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Interviewing the Author: Rachel Lynch

Rachel Lynch

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Dark Game, the first thriller of a planned series by Rachel Lynch, and published by those nice folks at Canelo.

Today, I have the immense pleasure of publishing Rachel’s replies to the set of questions I emailed her. But first, let me introduce you to her. She’s the young woman smiling at us in the pic on the left — see? — that’s Rachel Lynch, and she is thoroughly lovely, very knowledgeable, and very professional, as you will see from her replies.

According to some googling I did on my own (author profile on the Amazon author page) and the marketing pack I was sent by the publishers, here’s the total sum of what I found out about this author:

Rachel Lynch grew up in Cumbria, where she started hiking the fells from a young age, and “the lakes and fells are never far away from her“, as she writes in her official bio. She studied History at the University of Lancaster. Subsequently, she frequented the Institute of Education in London, where she gained a Postgraduate Certificate of Education.

It was still in London that she started her career as a History teacher, until she met an Army officer who stole her heart. She married him in 2001, and proceded to follow him around the world for the next 13 years. During those years, she moved her family around 10 times.

Her first novel was The Dependants, which is now sadly out of print (though I managed to track down a copy, and you can expect a review quite soon!) It charts the life of three fictional army wives, and how they cope when their husbands deploy to Afghanistan for seven months.

As her husband left the army in 2013, they settled down near London with their two children, and, quoting Rachel’s bio in Amazon, “are now concentrating on being civilians“. A change of career after children has led her to personal training and sports therapy.

Writing has, however, always been her life’s passion and “always the overwhelming force driving [her] future“, and I believe I can safely say that Rachel is now fulling embracing the writing life. Fundamental to her work, Rachel says, is “[the] human capacity for compassion as well as its descent into the brutal and murky world of crime […]“.

Dark Game is the first book in the DI Kelly Porter series, where Rachel addresses her favourite issues of human nature and its capacity for absolute extremes. The first three books have been signed up by Canelo. Rachel is now represented by Peter Buckman and the Ampersand Agency, and is currently writing the fourth book in the series.

And now, without further ado, I leave you to read Rachel Lynch’s answers to my questions…

 

Interviewing the Author: Rachel Lynch

 

  • Before we start, Rachel, I would like to welcome you to my blog, and profusely thank you for your time and patience in answering all of my questions… So, to begin with, could I ask you about your reading habits? How much do you read? Would you say you too are infected with the reading virus and, if so, how old were you when it first struck?

  • Funnily enough, I was a slow starter to the reading bug. I remember teachers pulling their hair out at my lack of interest in books. It only hit me at around age thirteen, and I think I started with Jean Plaidy because of my Mum; she loved historical fiction and I read what she had laying around the house. I can’t think of anything more important for a child/young adult to do for their understanding of our crazy world (and beyond).

  • How do you read? Do you read as a reader, for the pleasure and entertainment you derive from the act of reading and the story itself, enjoying the plot and the characters and leaving it at that? Or do you read like a writer, dissecting scenes, plot, character, action, pace, language, everything…? 

  • I definitely read as a reader not as a writer because that would spoil my enjoyment! If I was constantly analysing somebody else’s work, I wouldn’t be able to immerse myself in a story. That said, I do sometimes read a book and gain tips on style, timing and arrangement. Between plot/character/setting, I think I’m definitely torn between character and plot. I love a twist at the end and a good character stays with me for a very long time, for example, Tess of the D’Urbervilles has stayed with me for around thirty years.

  • Which is the first book you remember reading, and how old were you? What are your favourite genre(s) / authors / books? 

  • I think it was probably something like Aesop’s fables at age five or six. I was fascinated by the underdog coming through to claim victory, and, to this day, I love a good unexpected champion. I’m a sucker for thrillers and good autobiographies. I also love reading beautiful cookery books and well written factual history books (Anthony Beevor/ Orlando Figes/ Piers Brendon).

  • Do you have any books that you return to over and over again? If so, which are they? 

  • I’m not one for re-reading books. If it was great the first time round then it stays with me and doesn’t need revisiting. If it wasn’t then there’s no point.

  • I more or less wish I had been the one to write all the books I read that are well written and strike some sort of key with me, but I recently read a book that left me completely breathless and wishing that it was mine, that I had written it myself, and feeling that nothing I will ever write can ever be as good as that. Have you ever felt like that with a book you read, and which is the book you wish you had written? 

  • So many! I wish I had written every Ben Elton; his satire is stunning. I wish I could write like John Grisham; his story telling seems effortless. I would love to have a go at Historical fiction, and that is my aim one day; to do just that. Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, John Le Carre, Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell…

  • Which kinds of fictional villains do you love to hate the most? Who are your favourite fictional villain and villainess?

  • I love villains! And I love creating them. The one thing that my favourite villains have in common is that, despite the despicable things they might do, I’m always able to understand their backstory and where they’ve come from; and what made them so evil. I think the worst villains were babies once, and something went seriously wrong to make them so heinous. I’m not keen on villains who are inherently evil because they carry it within them; that’s a cop-out in my book; humans turn ugly for a reason, we’re not born like that. From the classics to modern stories, villains and baddies haven’t changed much. Macbeth, Iago, the pig Napoleon, Hannibal Lecter, Bill Sykes and Cruella de Vil are all damaged individuals in some shape or form, and it’s that damage that makes them act the way they do. Their depravity, selfishness, narcissism, cruelty and lack of empathy serve as a backdrop to showcase the protagonist, and so the genre is timeless. I have to admit, I love the cynicism of Hannibal Lecter; he’s a type of vigilante, and the concept of tackling scum on the level attracts me a lot.

  • What about heroes, which type is your favourite hero/heroine? Who are your favourite fictional hero and heroine, then?

  • Heroes have to be strong and they have to take risks. My favourites are unconventional, like DI Kelly Porter, and they might get into trouble for sticking to their moral values. They’re also a little damaged and imperfect. I suppose a hero is everything that a reader aspires to and that’s why we connect so well in this genre. I’d like to see more female leads, but sadly men seem always to save the world, from Batman to James Bond. The female equivalent of Harry Flashman would be fun to create!

  • If you were a fictional character, what sort of character would you like to be, and what genre would you hope to be written into? And who by? 

  • See above!!

  • Do you tend to read more eBooks or printed ones?

  • Printed.

  • What do you read the most, traditional, indie, small press, self-pubbed?

  • Anything that grabs me. It doesn’t have to be a best seller.

  • Where do most of your current favourite authors fall, according to those labels?

  • That’s not something I can quantify because my tastes are so varied.

  • Do you have a favourite quote about reading, and would you share it with us?  

  • Groucho Marx- ‘I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.’

  • What about the writing bug? How old were you when you started writing? Did you always know you would become a writer? If not, when did you decide you’d become one? 

  • Finding out that I could deliver a story on paper directly from what was going on inside my head was a revelation. I was around six years old. I only began to seriously believe that I could perhaps entertain others about three decades later.

  • Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated or favourite place (a desk, a study, a garden chair, maybe?) and could you describe it for us? 

  • I have a desk in an oak framed extension. The colour of the wood, the light, as well as the peace, all contribute to a zone that is pleasurable and productive. I can sit there for hours before I realise the time.

  • Do you journal/keep a diary? What about a notebook, do you have one that you take everywhere you go? What do you write in it?

  • I have countless notebooks and when I lose one, I buy another. They are dotted all over the house and I can come across one, long forgotten, and read it for hours. I jot down ideas, quotes, characters, places, news clippings and personal musings: all of which might become a story one day.

  • So, how do you go about constructing your book’s “reality”? Are you a thorough planner, before you start writing our book? Or are you a pantser? Perhaps even a bit of both? Does it ever happen to you that one of your characters just suddenly decides to do their own thing?

  • I’m a bit of both. I used to plan a lot in the early days when I first started to write full time (about six years ago). Now, I think about people places and plot, and I carry them around with me until I’ve decided on an ending and a purpose. Then I sit down and write. My characters always surprise me because, once I sit down to write a couple of chapters, I don’t know exactly how the story is going to move forward (even though I know the ending), I go with their character traits, and think about what they might do in certain situations: this ends up delivering the bulk of my action.

  • How do you create your characters? Are there real-life doubles for them?

  • I get asked this a lot. I’ve had people say to me about ‘The Dependants’ that they know who so-and-so is, or they remember that event or person. It’s all rubbish. Characters are never based on reality because, firstly that would be hugely unprofessional, and also very probably dull. Fiction exaggerates humanity, like movies do, and so real life characters have no place there really. Of course, my experience with human beings dictates the types of people I write about, and we’re all guilty of stereotypes, well, because they’re stereotypes! But, on the whole, I have so much fun playing with characters that I don’t need, or want, to base them on reality.

  • If there was to be a movie made of your book, and you were to have a say in it, who would you like to see being cast as your main characters? 

  • I think Charlotte Riley would make a fantastic Kelly Porter.

  • Where did the idea for Dark Game come from? Was the book based on a true event?

  • There’s no truth in Dark Game whatsoever. It’s inspired by the seemingly tranquil veneer of The Lakes and the countless small hotels that could hide a thousand secrets. The Lake District is part of me, and the setting is incredibly important to me and Kelly. Conceptually, rural crime attracted me more than a city setting because it’s rare, and thus more shocking. I’ve actually had people ask me if that really goes on in Cumbria! As far as I’m aware, the answer is no!

  • DI Kelly Porter is a strong, independent, intelligent and resilient woman. How much is there of you in her?

  • Any heroine designed by me is always going to have some of me in her: I love the Lakes, I love running, and I’m a sucker for the baddies getting caught. However, that’s where the similarities end. I’m forty six, I’ve got two kids, I’m a history teacher, and I’m nowhere near as brave. Maybe she is who I’d like to be…

  • One of the things that struck me as I read Dark Game was its amazing dimension of realism, and also how cinematic it is in parts. Both depend of course, in a great measure, on your linguistic mastery, but such mastery would hardly be enough without a saturated understanding of the themes you are depicting. Also, at the end of your book, you thank some people who I gather facilitated your understanding of police procedural matters. How much research did you do for this book, and what kind, where, how? How easy, or how difficult, was it? 

  • I do a lot of research into police procedure, forensics, and, for this book, money laundering and organized crime, however, the characters, hotels, setting, plot, and thrust of the book are all in my head. I’m thrilled that you think the hard work has paid off, and the themes depicted are authentic. I have spoken to several police officers at length, and I wanted to hero the day to day grind of an investigation; the disappointments, the fatigue, the crushing injustices and the personal toll.

  • How difficult was it for you to write about such terrible and emotionally affecting issues as child abuse and murder, and human trafficking and slavery? 

  • It was emotionally draining sometimes to deal with these themes, but I wasn’t going to shy away from them. The dark side of crime and human nature is not pretty, and a ‘cosy’ thriller wouldn’t work for me.

  • For when, then, Book Two? How far are you into writing it? And will you be picking up that little thread you left untied on Book One, for its main action? 

