Tuesday, 6 November 2007

MGHarris.net is almost ready and I'm moving the blog...

Thanks to all you lovely readers for reading this blog. I have been working on a new site which will be hosted at MGHarris.net

All the old blog posts are there, and also your kind comments.

(Lucas has beaten most of you to it and discovered it all on his own...)

To those of you who have subscribed to this blog via email, you'll hopefully be pleased to know that I've set up the same facility on the new site.

So that's it for my Blogger blog. My next post will be on MGHarris.net and only there. I've spent the evening learning how to use the Wordpress CMS and I think I'm good-to-go. Not an expert user yet but then you don't want the site crowded by too many widgets...

Meanwhile, Gareth Stranks, where are you? We need to talk about designing me a new Website header...
Hope to see you all at MGHarris.net! And thanks to my wonderful agent Peter for all his help setting me up with Wordpress when I was in Mexico.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Extras by BlackBerry

I believe I have already mentioned my adddiction to my BlackBerry Pearl. Not since the luscious Palm Vx have I been so taken by a gadget. The iPhone looks very pretty but it will take a while to convince me to part with my CrackBerry.
Meeting a group of independent, London-based booksellers last week I realise that the anecdote which they seemed to enjoy most during the after-dinner conversation was the one which followed a throaway comment of mine about how most of the 'extras' in the book 'Invisible City' had in fact been written abroad and on a BlackBerry. By sheer coincidence I kept receiving emails from the desk editor at Scholastic asking for urgent additions to the book, and was always away from home at the time.
For example: the text of the integral code which readers can track throughout the book, solve and win an iPod, was written late one evening in a bar in a hotel in Nimes, France. Not because I was drinking, but I needed peace and quiet and the hotel was very quiet at night.
For example: the Q&As (if they include them) were received very early in the morning whilst we were on the isolated, corally beach near Tulum, Mexico. I had jet lag and there was no internet access in the hotel so wound up typing out the whole reply on the BlackBerry, under the bedcovers whilst the rest of my family slept. Then I went out and finished it as the sun was coming up.
What would I do without my BlackBerry? I would miss deadlines, that's what.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Day of the Dead

Calaveras de dulce - sugar skulls on sale in Cancun's Market 23

Well, I'm back. I was going to post a very jolly thing about Day of the Dead and the party we had last night to celebrate the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos, but it seems rather crass given that for thousands of Mexicans in Tabasco state, yesterday was one major disaster - the awful floods.

Earlier this year, photos of Oxford flooded made it onto international news and resulted in my Mexican relatives sending me anxious emails. A bit of a turn-around - normally we're the ones calling about earthquakes or volcanic eruptions (part of my family comes from a small town near the active volcano Popocatepetl).

Anyway, from the looks of it Tabasco state has got it pretty bad indeed, but so far not many people dead, thank God. Either it's a miracle or Mexico isn't so third-world as the outside world likes to portray it.

It's been a busy, busy week and I started it by being ill with some virus. Had to go to London to do stuff with the publishers and only started to feel better yesterday. Then I set myself up as the cocktail mixer for the party, making margaritas and daiquiris, sampling all batches of course. Feeling a bit delicate again to be honest...

"Invisible City" has been selected by the trade magazine "Publishing News" as one of its February Picks with a very nice review that head of publicity at Scholastic passed on to me:
"Conspiracy and intrigue, complemented by non-stop action and excellent characterisation make this an exciting debut. Think Young Bond/CHERUB levels of potential. Plus the cover is really cool."
The publishers and I are all pretty chuffed by that...

Friday, 26 October 2007

Shopping in a Mexican market

In the artesanias market, Tulum
I love shopping in Mexican markets. In fact a visit to Mexico isn't complete without one. They smell of tropical fruit but even stronger of fish and meat; they're colourful and messy.
This morning we went to Cancun's non-glitzy downtown, were the locals live and shop, to Market 23, where my sister had advised me that I could shop for Day of the Dead decorations and sweets - the typical decorated sugar skulls. I'll post photos around the time of 2nd November...
The photo above shows the Tulum shop where I shopped for Mayan souvenirs to show to readers. Yanno, one day, if anyone ever invites me to talk at a school or anything. This guy gave me some great deals.
Yeah right. He first offered me a price based on the marketing law of pricing: wherever possible, charge offensive minus a penny. But for me, there was a deal. I was offered the goods at a price of offensive minus tuppence.
There's a lot of this in Mexico now. What with the Big Tourism and everything, prices in tourist traps such as Tulum, Cancun and Playa del Carmen are pretty steep. Things were much cheaper at the deserted huts outside Becan, Chicanna and Calakmul.
There just wasn't much for sale.
Tourists don't visit Cancun's Market 23 though. It's strictly for locals. Bargain city.
Been taking photos of Joshua-related things. I'll be adding them to my site sometime soon...

Monday, 22 October 2007

Bugged Out in Calakmul

Our daughter on top of Structure VI at Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico

If you've never heard of the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, don't worry. Neither have most Mexicans. That includes people in the tourist industry and work just a few hours away. It also includes the people who set up the otherwise excellent Mayan museum at Chetumal, the state capital of Quintana Roo and at 3.5 hours away, the nearest large town to Calakmul.

But back in the day, Calakmul was the local city-state; 'the day' being roughly in the middle of the seventh century. Calakmul was the Snake Kingdom, vying for power with the huge city-state of Tikal (now in Guatemala).

The ruins of Calakmul are not what you'd call particularly accessible - even now when there's a paved road which takes you all through the 50km of surrounding bioreserve . Until quite recently though it really was lost in the jungle. Archaeologists are only starting to uncover the history of the region. A major breakthrough came with the decipherment by Mayanist David Stuart of an inscription on a staircase at Dos Pilas. (See Maya Hieroglyphs Recount "Giant War" in National Geographic).

(There's a recent issue of National Geographic with several great articles about recent findings in Mayan archaeology.)

Visiting the ruins at Calakmul, as well as those at nearby Chicanna and Becan, gave me the biggest 'discovery' buzz I've ever had at an archaeological site. Unlike other sites such as Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, El Tajin, Teotihuacan and Tula, the ruins at these three Campeche sites have been left relatively uncleared. The trees have been left growing between the main excavated structures, and in many cases, left growing out of the actual temples, as in the photo above.

There are howler monkeys and spider monkeys in the woods. They swing through the trees watching you progress along the trail.

That, plus the fact that in all these places we were practically the only people visiting the sites, gave us the feeling of what it must have been to discover these places...kind of like John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, the latter was the artist who produced such evocative pictures as the one shown below.

The downside is the mosquitoes, and the heat. The ruins of Calakmul and Chicanna are accessed by walking down a jungle trail, during which a cloud of vicious mosquitoes surround you and munch on every scrap of exposed flesh. Insect repellent may cut your bites down to twenty or so. Stop moving and they'll settle for a good, steady drink of your blood.

But heck. It's worth it.

Friday, 19 October 2007

At Last, Becan

becan ix
Originally uploaded by

We visited Becan yesterday, a ruined Mayan city in the state of Campeche. Readers of The Joshua Files will know the significance of this place - no spoilers please!!!

After the carnival of Tulum, Becan was a wonderful experience. Can you believe that we were the only people visiting this amazing monument? Yes, for the two hours we were there we had the whole place to ourselves. No other tourists, no tour guides, no vendors hassling us. Just the sounds of the surrounding jungle. And the racket we made - two children can't be silent after all.

You catch a glimpse the summit of the tallest pyramid, Structure IX, over the tops of surroundings trees as you approach from the main road, Highway 186.

Closer though everything is shrouded in dense jungle, so you walk through trees and then notice stones and steps from the base of the temples, cool grey in the midst of green; leaves, creepers and a mossy ground. At Becan the temples really do appear to rise up out of the jungle.

Becan has four really huge structures which are quite well restored; Structures II, VIII, IX and X. There are a large number of other buildings too, but many are still swallowed by the jungle. I wonder why the place isn't more well-known. I suspect it's only recently been restored to this level. I saw photos of Structure IX years ago and the staircase was a pile of rubble. Now though, as you can see, this side of the temple is quite well restored, with the staircase good and sharp all the way to the top.

We didn't climb this one - there was a helpful rope but also a note saying 'please don't climb the pyramid'.

