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.

Monday 10 August 2020

Secure the Shadow Blog Tour

As of tomorrow, Secure the Shadow is going on a release blog tour. I'll link to the posts and reviews as they appear. Thank you to everyone taking part. There will be a few interviews, a guest post, and some giveaways happening along the way.

Rosie Writes... (giveaway)

Writer's Resources Blog
review + giveaway)

Literary Flits
(review + giveaway)

Jazzy Book Reviews
(interview + giveaway)

Jessica Belmont
(review + giveaway)

Historical Fiction with Spirit

Curled up with a Good Book
(review + giveaway)
This blog is no longer active.

Jess Bookish Life
(review + giveaway)
(interview + giveaway)

Ellesea Loves Reading
(guest post + giveaway)

The Magic Of Wor(l)ds
(interview + giveaway)

sharon beyond the books

B for bookreview
(interview & giveaway)
(review and giveaway)

Sunday 2 August 2020

Bottom Shelf

Well, here we go. The bottom shelf of my bookshelf tour. And no, nothing rude down here - unfortunately.

Starting from the left, we have a whole load of Kinyarwanda children's books, mostly by Fountain Publishers in Rwanda.

I bought these many years ago at the now defunct Nakumatt store in UTC. This was back when I had aspirations of improving my Kinya. So far, that hasn't happened and I am still only capable of ordering food, beer, and getting home on a moto. One day, dear readers, one day...

The one in the bottom left is a special title as it is the story of the warrior Maguru (Long Legs) and the shapeshifting mythical beast, Insibika.

Friends turned this into a reggae hit in Rwanda back in 2007. It was an anthem of the time, filmed an Nyanza Mwami Palace (the King's Palace in Nyanza). I am determined that one day I will be able to read this.

To the right of those, we have a notebook that I think my friend Cassie sent me... though I'm not 100% sure. My handwriting is absolutely illegible so I always feel guilty defiling the pages of a nice notebook. I usually scribble things down on pieces of scrap paper. So far, my thoughts and doodles will remain undiscovered.

There's also a few copies of the English, Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili pocket dictionary and the English-Kinyarwanda pocket dictionary. They're more novelty items than particularly useful. Rwanda now has four official languages: Kinyarwanda, English, French and Swahili, though hardly anyone speaks Swahili. Kinyarwanda is a Bantu language that's pretty tricky for Westerners to learn, but Swahili was invented around the early 1700s as a lingua franca for trade in the East Africa region. Because it is a lingua franca, it's much easier to pick up and more widely spoken, but as I started out with Kinya, I've continued with Kinya. When I have guests, I find these useful to leave on their bedside table and it's nice to look through other languages and learn a few words.

On the right is a pile of my own books. Some of these are copies of long-ago published works by publishers, and others are more recent proof copies of KDP releases. Nowadays, post takes anywhere from three weeks to four months to reach Rwanda and Amazon seem to have stopped delivering, so I can no longer get hard copy proofs of self-releases. I rely on friends and family to give the covers and content a thumbs-up. You can find all my books here.

Underneath all of that I've buried my childish side.

And I've also got a couple of children's books by Imagine We, who published Karen's book (on the middle shelf).

The first one is signed by Dominique Uwase Alonga, the founder of Imagine We, who gave a reading of this at my friend's restaurant. The second is signed by Peace Kwizera at the book launch in 2016.

So, that's what's on my bottom shelf. We have one more post to go, a rummage through the shoe rack, but that concludes my main book collection.