Sunday 19 July 2020

The Witcher: The Last Wish

I decided I'd delve into this because, why not? I thought the series was quite entertaining.

Geralt is a Witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent.

But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good... and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.

Yep. I totally get this. It was originally released in 1993, a couple of years before I started to explore online MUDs and fantasy games. If I'd found it back then, I probably would have loved it. Though, at that age, although I loved Terry Pratchett, my literary tastes leaned more towards horror. But reading it now, it really takes me back to that time. Mentally typing /me smiles nastily at regular intervals.

"Many of us had doubts, but we decided to accept the lesser evil. Now, I ask you to make a similar choice."

"Evil is evil, Stregobor," said the witcher seriously as he got up. "Lesser, greater, middling, it's all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I'm not a pious hermit, I haven't done only good in my life, but if I'm to choose between one evil and another, I prefer not to choose at all."


"There's no such thing as devils," yelled the poet, shaking the cat from sleep once and for all. "No such thing! To the devil with it, devils don't exist!"

"True," Geralt smiled, "but Dandelion, I could never resist the temptation of having a look at something that doesn't exist."

It's akin to King's Quest in that you don't need to know your fairy tales to enjoy it, but the better you know your fairy tales, the more you're likely to enjoy it. Snow White, Hans-My-Hedgehog, Bruxa and the Beast, they're all in there.

I wish I understood Polish, as it would be fascinating to read it in its original language. I love that literature in different countries and different languages can uncover shared understandings between readers of different cultures. A love of monsters, a shared terror of similar fears, global fantasy archetypes. I love fantasy as a unifying literary force in the world.

Years ago, I went on a writing retreat on the border of Germany and Poland. I crossed over to Wrocław one day, met an English busker, and gave him a lift down into Poland on my way to visit Auschwitz. I strongly remember Wrocław for its folklore: Rübezahl and Orange Gnomes. I was so fascinated that I included a Polish main character in Creeper's Cottage, stranded in the Hookland wilderness.

This book is a collection of short stories which helps to explain the origin of the witcher to some extent, and regales the reader with a few of his adventures. The Netflix series does seem to follow it very closely, and it helped to explain some of what was going on there for the uninitiated. 

Overall, good fun, and nice to read a story that also appreciates the loveliness of the word capercaillie. I don't think there are many books that manage to fit it in there. Kudos to those who do.

Friday 17 July 2020

Middle Shelf

Having explored the top shelf of my bookshelf, let's continue the tour with the middle shelf. This is also a shelf for substantial works, some with unusual stories, but perhaps a little less read than the books on the top shelf. It's also got a cheeky games corner. 

M. C. Escher by TASCHEN Books: Picked this up at the Escher Museum in The Hague. I dropped in to see my cousin, Tamsin, on the way back from giving a TEDx talk in Luxembourg in 2018. She had previously visited me in Rwanda, so it was lovely to hang out. The museum is well worth a visit and Escher's artwork is fabulously surreal. I also picked up this very cute paperweight there.

Shaking the Tree edited by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah: I actually have no recollection of where this came from. I sense I may have bought it in the UK, but can't be certain. I've read about half of it and do intend to finish it at some point. It's a collection of fiction excerpts and memoirs by black women. A collection of snapshots from people's worlds and imaginings.

The Records of Guilsborough, Nortoft and Hollowell by The Renton Sisters:  I grew up in Guilsborough, famed for its witchcraft. A few years back the new pub landlady decided to rename the Ward Arms the Witch and Sow as a tourist pull, but locals still - and hopefully always will - call it The Ward. Bloomin' commercialism. Anyway. These are historical records about Guilsborough, and two neighbouring villages, including a bit about the witchcraft and a bloody murder. I try to get back to the UK every couple of years for the Hollowell Steam Rally, but it was cancelled this year due to C19. I keep a copy with me for research purposes. The witches were part of the reason I started writing fiction in the first place. I originally set out to write a local history book, but then realised that bringing history to life through characters and chaotic plot lines is actually much more effective. Most people remember stories in a way they don't usually remember dry facts. The story of the witches is one I've always wanted to write, but haven't quite found the words yet. 

Three witches flying over the village
on the back of a sow.

Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart by Betty De Shong Meador: Another research book, linked to Woolley of Ur on the top shelf. Which may give away what my next novel will be about. If you do figure it out, I am desperately seeking the protagonist's complete translated works. I have reservations about this one. It's written with a strong feminist perspective. That doesn't necessarily make anything about the translation or its interpretation wrong, but I would welcome a comparative source. Still, it's a useful source of inspiration.

Birds of East Africa by Helm Field Guides: Well, this one has a story. One that I can now look back at and laugh. My former partner left me on New Year's Eve. Left me - and the country. On the way to the airport, they dropped by to dump a box of junk they 'thought I might want.' None of which I did, and all of which I've since given away, except for some sheets (hard to find here) and this book. This will probably go to a more enthusiastic twitcher at some point, but it's a book, so I couldn't just chuck it. Nothing says fond farewell like 'dispose of this crap for me.'

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts: Bought at Ikirezi after three people in the same number of days told me how good it was. Someone also said he wrote it in prison and the manuscript was destroyed several times. He had to rewrite it from scratch. Anyone who has the strength of will to do that must have one hell of a story to tell. Procured a couple of years back and still not read. Likely to get it on audiobook soon. It took a bit of adjustment, but I get through many more audiobooks than printed ones nowadays. It's just so convenient being able to cook, shower and fall asleep to a book. [UPDATE: finally got around to reading that one. Link to review above. If there was room on the top shelf, I'd relocate it.]

Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen: Bought on the same day as The Fever, and also from Nakumatt. See top shelf. Only, this one I haven't read yet. it's literally all about, well... the sun. If I'm honest, I bought it because the cover was so beautiful. It's all shiny, befittingly.

The Ladybird Book of Dating: This was a present from someone. If I recall correctly - because she's the most likely suspect - I think it was probably Maia (see biscuit tin below). Actually, I think it turned up about the same time as the biscuit tin, on a fleeting visit to check on the restaurant. Anyway, it's hilarious. Wish I'd read it sooner.

This Could be Such a Beautiful World... by Rosalind Welcher: For a very brief time, my friend Maia had a second-hand book box in her café. Books largely gathered from expats setting sail for home or harsher climes. This was in that box and I was intrigued by the title and the cover. It's a strange little book with no verso, so no publication date, but was given to a Pamela in 1975, according to the inscription inside. According to Amazon, that would be three years after it was published.

My Name is Life by Karen Bugingo: This is a special book. I wrote in 2018 about attending the book launch, as I helped to edit it. It's a creative non-fiction work based around Karen's own experiences of surviving cancer. Cancer detection and treatment in Rwanda is slowly improving, but at the time Karen was ill, it was very difficult to get diagnosed. She became extremely sick and had to seek treatment in India. It was an absolute honour to work on this book and help bring it to market through Imagine We publishing house in Kigali.

The side slanters on the right include:

Survival Against the Odds by Survivors Fund (SURF): This is a collection of testimonies from survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. I work for a couple of survivors organisations, and there were some copies of this in the office, so I took one. If this is a topic that interests you, check out this reading list and the Relentless Minds podcast.

Guidebook Akagera National Park: Akagera is our main safari hotspot in Rwanda. I think I picked this up when I took my mum and Merrick last year.

Ikinyarwanda Icyiciro Cya 1 (Kinyarwanda Level One): My friend Katie runs Inzora Rooftop Café behind Ikirezi Book Shop. She developed an excellent Kinyarwanda language course, which I took a couple of years after moving back here, to refresh my limited communication skills. My Kinya is just about good enough to order food, beer and get home on a moto, but it's never hugely progressed. Hoping that might change as Duolingo are threatening to add it, and Google Translate now also has a Kinya option. However, this book holds sentimental value for another reason. During one of the last lessons, Katie walked into class with the most adorable little kittens on her shoulder. She had found them abandoned in a bag outside the building, and asked whether anyone could take them. Everyone else very sensibly looked down at the table, but I slowly raised my hand. You can see just how cute they were in this video. Three of them survived and still live with me today: Sophie, Howl and Sen. It's been a real emotional rollercoaster, we've been through a lot together, and I love them very much. If I hadn't been sitting in that Kinyarwanda class that night, we never would have met.