  • Number two is going through the editorial process and will be published in the summer. I’m currently writing number four. It’s a brand new case for Kelly, and I hope it lives up to expectations after the reception Dark Game has enjoyed!

  • Do you think the author knows everything there is to know about her/his characters and their life? How much do you know about your characters?

  • No, I certainly don’t! To keep Kelly and her colleagues (and her family and love life) going for a trilogy, and beyond, is as much a journey for me as the reader. That’s what so wonderful about a series.

  • Which of your fictional heroes/villains did you enjoy writing the most, and why? Are those your two favourite characters in your own fiction?

  • I love writing about Kelly. She’s relatable, in that she’s fragile and imperfect, and there’s plenty more to come. As far as the baddies go, Darren was the most complex. His life was such a waste and he found himself dragged into events beyond his control. I believed in all the protagonists and antagonists, otherwise I wouldn’t have created them.

  • For the benefit of any learning writers among us, could you describe your creative process? (how you pick an idea, develop it, draw your characters, plot the action, etc.?)

  • Put the notes away and have the courage to sit and write. It doesn’t matter what you create; it can be kept or discarded in redrafting, what matters is that you create something! Certainly do not write for the market; be true to what’s inside your head. And never, ever give up!

  • If one of your characters were to become a writer, what advice would you have for them? 

  • Learn to deal with rejection, don’t take it personally.

  • Here’s the quintessential question, then: why do you write?

  • I have to. It calms me, it releases and stills the noises in my head (sounds weird), and it enables me to explore worlds that I’ll never visit.

  • Lastly, what’s your favourite quote about writing? 

  • There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ Earnest Hemingway. Or, ‘A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.’ Roald Dahl.

  • And finally, a wee bit about you.  You were advertised as a debut thriller novelist at Canelo but, in fact, you have written and published another novel some years ago. It is completely different from this one, since to begin with it is not even a thriller. Would you like to tell us something about that novel? 

  • ‘The Dependants’ is about three army wives and how they cope when their husbands deploy to Afghanistan for seven months. It’s written from first-hand experience. My husband was in the army for 16 years and was deployed many times (including Afghanistan). It’s a story that isn’t well known, because the news focuses on the serving soldier, not the wife and children, and I felt as though it needed to be told. Sadly, no agents were interested and so I published it through a commercial publisher and it was a good experience. I spoke about it at the House of Commons and I was interviewed on the radio and in newspapers. It was cathartic to write. It’s out of print now. I’m very proud of it and it was well received by civilians as well as serving military.

  • And how much of you — and your life, worldview and experiences – did you put into each of your novels? Would I be correct to say that your first novel is perhaps closer to your skin than Dark Game

  • Thankfully, I don’t have any experience of organized crime or people trafficking. Yes, ‘The Dependants’ was about something I lived through, and wouldn’t wish on anyone. I’m regularly asked if I’m Maggie, Jane or Chrissy, but the answer is no, I’m not. I couldn’t possibly make it that personal because the reality was too painful. I had to create characters to cope in different ways to make sense of the damage created by war on a microcosmic level.

  • The “writing life” — is that something you recommend? Heartily…? Not so much…?

  • It’s the best life for an inquisitive brain! However, it can be lonely, expository and desperately deflating.

  • Which aspects of the writer’s life do you enjoy the most (apart from writing, of course!) and which are you not so keen on?

  • I love that on any given day, I can create an entire world that people might talk about, as if it’s real! I’m not so keen on the fluid nature of my daily routine: it takes a lot of discipline, and when you’ve got a couple of busy kids and a real life to lead, it has to be squeezed in sometimes where possible. I get incredibly irritable if I miss writing for a few days, so even if I can only sit down for an hour, I try to write something every day.

  • Where do you see yourself as a writer in the long term? Do you think you will be sticking with thrillers from now on, or will you be exploring other genres? 

  • In the long term, I want to establish a loyal fan base for Kelly Porter. I can’t see myself ever doing anything else but write. I’m working on other projects alongside crime fiction…watch this space.

  • Oh, and one more thing, I almost forgot! It’s very, very important as you will see… So…

    • tea, or coffee? Coffee
    • cheesecake, or blueberry muffins? Muffin
    • turquoise, or aqua green? Aqua green
    • sapphire, or emerald? Emerald
    • violets, or jonquils? Jonquil
    • spring, or autumn? Spring
    • mountain, or the sea? Mountain! (as if we really, really needed to ask…)
  •  

    Rachel, thank you so very, very much! It’s been a real pleasure, and I hope to be able to work with you again in the future. Nothing would give me more pleasure. And I wish you all the success in your career.

    Thank you also to Canelo for my review copy, for the opportunity to participate on the book launch and the blog tour — but, most of all, for the access to Dark Game‘s lovely author, Rachel Lynch.

     

     

    book review: Dark Game by Rachel Lynch

    the blurb:

    Kelly’s gut turned over as she realised the danger she was in. She heard no sirens. She knew that she was simply collateral. To these men who made a lot of money from the suffering of others, they’d have no problem snuffing her out.

    After a scandal forces DI Kelly Porter out of the Met, she returns to her home turf in the Lake District. Crimes in the Cumbrian constabulary tend to be of the minor sort, but Kelly begins work on a cold case that shocked the local community – the abduction and brutal murder of ten-year-old Lottie Davies.

    Meanwhile, Kelly is also investigating two seemingly straightforward crimes: a case involving an illegal immigrant, and a robbery following the death of local businessman Colin Day. But evidence comes to light that reveals a web of criminal activity beyond anything Kelly imagined. Behind the veneer of sleepy, touristy towns lies a dark and dangerous underworld. As Kelly threatens to expose those with much to lose, she risks paying the ultimate price to get to the truth…

    Please note: there are instances of strong language in this book. There are also graphic descriptions of sex and of physical violence. This novel’s theme is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

    the review:

    DI Kelly Porter returns to the Lake District, to her family home. Behind she leaves London and the Met, a disastrous love affair, and a bit of a scandal and disciplinary problem. Her father has died recently; and, in her opinion, her widowed mother needs to start living again. She’s not looking forward to sharing her life with, or giving any satisfaction of her actions to, her mother,  and least of all to her sister, as if she had suddenly gone back to being sixteen again. Besides, relationships are tricky in the household, especially due to her opinionated and bellicose sister, who does not waste any opportunity to put Kelly down, or making her look bad in front of her mother. But Kelly does want to have a role in her mother’s life, and is determined to hold her ground, whether her sister likes it or not.

    Kelly loves her police work, and couldn’t imagine her life without her career. She is looking forward to taking over from the retiring DI, and to run her own team on her own terms. She starts familiarizing herself with her team, which she seems to like instantly, and with all the current processes and files, including a hard, unsolved case from years before. And it’s at this point that things start going very, very awry in that supposedly quiet and safe part of the world.

    Bit by bit, Kelly introduces us to the well hidden, seedy and dangerous underbelly of those seemingly idyllic villages, with their hotels and B&Bs and their staff of young female migrant workers, and their secret nocturnal trade of organised prostitution.

    Sensing a connection between her cold case of child abduction and murder, and some of the developments she starts investigating in the aftermath of a local prominent figure being found dead in a room of one of his hotels, what Kelly uncovers is a web of corruption, prostitution and human trafficking, where lives only have a value equal to the profit they can generate.

    Along the way, Kelly acquires a new love interest, who might or might not be the real thing and have some sort of future. She meets her teenage love interest again, and discovers that he is not so desirable after all, or as good a catch as she had thought when she was young — and neither is his family, whose haulage company is implicated in the smuggling and trafficking of migrant workers.

    She successfully networks and establishes solid work relationships with her own team and those of other stations, paving the way for future cooperation and collaboration. Following her gut feeling, Kelly pursues clues and links to exhaustion, which allows her to solve both the cold case and all the present day crimes and to identify the whole criminal network and its workings. She eventually arrests the crime boss (but not without disregarding procedure once again and putting her life on the line).

    As she collects all her bits and pieces of information, Kelly meets a very strong and determined young woman who finds a place, through her integrity and honesty, in Kelly’s and everyone else’s affection. We grow to love this young woman too, and can but make a mental comparison between her and our DI Kelly Porter: stubborn, determined, intelligent and impulsive, incorruptible women who know what they want and what they think is right, and go after it… and damn the consequences.

    Last but by no means least, Kelly mends her relationship with her ageing mother, and embarks on a bit of a journey of self-discovery.

    the verdict:

    Dark Game has been touted by the publishers as Rachel Lynch’s debut novel in the genre. It is satisfyingly well plotted and very well written, so much so that you’d be hard pushed to tell this title was but a writer’s very first effort in the genre. Her authorial voice is strong and clear, mirroring to perfection the personality, values and voice of her main character. All the characters have depth and demarcation, and the action is so well paced that it keeps you hooked on, suspended, at the edge of your seat and with your heart in your hand, right until the very end: you cannot contemplate putting the book down, lest whatever it is that is going to happen next suddenly happens while you’re not there to witness it.

    We know from its cover that it is Book One of DI Kelly Porter, and in fact, just before this story ends, suddenly there is the thread you know will be pulling the story forward and into its second instalment; however, the book stands perfectly well on its own — as the saying goes, it is in fact quite perfectly formed and very, very well rounded.

    As we read on, we are pleasantly surprised at the depth of knowledge and the astounding amount of research Rachel Lynch has put towards this first title, and arguably the other two books in her trilogy.

    As you turn that last page, after all the threads but one have been pulled together and successfully tied up, you do know that you do want more of DI Kelly Porter, her policial adventures — and, why not, her romantic ones as well — and of all the nice Lakes people  she meets and the landscapes she runs and drives through, and which she so naturally introduced us to.

    It is a good thriller. And if thrillers are your cup of tea, you’d better catch this one. I can guarantee you will not regret giving Rachel Lynch — and DI Kelly Porter — a chance, and a little bit of your leisurely time.

    Genre pegging: thriller
    Verdict: recommended
    Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
    Shelves:
    mystery & thrillers; 


    This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Canelo, through NetGalley. This review has also been published to NetGalley, GoodReads, LinkedIn, and my social media accounts. Publishing to the Amazon’s title page will be attempted at a later date. In the meantime, I apologise for the lack of links to Amazon, and the lack of information on price, edition and number of pages.

     

    Introducing the first of my brand new blog features: an “indies corner”

    My blog’s brand new feature, The “Indies” Corner, has been long coming, I know, but it’s finally here. And I know, I can almost hear your bewilderment out aloud as you wonder:

    And what exactly is this “indies” thing all about…? What’s an “indie” when’s at home…? And an “indies” corner?

    Well, my “Indies” Corner is where I’ll be talking about, and recommending, titles written and published by self-publishing authors, i.e., authors that choose to develop and commercialise their books outside the traditional publishing sector. Thus “indie” titles and “indie” authors”. Simple? Of course. And much better than meerkat insurance, I can promise you that much.

