Irregular Stories

I had quite forgotten to post this. Whatever was I thinking of?

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If you look on the sidebar, you will espy a link to this book. It is a collection of short stories by members of my local writing group, The Irregular Writers Collective, including one by me.

As the blurb on the back says, From intrigue in Colombia to bizarre adventures in Italy, from an unusual protest to a prison break in 19th century Chile. Get ready for an exciting journey with the Irregulars…

I was reminded of its existence at our meeting last night, when mention was made of a follow-up book this year. I’ve already submitted my story for this, and am looking forward to reading stories from the others.

But in the meantime, Irregular Stories awaits your perusal!

It is available in paperback on Amazon.

And the link, again? It’s also here.

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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.

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.

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Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).

Review of An Atlas of Impossible Longing

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

A year ago I read The Folded Earth, Anuradha Roy’s second novel, and decided it was so good I would have to read all of the others. And so recently I finished her first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. In this, Anuradha Roy tells the story of three generations of a family who have moved from Calcutta to live in a huge, rambling mansion in Songarh, a small town in the hills of Bengal.

Amulya’s wife, Kananbala, hates the isolation of the town, with its lack of fashionable shops and social life, and longs to return to Calcutta. Their oldest son, Kamal, longs for children, and his youngest, Nirmal, is widowed and longs for his unmarried cousin.

Everyone appears to long for something that proves unattainable, and at the centre of the story are two children, thrown together by chance circumstance and then separated by the cultural fears of adults, but who have formed an unbreakable bond that endures through years of separation.

Mukunda is an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family, and his only companion is Bakul, daughter of Nirmal. They pass their time playing in the grounds of their home or in the woods and fields around the town.

As Bakul and Mukunda grow towards adulthood, their friendship slowly begins to become something more, and Mukunda is sent away to Calcutta by the family, suddenly fearful of the consequences of this.

As the years pass, Mukunda graduates from college and becomes prosperous, even through the years of Partition, without ever returning to see the family who raised him, although he thinks frequently of Bakul. But then chance sends him to Songarh, and he realises he must find out what has happened to her.

The pace of this book is deceptively languid, but this enables Roy to paint the characters and settings in exquisite detail, and for the plot to unfold at an easily assimilable rate.

I feel you always gain more from re-reading a book, and I am longing to do this, to immerse myself again in the rich landscape and characters Roy has created.

Most definitely a five star read.

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.

Nice To Meet You!

It’s been a difficult time. There’s been stuff. And we all know what stuff does, don’t we? Well? Don’t we? Yes, you at the back, boy! Tompkins Minor! Well, what does it do?

‘Gets in the way, Sir.’

Louder, boy!

‘GETS IN THE WAY, SIR!’

That’s right, Tompkins. It gets in the way.

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Stuff getting in the way.

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Stuff not getting in the way.

And with all this stuff flying around, stuff I’m finding it rather difficult to deal with, sometimes it’s as much as I can do just to leave a ‘like’ on a post. Even posting a comment seems too much like hard work, although I want to. So I press ‘like’ to simply show my appreciation of the post.

But I’m working on it. I haven’t gone away, I’m just a little snowed under with…stuff.

And because it’s a new year (oh yes, Happy New Year to you all. Have you broken all your resolutions, yet? I have.), I’m thinking it might be a good time to re-introduce myself to the blogging world. So, this is me:

I have published one novel, Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in rural Northern India and is about the way society treats women there (and, by extension, in most places still). This has had good reviews, and I’m especially pleased with the ones from Indian women, who obviously know a thing or two about the subject! It is available as e-book as well as Print On Demand paperback.

The first draft of my second novel, provisionally titled A Good Place, is completed and I shall begin to edit it at the end of February. This story is set in a fictitious hill station in Northern India populated by a mixture of the English who remained in India after Partition, a few English travellers, and, naturally, the indigenous Indians there. In the meantime I am also working on another novel, the first in a series of 3 or 4, provisionally titled The Assassins Garden and set in both Persia and India in the 1600’s. This one I like to think of as being a mixture of ‘The Arabian Nights’ and Neil Gaiman. It starts innocuously enough, but rapidly becomes darker. The later books will also have elements of Gothic fiction and Victorian Detective stories in them. Possibly rather ambitious, I admit, but I have already written quite a large proportion of several of them.

