Mike Recommends: MEN IN SPACE

"There's no one left. Soon I will stop. Soon ..."

Tom McCarthy's second novel, Men In Space, is a masterpiece. A painting on the white wall of a gallery that opens itself layer upon layer as you inspect it.

And there lies its greatest weakness. For it is a novel that by the very nature of reading spans days, weeks, months depending on the speed of the reader.
For whilst a painting can be observed in one glance and then explored whilst remembering the image as a whole, Tom's book fragments into separate satellites that orbit around each other obscuring the overall image.
The reader becomes lost, disorientated.
And as each satellite moves majestically through space following perfectly formed trajectories, under Tom's masterly use of words, the story stays elusive.

"It could be any space. It could be a hospital room, a lecture hall, a street or a sky beside a mountain, like where the saint is in that picture. There's no essential difference: you've got a space, and then a person in it."

Therefore I recommend you get shipwrecked or something and read this book in one go. (Tom helps you here with a clue as to how to read it: There are no chapters.)
I tried reading the last third of the book in a couple of sittings and was then able to see the beauty of the silent interlocking orbits of the satellites that Tom follows.

"-watching it mute gives it a quality it never had originally - a rich, alien feel, as though the characters were living in some kind of outer space."

So what are those satellites?

A stranded astronaut who has no country anymore to bring him home.
Anton Markov: A football referee with connections with Bulgarian gangsters.
Nicholas Boardaman: Anton's flatmate and an art critic
Ivan Manasek: An artist who has to copy a stolen painting
A disorientated Police Agent

Set in central Europe, Tom spins them around a stolen icon painting. And like in Remainder, his first novel, he seems to move them forward and then stops them and walks around them looking at them from different angles as they flay in the cold space of fallen
"So now they're halted, slowed down by this weight she drags behind her like the moon drags all the oceans."

The manner in which Tom does this is astonishing.
Almost hypnotic.

If you like your books light and frothy, whilst drinking in Starbucks then stay away.
But if you like your literature to take you past the cake counter and cappuccinos and up through the ceiling in majestic arcs until you reach a space where fictional lives encircle you as you loose yourself to their silent rhythm, then pick it up and step through.

Tom Mccarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. He has also written TinTin and the Secret of Literature, a non fiction book.


Interview with Tom McCarthy

Article in The Times by Tom McCarthy

Surplus Matter: A site dedicated to Tom's work

Next Month: Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

Continue the Story Competition


Okay bit of fun. Experiment if you like. Often in the blogosphere a story is started and then the challenge is to continue it in the comments.

Let's try it here, where I know a lot of writers hang out, and see what we end up with.
Word Limit per comment is 250.

Have a go, even if you don't consider yourself a writer. Just read the piece below, then continue reading the story in the comments and then add your bit to follow on from where the last comment has left the story.

Best contribution to the story wins themselves a £40 amazon voucher! (or $80)

Ready? Here we go ...

Sean Deep’s vintage car stood out from the madness of blind traffic around him like Braille for those with eyes to see such wonder. Sean’s head span; his car kept traction on the sheen of water as he headed to his local garage. He looked at the railway track bisecting his path: a gantlet challenging him to duel engines with guts of steel. A pedestrian slipped passed the descending barriers. Sean stopped; the wake of water behind his tyres became still.

He tapped his last cigarette out from the packet on the dash.

‘Be still my world,’ he said. He lit the cigarette and flipped closed his silver lighter.

Windows flashed by as the train clattered on the old tracks. Smoke rose before the electric train. Sean pulled down on the grab handle beside his head as if an emergency stop chord for the train before him.

‘Be still.’

The flashing lights of the crossing lit Sean’s stubble. Blue eyes became red, then blue again.

‘If I ran alongside the night train it would appear to be still,’ thought Sean. He got out of his car and watched the train shoot away to hit timetable targets.

The barriers rose, allowing the release of twitching brakes. The driver behind Sean blasted his horn.

Continued in the comments ...

Photo Credit: Kaption Kobold

And now on BBC1

Good evening.

Frogs on the BBC:

"It was a very nice surprise when I stopped by my office on the way back from Heathrow (from a shoot filming very big frogs fighting in S. Africa!) and found your email saying I'd won."

Who's this?

