the elixir of immortality or turning base metals into gold, reanimating dinosaurs and human corpses, tampering with nature with dire results.

The only more telling moniker than “Dr” is “Witch”. An experienced reader with a fine intuitive mind might also be tipped off by the presence of animal and supernatural familiars – cats, wolves, ogres, ghouls, bats and such.

The Wicked Witch of the West, from L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, displays a classic villain trait – being mean to animals – when she smacks Dorothy’s dog Toto with her umbrella (gasp!). Sporting only one eye, she exhibits another common baddie feature – physical abnormality.

Scars, missing limbs, enormous height, extremely pale skin and the like are a sure sign that your baby-sitter is a demon in disguise.

In your spare time, it might be fun to rank literature’s most villainous villains. An online trawl reveals Iago is widely reviled as the top bad guy in Shakespeare and, to some minds, the whole of literature. He betrays Othello’s trust and destroys people’s lives just because he’s pissed off. He is envious, jealous, petty, manipulative and racist. In old terminology, evil. Today, perhaps, a psychopath.

Richard III, a former Shakespearean chart-topper long reviled as a deformed child-smotherer, is being rehabilitated, thanks to popular interest in his bones, recently discovered under a parking lot, and the likelihood that he was the victim of a Tudor smear campaign.

Little hope of same for Aaron, in Titus Andronicus, who went to the noose with this memorable speech:

“Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did/ Would I perform, if I might have my will;/ If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

That’s one serious badass.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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This Many Words Can Be Enough

A student was instructed to write a story of utmost brevity, involving religion, royalty, sex and mystery.

The inspired creation he came up with was this: “My God,” the queen said. “I am pregnant! I wonder who did it.”

Now that the average attention span … Hang on a sec, let me get my phone … Sorry, what was I just saying? Oh yes … Now that the average attention span has been measured and is, empirically and incontrovertibly, 3.245 seconds, this is precisely the kind of fiction that is in demand.

There has been a surge of enthusiasm for short, short stories (also known as flash fiction, micro fiction, compressed fiction, sudden fiction and “is that it?”). At the low end, the “story” may be as few as six words, but more often they are a couple of hundred words long.

Flash fiction is often linked to a competition, a website or a compendium. Esquire magazine offered the Esquire and Aspen Writers’ Foundation Short Short Fiction Contest. Entrants were given just 79 words to do their thing.

The Guardian asked well-known writers to try their hand at writing a story within Twitter’s 140-character limit. I liked this one from novelist Jenny Colgan: “You were once so beautiful I ignore the ear hair now; the liver spots on shaking hands. Besides, I’ve always closed my eyes when we kiss.”

There have been numerous Twitter-related short story competitions. Colgan’s little story has humour and pathos. In less experienced hands, these very short stories tend to have a pat one-liner feel. Often there’s a dramatic incident – a gunshot, a car crash – to inject power in a limited word count, and not a whole lot else. While they risk being unsatisfying and tricksy, the best are surprising, nimble, concentrated. They are the whittled-down bones of an entire story, with the rest implied, hovering alongside or wandering about, unsaid.

Writing short is hard (although maybe not as hard as 1500 pages of Infinite Jest). An entire narrative – a love affair, a death, a realisation – must live in a handful of sentences. There are seldom more than two characters, and virtually no characterisation. The story is usually centred on a single act. Every word matters. When it takes its place, there’s one fewer left to work with. Every word, even a pronoun, has to do its job, and more, if it’s to earn its keep. Even punctuation is important – a semi-colon can save you an “and” and provide a dramatic pause, a juxtaposition, a momentary irony.

These works are the literary equivalent of a very simple line drawing, in which Picasso makes two squiggles and a dash into a telling portrait, about which you ponder, “How did he do that?”

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, compiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a lovely example of the genre at its best. Thousands of stories were submitted and 62 chosen. Artists would illustrate a story that appealed. The resulting collaborations are poignant, poetic and delightful to look at. By way of example: “The doctor’s wife ate two apples a day, just to be safe. But her husband kept coming home.”

Last word to Ernest Hemingway (I’m sure he always had it anyway). He famously – and perhaps apocryphally – challenged writer friends to write a story using only six words. Legend has it that he won the contest with the story: “For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Scribes put their hand to nookie

Food was hailed as the new sex a few years back. Well, now sex is the new food. In fact, the two have a lot in common, being widespread, commonplace, frequently unremarkable, occasionally earth-shattering, necessary for our survival and everyone’s an expert.

