Sunday, 31 May 2020

Musical Interlude: Erin McKeown


Love this lady.

Though watching the one bellow makes me desperately wish I could step into a live music venue for a quick pint. Going to be a while before we can all do that again.


Saturday, 30 May 2020

Happy PhD




Massive shout out to my fabulous friend Doctor Doctor Harris, who, as well as being an MD is also now a PhD. It was a huge privilege to watch him defend his thesis yesterday at the University of Luxembourg, via video conference.

Totally proud of him. It's been a hell of a few years. A pleasure to hang out with him in Kigali when he was here researching, and sort of a pleasure (mostly terrifying) to do a TEDx talk because of him - yes, that was his fault!

Know how hard he's worked on this and it was an honour to be part of the journey.

There was a huge amount of Mutzig involved along the way. 

Very much looking forward to seeing him and his partner once COVID is under control. Somewhere with good food, wine and ice-cream.



Friday, 29 May 2020

Ranty Post: How Authors in Developing Countries are Disadvantaged



Morning.

Today I'm having a bit of a rant about something that's irritated me for a couple of years now. I'm looking at the way PayPal, Adobe and Amazon KDP work differently for people in developing countries than they do for westerners, and the impact that has on artists.

Love to know your thoughts.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Home Studio

Hi everyone.

Well, I promised I'd talk about something other than book reviews for a change. So, here it is... audibook creation.

Said I had some exciting news about Children of Lir - I have. I'm working with some very talented people to turn that into an audiobook.

In the meantime, I'm also working on a slightly home-produced version of The Tangled Forest. Partly because someone once asked for it:


And partly because it's the only one of my books without any silly accents, so relatively straightforward to read out loud.

However, audiobook production is really hard. It isn't simply a case of sitting in front of a mic and reading your book. There's a world of pronunciation, equipment, software and editing that needs to go into it. Living in a country where equipment is hard to obtain and houses aren't soundproofed, that can get complicated fast, so I've had to do a bit of improvisation...




So, you can hear the sample here, which was recorded in the booth and thrown through Audacity for good measure.

I think it's passable.

When I started out, I did think 'oh, this is something I can do in a couple of weeks, just sit down and read.' I've since revised that to 'possibly three months' as the editing is intense, especially for me - someone who suffers from sibilance and a narrow (and therefore rather clicky) bite. 

I am keeping track of the number of chapters I've recorded, the number I've given a first pass edit and the number I've fully edited - I'll explain all this in another post - and so far I'm about to record chapter seven. There is a high likelihood I will lose patience with this in about five chapters' time, but for now I'm pressing ahead. 

It is tough going. Recording here you have to work around cicadas, which have a very high, repetitive noise that cuts through glass, crows, who never shut the fuck up, and hadadas, a form of ibis so named because they scream HADADA HADADA HADADA on their way home to roost.

All in all, it's a recording nightmare. 

But I'm still feeling fairly determined.

So, let's see where we end up.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Traditional Rwandan Dance Lessons


Shout out to Bijoux who is running traditional Rwandan dance sessions online during the lockdown. £36 for a six-week course, book through Hilde Cannoodt's site. They assure me there's no two-way video required, so you don't even have to get dressed, though you can video in if you want some extra support. Truly missing swimming during the lockdown so I really need this. I've already put on at least one box of Winnaz and a tub of Nutella. The course starts 4th June, so sign on up to support Bijoux and learn something new.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

The Adventures of English


Right, this is the last book review for a little while as I'm going back to read The Binding again and have caught up on all the titles I got through between #IndieApril and now. 

This was just one that looked interesting. As I started to listen, I realised that it is basically this video in long form, with a bit more depth.



I really enjoyed it. Stretching all the way from the end of the Roman Empire through to today's internet English and modern divergence. English certainly has had some fascinating adventures. 