    There have been, I think, enough arguments pro and against both such publishing practice and the authors themselves, traditional publishers being seen as “the gatekeepers” of the industry and therefore its guarantors of quality standards, and indie authors as writers who somehow do not meet the required standard, and therefore fail to secure that most coveted of all things, a publishing contract. Before I started working with ‘indie’ authors, I had often wondered myself if that was indeed the case.

    The truth is, however, more complex than that. I have come across unpolished little gems of outstanding creativity and inventiveness and which, if picked up by any ‘trad’ publishing company and have thrown behind it all the editorial resources available to the industry, could have easily turned into titles of unquestionably high quality.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I have come across works of amazingly polished quality, the author having clearly invested, in their development, a lot of time and resources — by which I mean of course all the publishing expenses these authors sustain themselves, but also and most particularly a network of dedicated, voluntary beta readers who will do most of the proofreading, editing and critiquing of the manuscript. And one such network needs, of course, to be seeded and properly nurtured.

    A few years ago, a blogger I used to follow wrote at length about something he had arguably witnessed in a Paris bookshop, where an elderly couple had wandered bewildered between the shop’s stacks and all the books piled high and covering almost every surface and available floor space — until the wife had exclaimed to the husband, somewhat horrified: “But, my God, they no longer read, now they write!”

    This blogger’s post came at a time when I was beginning to consider such issues as the pros and cons of self-publishing and to debate, inside my own head, such issues as gatekeeping, literary quality, and authorial validation, and just as I was about to begin my journey through the world of  self-publishing and “indie” authors. That is quite probably why I found the story so timely, and why it managed to stick to my memory.

    Three years, give or take, have elapsed since. During this journey of mine through the self-publishing world, I have often thought of this old Parisian woman who could not come to terms with the current amount of literary output, and her rather peculiar, and rather amusing, interjection. Mais mon Dieu, qu’ils ne lisent plus, maintenaint ils écriventAnd I have to confess that at times it has felt a bit like that: the sheer volume of “indie” output is indeed quite overwhelming, especially in the so-called “fan literature”, or what some others call, accuracy quite aside, “genre literature”. Moreover, sometimes it feels like some “indie” authors have indeed forsaken that which can — and will — make them not just a writer, but also a much better writer: to read prolifically. All the other times, though, I have been left in absolute awe of the creativity and literary competence of many of the “indies” I have been privileged to meet and read.

    I am however a very picky reader — not in terms of genre, as I read quite eclectically, but in terms of the literary merit of what I am reading. I like a well-built story, with characters I can either identify with or love to loathe, where both the plot and the characters have been competently developed, and where the whole lot has been put down on the page in a competent-enough level of English. I like a well-edited text, where the typos and punctuation are not hindering my reading speed or my enjoyment of the story. And I definitely like something that demonstrates a good degree of creativity and inventiveness — and I don’t think I am alone in any of this. For who wants to keep reading repeated remakes of the same story, over and over and over again?

    I have given a lot of consideration — meaning mostly that I have long agonised over it — to the issue of assessing an “indie” author’s work against that of an author whose book has been signed up by a “trad” publisher. Considering an indie’s general deficit in resources, should I be less demanding with their writing? Should I apply a less stringent, more benevolent review scale? Maybe. Or maybe not — for surely, if a literary work aspires to ‘being out there’, in equality of terms with all other literary works before and after it, then it has to jump as high, and over as many hurdles, as all the other works.

    The fact is, I have not yet cleared the woods of that there thorny issue. But having read the work of many of the “indies” I’ve engaged with over the last three years, all I can say is that it is possible, as an “indie” author, to meet the standard of quality the “trad” press has taught the public to expect and demand over all the decades they’ve had the monopoly of the industry. It is not guaranteed, far from it in many cases, but it is indeed possible, and thankfully it does happen, perhaps even more frequently than many might think.

    Therefore, and given all that I leave written above for your consideration, not all of the “indie” authors I have met and read and engaged with throughout my journey will make it into my scribbles’ corner. Some because they did not meet my expectations, some because I simply cannot bring myself to like their literary genre, or their style. Some because I simply cannot get inside their creative heads, and understand what they are about, and writing about.

    But the ones that I will write about, and interview, and review, and publish short-stories or guest posts from, or write feature posts about, those I can most earnestly say that I recommend you give them a little read. So seat yourself comfortably and grab a cushion or two, lean back, and depart on this brand new book journey with me. “Indies”, here we come!

    Review: If I die before I wake ~ by Emily Koch

    320 pages, paperback £8.96 / Harvill Secker (11 Jan. 2018)
    352 pages, hardcover £6.29 / Vintage (9 Aug. 2018)
    313 pages, Kindle £4.99 / Vintage Digital (4 Jan. 2018)
    Random House UK

    This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Random House UK / Vintage. This review has also been published to NetGalley, GoodReads, LinkedIn, and my social media accounts.

    the blurb:

    HOW DO YOU SOLVE YOUR OWN MURDER?

    Everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen.

    But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn’t really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger.

    As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go.

    A stunning edge-of-your-seat debut novel with an unforgettable narrator.

    the review:

    If I die before I wake is Emily Koch’s debut novel, but you would never have guessed that just from reading it. What a debut! There are few books that leave me so obsessed with them that I have to keep reading through the night, until I’ve flicked the last page, read the very last word.

    Genre-wise, this is both a love story and a thriller. Do not however expect it to have a happy ending, as love stories do; rather, it borrows its ending from the thriller convention: there is a death, which everybody thinks must have been an accident, but turns out to be a murder.

    So far so good. Only, it’s just that the victim, Alex, is not exactly dead, not in the usual sense of the word: he is in a persistent vegetative state, supposedly unable to perceive or relate to his surrounding reality. In fact, Alex has developed Locked-In Syndrome as a consequence of the brain damage suffered during his “accident”, and all he can do is lie helplessly on his special bed and listen, powerless, to the conversations his nurses and medical staff, visiting friends, girlfriend and family have around him.

    His outlook on life is grim; test after test fails to show any significant brain activity, and Alex wishes he were simply allowed to die. However, as he puts bits and pieces of all the conversations he overhears together, he begins to suspect his accident might not have been an accident after all, and starts obsessing about solving his own murder and protecting his girlfriend Bea, the love of his life, before he dies (or before his machines are switched off, whichever comes first).

    And that is something that he in the end does, in his own mind, finally making him ready for the end he knows is coming. His girlfriend has stood by him for two years, but even she has begun to have doubts, and embarks on a hasty relationship that leaves her feeling and acting as if she is being unfaithful to Alex, having an affair behind his back. She is the last obstacle to his life support being switched off. But now she’s told him that she’s ready to let go of him and move on with her life.

    and the verdict:

    I loved reading this novel. It is rather accomplished, and forces us to ponder such questions as the nature of life and death — are you really alive if you’re in a coma? — as well as the validity and elasticity of our conceptions — and preconceptions and misconceptions — about euthanasia, and where it stands when considered against murder.

    You’ll end up, probably, as I did, brooding over concepts of lawful and unlawful killing, and how tenuous sometimes the distinction between the two might become: if the family had known of the Locked-in Syndrome diagnosis, would they have switched the life support machines off? And if they hadn’t, would it have been a good or a bad deed? Was it a good deed to switch them off at all?

    And is the doctor who guided the family towards the decision of withdrawing life support from Alex, but shadowed over the fact of the Locked-in Syndrome, guilty of murder, or did he do a ‘good deed’, a thing well done??

    But if Alex was not alive in the full sense of the word, then switching his life support off was just that, not euthanasia, not lawful killing: letting Alex free to sink or swim while knowing full well he would be drowning.

    The descriptive tags I chose for this book were #sad, #heart-wrenching, #touching, #thought-provoking, #beautiful, #unique, #original, #compelling, #thrilling, #gripping, #accomplished, #unmissable

    Genre pegging: General Fiction (Adult), Mystery & Thrillers
    Verdict: strongly recommended
    Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
    Shelves:
    my favourite books; this month’s best; 

     

    P.S. Psss! Now you can also follow my blog and book reviews over at Bloglovin’ …

    Review: Fire Sermon ~ by Jamie Quatro

    cover for the UK edition
    Pan MacMillan/Picador, 22 February 2018 (UK)
    224 pages, Hardcover, £14.99
    ISBN 9781509858583

    This title was rather kindly sent to me by its publishers. This review has also been published to NetGalley, GoodReads, LinkedIn, and my social media accounts.

    the blurb:

    Maggie is entirely devoted to her husband Thomas, their two beautiful children, and to God—until what begins as a platonic intellectual and spiritual exchange between writer Maggie and poet James transforms into an erotically-charged bond that challenges Maggie’s sense of loyalty and morality, drawing her deeper into the darkness of desire.

    A daring debut novel of obsession, lust, and salvation by the highly lauded author of the story collection, I Want To Show You More, Fire Sermonis a tour de force that charts with bold intimacy and immersive sensuality the life of a married woman in the grip of a magnetic affair.

     

    cover for the USA edition
    Grove Atlantic, 11 January 2018 (USA)
    224 pages, hardcover, $24.00
    ISBN 9780802127044

    “It would be difficult to overstate the wonder I felt while reading this novel. It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing — for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life.”
    — Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

     

    the review:

    Fire Sermon is not a love story. It is not a tale of adultery, or a novel about lust or passion. It is a novel about Love, with capitl L, about its nature and many expressions, and about a woman’s desperate longing for that all-encompassing love, for beauty, and for a coherent and cohesive life.

    Maggie, an academic doing research in Theology, was brought up within a traditional, closed-mind evangelical church. Her religion, her faith and its teaching are of paramount importance for her, expressed not just in the principles for a virtuous life that she observes for most of her life, but also in her love of God.

    As all good, observant Christian girls brought up in strict churches, at twenty-two Maggie marries the first young man she goes out and has sex with, Thomas. As should a choice of life partner be for any good Christian girl from a good, Christian, quite affluent middle-class family, steeped in the principle that the accumulation of money is a sign of God’s favour, Thomas is already shining in his financial career. His prospects are excellent, and Maggie’s family is very proud of her choice of partner.

    In the first few years of their marriage, Maggie and Thomas have two children, both problematic — and traumatic — deliveries. Maggie dotes on them, as she dotes on Matthew, as she does on her family and on the concept of a Christian family. Thomas is not a believer, but as they move away from Maggie’s family and settle down on their own, she draws him into her new church. Twenty years go by.

    Through her love of poetry and the beauty, peace and balance it seems to bring to her, she meets James, a poet she admires. Their first meeting is in July 2014, at an academic conference in her hometown, Nashville. Maggie and James correspond for two years, until they meet again, twice, at other conferences: once in New York in September 2016, and the third and last time in Chicago in April 2017. It is at this last meeting that Maggie and James sleep together. James has left his wife by then; it is never said in the novel that he did so because of Maggie, but it quite apparent in everything that is said that James is as in love with Maggie as Maggie is with him, a love that is not just the fire of sexual passion they succumb to in Chicago, but the communion of minds they have maintained during all those years of corresponding with one another. It is in Chicago, too, that Maggie decides to break up all contact with James.

