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.

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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.

Who’s That Trip-Trapping Over My Bridge?

It’s a troll!

Okay, I know. The troll was under the bridge and it was the Billy Goats Gruff doing the trip-trapping.

Whatever.

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Where was I last post? Oh yes, poor quality self-published books.

A little while ago a blogging friend of mine reviewed a self-published book on Goodreads, and gave it three stars out of five, on the basis that the book was full of editing errors. For this, she was then trolled by another member – not the author in question, but I suspect she was a friend of the author, although it is not impossible it was just someone out to cause trouble.

This troll was furious that anyone would mark down a book for being poorly edited and poorly formatted. She then went on to personally attack the reviewer. I don’t know the outcome, but I certainly hope a complaint was made and the troll blocked from Goodreads.

I wonder, have we really got to a point where it is considered perfectly acceptable to publish something of poor quality and no one is allowed to point out this fact? Is this another consequence of the self-publishing phenomenon coupled with many people’s unwillingness to tolerate any views other than their own?

Monthly Writing Update

AAARGH! Boink…boink…boink…thud!

Sorry…that’s me going a bit stir crazy and bouncing off of the walls at the moment. Two weeks ago I had an operation on my foot, which I am supposed to ‘rest and elevate’ for most of the time. I can get out and about a bit, but it is very slow going, with the aid of crutches, at an average speed of something in between ‘Get on with it!’ and ‘Oh for goodness sake, is that the best you can do?’ and which means, in effect, that I’m pretty well confined to barracks.

At least that gives me plenty of writing time. Perfectly true, but normally I would take a day off from writing every now and again, and go out somewhere – perhaps for a walk. Because that’s not really practical at the moment, I think I’m spending too much time writing and feeling a bit stale, so yesterday I ended up reading and watching a DVD.

I’ll be glad to be back on my feet properly again, but that won’t be for well over another month.

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Elephant tea caddy – what’s not to like?

Anyway, enough of your whinging, I hear you cry. What on earth are you writing at the moment?

Well, as usual I’m flitting between books, and I’m almost 40,000 words into the Indian story, which has the plot and sub-plots now fully worked out, and some 25,000 words into book one of The Assassins’ Garden – the one set in Medieval Persia and Mughal India. The plot of this one needs a bit more thought, but I’m making it up as I go along, so we’ll see what happens.

I wrote a few poems in the last month, one of which I put up on a blog post.

Oh, and here’s a haiku for today. The last week or so has been unusually hot and sunny, but the forecast is that it will break sometime this morning.

Heavy summer air,

Feeling so hot and humid,

Threatening a storm.

And here it comes now!

Today? Perhaps I’ll write one or two book reviews, once I’ve finished watching the rain hammering down outside the window.

Or just read…

An Author Page, a Relaunch, and, well, Other Things.

…what’s not to like?

Um, I meant that as a rhetorical question, and I’m rather hoping I won’t get any answers to that!

But, as promised a few weeks back, I have got around to creating my Author Page on Facebook. You can find it here and if you are on Facebook, please feel free to nip over and follow it.

I was going to put up a screenshot of the page, but I really can’t work out how to do it and almost lost the will to live trying.

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Totally irrelevant picture of wild boar hoof prints in Portugal instead

The point of creating an Author Page is so that I can separate out my writing and blogging posts from my personal ones on Facebook. I shall still send posts from this blog to both accounts, but the Author Page will also get a number of updates on my writing progress and other posts that my personal one won’t.

I will probably put up an album of my paintings.

It is even possible that Bob might be persuaded to make a guest appearance, just so long as he can find his way there.

The relaunch? I have put together extracts from a few of the very kind reviews I have received for my novel Making Friends with the Crocodile, which is available on Amazon by clicking on the picture below. Since I have taken the rather huge liberty of writing the novel in the first person, as an Indian woman, I am especially delighted with some very complimentary reviews which have come from Indian women.

The extracts read:

‘Mick Canning depicts quiet lives of ordinary desperation, in an Indian context. Although the “million mutinies” of which Naipaul writes have rescued India from famine and penury, it now needs a million more to deliver it from social, sexual and religious prejudices like those which bedevil the life of the narrator and her family.

Canning is an acute observer of nature as well as human nature, and his prose flows.’

 

‘This beautifully written story, set in a village in Bihar, draws you in from its first page. We see the household through the eyes of Siddiqa, wife of Maajid, mother of two school-age girls and her son Tariq, who is married to Naira. We are drawn into the rivalry between Siddiqa and Naira, in a society where the men are the only wage earners and the women’s lives must, by tradition, revolve around their wishes. Small incidents pile up, one after another, as the underlying harmony of the household is fractured by the resentment and self-loathing of Naira. The family is Moslem, the village is a mix of Moslem and Hindu, and one incident threatens the uneasy cohabitation of the two communities. The police, seen as a hostile force in the village, get involved with an unpredictable outcome to the novel.’

