Saturday, 19 September 2020

Scythe



This was a lot of fun. 

Picked up completely on a whim because I liked the cover.

A dark, gripping and witty thriller in which the only thing humanity has control over is death.

In a world where disease, war and crime have been eliminated, the only way to die is to be randomly killed ("gleaned") by professional scythes. Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been selected to be scythes' apprentices, and despite wanting nothing to do with the vocation, they must learn the art of killing and understand the necessity of what they do.

Only one of them will be chosen as a scythe's apprentice and as Citra and Rowan come up against a terrifyingly corrupt Scythedom, it becomes clear that the winning apprentice's first task will be to glean the loser.

Very interesting concept. A bit like Altered Carbon, but everyone gets to live forever, not just the rich. I really appreciated the way it dove right in there without a load of backstory explanation. It's like, 'this is our world, this is how it works, get with the programme.' 

Good stuff.

I love the concept of 'splatting', which is committing suicide just for the fun of it. Usually from a great height.

It's set in a world where all that can be known is now known. Which, when you consider Big Data, is not so implausible.

The idea of truly wishing to end one's own life is a concept completely foreign to most post-mortals, because we can't experience the level of pain and despair that so seasoned the Age of Mortality. Our emo-nanites prevent us from plunging so deep. 

It plays heavily around the concept that, 'there is no art without death.' That, if we could live forever - or, in this case, can't not live forever - then the impetus to invent and create would be lost.

The whole thing was just great. Romping through a different reality that just might, some day, be our own. And some words of wisdom in there, too:

I think all young women are cursed with a streak of unrelenting foolishness, and all young men are cursed with a streak of absolute stupidity.

It's the first book in a trilogy by  Neal Shusterman, and I'm likely to go find the second.

If you are the singer, then I am the song,
A threnody, requiem, dirge.
You've made me the answer for all the world’s need,
Humanity’s undying urge.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Old Meets Young


I stumbled across a series on YouTube that I've become rather fascinated by. Unfortunately, it's by something called Lad Bible, which is instantly off-putting, but the series itself is very interesting. They take older people and younger people either doing the same job, such as a doorman or nurse, or in the same circumstances, such as addicts, criminals, lottery winners and climate change activists, looking at how things have changed over the years. 

The one above about homelessness really hit me. Back when I was an undergrad, I knew a homeless guy called Michael who would often sit by the train station. One night, I sat with him as the pubs were emptying, and the amount of abuse he took was unreal. Being a student with a room to go to and parents to call if I was in trouble, I sort of felt I was above it in some way, but the moment I sat on that pavement with him, I was invisible. We watched bottles being hurled, a man get his face smashed in, and an endless forest of legs go past.

It was a strange experience, and many years later went on to inspire a character in a set of short stories.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Sruth na Maoilé by Jonathan McFerran

Sruth na Maoilé
(Image from a URL link to his site)

Well, what can I say?

Touched to the core by this. I mentioned the artist Jonathan McFerran the other day, who wrote a really lovely review of Children of Lir. Another mythology junkie, like myself. 

Today, he tagged me in on this.



The greatest compliment anyone can ever give your art is for it to have inspired their own in some way. The first time it ever happened for me was when Stephanie Piro drew those beautiful sketches inspired by Rosy Hours. I'll never forget the amazement I felt when they arrived.

Yet, when I look at my own work, so many pieces are inspired by storytellers I admire. Rosy Hours wouldn't have existed without Leroux and Webber. Creeper's Cottage wouldn't have existed without David Southwell.

I'm just bowled over by this artwork. It's so atmospheric. When somebody likes something you did so much that they feel inspired to create, it's just the greatest feeling. To think this wouldn't have existed if I hadn't written that book, and that book wouldn't have existed if Michael Scott and Lady Gregory hadn't written their works - and on and on it goes in a chain of creation, back to the beginning of time. 

Privileged to be an inkstained link in that chain.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Yeah, Right


That's nice to know. Apparently I have 'upper intermediate' (or, begrudgingly, above) English language ability.

