Timbuktu movie released in UK

I am so excited that TIMBUKTU has finally been released in the UK. With its Academy Award nomination, great reviews on the Guardian and Independent sites, and 99% ‘fresh’ rating on Rottentomatoes, it seems set to do extremely well.

It is an extraordinary coincidence that the film should come out just six days before my novel BLOOD & INK. When I completed the novel last year I was unaware of Abderrahmane Sissako’s upcoming film. It’s a different story, but with the same historical backdrop.

I’m hoping to watch TIMBUKTU on Sunday night, and will post my own review of it next week.

Coming Soon: BLOOD & INK


I’m really excited about my new book, BLOOD & INK, which is coming out on 4 June 2015 and is already available for preorder. It might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It is certainly the riskiest. At the heart of the novel is the 2012 invasion of Timbuktu and the foundation there of an Islamic Caliphate. It’s part thriller, part love story. All of the characters in the novel call themselves Muslim.

I finished writing BLOOD & INK long before the emergence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but the novel is scarily relevant to current events there. I in no way intend to glorify the horrifying actions of Islamic State and similar groups. If anything, I hope that this novel will contribute to an understanding of that historical situation, and the many faces of Islam.

The final cover was unveiled today. It was designed by the ubertalented artist Joe Cruz. And here is the back cover blurb.

The town is Timbuktu.
The year is 2012.
Ali, 16, is a mujahid, a holy warrior. His battalion is massing in the Sahara Desert, preparing to invade Timbuktu.
Kadija, 15, is a daughter of Timbuktu on the verge of becoming a Guardian, a keeper of the town’s mysterious ancient manuscripts.
The two of them are now set on a collison course. Ali hates Kadija’s spirit and her outlawed passion for music. Kadija scorns Ali’s confident, ruthless fanaticism. So when they find themselves falling for each other, they try desperately – and hopelessly – to resist.
BLOOD AND INK is an unflinching glimpse into the heart of jihad.

NaNoWriMo Day 30 – I did it!

It is 5.30 a.m. in Ouagadougou, and I have just typed the 50,000th word of my new novel SCROLLS.


There will be time over the weekend to reflect on my experience of NaNoWriMo – for now, suffice to say that IT’S OVER AND I’M HAPPY!


Update (14 January 2016) : This NaNoWriMo novel was published last year by Andersen Press under the title Blood & Ink

NaNoWriMo Day 24 – one week to go

NaNoWriMo Day 24

I can’t say this month is going quickly – but at least it’s going.

It all started swimmingly, of course, with early mornings and white-on-white writing and 2000 words every day in time for breakfast.

Then on 10 November the Chess World Championship chess match in Chennai began. It’s hard to have two major hobbies on top of a day job and a family. As #NaNoWriMo and #AnandCarlsen vied for attention, my word count suffered.

Today Magnus Carlsen is being crowned the new chess World Champion, and my mind is returning to Timbuktu. The current word count is 37,442. If I can write 2000 words every day this week, I will have completed the first draft of SCROLLS and be a NaNoWriMo 2013 winner. If not, I will wear sackcloth and ashes until Christmas.

I am enjoying the process, in spite of early mornings and sore eyes. On my good days I think the first draft is turning out rather well. Even on my bad days I don’t think it’s entirely horrible. I like it when characters and events collide unexpectedly in ways I had not foreseen in the chapter outline. I am a firm believer that a novel outline should not be exhaustive – you need to leave space in your plot for unanticipated magic.

I am also happy to be experimenting with a new genre – new to me, I mean. SCROLLS is historical fiction. There are thriller elements, but there is also romance. As an author more at home with spies, kidnappings and improbable gadgets, I am relishing this new departure into a world of lingering glances, balcony scenes, impassioned soliloquies and other blissful nonsense.

Can I reach 50,000 words by 30 November? With a busy week coming up, I genuinely don’t know. Call back here next Sunday to share my jubilation or misery.

NaNoWriMo Day Five – collateral damage

salt in timbuktu

Another early morning, another 2,149 notches on the NaNoblock. I didn’t wake up at first when the alarm went off at 3am, but my wife shook me awake. ‘I’ve been awake for hours,’ she said, ‘and I’d just got back to sleep when your phone went off.’