We did however climb Structure VIII, from where we took this photo. And my cousin Oscar and daughter couldn't resist crawling into a tunnel on Structure X, where they found a chamber with bats...

My valiant husband tried again to take some non-hideous photos of me for the publishers. About 90% were gruesome, but we do have some usable candidates now, especially if Photoshop can help out. The sun was beating down on us most of the time, and I was the only one allowed to use the brow-mopping cloth, so this 'photo shoot' was none too comfortable.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Lake Bacalar

Lake Bacalar
Originally uploaded by

Finally a chance to swim in the biggest and bluest freshwater lake I've ever seen. In southern Quintana Roo state, this lake was known by the Maya, apparently, as the Lake of Seven Hues. The aqua coloured parts are where the base is shallow and sandy.

We ate fish fajitas, ceviche and Mexican beer in a lovely little garden restaurant on the edge of the vast lake, which stretches for miles. Hardly anyone around and nortenos playing on the loud stereo. It felt really nice and properly Mexican. I thought of my uncles in Mexico City and felt a bit guilty that we weren't sharing this with any of them.

Still - cousin Oscar Raul arrives tomorrow! And then it's off down Highway 186 to Becan.

There have been a lot of blue Nissan Tsurus around, ooer. Readers of Joshua Files will know what I mean...

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Tulum - my how you've changed!

No Internet access here, but my BlackBerry is working so I've been sitting on the beach outside our room (about 30 meters from the sea) exchanging emails with my agent and the desk editor at Scholastic re some final touches for the book.

Tulum has changed a lot since I was here with my husband and fellow biochemistry student, Becs, almost 20 years ago. Back then we hired a taxi for $80 US dollars and the taxi guy drove us down from Cancun, hung around the makeshift car park while we traipsed around the ruins, carefree as you like. On the tiny but gorgeous beach by the ruins we met some people from Didsbury, Manchester of all places (where I grew up). The sea was rough that day. The whole area was experiencing the beginning of what would become a tropical storm. We drove back along the coastal road with the windows down - no aircon and stopped en route for a swim at the blue, blue lagoon of Xel-Ha. (pronounced shell-ha)

Around 3 weeks later the storm became Hurricane Gilbert and devastated Tulum.

These days Tulum is a BIG tourist trap, Xel-Ha too. Big car park, coach loads arriving all day long, massive arts and crafts shops and restaurants. Official tourist guides take you round and give you a terrific spiel, all the latest findings. No more free wandering around the ruins, no more clambering over the pyramids.

Ernie, our Mayan guide explained how all 52 structures in Tulum played their part in a ceremonial centre which also functioned as an astronomical and weather calculator. He showed us the place where at around 5am on 13 November the light from the rising sun passes though a small window in one temple and lights up the door in the surrounding wall - to the west. This would be the signal to harvest the last of the crops before winter. Another portal would trap light to signal the time to sow. And by an amazing feat of engineering,the Temple of the Wind God uses a pole and a temple window to raise the alarm of an approaching hurricane, whistling like a flute when the wind speeds start to get dangerous.

Tulum is a city with natural protection from invaders - mangrove swamps to the west, the Caribbean to the east and offshore, a long reef which prevented Spanish from landing anywhere close. So why did they need to build a 6ft high wall all the way around the ceremonial centre? It's the only example of such a wall in a Mayan city.

Ernie gave us the latest explanation - and it's ingenious. "Tulum's biggest danger was always the hurricane" he said. "Where do you put 2000 people in a place like this, to protect them from the hurricane?" The buildings held at most 600 people - and they were in danger of having their palm rooftops ripped away. The answer was this: the wall. It was long enough for all 2000 people to line up behind the wall as a shelter.

Ernie is a bona fide Mayan - comes from a tiny place deep in the interior of the Yucatan peninsula. "If you want to see the real Mayan people," he chuckled, "get a guide to take you in a 4x4, and tell him you want to go where the tourists don't go. He'll take you where you won't hear a word of Spanish - only Maya."

Well maybe next time. Our kids are way too whingey for that right now. The heat and crowds of Tulum got to them. Chances are that Becan and Calakmul - in the Campeche jungle to the south - is going to be too much.

All the way down from Playa del Carmen, the highway cuts through the jungle. I peered into the trees. Poor Josh Garcia - in "Invisible City" he spends hours lost in there. Me - I wouldn't dare to step 20 meters into that place.

Tomorrow, Chetumal, the state capital of Quintana Roo and the place where Josh's Mayan adventure begins...

Monday, 15 October 2007

Reasons to visit Mexico #1 Breakfast

mexican breakfast
Originally uploaded by mgharris

Here’s one of the things I really miss about Mexico; food!

Yesterday cousin Rodrigo explained how come he left Manchester so suddenly last year.

“I missed my Mexican food, and my mum. I’d had enough of sandwiches, pizzas and kebabs. So I bought a ticket and surprised everyone.”

The photo shows chilaquiles (fried corn tortillas cooked in stock and green tomato and chili sauce, with onions and optional sour cream), refried beans and fried potatoes and peppers.

The relief of eating this after 3 years…

Cancun - is this really Mexico?

The beach at Cancun's Hilton hotel

Cancun was a fairly newish resort with about fifteen (big) hotels when I first visited in 1981. The airport was one small terminal and a strip cut into the forest of coconut palms.

It doesn't feel much like the rest of Mexico. Everything is charged in dollars and pesos also. It all feels a bit too organised and tidy to be real Mexico. I'm not wild about Cancun, but it this hotel is very comfortable.

It’s my fourth visit since then. Much has changed. We arrived to a Cancun airport that looks as big as Mexico City’s. At the car rental office a blue-eyed guy in a white cap began to chat with me in typical friendly Mexican fashion. My daughter growled at me for telling our life story to the first person who asked. But that’s how Cancun is. We want to know your life story, thanks very much. How else can we know which of the various services we have on offer to sell you? And my daughter is right, I’m probably way too friendly.

This guy and I had discussed: 1) the lack of a Mexican community in the UK, 2) the shocking state of our native Mexico City (I’m from Coyoacan, he’s from nearby neighbourhood Colonia del Valle), 3) the lamentable record of Mexico’s most corrupt former presidents and their responsibility for the disintegration of Mexican society, 4) the growing influence of Columbian drug lords on Mexico (he reckons plane after plane lands in Cancun loaded with Colombian cocaine, with airport air officials bribed/threatened into turning a blind eye); all this before he finally tried in a very relaxed fashion to sell us a tour or a time share apartment. “I can’t exactly buy a time-share from you, not when my sister sells time-shares, “ I told him. He blinked and nodded in agreement. “But come and have a day at the resort, drinks, watersports, as my guest anyway, no pressure, any time you like.”

This morning the sea is rough but already looks turquoise, the sky is filled with bunched clouds, the pools at this hotel seem infinite (and there’s a huge infinity pool), people are out training.

My lovely cousin Rodrigo just happens to work at the hotel we booked into. He’s studying International Tourism at Uni. Classes from 7am, and works reception in the evenings. A tough life, he admitted, but he loves it. He upgraded our rooms and breakfasts, and left us a delicious chocolate truffle cake in the room…

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Yay Smithies et al, the Nobel prize is yours...!

And the prize goes to...the gene targeting guys!

There'll be a few more scientists I used to know gnashing their teeth this week as more of their friends win the Nobel prize and they don't.

(I once heard of one guy who would get wildly depressed with jealousy every year that one of his friends and not him joined the Nobel prize-winners club. I wrote a short story about it...which shall remain unpublished or because I named actual real scientists I know, to make it funnier... This story is handwritten in a drawer and I show it to me special science friends once in a while, for a giggle. The coda to this tale is that the guy in question finally did win. Obviously I can't name any names...)

This year the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to the Sir Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies, the guys who developed the technologies for creating a mouse with a gene 'knocked out'. This means that you could look at the effect, in theory, of a single gene in a mouse, by creating a mouse that was normal in every way except that it lacked, say, the haemoglobin gene.
The early days of any new technique are always fraught with difficulties. I came into the gene targeting game in 1993, early-ish, but quite a few mouse knockouts had already been done. It still wasn't easy though. Nowadays I bet rich labs just order a knockout mouse via the Web...

I was put on a project to knockout a gene called the FGFR3 - fibroblast growth factor receptor 3. It's an interesting gene because a single mutation - one tiny change in the DNA code - results in the condition known as achondroplasia - aka dwarfism.