Thank you British Council for your insight.

Some of your questions were dodgy as ---- (choose the most appropriate word). 

Ah, sod it. I'm not accepting this...



So, I just went back through and entered the exact same answers and got 100%.

It all boils down to how confident you are about your answers. After each selection it asks you this:



And I wasn't certain about some of them, because some of them had more than one acceptable answer. 


Mind you is the obvious choice there, but, colloquially speaking, still would also be passable. However, when I tried that, I got knocked down to 96%. Although I chose mind you during the first round, I said I was uncertain and lost the points.

So, I was marked down for being a conscientious student. I'm not entirely sure that's fair.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Jonathan McFerran

Oidheadh chloinne Lir
(above image a link to the image location on his website)

I received a lovely review of The Children of Lir the other day, and wanted to return the favour as it was written by an artist with a shared love of the story. His above depiction of Aoife and the swans is fabulous. Dark and atmospheric. I see it a little through the eyes of my own retelling - Lir turned into the rock he sat on for so many years, helpless to break the curse, and Aoife, turned into the storm that consumed her. I love the detailed pattern on the hem of her dress.

Do check out Johnathan's work on his website, Instagram and Twitter. He's also written several books.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Shantaram



Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

I've had a copy of this on my shelf for years. I bought it after a succession of people told me how good it was. I just never got around to reading it, so I decided to get it on audiobook instead.

It was all they said it was.

Total immersion of the heart, the head, and the Bombay underworld. 

Just, brilliant. 

It's a semi-autobiographical work. So, it's based really closely on Gregory David Roberts's life as an escaped Australian convict. He broke out of jail and went on the run in India. The way it's written, it's so believable as to make you suspect 90% of it is probably true, but having watched a few interviews and read more about it, the question perhaps lies in our definition of truth. There is a certain truth all novelists recognise in fiction. This book is full of that type of truth.

A lot of real things, and a lot of things made up of little pieces of real things.

It's a very clever and compelling piece of work. I highly recommend it. I went back to get the sequel The Mountain Shadow on Audible, but could only find it in German. I don't think I would enjoy that as much, as I don't speak German.

It was sort of sad, as an author, to read that he originally intended there to be four books, but as it took 11 years to write the sequel and he's over 60, he put that idea aside. Time - there's never enough of it. The older a writer gets, the more aware of that they become. 

A particularly amazing point about this book is that he started writing it twice in prison, after he was eventually recaptured, but after completing 300 pages, the manuscripts were destroyed by prison guards both times. I know how soul-destroying it is to lose five pages to a Word malfunction. The thought of having to start an entire novel again from scratch would break me.

So glad he was made of sterner stuff.

I usually include a few quotes from the book in my reviews, but honestly, this was such an epic, and it was all so good, that looking through the length of my clip list just exhausts me. All I can say is, pick up a copy.

If you prefer audiobooks, Humphrey Bower narrated it perfectly. Really brought it to life and listening to a first-person narrative spoken by an actual person is always engaging.

Excellent and mysterious stuff.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Korean Soaps

Hotel Del Luna

Okay, this is a totally gushy post of unbridled delight.

I am besotted with Korean soaps. So much so that I can now read enough Korean to tell you the above is actually Spanish, and that Talk to me in Korean is an amazing site. I'm not entirely sure how I've almost managed to reach the age of forty without ever knowing any of this.

It all began, thanks to my friend Paul of Northern Antiquarian fame. We've always been off exploring standing stones and waffling mythology and folklore together. Last time we were on the phone, he told me he'd really been getting into Korean films on Netflix and recommended a few titles.

I decided to take a look at Along with the Gods - and that was it. It was visually stunning and so rich in mythology it just sucked me right in.



Then I watched a supernatural horror, which was quite good. Then Netflix kept recommending Memories of the Alhambra, so I thought I'd try that, only to discover it's a series.

It started off with one hell of a premise. Augmented reality gone horribly wrong. In Spain, for some reason. But anyway... it was engrossing, though completely unlike any other soap I've ever watched. I'll go into this more in a minute.




