The dark truth about chocolate…

In a recent episode of Coronation Street, Cathy proposed marriage to widower Roy Cropper,  who was so focused on Carla’s post-wedding problems and the need to collect her in his car, that he brushed the would-be bride’s pleas to one side. As Cathy moaned to her nephew Alex about what had happened, he tried to console her: ‘You need chocolate.’

Chocolate is a panacea to all sorts of problems: its sweet taste is an antidote to many of life’s ups-and-downs and it takes away the bitterness of a situation, sugaring over the nasty taste of disappointment. 

Whether we’ve had a hard day at work, a difficulty in a relationship or we are feeling down in the mouth, chocolate (or it’s derivatives, from sweet drinks to coated biscuits) is often perceived as a good way of lifting a mood.

Besides being delicious chocolate, and particularly dark chocolate, contains plant chemicals called flavonoids, which could lower the risk of several health conditions, including cancer and heart disease. Chocolate also contains serotonin and precursors to serotonin, so it could possibly  increase serotonin levels, which may  be beneficial in improving people’s moods. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical which nerves produce. It helps to move food through the intestines, constricting blood vessels and improving cheerfulness. Dark chocolate may decrease the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome, due to either the flavonoid content or the increase in serotonin levels so, the fact is, chocolate is good for us and Alex was right: it was exactly what Cathy needed when Roy failed to respond to her heart-felt proposal of marriage, because it would cheer her up.

The bad news is that chocolate is high in calories. A single package, containing three individually wrapped Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut Chocolates has a total of 220 calories. Of those 220 calories, 140 calories are from fat.A 28 gram bar of milk chocolate has 128 calories, 69 being from fat. It does, however, contain 7% calcium and 1% iron.

The average Briton eats almost 10kg of chocolate  every year.Some people suggest that craving chocolate is a female issue: such  cravings may be linked to low blood sugar, stress or changing hormonal levels prior to a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Chocolate provides a hit of sugar for quick energy. Research has even suggested that the  perception of chocolate as ‘sinful’ meant that women were somehow primed biologically to take more pleasure in it, the after-effect being to feel guilty. Of course, one simple answer is that people, men and women alike, enjoy chocolate because it tastes good. Moderation is key: an occasional nibble of chocolate won’t wreck your life. It isn’t wise, however, to stuff it down in daily shovelfuls.

Chocolate is one of many cultural habits which seem to be more delicious or appetizing because they are reprehensible. The idea that something is better because it is forbidden and therefore constitutes a guilty pleasure may also be the case for chips, burgers, stinky cheese, cigarettes and of course, that big empty-calorie vice, alcohol.

The belief that fat makes you fat has dominated our dietary advice for decades, but we now understand that dietary fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat. In fact, good fats in the right amounts are vital to a healthy body.

There’s still ongoing research on this topic, but we are now advised  that the overconsumption of sugar is often the main reason why people store extra weight.Excess sugar is working its way into much of our food unnoticed: consider the sky-high sugar content of processed meals and foods such as energy drinks, gluten-free snacks, canned sauces and canned food, ketchup, salad cream,  even bread and rice crackers. Some research suggests that sugars are actually addictive, calling sugar ‘the new nicotine’. Excess sugar  consumption can cause people to feel even more hungry, experience mood swings, store excess fat, and worse of all, lead to Type 2 diabetes. 

So processed foods hide a huge helping of sugar and are to be avoided at all costs.We need to become a nation of label readers or, even better, make our own foods and control exactly what goes in them.

So the moral of the tale is to enjoy a little of what you fancy: it may even do you a bit of good, in moderation, especially if we enjoy a healthy lifestyle with enough exercise and a balanced diet but, as Dr Robert Lustig says in his book, Fat Chance, which warns of a future obesity pandemic, ‘ sugar, not fat, is now considered the devil’s food.’

 

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When to stop and when to read on until the bitter end?

A few days ago, I began reading a book which didn’t immediately grab my attention. Like all readers, I encounter novels which work for me and some which don’t.