I took a hundred-and-one notes, so won't go through everything, but some of the parts I found particularly interesting included the influence that nannies have had on language throughout history. The nobility are often held up as the  standard to which a language aspires, yet the children of rich families are rarely raised entirely by their mothers. So, the French nobility in England worried that their darling children would pick up English from their English nannies - which they did - and the rich whites in America worried that their darling children would pick up African Krio or slang from their black nannies - which they did. I never thought about that before, and it was interesting.

I recently read Les Misérables, and Victor Hugo was fairly obsessed with slang. For a writer, he seemed halfway horrified by it, and then gave it a grudging nod of acknowledgement as an expressive form. Turns out, this was an issue on everybody's minds back then. Loads of English linguists also went about trying to tame the language and prevent it from slipping into slang, which was considered the language of convicts and ne'er-do-wells. It kind of explains why Hugo devoted so much of Les Mis to that issue. 

It touched on the origins of some words, perhaps the most distasteful of which I never knew was that 'bulldozer' apparently comes from a 'bull dose,' a round of whipping so harsh it could kill a slave. Not going to look at that in the same way again.

It really is a very entertaining book and highly recommended. The history of language is often seen as a rather dry subject, but Melvyn Bragg really brings it to life with astonishing vigour. Very much in the same vein as Bill Bryson on Shakespeare. 

Right, as I said, I'm going to start talking about something other than book reviews now.

Happy reading.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Blood & Sugar



Another book review today, this one Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson, audiobook narrated by Ben Onwukwe.

June, 1781. An unidentified body hangs upon a hook at Deptford Dock – horribly tortured and branded with a slaver’s mark. Some days later, Captain Harry Corsham – a war hero embarking upon a promising parliamentary career – is visited by the sister of an old friend. Her brother, passionate abolitionist Tad Archer, had been about to expose a secret that he believed could cause irreparable damage to the British slaving industry. He’d said people were trying to kill him, and now he is missing... To discover what happened to Tad, Harry is forced to pick up the threads of his friend’s investigation, delving into the heart of the conspiracy Tad had unearthed. His investigation will threaten his political prospects, his family’s happiness, and force a reckoning with his past, risking the revelation of secrets that have the power to destroy him. And that is only if he can survive the mortal dangers awaiting him in Deptford...
Interesting subject matter, inspired by the Zong Massacre of the same year. I remember studying slavery in secondary school in the UK, I assume it's still on the curriculum. We watched Roots and looked at a deck plan of a slave ship, showing how close the people were packed together. Then, flash forward to Rwanda a couple of years ago and my friend Henri releasing his book, My African Dream, explaining how he first came to learn about slavery and its aftermath when he moved to America to study. How he hadn't realised there was such a problem between blacks and whites in the West, until he lived in the shadow of Stone Mountain.

There are some nice lines in the book:

What a country, I thought. How we weave ourselves into knots, trying to convince ourselves we're not monsters, even as we grow fat upon the profits of our monstrosity.
*
If wishes were wine, I'd never be sober. 

I couldn't help thinking it would have made an excellent computer game along the lines of Lamplight City. Trawling the back alleys of 18th century Deptford, asking questions in the opium dens and along the docks. It's got that sort of atmosphere about it. A mystery set beneath the eerie light of 'a tobacco sky'.

Thought it was a slight shame the historical note at the end wasn't read by the author. I understand keeping continuity, but I always think it's nice to hear about the research from the horse's mouth. 

If you're interested in this area of history, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is also worth reading.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Binding


This.

This book.

Just this book.

I don't even know how to begin. 

It has been a very, very long time since I rationed the number of chapters I was allowed to read each day, because I didn't want a book to end. It has been a week since I finished it, and I still feel a deep sense of disappointment when I go to bed, that there isn't any more.

I know I'm not the first to say this, but The Binding is completely spellbinding.  Bridget Collins cast some sort of linguistic witchery. 