Next, I graduated onto Hotel Del Luna (I'm not entirely sure why the strong Korean/Spanish links?). 

I just about died with delight. 

I sobbed solidly through most of the episodes and through the entirety of the last two. It's all about a hotel where ghosts go to recover before crossing the bridge into their next life. It blew my little socks off. It appears deceptively light-hearted at times, but turned out to be horribly profound. There are some very silly moments in it, but like Master of the House in Les Mis, you need that, otherwise you'd open a vein. 


Having completed that and taken a couple of days to recover, I started Crash Landing on You yesterday. I didn't think I'd get on with this one because it's overtly a romantic comedy and I have a limited tolerance for those, but once again I'm absolutely absorbed. This time it's about a woman who accidentally crosses the border into North Korea, and the differences between the two countries. It's very well done, and again, the superficial nature of the lead character is entirely deceptive. It's got some proper depth to it.

I'm just completely intrigued now. What a story-telling culture. But it seems (to someone who knows nothing about the Korean film industry) that all of these series are made by the same company, as they follow a very specific format every time.

Some of the key things I've learned about Korean soaps that distinguish them from western soaps:

1. The length of the episodes

Usually, a western series runs to an hour per episode, often less and getting lesser due to binge culture. I think Better Call Saul is 60 minutes, Suits is about 40 minutes and Neighbours, a much-loved Australian soap when I was growing up, is only about 20 minutes. In comparison, Korean soaps are around an hour and a half and around 16 episodes. It's a bit of a time commitment, but when you reach the end it's like you've finished an epic novel rather than a TV show.

2. Genre Switching

Usually, with a western series, you kind of have a genre - like light entertainment, romance, horror, detective, family drama - and you stick to that. Something that took a moment to get used to with Korean series is that they can go from warm, fuzzy romance to graphic horror in the blink of an eye. I absolutely love it. One minute, this guy and this girl are making eyes at each other, the next, someone's jugular is spurting blood or someone's car gets pushed over a cliff as they scream for help. I love it, I love it, I love it. And I think it goes a long way to holding your attention. Everything's in context, but you're never quite sure what you're about to see. It makes everything feel a bit gritty and real. Having said that, it does work the other way. You can be in the middle of a murder scene when suddenly the script starts to read like a bad Mills & Boon. I felt it most in Memories of the Alhambra. I think they could have cut it a bit shorter and had greater impact. You were really getting into the action when suddenly it took a break for a couple of episodes to focus purely on romance. It kind of broke the flow. But, on the whole, they're a pick and mix of emotions.

3. Recurring Song

There's usually a recurring song or two that sees you through the whole thing. For the rest of my life, when I hear this, I'll burst into tears.


4. The Unknown

They employ a neat narrative technique whereby you think you know what's going on, you've got everything sussed, then they switch character perspective and you learn something you didn't know before. It's done quite regularly and to very good effect. As with genre mixing, it keeps you engaged, and on a deeper level it really confronts you with your own presumptions. You learn to be a bit less judgemental until you have all the facts (i.e. the series ends).

5. The Mythology

I'm not sure whether to say the culture or the mythology or both? For example, if you watched a western series set in a church, I'd call it mythology but others might call it culture? Either way, the worldview is stunning. I think everything I've watched so far except Crash Landing (and I'm only two episodes in, so give it time) has dealt with spirits, ghosts and reincarnation. I'm all about that. Some scenes, like the Spirit of the Well in Hotel Del Luna just bring fond memories of Ghibli and Spirited Away. Needless to say, Along with the Gods was a real journey through the afterlife. Definitely my cup of tea.

6. Talking to Yourself

One of the things I still haven't got entirely used to is that characters have a real habit of talking to themselves and explaining what they're thinking. It's kind of in context, so it's not bad, it's just something that you never see in western series. For example, one character might be watching another across the room and say, 'I wonder what she thinks of me?' It's subtle, but sort of like a stage whisper. Usually, in western dramas we'd do it with a look or a gesture. We'd kind of trust the audience to be following the story closely enough to guess what the character is thinking without explicitly saying it. On the other hand, it's not used to excess, and I've sort of got used to it now. It's just a different way of doing things.