Tin Tin, The Seven Crystal Balls & Prisoners of the Sun: These were a birthday present from one of my oldest friends, Jo, and her daughter Zuba. Jo and I have also been through a lot over the years. She trained me when I first arrived as a VSO in 2007. We returned to the UK around the same time, and moved back to Rwanda around the same time. I met Zuba soon after she was born and watched her grow into a fabulous individual. I've always bought her books for her birthdays, so this was them returning the favour.

Amazing Ideas I Had Whilst Drunk: I feel this might have been sent out to me as a birthday or Christmas present... I can't quite recall. But I'm sure you see the design flaw? It's wrapped in cellophane. How the hell are you supposed to get that off when drunk? Exactly. I never have.

Now for the fun and games. I have a standard pack of cards bought from T2000, a large Chinese shop in town. There's also a miniature chess set which I brought back from India. Rwandair started doing flights to Mumbai, so I met up with dad and Marilyn there in 2017, and we did the Golden Triangle after a little rest in Goa. Like pianos, a home doesn't feel like a home without a chess set, even if you never play it. The final addition is a plastic honey jar filled with seeds for playing omweso, or igisoro as it's called in Rwanda. It's a complex form of mankala that I learned to play in Kasubi Tombs, Uganda, back in 2008. The guy who taught me professed to be a royal prince and gave me a tour of the city. It's a fun game once you get the hang of it, but the seeds have a habit of rolling off across the floor.

Another addition that lives on this shelf is a biscuit tin with a 1920s flapper on the front. It once contained scrumptious chocolate-chip cookies, but those were scoffed long ago. The tin was brought from the UK for me by my lovely friend, and fellow author, Maia. She founded a Spanish tapas restaurant in Kigali, CasaKeza, which is my local, and we've had many adventures together, including a jaunt to Idjwi Island and Lwiro Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the DRC. She now flits between the UK and Spain, and I miss her dearly. But she said this box reminded her of me. I have no idea what she means...

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

With the imminent launch of Secure the Shadow, I thought this made for apt reading:

From her first day at Westwind Cremation & Burial, twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Doughty threw herself into her curious new profession. Coming face-to-face with the very thing we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about she started to wonder about the lives of those she cremated and the mourning families they left behind, and found herself confounded by people's erratic reactions to death. Exploring our death rituals - and those of other cultures - she pleads the case for healthier attitudes around death and dying. Full of bizarre encounters, gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), this illuminating account makes this otherwise terrifying subject inviting and fascinating.

This was a really excellent book, looking at what happens to your body after you die. It's fairly graphic, doesn't pull any punches - the story about the overflowing fat is one you'll definitely remember - but it really gets you thinking about what you would like to happen to your remains, and what the options are. It's delivered with wonderful humour:

A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It's the only moment in her life more awkward than her first kiss or losing her virginity.


It was a double life I lived, shuttling between the worlds of the living and the dead. The transition was so abrupt that some days I wondered if they could see it in my eyes. 'Good afternoon, here I am in your multi-million dollar home, covered in people dust and smelling vaguely of rot. Please pay me a large sum of money to mold the impressionable mind of your teenager.'

And there's some fascinating historical points: 

The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.

I just really connected with a lot of what Doughty was saying. I share a similar relationship with death. There were several points where I found myself nodding, such as the question of whether someone is a he, a person, or an it, a body, after death - something I considered in Angorichina.

It was also extremely normalising to hear her reaction to witnessing sudden and traumatic death, and the emotions that stirred. I had a similar experience years back, where I arrived on the scene of an accident moments after it happened. It was a car accident. I heard the person driving past one moment, alive, and found them unmistakably dead the next. It was fairly gruesome. My legs still give way at the sound of sudden car brakes skidding, though I held it together remarkably well at the time, doing everything you're supposed to do in that situation with extreme clarity of mind - trying to open the door, checking to see if someone's breathing - then realising it's unlikely considering what's splattered across the glass. I seriously wanted to hug the author when she spoke about the sanitisation of everything. I think that, more than anything, really buggered my brain. All I ever saw was the mess, and it was tidied away so incredibly quickly with such perfunctory neatness, that I never got that time to process in my mind that he was dead. Everything in me was too awake to danger, too high on adrenaline and fear. What I needed, more than anything, was to sit with the body, hold its hand, and truly look at it - him - whatever. I needed a visual confirmation that it was okay. Instead, I just had that shock image of the mess. There was no after image to replace it. I didn't need him cleaned up or anything, I just needed to see exactly what had happened, the honesty of his injuries, and that it was over. Clearing people away is supposed to be dignified and 'good' for the living, but it isn't. Not always.

