Wednesday 14 November 2018



Thursday 4 October 2018


The second edition of The Inquisitor's Niece has just come out. This review appeared in the Midwest Book Review:
The novel opens in Seville, Spain, in 1514, just after the deaths of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The Inquisitor General, a cardinal and bitter enemy of the Jews, has issued a decree that all Jews must convert to Christianity or face exile. In this world, "A Jew has no friends among Christians." It's not the kind of atmosphere which would encourage a Jew and a Christian to fall in love.

But Alonso and Luisa, the Inquisitor’s niece, prove the adage “Love conquers all”.

Inquisition-era Spain comes to life through the thoughts and perceptions of this couple and those who surround them… 
Readers of historical fiction will find this story absorbing and packed with historical facts and insights that well represent the atmosphere, politics, and religious and social concerns of 16th century Spain. Daily life under the darkness of the Spanish Inquisition is well detailed and teaches much about the era while supporting a compelling tale that involves readers in matters of the heart…

It deftly moves beyond the story of two frustrated would-be lovers separated by forces beyond their control, and into a world that offers hope in the face of darkness.

Historical fiction readers are in for a real treat with The Inquisitor's Niece.

Sunday 30 September 2018


My new novel, based on the correspondence between Nobel and his Viennese mistress (A NOBEL AFFAIR, published 2017) has just appeared from Endeavour.

Three women are after Nobel: Ida wants revenge for the death of her lover, who has been killed in an accident at Nobel’s dynamite factory. Sophiewants compensation for the abuse she suffered as Nobel’s mistress. Bertie wants Nobel to atone for his lethal invention and spend the profit on a Peace Prize.

Set in fin-de-si├Ęcle Vienna, THREE WOMEN AND ALFRED NOBEL exploresthe social constraints placed on women, the traumatic effects of war on soldiers, and the ethnic tensions that lead to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Wednesday 29 August 2018


When an incident happens in a library, the librarian must fill out a report. Baillie’s novel is a collection of reports that strays into memoir territory.
Incident Report 5, for example, is about morning anxiety. Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear –small as a cherry stone, cracks open behind my breastbone.
Incident Report 45 is about meeting a young man in the park, reading a children’s novel. If somebody had asked me, I would have said that a young man with a gentle expression and missing a finger, reading a children’s novel, resting before his next shift driving a taxi, was as good a person to fall in love with as anyone, but that I was not interested in more suffering. Yet she falls in love and suffers.
Suitcase Man, one of the regulars at the library, makes his appearance in several Incident Reports: He never borrows books, CDs or DVDs, never surfs the net or nervously taps messages, hunching over the keyboard, as the others do…He comes with one purpose only: to make multiple copies of the documents riding in his suitcase.
Sometimes he leaves behind notes. They all concern one subject: Verdi’s Rigoletto and the death of the hunchback’s daughter. She’s too young to know danger, one of his notes says. Ah, poor hunchback, with no right to happiness. But this time I won’t let any harm come to her. If one of those men should so much as touch a hair on her head, my gorgeous daughter with the freckled hands…I dropped the paper. I closed myself in the bathroom and stared at my hands. They were as they had always been – slim, pale and covered in freckles.

Friday 24 August 2018


I don’t normally write about short stories, but this one (NYer August 20) got to me. The language is exquisite – ironic since the protagonist is a writer who is having a hard time writing.
To aid the process, he goes cross-country skiing, his skis chattering over the grooves of a snowmobile track. He meets a musher with his team of dogs resting, ears back, with wry grins on their lean faces. Then they range out, zigzagging, negotiating a scent stream. Sometime he goes running. His pounding feet set off the mergansers at the water’s edge, a thrashing mass of windmilling legs and pumping wings.
These timeless observations are disrupted by social science cant that jerks you back into the present: cognitive dissonance, people drawn together by trauma, talk about the refugee crisis with a woman friend who has worked in the camps. They have sex rather coolly, in the no-nonsense way it’s done today or at least the way in which it is depicted in contemporary writing. I kissed her only once, he says, and didn’t really want to kiss her anyway, but I was born in the Midwest, and they teach us there to try to be good people, and to kiss during sex. Is that so?  
But why bother to ask that question? After all, fiction is the most shameless genre. It makes no attempt to avert its lying face.

