Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson spoke at the W&A conference last week – spoke so engagingly and movingly about the writing process and the process of getting a manuscript into her agent’s hands and then into print, that I needed to read it. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending on a review copy so promptly. 

It answers the question so often asked about why we go to book events – it’s because writers are thinkers. We engage with their thoughts and then want to read and digest how these are manifest on the page.

In this case, the book lives up to expectations and judging by the reviews and ratings on Good Reads it causes readers to think and reflect.

I reviewed it for We Love this Book (below) but the word count limit meant I had to leave out a lot I wanted to say about it – it’s about mothers and daughters, about being lost and finding yourself, about how we make up our lives and ourselves from those around us and from our family. But it also makes political points about cultural tourism and cultural engagements that are little more than surface dressings. Joinson is particularly good at giving her characters strong voices through their language choice, especially Eva, the protagonist, who has a very vivid imagination.  Read it, think about it. Even if you hate fractured narratives you can take it apart to see how Joinson cleverly puts it all together.

A flavour of the wonderful imagery:

The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. [p. 5]

As you can tell – it’s highly recommended!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)

ISBN 9781408825143, Hardback, £12.99

Straddling present-day England and Victorian China, Suzanne Joinson’s glorious debut switches easily between lives and times, between the immediacy of unbelieving missionary Evangeline [Eva] English’s first person journal disguised as ‘Notes’ towards her guidebook for lady travellers, and a third person narrator who charts the journey of another lost soul, Frieda Blakeman, who travels both to uncover the truth of Irene Guy, her mysterious benefactor, and, like Eva, to find herself.

Blind to cultural ‘difference’, zealous Millicent has a method of Christian conversion she calls ‘gossiping the gospel’ which leads Eva and her too-trusting sister Lizzie, who records everything on her Leica camera, into a danger from which neither passages from Bunyan and the Bible, nor unhelpful traveller guides, such as Burton and Shaw, can save them.

Frieda is unhappy with her job of making cultural connections across the globe and of her affair with married bicycle-shop owner Nathaniel. She finds Tayeb, a homeless, jobless, illegal immigrant fromYemen, asleep outside her front door and together they piece together her fragmented life. In their pairing, Joinson adds a further layer of complication to the tale.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is compelling and vividly realised through unforgettable characterisation and skilful plotting. Leitmotifs, such as birds, bones, and milk weave through strong imagery to create an original story about ‘the layering of different selves that create a life.’

*Cross-posted from We Love this Book

Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 – [pt. 1]

A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’  ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake… 

Setting a serious, workmanlike tone, was Richard Charkin, Exec. Director of Bloomsbury Publishing, who gave a frighteningly realistic insight into the current state of publishing. So you want to be published? Well, here’s the facts, was how he kicked off the conference. Using statistics and graph charts, Richard showed how the market in adult fiction had declined -11% in the last year, how independent bookshops sold just 5% of books [UK], supermarkets 10%, and book chains and online combined sold over 60%; how FSG was good for trade, selling 95000 copies in Asda on one Thursday alone compared to 7000 copies of the ‘100th’ best seller; how sales of digital books are up and good for author back lists; and how children’s books is ‘the best performing category’.

Although the news on sales and bookshops was gloomy there was also a positive side to all the facts and figures. For example, there are over 10000 publishers in the UK – more choice = more opportunities for writers to find the right publisher for their book. Good publishers look after their writers and help them to develop their career. And digital books and self-publishing have opened up new avenues for writers who can’t wait or don’t want to go through the lengthy process of bringing their book to market.

Taking a traditional route to publication means traversing the land of gatekeepers (agents/publishers/editors). Cressida Downing regaled us with funny examples of some very bad submission letters and synopses she’d received over the years from writers seeking publication. Apparently, between 70% and 80% of all submissions were wrong, badly written and didn’t follow the correct guidelines. Why are writers so bad at selling their writing or book idea or even themselves? Why do they rush at the end after spending such care and attention on their manuscripts?

Getting the covering letter right, according to CD, was the single most important thing for a writer to pay attention to when they were seeking an agent. Get it right and the chances of attracting an agent’s attention were raised. Get it wrong and it headed into the bin – even if the book and synopsis were wonderful – a bad covering letter would probably turn an agent off reading the rest of the submission. CD’s main advice was:

  • don’t rush to submit
  • use an editor to make sure your manuscript is the best it can be
  • take time to research agents to find the right ‘fit’
  • follow submission guidelines precisely
  • spend a long time on your covering letter and make sure it’s perfect before sending it off

Suzanne Joinson’s début novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar caused a stir when her agent, Rachel Calder of Sayle Literary Agency, took it to the publishing marketplace and it was really interesting to learn from both the journey of getting it there.

In a wide-ranging and informative discussion, Suzy talked about how she was approached by agents after winning a short story competition while she was reading for a creative writing MA. They approached her – which seems like a very good place to be in. She then worked to bring the partially completed book to submission standard, working with a mentor and with her agent. Over the process from signing with RC and RC selling the book to a publisher, the manuscript went through around 15 FULL DRAFTS and took around seven years to ‘get it right’.

Suzy Joinson and Rachel Calder [with Eela Devani]
Even with a publishing contract, the manuscript was further refined to get the pacing and narrative tension just right before it was ready for publication.

Rachel told us she’d approached Suzy because of her writing voice and style and admitted she was happy to work with writers to develop their writing.
Suzy’s advice to writers was – ‘keep writing’, write, even when you don’t feel like writing, write something. Add to the word count and then refine and self-edit and it will eventually take shape. And enter writing competitions as a way of stretching yourself and working towards a deadline and of fine-tuning your writing.

Writers who don’t or can’t wait for an agent or publisher to decide when the manuscript is ready for publication can choose to self-publish.

Kerry Wilkinson and Phillip Jones of the Bookseller and FutureBook, discussed the digital revolution in bookselling, and Kerry talked about his publication journey from self-published writer to signing a publishing contract with a traditional publisher.

Phillip talked about how traditional gatekeepers, such as agents and publishers, were now taking on the role of curators and of the long trajectory of publishing innovation that led from Dickens’ weekly numbers to ebooks.

While we think about a split between traditional and digital publishing – publishing is publishing. Publishers are risk takers, he said, and he didn’t diminish their important and continuing role in the crucial areas of exploiting, promoting and distributing books.

The publishing landscape has changed dramatically and quickly, though, and writers don’t need publishers – or do they?

In part two, I’ll report on Kerry Wilkinson’s talk on how he self-published and sold over 300,000 copies of his books via Amazon, with 98% of sales on Kindle and give a summary of the final agent panel discussion on the ‘perfect submission’ and more [ depressing/realistic] statistics on how many new authors they sign from their stack of unsolicited manuscripts.

to be continued….