Books are dangerous things in Collins's alternate universe, a place vaguely reminiscent of 19th-century England. It's a world in which people visit book binders to rid themselves of painful or treacherous memories. Once their stories have been told and are bound between the pages of a book, the slate is wiped clean and their memories lose the power to hurt or haunt them. After having suffered some sort of mental collapse and no longer able to keep up with his farm chores, Emmett Farmer is sent to the workshop of one such binder to live and work as her apprentice. Leaving behind home and family, Emmett slowly regains his health while learning the binding trade. He is forbidden to enter the locked room where books are stored, so he spends many months marbling end pages, tooling leather book covers, and gilding edges. But his curiosity is piqued by the people who come and go from the inner sanctum, and the arrival of the lordly Lucian Darnay, with whom he senses a connection, changes everything.

From beginning to end, it is just utterly outstanding. 

I picked it up after my friend Kim posted about it on her Facebook feed, and someone else replied saying they'd also really enjoyed it. The cover was nice, so I thought I'd give it a go. How easily I might have missed this and never known.

Reminiscent of The Shadow of the Wind and The Book of Sand, but completely other. A book that the world is better for having in it.

I picked up the audiobook, narrated by Carl Prekopp, who was absolutely the right choice. He did it complete justice. Plus, the audiobook cover is very nice - light against the printed dark. And now I've seen a picture of the hardcover with its beautiful blue edging, I need to own a copy.

"May your darkness be quiet and the light come sooner than you need."

 

Friday, 15 May 2020

The Real Lord of the Flies


This is an absolutely fascinating story posted in The Guardian: The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months.

It challenges the premise of William Golding’s novel, that a group of young children stranded on an island together would descend into anarchy and mob rule:

Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

Although, it should probably be noted that this group of young men had already organised themselves well enough to abscond from a Catholic school, steal a boat and head for the horizon in search of adventure. Meanwhile, Golding was apparently a depressive alcoholic.

So, you know. Circumstance maybe had a part to play on outcome.

But, still, it's nice to know that many different stories can grow from one scenario.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Don't Lose Your Head

Art by Taha Reda

Almost caught up on the book reviews, but I've also got some exciting news about my own books to come shortly.

One of which has been a right headache to research.

I'll be doing a cover reveal soon for my next novel, Secure the Shadow, which is tagged under the working title Still Life.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked at the file creation dates. I've been editing this one, very slowly, for almost a year. It has honestly been the hardest book I've ever dealt with. Fair enough, The Children of Lir took over thirteen years from concept to publication, but most of that time I'd simply forgotten about it. This one, I've actually been bashing away at. I recently said some rather uncomplimentary things about it and threatened to throw it away, but that resulted in an appeal from the people who had read it saying 'don't do that, just deal with the ending.'

There is nothing harder on earth than getting to the end of a complete manuscript and knowing there's something wrong. You start off with a story thinking you're in control. You think you know exactly where you're going. Then you start writing and the story has other ideas. Before you know it, you've jammed your silly putty of an idea through the slithering snake hole and it's come out in all these weird and wonderful shapes you never expected.

Most of the time.

Sometimes it comes out hideously malformed.

That was kind of what happened here. It didn't really need too much salvaging, but I wasn't in the mood. In my mind, I'd already checked out and moved onto the next project. So it took a monumental effort to go back through it.

Now, sitting on the other side of that, I'm really glad I did.

I'm looking forward to releasing it into the wild.

But the very last marker I'd placed between the pages was to go and fact check a date. I'd set a chapter in the midst of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars in West Africa. It was an absolutely fascinating battle in which British soldiers had only macaroni to load their guns with and literally sang themselves to death. At the end, the Ashanti warlords decapitated the leading general, rimmed his skull with gold and drank beer from him.

Many harbouring anti-colonial sentiment might be cheering at this point, but, unfortunately, all the British soldiers were abolitionists, trying to help another tribe, who were also decimated in the attempt.

History is nothing if not opaque.

The problem I was facing was that I'd written this scene as 21 January 1824, which is when the first Anglo-Ashanti war took place at the Battle of Nsamankow, according to Wiki:

On the night of the 20th, still without having joined forces with the other three groups, MacCarthy's force camped by a tributary of the Pra River. The next day, at around 2pm, they encountered a large enemy force of around ten thousand men...

