The Pigeon Tunnel

In 2021 I completed the Faber & Faber Writing a Novel course, which came with a long reading list. I’m nowhere near having read everything on that list but it has opened up to me books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. One of those was The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré. I’d never read any of John le Carré’s books. On reflection I’ve seen more screen adaptations than I realised and rated those quite highly. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the obvious one, but also The Constant Gardner, The Night Manager and The Tailor of Panama.

The Pigeon Tunnel is part memoir, part insight into the writing process and part personal reflection. It includes stories from le Carré’s time in the British secret service during the cold war, which reflect on the events themselves, the people involved, and also how le Carré was growing personally and professionally as a result. After le Carré turned his attention fully to writing, he continued to write novels set in that milieu and so kept up the contacts and travels that provided him with the knowledge to vividly and believably portray the world of his stories. He reflects on the real life people and events and the process by which they then informed his writing.

The tone of the book is entertaining and warm. Some of the events that are described are weighty and serious: le Carré never takes them lightly but his writing conveys a comforting and safe viewpoint from which to regard them. It was as a result of enjoying his writing style in this book that I decided I would read the novels. I started last year with the first George Smiley novel Call for the Dead (which was made into the film The Deadly Affair). I found it much more of an adventure story and much less literary than I assumed it would be, and I’ll be working my way through the rest.

If you’ve never read any John le Carré, I’d thoroughly recommend him. The Pigeon Tunnel is a good place to start, even if you’re not particularly interested in the writing process or personal memoirs. It’s delightful.

Writing from the Inside Out

Book number two from the writing course reading list is Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. A good quarter of the books on the reading list are books on writing technique and other ‘how to write a novel’ type books.

Dennis Palumbo is a scriptwriter turned psychologist whose practice centres around working with writers and other creatives. He spends his days listening to writers who aren’t writing. Well, that seemed relevant.

In a series of small chapters talking about the various things that get in the way of writing, like isolation, waiting for inspiration, rejection, feeling blocked, fear and doubt, Palumbo draws on his writing experience and his therapeutic practice.

The central theme is that all the feelings writers have, rather than getting in the way of writing, are actually the fuel that we should be putting into our work.

Make Me

makemeRegular readers of this blog will know that I’m a fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. They’re a comfort read. I know what I’m getting and I know I’m going to like it. I don’t expect to be surprised.

In Make Me, Reacher arrives in a small town called Mother’s Rest. He’s there on a whim, just wanting to find out why it’s called that. He finds an Michelle Chang, and ex-FBI private investigator, waiting for him. Or, at least, someone who looks like him who’s missing. Of course, there are bad things afoot and Reacher and Chang set off on an trail that leads to Chicago, LA, San Antonio and San Francisco before the final reveal. Which I did not see coming. At all. The clues are all there, but so skillfully woven in that I didn’t put it together. I loved the surprise (well, not what it was, but the fact that I was surprised) and I enjoyed this book enormously.

I also got a writing tip from it. Reacher gets a concussion in this book. It’s about time. He should get hurt a lot more than he does. Make Me is written in first person, so how do you show the effect of concussion on a character that refuses to acknowledge that he’s been hurt? Child does it through the presence of a headache but also by giving Reacher some out-of-character thoughts and feelings. It’s clear something is going on, but not clear what. Maybe Reacher is going soft in his old age and wanting to settle down. Nearer to the point where the concussion becomes unignorable, Reacher gets clumsy. Again, out-of-character. Then he faints and is taken to hospital. It’s at this point that I put together all the odd behaviours and realised what Child was doing.

Loved it. Can’t wait for the next one.



A little while agomoney I decided I didn’t want to write any more reviews of books I didn’t enjoy. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t like doing it, the posts are hard to write, I don’t want to be negative, and I believe that if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all. Secondly, the purpose of this blog isn’t to provide a buyer’s guide to books; I started it as part of learning to write myself and to capture what I learn from reading.

I was a bit conflicted about whether I should review Money by Martin Amis because, in the end, I didn’t like it, but, I read it for reasons that have to do with learning to write. In May I went on an Arvon Foundation course. Throughout the course the tutors referred to books and writers that they felt we could learn from, and they stressed the importance of reading for writers. I came away with quite a list. Several of Martin Amis’ books were mentioned and, given I’m not a fan of literary fiction, this one had a subject that I thought I’d find interesting. So, here we go.

Money is an exercise in voice. John Self, the first person narrator, is a wild, chaotic character who consumes too much of everything at breakneck speed in order to avoid confronting the soullessness of his life. The voice is full of slang and is witty and entertaining. I enjoyed it a lot. The worldbuilding experience is similar to that you get with science fiction and fantasy where you’re not quite sure what all the words mean but the cumulative effect creates a fantastical world. Amis very cleverly conveys that there is much more going on than John Self realises. The characters are well-drawn and believable, even the most outrageous depictions of the celebrities. But the pace and wit of the start of the book aren’t maintained. I suspect that is done deliberately, but as the voice became more sober I became less engaged.

There is a character in the story called Martin Amis, a writer, and I found those sections jarring. It’s not just the name. The dialogue of that character and his relationship with John Self don’t feel as true as the rest of the book. It’s self-conscious and pompous. I found it bounced me out of the storyworld.