 

‘In his debut novel Mick Canning weaves a brilliant story of the tragic life of a young bride in rural India – a story that is synonymous with many women, who continue to suffer oppression and victimization at the hands of men.

The characters are depicted with obvious respect for a culture that is both beautiful and at times shocking. By the novels finale, though tragic, we are left with a very thought provoking and memorable story.’
‘In an understated tone, the story presents the lives of people in an average Indian village in Bihar, and highlights the conditions that not only dissuade a woman from reporting an assault but also subjugate her further by holding her responsible for it.

Mick has delved into the mind of a middle- aged woman living in rural Bihar and has beautifully sketched the love – hate relationship she shares with her daughter in law. The book gives a lot of perspective on the mind-set and predispositions that prevail in the rural north Indian society (which apply, at large to many other parts as well).

Siddiqa, the protagonist character gets as real as she can be. The manner in which, the author connects the social issue with the system and institutions is very authentic and shows his deep understanding of the culture and milieu.
Go for it, if you like to read serious stuff that deals with real thought provoking issues.’

 And how is the writing going? I’m so glad you asked. I’m working hard on the new novel, and occasionally putting in some time on the older one that just seems to keep changing its mind on what it wants to be. *sigh* It’s like living with teenagers.

I’ll put up a proper update on all that soon.

Welcome to my Crisis!

I’ve been hiding from the internet.

No, I didn’t go away, unfortunately, although a holiday was what I both have been and am still craving. I made a rash promise some weeks ago to put up a Facebook Author page, to do a minor relaunch of my novel, and to serialise a bawdy Elizabethan detective story. Really, I should know myself better than that.

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I think it was the short story that finally broke me.

Writing, for me, is a pleasure, comparable to painting. It is all about crafting the finished product, taking my time and eventually producing the best I can. When all goes well, the process is immensely satisfying from beginning to end.

Within that process, of course, there are times of writer’s block, false starts and finishes, wrong turnings, and many other things to go wrong. And the editing can be an infuriating process. But overall, there needs to be a flow.

Making Friends with the Crocodile worked for me at the length it was (45,000 words), since I wrote it almost as a stream of consciousness as the story unfolded in my mind. It came out in a rush partly because of its importance to me, and partly because I found I could visualise the characters, the story and the setting clearly. Once I had reached the end, I knew that was the end.

Obviously, many stories take a lot more coaxing to get down on paper. I’ve struggled with ones that need to be forced, certainly in places, partly because at that point they are not ‘me’ at the heart of them; I have lost that flow. But sometimes because of the length.

One reason I stopped entering short story competitions is I write a lot of long short stories. I am perfectly aware of the dictum that whatever you write can be edited down to the required length and that, indeed, they should be edited down.

But I also strongly believe that when a story presents itself to be written, that story has an internal length that needs to be respected, even after editing. Some require a few hundred words, some a lot more. But to attempt to turn Making Friends with the Crocodile into a 120,000 word novel or a 5.000 word short story, I am sure would have meant a lesser read. It would have been padded out for the sake of it, or stripped down to bare bones that would have meant that the characters could not have been drawn as strongly as I wanted them to be, and therefore encouraged less empathy from the reader.

Where is all this leading?

I began the short story / serial. It was working quite well, and I had a good few chuckles to myself as I was writing it and then, suddenly, it was almost 10,000 words long and nowhere near finished.

Oh dear.

So I attempted to cram and trim and edit and get it down to a suitable length for serialisation, but I was not happy with the result. Oh no. And I had one of my minor panic-I-can’t-cope-stress attacks and decided the only way to deal with it was to hide.

So, I’m not going to serialise it after all. I will finish it, but the attempt to condense it into a few instalments simply wasn’t working, and what I ended up with felt completely wrong. I will return to it at some point in the future, and finish it as the novella that it clearly is.

There is another strand to all this:

I made the Facebook Author page. That was the easy bit, and I’ll show you where it is next time. And I put together the re-launch promotion piece by the simple expedient of gathering together extracts from lots of the kind reviews the book has had.

But I am in a state of recurring panic, once again, over this huge need to self-promote to sell books. Of course, we all want to, but we are forever urged to use this or that platform, accept this or that offer, etc. Now, we are told that we ‘must’ have a YouTube channel. Really? And a presence on all sorts of social media. Are we not ‘serious’ writers if we are not prepared to move heaven and earth to sell a couple of extra books? That we should ‘invest’ a hundred or five hundred dollars here and there to advertise ourselves?

I have sold a few, and what is really important to me is the tremendous feedback that I’ve had.