A lot of what Doughty was saying after witnessing a death were the same thoughts I was having. It just opened a great big black pit inside of me, and that stuck around for a long time. I felt like I was falling and couldn't stop. He wasn't the first corpse I'd seen. I'd visited my nana and a guy I knew as a kid, when they were laid out at the funeral home. And that was okay. It affirmed that they definitely weren't there, just shells left behind, as Doughty puts it. I've also seen a lot of limed bodies at Murambi, and far too many skulls and human remains at memorials across Rwanda. Those affect you in a different way. But that particular car wreck - and it was literally a car wreck - was alien to anything I had encountered before, and it required a different approach. One that our culture is not au fait with.

Anyway, maybe that's why I've written a book about post-mortem photography. There's usually method to the madness in anything creative. 

I liked her leaning towards exposing her body after death for nature to reclaim. I'm on board with that. I used to hang out at Tinkinswood a lot when I was younger, it's a cromlich in Wales. Next to the giant capstone is a pit where they reckon they used to expose bodies. The Parsi also build a Tower of Silence, or Dakhma, to expose bodies to crows. That or a Sky Burial is fine by me, but I suspect, given what our laws will allow, it's either cremation or a green burial beneath a tree. After reading this, I think perhaps I prefer the idea of a green burial rather than cremation. Definitely no embalming. Having seen where my friend is buried - No.1052 - I don't like Rwandan cemeteries much. They're all uniform white tiles beneath the burning sun, whereas I grew up with the cultural expectation of a shaded, wooded cemetery somewhere, each headstone a little personalised. But to get me back to the UK cheaply and unembalmed, I'd probably need to be cremated first. Whatever. I'd be dead. Wouldn't matter much.

Strangely, falling into a fire drunk and burning half my hand actually reduced my fear of cremation rather than increased it. It also reduced my fear of being burnt alive as a witch. It would be undeniably awful, but, if, like in The Hangman's Daughter, they drugged you up first, it would probably be all over before you felt much. I didn't feel much for a couple of hours after. The next three months were hellish, incredibly painful, but at the moment it happened, I was too drunk and too shocked for it to register. 

Not that you'd actually be alive when you went into the furnace, but, y'know, just in case you were... 

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book for discussing such interesting and important issues.

I also didn't realise that when you donate your body to science, you're doing so 'in a very general way'. Your cadaver might be used to train the next generation of neurosurgeons or cure cancer, or it might be used to practise plastic surgery, or even thrown out of a plane to test parachutes. Fascinating.

Worth a read. Plenty to think about.

Sunday 12 July 2020

Mikron Appeal

I know everyone is having a tough time under C19 restrictions, but I just wanted to mention this unique theatre company called Mikron. They've been touring for almost fifty years, travelling British waterways to bring theatre to pub gardens and rural communities that might not otherwise have access to theatre. They really are an incredible group. However, due to the pandemic, they have been unable to tour this year, which means no tickets sold. They've started a fundraiser to support themselves through to next year, and they've almost reached their goal. If you would like to help out, you can learn more here. You can also read an interview with their artistic director, Marianne McNamara, on this blog.

Friday 10 July 2020

Top Shelf

Beginning my tour of the bookshelf, here's the top shelf where I keep my favourites. 

As I mentioned, books are difficult to find in Rwanda. We have a couple of bookshops, most notably Ikirezi, but selections are limited and books are often much more expensive than they would be on Amazon. When I first arrived in 2007, the VSO office used to have an entire wall of books that volunteers had left over the years. I thought it was heaven. But that was a long time ago and the office is no longer there. Wonder what happened to all those books?