Even among  novelists whose work I love, there are books which don’t do it for me. Donna Tartt is a great example- I loved The Goldfinch and The Secret History but couldn’t – or wouldn’t –  finish The Little Friend.

This brings me to the dilemma. At which point does a reader decide to stop reading a book? Shouldn’t we give it more opportunity to pull us into the story? Maybe the next page will be the one where the narrative clicks, where we engage with the character, where we sink into the sofa of suspended disbelief and we are carried away on a heroic journey to a place where our feet don’t touch the ground until the last line?

I have ploughed through page after page of some difficult books, grimly determined that I would read every word and get to the end, hoping that I’d change my mind. And at times it has paid off – Joyce, Dickens, Proust – I reached the final chapter, closed the book and smiled, feeling pleased that I persisted.

As a kid, I used to read the books my Mum borrowed from the library, sneaking a peek at the narrative when she was busy and then accidentally reading the whole thing. Catherine Cookson, Jean Plaidy, Sven Hassel – books set in particular historical periods, usually about working class people, usually girls (or soldiers), and how they fought against gender expectations and class expectations and, due to their grit and determination, made something of their lives or were embroiled in a powerful tale. I could see why my Mum loved the escapism and the small personal victories of the characters in these books, especially against her own background. They weren’t for me, though.

So when I read ‘The Dressmaker of Dachau’ by Mary Chamberlain, I was reminded of these novels, and it is probably because of Plaidy and Cookson- and my Mum- that I read the whole novel until the end. My Mum would have loved The Dressmaker of Dachau. It wasn’t my sort of novel.

The main protagonist is Ada, an ambitious seamstress from working class London in 1939, and how her life changes during the war. She meets a man, she makes a wrong decision, she copes with her situation as well as possible and the usual string of events follows a naive girl with a little talent and not a lot of luck: abuse, pregnancy, imprisonment, abuse, injustice, prostitution, abuse.

I never really got to grips with Ada’s character. She was so passive perhaps she didn’t have one. I assume women during this period were expected to meld into their male counterparts? Ada survives the war and systematic maltreatment from everyone she meets, it seems, because she can sew beautiful frocks.

I have a longstanding trauma with sewing, which began in school. I hate sewing and Ada’s subservience, bent, blinking and sore- eyed over a machine, trying to make everyone else look ‘modish,’ didn’t change my views.

Mary Chamberlain, the author, is a great historian: she has a good factual knowledge of the period, not just in terms of events and places but also she understands the social position of women in the wartime. She uses lots of vernacular to create the flavour of the people and the era and perhaps it was her evoking the characters and their setting which alienated me, all the Germans and the working class English seldom straying from the stereotype.

My Mum would have loved the way Chamberlain writes: War marched with hobnail boots, left, right, left, right.

And:

Stanislaus laughed, a cruel mocking ha ha. She had never known him like this.

It wasn’t for me, though.

The Dressmaker of Dachau was a fragmented story which never pulled me in. The narrative was well-paced but I never engaged with the style, nor did I have empathy with Ada, whom I never got to know any better by the end of the book.

Much of the story is told to the reader, rather than shown, and there is little internal monologue which might have enabled the reader to empathise more with Ada.

How long would this war go on? She scored off another month on her calendar under the table. March 1944. She had been in this house for over two years.

I wanted to know what Ada felt, to feel what she was feeling beyond the hunger and hardship, to really get to know her, but that never happened. She slides into prostitution and even into the terrible events which occur to her at the end of the novel with a kind of passive acceptance. A bit of the Cookson grit and pluck, the ability to fight back and change events rather than to go under, was what I’d hoped for. However, Chamberlain’s book is a tragic one: Ada is something of the  working class everywoman my Mum would have believed in – ambitious and beautiful who is reduced to a victim and a plaything by two evil and abusive con-men, both of whom were not English.

I read to the end and gave it every chance. This book didn’t deliver what I wanted in a heroine or in a narrative.It was not for me.

