World Book Day

World Book Day, celebrated today, 7th March, has the declared aim: Our mission is to give every child and young person a book of their own.

It is celebrated in the UK, although I have no idea whether this is an idea that has been taken up elsewhere, and would be interested to find out.

Schools, in particular, seem to have embraced the idea, with children encouraged to attend classes dressed as their favourite book or literary character. Thus hundreds of Harry Potters and Willy Wonkas and Very Hungry Caterpillars march into schools across the country once each year.

A splendid thought!

Which brings me to a marvellous project aimed at schools across the country.

Growing, in a way, out of Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant book Landmarks is The Lost Words, a collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. I can do no better than to quote Jackie Morris on the reasons: It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone… These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.

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So The Lost Words is aimed towards children, to encourage them, through the words and paintings of the book, to discover the natural world that so many of them know nothing of.

So many grow up today without any meaningful contact with the natural world, and this book aims to encourage them to know and to love and protect it.

And the project – the campaign, really, in a very ad hoc way, is to raise money where necessary to place a copy of the book in every school in Britain. It has already been achieved in Scotland, I understand, and hopefully, it will soon be achieved in every other school in Britain.

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Review of Masks and Other Stories From Colombia by Richard Crosfield

In Masks and Other Stories From Colombia, Richard Crosfield brings us twenty five tales set in Colombia, the majority of them viewed through the privileged eyes of Printer, a British expatriate.

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Printer, we are told, has a good ear for a story, and is much in demand by hosts and hostesses at parties to recount these tales. He also has more empathy and sympathy for the Colombians who surround him than do most of the other cossetted expats. Naturally, this acts as a good device to introduce several of the stories.

Some of the stories are little more than vignettes, bringing the reader into the lives led by the mixture of the very poor, the well-to-do middle class, and the extremely well-off and powerful of Colombian society, as well as the expats among whom Printer lives and works. These appear to do little more than illustrate what the lives of these people are like, yet at the end of each story something has changed; there has been resolution of some kind.

Of the others, some demonstrate that you don’t always require an earth-shattering event to create a satisfactory ending, but just a quiet re-drawing of the landscape. Something has shifted, perhaps so subtly that not all the protagonists have even noticed. But we, the readers, see it clearly.

Yet it is easy for the reader to become lulled into a false sense of security by this, so that we are caught out – shocked, perhaps – when we come to one of the stories that has a more powerful and emotional conclusion.

The temptation when placing stories in a setting that is very different from the writer’s own setting, even when that writer has spent a good deal of time there – perhaps especially when that writer has spent a good deal of time there – is to either set all of them in the almost artificial world inhabited by the expat, or to try to set them in the wider community, a community that perhaps they may not completely understand. Richard has managed successfully to do both, something that demonstrates an easy familiarity with both these worlds.

Throughout the book, we can see that the author’s sympathies lie very much with the underdogs of Colombian society, although the stories never become clichés of the noble poor versus the evil rich. They are told with too much intelligence and enough humour to escape that, and, perhaps above all, the writing itself is easy and a joy to read.

Expect to encounter amateur cricketers and murderous bandits, whores and priests, street kids and artists. And a whole host of others.

This is most certainly a five star read.

My disclaimer – I received a copy of this book having beta read one of the stories for the author, although I was not asked to write a review. But my admiration for the stories and my pleasure reading them is entirely genuine.

Review of Revolution #1 by Zin Murphy

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It is 1973, and the hero of this story, Ed Scripps, has left England to make his fortune in Portugal.

Portugal, though, is on the cusp of revolution and when it breaks out it seems at first as though it will benefit Ed. He has a keen eye for the business opportunity, and a winning way with the opposite sex, and as the revolution unfolds Ed manages to both win hearts and begin to make money. It looks as though his future is assured.

But as the revolution begins to lose impetus and high ideals give way to the familiar corruption of the old regime, Ed’s life begins to implode as well, reflecting the collapse of the new ideals in the face of a harsh economic climate. In an attempt to recoup his business losses, he soon becomes involved in drug dealing and begins to move among the shady figures of Portugal’s underworld, among whom he is hopelessly out of his depth.