Novel Writing Collateral Damage (NaNoCoDa?) is a very real phenomenon.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

And I really am.

ZoFaDuBre – Zombie Face During Breakfast – is proving another problematic aspect of November. The urban dictionary defines book hangover as When you’ve finished a book and you suddenly return to the real world, but the real world feels incomplete or surreal because you’re still living in the world of the book.

If it’s true of reading, it’s even truer of writing. After four hours in Salafist-occupied Timbuktu every morning, it is difficult to concentrate at breakfast.

‘Is there salt in the porridge?’ asks my wife.

Salt. Hmm. Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the treasures of wisdom are found in Timbuktu…

‘Did you add salt?’

If a blind man’s salt falls among stones, goes the Fulani proverb, he will lick everything he picks up.

‘Hello? Porridge?’

The Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed ben Amar was in debt to a local merchant, to the tune of three camel-loads of salt. One night in the year 1456 he began to pray earnestly that God would help him repay the debt, and as he prayed, slabs of salt began to fall from the sky. They fell so hard and fast throughout the night that they made a crater in the ground outside his house. You can see that crater in Timbuktu to this very day – the Crater of Takaboundou.

Bertie Wooster’s inimitable manservant Jeeves had an eye-poppingly effective hangover cure made from Worcester sauce, tabasco and raw egg. I wonder what he would whip up for the NaNoWriMo-induced book hangover.

Timbuktu to Mopti – what became of the Mali I love?

from Timbuktu to Mopti - Goggle eyed Goats and Hacking Timbuktu

Both in my picture books and in my teen fiction, I have written about the Malian towns of Timbuktu and Mopti. In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS Al Haji Amadou makes the trip from Timbuktu to Mopti overland to sell his five naughty goats. In HACKING TIMBUKTU the unscrupulous fugitive Moktar Hasim comandeers a fishing boat and makes the same journey, this time on the water.

I have never been to Timbuktu, but last year I had the chance to visit Mopti. It’s a fascinating and ancient town built on three islands in the River Niger. The ancient port still acts as an important trade hub, particularly for the huge slabs of salt brought in from the Sahara Desert. Here is thirty seconds of footage from my trip, just to give an impression of what Mopti looks like:

Sadly, as I write this, Timbuktu is unrecognizable, and Mopti too. Earlier this year, Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists took over Timbuktu. The Tuaregs were fighting for the creation of the independent Tuareg state of Azawad, but their Arabic-speaking brothers in arms had a very different vision: the establishment of Sharia law across the north of Mali (an area the size of France) and the consolidation of a military stronghold capable of launching attacks on a degenerate Western world. By the time the Tuaregs realized the awful truth, it was too late. As the following video shows, the banks in Timbuktu have been looted and heritage sites destroyed. Hospitals are short-staffed. Public schools have been closed and will not re-open until the curriculum is changed according to Islamic values.

The government’s soldiers in Timbuktu and elsewhere put up little resistance – they were outflanked, outgunned and outnumbered, and they quickly withdrew. Now all eyes are on Mopti. The islamic militants in Timbuktu are threatening that the ancient port is next on their list of targets, and are preparing to make the journey from Timbuktu to Mopti.

Timbuktu to Mopti. It’s the innocent picture book journey undertaken by Al Haji Amadou and his goats. It’s the swashbuckling treasure hunt journey undertaken by Moktar Hasim and his pursuers. But this time it’s for real, and it will not be on foot or by boat but overland in stolen Toyota Landcruisers loaded with rocket launchers and heavy-calibre mortars. I am sickened that the beautiful land of Mali, a storybook land in the best possible sense, is now being violated by fanatics who have no respect for history, culture or human life.

In Mopti, a poorly-armed but determined militia awaits. These are not goverment soldiers, these are plucky civilians desperate to reclaim their ravaged country. The New York Times ran an interesting piece on the Mopti front line earlier this month. Realistically, their prospects are not good.

I rang our home town in Burkina Faso last week and spoke to my friend Hama and to local pastor Ali. ‘We have never seen anything like this,’ said Hama. ‘Everyone in town is talking about Mali’s troubles, and there has been violence as close as Boni on the Burkina-Mali border. Alla hoynu tan (May God make it easier).’