My Mum would have nodded sagely at the fate of poor Ada. Too often, Ada lay back and thought of Britain when she should have punched the bloke in the face and run away. Maybe that is the moral of the story- women like Ada couldn’t escape the constraints of gender and class and, in wartime Britain, perhaps that was sometimes the case. But I wanted a heroine with more to her than a sewing machine, a fancy frock and a ridiculously optimistic trust in men, offered from the vantage point of lying on her back.

I probably didn’t need to read to the end to realise that poor Ada’s sad story was not my sort of novel. I think there are readers out there who will relish the historical setting and enjoy the tragedy of a slim and beautiful seamstress who dares to have an ambition beyond her class. Ada is a tragic figure, a melodrama queen, tied to the railway tracks of her gender and class while the moustache-twirling  villains ride off into the distance laughing.

Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker is a novel with a similar theme – a woman who sews sassy dresses and wants to improve her life despite being enmeshed in tragedy – but it is much more satisfying, written with panache, the mischievous and raunchy Tilly planning her explosive escape from behind the treadle.

Juxtaposing Tilly with Ada puts it all in perspective. Ada’s Mum tells her not to ‘darken her doorstep’ again. Tilly’s Mum is Mad Molly, with a bad reputation all of her own, and Tilly rescues her. One is a fighter and the other is beaten down, a victim of misplaced trust, ignorance and misogyny until the final page. Out of the two, I prefer heroines to behave with a little more anarchy and disobedience, to rise above gender or class expectations and to think and act outside the box! I’d rather be a Tilly than an Ada but, more importantly, I would rather read about a Tilly than an Ada.

Cumberbatch’s ‘Third Star’ left me startled

I’d just been out with friends to The Star, my local pub, for a very lively evening and we came back home and chose a movie. What better than to settle down and  watch ‘Third Star’? We were all in the mood for a strong plot, with an actor who always delivers a fine performance, and the film has great reviews. We opened a bottle and pressed play.

It’s at this point that I have to warn you, you have to be in the mood for this movie.

Another film which passed me by at the time, Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Third Star’ is a story which many people will love. It came out in 2010, and it will suit people who like bittersweet films with a strong element of catharsis and a powerful lachrymose ending.

‘Third Star’ is at times poignant, comical and utterly credible. It features superb acting by Cumberbatch and his three co-stars, Tom Burke, JJ Feild and Adam Robertson. It was the debut film of Australian director Hattie Dalton

It is about four friends who take a camping trip to Barafundle Bay in West Wales, so the film features some incredible scenery, which is one of its great strengths.

The story line, without spoilers, is that Cumberbatch’s character, James, is terminally ill and his three closest friends decide to grant his birthday wish and they set off to Wales with an unwieldy wheelchair, a pack of morphine, some fireworks and a tree.

The characters are not always likeable but there are real tensions between them which make the story line work well. There are moments of clever comedy and the script contains some genuinely funny one-liners and some surprisingly raucous scenes, such as the punch-up outside the pub.

Two minor idiosyncratic characters help the well-crafted plot along: the four friends meet a ferryman, complete with unsubtle makeup who asks a ludicrous price for the return journey, and a semi-naked beachcomber in search of Darth Vader.

There are moments where the characters bond; moments where the angry James strikes out and moments where there is friction and dislike, creating characters which blend and fracture and a storyline which breathes pathos. It is an ironic tale of coming-of-age.

Audiences will gasp in delight at the scenery: the beach, the forests, the big skies and sunsets and the dark nights lit by a log fire around which the friends meet to talk, to argue and to celebrate. The film is also abundant with visual metaphors: blown-out candles on a cake, flying crows, crumbling gravestones, rolling waves, fireworks, open skies (both night and day).

Some people will find the film clichéd and sentimental: some will find it beautiful, mesmeric and tragic. Some will think the ending morbid and hard to watch while others will find meaning and comfort in the final scenes.

The four actors explore the theme of friendship and male symbiosis well and their skill creating credible, although at times difficult individuals and a strong but changing rapport is impressive.