So, top shelf, left to right:

Woolley of Ur by H. V. F. Winstone: This is the biography of Sir Leonard Woolley. No relation, that I know of. However, he did die on 20th February, which happens to be my birthday. I hinted before that there might be a clue to my next novel on the shelf. It's here for research purposes. If I recall correctly, I ordered it online and my dad posted it out to me. Post can take up to three months to arrive, so research often takes a while.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill: In 2015, I went to the UK for several months to see family. I sublet my house to a girl who seemed extremely pleasant when we met. She turned out to be an utter nightmare. Kept my neighbours up all night with loud music, let the garden completely overgrow, and allowed her friends to walk off with half my books. Which is utterly rotten, given how hard they were to obtain. One of those was a lovely edition of The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones, which I had been so pleased to find. I was seriously peeved. Anyway, she left a couple of other books behind, none of which were remotely interesting, except for The Book of Negroes. She left two copies of this. One I gave away, the other I read. I kept it because it's a heck of a story, beautifully printed, and deckle edged. I had to, really.

The Shadow of the Wind by  Carlos Ruiz Zafón: I mentioned in my review of Labyrinth of the Spirits, that I procured this book from Acacia Book Café in Kigali. I don't think it still exists, but it was a place where you could go for a coffee and brows a number of books for sale or loan. This one wasn't for sale, but I have such a fondness for it that I eventually managed to persuade the café owner to sell it to me for about 9,000 francs (£9).

The Fever by Sonia Shah: Despite the title, not a horror story in the conventional sense. A non-fiction look at malaria and its influence on humankind throughout history. I bought it at Nakumatt in 2015, after my first bout of malaria, but didn't get around to reading it until last year, when I was felled by falciparum for an entire month, which was absolutely miserable. This was a really interesting read, and the link above also contains a TED talk she gave on the subject.

Emergency Sex by Postlewait, Cain and Thomson: This is an extremely significant book for me. I mentioned the VSO wall of books, which was a life saver when I first arrived in Rwanda as a Sign Language Researcher in 2007. Those books kept us going. This one in particular was in high demand. There was a list that you added your name to in order to receive the single copy we had, and you had to wait your turn. I think I waited about three months. It is a no-holds-barred, extremely honest look at the UN and its various failings on the global stage, told through the eyes of three civilian UN workers in the early 90s. It covers most of the big ones, including Haiti, Bosnia and Rwanda. I read the chapter on Kibuye as my bus was pulling out of Kibuye - so it had a profound effect on me. I was humbled earlier this year to meet a former peacekeeper who served under Roméo Dallaire, and to hear his experiences first hand. I always keep a copy of this book on my shelf, to remind myself never to stop questioning authority or the actions of institutions.

The Secret Language of Cats by Susanne Schötz: This was given to me as a birthday gift by my friend Chris. I have had a number of cats over the years and this should greatly aid my transition into crazy cat lady. I am ashamed to say that I have yet to read it, but will paw through it soon. There is a cat displaying its bum on the book spine. I've always found it tremendously chastening to be eye-level with a cat's arse, hence it's on the top shelf, I suppose. No sense of literary pretension whilst browsing my shelves.

Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest: Sent to me by my lovely Aunty Heron. So named because, as a child, I couldn't pronounce 'Helen', also she spends a lot of time on her narrow boat, navigating the canals with Uncle Clive, who catalogues wildflowers. To her, I'm Magpie. She's often given me books over the years for my birthday or Christmas. Some really good ones, such as Red Rosa. This is another great one, and sparked my interest in Kate Tempest, a fantastic contemporary poet.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: Talking of narrow boats, it was on that boat, Celia, that my mum's partner introduced me to Jonathan Livingston Seagull in my teens. It's a classic. This is not the original book, which I think Merrick still has at home. I just saw this looking at me from a shelf in Ikirezi, so added it to the collection.