7. Diversity

So far, all three series have been very heteronormative. It's one guy and one girl falling in love (which kind of perpetuates the Mills & Boon thing). Nowadays, many western series, especially those on Netflix, such as Umbrella Academy, Russian Dolls, Last Tango in Halifax, tend to be more inclusive. One of the main things I knew about South Korea was that in 2013 they granted asylum to an LGBT Ugandan woman. But, having read a bit more about LGBT rights in Korea, it's not as open as I assumed. I wondered for a moment about Secretary Seo Jung Hoon. That was just heart-wrenching, turning up when Yoo Jin Woo most needed him. But I think shows can be a bit conspicuous nowadays if there's no diversity even in the side characters. Which brings me to the next point...

8. Specific Format

These series feel incredibly satisfying when you get to the end, but I'm starting to see a pattern. Each episode ends with a cliff hanger the height of the grand canyon, ends with freeze frames of the show, contains a recurring song, usually the main characters don't get on at all before realising they're madly in love, there's no nudity or explicit sex scenes, but a lot of silent and meaningful eye contact and appropriate touching, then somewhere around the fourth episode from the end they finally kiss. Each episode ends with freeze frames from the instalment, looking like paintings. It's predictable in the way it unfolds, but the story telling is top-notch and the premises are just fabulous: augmented reality trying to kill you, a hotel for ghosts, crossing into North Korea... they're all really well thought through with some very entertaining twists and turns.

9. Room for a Sequel

So far, both Memories of the Alhambra and Hotel Del Luna have set themselves up for a sequel... but neither has made one or have a second season slated on IMDB. It sort of feels like a choose-your-own-ending. Everything's wrapped up and you can either choose to accept that or go with the dangled possibility of another story to come. I think Hotel Del Luna should have just stopped. It was a one-off story and the characters can't come back. So, it was a bit wishy-washy to hint at another series. Whereas Memories of the Alhambra could definitely have run a second series, but didn't.

*

Anyway, that's my assessment, and I'm loving it all. Hyun Bin's hair should have won an award when he was sitting in the rain outside the hospital. You could see every single strand, it was beautiful. Seeing him in Memories of the Alhambra and then in Crash Landing on You - it was like looking at two completely different people. Extremely diverse actor. 

But I've just loved all of this. I think we can get so used to the format of our own cultural programming, that it's really refreshing to see something different. I'm not sure if it'll wear off, though I don't think I'll ever recover from Hotel Del Luna. That would have made a superb novel. And so many good lines.

Love can be one's remedy and poison.


*

Cranes make sure their feathers stay as white as snow even when they're standing in mud.

*

...what I have is hell. Experiencing hell together isn't better.


*

We should soundproof the hotel rooms.




All of this has seriously made me want to know more about Korea. Out of curiosity, I started learning a bit about the language. The alphabet is completely phonetic and incredibly logical. Surprisingly easy to get the very basics. Because of this, they've got one of the highest literacy rates in the world. They also have a very nice national motto: Benefit broadly the human world, devotion to the welfare of humanity. Sounds like a place worth visiting.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

The Bone Clocks


This is a rather rare, lukewarm review from me. I don't usually mention books I didn't get on with, because I don't read many. This one I will mention though, because there was something that very much caught my attention - see further down.

I am a huge Cloud Atlas fan, as I've often repeated - both the film and the book. On hearing this, a friend suggested I should check out The Bone Clocks, so I did.

I was surprised that Cloud Atlas came out ten years before Bone Clocks, because Bone Clocks seems like the lesser-developed novel to me. It feels like an earlier drafting of something akin to Cloud Atlas. There's a lot of interwoven themes, like Felix Finch, 'dear reader,' and a continuing vocal grudge against literary critics - which I'm extremely aware of as I set forth on my own review.