The first thing I had to do was to 'restriction map' the DNA in the chromosome - i.e. make a map of all the sites where 'restriction' enzymes could specifically cut into the DNA. Since DNA is too tiny to cut with scissors, molecular biologists use these naturally occuring enzymes to snip DNA into pieces. It's just a matter of knowing which enzymes cut where and then picking your tools; the enzymes which will cut you out a nice chunk of precisely tailored DNA.

The mouse FGFR3 gene was spread over quite a large region of DNA so I used this delish and elegant new method that I'd read about. It worked like you wouldn't believe, first time too!

I'd just mapped the FGFR3 gene and got partway into making the 'knockout construct' - the DNA molecule that you use to inject into mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells - a first stage towards the knockout mouse (the stage that Smithies contributed to the whole process).

And then a Big Hot Lab in the USA published the FGFR3 knockout mouse in a Damn Hot Journal.

Bah. So that was several months of my work down the drain! I went to see my boss. Did he know that Big Hot Lab had a couple of postdocs and a techie or two on the same project as little me?Hmmm, he said and peered hard at his computer screen, as if something rather canny had just occurred to him. "I may have heard a rumour or two..."

And that's why I didn't develop the FGFR3 knockout mouse and get a Cell paper and why I ultimately gave up science and had to do other things. Yes, but for that I might never have written a single novel.

Meanwhile, Oliver Smithies. I heard him talk once. What a character! He's a Brit - a Yorkshireman I think (I may have remembered that wrong). but lives in North Carolina now. He flew in to talk at the Dunn School of Pathology, Oxford when I was a grad student. I mean that quite literally - Smithies has a pilot's license and like John Travolta, flies himself to all his engagements.

This is rare for a scientist.

Smithies gave a fascinating talk, one of the best I ever saw in my whole time as a scientist. It featured lots of photos of his lab and his makeshift equipment. This guy is one of those rare, rare things - a scientist who is also a natural engineer.

Check out Smithies' homemade electroporator - known by scientists as a 'zapper' for hitting cells with an electric current so that DNA goes in.

Years before Perkin-Elmer had patented the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and made a machine which allowed people to amplify DNA molecules by basically just sticking some DNA and Taq polymerase enzyme in a test tube and putting it into a Perkin-Elmer thermal cycler, Smithies was doing early ground-breaking PCR using bits of washing machine timers to do the thermal cycling. He showed us photos of stuff that you wouldn't believe could be used to do proper science, equipment literally cobbled together from bits and bobs and stuck together with sticky tape. He was an elderly man even then but brimming with enthusiasm. I remember being quite inspired.

I'm chuffed he's won. Best Nobel Prize news since Paul Nurse won for the yeast cell cycle genes.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

A Night with Imps

My good pal DB yesterday dragged us out blinking to discover that the world has more to offer by way of entertainment than salsa music and dancing, a fact that we've neglected for ooh, years.

"Maybe you'll finally mention me on your blog" DB remarked. I pointed out that I recently devoted an entire post to her, with a photo and everything, that her comment showed just how little she reads it. "Well I'm very busy," DB said carefully. But her tone said: I have responsibilities, people to see, places to go, millions of pounds to raise for Keble College, and I can't be sitting on the Web all day fiffing and faffing.

Quite right too...

So on DB's insistence we saw the University's improvisational comedy troupe, known as the Oxford Imps. They play every Monday night in term-time, at the Wheatsheaf pub in Oxford. They improvise sketches and songs based on daft and random audience shout-outs.

For example, yesterday featured a rap set in the underworld of the Bodleian library stacks, a musical about ghostbusters (ending in a harmonised quartet), a musical about hats (including a murderous milliner who rhymed 'milliner' with 'killin' 'er'), a really impressive feat of memory in which dialogue is improvised and then delivered forwards, backwards, inside out...and more; two hours worth of entertainment for £3! Bargain!

The troupe are amazingly professional, they know how to get laughs and impress the audience, how to get the whole room joining in, willing them along to succeed. The show is like the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway" with three times the energy and goodwill.

Improvisation comedy is a real test of acting and wit, in my opinion. The Oxford Imps are natural born entertainers and comedians.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Kids are AMAZING: Part One

Young family band "Bound By Time" last Saturday in Oxford's Cornmarket Street

This post is a tribute to the inventiveness of today's kids. Equipped with musical instruments, video cameras, editing software and the Web these guys are doing such amazing stuff that frankly, it's a wonder that they still need adult musicians, writers and film-makers to entertain them. Maybe they don't. Maybe all they need is a bit of inspiration.

Today I'm featuring young band 'Bound By Time' and my friend Alice, young cartoonist, artist and stop-motion movie proto-genius.

I've seen Bound By Time twice now, on one of their visits to the streets of Oxford. My little daughter aged 5 really loves them and won't leave until we've heard several songs. Last Saturday we heard them play "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", "Don't Look back in Anger" among several others, plus a couple of their own compositions (I liked 'Easy Does It'). They play and sing rather well, with good vocal harmonies. Big brother Alex has a lovely tenor voice and the girls all look fabulously cool, grungy and unbothered by everything. I asked Alex if he wanted to be a pop singer and he answered "I just want to keep doing this, making our music with the band..."
Crumbs, what a professional answer...
My friend Alice (aged 15) has a collection of the funniest mobile phone films I've ever seen. I keep on at her to put them on Youtube but there's some formatting or editing issue... They are stop motion animations of some cuddly toys, starting with a murder mystery solved by the walrus 'Dr. Glen' and then finally being more or less the (mis)adventures of Dr. Glen, whose entire dialogue (interpreted by Alice and my teenage daughter in voice-over) consists of the word WUH.
(As in WUH-WUH-WUH WUH, WUH!: What's that Dr. Glen? You've just reached the check-in desk and realised that your passport has expired? Trust me it's funny when you see it...)
I can't show you Dr. Glen, shame, but I can show you this lovely song-vid which Alice put on her Facebook. It'll make you ache for the long summers of your teens. Unless you are still a youngster, and then it will make you look forward to them.
(My daughter is the one eating sugared jelly Iberia lollies on the airplane with Alice...)
You need a FaceBook account to see it. I'm assuming we're all living in the 21st century here.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Daiquiri en La Floridita

MG with a classic Daiquiri
Originally uploaded by

Finally, I get to have my daiquiri en La Floridita*.

In honour of...oh who needs a reason...we went to celebrate, dinner & dancing with friends at London's La Floridita.

It's a fancy restaurant/bar/dance club that features the finest examples of Cuban music, and a big variety of rum-based cocktails, including my favourite, the delicious daiquiri. I tried three different ones and they were pretty, pretty, pretty good.

The band was El Guayabero, an excellent son group from Holguin on the eastern side of the island. They played 30-min sets of up-tempo son numbers with some boleros and cha-cha-chas mixed in. No one danced for the first two sets - maybe the people at the bar were shy? Others like us were scoffing down food yummier and more luxurious than you'll find anywhere but in the very fanciest restaurants in Cuba.

The first time we ever went to Floridita was in January, for my friend Becs's birthday. That was before we'd been to Cuba (Becs had been many times), before we realised that Floridita is like an idealised, fantasy version of Cuba. In reality I didn't see anywhere in Cuba that looked anything like this. It's the levels of consumption - no-where we went in Cuba looked this fancy, certainly not the type of places bands like this play (excluding Varadero - the tourist-only enclave, which I didn't visit.) In our experience bands like Guayabero play to sweltering, smoky rooms with ineffective celing fans, and the dance floor heaves with expert Cuba couples and salsa tourists being taken for a spin by their Cuban insrtuctors.

During the third set, when we were moved off the table (you only get a 2-hour sitting on busy nights) and back to the bar, we decided to go for it on the dance floor. One couple had just taken the floor. Within seconds of us joining them the dance floor filled. The musicians looked utterly delighted. It must be a drag for a dance band to play to a motionless audience.

However, salseros, whilst the music and atmosphere are romantic and evocative (if not authentic), the drinks are wonderful and the food delish, it is not a cheap night out... And like us, you will probably still need to factor in a visit to a salsa club for a proper dance fix.

We went on to Salsa Republic@Club Colosseum, where the music of Maikel Blanco, Manolito, Issac Delgado, Adalberto and Los Van Van was as ever, wall-to-wall and sizzling hot.