    Her faith and religious teachings now visibly shaken and repeatedly questioned and analysed, instead of burning in what she chooses to see as merely her and James’ lust, and whereas James choice is, contrary to Maggie’s, of ending a marriage where there is no longer any love or communion, Maggie chooses to burn in the living out of her previous choices: James, her marriage to him, her family by him, their life.

    Fire Sermon is one of those books where the choice of structure is of paramount importance to, and heavily influences, the story being told. Given the weight of religion and religious observance in the story, structuring it as a sermon (which is, as defined in Wikipedia, “an oration, lecture, or talk by a member of a religious institution or clergy [which addresses] a Biblical, theological, religious, or moral topic, usually expounding on a type of belief, law or behaviour within both past and present contexts).

    In the process, she explores the various traditions and forms of sermon, and it soon becomes apparent that the sermon is not only the logical choice, but the most appropriate structure for this novel. Maggie’s sermon if further delivered in an impromptu but extemporaneous fashion, mirroring two of the traditional styles of delivery of sermons, with her journal entries being unplanned and quite spontaneous, but bearing behind her narrative all the weight of her religious upbringing and her Theology scholarship. Maggie is thus established, first and foremost, as an academic, a Theology scholar, and as a firm believer and practising Christian: sermons are indeed part of her upbringing, and of her academic research. Moreover, her faith seems unshakable.

    It is for the reader to make the necessary inferences, discern the implications and the hidden relationships of things, as we put together the puzzle of form and style, the sermon Maggie delivers to herself and the poetic language she uses, the facts she narrates, the feelings she discloses. We see the story through Maggie’s eyes, read the sermon that explores, in a most intimate way, her innermost being, her suffering and her longings, her determined path towards illumination; she is presented, from the beginning, as a trustworthy narrator, as she unveils herself and her prevarications before our eyes. We have absolutely no reason to doubt her, what she knows, her perceptions, her analysis.

    Writing her novel in the form of a sermon, Jamie Quatro borrowed her title from the Ādittapariyāya Sutta, most commonly known as “Fire Sermon”, where Buddha’s preaches detachment from the senses, and describes all internal and external senses and perceptions, and all resultant mental phenomena and consciousness, as “burning”: burning with passion, with aversion, with delusion and with suffering. It is only through this burning that one can become disenchanted and detached from their senses, and consequently achieve spiritual elevation. Ultimately, it is with this process of “burning” that Quatro’s Fire Sermon is concerned.

    And burning Maggie does. She burns in her passion and love for James. She burns in her sexual aversion for a man whose first sexual act with her was one of violence, a man who turns violent and forces himself on her every time she denies him sex, a man for whom she never felt any sexual attraction or intellectual affinity. She burns, because it was her choice, and she has to go through with it: the man she chose to marry, the life she chose to build. She burns with suffering, because she tried to burn her passion and lust for James by having sex with him, as if doing it once would definitely close the issue and bolt the door for her temptation, but it turns out that it wasn’t just lust after all, but “the real deal”, a love more real than anything she had ever experienced before, a love where minds and bodies are in perfect synchronicity, completely attuned. She burns in her self-imposed deprivation of James and all that James means and embodies. On her deprivation of love with a capital L, if such love can ever belong between a man and a woman in the eyes of the church. She burns in the guilt of her adulterous act. She burns in the delusion of her perfect husband, of her perfect marriage; her delusion of marital duty; her delusion of her Christian duty to salvage her marriage. She burns in her longing for what she doesn’t seem to be able to achive: beauty, peace and serenity, sexual fulfilment, an untainted proximity with God, a life coherent with all the teachings and tenets of her religion. And Maggie burns in suffering, for all she loses as she loses James, as she loses her chosen path, as she loses herself. She burns in her Faith, and in her questioning of that same faith, of the validity of its precepts, of the wisdom of her choices, her path.

    Jamie Quatro successfully explores several of the traditional sermon types, including that of sermon as conversation. Thus Maggie is depicted pouring her soul out and writing it all down in her journal: all the letters she will never send to James, and which resemble more the conversations she might have had with him if he was there with her; her conversations with a third person, where she debates her actions and her beliefs; what values and precepts are embodied by her faith and religious teachings; and her own feelings, observations and perceptions of what she is going through and where she intends to take herself, tracing her path towards complete detachment from the senses as a means to achieve the balance, serenity and the coherence she desires. Maggie flows from one type of sermon to the other, one element of the sermon as form to the other: she goes from exposition of her values and of her deviation from them, and her guilt for her actions, to exhorting herself to a life of complete commitment to her values,  and finally to the practical application of those values, in the pursuit of the path Maggie has drawn for herself.

    Therefore, Maggie and Thomas carry on living together as husband and wife; having marital sex, Thomas now in full knowledge of Maggie’s feelings for another man and lack of sexual attraction for him, Maggie choosing, despite her aversion, to placate him and avoid any more violence, any more of Thomas accesses of fury and forced sex.

    No one ever knows about Maggie’s burning — except herself. With the years, the fire finally starts to subside. James is consigned to the realm of memory, all the what-could-have-been and the what-ifs relegated to the realm of fantasy. He observes their Chicago agreement and never tries to contact Maggie. In the end, Maggie begins to wonder whether he had loved her as much as she had loved him, but the fact is that, despite the intensity and pain of her love, she too never contacted him after Chicago. He writes his memoirs, and Maggie abstains from — she avoids — reading them, even though she wonders whether she figures in there somewhere: she does not want to find out, preferring to bask — burn? — in her memory — and her fantasy? — of a perfect, eternal love.

    With the years, too, Thomas learns to become more accommodating, more compromising, more understanding, maybe. He puts an end to his sexual aggression. Maggie too accommodates, compromises. They salvage their marriage, their family. They observe the precepts of their religion and salvage their life, albeit in detriment of love and of life’s essence and real truth: what appears over what is, because, in the end, the teachings they believe in are that the material, the touchable, the sensible, the whatness of things is not what is, it is not the essence, it is not the truth. Following from Plato and Aristotle, and their theories of being and essence, and ending up in a full circle, the truth of anything, the essence, it belongs only to the realm of the spiritual, of God. The realm of the form, from which all other things are copied, and which alone gives meaning to being, to life itself.

    advance praise:

    ‘This book is bright and dark by turns but always shot through with a vital, unerring grace. Plus it’s about love and death, sex and God. What more could a reader want?’ ~ Jenny Offill, author of Dept of Speculation

    ‘I loved it, and devoured it in one sitting. Quatro’s voice is singular, heartbreaking and gorgeous. A novel to be treasured.’ ~ Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane

    ‘Fire moved me deeply, provoked me powerfully and managed to reach parts of me I hadn’t even known were there. The novel stays under the skin. I feel haunted by it, in all the best ways.’
    ~ Leslie Jamieson, author of The Empathy Exams

    ‘Fire Sermon is an exquisite and astonishing story of female desire, and one of the most haunting portraits of a marriage I’ve ever read.’ ~ Lily King, author of Euphoria

    ‘It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing – for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life. Great writers write with their whole lives, with everything they have seen and thought and felt. Jamie Quatro is such a writer, and Fire Sermon is such a book.’ ~ Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

    ‘It’s rare, to the point of near non-existence, to find a book that has such literary weight and heft, yet reads like a sonnet. Also a shot of light. An education. A mirror. Terrifying.’
    ~ Samantha Harvey, author of Dear Thief

    ‘Written with a rhythmic pulse that reflects the desire it describes, Fire Sermon is a beautiful novel.’ ~ Megan Bradbury, author of Everyone is Watching

    the verdict:

    An amazing and amazingly beautiful read. The rhythm and poetry of the language will leave you quite breathless at times. And the storyline will break your heart. It is not a love story, as much as a deep reflexion on the nature of love itself, and the many kinds and expressions love can come under, from the most physical and visceral to the most platonic, most spiritual: the love of and within the family, the love of God and the church, the love between a man and a woman, the love embodied in a complete communion of minds. The love of self. The act of love that constitutes Faith.

    Fire Sermon is a book about love. But mostly it is a book about longing, to once more quote Garth Greenwell. It is a longing that comes from deep within the soul, from deep within a being: the longing “for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life” which, in the end, and irrespective of how much our faith might weigh in our life, is what we all long for: complete fulfillment, aesthetically, emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

    So… do not be put off by my literary and philosophical ramblings. Just… RUN. Read this book. Slowly. Savour it. Digest it. And then come back here, and tell me what you think about it, how it made you feel.

    and something else:

    It is indeed a fact that any book edition is carefully attuned to its target audience… Have you noticed how the cover for the American edition emphasizes the “Jezebel dimension” of the story, while the UK cover emphasises an image of Maggie as a penitent sinner? Are these covers culturally determined clues as to what’s between them? Prompts for the readers’ interpretation of the core moral dilemmas and emphasis of the story? One can but wonder.

    And I bet you hadn’t thought about it.

    But I have, especially having read the American reviews for this book, which I found generally rather tainted and mostly missing the point, and characterised by a quite closed and fundamentalist, often extremely biased, moralising and self-righteous, religious interpretation of this novel.

    All in all, give me the UK cover any time, as more closely reflecting what this book is all about.

     

    Genre pegging: Literary fiction
    Verdict: thoroughly recommended
    Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
    Shelves:
    my favourite books;  literary fiction; 

     

     

    ~ so, cue in a brand new year; but do we really have to…?

    And even more to the point: if this year is all as brand new as it’s supposed to be, why is it that it’s feeling already so old and déjà vu?

    Maybe it is our fault. All those things we keep relegating to the background, hoping perhaps that by systematically ignoring them we will consign them to some hole in history out of which they will not be able to climb to come and pester our days. But it does not work like that, and they do seem to have this way of coming back to haunt us. Or, at the very least, to inevitably colour everything around us, to cast a shadow of their own onto what we wanted to preserve, pristine and untouched: our brand new year, our yearly welcomed chance at renovation, at new beginnings.

    Thus with this new year. It has been so bandied about — 2018. That year. You know, the year. 2018. The year when it will all change out of recognition. The year when life as we have known it so far will cease, and a new order of unstable, unsteady things will slowly creep upon us and all ours. That year, 2018, of all years. Well, it’s here. And for all its seemingly self-imposed celebrity status, well, let me tell you, 2018 is not looking all that sparkly, or all that famous. It looks more and more like an impending calamity we will hardly be able to avoid.

    Oh, I do so hope I’m wrong about this! I’ll willingly sacrifice my mostly spotless track-record of political forecasts of the last twenty-something years, which has now become something of a slightly bitter joke in our household. I’ll sacrifice it for an outcome different than what is taking shape for millions and millions of us. Because the future is about to fall on our heads this year — on us all. All of us. Each and every one of us in different ways, but it is coming; and when it does come, it seems to me it will finally have a title which will very much be in the fashion of one of those bestselling, Southern American literary novels.