I'm being careful here because, as a writer, I'm loath to write negatively about other people's work, because I know what goes into it. Yet, as a reader, I do have an opinion.

One thing about David Mitchell, is that he's outstanding at literary portraiture. He can deliver a perfect study of a very real, believable character, such as Ed Brubeck and his life as a war reporter. Extremely detailed.

The start of the book was outstanding. Really entertaining, with an unexpected and fascinating turn of events. It dragged me right in. The ending wasn't bad, either - the complete collapse of society. But it just felt like the threads weren't really connected throughout, and I didn't always care enough for a character to want that much detail about their lives, especially as it didn't seem to lead on to anything. You got to know a character intimately, then that's it. On to the next. For this reason, it was a slow burn. Lots of character detail, then a massive psychic battle that was more tell than show - lot of back story explained by one character to another - and then the curtain falls.

Cloud Atlas was also massively fractured between timelines, but it ricocheted back on itself to form a complete and engrossing story.

I just didn't feel that click here.

And that's me, that's not the book. We all connect differently with different things. It just didn't sink in. However, once I start something, I find it extremely difficult to leave it unfinished, so I did have a play with the audiobook speed settings. I felt guilty, but I did that. And I got to the end. And it was interesting, just not compelling - for me.

I actually enjoy books I don't enjoy, on some level. They teach you something about yourself, what you're seeking in a story and how you interpret narratives. It's interesting to explore why we don't chime with some stories but we do with others. I think this one was just about pace.

There were a few cute lines:

My heart's a clubbed baby seal.

But the thing that really stood out for me, bearing in mind that this was published in 2014, is that Mitchell appears to have guessed half the plot of QAnon.



The part that really stands out in that video:

Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and others, eat children in order to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood group.   

In a nutshell, that's what the cult of the Anchorites do in Bone Clocks - they distill and drink the blood of children in order to extend their lives.

So, definite kudos to Mitchell for seeing that one coming. I'm just hoping he was a little wider of the mark in terms of the complete collapse of civilization. Sadly, he probably isn't, but let's see where we get to. We're headed for a very heavy population drop in about a hundred years, so there's a little hope if we haven't managed to wipe ourselves - and everything else - out by then.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Shoe Rack


Time for the final, final stop on my bookshelf tour. I very recently acquired a shoe rack, made by my friend Désiré, who I do the pianos with. It's become a makeshift extension of the bookshelf. The majority of the books here were left to me by my neighbour Didier, before he headed off to study in Canada. He was such a nice guy, and a great cat sitter when I went away, so he is much missed, but he's joined his brothers overseas to complete his studies.

A few months before he left, he told me that he'd started getting into fiction. It's rare to meet Rwandans who really enjoy reading novels. Most people you meet prefer self-improvement books or non-fiction, and the majority of reading is focused on academic texts. There are hardly any bookstores, and the price of books is high. They're very much luxury items. The price of a glossy paperback in Ikirezi can easily represent a month's wages for someone in the villages. So, there's a sense that if you're going to spend your time reading, it should be something that will increase your income or job opportunities in the future, rather than something you do solely for pleasure.

I lent my neighbour everything on my top shelf - the best books - and he really enjoyed The Book of Negroes. So, when he left, he gave me a bag of books to enjoy. Really lovely of him. A shared love of literature is a wonderful thing. Sadly, I have very little spare time to read much anymore and almost exclusively listen to audiobooks either in the shower, whilst cooking or loading the washing machine, or whilst falling asleep at night. I've kept these books but intend to sort through them and either read them or find good homes for them.



Forgot to mention this lovely little card on top of the bookshelf. This was a birthday card from dad and Marilyn a couple of years back. A 3D kitten-in-the-garden scene. Cute.

So, here's the books on the shoe rack, and perhaps you can tell me which are worth reading. Just before we get onto that, I should explain that I'm currently cosied up with my books and all my belongings in the spare room at the moment whilst the front room, where the bookshelf usually lives, is being renovated. One of the hazards of Rwandan houses is that they tend to rot during the wet season and the concrete needs patching up every couple of years. It happens to all the houses. So, the workmen have been in the past couple of days and now everything's damp-proofed again and repainted nicely. Just in time for the wet season, which is due in a week or two.