Blowing my own trumpet is anathema to me, as I have written in the past. I just can’t do the selling and marketing the way that seems to be presented as essential. It’s an aspect of life that I hate, and a reason I have never gone into ‘business’. Everything around the promotion and marketing just seems relentless and is something that I cannot cope with.

Fortunately, I am not interested in fame. The idea frightens me.

And I really struggle with social media. I have had two goes at being on Facebook, and cope with it at the moment by not going on it very much. I spent ages trying to see the use of Linkedin, and have solved that one by closing my account last week. I really see no use for it.

And I am not doing Twatter.

So here I am back on WordPress, which is a platform I do enjoy. I’ll dip in and out of it a bit over the next few weeks or months, I suspect, since I still feel a bit panicky, but I will be there.

Thank you for your patience!

The Indian edition of my book is published!

Well, it’s taken me long enough, as I’m sure everyone will agree, but I have finally managed to publish Making Friends with the Crocodile as a Print on demand paperback in India! Hurrah!

It is published by Pothi, and is available on their site, here, and on Amazon.in and Flipkart.

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It is still available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon, and is also available as an e-book from Kobo, worldwide, for those who do not favour Kindle.

I have been told plenty of times that I need to be more proactive promoting the book, but I’m not terribly good at that. However, this is me having another pathetic stab at it:

Buy it now! It’s great! Please…pretty please…

Oh well, I’m working on it.

Should you be kind enough to buy it, or, indeed, if you have already done so, please consider leaving a review. Reviews encourage others to buy the book, and, on Amazon, once a book has garnered a certain number, then Amazon list it a little more prominently – which is a tremendous help to the author!

And I have been lucky enough to garner some very complimentary and generous reviews, so far. A few excerpts:

‘This beautifully written story, set in a village in Bihar, draws you in from its first page.’

‘Making Friends with the Crocodile is a very fine book. And it takes us into the harsh reality of the life of women in rural India, much more effectively than any official report.’

‘The characters are depicted with obvious respect for a culture that is both beautiful and at times shocking. By the novels finale, though tragic, we are left with a very thought provoking and memorable story.’

‘This is a novel with depth and real emotional involvement. Told simply and with an honesty that defies disbelief at events and attitudes, it packs some serious punches. It’s a story that will live with me for a long time, and one that has materially altered my opinions about certain cultural norms. Researched in real depth and related in language that fits the narrator so well, it’s a very good read.’

‘Mick has delved into the mind of a middle- aged woman living in rural Bihar and has beautifully sketched the love – hate relationship she shares with her daughter in law. The book gives a lot of perspective on the mind-set and predispositions that prevail in the rural north Indian society (which apply, at large to many other parts as well).’

The blurb: ‘Siddiqa was only just into her teens when she was forced to leave her home to live with her new husband and his family in another village. The years have passed, and now Siddiqa has three children of her own. Her grown up son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowliest in the household, for she has a daughter-in-law.

Life in rural India is particularly harsh for women. This novel explores themes of female oppression and tradition and asks whether the next generation will find life any easier.

I suppose that at least when I publish my next book, I should have a much better idea of how to go about it.

Wow, What a Book! #1

I thought that I would pick out what might be the 10 books that have most influenced my life. Well, I say 10 books, but I may tire of this long before I reach 10, so let’s just see what happens.

You see, these are not really reviews, although it is necessary to give some idea of the plot of each book, it is more about how they have influenced me, and I may decide after a while that I’m just giving away too much about myself.

Or that I’m just going over and over the same ground.

Okay, then. Let’s get on with it. The rules:

Firstly, I must have read the book more than 5 years ago. I know this is an arbitrary figure, but any book that I have read recently is likely to be clearer in my mind, and so appear a little more important to me than it really is. It needs time to settle.

Secondly, I need to be able to demonstrate to myself exactly how it is that the book has influenced me. Just to say ‘it was important to me’ will not be enough. That would be little better than just saying ‘I like it’. Perfectly valid, but hardly the stuff of a blog post. This is another reason to impose the 5 year rule – there must have been enough time elapsed to see the influence.

So I’ll start today with Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.

Image result for steppenwolf Hesse

Sometimes, you get the feeling that some people have just been born into the wrong century. Not that they would prefer dressing in cravats or crinolines, although they might anyway, or that they have a hankering after a little piracy or bubonic plague, but rather you can see that they don’t fit in with the pace of modern life, or much like the ethos of the times.

There must be quite a few people like that, which must partly explain the immense popularity of Steppenwolf both when it was released, and then especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It was the second book by Hesse that I had read, after cutting my teeth on ‘The Journey to the East’ as a teenager, and I was a little unprepared for its message.