Only, when you start reading the other Wiki page, about the Anglo-Ashanti Wars, it apparently happened on 22 January:

...they encountered the Ashanti army of around 10,000 on 22 January 1824, in the battle of Nsamankow.

Fecksake, Wiki!

Or, more correctly, whichever would-be historian got it wrong.

But that was the problem - who got it wrong? Which date was correct, 21st or 22nd?

The line in my book begins:

And so it was that, on the morning of 21st January 1824, Charles was reading Keats whilst Alfred buttoned his redcoat. 

And yes, I could have changed that to:

And so it was that, on a chilly morning in January 1824, Charles was reading Keats whilst Alfred buttoned his redcoat. 

But I didn't want to.

I mention the date twice and it has a nice ring to it, to be that precise. A lot of people died, you should know the date. And, besides, how hard could it be to clear up?

Bloody impossible, as it turned out. Alternating dates strewn throughout the internet. I tried Twitter, I tried an African History Forum on Facebook, I even tried writing to a professor at SOAS in London (still waiting on a reply).

It was driving me sodding insane.

The very final fact I needed to check and I couldn't find the answer anywhere.

Until it hit me.

The answer was rolling around in my skull.

Well, not my skull, exactly - the skull of Brigadier-General Sir Charles MacCarthy, former Governor of Sierra Leone.

The guy who got his head chopped off at the end of the battle.


So, thank you Wiki, you have redeemed yourself. The battle must have been on 21 January, because he couldn't have fought a battle without a head.

Sometimes you have to think really, really hard to write a book.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives


When I'm at a party and I'm not sure if I want to talk to somebody, I ask three questions. One of which being: What do you think happens after we die?
I've met some really interesting people through this. It's how I met one of my closest friends, who was of the opinion it's all a computer simulation. I recently sent him the above book because I knew he'd enjoy it. Most of our booze-addled conversations turn to the meaning of life and what happens after. 

I discovered it because it was on sale and sounded interesting, with narrators from Stephen Fry and Gillian Anderson through to Jarvis Cocker and Noel Fielding. Which is adorable, coming from a guy who 'don't read too good.'

Yup, try getting that out of your head.

SUM shows us forty wonderfully imagined possibilities of life beyond death. In one afterlife you may find that God is the size of a microbe and is unaware of your existence. In another, your creators are a species of dim-witted creatures who built us to figure out what they could not. In a different version of the afterlife you work as a background character in other people’s dreams. Or you may find that the afterlife contains only people whom you remember, or that the hereafter includes the thousands of previous gods who no longer attract followers. In some afterlives you are split into your different ages; in some you are forced to live with annoying versions of yourself that represent what you could have been; in others you are re-created from your credit card records and Internet history. Many versions of our purpose here are proposed; we are mobile robots for cosmic mapmakers, we are reunions for a scattered confederacy of atoms, we are experimental subjects for gods trying to understand what makes couples stick together. These tales—at once witty, wistful and unsettling—are rooted in science and romance and awe at our mysterious existence while asking the key questions about death, hope, technology, immortality, love, biology and desire that expose radiant new facets of our humanity.

It's delightful in its scope and brevity. Each chapter is merely a few pages, or a few minutes, long. Yet, within that, is so much conjecture it leaves your head spinning in places.

Eagleman refers to himself as a possibilian and to Sum as a reflection of that position. According to his definition, possibilianism rejects both the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the certainty of atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground. The possibilian perspective is distinguished from agnosticism in that it consists of an active exploration of novel possibilities and an emphasis on holding multiple hypotheses at once when no data is available to privilege one position over the others. Possibilianism is understood to be consonant with the "scientific temperament" of creativity and tolerance for multiple ideas when there is a lack of data. - Wiki

The opening lines are an absolute clincher:

In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.

You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn't mean it's always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can't take a shower until it's your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you've forgotten someone's name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.
Weirdly, I'm sure I'd heard that before but I'm not sure where or when. There was an odd sense of déjà vu with this book, even though I'm certain I've never read it in the past.