So, here's the collection.

Mysterious Hardback

There's a couple in there that I nicked from my friend's restaurant, CasaKeza. She had a few lying around for people to read, and I'd never read Nietzsche, and I'm a fan of The L Word, so I pinched her copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I still haven't read Nietzsche.

I think I also nicked The Secret Life of Stuff from there. All about where the things we buy come from and what their impact on the environment is.

There's also The Honking, which I bought from Acacia Book Café the same day I persuaded the owner to sell me the not-for-sale copy of Shadow of the Wind (top shelf). It caught my eye as it's a murder mystery by a Ugandan author, Mulumba Ivan Matthias, and the blurb caught my attention:

Students are getting murdered inside Makerere University. Fear is spreading. Life moves on for some yet for others, it is never the same. Kaggwa looks for an income beyond the handouts from his much older lover. Professor Mukalazi, unhappy at home and at work, is dealing with the consequences of his actions as he fights not to become a total failure. We encounter grieving friends and lovers, a web of affairs, and a death that opens the flood gates of anger.

I was hoping it would be another Tail of the Blue Bird, but the prose could do with a polish so I didn't get very far into it.

There's a couple of books in the collection I definitely want to read. Obviously Pigs in Heaven, as it was written by Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote The Poisonwood Bible, one of the greatest books ever written. I believe she was also in a rock band with Stephen King? There's a copy of The Time Traveler's Wife, which is very famous and therefore I feel I should read it, although stories of time travel don't really float my boat, so I'll maybe pick it up on audiobook someday. I also have a copy of The Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller, which rings a bell as being quite famous? And, finally, the Mysterious Hardback, which turned out to be a copy of The Hammer of Eden by Ken Follett, who wrote another of the greatest books around, Pillars of the Earth.

I also have a random Dutch novel, De engel van Amsterdam by Geert Mak. I believe this was left behind, along with The Book of Negroes, by the Pinhoe pilferers (see top shelf). I have a couple of Dutch friends so will find it a good home.

Apart from those, I have no knowledge of, nor connection to, any of the remaining books (in no particular order): Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a New York Times bestseller; The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, the title of which intrigues me; elaine's circle by Bob Katz; The Potato Factory by Bryce Courtnay; Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, this one's lost its cover; The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler, which looks like a short read and also delightfully deckle-edged, which automatically endears me to it; the white bone by Barbara Gowdy, which is probably a lovely read but I'm repelled by the lack of capitalisation in the title - it's an edgy style choice, but not one that I will ever agree to willingly; Confessor by Terry Goodkind, which appears to be the last book in a long series and is also an NYT bestseller; Phantom by Jo Nesbo, another NYT bestseller. I'm not sure I feel hugely drawn to any of these, but if you think I'm missing a hidden gem, let me know.

So, all that's left is to introduce you to Harris Bear, who guards the bookshelf against Pinhoe pocketers with his ferocious cuteness. His name's Harris Bear after my friend Harris, who had him delivered, along with a suitable quantity of whiskey, chocolate and gorgeous flowers, for my birthday last year. He was a good friend who used to visit Rwanda several times a year for his PhD research. He now has his PhD and won't be returning, so Harris Bear is my substitute drinking buddy. I hope to see the original in Europe at some point if the plague ever subsides.


Saturday, 22 August 2020

Notes from a Small Island


I've lived away from my native turf for rather some time. The first year I arrived in my adopted country, I was at a carol service at the British Ambassador's residence. I was fresh off the boat and surrounded by aged and weathered immigrants. I asked one of them whether he missed the UK. He simply said, 'I enjoy missing it.' 

That's stuck with me over the years. The UK for me is a wistful notion of cream teas, country gardens and meandering back lanes - with contradictory weather and abysmal politics. 