P.S. Inexplicably, a photo of Becs and I dancing at the Manolito concert has rapidly risen to become one of my most viewed photos on Flickr. Is this blog to blame?

Let's do the experiment. Here's another MG & Becs dancing salsa photo - better quality, taken last night at Club Colosseum.

* the reference is to Hemingway's habit of drinking "my daiquiri in La Floridita and my moijto in La Bodeguita" - two of Havana's most famous bars. The line is quoted in one of Los Van Van's most popular songs, "Tim Pop con Birdland", a timba riff on the 1970s jazz classic "Birdland". For those who are interested in such things, I reckon "Tim Pop con Birdland" may well be my keeper on a Desert island Disc selection...

Saturday, 6 October 2007

To Mexico - in one week!

This time next week I will in at Healthrow airport waiting for a flight to Toronto, Canada and then to Cancun, Mexico!!!!

Gosh I'm looking forward to it. The family are taking a break to do a Joshua Files Roadtrip. We had planned to follow in Josh's footsteps from Chetumal all the way to Catemaco but honestly the driving would just be too tiring.

So we're doing a cut down version. I will be posting much more about this, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, especially for Lucas, I dug out this TV ad for Josh's favourite cupcakes, which he eats on his bus journey through Yucatan in 'Invisible City'.

The are called 'Pinguinos' and are like Hostess cupcakes - white vanilla cream inside a chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting and a squiggle of white icing on top. And a childhood favourite of mine.

Mmmm, additives.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Sneak a peek at "Invisible City"

Almost-final version of "The Joshua Files: Invisible City", snapped by BlackBerry during a visit to the Scholastic offices...

Heck, I'm pretty sure it's okay to let you see this now. After all there's an image on Amazon.co.uk now, and when the lovely people at Scholastic videoed a promotional clip of me talking about the book, they had a whole bunch of the book mockups in the background.

I can't take any credit for this amazing package so I don't feel AT ALL bashful about praising it.


See how it glows at the edges? See how there's lots of lovely edges? See how you slip the book right into a splashproof jacket so that you can take the book to the pool, to the beach? See how the actual cover (under the dayglo-orange plastic) is mostly white, black and orange?

I dreamed of having a book design that was minimalist, graphic and mainly white and black but I didn't even dream of asking for that, cos I assumed they'd say - "A kids' book? White? It'd get grubby...and hey that's a bit dull..."

I want one. I can't wait to see what they look like when lots of them are stacked up, that orange glow reinforced in every copy.

How much would you pay for a book like this? Would you pay £6.99?

Sold! (In fact you can get it quite a bit cheaper, I found one online retailer selling it at less than a fiver. No, I'm not saying where!)

Never let anyone say I'm not a huckster for my books. Buy one! Buy them for your sons and daughters and nephews and nieces.

Go on, make me happy. Pre-order, why don't you?

Forgive the giddiness. I'm still happy about finishing my latest manuscript. I just asked my husband to nip out to buy a box of chocolates to eat while watching TV. Tomorrow we'll celebrate properly with un daiquiri en La Floridita.

(It's not counting my chickens. Milestone celebrations are important, esp for scientists and writers who can work on one thing for years. If you've finished a ms recently, good onyer. It's no small achievement, for anyone.)

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Weekend in Cornwall

Prussia Cove, Porth-en-Alls
taken with my BlackBerry

Some dear friends of ours from my days in the Nuffield Department of Medicine were over from Melbourne. (That's where the UK bioscience brain drain has been for the past ten years, or so it seems to me; if I count up all my best friends from doctorate and post-doc years about half have ended up in Oz. Okay, most of those were originally Australian, but hey...)

They'd always talked about taking us to their favourite haunt in Cornwall, where they'd rent a cottage almost every year when they lived in the UK. We hadn't seen them for years, so this it was wonderful that this time, we could join them there.

I've been to Cornwall once before, North Cornwall, which is gorgeous but this place was even better! It has the Lizard on one side and Lands End on the other (both far in the distance); old smugglers caves, gorgeous little coves as well as wide, sandy beaches with all the stuff kids like (e.g. rock pools, pebbles, shells), amazing clifftop walks with views out to St Michael's Mount.

So after a gorgeous weekend eating Cornish pasties (veggie and yummy!), visiting ice-cream parlours and eating cake, I've probably gained a pound or three, despite the exercise of walking.

My friend Magda gave me a lovely scientist flashback moment when she went through the slides for a talk she gave last week at a conference in London; a fantastically effective new way to use nano-particles as part of a new vaccine for diseases like malaria. My very first research job was with a team developing one of the UK's earliest candidates for an AIDS vaccine, so it was vaguely familiar territory. I'm so proud of Magda, of all my scientist friends she's the first to be made a full Professor. Professor Magda!

In other news, someone is selling a bound proof of The Joshua Files: Invisible City on ebay. There are only a few hundred in circulation, I believe...


It should go for a very, very reasonable sum, i.e. cheap-as-chips, given that at this point in time i) almost no-one has heard of the title and ii) almost no-one has heard of the author...

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Finished "Jaguar's Realm"...

Jibacoa Beach at Night
Originally uploaded by heyjohngreen

Well, the first draft at least...typed the final sentence.

The polishing comes next but compared to the original act of writing, that's easy.

The final scene is set on Jibacoa beach, east of Havana, at sundown as our hero struggles for his last chance to escape...

And that's all I'm going to say about 'Jaguar's Realm' for quite a while. It's taken over a year to write, what with one thing and another. I feel quite drained now, actually. Need a good break to get the creative juices going again.

Now to read the ms aloud to my teenage daughter and see if it's hitting all the right buttons. (I can't recommend this enough for polishing a ms. You get an immediate audience reaction, and when something doesn't work you get that puzzled look...Huhhhh?)

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Google Books - How cool is this...?

Putting together a presentation for the Scholastic sales reps I am meeting tomorrow, I stumbled across the most fabulously useful thing - Google Book Search.

Google, as you may know if you're an online information nerd like me (hey I did work in the area for five years so I'm allowed...), are planning to digitize all the books in the world. Well, as many as they can get their mitts on. There was a hoo-hah about this for a while. Quelle horreur, authors and publishers all going to lose out; that sort of thing.

Well today I had planned to do the following - for just one of my presentation slides:

1. Go downstairs and find my copy of 'Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan' by the original Mayanist, John Lloyd Stephens.
2. Find the page where he mentions the rumours of a 'living city' of the Maya
3. Go down to our garden office and scan the page.
4. Manipulate the image file on my computer at my desk, back in the house.
5. Pop it into the Powerpoint slide.

Not so difficult, aye, but remember I actually own this book.

But with Google Books, here's how that scenario played out:

1. Search on Google, find the book.
2. Search for the string 'living city' - find the right page.
3. Use the inbuilt screenshot clipping tool to clip an image of the page, the bit where he mentions the mysterious city
4. Pop it into the Powerpoint slide.

5 mins in total.

to exercise any control over them But the thing that roused us was the assertion by the padre that four days on the road to Mexico on the other side of the great sierra was a living city large and populous occupied by Indians precisely in the same state as before the discovery of America He had heard of it many years before at the village of Chajul and was told by the villagers that from the topmost ridge of the sierra this city was distinctly visible He was then young and with
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan By John Lloyd Stephens
Now is that not awesome?

(If you read 'Invisible City' you'll find that this section of the 'Incidents of Travel' book is referenced. I'm not saying why...that's all a bit of a mystery, to be unraveled in later books...)


I have one lovely comment from a guy who read the book for the waterstones competition, but you should be warned that there are spoilers for INVISIBLE CITY therein...


Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Nostalgia for...Beny More

I wasn't alive in the days of Beny More (pronounced More-ray), the Cuban singer and band leader who went to live in Mexico and became a massive influence on all the Cuban salsa bands.

So why do I get these gorgeous pangs of nostalgia when I listen to Beny More? Why does it make me think of a Cuba and a Mexico I never even knew?

My theory is that as a tiny child I was exposed to this music. I do know that after my mother left my father, I spend a great deal of time with my two grandmothers. One, Abuelita Josefina (known to her old friends as 'Pepa') had a wonderful memory for lyrics and knew many of the songs of Beny More. Beny More often appeared in popular Mexican films, which went through a golden age in the 40s and 50s.