Whereas ‘The Journey to the East’ felt like a bit of drug-induced fantasy, although a very clever and readable one, without any obvious message beyond ‘free yourself from the conventions of society, man’, Steppenwolf clearly had a more serious message to convey.

It begins with the protagonist, Harry, contemplating taking his own life, because he sees himself as a serious writer both at odds with the world that he lives in (Germany, post WWI), whose values, especially the bourgeois ones, he despises, but also with his inner alter ego, the very opposite of the sophisticated artist that he sees himself, which he calls the Steppenwolf – or the wolf of the steppes. He hates and fears this alter ego, who he feels he cannot control, and who sneers at everything that Harry holds dear.

It is whilst Harry is contemplating suicide, that he comes across a booklet entitled ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ and as he reads it, he discovers that it is about himself. the booklet talks about Harry and his alter ego, but also explains that there are many, many more of these other sides to his character.

Through the rest of the book, Harry learns how to reconcile these many sides of himself and, more importantly, how he can manage to live in this world that up until then, he sees no value in.

When I read the part of the book that consisted of the treatise on the various different natures that made up the protagonist of the novel, it was the first indication to me that we really do have these different sides to our characters; sides that do not need to be in conflict with each other, but can coexist quite peaceably. As a typical young man, I knew that there were parts of me that yearned for safety, parts that simply wanted to rebel. Parts that enjoyed home life and parts that wanted nothing more than to wander the world with my possessions in a rucksack. There was the aesthete and there was the lover. The artist and the fighter.

Until then, the rebel in me had sneered at the home lover, and the artist seemed to be in perpetual conflict with the fighter. I had felt embarrassed by parts of my character and, just as did the hero of Steppenwolf, rather tried to repress them.

What this book did was to show me that it was natural to feel like that, and that the secret was to accept all of these sides of me, and allow them to all have their moments of dominance, and their moments of passivity. They did not need to be in conflict.

It completely changed my outlook on life.

What a great review for Making Friends with the Crocodile!

 

Making Friends with the -Crocodile

Somali, at: Somali K Chakrabarti has put up such a generous review of my book, Making Friends with the Crocodile, that I am going to spend the rest of the day puffed up with most unreasonable pride! It comes as I battle with the various internet demons to put up a version on Kobo (ready in a couple of days, I hope), and, finally, a Print On Demand version for sale in India.

My biggest worry when I published the book, was that as a Western male writing in the voice of an Indian female, I would not be able to make it sound realistic, but I finally feel reassured by Somali’s review.

It can be found here: Making friends with the Crocodile

 

Oh, I really can’t be bothered…

Having published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’, I do feel that I have succumbed to the temptation of sitting back and resting on my laurels. It seems to be quite difficult to motivate myself to write anything, and, strangely, it also seems quite difficult to motivate myself to do anything about publicising said novel.

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I have tried to galvanise the other Work In Progress; my long novel ‘The Assassin’s Garden’, which already weighs in at some 110,000 words, but I seem to be very dissatisfied with anything that I write. I get too easily sidetracked from the research that I need to do, and everything that I read back seems to be somehow trite and uninteresting.

There are some short stories that I need to edit, one of them almost 15,000 words long. But do I feel like doing it? Nope.

Then there is a poem cycle that was going well…nope.

Even blogging seems to be much harder work than usual.

Is this some sort of reaction from finishing the other novel, I wonder?

But what about publicising ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’? Surely there is plenty of incentive to do that?

Well, I have had a few reviews, and they are all very kind and generous with their praise, and I have the strangest feeling that I am so pleased with them, that they seem of more importance to me than sales.

Obviously, no sales would mean no reviews, so this doesn’t really make too much sense, but I do wonder if other writers feel this way after publishing a book.

Or could it just be because it is my first?

But, something clearly needs to be done.

I had decided to enter NaNoWriMo this year. This is National (Na) Novel (No) Writing (Wri) Month (Mo), which happens in November (No again?) and is internet based (So how come National? Search me…) and is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel (Gosh) in the month of November (Phew!). This is generally in the form of a first draft, to be edited later at leisure. I thought it would be fun to try, and I had begun to make a few notes in readiness.

But in a similar way to the way that my idea for ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ hijacked my writing last year, held a gun to my head and forced me to write it, so my ideas for this other novel have rapidly snowballed until I knew that I had to make a start on it.

And so, I now have a new work in progress.

Again it is set in India, but this time there are two main protagonists; one Westerner and one Indian, and the story will be written alternately from their Points Of View. I have pretty well worked out the details of the plot, but let’s just say at the moment that they both change a lot as a result of their meeting (I don’t do spoilers, but I do try to do teasers!).

Hopefully, this will goad me into rather more activity than I have managed in the last few weeks, including now thinking up a new idea for NaNoWriMo.