Sunday 19 August 2018


This is the coming-of-age story of a boy living through the Rwandan civil war, but also of his personal memories and musing about the marriage of his parents, a French father married to Hutu mother.

The happy couple on their wedding day. What music! On their wedding day, a careless rumba escaped some out-of-tune guitars as happiness crooned cha-cha-cha numbers beneath a sky pricked with starts. But twelve years later the reality of everyday life sets in and their carefree beginnings transformed into a rhythm as tyrannical as the relentless ticking of a clock. Now they had to cope with children, taxes, …growing uncertainty, rampant banditry, dictators and military coups and, the cruelest blow: it turned out they hadn’t shared dreams, merely illusions. True, each of them had nurtured a dream, but it amounted to nothing more than their own selfish hopes, with neither of them ready to fulfill the other’s expectations.

The couple fight. Raw emotion transformed Maman’s voice into a torrent of mud and gravel. A flood of words, a roar of insults filled the night. The noises were moving about our property: I could hear Maman howling below my window, then destroying the car windscreen. After that, silence, until the violence began rumbling again, all around. I could no longer tell what was French and what Kirundi, what was shouting and what were tears, whether these were my parents battling or the neighborhood dogs fighting to the death.

But a party is still a party and makes you forget your troubles: The trumpet was doing its breathless best to follow the rhythm set by the percussion. Prothe and Innocent were hitting the stretched drum skins in unison, their faces strained, a thick sweat sliding down their gleaming foreheads. The guests’ hands marked the beat as their feet hammered out the counter-rhythm, kicking up the heavy dust in the years. The music was as quick as our throbbing temples. The banging and beating swelled as one. The wind swayed the garden treetops, making leaves quiver and branches rustle. There was electricity in the atmosphere, as the smell of damp earth filled the air.

Thursday 19 July 2018


This is a “nonfiction novel” describing the author’s experience of rape and attempted murder, or rather describing the victim’s thoughts and actions in the aftermath of the ordeal:

After holding back the story for some time, I felt I had earned the right to talk, even monopolize conversation. I told and retold the story even to people who were not close, but bristled if they tried to respond, to empathize or give me their analysis of what happened. At the same time I felt that there was something staged about my telling. Not that the tears were put on. The pain was real. But I also knew I’d have to act the part, or no one would believe me. Telling the story created a distance. I no longer recognized my own memories, when I spoke them out loud…I no longer recognized the outlines of my own experience.

Absurdly, I found myself sympathizing with the attacker, a refugee from North Africa, who described his life in a hostel to me as soul-destroying. It was not the authoritarianism of the manager, the cramped rooms...the lack of place to put your things, or the stench that spews from those toilets as if from the center of the earth (he said), not the insects, the roaches hidden in every crack, every fissure, under the rickety furniture, or the fires that punctuate life in the kitchens because of the faulty wiring. It wasn’t even the sexual deprivation, or the resulting dreams, the obsession with women (or in some cases men) and the erections, hard and damp under the sheets. What made life unbearable for him above all, he said, was the noise which penetrates the body by way of the ear and reverberates in every cell, the noise troubles the silence of the inner organs…the creaking doors, the snores, the shouting in the sleep, the groaning beds, all the misery that comes out in noise.

Is that why he attacked me not only physically but also assailed me with noise? I tried to escape the sound of his shouting, as if there were shouting scattered all around, ready to spring up, as if shouting existed before there were human beings and humans were merely tools invented to give it an outlet. In defense, he whispers to his attacker, trying to calm him down.

After my ordeal, I can no longer stand seeing anyone smile or be happy. I want to slap them, to shake them and spit in their faces, scratch them until I drew blood, scratch their faces off till all the faces around me disappeared. Their laughter pierced my eardrums and stuck in my ears, it echoed inside my skull for the rest of the day, it stuck in my skull, in my eyes, in my lips – it was as if their laughter existed to hurt me.

Tuesday 10 July 2018


I love Rachel Cusk’s long sentences. How come my editor never lets me get away with that?

The man seated next to her on the plane:
He was somewhere in his forties, with a face that was both handsome and unexceptional, and his tall frame was clad with the clean, well-pressed neutrality of a businessman’s weekend attire. He wore a heavy silver watch on his wrist and new-looking leather shoes on his feet; he exuded an air of anonymous and slightly provisional manliness, like a soldier in uniform.

