by Lloyd Shepherd

A new book in the U.S., and a new book in the summer

Tomorrow, my second book The Poisoned Island is published in America by the lovely people at Washington Square Press/Atria. I’m hoping things go well – it’s already had a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, so fingers crossed. And I do like the cover.

Poisoned Island

In other news, I’m delighted to say I’ve signed a new two-book deal with publisher in the UK, Simon and Schuster. They’ll be publishing two more books featuring Constable Charles Horton, the first of which is called Savage Magic and is released this coming summer. It’s been a real pleasure working with S&S over the last couple of years, and I look forward to more fun over the coming months. There will be ARCs of Savage Magic available in a few weeks; if you’d like one, let me know.



What modern music will endure?

We’ve been having a splendid time on Facebook suggesting albums which we think we’ll still be listening to in 20 years, amid a morass of manufactured and shrill digital pop pap. I’ve embedded the thread here – care to join in?

Astonished by Richard Pryor. And Maya Angelou.

This may be well-known to a lot of people, but before I’d read this article on Dangerous Minds | Watch Richard Pryor’s jaw-dropping ‘Willie’ sketch featuring Maya Angelou I didn’t know anything about this extraordinary slice of popular culture, during which a very troubled but brilliant man performs a comic sketch about drinking, at the end of which he collapses unconscious onto a sofa to be lamented by his wife, with words that would not have disgraces Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.

The wife is played by Maya Angelou.

I can’t think of anything remotely like this in British comedy.

Bloody Good Reads: Millennium by Tom Holland

I’ve written before about the gaping holes in my reading, which I’m slowly trying to fill. But there are equally vast holes in my historical knowledge. Embarrassingly large, to be honest. And perhaps the largest of them was this one: how did modern Europe evolve from the ruins of the Roman Empire? What happened in those years between the sacking of Rome and the Renaissance? I’m old enough to have been taught that these were the ‘Dark Ages’, a time of ignorance and fear, when the light of knowledge was kept aflame by a handful of dutiful monks on windswept rocks while the rest of Europe ate itself.

Essentially bollocks, of course, and I have thankfully found the book which vividly describes the pulsating, crazy, untidy and brilliant truth. That book is Millennium by Tom Holland.


It came out in 2008 and was widely lauded for attempting something insane – a description of Europe from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle, from Ireland to Kiev and Byzantium, in the two centuries either side of the first Millennium. The ambition is, I repeat, insane. The fact that he’s pulled it off is somehow miraculous (and miracles, and visions, play a significant part in Holland’s story – one of his great achievements, I think, is to combine the visionary with the real in a way that pays respect to the ‘reality’ of miracles to the people of the 10th century).

I won’t try and describe it here. I’ll just say this: Tom Holland’s prose is remorselessly energetic. It rockets around the time and the continent with an almost demonic intensity. The bibliography is enough to make you weep, and to wonder how he did it. But did it he did.

Find out how the Holy Roman Empire was founded, hope popes and emperors reached accommodations, how Cluny became a vision of Paradise on Earth, how Muslim Spain declined and how the Vikings got bloody everywhere. The chapter on the first knights, and their status as no more than than well-armed thugs with a taste for land and gold, is worth the price of the book alone. For lovers of history written on a massive canvas, this is an essential read. Brilliant.

Bloody Good Reads: War and Peace

So, it is done. After several months, I can start a new bedtime book. I can put my great task down. I can live the rest of my life knowing that it is done.

I have read War and Peace.

I finished it two nights ago, and haven’t started a new book yet. It would be like going out to a restaurant for breakfast the night after the richest, most filling meal imaginable. Though not necessarily the most delicious.

Napoleon's Retreat From Moscow, by Adolph Northen (1828-1876)

Napoleon’s Retreat From Moscow, by Adolph Northen (1828-1876)

There are a few works of literature  for which the question ‘did you like it?’ seems entirely inappropriate. Their greatness is a pointless thing to debate. War and Peace has topped so many lists of the greatest ever novels that to ask whether it’s any good or not is to ask whether Mount Everest is pleasing to the eye. It’s just there. It’s unavoidably part of the world. You either climb it, or you don’t climb it.

Did I learn much about the human condition reading this novel? No, I don’t think so, particularly. The characters in the story seem to be subject to enormous external changes which are out of their control, such that their impulses are almost secondary. They are objects on which something operates. And it is that something which, I think, the book is about.

What is this something? It’s most obvious, perhaps (God, I’m being tentative here), in Tolstoy’s lengthy, repetitive and vigorous debates on History and Historians. His thesis is that History is not the result of the actions of great individuals, that these individuals, like all of us, are subject to enormous social and cultural forces beyond our understanding. So Natasha is as in control of her destiny as Napoleon. The only way of navigating through human existence is through acceptance and love. It is a profoundly hippy worldview.