Only, rdb, the winner from the Cornerstones competition last month, who we have been hunting for since the 18th Dec so that we can give them their prize.

So who is this winner known only as rdb?
And how did we find him?

I wasn't sure when Helen picked a winner we couldn't contact, but (wisely!) she suggested we stick with her choice and give it a few weeks to try and contact them.

I explored possible avenues. WriteWords searched in vein through their data base. Finally I asked Helen to e-mail her author list after I noticed rdb made his winning comment on the day she e-mailed about the competition and her interviews.

And that's when we got him.
Ha. You can run rdb, but you can't hide!

Hi Kathryn

Thanks for the report which I will print out and take home to read (I'm literally stopping by the office now on the way home from South Africa.)

Also - I'm rather surprised to tell you that rdb was me.

Best wishes

And who is Rupert? Well he's a producer of wildlife documentaries at the BBC. Well, when he's not reading this blog anyway!

"I enjoyed reading all those crisp and thoughtful responses to the question and I clicked onto the website far too often when I should have been doing my day job."

And what did he think of the prize, which was Helen & Lee's Book?

"I've now read Helens book almost cover to cover and what a great prize it is. If that doesn't kick me onto a higher plane of writing nothing will."

And a word from Helen Corner:

"What a lovely response from Rupert. Thanks, Rupert! And thanks, Mike for organising the competition, and thank you Louisa for sending Rupert a copy of our book."

Well done Rupert.
Wonder what you are doing now?
Last month he was watching footage he had shot of Komodo Dragons attacking buffalo.
Watch out for it on BBC1
And over on BBC2 watch the semi-final of episode 3 of "Kierkegaard's Jounals", staring Richard Chamberlain, Peggy Mount and Billy Bremner.

And now on BBC2

And now on BBC 2 a newsflash:

Mark Boccalatte from Flicking Lizard has contacted Mike French to tell him that his submission of his book, The Dandelion Tree, looked interesting.

Initial reports suggest that Flicking Lizard will request a full manuscript to look at sometime in March.

Other news:

Flower smellers are confounded in a Spot the Odd One Out dilemma. See here for a full report.

And now on BBC2 the semi-final of episode 3 of "Kierkegaard's Jounals", staring Richard Chamberlain, Peggy Mount and Billy Bremner.

On BBC1 Ethel the frog.

Mike at the Movies: The Kite Runner

"There is a way to be good again."

Directed by Mark Forster (Monsters Ball, Finding Neverland & Upcoming: James Bond), The Kite Runner is adapted from Khaled Hosseini's best selling book of the same name.

Above: Official Trailer for The Kite Runner
Rated: 12A
Running Time: 127 mins
Dreamwork Pictures

"-just saw the ‘kite runner’ at the flicks … very sad film, and yet hopeful & uplifting in that bittersweet way - think i’m easily played emotionally, push the right buttons and all of a sudden the air is filled with grit and it’s slipped annoyingly into my eyes again."

O'DB in a comment on the film at the site Go!Smellthe Flowers.

So what did I think?
The film has had mixed reviews, but I was determined to see it. So last night I stocked up on my extra large popcorn and coke and settled down to watch it.


I loved it.
It made me fight back a swell of tears.
It made my wife cry.

And listen, you can pick holes, but when a film reaches out from the screen and connects with me, then it is job done as far as I am concerned.
The marvel of it is that it can do that even though it is culturally as far removed from me as is possible. And there lies the films (and the books) strength. For it communicates against the backdrop of Afghanistan, Soviet invasions and the terror of the Taliban, universal themes of friendship, love, betrayal and redemption.

And the cherry on top for me?

Well, I loved the book, The Kite Runner, which was semi autobiographical. What I didn't like was the plot twist at the end, which was bolted on by Khaled for fear of the story not standing on its own merit.

So when the main character Amir says this in the film:

It's my story, I get to end it how I want.

I was hopeful that Sohrab's suicide attempt, which was a false and contrived dramatic ending before the true one, would not be in the film.
It wasn't and it made the film a more honest story. Almost if Khaled got to show the story how he really wanted it. ( He worked closely with the film making process.)

A few nice touches and bits that connected, taken from the screenplay:

Amir smiles at the beautiful face in the mirror
What do you see?
I see the rest of my life.