I also write short stories and occasional poetry. At least, I call it occasional, but I do seem to be writing more of it than I used to.

And then I paint. I try to sell some of these through my shop on Etsy, although in the past I used to exhibit regularly at exhibitions and in various galleries (and sold quite well!). Perhaps I should investigate that route again.

There are links to Etsy and to my books on the sidebar, if you wish to go and have a gander.

And, when I can, I travel. Preferably with my wife. India and Nepal are favourite destinations, but so too are places closer to home in the UK, especially long-distance walks.

But, that’s enough about me for the moment. Possibly a little more next time.

Happy Christmas

Wishing you a peaceful (or crazy, if that’s what you prefer) Christmas.

And thank you all for being part of this journey!

I usually write a special post for Christmas, either having a dig at consumerism or a humorous short story. At least, I try to make them humorous. This year, I’m going to re-post the first one I wrote for this site, three years ago.

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The First Christmas Present

The old fellow with the white beard and the red jacket leaned queasily over the side of the sleigh, watching the snow covered fields passing below. For a while, the moon was peering out between the clouds and he travelled over a scene of sparkling silver, although the sight did nothing to cheer him up.

He hated heights.

He hated elves, now, too. He’d never met one before today, but he knew now that he hated them. The smug little tossers sat right at the back of the sleigh, eating the mince pies that had been left out for him, and tittering whenever he took a wrong turning.

And he hated children. He especially hated children.

Ever since they took away his benefits and told him he would now be better off, he had struggled for money. Now it was November, and he had decided he had to get a Christmas job. Not that he was looking forward to long nights at the sorting office, or lugging a bloody great bag of Christmas cards from door to door. But it seemed he’d left it rather late, and there was nothing left. At least, nothing for someone of his age. Eventually, he found himself in a tiny little room on the second floor of a run-down office building in a backstreet, the home of an agency that he’d never heard of and with a staff, it appeared, consisting of one gentleman who he initially took to be a caretaker and who introduced himself as Mr Nicol.

‘You’ll do nicely.’ He said. With time-shift, it meant that there was no need to cram all of the deliveries into a single night; they could be spread out over the whole year. In fact, they tended to use two of them, these days.

‘Two of what?’ His mind reeled.

‘Why, Santas, of course. But even then,’ Mr Nicol went on, ‘it’s difficult when one goes sick for two weeks. And so this is where you come in. What is a problem,’ he explained, ‘is E.U. Working Time Directive no.7. This rules out night work for anyone over the age of fifty. So you’ll have to do the deliveries during the day. Still, time-shift takes care of that.’

He still didn’t entirely understand, but he took the job.

The SatNav was crap. It took twice as long. The first time he tried it, he was terrified to find the sleigh suddenly hurtling between buildings that seemed to be no more than a couple of feet apart, at what must have been close on three hundred miles an hour. It then banked and turned in a tiny back garden, subjecting him to a force of about a hundred g, and then shot back down the same terrible alleyway. It then parked itself on the rooftop next to the one that he had just left.

The elves tittered into their hands.

He quickly found it better to just leave it to the reindeer to sort out. They obviously knew what they were doing.

And then it was impossible to tell how much time had gone past. If he noticed the time in any of the houses they visited, it never made any sense. One clock said ten fifteen. Some while later, he noticed one that said nine forty two. The next said four thirty. For a while be began to check the time at each house, but quickly gave up when the times appeared to be completely random. He shrugged. More of this time-shift stuff, he supposed. It made it very hard to decide when he should be on lunch break, and he made a mental note to speak to a union rep. at some point.

Another house. Impossible to know how many he had visited. After the thing with the clocks, he was even wondering whether he still had to visit some of the ones he’d already visited.

No, that was too confusing. He shrugged again, and stepped out of the sleigh. The elves followed him with their sacks, and then they all stepped forward, and next thing they were standing in a hallway, just inside the closed front door. Yes, that was weird, too. The elves obviously knew where they were going; he followed them into a darkened front room where a little glass of liquid stood on the table beside a plate with two mince pies. There was a little note that said ‘For Santa, love Benjy’.

He dropped the mince pies into the bag that he wore around his waist for the purpose, and poured the sherry into the flask. He hated sherry, anyway, so the little tossers were welcome to that. With luck, they’d fall out of the sleigh at some point.