As someone who regularly comments on other people's countries, I really enjoy hearing what people from other countries think of the UK, both good and bad. When I was younger, I wished that I had a better grasp of French or Italian, so that I could read their guidebooks to the UK and see what they said about English culture. 

I do love Bill Bryson. He's one of those laugh-out-loud authors with a dry sense of humour and an eagle eye for the ironies of life. Notes From a Small Island was originally published in 1995, but it's weathered well.

In 1995, before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire to move back to the States for a few years with his family, Bill Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite; a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy; place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey and Shellow Bowells; people who said 'Mustn't grumble', and ‘Ooh lovely’ at the sight of a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits; and Gardeners' Question Time. Notes from a Small Island was a huge number-one bestseller when it was first published, and has become the nation's most loved book about Britain, going on to sell over two million copies.

I just really enjoyed this book.

Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. 

I smiled at the contradictions. It took me a long time to feel settled in a country where everything is table service, even in bars.

I sat for half an hour in a pub before I realised that you had to fetch your own order, then tried the same thing in a tearoom and was told to sit down.

I actually learned some interesting facts I didn't know about my country. Margaret Thatcher was only five years out of office when this was released. It speaks a bit about the tensions and the poverty divide between North and South. I found this figure interesting:

If you draw an angled line between Bristol and the Wash, you divide the country into two halves with roughly 27 million people on each side. Between 1980 and 1985, in the southern half they lost 103,600 jobs. In the northern half in the same period they lost 1,032,000 jobs, almost exactly ten times as many.

I also found his comparison of Blackpool and Morecambe good fun. My dad's side is from Carlisle, so Blackpool was a traditional holiday destination for them, though it wasn't exactly thrilling. They used to have an old waxworks there that was truly something to behold. Half of them had tapers sticking out the top, and I think it's long closed. But for my grandparents' golden wedding anniversary, we hired a horse and carriage to drive them down the Golden Mile to the tower. And I don't care what he says about the lights, as a small child they were pretty magical.

That I remember, but I had absolutely no idea Morcambe used to be the centre of all attention before Blackpool took over. Reading Bryson's description, it's hard to imagine that little seaside resort could have catered for so many people. A real history lesson.

I found this interesting, too:

One of the hardest things to adjust to, if you come from a large country, is that you are seldom really alone out of doors in England — that there is scarcely an open space where you could, say, safely stand and have a pee without fear of appearing in some birdwatcher’s binoculars or having some matronly rambler bound round the bend…

It surprised me. Living in Rwanda, I often lament that there is nowhere you can go to be truly alone. Set foot in any seemingly deserted space and within minutes you're surrounded. It's one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. So, whenever I visit the UK, one of the first things I do is walk out into a field near my village and just stand there - completely alone. There is always an empty field or a swathe of moorland to just stand in. But it's all about scale. Rwanda is tiny compared to the UK, and the UK is minuscule compared to Bryson's home, America. From a puddle to a pond to an ocean. 

I also smiled at this: 

It's a funny thing about English diners. They'll let you dazzle them with piddly duxelles of this and fussy little noisettes of that, but don't fuck with their puddings, which is my thinking exactly. 

I'm currently embroiled in an ongoing argument with my Danish friend, who insists that 'pudding' is a particular type of dessert. Sort of a yellow blancmange, from what I can gather. She is completely baffled that I refer to any form of dessert as 'pudding.' I'm going to send her this quote to rest my case. If pudding is only blancmange, how do you account for sticky toffee pudding, bread pudding, rice pudding and Christmas pudding? Huh? Well? Huh?

It was a pleasure to listen to Bryson's thoughts on old Blighty. He really loves the place, and in listening to his love of the place, it sparked a small residue of sympathy in my own heart. I don't have a particularly easy relationship with my native Britain. I often struggle to see a reason to like it, especially in these turbulent times. It often appears mean-spirited, too willing to squander the resources and potential it has, and criminally negligent towards the most vulnerable in society. Moving backwards far more swiftly than forwards. But, he reminded me that there are some endearing qualities. Its history of innovation and invention, our love of animals, our ability to queue, our neighbourly compassion (provided those neighbours aren't foreign), our support for the underdog and our ability to discuss weather and traffic routes until we expire from exhaustion. 

