A buswoman's holiday

What I often end up doing, on my days off paperwork or teaching, is housework. Sadly, it’s the thing that is at the bottom of a my chosen-occupations list.

At the top of my favourite list, the one titled, What I Would Buy if I Won the Lottery, is, ‘hire a house-keeper’. I have in mind a Mary Poppins type character, but I’d settle for a Mrs Danvers, just so long as I never again had my attention caught by the state of the kitchen floor. As I don’t even do the lottery this is clearly fantasy. I’ve more hope of teaching Rusty how to wipe his feet before he bounds in.

Which reminds me, an old but useful tip, regarding missing homework (school or domestic) is, blame the dog. It got me past many a potential detention in my delinquent school-days.

Yes, it is an ancient cliche, but here’s the thing, while no one has actually, ever, believed it, it tends to raise a smile. It’s a cold soul that hands out a heavy punishment when they’re appreciating your wit. On the other hand, if I could step back in time with some good advice to my younger self, I’d tell her to make the effort, and just do her homework.

Now I’m an adult, of course, I’ve reversed my aversion to lessons to the extent that on Saturday, I used one of my precious free-days to sign up for a day-school: ‘Free Verse – or playing tennis without a net?’ with the Clevedon Adult Study Association (CASA).

Who cares about that kitchen floor, anyway? (Actually, as a seasoned multi-tasker, I’m fitting it in between paragraphs as I write this.)

‘Really?’ said my niece, Cecily, when I told her what I had planned for the weekend. ‘Isn’t that what you teach, though?’ I was giving her a lift home from her part-time job in a shoe-shop, where she had, she’d told me, spent four hours measuring feet. ‘So boring, but it’s good having money of my own.’

‘I teach stories,’ I said, ‘this about a particular style of poems. I get to relax, learn, and let someone else keep watch on the clock, and work out what comes next.’

‘Okay,’ said Cecily. ‘It’s not what I’d want to do.’

Cecily, choosing subjects for A-levels, had dropped literature, like a hot potato. When I told her it was the only school subject that had kept my attention she said, ‘Maybe they taught it differently, then.’

I was reminded of her supposition as we reached the end of our time ‘unpacking’ poems, on Saturday. Poet, Phillip Lyons, our guide through the labyrinths of alliterations, consonance, cadence, metaphors, similes, enjambments etc… was winding up our day with some reflection. ‘What,’ he wondered, ‘were our individual responses to free-verse poetry? What thoughts would we take away with us?’

‘I wish someone had taught us poetry in this way at school,’ Paula said. There were murmured agreements from around the room.

‘How did they make it so boring?’ Tim said.

‘On behalf of all retired English teachers,’ Sheila said, ‘I apologise. We did our best.’

‘My teacher was amazing,’ said Pauline. ‘Inspiring.’

My teachers, too, I thought. There’d been two for me. Had I been particularly lucky? Maybe. English-classes were an oasis in the desert that was my secondary school. It’s so much easier to share an interest than to instill an interest where none exists in the first place – ask any of my maths teachers…

There are times when I can’t avoid seeing how lucky I am. Saturday was one of them.

What had I got? Introductions to some poems I might not have found on my own; a chance to discuss them, in detail, with people who were as curious about them as I was; added insights from someone who looked at them with a poet’s eye, and an opportunity to share his enthusiasm for his subject.

Where Lorna Doone meets The Godfather, & The War of the Worlds.

Go on, admit it, my title has intrigued you, at least a little, hasn’t it?

No, this isn’t a review of a new ‘mash-up’ novel, though I’d be quite interested to see how ‘girt* Jan Ridd’ and his family would measure up to an alien invasion. I’ve not been impressed by his dealings with the Doone ‘gang’, who have been robbing, raping and pillaging the Exmoor neighbourhood for decades, while everyone shrugs and says, ‘Well, what do you expect? Poor things, loosing that rich estate in Scotland, then being banished by the King, it’s not surprising they’re bitter.’

Several of my reading groups have seen parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Godfather. Sir Ensor, the patriarch of the Doones, like Vito Corleone, is a traditionalist who demands respect and is supported by a crooked lawyer, in this case, his son, ‘The Councillor’.

The Councillor’s son, Carver, is evil. He’s the distillation of all the bitterness in Sir Ensor and The Councillor. Of course, we only see any of these characters through the eyes of our narrator, John (aka Jan) Ridd, who is competing with Carver for Lorna. Despite John’s repeated assurances about his own honesty, I can’t help feeling that there may be some bias in the story he’s telling.