Versus by Huza Press: To me, this is a very special collection of short stories. It was published around 2015 by Huza Press, a publishing house in Rwanda. When you search for books written by Rwandans, almost everything you find is non-fiction and usually a memoir or a biography about the genocide. There are very few fiction writers who make it into press. Huza held a writing competition, and the short stories in this collection were either winners or runners-up from that competition. As such, they span a wide range of genres from science fiction and fantasy through to literary fiction. It's an extremely important work. Unfortunately, I think it's currently out of print, so I'm very lucky to have a copy. It is unlikely that Huza will be able to make it POD on Amazon themselves, due to the barriers Amazon put up for African publishers.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Picked up in a charity shop in Alloa, Scotland the year before I moved back to Rwanda. Was visiting my friend Paul, of Northern Antiquarian fame, to look at standing stones. Just stumbled into this shop and the cover caught my eye. Thought it was excellent. Can't quite remember where this copy came from. Like the circus, it turned up one evening, its origin a mystery. Now, where did I put my red scarf?

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: I'd been wanting to read this for a while. Saw a copy in Ikirezi and brought it home. It was okay.

Mortlock by Jon Mayhew: Still sore about the loss of The Pinhoe Egg, which would definitely have been on the top shelf if I still had it, I picked up a copy of this in Nakumatt. That was a huge Kenyan supermarket chain that went bust in 2018 and has since disappeared, but it use to run a big outlet in town with a modest book section. Weirdly, around that time, I was considering writing a character called Mortlock. I wasn't sure if it had been done before, and a quick internet search showed that Jon Mayhew had beaten me to it. So, when I saw the title staring back at me, I must admit, I was a bit unnerved. It answered the question at least, and I dropped the character. But the real clincher on this one was the black edging. An extremely cool design choice. Follow the review link to see.

The Borgias by Christopher Hibbert: Another Nakumatt purchase. What can I say? I'm a huge Borgias fan. I wanted to know more. 

Howls' Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones: And another Nakumatt purchase. Goodness, not sure how they went out of business with all the books I bought. It all began with Ghibli. I adore their adaptation of the book. It led me to read the entire trilogy and name two of my cats Sophie and Howl (the third is named Sen, from Spirited Away). So, naturally, there needs to be a copy on the shelf.

Lonely Planet Guide to East Africa: Another item possibly left by the phantom Pinhoe Snatcher. I'm not that adventurous, really. I rarely leave Rwanda. Over the years I have explored Sierra Leone, DRC, Uganda and Kenya, but that's about it. This is probably long out of date and I'd recommend the Bradt Travel Guide for Rwanda. Though, with C19, it's likely to be a while before anyone's doing much exploring.

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard: A birthday present from Aunty Heron. One which I am ashamed to say I haven't read yet, but it's on the TBR list. It does have a very beautiful, shiny cover.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan: An absolutely excellent history of the world from beyond the Western perspective. Very much enjoyed this one. Plus, another lovely cover. Picked up at Ikirezi. Lent to someone who never gave it back. Bought another copy. 

Couple of DVDs propping up the end of the bookshelf. When Marnie was There, Ghibli, obviously. Sent to me by my dad. The other is Suicide Squad. Can't remember if I ordered it online or found it in Nakumatt. Hadn't seen it and really wanted to. Have a feeling it didn't work with my computer. Films are as hard to find as books around here. Anyway, my current laptop doesn't have a DVD player, so they're mostly decoration now.

Then we come to the obligatory 'shelf junk' wedged between the books and the top of the shelf...

Clockwise: 1) A tour guide pamphlet of some description, mostly about bird watching in Rwanda?  2) a travel map of Rwanda & Burundi, never opened, I think pinched from an Airbnb in Musanze when my mum and Merrick visited last year, 3) The Kigali Map, put together by my extremely talented friend Kirsty Henderson, who sometimes deigns to drop by the country once in a while. Something of a local celebrity, and now building her own house in Portugal. I help her moderate the Living in Kigali Facebook group, linked to her Living in Kigali website, 4) apparently a second copy of the bird-watching guide, 5) string measurements for the piano I'm attempting to build with my friend Désiré, and 6) a tour brochure for national museums, with a picture of one of my favourite attractions on the front, Nyanza Mwami Palace (The King's Palace). Well worth a visit if you're ever in the country.