As his monetary struggles increase, he then finds he has lost his wife to another woman, and then his best friend Mark is sucked into a mysterious and vicious cult and Mark’s wife appeals to Ed for help.

With danger seemingly lurking around every corner, Ed decides he must do the right thing.

A realistically complex character, certainly neither wholly black nor white, Ed has few scruples about making money from drug dealing or being serially unfaithful to whichever woman he is with at the time, yet the reader never fails to cheer for him, so sympathetically is he drawn.

This is a thoroughly convincing portrayal of time and place, and a great read that draws you in from the start.

Catharsis

Today is one of those grim and dark autumn days. It isn’t actually raining, but there is a damp chill in the air that seeps into your bones and just makes you feel miserable.

 

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Yesterday wasn’t a whole lot better, although we did see a little of the sun. So what to do when you need to feel a bit better? When you’re feeling a bit down, lethargic…fed up…you know, whatever fails to float your boat at the time.

Me? Go for a walk. Always helps. But I’ve told you that before. There are a few other remedies, though. Throwing stuff out always helps. Even just going around the house and emptying the rubbish bins is a step in the right direction. I’ve long had this dream to live an incredibly minimalist life – just the bare essentials, no real luxuries, no more than I actually need. The problem is, though, the bare essentials seem to involve hundreds and hundreds of books. and…I…just…can’t…

I love Peter Cook’s line: ‘My tragedy is I was an only twin!’, and I think there’s a slight echo of that in that my tragedy is being a minimalist who can’t stop collecting books.

And photos.

And elephants (but that’s a story for another time).

And…

I’m sure you get the idea.

We have an attic space full of all sorts of stuff that needs to be cleared out. Loads of my old paintings, for a start. And all the other junk that tends to accumulate in attic spaces. There are old carpets and window blinds that are of no use to anyone, including us. Tools. An old water tank (How on Earth can I get that out?). Pet carriers – those little cages that are used to take pets to the vets if necessary – our cats rush out of the house and over the horizon if the carriers ever make an appearance; they learn quickly!

And other stuff.

But I chucked a load out yesterday, including some of my old paintings. It felt very cathartic. And I deleted loads of emails. Some of which I’d actually read.

Cathartic.

Loads of old paperwork that was filling up drawers and files.

Cathartic.

It’s a step in the right direction, anyway. I look at it as trying to take back control of my life.

On the other hand, of course, I could just look at a few somewhat more cheering photos and then get on with writing my book…

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Changtse, Everest, Nuptse and the Khumbu glacier

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Coffee

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Along the South Downs Way, Sussex

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Dozing cat

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Stone elephant, Five Rathas, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

That should do it.

Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

Review – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

 

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Late in the year 1327 Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, and Adso, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy. Winter is rapidly approaching, and so is both a legation led by a notorious inquisitor and another that contains that inquisitor’s implacable enemies. William is to speak in intercession between them.

But once they arrive at the monastery, a series of brutal murders begins, and, at the request of the Abbot, William and Adso are drawn into the investigation.

Every detective story needs a detective, and in The Name of the Rose it is William of Baskerville, who indeed uses logic and observation to make deductions, much like a medieval Sherlock Holmes.

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As the plot develops, there are long theological debates centred around both the poverty of Christ and the question of whether Christ laughed. Questions I have little knowledge of, but which read as authentic to me. But these debates are central to the plot. On the interpretation of Christ’s poverty alone, men and women are accused of heresy and burnt at the stake.

But everything is centred upon the monastery’s library. This library is the greatest library of its time in Europe, containing innumerable rare, important and beautiful volumes. At the centre of the story lies a mysterious and forbidden book, and this book lies at the centre of the labyrinthine library where only the Librarian and his assistant are permitted. But are the murders being committed to get hold of this book or is there another reason? Could they, in fact, be connected with the predictions in the Book of Revelations?

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This is such a well-known book that I found I forgot it was a translation from the original I was reading. Much like the Bible, of course, which point is salient to the monks, and certainly in medieval times this interpretation was a matter of life or death to thousands.