The elves trooped noisily out of the room and up the stairs, reached the landing and opened the first door on the right. Inside, a child was asleep in the bed, a large pillow case draped across the duvet.

‘Greedy little bastard.’ He thought. He picked up the pillow case and held it open, whilst one of the elves seemingly poured in presents randomly from his sack. And then he froze. There was someone coming up the stairs; that wasn’t supposed to happen! All this time-shift stuff was meant to mean that everyone would be asleep from the moment he entered the house until he left again. It all happened in less than a fraction of a nanosecond, in any case.

The footsteps came nearer, and then stopped. A small child appeared at the doorway, but all that he noticed were her sad eyes. She did not seem surprised to see him, nor did she appear overjoyed.

‘You never come to me.’ She said in a quiet, flat voice.

‘I visit all the children!’ He replied, struggling to present himself as jovial.

‘No. You never come to me. You never have.’ He felt himself squirming under her steady gaze.

‘What’s your name?’ He said at last.

‘Mary. I live with my mother. In one of those flats over there.’ She pointed out of the window towards a few yellow lights that seemed to randomly puncture the darkness.

He glanced at the elves, who shrugged unconcernedly, then sighed and pulled a list from his back pocket and put his reading glasses on.

‘I’m sure we, I mean I, do. What’s the address?’ She stepped towards him and gently took the list from his hand, looked at it for a minute and then pointed.

‘There. But you don’t go to our flat; number three.’

He ran his eyes down the list, clicked his tongue irritably, and then looked a second time, certain he must have missed her name. But no, it definitely wasn’t there. He looked up, to meet her gaze again. Oh, hell. He could take one present from, say, three or four others. They would never miss them, and no one would know.

‘We’d know!’ The first elf glowered at him.

‘You can’t do that!’ The other one pouted. He looked from one to the other, and then back to the little girl, and came to a decision. He reached into Benjy’s pillowcase, picked out a couple of presents and held them out to her. She did not move for a moment, but then she gently smiled, reached out, and took the nearest one. Then she turned and left the room, and he heard her footsteps going down the stairs. He darted out to the landing, but already she had vanished.

‘You’ll be in big trouble.’ A spiteful little voice behind him said happily. He said nothing but did the thing with his fingers he had been taught, and they were back in the sleigh again.

It had been their last call. Now he was watching the elves smirking and whispering to each other, as the reindeer ran smoothly through the clouds. Casually, his hand strayed towards the SatNav, and he pressed the ‘over-ride’ button. The sleigh stopped immediately, and spun round a hundred and eighty degrees, catching the elves completely by surprise and throwing them out of the sleigh and into the night sky.

He hated elves.

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…

Stories From Anywhere

I am proud to announce…Tah…Rah!! A book of short stories from Tunbridge Wells Writers.

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My regular reader may be interested to learn that the collection includes a fairly long short story of mine, World’s End, and I’m reasonably proud to point out that the cover is also designed by me.

A dozen stories in total, this is available at the moment as a paperback on Amazon (the link is here), and it will be published as an e-book on Kindle fairly soon. Once it is, I’ll put up a new post.

From the blurb on Amazon…Twelve writers, twelve stories. From intrigue in Colombia to bizarre adventures in Italy, from an unusual protest to a prison break in Chile. Get ready for an exciting journey with this collection from Tunbridge Wells Writers… 

The Collector

Inspiration, writers’ block, ideas…I could write about all or any of these topics. Instead, I thought I’d simply post another poem – plus, of course, a picture (with far better weather than we’re having here) – and let it do the job instead.

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I’m a collector of images long stored in my memory,

A desert inferno of razor-sharp rocks.

A mountain breeze rippling an icy cold puddle,

Thick mists and thin soups, flowers, trains, and old shoes.

 

I’m a collector of memories, both mine and ones borrowed,

The harrowing journey, the lovers’ first kiss.

There’s betrayal and loyalty, flatulence, hope,

There’s a child being born, and a wolf at the door.

 

I’m a collector of stories, the stranger the better,

Believable, odd, and ridiculous too.

Close to home or historical, alien, fanciful,

Some to keep secret and some I can tell.

 

I’m a collector of moonbeams and of chance reflections,

A collector of sadness and bittersweet pain.

A collector of strangely shaped stones in a circle,

And dreams that tell stories I don’t understand.