    So here it is, my own take on it: this year will be the year when a future colder than the Arctic and more rabid than a demented hyena — if you forgive me the mixed metaphors — will come biting at our chins. And every day of this new year shall be leaving behind a little bit of its history, the history of a people who, manipulated by the demagoguery of those who served only their vested interests, and moved by a rampant feeling of xenophobia they increasingly came to subscribe, willingly chose to cut their own noses to spite their faces, sever their own feet to spite their arms and hands. In what has been often enough called my innate Southern European dramatic penchant, I shall call this particular ‘écume des jours’ The Chronicles of a Future Foretold. The way I see it, it evokes quite appropriate imagery — after all, this impending future of ours, an exercise in selfish oneiric escapism to some and a dubiously romantic love story to others, while nothing but their worst nightmare for the rest of us, will be the death of so many things that I’m already beginning to lose count, even before I properly start.

    A few years ago I swore myself off politics for good, in what I knew would prove a bit like cutting one of my own arms off. After all, politics — and more specifically political science — was almost my be all end all, ranking up there right after the kids, hubby, Mom, best friends, kitties and fishies and doggies. For one thing, politics had been not just my chosen career, but something that had made my heart tick long before a peaceful revolution had snatched my birth country from the claws of authoritarianism, and propelled it into its path towards democracy. Because certain things, you see, you seem to simply absorb them together with the air that you breathe. Or, as my Great-Aunt used to say, forget the tea, sis, it’s the water that you get to drink. For a couple of my country’s generations, the water to our thirst was acute political awareness and activism.

    Moreover, this is not the place, nor do I feel any pressing need to justify myself or past decisions. Suffice to say, at this point in time, that for a number of years I have been recognising a rather dark and foreboding undercurrent in the politics of my adopted country, which has rung alarm bells in my all too dictatorship-aware ears and heart. Not getting any younger by the year, observing these undercurrents rise and become mainstream began taking its toll on my health; and, not being fifteen anymore or on the streets of my hometown in a country suddenly fighting for that most elusive of things, a right to Democracy with a capital D, it seemed to me it was time to give up being D. Quixote. But my heart ached: what kind of country was England becoming, our England, my England, when you fear for your political stance, for defending more democracy, not less…? What kind of country are we allowing them to build for our grandkids, hon…? What kind of country…

    And then came the Brexit referendum. Seeing the way the land was fast laying, Mr Cat-herder and I volunteered to work for not one but both Remain campaigns. We multiplied ourselves. Manning the phone banks for our party, high street and house canvassing, letter and leaflet-dropping, manning benches, standing or sitting out in the cold, trying to get through to our fellow citizens. We tried to point out to anyone willing to stop by and listen that things were not exactly as they were being told they would be. That a vote for Brexit was not a kick in the government’s arse to start looking after the interests of the working classes, rather than those of the upper class and the big corporations it seemed to have sworn allegiance to. That, by voting Brexit, the older generation would be cutting their children’s feet, plucking out their grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s wings. That it was not European migrants who were not paying their share of taxes. That an illegal European migrant is, in fact, an oxymoron.

    And then I came across that other cosmic paradox: a Brexit-voting Brit ex-pat, arguing they were not worried, all would be staying exactly the same after Brexit. Because, apparently, after decades of living abroad, they knew only too well how much “Europe” needed Britain, and how afraid of us they were, and how they wouldn’t dare to do anything against Britain’s interests, and how, well, how everything would be staying exactly the same, from freedom of movement and residence to their European health cards and free healthcare and etc, etc, etc. And they had spelt it out, syllable by syllable as if I were endowed with a simple and moronic mind, no doubt one to match my evident alien inferiority: ec-zac-tlee-the-say-me. And from all corners we got exactly the same — oh you scaremongerers, fear project-ors. Go away, you nasty people. Go home, you effing foreign thing. Hey, we know where you live, their toe-capped, black leather, laced-up boot firmly on the front fender of my mobility scooter, their chubby hand on my handlebar, their crew cut centimetres from my eyes and face, their breath on my own breath.

    That June day had come with scandalous, obscene haste, it had seemed to me. On the night, Mr Cat-herder had gone to bed, trusting his instinct over mine: It’s going to be close, hon, perhaps even a bit too close for comfort, but it’s going to be in for Remain. Don’t fret. Come to bed. Besides, it’s only advisory, and not even Cameron would be that stupid that he’ll be adopting an advisory as compulsory… Hey, look again, buster, I had thought to my buttons. It’s the Tories. And it’s Cameron. Needed I say more? And besides, I would be unable to shut-eye anyway, so I had stayed up.

    Come morning, I had woken him up, sobbing and crying my eyes out. He hadn’t believed me, I must I have got something wrong somewhere and got over-emotional about some misunderstanding because surely it couldn’t be — it wouldn’t be — it simply —

    — could it…? He had grabbed his phone from the bedside table. To check. To see with his very own eyes.

    Oh my god, what have they done…? Of all the fucking stupid shit to have done! Oh. My. God. What have they done?

    In twenty something years, I have rarely ever heard Mr Cat-herder swear.

    And that’s pretty much what’s been on our lips ever since: what the hell have they done to themselves, and everybody else to boot…? What have they done to Britain? How could they have bought all that propaganda as the, erm, facts of life…? How could they have bought Farage, Boris, the little dangerous aristocratic troll with the round glasses, oh-what’s-his-full-mouth-will-of-the-people-name…? Their little genuine-man-of-the-people-me acts and cue in Gorillas in The Mist and their pretty alpha male, chest-thumping routines? How could the people, all the real people out there, have bought the whole lot as if it were all their ships finally come to port? How could they?

    Call me a silly romantic softhead, but it’s not easy to see the country you’ve loved and held as your own veer towards the political choice you fear and despise above all else; and it is not easy to see it make the kind of choice that it’s going to set it back decades, and condemn its most needy citizens to the worse hardship the last few post-war generations will have ever seen. And it is especially not easy when you see how the whole thing is being done, and why, and recognise the tactics from an earlier time in your life that you thought would be all but gone within Europe.

    But the fact remains people did buy it all, lock stock and barrel, and wholesale. And I suppose that, quite beyond any arguments of whether a people, any people of any nation, should be allowed to freely and legitimately choose (i.e., elect) any embodiment of fascism as its political system and governance, it may well be deemed within their democratic rights to do so. What I object, though, and will continue to object to until I’ve gone blue in the face, is the “how” of the decision.

    It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after the referendum came to pass that I once again needed medical attention for the devastation the whole thing was wreaking on me. Again. Don’t they even care? I asked myself or Mr Cat-herder again and again. Don’t they care about what they’re doing to millions, to themselves, to the coming generations? What they’re doing to people like us, to us?

    Of course, “they” didn’t; because “they” seemed to be revelling as much on this “us and them” rhetoric as we were loathing being dragged into it. But how could we avoid it, given that apart from marking us as the outsiders, the unwelcome, it also demarcated us as the non-assenting, non-consenting party in this societal and political folly? This new, us-and-them country was a quantity that seemed to suit “them” just fine, while it did not suit “us” at all; and the traitors, the unpatriotic ones, it would soon turn out, were all those who the new status quo did not suit at all, those who seemed to insist, quite dementedly, on the rule of law rather than the rule of a propaganda brainwashed mob.

    I cannot say I was very surprised by the wave of racism and xenophobia that seems to have swept the country since the morning after the referendum. I had been experiencing it from day one in this country, as had my daughter, mostly by virtue of our sun-kissed, beach-loving skin, and my beautiful girl’s, rather classical Greek looks (Mom, what’s a Paki? Mom, but why do they call me a Paki?) And, escape it though I may have been able to do, even if only circumstantially, while I lived in the midst of those vibrant, inner city, multi-ethnic comunities I feel priviledged to have experienced as my own, once I moved to this slumbering, green and pleasant Stafforshire village with Mr Cat-herder, I quickly became reacquainted with it all. Especially with the fact that, of all the foreign beasts, we the Europeans are by far the most loathed, bypassing even perceptions of colour as foreignness, antagonism and danger. Go figure this one out, if you can — that racism and xenophobia seem to no longer be a function of colour and/or ethnicity is the one thing we can be grateful to Brexit for bringing to the forefront of social science. Without its usual refuge of perceived difference, however, this new realization of the old feeling would appear to the mere layman as all the more virulent and unjustifiable. And tomorrow, our neighbours…? They’d be seeing themselves justified in asking, remembering perhaps that old First they came for… This is indeed an age of many olds, and seemingly of as many firsts — and it seems, as is so often the case, that never the twain shall meet, no matter how long, how hard we try.

    Therefore, in the end it turned out to be just as we had been saying all along, that any pro-leave outcome would only legitimise many things that had remained, if not dormant, at least tucked away out of general sight, this society’s latent racism being only one of them. Time and again, though, Mr Cat-herder and I had been told our “view of things” was “unavoidably tinted” (in what I gathered was yet another subtle allusion to my ‘foreignness’), because no pro-leave referendum vote would result in burnt mosques, or beaten up Poles, or Britain First grabbing the bit firmly between their teeth. It was just good old, sore loser us, “project fear” again doing what we did best. Time for us to shut up. We’d lost. They’d won. Get over it.

    What, a mere advisory?

    Shut up! The people have spoken! It’s the will of the people!

    So, maybe it is the will of the people; after all, if fascism is democratically elected into power, isn’t it legitimately in power? If a dictator finds himself elected, wasn’t his accession to power legitimate? Isn’t he? Wasn’t it? And since he was legitimately elected, and came by power legitimately, can’t he then do as he pleases? As the people told him to do by electing him? ‘Cause we’ve all voted him there, haven’t we? He represents us. Therefore…

    The people have spoken. We’ve won. You’ve lost. It’s the will of the people. Get over it.

    Well, therefore indeed. But we cannot get over it. We’ve been debating this within Europe since the end of the last so-called global conflict, the one that has gone down into our history books as World War II, and which the demographics now voting overwhelmingly for Brexit seem to be, simultaneously, able and unable, willing and unwilling, to forget or to remember. Because, let’s not ever forget, after all, that it was to bind all our nations together into a common future, and against further armed conflict, that the whole European supranational political construct was designed.

    Shut up! The people have spoken! Haven’t you heard me? It’s the will of the people! You’ve lost! We won! Get out of here! Go home! Nobody wants you here, haven’t you seen that yet?

    And the rest, as they say, has now passed into history, never mind that there seems to still be a lot left unsaid, and a whole lot more left undone. I only got my lovely and friendly, toe-capped ex-army stores boot and a set of thick hairy knuckles on my scooter, as if they had all the right to be there by virtue of a poxy referendum most people hadn’t even bothered to vote on, and an even friendlier and thicker warning to “go back home to where you came from”. I got off lightly, that day, just like I do every time they snigger behind my back and call me “fucking European royalty”, or “half-colour skin”, or yet “fucking mangy foreigner”. All epithets which I am sure I deserved, one way or another, in my many attempts at integration in the village life.