Carver, as his nickname might suggest, lacks the subtlety or charm of Michael Corleone. What he has in spades, is muscle and ambition, oh, and wives. Yes, your read me right, it turns out that Carver has so far strayed from the path of respectability that when the den of thieves finally is challenged, he is discovered to be keeping ‘ten or a dozen‘ wives – so many in fact, John can’t be exact. As for the children, there’s no attempt to count them!

In suggesting these parallels I’m not claiming that Mario Puzo once read Lorna Doone, though I wish I could have asked him. These are outlaw stories, and it could be argued that both rely on stereotypes. I do, however, wonder if Puzo ever saw one of the film versions. His novel, The Godfather, was published in 1969. Four of the six Lorna Doone films had been made by then, and one of the two series for the BBC.

I’ve seen extracts of all except the 1912 and 1963 versions, which don’t seem to exist any more. The rest seem, to me, to say as much about the decade they have been produced in as they do about the original they draw from. That’s not so surprising. To convey all of the events and nuances of this hefty novel would take more hours than have yet been given to it.

Lorna Doone has also been adapted for stage and radio. As has, HG Wells’ novel, The War of The Worlds.

I’ve been watching the latest screen version of that, on the BBC (it finished last night), for the last three weeks. The selling point, for yet another remake, was the claim that it kept closer to the book than others had.

I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’ve enjoyed it. As I have every other version I’ve watched, despite (or maybe because of) the liberties taken.

Wikipedia lists 10 direct screen adaptations, and 14 for radio (including the famous 1938 Orson Welles version). Add to that the musical interpretations (Jeff Wayne’s was not the only one), plus numerous comic books and sequels, that’s a lot of inspiring.

There was no implied criticism in wondering why the story was getting another incarnation, only curiosity. I was reminded that someone funded the 2000 Lorna Doone film only ten years after the previous version had been made. Even in these fast moving times, that surely counts as being within living memory. So,why?

Well, I have a theory. I think both novels foreground plot rather than character. Maybe those kinds of stories leave more room for the adapter, or even the well-known actors.

* Girt: dialect version of great – meaning ‘large’ or ‘very big’.

Stories within stories.

‘So how long should a short story be?’ says Natalie. It’s week two with a new class, and a glance around shows me eleven faces expecting some neat definition.

‘As long as is necessary,’ I say, failing to recall if there was one particular writer I could attribute this to. That sounds flippant, so I add. ‘The rule, if there is one, is that you should use only as many words as convey your meaning, and no more.’ Was that paraphrasing Katherine Mansfield, or HE Bates? Dare I offer one of them, as ballast for my claim? It might be Hemmingway, so many truisms are attributed to him.

I’m not even sure when I read it, but I have, several times. Besides, the words are said, now.

How much easier these conversations are when I’m building them on paper, and can break off to check my facts, or better still, cut the tricky reference bit out altogether.

Natalie is frowning. I don’t think she’s disagreeing, this looks like another question forming.

I jump in quickly. ‘The shortest story is often said to be, For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’ I repeat the six words, slowly.

Bill says, ‘Is that really a story?’

I draw a theatrically deep breath, and say, ‘Well, it’s got the key elements, a situation that raises a question in the mind of the reader, the suggestion of something unexpected happening… There are a raft of possibilities lying behind this sentence. For instance, who is selling the shoes?’ I pause, to let that fester. ‘Possibly the bigger question is, why have the shoes never been worn?’

There is a moment while most of us contemplate the bleak answer to this. Then Bill says, ‘Perhaps they’re just the wrong size.’

Penny says, ‘Or there was a baby shower, and everyone bought shoes, so the baby’s wardrobe looked like it belonged to Imelda Marcos.’

‘What about,’ says Natalie, ‘everyone thought the baby would be a boy, but the scan turned out to be wrong.’

‘Can six words really count as a short story?’ says Reta.

It’s a good question.

‘It depends on how much more you expect from a short story,’ I say. ‘You, the writer, have to decide how much characterisation, setting, dialogue or action it takes to convey your idea.’ How vague this all sounds.

‘It’s time for pens,’ I tell the group. ‘Think about those six words.’

There’s silence. Some have shut their eyes.

‘Write a description of the shoes,’ I say, ‘in detail.’

‘Now, imagine this: No one has answered the advert. After all, it’s not the best wording to produce a sale. Eventually, the owner gives them to a charity shop. There no one knows anything about them, or their history. Picture the shelf, in the shop. That’s the background. Now write about what happens next.’

I set my five-minute timer, and we do that thing that always amazes me: we write.

Given a whole afternoon and a blank page, I might string together six words that I’m happy with. Set me in a group, with an unlikely trigger subject, and a deadline, and ideas fly from the nib of my pen.

When I call time, and we read back, we’ve produced twelve narratives with only one thing in common: the shop. Some of the stories have reached conclusions, others are the beginnings of something longer. Between us, we provide a range of genres and emotions. They’re raw, first drafts, but we listeners are hooked, intrigued.