Is this profound? Yes, I suppose it it. Is it useful? In some ways, perhaps. Does it make for a good read?

Ah, well, there’s the rub.

Reading War and Peace is like spending some time in the presence of a great mind, or perhaps a great soul. A soul at peace with its universe and its way of thinking, but at the same time contemptuous of lesser souls. A mind with little patience, preaching love. A snappy paradox. I’ve never encountered a work of art of such majestic achievement which has demanded so much of me and yet which has remained so oddly unlikeable.

A glorious hair shirt, then, rather than a brilliant read. A book to climb up onto and look down from, as its author seems to have done.

Did I like War and Peace? The question has no purpose.

But I loved Anna Karenina.

David Mitchell on self-editing

I think this, from David Mitchell, is brilliant on self-editing. He said it during the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in 2009:

A consolation: as you perform the necessary editing, it really hurts. “I love that line, its such a neat bit, its brilliant!” Brilliant isn’t actually enough–its got to be brilliant, and have a place there. And oddly enough, you cut it, but in a weird way, its still there. It’s gone but it hasn’t actually gone. It’s still there in your denser, and your richer and your better text. It’s in the texture. Books are palimpsests of your earlier drafts. So don’t be too disheartened because its gone, because it isn’t really. Or to give you some Confucianism: what the pruning shears remove remains on the tree in its enhanced vigour. A good rule of thumb: if you have to think more than five seconds about whether or not a thing should be cut, that means do it. In the age of word processors, I’ve got a file called “may be useful one day,” where I put things that are great and that I can’t bear to lose. I cut and paste and put it in the file, so at least its there in case I ever want to go back and retrieve it. How often do I go back and retrieve it? Never. Not once. Which I feel proves my point.

via David Mitchell on self-editing | Humber College – The School of Creative and Performing Arts.

Talking about Flight Club

The wonderful Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace runs a monthly subscription service called Flight Club. I’m delighted that this month’s choice is my book The Poisoned Island. I’ve just been up to the shop to sign and line and date the copies to be mailed out. Big thanks to Jonathan Main for choosing the book and being such a great supporter over the last couple of years.


Find out more about The Flight Club over here. Previous selections include Teju Cole, Edward Hogan and Miriam Toews. That last sentence is in the nature of a #humblebrag.

And finally, if you don’t read Jon’s magnificent blog, you should. His last post, on some interesting Chinese customers, is priceless.


Blissed out in the Theatre Royal

They say (well, I say, at least) that the music you listen to in your teens is the music that stays with you the longest, but this effect is so pronounced that even music you didn’t know you were listening to remains wedged in the lizard brain, impossible to shift. When I was at my most musically aware, it seemed that every girl I knew had a copy of Aztec Camera’s High Land Hard Rain, and every one of them was a little bit in love with Roddy Frame, the skinny genius from East Kilbride who’d essentially recorded it. Aztec Camera never quite resonated with me back then: too smooth, too mellow, too (ahem) girly at a time when I liked my music exciting, spiky and chest-beltingly robust.

Or so I thought. Fast forward three decades (three decades!) and I get an email from a very old friend saying he’s got a ticket to the 30th anniversary concert for High Land Hard Rain, and would I like to go? I’ll admit that the venue – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, of all places – was at least as intriguing as the talent, but I said yes without hesitation. And I’m very glad I did.

Roddy Frame is two years older and about four stone lighter than I am. He’s also modest, gentle, very funny and still so ferociously talented that those of us who play a little bit of guitar were breaking our own fingers by the end of the gig. Roddy played a small solo set to start, and then we were into High Land Hard Rain itself.

Song after song washed over me, played beautifully and all of them wistfully familiar. Some I recognised straight away, others took me a while, but all of them reminded me of quiet evenings in bedrooms in Kent with cigarettes and beer, talking about the future and planning the coming weekend’s parties. The lyrics of the songs seemed to be bravely hopeful and blissed-out; none of your postmodern ironic distance here, thanks very much.

People – most of them women – sang along to the songs, and the old theatre did begin to feel like the biggest bedroom in the world, full of your best mates. I really did have a huge soppy smile on my face the whole night. It might have been the wine. It almost certainly wasn’t just the wine. These songs had crept under my skin and waited there for thirty years to be rediscovered, like old friends you didn’t know the value of when you had them.

So thanks, Tim, for the ticket. Thanks to those old friends – most of them girls – who shared High Land Hard Rain with me back when music was the most important thing in the world. And thanks Roddy Frame for such a delicious evening of modest brilliance.