Some other stuff in that pile that is not junk: 1) an extremely old Kindle, 2) The Piano Action Handbook, again related to the Kigali Keys project, and 3) Mahoro, meaning Peace, by Natacha Karambizi, a story about the genocide written through the eyes of a child and published by Imagine We, a publishing house in Kigali largely dealing in children's books. More about them on the bottom shelf.

So, that's everything crammed onto the top shelf of my little bookshelf in Kigali. To look at the other shelves, click here.

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Newspaper Movie

I watched the Zodiac movie on Netflix the other night. It was very close to the book, lot of scenes I remembered from reading that. The author, Robert Graysmith, was played by Jake Gyllenhaal, with a side helping of Robert Downey Jr. Thing is, once you've watched Seth Meyers's Newspaper Movie, you can never un-see it, and every movie of this genre becomes a little hard to keep a straight face through. I was ticking off the tropes. He also did a good one on Oscar Bait.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

The Book Cover Designer

Just a little shout out to The Book Cover Designer. It's a great place for self-publishers and small press to find decent covers for both e-books and paperbacks. I've used them a couple of times and had a great experience all round. They're currently having a 10% off summer sale:

The summer sale has arrived! All pre-made book covers on The Book Cover Designer website are on 10% discount for an entire month. How can you grab your discount?

Use the coupon code SUMMER20 at checkout between the 1st and 31st of July 2020.

We currently have over 17,000 pre-made book covers in every genre, created by hundreds of professional designers from all over the globe. You can narrow down the search by price, genre and key words and phrases. But the best part?

The coupon code is UNLIMITED per user! You can reuse it as many times as you wish!

Yvonne (on behalf of the TBCD team) 

Monday 6 July 2020

My Bookshelf

After mentioning how hard it is to get physical books here, I thought I'd do a little tour of my bookshelf over the coming weeks. A look at what's on the shelves and how those books came to be here. I'll update the links below as the posts are made...

Sunday 5 July 2020

Not My Father's Son

Recently finished this. A truly excellent autobiography. As it says in the reviews:

Equal parts memoir, whodunnit, and manual for living... a beautifully written, honest look at the forces of blood and bone that make us who we are, and how we make ourselves.  – Neil Gaiman

I'll admit, I was originally drawn to it because of The L Word. I don't read a lot of biographies, but I'm really glad I picked this one up.
In his unique and engaging voice, the acclaimed actor of stage and screen shares the emotional story of his complicated relationship with his father and the deeply buried family secrets that shaped his life and career.

A beloved star of stage, television, and film—“one of the most fun people in show business” (Time magazine)—Alan Cumming is a successful artist whose diversity and fearlessness is unparalleled. His success masks a painful childhood growing up under the heavy rule of an emotionally and physically abusive father—a relationship that tormented him long into adulthood.

When television producers in the UK approached him to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show in 2010, Alan enthusiastically agreed. He hoped the show would solve a family mystery involving his maternal grandfather, a celebrated WWII hero who disappeared in the Far East. But as the truth of his family ancestors revealed itself, Alan learned far more than he bargained for about himself, his past, and his own father.

With ribald humor, wit, and incredible insight, Alan seamlessly moves back and forth in time, integrating stories from his childhood in Scotland and his experiences today as a film, television, and theater star. At times suspenseful, deeply moving, and wickedly funny, Not My Father’s Son will make readers laugh even as it breaks their hearts.

He really takes an extremely painful subject and examines it with humour, humanity and the wisdom that only comes with distance from the source material. 
You see, I understood my father. I'd learned from a very young age to interpret the tone of every word he uttered, his body language, the energy he brought into a room. It has not been pleasant as an adult to realise that dealing with my father's violence was the beginning of my studies of acting.

He examines a lot of questions common to people who have had difficult relationships with a parent, such as doubt over becoming a parent themselves and perpetuating those same behaviours, about subduing joy or attachment to things that might be taken away, and a desire for space and alone-time. 

I love long flights. The feeling of being completely unreachable is something I savour, and the limbo-like state of being, having departed but not arrived, somehow allows me to catch up with myself, to regroup and check in. It's a little contrary to think that I look forward to careering through the  skies in a metal-fatigued box in order to gain some feeling of inner calm, but that's the way I roll.