The plot is that John Self is an ad director who has been offered backing for a film. There is apparently a lot of money flying about, big stars, lots of investment, and the producer, Fielding Goodney, encourages John to live the high life. There’s some blackouts – John Self is a convincing alcoholic – some events he doesn’t remember, some clues that all is not right but John is not capable of recognising them. It’s a scam. I won’t reveal the twist, such as it is, but you’ll see it coming in plenty of time. The Martin Amis character is used as a mouthpiece for explaining the plot at the end. Normally, I don’t like that, but I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ so I was reading on in case there was more to it than I’d realised. There wasn’t.

The ending of the book was disappointing. On the course one of the tutors said that story is about change in the protagonist’s feeling. That does happen, but the change is small and the book is long, and it’s not very satisfying. I felt cheated. There was a lot I liked about Money and I enjoyed at least the first half of the book. The characterization and voice were excellent, I loved the language, it was witty, and I liked the pace. It is skillfully done. On the other hand, the ending was a let down, I felt nothing had really happened (although there’s more plot than that suggests), and it became less engaging in the second half. The irritation of the Amis character contributed to this. And this book will end up in the pile of ‘reasons I don’t like literary fiction’.


7 Secrets of the Prolific

the-7-secrets-of-the-prolificThe 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The definitive guide to overcoming procrastination, perfectionism, and writer’s block by Hillary Rettig is one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. I was struggling to finish a novella manuscript. I don’t really get blocked; I can always write something and I have numerous projects on the go. What I struggle with is completing a piece.

It turns out that the problem is perfectionism. I’m alright at the start of a project when I have this amazing idea in my head and I have the whole book to realise that vision. As I go on, I run out of time and become increasingly aware that what’s on the page is vastly inferior to what I imagined. I know this. The problems perfectionism causes me are legion.

There was a lot in this book to help, mostly focussed on what perfectionism actually looks like in your life. I know I’m a perfectionist and I know how that happened. What was eye-opening was attributing some of the things I do around procrastinating to perfectionism. My inner voices would have me believe it’s laziness, but my inner voices are full of shit and need to shut up.

The proof of the effectiveness of this book is that I finished the novella. I am currently editing it and preparing it for submission to publishers. I got over the mental blocks that were making it hard, painful and slow. I got past the need for it to be perfect and began to be able to appreciate what I’d achieved.

The 7 Secrets of the Prolific is self-published and there’s a chapter in the book extolling the virtues of self-publishing and how to do that in a professional manner. It was thought-provoking and made me reconsider whether I would self-publish a novel.

This is a great book, I got so much out of it, and I highly recommend for anyone with procrastination issues.


I’m supposed to like this, right? It’s a classic. And I remember I liked the film a lot when I was younger. Maybe that was just because Sting was in it. Dune by Frank Herbert has been sitting on my shelf for a good five years since it was bought for me by a friend in a ‘You haven’t read Dune?!’ moment of horror.

I got over three hundred pages in before I finally gave up. I just wasn’t enjoying myself and then I questioned why I was putting myself through the tedium of trying to finish it. There is a question over a cat that has to be milked and the mouse duct-taped to it. The question is WHY? Answers in the comments please.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the book. It didn’t really seem to get going and I felt I was waiting for it to start for the first two hundred pages. The stuff about the mental powers and reading body language and other clues didn’t come across that well. I don’t know how you could really show that working though. It’s ambitious and isn’t quite pulled off. There were parts of the book that were entirely dialogue for pages and pages. That was quite interesting from a writing technique perspective. It worked. A touch more action and description would have grounded it a little more, but it would have taken very little.

If you haven’t read Dune already, you can probably live without it. This picture of a cat is way more entertaining.


I have a new blogging project – MicroRebellions.

It was inspired by the confluence of two things:
1. A quote from Albert Camus “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I don’t think I can immediately become absolutely free, but I can make small acts of rebellion all the time that might lead me to freedom one day.
2. The Microaggressions Project. Proof of the power of the smallest act of resistance.

Tumblr seemed the best way to collect pictures, quotes, videos and text together to inspire and record my MicroRebellions. And to let other people join in with me.

Not 50 Shades of Grey

So, loads of people are reading this book which is apparently pornographic fanfic of Twilight. Seeing as Twilight was offensive enough, but not IMHO that badly written, I didn’t want to read something worse. But, so many people are talking about it that I really want to have an opinion.

Fortunately for me, the amazing Jennifer Armintrout is doing an hilarious chapter by chapter take down of this ridiculous book. It calls out all the abusive bullshit masquerading as a consensual BDSM relationship as well as the inconsistent, illogical, bad writing. So very funny.

What I’ve been writing while I haven’t been here

Book reviews are a bit behind. I have got a couple to do and I’ve nearly finished War and Peace. But the real reason I haven’t been posting here as often as I’d like is that I’ve been writing this:

The London Storytelling Group Carrion Crown Campaign

As a shared world writing experience – i.e. I’m writing it with other people and the story is created through group roleplay – I find I’m enjoying it immensely. I never imagined that collaborative writing would be so much fun. I thought my need for creative control would totally freak out and I wouldn’t be able to work with ideas coming in from all directions. Instead I’m finding that I’m really inspired.

I’m thinking of turning it into a novel. What do you think? Would you read it?