    But an MP did not get as lucky as me. And while her aggressor shouted Britain First — no doubt because the recently held referendum gave him all his newly-found democratic rights, among which the right to expect all the European scourge to be sent packing back home by the end of the first post-Brexit week — she lost her young and promising life, and all for her sin of defending my right, and that of nearly another 3 million people, to come and to remain in this country as lawful and law-abiding citizens, calling this “their other” country, a tale of two indivisible halves, feeding from a single umbillical cord, partaking of its ups and downs and calling it home. Calling it where they belong.

    Elsewhere still, more not so lucky people: European citizens up and down the country got beaten up; spat on; variously attacked, humiliated, berated. Murdered. Mosques did get violated, and Muslims did get attacked. The economy has started tanking; the Sterling is tanking faster than the new aircraft carrier would be if they weren’t fixing it already. Yet, nobody is doing what it would take to fix the Sterling, or the economy, or our now dire, dire future. It’s a story of the most amazing instance of collective, obsessive-compulsive madness, where the worst of the madmen have been put in charge of the asylum.

    So… what has brought all this back up? — You may well ask. — Was it just the turning of the year? Bit overdramatic, wouldn’t you say? After all, this is just, erm, only 2018, not even 2019 yet! What’s got you carping, this time?

    Oh, nothing much. Nothing for you to worry about, in any case. I’m sorry for monopolising your attention for such a pitiful little tantrum of mine. It’s just that certain things are inescapable indeed, and our post-Brexit futures will be as inescapable as the coming of a new year has been, when all still looks as poxy and worn-out as old hat.

    But… you talk of futures, there. Are we all not in this together…? One single future?

    Oh, I can almost hear the snarky bark. How magnanimous of them, to finally include us in this future we never wanted, and were neither here nor there into choosing! How amazingly democratic and inclusive, to have it foisted on us as a done thing, and then tell us we’re in it together with them! So no. Pardon my anger, but we’re damn well not in this together. This, my dear Brexit voter, is where so many of us have drawn the line: you have made your bed, so now lie in it. But don’t expect all of us to bed with you.

    Nowadays, many a political war seems to be waged, and won and lost, on social media. It is there, too, that we arguably tend to inhabit, in smaller or greater seclusion, our own opinion bubbles. As the saying goes, birds of a feather — and thus it is only natural that we tend to flock together with those whose hearts and minds are closer to our own. When the level of invective and open antagonism and aggression became too much, I too started weeding my feeds, valuing my peace and quiet higher than my hitherto reigning curiosity and sense of fair play. Even people who had until then been affable and polite suddenly seemed to take leave of their senses. I seemed to become the enemy, overnight. I was sure I wouldn’t be much missed, either. So nowadays whenever I open my social media feeds, apart from posts by my followed “usual suspects”, I mostly find posts by The 3 Million, or from the #FBPE and #StopBrexit hashtags and their followers. My media bubble of choice. I seem to have finally arrived.

    The fact is, I no longer care what the other side are saying: I’ve heard all their arguments, time and again, found them faulty and dismantled them, time and again, one by one. Now, I’m no longer in a listening mood. They have brought us to this. And now, now all I’ve come to care about is how much is being taken away from us all, all of us, the arguably sane and sensible lot who chose to remain rational, who chose simply to remain. We can’t altogether avoid the collective hysteria, but we sure can give it one damn good try at shaking it into making sense of itself.

    So forgive me for taking so much of your time and patience, dear friend. But, you see, we are indeed all in this together. It’s just that so many of us will choose, at some point during the next year, to leave what has become our life. Leave the country we chose for ourselves, which in so many cases has a far stronger hold in our hearts and lives than the one we were born to but chose to leave behind. So many of us will be leaving the life we struggled so hard to build, the house whose mortgage we’ve fought to pay and which we lovingly tended to, thinking it would be where we’d grow old together. Leave all those little places and spaces that are so meaningful to us — where we first held hands or stole our first kisses, where we saw our children and grandchildren take a step or burst into laughter for the first time. Where we spent our first anniversary. Where we spent our 20th. The spot by the lake in the city garden, where we used to picnic during our lunchtime when the weather was fair. All that. Yes. We’ll be tearing ourselves away from all that, because. Because many of us will not be allowed to stay. Because many of us will not want to stay where their loved ones cannot stay. Because many of us will not want to stay when our country is becoming such a terrible, hate-filled place, willingly embracing intolerance and authoritarianism. And no, these are not my words. Definitely not my words. This is how the feeds for all those pressure groups and hashtags read, heartbreaking after heartbreaking story, down and down and down my own social media feeds.

    My words are far, far simpler: wherever we go, Mr Cat-herder and I, we’ll be leaving much, much more than just our hearts and dreams behind. And as if those wouldn’t already be far too much to forsake, for the sake of someone else’s misguided choices.

    Yeah, yeah, all that. We get it. All that and more. But you’re leaving because you want to, isn’t it, because nobody has told you to go. Or have we? And after all this, and you still haven’t told us what brought all this bitterness back up again. Hadn’t you buried it somewhere? For the sake of that old ticker of yours?

    And I haven’t, have I? You’re absolutely right. You’ve told me so many times the people have spoken, that it’s the will of the people, that you’re the winners, that it’s only fair I answer your question in the most acquiescing manner, just as you require. So here it goes.

    I thought that this was my home, our home. Now we find ourselves tantamount to homeless, Mr Cat-herder and I. It is breaking our hearts to see it come to pass, all those things we said would come to pass. It is breaking our hearts to read all those feeds, with heartbreaking after heartbreaking story of people thoroughly heartbroken because they have to leave their country, their lives, their families, their dreams and hopes, all they have built throughout their lives behind. Because turning the page into 2018 brought us one step frightfully closer to a political denouement we cannot agree with. Because this new year, usually a time of renewed hope and fresh beginnings, is tasting pretty much like some very, very old hat we should not be eating ourselves. And because I have always been unable to refuse a book when it is offered to me. Even if its subject is Brexit, and my heart bleeds at the very shadow of the word.

    So, there. Enough, wouldn’t you say? I would. And therefore, after I add the picture of a lickle ickle kitten in the hope it’ll make this a rosier and more palatable year, I shall stop myself right here. Right here. For now, that is. And for now because this girl here has plans, and they do not include going away with the mere whisper of a whimper, since go I indeed must: a book is waiting to be reviewed, and books have a reputation for being notoriously impatient customers.

    Happy New Year, everybody. And I have never wished this in a more heartfelt way: may 2018 bring you all your heart’s little desires, and mine along with them — just for good company, you know? Nothing more than a heart’s true desire, and plenty of good company.

    Clever Girl ~ a short story by Craig Anderson


     

    “Welcome to Mind Chip madam, how may I assist you today?”

    Sarah glanced around nervously, “Is this the place where you sell the brain chips?”

    The salesman nodded enthusiastically, “If you mean the IQ boosting, wireless cognitive enhancement devices then yes, you’ve come to the right place. Are you looking for something in particular?”

    A small girl peeked out from behind Sarah’s legs, her yellow pigtails tied off with bright pink bows. Sarah gestured to her, “I’m looking for something for my daughter. I want to give her the best start in life.”

    The salesman bent down and held out his hand, “Nice to meet you young lady, I’m Ben. What’s your name?”

    When she didn’t answer the salesman tried again, “Ravi de vous rencontrer jeune femme, je suis Ben.”

    The young girl stared at him dumbfounded. Sarah leaned over her daughter, “It’s ok sweetie, you can say hello.”

    The little girl clung tightly to her mother’s leg as she whispered, “I’m Charlotte.”

    “And how old are you Charlotte?”

    After a moment to calculate Charlotte proudly announced “Five and three quarters.”

    Ben stood back up, “Well it’s nice to meet you Charlotte. So you want to be smart huh? You could do it the old fashioned way, work hard at school, read lots of books, spend your evenings learning new things. That doesn’t sound much fun does it?”

    Charlotte shook her head, making her pigtails swish around. Ben made a raspberry sound, “That’s what I think about that. How about instead of all that, you have one quick, painless operation and you’ll have access to everything you could ever possibly need to know in the blink of an eye? How does that sound?”

    Charlotte looked up at Sarah, confusion all over her face. Sarah said, “That sounds wonderful. Can you tell me a little more about my options?”

    Ben placed his hand on Sarah’s shoulder, “Why yes of course I can, come right this way.” He whisked them into the corner of the showroom that was glass and chrome. In a case were tiny black chips slightly larger than a grain of rice. Charlotte immediately rubbed her hands all over the case, leaving smudges everywhere. Sarah did her best to wipe them off but Ben laughed, “Don’t worry about that. I see your daughter has excellent taste. That’s the 2025 model, fresh off the production line. State of the art design, 40% smaller which means it only needs a simple injection rather than a more invasive surgery. It has a 30% faster wireless connection which means the requested information is downloaded as fast as you can think it, and this model has real time language conversion into over 200 hundred languages. Låter det inte som en praktisk funktion?”

    Charlotte drooled. She said, “Can I hold it?”

    Ben glanced at the security guard standing discretely in the corner and nodded. The guard produced a key and opened the case. Ben plucked out a chip. He placed it carefully in Charlottes hand, “You’re holding your future in the palm of your hand. With this chip you can be anything you want to be. The possibilities are endless.”

    Charlotte wiped her nose with the back of her other hand and promptly dropped the chip on the ground. Ben’s eyes grew wide and he quickly scooped it off the floor saying, “Be careful, that’s worth lots of money! Perhaps I will pop it back in the case where it’s safe, what do you think?”

    Charlotte shrugged.

    Sarah leaned in closer to Ben, “Exactly how much is one of these to buy?”

    “This model is a bargain at only $250k madam.”

    She audibly gasped. It took her a moment to regain her composure, “Is there a payment plan?”

    Ben’s smile softened at the corners, “I’m afraid demand for the newest model is always so high that we don’t offer any kind of plan, it is full payment upfront. We do have… other options available. Would you like to see some of our discounted models?”

    Sarah nodded and Ben ushered them across to the opposite corner of the showroom. The lighting wasn’t as bright over here and the display case was scratched and scuffed. He reached in and pulled out a chip the size of a beer mat, “This is our 2021 model. It’s a little larger, so she’d lose more of her organic brain, but we can typically save most of the memories. This model doesn’t have the wireless, so you only get what’s on the chip. That’s an awful lot of data, but she wouldn’t gain access to the latest breakthroughs or world events. Obviously that becomes more of an issue over time. The chip itself is also slower, which causes a slight access delay, but it’s nothing her pretty little smile couldn’t cover up.” He reached down to pinch her cheek, but Charlotte scampered back behind her Mother’s legs. Sarah said, “How much is this one?”

    “It’s only $80k and we do offer a payment plan if your credit is approved with a very generous 11.9% interest rate.”

    Sarah’s smile collapsed, “I didn’t realize these were so expensive. Is there anything else?”

    Ben reached behind the counter. He retrieved a chip the size of a large coin and said, “This is our sponsorship edition 2023 model. This one’s refurbished. I can let you have it for the bargain price of $10k.”