So many stories to choose from, but I think my favourites were reincarnating as a horse, living life backwards and the one where humanity dies off but we live on as scheduled e-mails or 'death switches'.

Definitely worth reading and weirdly suited for the bathroom as it's delivered in short, thought-provoking packages. 

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Graveyard Book


I have to make a confession. This is the first book I have read by Neil Gaiman, though I've always liked his work. 

The first time I remember knowing who Neil Gaiman was, was watching MirrorMask, which is a delightfully dark and surreal film he did in collaboration with Dave McKean. I then discovered The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, which again, is a delightfully dark graphic novel. One of my greatest book-related regrets is lending it to a friend who then left the country without giving it back. I have no idea what happened to Mr. Punch after that.

I loved the films Stardust and Coraline (cute Pitch Meeting here), and his university commencement speech is well worth watching.

But, I hadn't read a book.

I'm still not sure whether I can say I have, as I picked up the audiobook, narrated by @neilhimself.

I just liked the title of this one. Plus it had an endorsement by Diana Wynne Jones. Having named two of my cats after her characters, it's fair to say I'm a fan. Annoyingly, I also lent my copy of The Pinhoe Egg to somebody who never gave it back...

Must stop doing that. 

IT TAKES A GRAVEYARD TO RAISE A CHILD.

Nobody Owens, known as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a graveyard, being raised by ghosts, with a guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor the dead. There are adventures in the graveyard for a boy—an ancient Indigo Man, a gateway to the abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible Sleer. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, he will be in danger from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family.

The Graveyard Book, a modern classic, is the only work ever to win both the Newbery (US) and Carnegie (UK) medals.

It was lovely. As a child who also hung around graveyards, and an adult who still photographs them, I felt a sense of coming home with this book. The language was very beautiful in parts.

A flash of pain woke him, sharp as ice the colour of slow thunder, down in the weeds that summer's night. 


... if he moved too slowly, a black silk rope would wrap itself around his neck, taking his breath with it and all his tomorrows.

There's a character called Silas. You know there's something odd about him from the outset, but it wasn't until his run-in with the car that the penny finally dropped and I understood what he was. He's very memorable, even if he wouldn't want to be.

Bod shivered. He wanted to embrace his guardian, to hold him and tell him that he would never desert him, but the action was unthinkable. He could no more hug Silas than he could hold a moonbeam. Not because his guardian was insubstantial, but because it would be wrong. There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.

*

At the best of times his face was unreadable. Now his face was a book written in a language long forgotten, in an alphabet unimagined.

I think what I like about Gaiman and Wynne Jones is that they don't pussyfoot around children. Their female characters are never weak, the boys are never flawless, and life is an adventure with possible danger, rather than a guaranteed happy ending. I think these are stories to prepare children for the world, rather than to protect them from it. Instead of telling children all the things they mustn't do, they suggest what is possible, and encourage them to go and explore.

Bod shrugged.

"So," he said. "It's only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead."

"Yes," Silas hesitated, "they are, and they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You've made what you've made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk, but that potential is over."
I particularly liked the story of the poet who explained that 'revenge is a dish best served cold.' When asked what that meant, he explained, with pride, that to spite a mean critic, he had taken all of his work to the grave with him, so that they would never be able to read any of it again. 

It's a book that steps the Danse Macabre, filled with hairy bacon and pond muck.

I love it.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

World War Z


Continuing with my 'What I've Been Reading in Quarantine' list, here's World War Z by Max Brooks.

A few days before the total lockdown came into effect, my Peace Corps friend, Nick, was being evacuated. All of the Peace Corps volunteers were being flown out on a private flight that was doing a tour of Africa to pick up PCs from around the continent before heading back to the US. He was about six months from the end of his service, so it was a bit of a sudden separation, and I headed over to say goodbye.

Because we couldn't touch, we tried a couple of perspective shots. One of them worked. 