It is a film which may divide audiences: some will find it uplifting, others will think it morose, but you can’t fault the cinematography for it’s images of savage natural beauty or the acting for its accuracy and conviction. Again, Cumberbatch excels, and it is his talent which propels the film forward and makes sense of the the contrived ending.

For me, the film isn’t a post-pub pic: I’d have been better watching something with more vibrant action or with a tendency to satirical comedy. But when it’s raining outside and you want to feel really miserable, or if you’re in the mood for a film where you know you’re fortunate to be in good health, then this is a great choice.

I will certainly be travelling to Pembrokeshire, having seen this film, to seek out the fabulous beaches. ‘Third Star’ ignites the desire to go camping with friends and sit around log fires enjoying star-filled skies and wild landscapes.

I won’t be going in the sea, though!

Throw away your runners-up medals

Last night, for about 45 minutes, Liverpool FC looked like they might just win the Europa League final against Sevilla after a world-class goal by Daniel Sturridge put them ahead. Then, as soon as the second half started, Sevilla came back with a real intention to make the game theirs and scored. The Liverpool players’ shoulders dropped: they conceded, conceded again and again.

Earlier, on BT Sport, ex-Liverpool Spice Boy and excellent commentator, Steve McManaman stated that runners-up medals were no good for his team. He said he would feel like throwing away a runners-up medal, in their position. Second place is no good to anyone: while the victors celebrate, the second placers slope off dejectedly to the dressing room to contemplate on where it all went wrong.

Even the Mr Machiavelli of football, Jose Mourinho, once  threw his Community Shield runners-up medal to a young Arsenal fan after losing at Wembley, saying ‘It’s the medal for the loser, it’s a good memory for him.’

During the game, Liverpool manager Klopp gave it his best shot, changing the team and trying to make it more aggressive as the players lost shape and heart. He persisted until the last moment to inspire his players and give the fans confidence that something might change. It didn’t.

Adam Lallana receives some passionate instructions from Klopp after Sevilla had taken the lead

Jurgen Klopp was frustrated after the game had finished, but he refused to accept that the defeat at Basel defined either him or his team’s future. He said in his post-match interview:

There are more important things in life than football. I don’t think God had a plan with me to go to the final and always have a knock. I’ve had a lot of luck in my life as I sit here as manager of Liverpool. I don’t think I am a unlucky person or life has not been good to me.

Klopp will go on to greater things with Liverpool. We’ve all been in Klopp’s position. At this point, as a runner-up, it is about self- belief and resilience: that is what decides whether we win next time. And I admire Klopp, who took several minutes to feel stunned and disappointed before he came back with his brave words, which were as much  for the team and the fans as about his own situation.

We have all been runners-up; we have all lost finals when we thought we should have won. One mark short of a distinction, one place from first, one moment from the sale we should have made or the prize we should have won or the accolade which should rightly have been ours. It happens, all the time and our second place is someone else’s moment of glory. It is their turn to enjoy the limelight and the fruits of hard work. Ours will come.

Good for Klopp, who promised fans that he would learn from the second place situation. He could have whinged about the referee, a disallowed goal, time-wasting opponents, but he chose not to, and quite rightly: his defeat is not just about dignity and fair play, but also about the determination to learn from loss and come back prepared to win next time.

Our successes and even our striving for success are a small part of who we are. Yes, luck plays a part, as does subjectivity, but we must refuse to be to judged or to judge ourselves only by our triumphs.

Behind any success story, and a lot of second places, is a great deal of hard work and, if we are to be praised for anything, it should be our determination, our resilience and our refusal to give up in the face of what may feel disappointing, unfair or simply failure on our part to be good enough. Images of smiling victors hide the hard graft which has preceded the success.This is also true of the runners-up. We all know people who have achieved last place and that, in itself, is a huge victory. How many people have retaken exams just to scrape that vital pass grade? How many people have struggled in shattered and bedraggled at the end of a marathon, sat up all night to finish an essay or starved themselves all week to lose a pound in weight?  Let’s not forget that these are triumphs too: first place is not always the goal, nor is it always the measure of high achievement.

So Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool FC and the rest of us will pick ourselves up every time and go back to the drawing board and start planning again for the future. Analysing what could have been better without too much blame and recrimination is important, although I’d be surprised if Alberto Moreno wasn’t moved on at the end of this season, as he simply doesn’t step up in the big games or fulfil the essential breadth of his defensive role.

After analysis comes planning and then action. The bitter taste of second place and the scent of winning make it likely that Klopp will pull out all the stops next season. He promised as much to the fans.

‘We will carry on, I will carry on. I will try with all I have to reach the next final, even when you know you can lose it.We are disappointed and frustrated 100 per cent but tomorrow or later in the week we will see it a little bit more clearly and we will use this experience, that is what we have to do.’

Great attitude, Jurgen! I couldn’t agree more. Ignore the critics and the fans of teams who didn’t get as far as the final and think it’s ok to mock the runners-up. The defeat was yesterday. Tomorrow, there will be success and in between will be a lot more hard work, planning and practice.

I am a great believer in positive thinking and making things happen. It’s about marginal gains, careful analysis, thinking outside the box, reflection on the past but not taking it with you as a burden of blame and shame.

I love Hamlet’s words. I’ve taken them out of context deliberately, but they apply here.

If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

Thanks for a great season, Jurgen. I’m looking forward to the next one. I believe we can do it. Watch this space..

Klopp became angrier and more frustrated in the second half as Liverpool fell apart in the Basle

On identifying the darlings and then killing them

Stephen King famously said ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’ He followed William Faulkner in this idea: in order to become the greatest writer you can be, you must get rid of all your self- indulgent passages and your precious, unfeasible characters for the greater good of your writing. Cutting cluttering lines and plot points which don’t work, even if you are attached to them, must happen if the overall effect is going to be improved.

Other writers have agreed with the ‘darlings killing’ theory before King: Chekhov, Wilde and Ginsberg, to name three, believed in making writing as readable as possible and it’s a mantra repeated through gritted teeth on writing courses, as if some writers want to hang on to their favourite bits at all costs and to hell with reader ease and enjoyment.

And really, that’s it in a nutshell: the reader’s enjoyment. It’s not about writers needing to be guided towards good writing by warning phrases of violence and murder and frequent reminders of psychotic attachment or egocentric hoarding of verbosity, it’s about the reader having a good experience when he or she reads your book. That is what needs to be uppermost in writers’ minds at all times.

Not that I haven’t edited my my work with a scimitar, slashing away at chapters which hold no tension or characters which I suspect might be a little bit predictable. I am quickly bored when I read writing which is indulgent. I try not to be scathing of other people’s work – all artists have had to nurture their babies before whooshing them down the plughole – but as a writer and a reader, I am always analysing what works and why and how, and what doesn’t. I often read a book or watch a film and if there is a lack of necessary action or tension, or a character which has no depth or extension, then it’s probably not for me.

My  big love is subtext: I don’t want a character told to me. I want to work at it a bit, make mental leaps, discern or work out from hints and signposts, and become part of the writer’s way of thinking. I know readers who don’t want to do that. I have heard ‘I want to be told all about the character and to know all the  details,’ and this brings me to the point of subjectivity.

Recently, I had an emailed refusal for a submission of my novel, which I’d sent to a top agent. I could have hugged the lady who replied. ‘You write so well!’ she told me and then explained that her agency couldn’t take much at the moment but I was sure to find a home for my novel as it was really interesting. As a cynical creative artist, I could have written her comments off as a polite ‘get lost’ but these wonderful professionals don’t do that. It’s a busy industry and a no-nonsense one which places novels purely for business and with such a refusal I know I will find the right agent in a subjective industry where subjectivity is really what it’s all about. I recently blogged about two trending top-selling ultra-popular books I did not enjoy. And while I admire anyone who can write 100,000 words and then rip it to bits as they edit, as I have just done, there will always be novels I love and ones I just haven’t bothered to finish.