But the translation of  prose does not pose the same problems as the translation of verse, and I don’t suppose the English translation is any different from the Italian original. But the potentials made me smile

As a long book, it provides a canvas for long descriptions, both of the abbey and the associated buildings – essentially a castle – and of the long debates between the monks and the other players. At times there is undoubtedly a temptation to skip some of these, but the reader is adequately rewarded for persevering in that the descriptions paint a powerful picture of the place and time, while the debates tell much about the importance of religion and the ridiculous interpretations of every word of the Bible that quite literally governed the lives and deaths of everyone at that time.

A word about the pace of the book, though. Some readers may find it a little slow (although if those readers skip the debates and longer descriptions it is as fast-paced as any other), but remember it is not just a detective story, it is also a historical novel and moves at the pace one would expect of a book of that genre.

I read this a very long time ago, and although I remember it as having been a very good book, I had forgotten just how good. I will unhesitatingly give it five stars.

And the meaning behind the title? Well, you need to wait until the end to find out, and then you need to understand Latin…

From Genesis to Tribulation (and Beyond!)

Making Friends with the Crocodile was born early one morning – around 4 a.m. – in a Stream of Consciousness that demanded I get up out of bed and write page after page of notes on scenes and characters and the plot development.

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The whole novel was written in much the same way. Generally, I write as a pantser rather than a plotter – I’m terrible at planning out my writing, preferring instead to dive in and see where it takes me. But Making Friends with the Crocodile was written linearly, and other than the grammar and general tidying up, very little was changed in edit.

The book I’m working on now, though, had a far more troubled genesis. Maybe everyone has this problem with the second novel, unless it’s the second one of a planned series. I knew I wanted to write another novel that ‘said’ something, and that I wanted to set this one in India, too, but after that I went blank. I had decided to write about the English in India, or at least one of them, but had no plot.

We went on holiday, and for much of the week we were away I took a few hours out each day to work on the plot, filling my notebook with ideas and characters and working up a central theme, and once we were home again I started work on the novel.

But as I wrote, I found I was dissatisfied with the central plot. It seemed rather unlikely and, frankly, not that interesting. I didn’t even like my working title (I wonder how important that can be, psychologically?) I changed a few bits around, and turned the sub-plot into the main theme, and carried on. Eventually, I realised that I had lost interest in the whole project, despite the thirty thousand-odd words I’d written, and returned to an earlier, shelved project.

I worked on that for a while, but every now and again had ideas for the one I’d just abandoned, duly noted them down, and carried on. About three months later, I spent an afternoon going through notes and suddenly had an idea for two new sub-plots and a couple of new characters. These I liked Very Much Indeed.

I returned to the Abandoned Novel With the Uninteresting Working Title and got stuck in. I even had a new working title: A Good Place. It now stands at around seventy five thousand words, and the first draft is almost complete. There are a few gaps to fill in, but otherwise it is almost ready to put aside for a few months ready to edit.

So exciting!

Starless and Bible-Black – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

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After my previous post, it seems entirely apt to post a review, today.

Writers rely upon reviews to sell books. To spread the word. And I am conscious how bad I am at leaving reviews – mainly because I’m not very good at writing them. But I Shall Try To Do Better!

To start with, this is the review I left on Goodreads some time ago for a book that is already very well-known.

This book begins, then, full of rich, playful language as it sets the scene and gradually introduces the players.

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’ -and -rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfounded town are sleeping now.

I have heard poems by Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton – the actor, not the nineteenth century explorer – and his warm, mesmeric, lilting tone suits the poetry like no other voice I could imagine. Now, I cannot read any Dylan Thomas without hearing it read in his voice.

(I want my work read like that. There is a man I know with a wonderful voice; mellifluous and rich and deep, like Burgundy and dark chocolate. Not Welsh, but very English, who I shall attempt to trick into reading one of my poems or short stories out loud, one day.)

So, to the poem, or play, if you will, for it is a play, first and foremost, told as a prose poem. The play is full of wonderful voices, the voices of a plethora of small-town characters; all of them realistically drawn with their dreams and vices and foibles, and depicted with great humour, but also with sadness. Sadness, for there is resolution for most of the characters, and for some their dreams come true, but others are disappointed.

All of these characters love and hate and desire each other, they reminisce, they have ambitions. In this play, they all have their day. In this place, each one gets to tell their story, or have it told for them.