Here in the genteel world of the South African literati, you can’t throw a pair of handcuffs without hitting someone hunched guiltily over a typewriter, trying to think up a believable and steamy sexual scenario. Coffee shops are full of would-be erotic writers muttering over their Macbook Airs: “No, but if his left hand is on her nipple, and we’ve already said he’s reached for a riding crop, then how could he stimulate the.?”

It’s more difficult than it seems, erotica. Just because you’ve had a bit of nookie in your time doesn’t mean you can fill 300 pages with hot prose.

Some of our favourite local writers have been quick to try their hand at erotica and catch the wave that was set in motion with Fifty Shades. Respected crime writer Jassy Mackenzie was first off the block. Her book Folly is already on the Kalahari bestseller list and eliciting gasps (and occasional moans) from delighted readers. Emma, her 40-year-old heroine, finds herself in deep financial trouble. To make ends meet she does what any regular person would do – opens a domination dungeon in an outbuilding in her garden. Wealthy men are soon lining up for her attentions, and among them there’s this rather nice chap .

There’s romance, humour and sex a-plenty. Having done her time talking on a phone sex line 20 years ago, Mackenzie says she had plenty of stories and that the writing of Folly was “an absolute jol”.

Still with sexy scribes, everyone is talking about the big international deals secured by South African writers Sarah Lotz, Helen Moffett and Lifestyle columnist Paige Nick. These three well-known writers, under the pseudonym Helena S Paige, are collaborating on A Girl Walks into a Bar. With just a proposal and a brief synopsis to show for themselves, these authors prompted an international bidding war. Within two months of mooting the idea, they had signed with a top agent who had sold the UK and US rights, as well as translation rights in 10 countries.

It’s a genius idea. Nick explains that the reader is in full control of her erotic choices: “At certain junctions in the story, you can make a choice. Do you stay in the bar or leave? Do you leave with the hot barman or the rich businessman? Do you change your mind and head back to the bar? Depending on what you choose, you turn to a certain page to see how your adventure continues.”

She promises that the book – due out in June – is “hugely explicit. Proper sex, but with a light touch.” She admits that writing the sex scenes was tough, and sometimes hilarious. “You want to write good sex, not a bad sex scene. We agonise over it. Is this right? Is this how it would happen? You don’t want the reader to be thinking about the author, she must be absorbed in the scene. The sex scene must be a turn-on, but it also needs to be relevant to the story and capture some emotion.”

Who knows? Maybe subversive suburban sex will turn out to be the great South African literary genre.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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A spanking success

My hairdresser and I were chatting last week about pornographic literature. This is not a subject that often comes up when I’m having my hair cut. Nor is it a genre that I generally write about in the lofty pages of the Sunday Times. But my hairdresser – an extremely well-read person – had bought a Kindle e-book of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that was so famous and so dire she felt compelled to warn me off it. She wasn’t the only one. One of my book club friends emailed the following day to say (rather gleefully) she had just read “the worst book ever written”.

That it may be, but you can’t go a day without having a conversation or reading something online about this book. Just in case you’ve been incarcerated by Somali pirates these last few months, here’s the brief fill-in: The steamy e-book, by EL James, became a run-away success, fuelled by word-of-mouth and social media. It shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list – before it was even in print! – winning its author a 7-figure deal and a 750 000 initial print run.

It’s got everything the run-of-the mill romance novel has – wealthy, older, dashing, alpha male; timid virgin; fist person female point of view; even the names, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, which could come from Mills & Boon or The Bold and the Beautiful – plus one killer app: bondage.

Dubbed (annoyingly) “mommy porn”, it was downloaded to millions of e-readers, where it could be innocuously and anonymously consumed. (I cherish an image of steamed-up windows in the school car parks, as moms haul out their iPads and get a dose of e-erotica while they wait for their kids to finish hockey.)

Nothing like some light spanking to arouse the news media. Newsweek made the book its cover story, alongside a picture of a blindfolded woman and the provocative cover line: “The Fantasy Life of Working Women – Why Surrender is a Feminist Dream”. Katie Roiphe’s controversial essay inside (worth a read, actually, she writes a whole lot better than James, that’s for sure) offers a number of observations, most controversially that all this equality is getting to us women: “We may then be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semipornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.”) Oh sigh…

Back to the book. If, like me, you are reluctant to trudge through 500 pages of badly written romance just to keep up with popular culture and to check out the dirty bits, fear not. helpfully offers a speed-readable selection of the “14 naughtiest bits” from the book. There are also plenty of commentators and bloggers happy to share examples of the clunky prose (readers are treated to the heroine’s annoying inner thoughts: when moved to the peak of pleasure, she is inclined to express her delight by saying things like “Holy Moses!”).