So maybe that's it; maybe I was sat for hours in front of the TV while my grandmother knitted (she was mad for knitting). Maybe that's where I acquired this overwhelming craving for gorgeous night clubs where Cuban bands play for beautiful people, sipping daiquiris between dancing the son, mambo and cha-cha-cha.

This Cuba does not exist anymore - I've been to look for it. It's all timba and reggaeton now. That's great, but, ah nostalgia. I once spent a whole afternoon lying next to a pool in Santiago de Cuba, listening to the piped music of Beny More. That's as close as I got.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Ah, the things I wish I could tell you...

Well blog readers, I've had a fun few days. I wish I could tell you everything but because we want to keep some things as a cool surprise I can't.

I popped by the Scholastic offices on Friday to meet up before going to a fancy dinner-n-awards evening with the publishers and some of their guests. Spying some mock-ups of "Invisible City" sitting on a pile of new books, I snapped some photos with my BlackBerry. It's not the final version yet but it was soooooo cool to see it. This book package truly is totally innovative! And splashproof too - perfect for taking the book down to the beach or pool.

But I don't think I'm allowed to post these photos on my blog, sorry...

I was an hour late to another meeting today, because of what the bus driver from Oxford referred to as an 'RTA'. What's wrong with the word 'accident'? Why must we always be decoding TLAs? (three letter acronyms) But my agent coped without me and successfully pitched our proposal to the publishers, leaving me to walk in on the good atmosphere.

The way "The Joshua Files" will be promoted online should now be pretty innovative too. Something new for the world of books, borrowing from something they use to promote some...

But soft! Ere I say too much...

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Okay now. How many times have you seen High School Musical 2?

Not High School Musical; High School Musical 2. It premiered yesterday on Disney Channel.

On it's third viewing in our household now. There can be no escape.

Sharpay and Ryan and sooo cool and FUNNY. They are the Team Rocket of High School Musical.

Troy and Gabriela, however, are just so saccharine sweet.
By tomorrow I'll be expected to harmonise on the best numbers so that my daughter can feel suitably fabulous when she sings along.

If you don't watch HSM then clearly, you have a deficit in the tween/teen girls in your household. Them as don't, like me, don't get much choice in this. High School Musical rules!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Day in the Life of a Writer Close To Finishing A First Draft

1. Woken up wayyyy too early by BlackBerry flashing with the message "Write 1000 words of Jaguar - NOW!" Lie awake for ages, unable to stir from bed.

2. Oldest daughter invades to fleece me of what little shrapnel I have. "I haven't got my PIN yet!" is the usual excuse for the ongoing cash drain. Youngest daughter is sleepy and wants cuddles. How can I resist? Husband prepares packed lunch and breakfast for little 'un, then takes her to school, all to leave me free to write. But I just stare in fascination at FaceBook. There's a MyFlickr app! Cool; install it. Apparently apps could be the death of Facebook - people are getting cross with all the zombies and jedi vs sith silliness. I say: if you don't want the app, Dile que no.

3. Check out all my friends blogs and post comments. Email a dear friend who's back in touch via LinkedIn. Check my favourite writer's websites. Read short stories on fiction website. Finally shower, dress and look at the chunk of writing I have to do today. It's a foot chase through Old Havana. Rooftops will feature, because hey, it's Havana! So will the Malecon, because, well, IT'S HAVANA.

4. Read some of Alejo Carpentier's 'The Chase' to get in the mood. Browse my photos from Cuba, to get in the mood. (There aren't enough of rooftops. I looked down over rootops every day in Havana - what was wrong with me - why didn't I take more of rooftops?) Watch the rooftop party scene from Habana Blues, to get in the mood.

5. Finally in the mood, write the Old Havana chase scene; 800 words. That'll do - half a chapter and I left at a good place - the rooftop chase begins.

6. Pick up littlest daughter from school, acquire 3-year old neighbour boy on the way. Pick apples from our tree. Bake a pie together. Make pesto for tea. Experiment with a new daiquiri that uses fresh pink grapefruit juice and just a hint of coriander. (gently, gently bruise about five coriander leaves in the glass part of a shaker, add 1/2 shot freshly squeezed lime juice, 1/2 shot of gomme, 1 shot freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice, 2 shots light rum, shake in Boston shaker with plenty ice, fine strain into a chilled martini glass.)

7. Discuss my teenager's complex love life with her and reluctantly help her to plan a strategy with latest love interest. (It was that or talk all night long.)

8. Laundry. Who doesn't love laundry? NOT! I read in some newspaper article that Mrs Thatcher admitted that getting the fluff out of the dryer was one of the small pleasures of her life. I try it. It's surprisingly satisfying - comes off in three nice clean layers.

7. Eat pie whilst reading today's 800 words. Polish. Write this blog entry.

5000 words to go, by my estimate, until I finish the first draft of 'Jaguar's Realm'. I planned this ending ONE YEAR ago, but last week I thought of a major tweak that has allowed me to keep the pace and drama going strong all the way through Act 3. At least that's the plan, and that's why I plan. Things can only get better from a strong plan.

Writing the first draft, truly, is so much fun. I even enjoyed first drafts when I had no agent and no publisher. The story is all yours then and you're the first one to read it.

And look...only 8pm. Still time to go salsa dancing at Freuds...

But I'm too tired.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Laying Down Some Intertextual Licks

Oh, but I'm a big old sucker for intertextuality. Which probably shows that deep down I'm a bit of a postmodern poseur.

I've mentioned this to my agent a few times - he seems to think it's quite charming that I've buried references to the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Borges and Haruki Murakami in my children's adventure stories. Some of it happened quite unconsciously - I wrote the first draft so quickly that apart from the plot, which I constructed carefully, much of the writing came straight out of my subconscious without much modification. Some of it, however, is there quite intentionally, even structurally. I won't say what.

Months later I looked back and thought - crumbs, what have I done? I've given away A LOT of personal information here - that anyone who knows me well will be able to deconstruct. (N.B. I removed quite a bit of this in the editing process). And what the heck is the point of all this intertextuality?

Why do we do this? My agent thinks it's like a secret message to readers in the know.

Which begs the question - who do we write for?

A friend of mine knows the children's author Philip Pullman, whose 'His Dark Materials' books are (in my opinion) the best children's books ever written, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and the William books. Pullman allegedly told my friend once that in 'His Dark Materials' he'd written a book for adults that people as young as eleven also could read.

I guess I've written a book for teenagers that I hope they'll re-read as adults and go ah...now I see where you got that. My books aren't remotely similar to those written by my literary heroes, so it's possibly too much to hope the people who read my books will go on to read Gabo, Calvino, Murakami and Borges.

But if they did, it would be so, so, so cool.

Oh, I've started keeping score of people I've persuaded (mainly by badgering) to start reading Murakami and now they really like him too:

In chronological order: David (my husband), Nathan (close friend), Steve (a writer friend), Martin (close friend), Rich (writer friend), Peter (agent). Hmm, all blokes. I have tried to persuade a few women friends but they haven't gone for him in quite the same way.

I have one Murakami book left to read - After Dark. I am saving it up as a treat when I finish the current manuscript. And then it's back to re-reading him, scouring the Web for rare short stories of his and generally being a sad fangirl.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Project Jaguar - Winding Up A First Draft

A few items I keep on my desk to inspire me: a little statue of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba, some Cuban moneda nacional (local money; I'm not supposed to have it) and on the right, thirty crisp Cuban Convertible Pesos (tourist money; I'm not supposed to take it out of the country) - my cab fare from Jose Marti airport to Old Havana, for next time I go, to save queuing at the money exchange.

I'm about 8,000 words away from finishing the first draft of Project Jaguar. And I don't revise much until The Editor has a say, so for me a first draft - with a polish - is what I submit.

Which means that I am close to handing over to my agent a project that I've been working on, on-and-off, for a little over a year. It's the longest I've taken so far to complete a first draft. And all those feelings I get at this stage are kicking in.
Firstly there's the desire to finish and have done. That can get overshadowed with a premonition of loss. It's fun to inhabit an imaginary world. The author gets to experience that more intensely than any reader and for longer. When the first draft is finished, the world ceases to be your own. Other people get a say. That's exciting too, sharing it. It's different though.

But then again, the desire to finish, already!

Oh and then there's the post-ms finishing elation ("It's the best thing I've ever written"), shortly followed by the depression; "Hang on...actually it's not, is it? Or is it? I can't tell. Help!"