From the very beginning, the language is rich like double cream and brandy butter; too rich, perhaps, for certainly by the time I had begun to near the end it had become too much. I found myself yearning for more plain, simple language. I wanted a few bread and water phrases.

But the words invite you to savour them slowly – in fact, they demand it. Perhaps the secret, then, is to read this little and often; to dip into it and immerse yourself in the language.

I really wanted to give this masterpiece four and half stars out of five, but without that option, I give it five, although with the caveat above.

Self Publishing – a Blessing or a Curse?

That depends on who you talk to, of course.

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The self publishing boom has given rise to the publication of millions of new books, the majority of which would never have been published traditionally because they would be either deemed to be of insufficient interest to return a profit to the publishers or because they were, frankly, just too terrible to see the light of day.

How good a book is can be very subjective in many ways, but certain rules must apply.

If you buy a traditionally published book, you may be reasonably certain that it has been edited and proof-read to a high standard, the printing and layout of the book is of good quality, and the actual contents – plot, dialogue, character development et al – are sufficiently well written as to repay your reading time.

There are no such guarantees with a self published book.

As a member of several Goodreads groups, I receive regular emails which consist largely of other members promoting their books. These promotions frequently consist of a synopsis of the book, extracts, and links. All well and good, but the number of extracts that are poorly written, unedited (it would seem), with poor print layout, and the number of synopses that are equally poor, is very high indeed. Probably the majority, unfortunately. And should I follow the link to the ebook sales site and read a longer extract, frequently this, too, is filled with more of the same errors.

As far as the plot and dialogue and all that goes with that is concerned, I admit that may be partly down to taste. I have no doubt that some poorly written and poorly plotted books still give great pleasure to many readers, and good luck to them. There are certainly examples of the same amongst traditionally published books. And styles go in and out of fashion, anyway.

What I do take issue with, though, is poor, sloppy editing.

Most people cannot afford to pay for professional editing – I certainly can’t. I understand that. It means doing the job yourself, but taking infinite time and care over it. Check it over and over again until it is the best you can do. The odd mistake will slip through, but that happens even in a professionally edited work. Persuade others to act as beta readers for you. They may not be professionals, but they will spot things you don’t. You are too close to the work, anyway.

If you can’t do that, don’t publish the book.

Let’s take layout first. It only takes a careful look at half a dozen professionally published books to get a good idea of what that layout should look like. And you can buy books that supply more detail. If you are serious about your book, you should do that.

Spellcheck is a useful tool, but only if it is used properly. It recognises a correctly spelled word in its database, but has nothing to say about the suitability of its use. I do find it particularly irritating to come across passages where the completely wrong word has been used, no doubt because Spellcheck flagged it up as the correct spelling. Common examples are groyne / groin, sheer / shear, alter / altar etc. etc. etc.

Grammar is the biggest minefield, though. We all get that wrong at times, even the best of us. But at least avoid the biggest howlers – the so-called grocer’s apostrophe, for example. Put the manuscript through a program such as Grammarly, which is free to download, to pick up the majority of the errors.

Another phenomenon I have seen recently is a 4,000 word story published on Amazon as a ‘Novella’. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with selling a story that length, but anything that comes in at 4,000 words is a short story. And quite a short one at that. To describe it as a novella, no matter what price it is being sold at is, quite frankly, a bit of a bloody cheek.

Please don’t do that.

And I’m sure many other readers have their own pet peeves.

 

No Going Back

In a somewhat pensive mood, today.

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We all try to do it in our own way.

Me, I walk the woods and hills, trying to recapture

That half-remembered birdsong from my childhood.

Looking for the clear nascent sunlight,

And the cool morning breath of a magical wild rose.

 

Others revisit old haunts,

Tread half-forgotten streets and peer in shop windows,

Leaf through foxed and fragile pages

Of Peter and Jane, hold china dolls,

And gaze wistfully at black and white seasides.

 

It’s more than elusive,

But what they have in common,

Is leaving today behind.

Maybe, what I’m really searching for,

Is a different me,

Although I wouldn’t want to be a teenager again.

 

And if you haven’t tried it,

If you haven’t caught the sound of yesterday,

Or smelt the stale cooking and damp mothballs

Of a long-dead indulgent aunt,

Then perhaps you’re still too young.