    “What do you mean refurbished? Someone else used it?”

    Ben looked everywhere except at Sarah, “Yes, but only briefly. The little boy only used it for a week or so before his parents brought it back. It’s been thoroughly sanitized.”

    “Why did they return it?”

    There was a lengthy pause before Ben said, “The sponsorship edition comes with some additional stipulations…”

    “Such as?”

    “Well, these models are cheaper because companies sponsor them.”

    Sarah nodded, “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

    “Right! It just means that the communication is two way.”

    “Two way?”

    “Yeah, so little Charlotte would still get access to the data that she needs, but the companies can see what data she’s asking for, what soda she’s drinking, her favourite toys, simple things like that. It’s all completely anonymous.”

    Sarah took a step backwards, nudging Charlotte along behind her, “You’re telling me they could read her mind?”

    “Don’t think of it as her mind, to them it’s just an anonymous user. Of course there are also the occasional adverts…”

    “Adverts!”

    “Yes, it’s harmless really, for example if you asked Charlotte where she might like to go for lunch, she may receive some suggested locations from our sponsors. She’s still free to make her own choice, this isn’t brain control.”

    Sarah’s voice became considerably louder, “Free to make her own choice? She’s five! You’re telling me you want me to put a chip in my daughters head that’s been in another child’s brain, transmits her thoughts to shady corporations and can suggest to her where to eat and what to buy? Do you think I’m some kind of monster!”

    Ben held up his hands, “I’d argue the benefits outweigh the down side. She’ll still be miles ahead of where she would be with no chip. If you can’t afford a newer model this is your best option.”

    Sarah huffed, “No thank you, we’ll just wait a couple of years for the price to come down.”

    Ben sucked air in through his teeth, “Yeah, about that, you’re pretty much at the upper limit of when these chips will take. We’re not allowed to install in any kid over six, there have been complications when trying to install the chips in older kids.”

    “Complications? Like what.”

    “Brain death. If I was you I’d go with whatever you can afford right now, while you still have a choice. Pretty soon every kid is going to have one of these. What kind of life is that going to be for your daughter? She will be a second class citizen, totally unemployable in all but the most menial jobs.”

    Sarah stared at the big blue eyes of her gorgeous daughter and said, “I’ll need to talk it through with my husband. Maybe we can sell the car.”

    “That’s a very noble sacrifice for you daughters future. I’ll be here when you’re ready to make a decision. Here’s my card if you have any questions.”

    “Well thank you for your time, you’ve been very helpful.” Sarah ushered her daughter out the door.

    After a few moments Ben’s manager walked over, “Potential sale?”

    He shook his head, “No, they were time wasters. One day she’s going to look back on today and realize it was the moment she should have done whatever it took for her daughter. It’s a shame really.”

    Sarah and Charlotte left the mall and got into the car. The moment the door shut Charlotte jumped around excitedly, “I did it Mommy, just like you taught me. Look!” She brandished the small black chip that she had so meticulously palmed.

    Sarah smiled, “Clever girl!”

     
     
     
    © Craig Anderson
     


    You can find Craig Anderson’s story here.
     
     

    Review: Thaw (poems) ~ by Chelsea Dingman

    96 pages, paperback £15.30 / $19.95
    University of Georgia Press (30 Sept. 2017)

    Blurb:

    Thaw delves into the issues at the core of a resilient family: kinship, poverty, violence, death, abuse, and grief. The poems follow the speaker, as both mother and daughter, as she travels through harsh and beautiful landscapes in Canada, Sweden, and the United States. Moving through these places, she examines how her surroundings affect her inner landscape; the natural world becomes both a place of refuge and a threat. As these themes unfold, the histories and cold truths of her family and country intertwine and impinge on her, even as she tries to outrun them.

    Unflinching and raw, Chelsea Dingman’s poems meander between childhood and adulthood, the experiences of being a mother and a child paralleling one another. Her investigation becomes one of body, self, woman, mother, daughter, sister, and citizen, and of what those roles mean in the contexts of family and country.

     

    Review:

    Thaw is Chelsea Dingman’s inaugural poetry collection. In these, the author talks about violence, abuse, death, loss and grief; about family and childhood, being a daughter and about growing up and becoming an adult and a mother; about the hauntingly beautiful landscapes she travels through and lives in (against…?), across Canada and Scandinavia; and about country, citizenship and kinship. Her language is raw but streamlined, highly descriptive and evocative, drawing us into the poem and placing us exactly at its centre.

    Not knowing what we are going to find inside, the first poem in the book immediately takes our breath away, beginning with the first sentence and carrying it on to the very last. And, I dare say, it sets the tone for the collection, while illustrating the strength of Dingman’s voice, and its absolutely clarity.

    What we grieve is
    not how death can be
    dispelled in a photo, or a dream
    on our hip we carry
    like a child. But a man’s eyes,
    blackened by the butt of a rifle.
    Stars fading in the crosshairs
    of the sun. A phantom
    trigger, his finger
    hooked through its heart.

    At a glance, the blood
    could belong to a deer, breath
    escaping in the chill fall
    air, just smoke.

    Like the camera, our eyes fail
    to see what falls outside
    the frame—twisted limbs
    like a bird’s wings
    broken on the ground. How a bullet
    can enter so quietly as to leave
    a skull almost intact. How,
    afterwards,
    a body glitters
    like the cherry
    still burning
    in someone else’s fingers.

    I particularly like the way Dingman approaches her themes. Her voice may appear at first soft, and at times seemingly infused with an inner anger and deep sorrow, permeated as these poems are with the author’s own brand of imagery, until you linger a bit more over the lines themselves, or the very meanings hiding in them. It is then you realise the strength in these poems’ voice, and its amazing clarity.

    This book is a journey through a life, and it shows: a life that has been lived the best it could, a life that has seemingly been a quest for meaning and closure, and which has had its ups and downs, its tragedies and its joys, its sorrows and its own measure of happiness.

    Semantically, these poems are exquisite. I’ve read a few poetry books this year, but none like Chelsea Dingman’s. Her poetry is extremely accomplished and evocative, and the metaphors will reverberate inside you for a long time after you read it. I was so haunted (in a good way, it’s good – no, it’s excellent when poetry ‘haunts’ you!) by its language that I decided to sit the review out and reread the book at a later date. Which I now have. And I feel exactly the same way about it. It’s the highest praise I can possibly give: if you read one poetry book this year, please please make it Dingman’s Thaw. You won’t regret it, I promise you.

    Verdict: Recommended
    Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
    Shelves: Poetry, Favourite Books

     

    such small mercies

     

    It’s five a.m., and the skies have opened up. Once again. The rain pounds and thunders on the rooftops, on the cars parked outside, on the road and pavements. If I didn’t know better, I’d say St. Peter had sent us a deluge of, well, pebbles and gravel. That’s how it sounds. But no. I stare out of the window, looking for the day that somehow isn’t yet breaking, though only last week it could already be seen blushing above the eastern horizon — and all I see is water. Water. Liquid, determined, insistent, persistent, coming out in sheets after sheets, solid-looking curtains of silvery metal rods that somehow disintegrate on first contact. Pooling a bit everywhere. Hurrying down the street. Over the pavements. And if it goes on like this, everything will be waterlogged. Everything. Including my life. Which, right now, seems to be just about nose-above-surface. And it’s only just August. Still only August.

    Silently, I drag a chair over, the best I can, nearer to the window. Still gazing out of it, I pull the lace curtain aside and catch it up on the wall tieback. I want to have an unimpeded view from where I am sitting. I shiver. Suddenly. For no reason. It’s nice and dry and warm inside the house. But I am wondering how cold that rain is. Shouldn’t it be warm, seeing that it’s supposedly still summer? But do I really want to venture outside? Just to find out…? Haven’t I before? And on a morning like this? 

    True that I’m only up this early because I wanted to go for a little walk. Just the 50 yards down the road, to the children’s park. See what the trees and what’s left of the hedgerows have been up to, or whether they’ve further succumbed to the intractable and inexplicable stupidity of our ruling councils. Just like I wanted last evening, when He-herder came home. But not with the rain, now. Just like not with the rain yesterday. It seems to be some sort of fate or ill-luck. And right on schedule, every time. Every single blessed time I make plans to go out with DigiGirl. Who is not fond of rain at all, understandably: it does not agree with her electronic bones. And then, the fact is that cold and damp does not agree with my bones either, and I fear that going out in this will make the aches and pains and the stiffness worse than it already is. And I don’t need that. After all, it’s only just August.

    I like this sound though. Almost chaotic, when considered in it wholeness. There isn’t one rhythm only, but several, simultaneous, and sometimes it is only one that seems to come to the foreground and allow you to follow it; and then sometimes it is another. With time, you learn to identify the different sounds and rhythms of the rain falling on the roof, the porch, the patio, all of them. How it falls. Where it falls. Its strength, its volume. Which way the wind is blowing. And it is thus that the rain brings back the comfort of the known, of the recognised, of some measure — even if only slightly — of familiarity to you.

     

    I always stayed out playing far longer than I should. Always. Child that I was, and a lively, curious and mischievous one at that, the outdoors seemed to offer a myriad things I had never seen, never had before. And so it had fast become a privileged learning ground, as well as a fascinating, adventurous setting for all my flights of imagination. Except when it were spiders we were talking about, but by that age I had already learned how to avoid them quite successfully. And in the last resort, there was always the good old climb onto something and scream your lungs out. Everything else was fine with me, even those critters that other girls were apparently quite squeamish about: mice, rats, moles, snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, geckos, salamanders — you name it, everything fascinated me.

    But the one most valuable thing my new village life was affording me were companions to play with, even though they were only the street urchins who so infuriated Nan every time they came about, hanging outside the door, calling me to go play with them. And even if it was only playing marbles or racing bottle caps or spinning tops along the pavement down the front of our house, or, the best one of all, rolling bike rims down our sloping street, the seemingly disappearing metal ring connecting to little flesh arms, thin and tanned by the outdoors life, by the almost invisible tether of a rickety wire. How we run. Furiously. Such great fun. Our thin, bony legs trying to catch the rings’ speed. If the wire were to hold it back, the ring would twirl and turn and collapse, and we’d lose the race.

    And always the It’s not proper for a young lady to play with street kids. And those are boy’s games. And it’s not proper for a young lady to be seen playing boy’s games either. Who could this young lady be? I hadn’t seen any other girl playing with the boys. But I answered Yes, Nan in any case, and then returned to the play. It was… exhilarating. Irresistible. I still have with me the sensation of the wind in my face as I ran with all my might down the street, its freshness contrasting with the fire increasingly burning inside my lungs as I ran and ran, and tried to match the boys speed.

    Soon I learned to control my breathing so that my chest hurt less, and my legs ran faster. But I never got my own so-dreamed-of bicycle rim and wire, never mind how many times I asked, so that I could race my own instead of having to borrow all the time. Those were prized possessions, and the boys always wanted something in return for the “borrowing”: marbles, bottle caps, coloured pencils, a peak under my skirts, kisses; and each go on somebody else’s rim was getting dearer and dearer every time. The skirts thing was easily sorted with a pair of shorts, but I was at a loss as to what to do about the kisses thing. It became a real, serious, huge problem: my tab was becoming a tad too high, and the boys were beginning to demand payment in kind.