From here until the end I resent every interruption. I'd happily shut myself up now in my bedroom until it's done. That can't happen, of course. Life continues to make its demands. I have to take my daughter swimming in about a hour. And I should probably have something for lunch other than M&S Extremely Chocolatey Caramels.

This manuscript is unsold, btw. Very exciting. Will there be any takers? It's like last year all over again.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Introspective, moi?

I don't usually turn to introspection on this blog because well, basically, it's not very fun is it? It gets awfully close to that writer's angst I try to avoid.

But today, just now in fact I had a moment of clarity in which I realised that being a published author is going to make me not more interesting as my teenage daughter imagines, but less.

(My teenage daughter observed recently, "I'm looking forward to your book being published. Then maybe your life will finally become interesting. And you'll have things to tell me. Instead of it being the other way round.")

I read an article about something, can't remember what, and was just starting to form a theory, synthesize a thought, who knows it might even have been interesting...when a very strict part of my brain cut in and said NO.

NO. You can't think about that. It might be interesting but NO. It's not relevant to the books you write. It's potentially too interesting to think about as a leisure activity. It's not comforting enough to justify as a daydream. So: simply NO.

That strict part of my brain has a propensity to let me think all I like about the stuff that it deems relevant to my job and hardly at all about anything else. There were times when I was a scientist that I literally turned up at parties unable to speak. I forgot how to make small talk. I didn't want to talk about anything but molecular biology, and no-one at the party wanted to hear about that so...I said nothing.

So I can imagine that what will happen in the next few years is that I will think more and more about my books. At the moment I can count on the fingers of a hand the number of people who have ever wanted to have any discussion with me about my books that goes beyond "You're writing a book, really, what's it about?"...my reply and then, end of discussion.

What if it were lots of people, though? What if that becomes all people ever want to talk to me about?

Then I'll be back where I was in the old days, when I was mad keen to talk about subcloning DNA or whatever part of my research I was up to...and good for little else. Except now the only thing I'll be capable of talking about is a bunch of stuff I made up once.

I'll be back to being a nerd.

Actually I'm being daft. I could right now make a list of 10 friends who will NEVER want to hear about my books. They should help to save me from becoming a total bore.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Forever Mexican - Chiiidoooo

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon recently said "Where there is a Mexican, there is Mexico."

Well hurray for that! Because apparently the cost of being naturalized as a British citizen has roughly tripled since last year, when I last filled in the forms and didn't get round to sending them, and at around £655 I'm not quite sure it's in my range anymore. Priced out of the market! It's probably a quite sensible ploy to avoid undesirables like me becoming British. Quite right too. What Groucho Marx said.

So I'm to be forever Mexican and only Mexican. Which means that there's a little bit of Mexico right here in Oxford.


Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Joshua 1 all finished...I hope!

Well, I think I've finally done my bit and now it's all over to the publishers. I sent the corrected proofs back last week. Much relief. Now I'm looking forward to seeing the final product, complete with secretly embedded code of a puzzle wot I wrote, which readers can solve to win a prize (an iPod, I believe...)...and the much-awaited, totally innovative jacket.
About which I'm going to say only this - you will be able to see the book all the way across the store! And, no, I'll say another thing. You know how they say 'don't judge a book by it's cover' and such-like? Well, in this case, couldja?
Now Agent Pete and I are working on a cunning plan; an online treat for readers of the book. Top secret!

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

MG and DB

Here's my good friend DB, who I inherited from the one time in my life that I was ever in a Clique. It was at St Cross College, Oxford and for some reason the cool American grad students welcomed me into their urbane little set, who would always sit at the same table for lunch and watch as the Goddess Hoku opened her mail (often actually addressed to her as that...), and have cool nicknames for some of the more distinctive dons (we had a Panzer Fuhrer, a Yoda, Obi-Wan, and a Dingleberry). I'd always kind of admired the group from afar; when I eavesdropped their conversation it sounded like the Algonquin Round Table meets the Star Wars Fan Club.
I first got an 'in' with them when I overheard Hoku talking about my beloved PJ O'Rourke, whose book "Republican Party Reptile" I owned and loved, and whose new book "Holidays in Hell" was just out. Hoku and I became life-long friends following our walk to the bookstore to each buy a copy of HIH.
The group would meet in someone's college room for video evenings to watch shows like "Sledge Hammer!" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle", which were all new to me. We'd eat pizza and play with Legos. These were the type of people I'd never come across before at Oxford - right-leaning, funny, educated, witty and cosmopolitan American liberal-arts students. I was totally smitten.
This was back when there was still an Evil Empire and we had a gazillion Soviet nukes aimed at our heads, when the GDR was still cool in a grimly-socialist-black-and-white-movie sort of way - it wasn't like being a neocon or anything. One of the group, Peter Schweizer, had spent time with Washington bigshots and had published a book entitled "Grinning with the Gipper: The Wit, Wisdom, and Wisecracks of Ronald Reagan"
But as people invariably do in Oxford, they left. Eventually only two local hangers-on were left: me and DB.
We didn't really know each other at first. The group was big enough that we'd only chatted at the periphery. When we exchanged phone numbers at the farewell party of the last of the group to leave, I wondered vaguely if we'd ever meet again.
We did though, and I'm glad because DB has been one of my best friends for years, through thick and thin. She wrote weekly limericks to cheer me up through one gloomy bit of my life, I stripped wall-paper with her when she bought a cottage that needed EVERYTHING doing. I introduced DB to the concept of Murder Mystery parties and then DB expanded and improved upon the concept until they were a thing of minor legend, at least in Hertford College MCR.
DB tempted me out for tapas, cocktails and a movie last night. We saw "The Lives Of Others", the winner of last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar. I haven't seen such a touching, beautifully constructed and performed film for a long time. Everything about the film is just brilliant.
Fundamentally it's a story of unrequited love and how a dutiful state security official metamorphoses into a Good Man when he falls in love with someone who he can never have, but who through her plight opens his eyes to the wrongdoing in his own occupation. It's a film which sticks rigidly to Robert McKee's stern advice to screenwriters that MEANING produces EMOTION. (As opposed to loud explosions and car chases...)
Great movie - thanks DB!

Sunday, 2 September 2007

19th Century Tradition Rules OK

The St Giles' Fair is an old Oxford tradition that goes back to the 19th century, whereby a group of local fairground companies have use of one of the main streets of Oxford for the first two days in September, after St Giles Day. And the schoolchildren of Oxford can spend the last days of their school holiday being entertained in top carnie fashion.

My two daughters and I took the usual reccie this evening. Looking at the mixture of horrific sick-inducing machines and charming old kiddie fairground rides, my older daughter, 15, remarked sourly that she felt none of the usual excitement. She said the same thing at Disneyland Paris a couple of weeks ago. Yep, it happens; you grow up. But she hasn't yet discovered how much fun St Giles' Fair is when you visit in the evening and slightly tipsy. with a crowd of student pals...

Meanwhile our five-year old was cooing with delight. She wants to throw hoops around stuff and win cuddly toys, (she only has about 40 and there are places in her bedroom where you can still see the floor, so I guess that's her rationale there...); to ride on the Waltzer under the influence of travel sickness pills, to eat huge fluffy balls of freshly spun cotton candy, hot doughnuts straight out of the oil, corn-on-the-cob roasted on a grill, to dip fudge, marshmallows and strawberries in a chocolate fountain, and then to ride the magnificent Carousel. You don't actually get any younger, like with the one in Ray Bradbury's novel 'Something Wicked This way Comes', but riding it, you might feel, for just a few moments, that you've turned into a little kid again.

It's one of the great things about being a parent, living vicariously through all your children's joyous discoveries in life. But tomorrow, after all those fairground treats and being whipped around on rides, I may need to swing by the vomitarium...

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Cocktail Memories

Tired of the substandard cocktails on sale at most of the bars we frequent - which are admittedly not known for their cocktails, but are in walking distance of the house and have a happy hour - I asked my husband to do something about it.

So for my recent birthday I received a collection of professional cocktail-making equipment; proper Boston Shakers, ice strainers, muddler, ice-crusher, shot measure, fine strainer and most of the main spirits and some of the syrups necessary for a nice repertoire and most importantly, a copy of the latest Diffords. (Diffords is the definitive guide to cocktails. Every recipe will make the BEST version of that cocktail that you've ever had.)