Whilst we were sitting there having a coffee, Nick's friend, Katie, suggested I should read World War Z. She said she didn't rate the movie, but the book was excellent, and had several striking commonalities with the current situation.

It sounded interesting, so I picked up a copy. 

It was excellent.

We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time? We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead, but at what cost? Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z is the only record of the pandemic.

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Although it's about a zombie apocalypse, the way the story unfolds, it could be most deadly pandemics... well, up until they rise from the dead and military weapons no longer have much effect. 

But the creepy bits, and I see why she recommended this, were because the outbreak begins in China, there's an attempted cover up, the one who first discovers it gets arrested and silenced, public transport goes down, countries go into lockdown and the economy becomes meaningless. It was such an astute and forward-thinking analysis of what might happen should something - like a pandemic - disrupt established social and economic systems. Brilliantly told through the eyes of those who lived it.

It really did cover every angle, situation and most nationalities, from military, to parents, to those in wheelchairs, to nerdy computer geeks who hardly left their bedrooms. Most places you might think to run, from the Paris catacombs (I'm sorry, what's that Tyrion Lannister, you want to hide in a crypt?) to a submarine, were explored and found wanting. It just really got you thinking about how unprepared we are for a zombie uprising.

It also made me realise that most of what I know about surviving an apocalypse comes from The Walking Dead, which isn't that helpful at the moment, as I don't think I'm allowed to smash anyone in the face with a shovel if they're still breathing? 

Anyway, it was brilliant. Great recommendation.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

I Am Malala


Next up on my lockdown reading list is I Am Malala.

I know, I'm very late to read this one. I remember my dad reading it when it first came out in 2013 and telling me how it surprised him that her home village sounded so beautiful and green.

Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban on her way to school in 2012. She had always been an avid campaigner for women's education. Far from silencing her, this brought her campaign to global attention.

The biography is her story of growing up a Pashtun in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. It starts before the troubles, then takes you through 9/11 and the growth of extremism. It is also interesting to hear about American involvement from a local's point of view.

My father says that in our part of the world this idea of jihad was very much encouraged by the CIA. Children in the refugee camps were even given school textbooks produced by an American university which taught basic arithmetic through fighting. They had sums like: if out of ten Russian infidels, five are killed by one Muslim, five would be left. Or, fifteen bullets minus ten bullets equals five bullets.

There have been several historic stories of Peace Corps being used to keep tabs in the countries they work in, with volunteers being asked to spy. But being so blatant as to put that sort of stuff in a textbook for school is a move you would only conceive of in a pre-internet era. Someone would have Instagrammed a picture of that right away.

It was also interesting to hear about Pashtun culture. They rarely use the word 'thank you,' because they believe kindness can only be repaid with kindness, "it can't be repaid with expressions like 'thank you.'"

When she was recovering in England, the nurses thought she might like to watch Bend it Like Beckham, because it was about female empowerment, but she stopped watching when the girls were talking in their underwear, the immodest dress a bit of a shock having just come from a strictly Muslim country. 

But there were other parts which were extremely relatable to, showing that the experience of being a child is quite universal in some ways. She loved a children's programme where the character had a magic pencil where the drawing came to life. You could draw anything and make it real. We had a similar programme in the UK called Polly Crayon, and the idea was as appealing to British kids as it was to Pashtun kids. She was also very honest about stealing as a kid, which is something I also did a couple of times, and I think my mum once told me she'd done (probably whilst telling me off about doing it myself). And how you learn about right and wrong by testing those boundaries. You know the theory, but it's only when you put it into practise that the penny finally drops and you realise why you shouldn't do certain things. 

It was also nice to hear so much about her father's life and his campaign for women's education. Her parents both had a strong influence on her and it was absolutely heartbreaking when she was moved to the UK and they were left behind in Pakistan, seemingly because of a politician's lust for publicity delaying their visas. As she was recovering, the hospital had to turn away lots of visitors, both celebrities and politicians. Perhaps they just wanted to be there to offer support, but it didn't sound like they had thought much beyond their own thirst for a photograph. I imagine the last thing you really want after being shot in the head is a camera thrust in your face. 