I hope that one day I will again be able to write about Mali as a proud, peaceful country where naughty goats raid pumpkin patches and fishing boats parade the mighty Niger river. But until Timbuktu is restored to its rightful landlords, magical Mali will seem a very dark place indeed. Certainly not a place to take children to.

Present tense for novel writing

So I’m reading Matt Haig’s wonderful novel The Radleys. I usually don’t like vampire stories but this is about a very English family of vampire ‘abstainers’ living in suburbia – it’s warm, sympathetic and very funny.

Anyway, The Radleys has got me thinking about present tense narration, and even considering it as an option for the thriller I’m writing at the moment. So I have been reading various opinions this morning about present tense novels – do they work, do they irritate their readers, and so on.

Never one to shy away from expressing a strong opinion, Philip Pullman has weighed in on the anti-present-tense-narration side of the discussion, calling it a ‘silly affectation’. Really? Always?

Opinion on the Writewords forums is divided when it comes to present tense narration:

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? EmmaD at 21:09 on 02 November 2005

Reading an extended piece in present tense often makes me feel as if I’m being hit repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon. Even a wonderful novel like Helen Dunmore’s The Siege.

More seriously, though I’ve read some wonderful work in present tense, I think it’s often a cop-out by the writer. It seems to save the trouble of constructing suspense by being naturally suspenseful, but just reads as a string of events. It tries to create a sense of immediacy which hides the fact that the writer isn’t really imagining out the scene completely. It’s also less flexible: I think it’s much harder to move clearly but unobtrusively in and out of flashback and backstory, and can lead to some terribly crunchy changes of gear and tense. I suspect it looks easier to do well, and is actually harder.

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? Luisa at 19:27 on 01 December 2005

No disrespect at all intended, but I’m struggling to understand the point of view of people who dislike books written in the present tense, or who see its use as trendy, or liken reading it to being hit over the head.

I strongly disagree with the comment that it is not natural to tell a story in the present tense in English. It is perfectly natural. Have you ever told a joke? Or talked about what a bad day you’ve had? Sometimes you use present tense, sometimes past tense. In both cases, you’re telling a story. They are both natural in our language. Do I speak a different language from the rest of you? (Don’t answer that!)

We’re talking about writing fiction, not newspaper reports. There are very few strict conventions to be adhered to, as I see it. Writers tell stories how they see fit to tell them.

We have a straight choice. We write in the present tense, or we write in the past tense. It’s the same as deciding whether to use first person or third person. It’s an important decision, and has implications for the whole story, but I can’t see how choosing one tense over another would cause such extreme reactions in a reader.


Preach it, Luisa! Molly Spooner’s take on it is similarly nuanced.

I think the author needs to be prepared to defend his or her decision, because if there aren’t good reasons for it, stylistically it’s the writing equivalent of ‘shopping all your photographs into sepia tone to make them look deep and artsy.

So what might be a good reason to write a novel in the present tense? Richard Lea of The Guardian has this to say:

It’s no accident that Christian Paul Casparis traces the recent upsurge in present-tense narration to the beginning of the 1960s – the moment that Harold Wilson proclaimed a new Britain forged in the white heat of technological revolution. As the pace of modern life accelerates, the present that we’re all living in seems much more immediate, much more fragmentary. In a world of Watergate and Wikileaks we’re much less prepared to accept a final version, an official story. The internet, mobile phones, Twitter: all gnaw away at our capacity to reflect; all push us to experience life as a series of unconnected moments. As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?

I’ve got nothing against present tense narration per se – I’m devouring The Radleys, I loved J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and I even quite enjoyed The Hunger Games. But as a novelist, you need a reason to do it and you need to be aware of some of the technical problems it throws up. Like how to convey time-lapse without a sensation of ‘grating gears’. How to maintain immediacy and pace without stressing the reader to the point of exhaustion. And most importantly of all, how to avoid sounding like you’ve just done a Creative Writing MA and are wanting to show off your shiny new toolkit.

What do you think? What novels have you read which use present tense narration particularly well? Is it a portal to vivid, immediate, thrilling experience of story at its rawest and purest? Or is it like being hit over the head with a teaspoon?