It's an okay place, and I am fortunate to have been born British with all of the educational and creative opportunities that afforeded, and the visa rights it gives me to travel. I might not have had the freedom to leave my home country and adopt another with such ease if that hadn't been my starting box.   

A final, very memorable part of the book was the story of Harry, the psychiatric patient who sounded like he stepped straight out of K-PAX. Honestly a haunting and bizarre tale.

All in all, a very enjoyable read.

Do you know the difference, by the way, between 'village' and 'hamlet'? Surprisingly few people do, but it's quite simple really: one is a place where people live and the other is a play by Shakespeare.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Secure the Shadow Fades Away



A big hug to all the book bloggers who took part in the Secure the Shadow launch tour. Really touched by the reviews.

Touched and surprised. I've said this several times both on this blog and to friends - I was never too sure how to feel about this one. It's not the book I set out to write, and I never really forgave it for that. The original idea was to write a first-person, very sad, very slow story about a woman with a passion for photography who loses her mind to mercury poisoning. A hazard of the profession back then. The idea was that her memories and the photographs would start to blur until she could no longer tell the difference.

That isn't the book I ended up with. It took on a life of its own from the prologue and I just couldn't control it. I didn't expect to meet any of the characters in it. So, when they took over, I felt a very slight sense of resentment because I thought my idea was better. But they wouldn't listen, and I was overruled. 

This often happens to sections of my books, but not usually to the entire thing. 

It's like I suggested, 'let's write a book about photography and ghosts,' and someone else (or a few someone elses) went, 'okay great, give me the pen.'

I thought we could maybe do something about it when we got to the end, but a novel is very similar to a jigsaw puzzle in that the pieces fit together so exactly that any attempt to remove a piece or insert something else just mucks up the whole picture. 

So, I had to accept, this was the book I got. 

Which is why I've been fairly blown away by the response. Because it wasn't what I thought it should be, I assumed it wasn't good. But I didn't listen to my own advice. I teach technical writing skills from time to time. One thing everybody struggles with is shortening a sentence. Once you put something on paper, you fall in love with it. You can't help it. You don't think you love it, but the moment someone else suggests getting rid of it - kill your darlings - you resist with all your might. What I try to explain to people is - you only think you're taking something away from the sentence because you knew it was there in the first place. Someone who never knew those words existed, really won't miss them. There's nothing there to miss. They will be perfectly satisfied with what they see. 

On a grander scale - that was this book. In my head, I had a whole other story. But nobody else saw that story, they saw this one. And this one is good also. It's just taken me a while to accept that. 

A blog tour is something I cringe from. The first one I ever did was with Rosy Hours, that introduced me to the concept. It's an important way to launch a book, like smashing champagne against a boat. Interviews are fun, giveaways are nice, but you just never know what the reviews will say. Each morning you wake up and steel yourself to click a link, only breathing again once you're a few paragraphs in and nobody said it was the worst book they'd ever read.

I was honestly overwhelmed by the positivity. There were a couple of five-stars in there, which is always a glowy feeling. Though I was particularly touched by Debjani's review because she quoted some of her favourite parts. I do that in book reviews, too. Certain things just stick with you, and those things are so individual to each reader. That people go to such trouble as to type them up is truly humbling. 

This is the first time I have seen such eloquent descriptions of death with just the hint of grief accompanying it. - Debjani's Thoughts 

You can find the full tour with all the links here.

The book has had a good send-off and now it's time to turn my attention to other projects. Still slogging away at the Children of Lir and Tangled Forest audiobooks, in that order. But all the nice reviews have given me heart again. I haven't written much in a while now, but once these are out the way, I will get back to it. Everybody, no matter how long they've been writing, needs a little encouragement now and then.

To all creatives out there - keep going. Make the world a little madder, a little badder, more Byronic than moronic.