My baby brother lives in a tiny village in the mountains Switzerland, not far from fancy-schmancy Gstaad, but not within walking distance. When he moved out there, he decided that the posh cocktails of his native London would be too hard to miss, so he decided to learn the art himself. And boy does he make a mean cocktail! (But don't help yourself to the pineapple juice from his fridge or you'll get yelled at for using a cocktail ingredient!). He acted as the authoritative consultant on what to buy, strictly advising the proper equipment, even if it takes a bit of practice to use a Boston Shaker.

For my birthday party we invited a select group of four people (I didn't want to spend the entire evening mixing cocktails after all), I made a menu of about 20 cocktails I was prepared to make, and we went for it.

And Diffords came up with the goods! Simply by exactly following the instructions I was able to make amazing, yummy cocktails including Daiquiri, Pina Colada, Ron Collins, Cosmopolitan, Maple Leaf (bourbon, triple sec, maple syrup), Dry Martini, Coolman Martini (vodka, triple sec, lime juice, apple juice).

It turns out not to be so hard. Like all cooking, the secret is to use top notch, fresh ingredients, have great recipes and follow them.

One of my friends offered to hire me for her birthday party. Yay! A backup career!

Anyway...I was swapping cocktail reminisences with my agent recently and thought it would be a fun thing to blog.

Here are my top five cocktails ever tasted (not counting the ones I made t'other day...) Please let me know yours!

1. Daiquiri in Floridita London.
Straight-up, not frozen. Dizzyingly strong and refreshing. I made a mistake on the second and went for the Hemingway. Stick to the Classic.

2. Margarita in San Angel Inn, Mexico City
Straight-up, not frozen. We visited this restaurant, once one of Mexico City's most elegant and expensive, during a big local recession which made it very cheap for us. The place was almost empty. The margaritas were served inside metal cups containing dry ice to keep the glasses cold. Ahhh...

3. Dry Martini in Japp's Martini & Cigar Bar in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I was there on a business trip and I SWEAR the guys from that software company were trying to see how drunk they could get me! But what a martini. Later we went dancing to a swing club. Dancing the Lindy Hop, a guy tried to do an air-step with me and I ended up flat on my back. I DON'T DO AIR-STEPS AND YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO ASK! Luckily I was so drunk that I was very relaxed.

4. Frozen Daiquiri in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba
Like smooth, lime+rum flavoured, cool silk.

5. Pina Colada at the poolside bar of the Acapulco Princess, Mexico
Made with fresh pineapples and fresh coconut cream, the fruit all piled up at the bar. I read "The Da Vinci Code" whilst addled by a long afternoon drinking these.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Professor Pete

One of the best things about staying in Oxford years after you've failed to escape the gravitational pull of the University is the fact that once in a while you get surprise phone calls out of the blue from friends who used to study or work here, wanting to drop by for dinner while they are in town giving a seminar/visiting a library or a lab.

In the next two months we're due a number of these visits, but yesterday we were thrilled by a pop-in from our old friend Professor Peter Simpson, who I believe I have mentioned at least once on this blog.

Pete teaches philosophy at the City University of New York and is self-confessed Aristotelophile. We became friends many years ago, in fact Pete is one of the many dear friends I inherited from my mother. Back when he was a young graduate student trying to impress my mother, he took my sister and I to movies and introduced us to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Nowadays Pete is high on my list of the cleverest people in the universe. He wrote a book about Pope John Paul the Great in which it was clear to any reader that he actually understood all that continental philosophy stuff...! (Not me; I'm more comfortable with the writings of the current Pope Benedict, whose work is at least couched in language and concepts I can follow...)

I told Pete how I'd fallen under the influence of his beloved Aristotle when writing the second of the Joshua Files books. (Fellow writers, if you haven't read the Poetics yet, I can't recommend it enough.) I mused aloud how it was possible for one guy to be so incredibly prolific as Aristotle apparently was, dominating his contemporaries across both natural sciences and political philosophy, as well as knocking out a 42 page masterpiece in which he explained and laid down the principles of western drama, principles which stand to this day.

Pete's answer was very interesting. "It's because he was such an empiricist. He used exactly the same technique as when he analysed the world of animals - he first collected data, looked for patterns and governing principles. He collected all the Greek plays he could get hold of, especially the award-winning ones. He had his students help him complete the analysis."

So Poetics wasn't just the work of a guy who sat musing and philosophizing about what he'd seen down the Greek theatre - it was a scientific approach to the understanding of dramatic structure.

The benefits of a scientific education, hey? I can't say enough good things about one. (Although I also wish I'd been trained to think with the razor-sharp logical clarity on philosophical matters as Professor Pete. He could argue the hind legs off a snake! First he'd argue the case for the legs...)
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Monday, 20 August 2007

Mi Swing Es Tropical

Watching the latest Jason Bourne movie last night, I was delighted to see the new ad for iTunes+iPod. It's a little salsa song, with terrific dancing.

Re the Bourne: I enjoyed it but later realised that I'd never once really felt as though Jason was in any real peril. He's just so ruthlessly efficient that instead of worrying about him I was admiringly thinking...no problem, Jason can handle anything.

There's a lesson there...

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Gabo vs Haruki Part 1: The Genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I don't see why one has to have a favourite writer. If I'm ever asked, how could I choose between Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Nope, it's not a fair question. I cannot choose.

However, I can differentiate. Haruki moves me and Gabo astounds me.

(And Haruki also astounds and Gabo also moves, but each marginally less than the other...)

Garcia Marquez has these unforgettable openings, like the famous one in "One Hundred Years of Solitude":

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

The power of that ending can only be appreciated much later in the book, when the reader realises (in my case with a shout of joy) that the Colonel, presumed dead (by the reader), only takes his full place in the story later on...And the way that the novel's ending resolves the opening section with the gypsy's manuscript is beyond genius, one of the few times in my life I remember being left literally breathless with admiration for a writer as I read him.

And that's not the only time he uses the 'Many years later' formula. In his novels, linear time and cyclical time coexist; the stories are often simultaneously related at two levels.

I read recently probably the most influential Mexican novel of the last century, Juan Rulfo's 'Pedro Paramo', a book allegedly adored by Gabo. Not only is Pedro Paramo an early example in Latin American literature of a novel told in two different time streams (the narrative alternates between a first-person narrator who visits the town where his father had lived, and a first-person narrator from the town's past), but it includes this passage, which strikes a chord with any aficionado of Garcia Marquez:

"Years later Father Renteria would remember the night his hard bed had kept him awake and driven him outside. It was the night Miguel Paramo died."

Rulfo's 'Pedro Paramo' is brief yet dazzling. I myself have written whilst under its spell and can attest to its mesmeric hold.

I am reading the first volume of Gabo's autobiography, 'Living To Tell The Tale'. The opening, as ever, is delicious:

"My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house. She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived and she had no idea how to find me."

What follows is an account, related with the characteristic shifting time streams, of young Gabriel's visit to the old house of his grandparents in the distant town of Aracataca, from where his early childhood experiences were to inform the creation of his fictional town of Macondo and all its inhabitants. And the older Gabo now recognises with the trained eyes of the writer he has become (not yet a successful novelist, but definitely on the path), the material which has lain dormant within him all these years. It's a moment of thunderous import and it shakes him to the core. The past, present and future collide during that visit. When finally he returns (some 100 pages later) to his cosy literary hangouts in Baranquilla with Colombia's literati, he knows, even at 23, where this can take him.

I just read this great passage where Gabo relates showing a rough draft of his manuscript to a man highly respected within his writers' circle: Don Ramon. Don Ramon reads two pages without change of expression, then makes one or two incisive technical comments. But as Gabo leaves him that day, Don Ramon adds:

"I thank you for your courtesy and I'm going to reciprocate with a piece of advice: never show anybody the rough draft of anything you're writing."

So, so, SO true. And Gabo followed that advice TO THE LETTER.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Bound proof in Lugano

Bound proof in Lugano
Originally uploaded by

Well blog readers, all five of you, I'm back. Two weeks of driving across Europe close to the Swiss/Italian border in the canton of Ticino, where it's all Swiss, but Italian style.

For example - they speak Italian but serve fresh Swiss muesli for breakfast. For example, where you can hire a motorboat without a licence and drive across the lake but the minute you moor it, a taxi-boat driver comes beetling across the lake, brow all furrowed and tells you off for going too near the rocks which might damage the engine. Yeah, we noticed that too...were taking care and everything... For example, where you get Swiss efficiency but instead of cheese fondue and raclette they serve yummy Italian food with pasta al dente and everything. See how it works?