Update: Vintage announced it had sold 10 million copies of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy in trade paperback, eBook and audio book in six weeks. What can I say, except perhaps, Holy Moses!

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Baby-faced monsters and bark soup

Last week I was in North Korea. Well, not actually, physically in North Korea, but it occupied my mind. I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, which is set there.

Simultaneously, the real North Korea was providing the news networks on the screens in my gym with daily fodder – rocket launches, 100th birthdays, formation marching and the like.

The line between life and art, reality and fiction seemed blurred. In the novel, the protagonist Jun Do, a North Korean “John Doe” everyman, stumbles through a terrifyingly repressive state, its bureaucracy and violence.

He leaves the orphanage to train “zero-light” combat, to fight in the dark and to endure unimaginable levels of pain. His skills are put to use with a kidnap squad, snatching Japanese off beaches.

Through a strange set of circumstances – and because he understands English – he is sent on a mission to Texas, to some strange encounters with representatives of the evil empire, America. Back in Pyongyang, Jun Do takes on another’s persona, and falls in love with Sun Moon, North Korea’s most famous actress.

The picture author Adam Johnson paints of North Korea is a mixture of historical accuracy and bizarre invention. It’s a grotesque picture: No one can be trusted. Love is dangerous – it is one more thing to lose, and it gives leverage to your enemies. Violence is extreme; empathy nonexistent. Individuals are powerless; the state absurdly powerful.

“Where we are from,” says one character, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practising the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

The unusual mix of parody, fact and noir comedy gives the work a rather manic quality that pulls you in and drags you along, no matter how implausible it all seems at times and how distasteful it feels to be having the occasional chuckle at one of the most repressive countries on Earth.

But for the most part, somehow this daring and rather bizarre novel works. It paints a picture of a man imprisoned in a system that strips citizens of all that makes them human – hope, history, safety. And yet, in the face of the torturers and sadists, the bureaucracy and starvation, and despite the horrors he himself has committed in the name of the state, Jun Do retains his core humanity. Finally, inspired, peculiarly, by the movie Casablanca, he commits an act of selflessness and love.

Turning from the novel to the real world, my head still filled with Jun Do, I did wonder how many of the engineers, fitters and turners, scientists and tea ladies went off to the country’s prisons as a result of the failed rocket launch.

Next, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, we were treated to impressive displays of coordinated marching and massed singing of a scale and precision you would not be able to achieve in your favourite democracy, that’s for sure. As thousands of fireworks exploded, I remembered the soup made of wild flowers and bark that the novel’s starving characters ate in desperation, and wondered whether perhaps the money might have been better used on steak. The baby-faced Kim Jong Un, who watched over them, became one with the novel’s “Dear Leader” and the fictional and real worlds collided.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Read Yourself Fabulous

I take broad view that reading is good for you. It improves vocabulary. Boosts language skills and school marks. Improves general knowledge.

Keeps you out of trouble (all that time we spend reading, when we could be out binge-drinking and street-fighting and committing ATM fraud). But does reading novels make you a better person? Can novel-reading create a better society?

Recently I happened on a study that found that fiction readers do better on scores of social skills than non-readers, and show more empathy. (Readers of non-fiction did not show the same pattern, incidentally).

It makes sense. When you read a novel, you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you imagine their reality. You develop empathy. Novels often introduce us to the underdog, the unseen in society. Children, servants, the old, the abused, minorities of all sorts, and other outsider groups are brought to the fore and their lives and feelings intimately examined. In novels, they are often seen as protagonists in their own lives, rather than bit-players in someone else’s.

My reading in just the last few weeks has illustrated this observation, and exposed me to diverse experiences, stories, characters and eras. In The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller takes us to ancient Greece in the age of heroes, through the eyes of Achilles’ beloved companion, the exiled prince Patroclus. In this poetically written page-turner, Achilles is portrayed not just as the famously arrogant and blood-thirsty warrior, but as a lover, friend and a son, a flawed man/god. In Andrea Levy’s The Long Song we are on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the dying days of slavery. It’s harrowing, as one expects from the setting, but also gently, surprisingly, amusing. July, the old ex-slave who is writing her memoir, has a wry eye, and presents herself and her fellow slaves in their full human complexity, their bravery, social snobbery and resourcefulness.