    Then one day the boys disappeared. They didn’t come that day, or next, or the next, or yet the next. Or the whole week. Or the week after. It wasn’t until months later, when we got to talk over the school wall, that I found out Auntie had been to talk to their parents, who then made them go hang around and race their rims somewhere else.

    Soon too summer was coming to an end, and I, now returned to my mostly solitary explorations, still stayed out far longer than what I knew I was allowed. True that I had strict instructions, had had them all summer too: if those horrible boys come around, come back inside immediately, do you hear me?

    Or if the sun becomes too hot, you’re not to stay out in it, do you hear?, just look for the shade of a tree, under the pergola, or come back inside the house… and never take your hat off, do you hear?

    Or yet if it starts drizzling, you come back in immediately, you hear?, all that damp isn’t good for the bones

    But my skin loved the sun, its hot caress, and drank it in amazing quantities. I could stay out in the sun with any of the half naked village urchins without ever getting sunburn. Soon my rosy pink had turned to a lovely golden brown, the length of my sleeves and the legs of my shorts clearly marked against my forearms and thighs.

    The same with the rain, which I loved when it started falling on my bare shoulders and arms, while I ran and twirled and danced as if I had lost my little confused mind. As for the village urchins? They could now stay as long as they wanted, and as long as nobody realised they were there: we had found a secluded enough place at the bottom of the valley, and we’d retire to hidden corners and talk in nearly inaudible whispers. We couldn’t race rims, but there was an infinity of games we could — and did! — play. For the first time I had not been completely alone, playing games with only my imagination for company, under the scrutiny of some well-intended but unimaginative and prejudice-ridden adult. I was only five or six, can’t have been older than that. It was the summer I was dumped on at the village, to live with my Gran and Great Aunt and Uncle.

    And then autumn had finally come, and with it a different, more constant rain. It did not drop on your skin with pregnant, rhythmic drops, but in a constant, uninterrupted pattern. The time it took to run to the back door was enough for your braid and your blouse to get soaked to the core, and dipping all around the floors. The village kids had disappeared with the first autumnal shower, and I had had no choice but to resume solitary play within walls, a space that I considered absolutely sterile and uninteresting, by comparison with the outdoors and all the marvels nature — and the unexpected company — had to offer me. I had resumed my reading lessons, and had eventually been allowed on my own on the upstairs living rooms, among the china, the linens and the books. And uncle’s things, which I was not supposed to touch.

    Encased within three feet deep adobe and pebble walls, I had finally found other things to marvel at. Rain and its sound had been one of them. The silence in those rooms was amazing. And so were the acoustics. The ceiling lining was very thin, and that little space was where the singing of the clay tiles under the rain began to echo and gain body — and it then erupted into the living room, bouncing from wall to wall. Sitting on the slate window seats, my bum skillfully perched on a pile of old pillows, wrapped around head to toes in some woollen blanket stolen from the bed and unthinkingly, automatically reciting the alphabet and the times tables, became one of my favourite things. I could stop my recitation any time and listen to some dissonant, discording rain drop hitting this specific tile at a different angle and making this extraordinary sound… All together, it was like a song. A symphony. And I was safe. Safe and warm and comfortable and cocooned… and doing my own thing… and the rain, the rain, the sounds of the rain drops falling on things, everywhere, were the soundtrack to all that. It was almost as if they were dropping on my bare skin: at times, I could almost swear one had done just that; I’d pass my hand over my shoulder expecting to find it splashed, and I’d find nothing there. To this day, the sound of rain brings me comfort and relaxation. It somehow takes me back to those days, no matter that the the walls are thin, the slate seat is now an armchair, and the song is now so different. Amazingly too, it can still lull me to sleep like nothing else will. We are definitely made by all our experiences as children.

     

    This raindrop symphony has got nothing to do with those of my childhood, those that still live in my memories. Yet another thing mass production has cheated us of. The terracotta tiles on the old farmhouse roof were just that, clay worked by hand into slabs and then laid over cylindrical moulds in order to dry out in the sun, before being fired. They were of a varying thickness and length, even if just by millimetres, and they had a host of imperfections. Apart from that, they were made from clay from different quarries, with slightly varying geological makeups. I can’t be far from the truth when saying that there really weren’t any two alike. Especially in a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old-roof, which must have seen so many repairs as for Nan and Auntie to lose count.

    That is why they sang so differently, so individually, as if they were human voices: because there weren’t any two alike. And moreover, because the rain didn’t hit them always at the same angle. Except when there were stormy showers: then, the tile song was constant, unchanged, no hidden patterns, no disparate notes or assonances or dissonances or cacophonies, a melody finally patterned, each tile singing its same, constant note, the sudden deluge suddenly whooshing from the gutters and down the pipes at rhythmic intervals. It’s a symphony with much less interest though. But had I been able to write music back then, and surely I would have written their symphony too. And yes, I was that weird and geeky a child: but isn’t it good to now have such a good place of refuge?

    There’s no individuality in these modern roof tiles, and that is why the song is so constant and monotonous. Listening to it, I can no longer feel the raindrops landing on my bare shoulders. And I no longer have that overwhelming wish I used to have grabbing and pulling me from the inside, whispering to me to go out in it and dance, dance my hours away. All I feel now is an unpleasant sensation of getting soggy and cold, and this deep wish that I could have all that summer rain back, and my village cobbled roads — and maybe be five-years-old again — to go out in it unthinkingly, and dance. It still lulls me to sleep though, even if only out of boredom now, and not from being slowly rocked into the land of nod by their melodically unpatterned song. At least that. So let us be grateful for such small mercies.

     

    Still wondering how cold the rain might be, like this, of an early morning in a truly English, August summer day, I let the curtains back down and drag the chair slowly to its original place. Man and the cat persons are still fast asleep: far too early for them, though Marmie woke up and sniffed the air inquisitively, as if it could tell him what I was up to. Satisfied that there was no place on my lap to accommodate his humongous size, he had turned around and curled up to sleep on top of the duvet again.

    As I turn around to go fetch myself the first cup of coffee of my morning, I reflect saddened that my misbehaving biology has deprived me of even that simple a thing as walking — and dancing and madly singing — under the summer rain, even if by some miracle I were to have it all back again: those summers, those showers, that hillside to run madly up and down, as if things would always stay the same. And my old people. My old people and those walls, most of all.

    The rain song still lulls me to sleep though, even in all its modernity of adulterated, deeply unsatisfying but domesticated, tamed and compliant form. Even if only out of boredom now, and not from being slowly rocked into the land of nod by the tiles’ unpatterned, melodic singing. But at least that. A small thing, and not the same as before, but still precious. Almost as precious as the memories it now invariably triggers. So let us be truly grateful for such small but Oh! so glowing mercies.

    And so it is…


     

    And so it is that I’m going live again. My writer has just ticked the little circle thing on the reading settings, and hey, presto! here I am for all to see.

    In the time that I was away — well, not away away, really, I’ve been here all the time it’s just that I was under wraps — my writer eventually gave me a most comprehensive makeover: I’ve got a new theme, new menus, new widgets (a-hem, there’s one widget malfunctioning and still a few that are missing, but the cats say the writer is only human and time is definitely money), a new a review policy, a Rules of Hauissh (whatever one of those is), a new bio page… and a tagline! I’ve got a new tagline!!! Yiiipee! Without one, I must confess that I felt like I was going to the races without a hat! Or to a ball without crystal slippers! Or… well, let’s not get too carried away, you surely get my drift.

    The writer says that it’s a pity that I have to go live without most of my previous content, but all I can say is… who cares? The cats of course stick out for their human, and call me a selfish so-and-so. But what can I do? If it can’t be helped then there’s nothing that can be done. It’s like my writer always mumbles when things aren’t going too well with me and she can’t figure it out: o que não tem remédio remediado está. Apparently it was her Great Aunt that used to say that: if it has no remedy then it’s remedied. Damned if I know what that means. Does that even make any sense…?

    Oh, here come the cats again. I better shut up or else. ‘Cause you should see the size and sharpness of their claws… So. Where was I? Ah! I’ve had to go live without most of my precious previous content: something about redundant html code that needs weeding out and inadequate number of pixels. Or something. Apparently, it was all alright with some of her own writing because it had been published in her old blog and she had unedited copies, but all the most recent stuff now needs editing. All her book reviews included. And she’s not a very happy writer at the mo, you mark my words, so I better just get out of her way. So yeah. Anyway. You kittehs figure that all out: I’m off to flaunt my new visual online. There’s this delicious he-blog I met only the other day, and if you ask me we make the most handsome couple ever… Oh, there you are… Selfies anyone?

    Ta-rah! Toodle-oo! See y’all later!

     


    image credit: one of the many amazing cat drawings by Higuchi Yuko. I’m a great fan, as are the writer and the kittehs, one of the very few things we are all in agreement…

    hello again! we’re back.

    Hello, and welcome to Nina’s scribbles, my brand new, erm… brand newly refurbished blog home. It’s got new clothes, a new hairdo… everything. It was a complete, very thorough makeover. How do you think it’s looking?

    It’s still very much work-in-progress, of course, as no doubt you, my patient reader, have already been able to establish. Some of the bones and braces of the thing are still missing, though in the process of being forged. But please don’t despair: it’ll soon be whole and navigable — or as nearly as possible. And over time, too, all those posts that it used to house will be returned here, with feature images tailored to fit.

    In the meantime, my infamous TBR (to-be-read) pile is slowly progressing towards a deeply satisfying, though immeasurably smaller, HBR (as in, has been read) pile, which might be my second favourite state for books, at least as far as this blog is concerned (the top being, of course, HBRR, i.e., has been read and reviewed).

    However, and as far as the aforementioned reviews go, there are now quite a few very, very overdue — and still very, very, very unwritten (as of the latest count…? No, I won’t say. I’m far too embarrassed. Suffice it to say that I seem to read a lot faster than I write).

    So, review writing is the task I shall try to devote myself to presently, while reformatting all posts and adjusting the few missing nuts and bolts (and bones and braces and cartilage and ligaments and et cetera) of this thing… until it’s perfect, and running quite perfectly smooth… if such thing will ever be possible.

    So — go explore, since you’re here. Make yourself at home. Not that the missing widgets will let you go completely wild on its contents, but still. There’s already a fair bit to look at and, hopefully, plenty more to come as the days go by.

    I do sincerely hope you enjoy my reviews, my book recommendations, my features and interviews, and all the magpie-ed and magpie-ish and other bits and bobs I’ll no doubt keep throwing in. And, why not, that you also enjoy my “other” writing. I trust you will let me know if you don’t, and set me straight once and for all.

    Thanks for stopping by, and for bearing with me for so long.

    Yours, humbly,

    Nina.