The publishers of 'The Joshua Files' kindly sent out a couple of bound proofs of the book for me to peruse. Here I am holding my first copy of 'Invisible City'. Bit of a thrill, actually. I was so excited at breakfast that I forgot to eat and the waiters were clucking at me, trying to get me to hurry up and finish that croissant and just go, already...

Monday, 30 July 2007

@Manolito, like Casa de la Musica all over again

nic and mel
Originally uploaded by

For a little while last night at the Coronet (Elephant and Castle, London), I felt as though we were back in Casa de la Musica, Havana.

Nic and Mel were even there...if you read this blog you might remember that we first saw them in Havana's famous dance hall on Galiano Street, grooving away with sexy male dancers Bustamente and Yoandy, when I snuck my 14-year-old daughter in to see Maikel Blanco.

Manolito Simonet y Su Trabuco are one of Cuba's top bands, one of the world's top salsa bands and like all these outfits, unbelievably tight and accomplished, all 16 of them. The musicianship is quite astonishing. You get used to it but when you listen to a run of the mill live jazz act you suddenly realise just how fantastic these top salsa bands are.

Manolito have a few songs which are currently club favourites, like 'Marcando la Distancia' (a song about divorce), 'Control' (a reggaeton favourite) and the crowd-pleasing, chorus rousing 'Locos por Mi Habana'. Apart from that they also mastered cha-cha-cha (latest hit, 'Se Rompieron los Termometros'), sophisticated latin-jazz instrumentals and even a bolero! (all the above songs titles link to Youtube videos.)

These tickets have been selling at every salsa event we've been to for the past six weeks, so there were many familiar faces. A really wonderful feeling, to be part of this loosely connected but joyous community of Cuban salsa fans.

And here's a photo of me at the concert with my best friend Becs:

Really must buy a good small camera for these things...BlackBerry is not up to the job...

Thanks again to MamboCity for organising this gig!

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Georgina's, just the way it used to be

Originally uploaded by

You might think of Oxford as a pretty traditional place where things don't change that much. But that's not how it is at all. In the twenty-odd years that I've lived here almost every part of the city has been altered, improved, developed. Even the colleges have cleaner stone and a modern block, sometimes even sympathetically designed, like new wings of Magdalen and Linacre.

So if you're in a nostalgic mood, where can you go for a hang-out that hasn't changed in 20 years?

I can name two: Georgina's Coffee shop and Brown's Cafe, both in the covered market.

Georgina's serves salads, flapjacks and bagels, the ceiling is plastered with movie posters and they play non-stop indie rock music loud enough that you have to talk at a level which makes the whole place swing with youthful energy. Youthful because then as now the cafe is a favourite haunt of students.

I snapped two such youngsters, Matt and Beth, sitting in what used to be one of my favourite tables.

23 years since I arrived here! That's brilliant (cos I always dreamed of living here) as well as a bit sad (cos I could never bear to leave).

A pal of mine, the Aristotelophile Peter Simpson, once told me that I would only leave Oxford in a box...

Hell no! They can bury me here!

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Thursday, 26 July 2007

Harry Potter 7 got me reading again

Well it's true and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Here's my big confession - before reading Harry Potter 7 I hadn't read a book since March. And that was nonfiction - my agent Peter Cox's book "You Don't Need Meat".

I find it hard to read when there's a lot going on in my life, especially if the 'life' stuff needs a lot of thought. Some years back, when we were setting up our business, I sometimes read fewer than 5 books a year. A YEAR! This is how come I've developed a short attention span and impatience with reading anything that doesn't grab from page 1. In such times I have had to fall back on re-reading my old favourites like Borges, Calvino, Garcia Marquez and Murakami.

It took a lot of determination to read Harry Potter 7 in a day-and-a-bit - not because it was anything but enjoyable, but because with two girls at home, one pre-reader and one teenager from the Harry-Potter-negative segment of humanity (those curious people!), it was hard to get twenty minutes' peace in one go. I read in chunks punctuated with 'Leave me alone', 'Get your own dinner' and 'It's not my problem that all your friends are too busy reading Harry Potter to hang out with you'.

But having recaptured the discipline of batting the kids away and concentrating long enough to actually follow a fictional thread, I rapidly picked up two more books and read them quick ("Of Love and Demons" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - amazing and "The Chase" by Alejo Carpentier - good but a bit tough-going to be truthful).

Reading is really the best entertainment, once you can submit to a book's demands.

Next I am going to re-read two old favourites by Mario Vargas Llosa. "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" and "The City and the Dogs". The latter is one of the vague influences of my current work-in-progress so it's time I revisited...

Current desire-to-write is running around 60%...when I hit 80% I think I can try to get back on the horse re Project Jaguar.

Oh and I loved the way JK wrapped up the saga. Especially the stuff re Snape. Excelente!

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Things I Miss About Being A Kid

Sitting here, waiting to go out to buy Harry Potter 7, is enough to make me understand - if ever there was a mystery about it which for me there isn't - why Harry Potter is SO great.

For adults I mean. Simply put - it makes us feel like kids again. Like Disneyland, swimming in the sea and...in my case, almost nothing else. (If you're very good at things like surfing and skiing you probably get this feeling from that too, but last time I skied I was trembling with fear and then I snapped my leg across the top of my boot - and heard it crack.)

I miss being a kid, even though you're relatively disempowered and have homework and exams, and you can get teased and bullied, I mean, there's no doubt it can be tough, BUT:

What a great feeling it used to be to wake on a Saturday morning and know that beyond the hour or two of chores that you might have to put in, the day was yours. I used to lie awake in bed making plans which would go something like this:

1. Call for Eoin across the road.
2. Mooch into the village to buy sweets and comics.
3. Go to Eoin's house to read comics (Roy of the Rovers and 2000 AD), eat sweets and watch TV.
4. Get ready to go watch Man United (if we were playing at home)
5. Drop by the sweet shop on the way to the bus to get supplies for the match.
6. Leave for Old Trafford around midday.
7. Get to the match early to get a good standing position, usually on the railings at the front of the Stretford End Junior Paddock.
8. Amuse each other with silly stories and voices (mainly Eoin's)
9. Go home (hopefully triumphant but if not then full of mock-bitterness and disappointment)
10. Watch "Doctor Who"
11. Hopefully have a teenage babysitter of an evening, and persuade them to read to us from their totally inappropriate book of horror tales, or if a girl, to tell us about their dates with boys.

(A close second for a Saturday when United played away, was scoring some new William, Mallory Towers, Tintin or Hardy Boys books at the library, or trespassing in the garden of the nearby grand house.)

Ah. Days where you don't count the minutes of time wasted, responsibilities ignored, calories and the effect of sugar on your teeth.

Well, I'm having one of those days today and the housework can sit there and my kids can Make Their Own Entertainment.

Friday, 20 July 2007

It's 8.30pm...are you queuing for Harry Potter?

It's 8.30pm...are you queuing for Harry Potter?
Originally uploaded by mgharris

Chucked out of the house by our teenage daughter who wants to partay with her disreputable friends...we ventured into Oxford's still clogged highways in search of a Friday night salsa. But stopped in town to grab food..honestly the traffic to Cumnor is SO bad.

Snapped the Harry Potter queue. Brave souls enduring the cold and rain! Waterstones had the biggest queue. Even though The Works opposite was offering it for the same price and had a MUCH shorter queue...everyone's heading for the Waterstones. They could be warm and toasty at Borders opposite, which is open from now till the book goes on sale.

Don't get me wrong, like. I'm keen too. But sometime after breakfast tomorrow will do me fine.

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Oxford traffic locks down

Oxford traffic locks down
Originally uploaded by

Why did my rare, one day away from my desk have to turn into a battle with the elements? From aquaplaning all over country roads this morning to being stuck in one of Oxford's legendary total gridlocks...I'm 2 minutes from home but doubt I'm going to be there for 30.

On the bright side, it brings back happy memories of rainy summer afternoons stuck for hours on Mexico City's Periferico.

I wish I'd gone to the loo. How true it is that ladies should never miss an opportunity to pop into the ladies.

Yes I'm driving as I blog this. It's okay...it's an automatic.


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