Next stop, London, where the Congolese immigrants exist on the margins of British society in the novel Rhumba, by South African born filmmaker turned novelist Elaine Proctor. At the heart of this story is 10-year-old Flambeau, awaiting the arrival of his mother, Bijou, from the Congo. Knight, a sharp-dressing, Rhumba-dancing Congolese gangster, and his Scottish girlfriend Eleanor, are drawn into Flambeau’s search, and he into their dangerous, passionate life. My heart ached for the homesick, lonely child, searching for his mother, and for the harshness of the immigrant experience, so tenderly portrayed in this novel.

Jane Smiley, in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, claims for novels an important role as an engine for change. She writes: “When I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to mine, when I have become interested in another person because he is interesting, not because he is privileged or great, there is a possibility that at the end that I will be a degree less self-centered …”

When we read, we also encounter our own reactions and prejudices, and our hopes and fears, and perhaps find ourselves a little changed for the better.

Can’t say the same for reality TV. I accidentally caught a glimpse of the Kardashians the other day, and even that small exposure rendered me more judgemental, less generous-spirited and in some despair over the human condition. I’m ever so slightly nastier now than I was before. Back to novels for me.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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At least she’s reading

One of life’s great pleasures is to read or recommend a book you’ve loved to your child. In the early years, when they can’t read to themselves, you hold all the cards – credit and library.

You can indulge yourself completely with those beautifully illustrated children’s books, especially the soppy ones that bring tears to your eyes with their tales about how much the mommy rabbit loves the baby rabbit.

This doesn’t last long, because at about two, your child develops a will of her own and, often, an obsessive streak. She will decide that there is but one book that she likes, and that you will read it 45 times a day. This is the main reason most women go back to full-time employment. If you’re lucky, your two-year-old will at least pick something halfway bearable. If not, you might be reading Fascinating Facts about Camels for three months. No matter, you’ll dread them all equally after a bit.

That phase passes, and reading to your child becomes a pleasure again. A few years on, they start to learn to read. Dan and Spot and Pip will be your new friends, as they hop and jump and skip. Dr Seuss is one of the few who can make all this monosyllabic activity entertaining.

Thereafter, your reading paths diverge. In primary school, children turn to magic kittens and unicorns and princesses. Or soccer stories and boy detectives and fart jokes. As they get a bit older, there will be mean girls and bullies, divorced parents.

There will be lots of tales of kids relocating to new towns where they are outsiders and no one likes them. There will be vampires and wizards and confusing plots involving parallel universes. Not to say some of these books aren’t excellent, but they tend to leave parents rather cold. And no, nobody will be interested in reading The Secret Garden, or whatever your own childhood favourite was, so don’t even try. You will find yourself saying, “At least she’s reading …” quite often. If you’re lucky.

Then, joy of joys, your reading paths converge again. If you are fortunate, and your child hasn’t had her brain reprogrammed by the BlackBerry, at about 14 she will start reading adult books. This has happened recently in my family. I gave my 14-year-old daughter The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

She loved the memoir of life with two non-conformist, creative and charismatic but deeply dysfunctional parents. Walls’s parents’ inability or unwillingness to play by the rules (as well as a worsening alcoholism) left their four children neglected and deprived, living in cars and shacks.

The author grew up smart and resourceful, though, and escaped her upbringing to carve a career as a journalist in New York. The book has many lessons for a young person, and has the additional benefit of making your own parenting look positively saintly by comparison.

Another winning recommendation was The Catcher in the Rye. It may not be the startlingly radical and controversial book it was in the 1950s, but Salinger’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, remains a powerful portrait of adolescent angst.

And reading the book myself, as the mother of a teen, there was an added poignancy to Holden’s loneliness and depression and his vulnerability in a harsh world. That it touched us both, 60 years after its publication, is testament to its power.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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PD James does Jane Austen

Two-hundred years after Jane Austen first appeared in print, crime writer and Austen fan PD James has created a murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

Death Comes to Pemberley answers that question we so often ask of characters we love: “Whatever happened to…”

James starts with a brief review of what has happened to the characters, six years after we left them. Fans will be pleased to hear that Lizzie and Darcy are happily married, raising their two sons at Pemberley, the Darcy estate. But the night before their annual ball, the family’s peace is shattered by the arrival of the hysterical Lydia (the silliest of the Bennett sisters, you may recall), bringing wild tales of gunshots in the forest.

I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice to say that a murder has occurred on the estate, throwing the family and staff into consternation. “A murder in the family can provide a frisson of excitement at fashionable dinner parties,” says our narrator, in a quirky social observation worthy of Jane Austen herself, “but little social credit can be expected from the brutal dispatch of an undistinguished captain of the infantry, without money or breeding to render him interesting.”