Anyway, an excellent read, and well done to Christina Lamb who helped bring Malala's story together and create such a readable, relatable and emotional ride.

You can donate to The Malala Fund to help sustain girls' education.

Friday, 1 May 2020

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz



Rightho, the next few posts are mostly going to be book reviews as I haven't done any during #IndieApril

Although, this first one isn't exactly a book. It's an audio adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by the lovely Paul Magrs

Join Dorothy, Toto and their new friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion as they journey down the yellow brick road in their quest to find the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 

I thought it was just a straight retelling until a few minutes in when they just wouldn't let the murder thing go.

Isn't that a pitiful sight, ay? Those two, poor skinny legs sticking out from under your house. Those two pathetic legs in their stripy tights and those little silver shoes sticking out like that. Just imagine dear. Just imagine what it must be like underneath. Ugh, she must be squashed, completely flat under there. Squashed, flat, like a bug.

Are you saying that my house has squashed one of your friends - to death?

Well, I don't think she's going to get up any time soon, do you dear?

Having only ever watched the film and never read the book, I was surprised to learn the ruby slippers were originally silver shoes, and that the Tin Man's name (from later books) is Nick, which makes sense, as he chops (nicks) wood and, in this case, manages to nick off his arms, legs and head.

It's a very easy listen at four-and-a-half hours, and you get Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas/London Spy) as the Wizard.

Very enjoyable way to pass the lockdown.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

The Children of Lir for #IndieApril


Here's the last book in my #IndieApril book tour.

This is my latest release, The Children of Lir, which came out last year.

It's actually one of the oldest stories I wrote. I've always loved the original Irish folktale. I first read it in the Irish Folk and Fairy Tales Omnibus Edition by Michael Scott, which I picked up on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with family as a teenager. That book was a great influence as it showed  how quite straightforward characters in fairytales could be brought to life and made relatable. I spoke a bit about this with The Tangled Forest. On a more basic level, it showed me that you could retell a fairytale. That those stories belong to all of us and are there to be interpreted, reinterpreted and retold through the ages.

I first attempted to write my own version of The Children of Lir as a script, back in the days when I was an avid Celtx community member. The earliest version I've still got dates to around 2007, so a little before I wrote my first novel, Lucid.

After the prologue, the first chapter begins with the first lines of that script:

Some say my father was the god of the sea, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann who walked these green shores before the age of man. Some say he shaped destinies and carried the dead to their final resting place...

I've always felt it's an incredibly cinematic story with sweeping landscape and mythical beings. 

As with novellas, I soon discovered that scripts just aren't something you write unless you've been specifically invited to do so. There's really not a market for something like that on spec. However, I loved the story so much that I thought, If no one will read a script, I'll write a novel.

It is by far the longest I've ever written, resting at 119,000 words and over 450 pages.

Ghostwoods originally took the rights, offering my first ever advance and developing some cover art, but unfortunately they hit problems and had to stop most of their projects for a while. They asked whether I'd like to hold out for better times, but I decided, having spent so many years developing the story, that I wanted to go ahead and produce it myself.

Alongside Rosy Hours, I consider it to be my best work, though the two books are very different. It's one of the few novels I've written that isn't particularly dark, although there are some dark characters in there. It's strongly founded on the original translation, The Fate of the Children of Lir, by Lady Gregory. It was very important to me that the story followed the structure of the original legend as much as possible, but, within that, there was huge scope for creative license.

You already start out with a few glaring gaps, especially the timeframe. The children were supposedly Tuatha Dé Danann, turned to swans for 900 years, and turned back in the early days of Christianity. The problem here is that the Tuatha Dé Danann are thought to have left Ireland by around 1,700-1,477 BC. Even if the children were turned to swans by the very latest estimate, the curse would not have seen them to the age of Saint Patrick and the dawn of Christianity.

So, already we have to take some liberties.