You could the bells that rang unendingly from the town’s many churches, striking not just the hours but the quarter and half hours, so that each segment of time became a seed of silence that then blossomed, filling the air with what almost seemed a kind of self-description. The conversation of these bells, held back and forth across the rooftops was continued night and day: its cadences of observation and agreement, its passages of debate, its longer narratives – at matins and evensong, for instance, and most of all on Sundays, the repeating summons building and building until it was followed at last by the joyous, deafening exposition.

Journalist and literary critic:
He couldn’t ever imagine writing as the author had written, or indeed, in some cases, wanting to; even thinking about it exhausted him, and he sometimes found himself wishing these prodigies had a little less energy, because every time they wrote something new they also created his obligation to respond to it. The tremendous effort to conjure something out of nothing, to create this great structure of language where before there had been only blankness, was something of which he personally felt himself incapable: it usually rendered him, in fact, quite passive and left him feeling relieved to return to the trivial details of his own life.

Wednesday 27 June 2018


Krauss tells us two life stories in alternating chapters, of a novelist by the name of Nicole and of a philanthropist, Jules Epstein, who has recently disappeared. Nicole hopes to find herself (and possibly Jules), who has last been seen at the hotel in Tel Aviv where she herself is staying. It’s a building in the brutalist style. Its unrelenting grid seems to be a message nearly a mysterious as the Stonehenge.

Nicole believes in a multiverse, possibly created by her own mind. The idea of being in two places at once goes back a long time with her. Perhaps all children have this feeling because their sense of self is still porous, an oceanic feeling. Most people grow out of that. They want to create form out of formlessness and map meaning onto the world through the structure of language.

But doubt remains, especially about our memory, which will always be irreconcilable with history. Maybe literature can provide a more coherent narrative. Novels have to make sense. The character always needs a reason for the things she does. Even when there appears to be no motive, the plot reveals its existence in the denouement. Nicole at any rate wants to escape into that world. She didn't want to see things as they were. I had grown tired of that.

Wednesday 2 May 2018


Erika Rummel reading at McNally's Bookstore

"Sexual obsession, mysterious art, dysfunctional family, and corrosive 205h entury history come seamlessly together in this fast-paced psychological thriller" (Michael Mirolla)

"Taut, fast-moving novel...The reader must puzzle over the way family secrets create false identities just as doubts about provenance destabilize the legitimacy of a work of art" (Charlotte Furth)

Monday 2 April 2018




Thursday 22 March 2018

#Amreading Kureshi, Dermansky, and Nguyen. Am pondering sex in novels.

I just finished reading Kureshi’s The Nothing. The protagonist sits on his wife’s face. Or else, he reams out her arsehole. My sense of smell would not allow me to participate in either scene, and I would certainly not get off on it. Maybe the wife didn’t either – Kureshi doesn’t say if she did. Perhaps she (that is, the woman he imagined) was a masochist and in need of degradation, and those acts had nothing to do with sexual gratification.

Now I’m reading Dermansky’s The Red Car, and her protagonist provides blow jobs and does sixty-nine, on the beach, on a couch, in the backseat of a car, and in some bushes in a park. Maybe that didn’t have anything to do with sexual gratification either. The author describes it as being an essential effort, like trying to do well on SATs.

Doesn’t anyone have sex for pleasure anymore? Or because they are attracted to their partner? No, that question is incidental.
“Please don’t break up with me,” he said. “I need you.”
And, according to Dermansky, she obliged and didn’t.
I wonder if Kureshi’s protagonist would have gotten off his wife’s face if  he had asked him nicely.

But really, I think Viet Thanh Nguyen got it right: Dating in America isn’t about sex. It’s business, he says in The Sympathizer. “A male and a female set a mutually agreeable time to meet, as if to negotiate a potentially profitable business venture.” It’s about investment and gain, whereas old-fashioned romantics see it as courting loss.

Thursday 11 January 2018


Dry weather going through Texas (no surprise there).

Wet in L.A., but at least no mudslides.

And now for something entirely different (and no, I don't wish I was there! The air is too thin for me in the Himalayas).