By stripping novels of indulgence, I don’t mean that sentences should always be kept totally simple, although I do believe that adjectives, adverbs and similes should earn their place. Is it a David Mitchell character, a writer called Crispin, who says any simile which doesn’t score at least 4 out of 5 should be edited out? Clean writing is best but it doesn’t have to lack flair.

I work hard at fitting my narrative to characters and theme. I recently wrote a short story called ‘The boy who climbed telegraph poles’ and it needed a simple style because of the character of the narrator, a protagonist talking about her autistic grandson. However, I also wrote one called ‘Whales and Whispers’ where the protagonist was a young man who had left jail and was travelling north, and I wanted to show that he had  a love of nature which seeped through his language.

I am really lucky to have clever friends, ex-MA students and a weekly writing group complete with tutor on whom I try out my ideas, and I continue to learn about what works and what doesn’t, although I keep a watchful  eye on subjectivity. I’ve learned that criticism is helpful but not everybody will like everything. One story I had published was first hailed in my writing class by another writer as ‘Horrible’ and I was thrilled to get such a positive reaction. She was right, though: I wanted it to be horrible.

Not everything we write will work. Not everyone will like what we write, and I don’t expect to enjoy everything I read although I always start by wanting to enjoy it. In a subjective industry, however, it is still vital to put the reader first and not to covet any ‘darlings’ which we writers want to hang onto with sentimental attachment.

So perhaps it’s better not to have ‘darlings’ at all in the first place. Perhaps it’s better to have ideas and characters and words which are simply servants of the reader, which are either disposable if they don’t work hard to create reader enjoyment, or employable and potentially useful, after a good stiff edit, if they do. That way we don’t need to kill them, just make a judgement about them and then, if they are any good, write them down for pure pleasure.

Up a hill in the middle of nowhere. What would you miss most?

So, here I am in the middle of rural Brittany, up a very vibey hill which has legends of elves and korrigans and spirits and all sorts. The wind is moaning and dark clouds hang. Someone has just taken a photo of someone else and they have come out twice on the picture, no gadgets or tricks used, Very weird. And there’s no wifi and no technology. Nothing normal happens here…
What would you miss most from the real world as the darkness rolls in?

Strangely enough, it’s my electric toothbrush I find myself searching for. And music.


Food is good because I have a bottle opener and some wine, salad leaves and lots of fresh vegetables, strawberries and a packet of oat cream. But it’s very quiet here and there’s no music so I am left to my imagination to dream up what I’d play if I had Spotify.

In a quiet environment, one can go one of two ways. Either it has it be relaxing soporific mellow sounds. Or it has to be noise. You know which one I’m going for up a weird mountain in the dark.

So here’s my top five songs to play in the scary darkness…

Number five

Weezer. Hash Pipe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRQswKjgF0E 

Lovely reliable music with a great repetitive riff, crazy lyrics, totally predictable rocky music which sticks a big grin on your face. Turn it up loud.

Number four

Damien Marley. Hey Girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPXd45pi4Xg

Superb live version with mad lyrics which make me laugh. Totally danceable and it is happy and clever and good to sing along to. This will banish any ghosties outside the tent or camper van…

Number three

Johnny Winter, Hustled down in Texas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-2I5UePDBQ

Johnny died last year, aged 70, another incredible loss to rock music. Now he could play a guitar like a-ringing a bell and such a gutsy gravelly voice. I could choose a lot more of his music but this is one to keep the toes warm. I forgot the bed socks so I need something to keep the feet moving. 

Number two

Jack White/ White Stripes. Jolene. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m5KrPXL4wI

This is such a lovely live version of Dolly’s song and Jack is just the right person to make this song rock. Beautiful, cheeky, clever and full of angst, with Jack’s crazy voice and indulgent guitar. The ideal track to listen to as the wind bangs against the tent flaps.

Number one

My favourite band in the whole world. I can sleep safe with this lot and a bottle of wine in my tent.