At times, James is so spot-on in capturing the cadences of Austen’s writing that you wonder if she’s at some literary Ouija board, channeling Jane from the grave. Take Elizabeth’s observation of Charlotte Lucas and her relationship with her dull husband, Mr Collins: “She consistently congratulated him on qualities he did not possess in the hope that, flattered by her praise and approval, he would acquire them.”

Jane herself would have been proud to have written the following words: “It was generally known both in London and Derbyshire that Miss Bingley was particularly anxious at this time not to leave the capital. Her pursuit of a widowed peer of great wealth was entering a most hopeful phase. Admittedly, without his peerage and his money, he would have been regarded as the most boring man in London, but one cannot expect to be called ‘your grace’ without some inconvenience, and the competition for his wealth, title and anything else he cared to bestow was understandably keen.”

Because it’s so unusual, one feels compelled to mention that Baroness James is 91 (Jane Austen, incidentally, only lived to 41). But it almost seems rude to mention it. The book is so sharp and witty and impressively accomplished that there’s no evidence of the softening effects of age. If the plot fails to quite live up to the writing, and it drags a bit towards the end, well, it feels churlish to complain.

In her author’s note James says: “I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation.”

Not so, Baroness. Jane Austen would have been impressed by your efforts. And you have bestowed a gift on devoted Austen fans, who have suffered the indignity and disappointment of a host of dreadful Austen derivations over the years (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies being a low point).

With faith in belated sequels restored, I look forward to Anthony Horowitz’s new Sherlock Holmes story, House of Silk. There seems to be nothing Horowitz can’t do – adult and children’s books, TV, theatre – so when he turns his hand to creating “a first-rate mystery for a modern audience while remaining absolutely true to the spirit of the original”, one feels optimistic.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Poems to take down to the sea

In addition to the stack of yet-to-be-read books or a fully loaded e-reader, it’s always good to reread and enjoy, once again, some of the holiday classics.

There are some lovely poems if you are off to the sea. When foraging for mussels on the rocks, I like to recite chunks of The Walrus and the Carpenter in which they trick the oysters into accompanying them on a beach walk, and then eat them with bread and butter.

You’ll find it in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Caroll, where you will also find Jabberwocky, another fine poem for recitation, but not especially holidayish.

My very favourite beach poem is maggie and milly and molly and may, by e.e. cummings (who should be read regularly, in my view). The four girls go down to the beach to play and find items that reflect themselves. It ends:

“…may came home with a smooth round stone/as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)/it’s always ourselves we find in the sea”

For Christmas-themed reading there’s of course Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and Seuss’s ever-popular Grinch, and for delicious Christmas sentimentality, you can’t do better than O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. It’s the story of a young, newly married couple who have no money to buy each other Christmas gifts.

Each, independently, makes an act of selfless sacrifice, in order to buy the loved one the gift he/she deserves. There’s an ironic twist (Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t read the story and don’t want to know the twist, skip to the next para) – he sells his only possession, his heirloom pocket watch, to buy a tortoiseshell comb for her magnificent long hair; she sells her long hair to buy a chain for his pocket watch. As she no longer has the hair and he no longer has the pocket watch, both gifts are useless.

Another delightful piece of Christmas literature is King John’s Christmas, AA Milne’s poem in which, you may remember: “King John was not a good man/he had his little ways/and sometimes no one spoke to him/for days and days and days”.

Naturally, Christmas is a particularly trying time: “And round about December/ The cards upon his shelf/Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer/And fortune in the coming year/Were never from his near and dear/But only from himself.”

King John has slim hopes for his list of desired Christmas gifts – crackers and candy, nuts and a pocket knife. “And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all, bring me a big, red India-rubber ball!” Nonetheless he hangs “a hopeful stocking out” and in the spirit of the season, gets at least one of his Christmas wishes. The reader is moved to join the narrator in his sentiments: “And Oh Father Christmas, my blessings on you fall, for bringing him a big red India-rubber ball…”

King John gets more than he deserves, not being a good man, which seems to me the very heart of generosity and in keeping with the Christmas spirit. Also, I like to imagine that, his modest wish granted, and an example of generosity and forgiveness before him, he might be a nicer person and perhaps make a friend or two to share the eggnog with next Christmas.

We can hope for the same – understanding and indulgence of our faults, and undeservedly generous responses from our loved ones.

With that in mind, I remain cautiously optimistic about my Christmas list, which includes World Peace and an iPad.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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