I piss on the beards of those self-righteous monkeys.

Hassan stoops to pick up a pomegranate. He walks to Amir, tearing the fruit open in his hands. Hassan crushes the pomegranate against his own forehead. Juice drips down his face. He turns and walks away from Amir, down the hill. Amir stares after him, tears filling his eyes.

Weak bits?

I liked the fact that the Afghanistan bits were in Dari (at the insistence of director Mark Forster). But when the subtitles showed off screen dialogue, like the boys shouting as they raced to get their kites, it jarred and wasn't needed as the images portrayed what was going on.

And in the first third of the film in Afghanistan, I thought the cinematography and screenplay could have been more atmospheric and less like watching a TV drama.

Author, Khaled Hosseini interview.

Problems for the child actors, who had to leave Afghanistan fearing for their safety over this scene: "Hassan doesn't struggle. Doesn't whimper. His face is blank."

Screen Writer, David Benioff Interview.

Actor, Khalid Abdalla Interview.

Read my review of Khaled Hosseini's second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Mike Interviews: Antony Moore

Mike Interviews

Antony Moore's debut book, The Swap, featured here last year and I finally tracked him down through his agent to ask him some questions about it and his experiences as a first time writer.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

Born in Cornwall, I moved to London at 18 and have lived here ever since. I work as a part-time psychologist and part-time writer, the two being pleasingly complementary. I live in South London with my partner, son and dog (brown labrador, kindly but greedy).

What's your ideal night out/in?

I am anti-social and dull by nature: perfect writer material in fact.
Ideal night out: Indian, beer, consequence-free conversation;
Ideal night in: Stella, Conor, dog, The Matrix on DVD.

What is your favorite book?

I prefer philosophy to novels, so Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. But if that's not available then maybe a PG Wodehouse.

When did you start writing?

I've always written for my own pleasure, mostly very bad poetry and searing soul-searching self-analyses in short-story form. Then a year or two ago I got sick of that and wrote my first novel which turned out to be light-hearted and cheerful.

Which was The Swap, what is the book about?

The Swap is the story of one very confused man’s journey from London to Cornwall (ah, the mysteries of the creative process) and back. In his youth he swapped a copy of a rare and valuable comic (a Superman One) and he attends a school reunion where he meets the man with whom he swapped. As he tries to discover what happened to the comic he realises that the past has a way of coming back to bite you in the arse.

How long did it take to write it and how far did the finished book move away
from your first draft?

I find it takes me an age to plan a novel but then once I know what I'm going to say I write pretty fast and don’t redraft much at all. My editor had some changes to make later, mostly to one particular character who he thought should be fleshed out more, but that was about it.

Which character was that and did you find that an easy change to make?

It was the main woman character Maisie. She didn't really have much of a life beyond being the love interest at first but following James (Gurbutt, my editor at Harvill Secker)'s advice I fleshed her out more and she became more of a whole person.

How did you get your first commission/agent and how did that feel?

I sent my MS in cold to an agent, she liked it but didn't have any room for me on her books so recommended me to another agent who liked The Swap straight away. I felt delighted and slightly daunted. I guess I'd had some hopes but it feels very different when hopes turn into realities so quickly.

In The Swap you have a brilliant line that says:

"You had nothing to run away from, you see, in your past there was nothing to hide from so you stayed where you were: reading comics and doing swaps and listening to pop music."
Is this observation about your main character Harvey Briscow based on your
own experiences at all?

Thank you for the word “brilliant.” I think a lot of men are very good at retaining their childhood interests and often (if they are lucky), childhood is a safe place that they can return to as it were when life gets frightening or too demanding. I certainly think I do that a bit. When in doubt I read comic novels ­ Diary of a Nobody, Three Men in a Boat, all of PG Wodehouse, which I first read as a kid; watch football (since age 3 approx); listen to bad heavy metal (around 13); and generally sooth myself with the comforts of the past. Throw in a pasty and a DVD of TizWaz and you have my youth pretty much on a plate.

You had an excellent article in The Times on your book, was that typical of
the coverage you got, and were you happy with the way the book was received?