I've always felt that about service stations on motorways, too. You can just pull over, switch off your phone and rest from the world for a while. He also mentioned crying a lot on planes, which is a really common phenomenon. That article says there's no scientific research into this, but I thought I read an article about it some years back claiming it was partly cabin pressure. Anyway, we've all done it.

But alongside the immediacy of his childhood and his relationship with his father, runs the parallel story of his grandfather and the legacy of his life - and death.

I had lost a father but found a grandfather. One of them had never sought the truth and lived a life based on a lie. The other's truth was hidden from us because society deemed it unsuitable. Both caused strife and sadness, but now both combined to reinforce for me what I knew to be the only truth: there is never shame in being open and honest. It was shame that prevented us from knowing what a great man Tommy Darling was, and it was shame that made my father treat me and Tom and my mum the way he did. All those years ago, lying in the grass of the forest at Panmure, I rejected shame instinctively. Now, my forefathers had reinforced for me how right I had been all along.

Really makes you wish everyone in the world had access to in-depth information about their predecessors. It always amazed me in Australia that so many Australians could tell you how many generations Australian they were and how their ancestors had first come to Australia, and from where, whereas in the UK most people are hard-pressed to tell you two generations back.

It's also interesting, working with genocide survivors, the scientific evidence we see coming to light about transgenerational trauma and how exposure to stress and violence alters not just your neural pathways and emotional responses, but also your DNA, and that these changes can literally get passed down to affect the behaviour of future generations. So, our behaviour is deeply rooted in both our blood and the environment in which we grow up. The interplay of those two things is very real.

Throughout the whole story, he's got a really lovely outlook on life:

I think I learned [from my mother] that having money could never be guaranteed. It could disappear at any moment, and so I've grown up wanting to feel secure when it comes to money, but doing so by treating it as something to be enjoyed, shared, and not given power.

Also, did you know Scots were the first to catalogue the word 'fuck'? 

The things you learn.

Wednesday 1 July 2020

A Wizard of Earthsea

I've always been a fan of the Ghibli Tales from Earthsea, but never actually read the original series. I thought I'd give it a whirl with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). 

I felt like I was fairly familiar with the world because of the Ghibli adaptation, but enjoyed getting the details. Weirdly, though, it reminded me a bit of Treasure Island in that you start off on this swashbuckling adventure... then the main character gets stuck on a boat for a few chapters. Very atmospheric though, and nice imagery.

Still the wind grew stronger, tearing the edges of the great waves into flying tatters of foam.


Once, in that court, he had felt himself to be a word spoken by the sunlight. Now the darkness had also spoken. A word that could not be unsaid.


Out of the sea there rise storms and monsters, but no evil powers. Evil is of earth. And there is no sea, no running of river or spring, in the dark land where once Ged had gone. Death is the dry place.


So, of the Song of the Shadow, there remain only a few scraps of legend, carried like driftwood from isle to isle over the long years.

There's a strong emphasis on needing to know the true names of things in order to hold power over them. It made me think of the cultures that refuse to speak a person's name after death, and those that sing the names of places in order to navigate the landscape. A very primal belief. 

Something that bothers me a bit is the fan art. I do like a nice bit of fan art, but in the case of EarthSea, it really seems to have been whitewashed. That's not unusual for anime, as, for some reason, Japanese anime seems to favour white-skinned and often blue-eyed characters. There's an interesting discussion about this. But, in this case, it's still very questionable. It's especially questionable when you Google 'EarthSea fan art.' There's a definite distinction between those who have drawn from the concept, and those who have drawn true to the book. The main character, Ged, is described as having 'red-brown' skin, whereas Vetch has very dark 'black-brown' skin, if I recall. Yet there's a significant amount of artwork that features an all-white cast.

A quick Google search reveals I'm not the only one to have noticed this. There are some truly indefensible examples in that article, such as casting Chris Gauthier as the black-brown Vetch in a 2004 mini-series. I wonder what Ursula Le Guin must have thought of that. It must be a bit soul-destroying to have the colour of your characters' skin changed, I assume, for marketing reasons? Rather disturbing.

Anyway, let's drift back into 'dream peace', that nice few moments before waking fully from a pleasant dream. There are some lovely turns of phrase in this. I may continue with the series at some point.