Another liberty I took was with the ending. The tale was recorded by Christian scribes who had a bit of a habit of repurposing old pagan tales and festivals to promote the new faith. In some versions of the story the children are converted or baptised after they turn back. Having followed their story for so many thousands of words, that just didn't sit entirely right with me. So, I gave it a bit of a different ending. One I felt might be more true to the characters. As everyone else has written an ending to suit their tastes, I didn't feel that was much of a liberty.

For me, it's very much a story of two rivers converging: the old gods and the new. To live a lifetime which sees everything you ever knew replaced by something different, and to see how small we are in the vastness of time. It's very interesting subject matter to me, and the same sort of melancholic appeal that vampire stories tend to have. To outlive all those you love yet be unable to die. Does that make immortality a blessing or a curse? None of us particularly want to die, but what price would we pay to live?

There are also a lot of interesting relationships I stumbled across whilst researching. The original script was only about 77 pages, about 14,000 words including scene tags. To fill a novel, I really needed to go a lot deeper into the mythology. The gods of Ireland don't obey timelines. This is common in most ancient mythologies that predate the written word. Characters crop up at strange intervals and constantly change places, so it's hard to keep track of them. However, if 'mac' indicates a son, then Manannán mac Lir, god of the underworld, can reasonably be presumed to be Lir's son alongside his four children turned to swans. This opened up several interesting possibilities that I explored within the story. It became particularly useful during the 300 years they were stuck in the North Sea. The first half of the book was very easy to write, because it was about their life as humans, in a very tribal Iron Age world. The end was fairly easy too, ushering in the Christian era, which is well documented. But that lump of time in the middle was tricky. 'They sat on the ocean for three-hundred years,' just doesn't make for a gripping tale.

The more I investigated the family bonds, the more pages started to fill. One of my favourite characters is Bé Chuille, Witch of Lámhfada and Manannán sister-in-law, whose name I still can't pronounce. She's since become my favourite character, alongside Joe in Angorichina.  A very complex creature and a bit of a rough diamond - or demon.

I was a bit uncertain how this story would be received, as there have been many retellings of The Children of Lir over the years. However, most of them tend to be short and beautifully illustrated children's books, such as the gorgeous work of Alexandra Soranescu, whereas I really wanted to go for the epic adult retelling. I do feel that's what I've managed to achieve.

It's dedicated to my Irish (naturally) friend Cathryn, her husband Danny and their son Dara. Cathryn and I were VSO together in  Rwanda from 2007-09. We spent a lot of time drinking and talking. I originally wanted to publish this for their wedding, but by the time it finally came out they'd been married a couple of years and had a kid. Like the gods of Ireland, the publishing industry does not run to schedule.

As a slightly sad aside, I had a very good friend called Christiane Desrosiers who died of cancer here in Rwanda in 2015, after just gaining Rwandan nationality. We had also been VSO together. She arrived a year after I did. She was still here when I returned in 2014 and was building an ecolodge in Kibuye, beside Lake Kivu. We shared a love of books, and she was incredibly supportive of my writing. She really believed I should pursue it. Shortly before she died, I visited her in hospital to take her food and books. I also gave her a draft of this one. I know she was reading it, but I have no idea how far through she got before she died, and that stings a little bit. I hope it was a peaceful part, as the story is entirely about time, and death, and loss. I know it's a story that ordinarily she would have loved, but part of me hopes she didn't start it.

When I was editing the final copy, I did some of that on Lake Kivu, just over the water from her lodge. It is an extremely beautiful part of the country, though I don't think there are any swans there.



The cover was designed by Valdas Miskinids, and there was quite a bit of debate about the colour. It was originally in red, then he gave me a couple of other options in green and blue and it was put to a public vote, with green narrowly winning out over blue, though everyone seems to have their favourite.

On release day, my dad bought me some chocolates. Apparently there's a Lir Chocolate Company. They're very yummy.

And, in a strange turn of events, whilst I was writing the book, I visited Cathryn and Danny in London. Walking back to their house from the train station one night, I happened to see this on the wall of a house. Rather fitting.