And thank you for the word “excellent”, you are clearly a blogger of taste and insight. I wrote the article so I guess it was untypical. I got some good reviews which followed a weird and eccentric course. First review was with the big one: Daily Sport which ran a competition to win copies of The Swap. Then the Big Issue reviewed it. After that the more minor press: The Times; Independent etc followed. Most reviews were generous but it is hard to get noticed as a first novelist and I am unsure how many sales follow from a review. The internet these days seems equally important and I have a website (www.myspace.com/antonymoore) which is a useful way to reach readers.

What was your favorite comic as a kid and why?

I loved Spider-man and The Silver Surfer. Spider-man at his best was the closest I got to the existential questions of life that interest me now. The writing was like poetry “only for nerds”.

What advice would you give fellow writers?

Stop writing! Have you seen Waterstones? There are way too many books out there. But if you insist on doing it, then play to your strengths. I know I’m writing well when I can’t wait to pick up the pen. As Homer Simpson might put it: “if it’s hard work that means it’s time to stop”.

Doh! Are you "working" on your second novel and anything you can tell us about it?

Yes I am. It is nearly finished and I’m pleased with it. I have a horrible feeling of tempting fate if I say more than that right now. Ask me in a couple of months time.

Hmm ... Go on, for a pasty in the post, give us the working title.

The only working title I have is "Working Title" which I think has been taken... I'll let you know as soon as I have one (and I'll expect the pasty by return post.)

I think you just tricked me out of a pasty! Okay finally, I have to ask this as a fellow Cornishman, do you miss the sea living in London?

I do miss the sea. I try to get down to Cornwall at least once a year and it is like refinding part of myself. But I love London too so when I’m a wealthy author who JK Rowling rings for financial advice I will have a cottage by the sea and a penthouse in town. “Anyday now.”

Thanks Antony, good luck with the new book and thanks for agreeing to do the interview.


For this interview in the printed edition of TVFH visit here.

Submission to Flicking Lizard

Sent off a submission of The Dandelion Tree to new publisher Flicking Lizard last week. Flicking Lizard is a new small publisher run by an Australian Mark Boccalatte, who has emigrated to England.

This is not him:

But it a lizard.

Read an interview with him (no not the lizard) here.

Will let you know how it goes.


Agents and Swedish Dogs Save the World

A new Year!

What was I doing last January?

O yes ...

I was approaching specific agents with a view to them taking me on with my book, The Dandelion Tree. Here's what happened with one agent, who is part of a large well known UK agency ...

Bit nervous, but I picked up the phone to try and talk to ------- to discuss my work. They were recommended as an agent who might be interested in my stuff, by someone in the industry. I had checked his web-site out and read some debut novels by authors he had on his books and he did seem to like stuff that was off centre slightly.

Couldn't get through the receptionist to them. Instead asked to be put through to their assistant.
Great, had a chat and sent a synopsis and first three chapters care of the assistant to the agent, explaining that I have only sent it to him and one other agent.
Made a cup of coffee.

Weeks pass.

Tum te tum.

Send a polite e-mail to the agent, checking he had received my submission.

Tum te tum.

Weeks pass.

Phone the assistant just to check that the agent received my submission.
"Hold on."
"It's on his desk now, you should hear something in a few days."
"Great, thanks."

Weeks pass.

Swish, thud.
Arh, my submission.
I open it, probably a rejection as he has used my SAE.

Yes a standard rejection with the returned manuscript.
Not right for them.
Fair enough.

Thing is I don't remember being:

A Swedish
B A girl
C To have scribbled some drawings of a dog with fleas with a story about how it gets rid of them to save the planet

I ring the assistant.
"O, sorry."
"It's just that I'm concerned my stuff is winging its way to a woman in Sweden."
"No, I can assure you it's not, he still has it."
"Right, that's a relief, was worried for a moment there."
Send e-mail to the agent just to clarify.

Weeks pass.
Tum te tum.

More weeks pass.

Ring the assistant.
"Er, no sorry haven't you heard from us? No we would have looked at it by now. No it would have been a no."
"Thank you." ( Silently mutter: That's because my submission rejection is in Sweden isn't it?)

So there we go. A true story.
I'm really hoping I get a bit further this year with getting my book published!


Photo credit: tefeari (Modified: The pic of the dog and fleas is to a similar standard as in the submission: I kid you not!)