Gogol Bordello. Madagascar Roumania Tu Jesty Fata.

Lovely version of a traditional song mixed in with some original Gogol punk. Turn it up loud. Dance. Dance with friends. If an encore is needed before bed, try the old favourite, Start Wearing Purple. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=um1dSSPzc1I

Finish off the wine and curl up and go to sleep safely while the rain batters outside and tomorrow morning, as the tent flaps open, the world will be clear and calm, softened by mists and mellowed in the morning dew.

Then down the road to the nearest bar for a coffee and a pastis before breakfast…

Why ‘The Bone Clocks’ took my breath away

David Mitchell’s novel, The Bone Clocks, passed me by last year although several of my writer friends raved about it. But I am on a writer’s quest to read even more widely than I used to. Everything is inspiration: popular novels, YA, book club novels, clever writing, predictable writing, and – above all – successful writing.

David Mitchell is a writer who defies convention and breaks basic rules and that is the first thing I admire about him. His novel spans decades and jumps from one character to another, each character a tangent away from the main storyline and the central protagonist.

His first persona in The Bone Clocks is a 15 year old girl who runs away from home after an argument with her parents. A predictable scenario which would usually persuade any reader over 17 to skip pages, but not with writing of this quality. Mitchell delves straight away into the persona of Holly Sykes and he is very clever at signposting: the reader knows there are bigger issues out there, just waiting to happen. Holly is the protagonist of the story and we meet her again through the eyes of other narrators. She is the character around whom the cosmically strange stuff is happening. (No more spoilers.)

Another persona is the amoral and irritating Cambridge rat, Hugo Lamb who meets Holly at a ski resort: the subsidiary characters in this section are a little stereotypical, mildly amusing but the section really works because of the narrative style and the fast-paced action. Mitchell interweaves reality and surreality. The result is never predictable or boring and the reader is always carried forward towards what we know will become an inevitable clarification of this strange ‘atemporal’ world and it’s effect on the other characters.

Each section is fascinating in its own right. There is a narration by Holly’s partner, Ed Brubeck, who is a war correspondent in Iraq. Mitchell shows us tender scenes with Brubeck and his  family at a wedding and then whisks us to action-scenes in Iraq which are chilling and all too credible, making Brubeck’s dilemma excruciating. Then a satirical section follows, where an arrogant author called Crispin is at a book festival in Hay-on-Wye. His interviews are hilarious and we realise his career is failing. The subsequent section is a complete contrast, delivering up an ongoing battle between immortals.

Another skill Mitchell has is his ability to bend genre: is this book YA, fantasy, literary fiction? Yes, it is all of them. It is a really accessible book but this brings me to talk about Mitchell’s greatest skill. His writing, at times profound, always interesting, offering up apposite descriptions, is exceptional. He possesses the ability to select a superb descriptive phrase, a pertinent word.

Writing in the role of different personae demonstrates his stylistic skills: we believe readily in the different characters by their voice, their idiosyncrasies, and their backstories. Mitchell is an imaginative and intelligent writer but, no matter how outlandish and surreal his ideas, we accept them as real. His creations of fictitious beings and strange worlds or unexpected actions  are complex but they are never clumsy: we are always in safe hands with his writing.

He is also mischievous, and this is a great quality in his writing. Subtextually, he hints at his own literary reputation, and has an occasional nod to other writers. He is able to bring in characters from his earlier writing almost unnoticed and he obviously enjoys trickery within his writing to amuse the reader. But, above all, he is a teller of stories which are cleverly conceived and brilliantly interwoven. His writing is smooth but detailed and rich. His characters are entertaining and credible within a theme which demands that we accept a dual world of normal and atemporal beings and that we empathise with characters who can straddle and become embroiled in both worlds.

The Bone Clocks is a really good read for people of all ages. It is enthralling and always surprising. Mitchell makes jokes with the ordinary and makes the extra-ordinary accessible, whilst engrossing the reader in the sheer quality of his prose, using exactly the right words to transport the reader’s imagination.