‘Most stories,’ I say, ‘are distillations. What I’ve found, when I read about writers, is that few complete their story in one sitting. What they’ve done is capture the impulse. Some bits might need expanding, others cutting. The story is still immature. Sometimes it will get pared down, until it feels distilled. Other times, it will need rounding out. That decision lies with the author.’

I tell them that the six word shoe story may have been written by Ernest Hemmingway. If it was, he might have known about one of two articles in American newspapers

The first was a news story published when Hemmingway was about seven years old. The headline was, Tragedy of Baby’s Death is Revealed in Sale of Clothes.

About seven years later, an editor wrote an article in which he explained how a journalist might write about a similar situation. The title he suggested for such a story was, Little Shoes, Never Worn.’

Chickens, eggs, and travelling through time with RD Blackmore.

Seventeenth century Exmoor has been my virtual home for around seven weeks now, and I feel that my feet are comfortably settled under John Ridd’s table. He’s been an entertaining host, though as a twenty-first century woman, to begin with, I did have some problems adjusting.

It’s hardly my first time in Restoration Britain. I have vivid memories of skating along the frozen River Thames with Virginia Woolf’s, Orlando; and wandering the Welsh hills with Lucy Walter and the young prince who would be crowned as Charles II, in The Child From The Sea, by Elizabeth Goudge.

Antonia Frazer, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Irwin introduced me to some of the key political characters and events for this period. However, apart from Orlando, the main characters in those and other novels, have tended to be strong females.

I’ve been asking myself, ‘do I love history because of historical fiction, or historical fiction because I love history?’ Maybe I might also ask, ‘did those adventures distort my idea of history?’

Although I knew that most women, in those times, were constrained, contained and restricted, I was usually too busy cheering on the rebels to think about what day-to-day life was like for the majority. RD Blackmore’s novel forced me to think of them in domestic spheres.

Women are ideally soft, submissive, and lovely to look at. John describes his sister, Annie, as:

…of a pleasing face, and very gentle manner, almost like a lady, some people said; but without any airs whatever, only trying to give satisfaction.

She’s also a paragon, keeping the kitchen immaculate and constantly cooking up massive delicious meals for the family and all visitors.

Lorna Doone, the woman of John’s dreams, lacks practical skills, but then, she’s a lady.

I could not but behold her manner, as she went before me, all her grace, and lovely sweetness, and her sense of what she was.

She was a different being; not woman enough to do anything bad, yet enough of a woman for man to adore.

I could have grown tired of all these characters, if I hadn’t begun to notice that there was an interesting gap between what John said, and what the women were doing. While they could not be described as active, in a modern sense, it became apparent that they were often at odds with John’s ideals.

John’s mother, for example, when her husband is murdered, walks into the hideout where the criminals are living to ‘speak her mind’ to them.

Now, after all, what right had she, a common farmer’s widow, to take it amiss that men of birth thought fit to kill her husband? And the Doones were of very high birth, as all we clods of Exmoor knew; and we had enough of good teaching… to feel that all we had belonged of right to those above us. therefore my mother was half-ashamed, that she could not help complaining.

It’s a moment that holds a key to so much of this story. A great wrong has been committed, in a time when rights are with the strongest. There is no police-force to turn to, there is only class. The society described is close to feudal. Everyone should know their place. And yet, here is Sarah Ridd, approaching her betters to tell them that she, and her children, have been harmed by their actions.

We’re left to decide whether she’s brave or foolhardy, in making herself vulnerable to a gang well known for rapine, pillage and murder. She may never do anything so outrageous again, but the potential of all women for acts of bravery has been presented.

It may be more than I should expect from a book that was written a hundred and fifty years ago, set in a time a hundred and ninety years before that. Perhaps it signals the beginning of a pattern.

Literary tourism

It’s a hundred and fifty years since RD Blackmore’s novel, Lorna Doone was first published. So, this autumn, I’ve been discussing it with some of my Creative-Reading groups.

It’s been an interesting journey, and a rewarding one. Not least, because part of my preparation included three days touring around Exmoor, tracking down identifiable locations. Comparing the spaces that inspired with the story was intriguing. Here are a few of my favourite locations.

The story opens in 1673, when the narrator, John Ridd is twelve years old. He’s studying at Blundell’s school, in Tiverton, and gives a brief history of the school, as he describes his last days there.

The building he knew is now called ‘Old Blunell’s’, as the school moved to a bigger premises in 1882. I didn’t go inside. The interior has now been divided into flats, but the exterior is as it’s described in the novel. Since Blackmore was a scholar there himself, it’s probable that the customs John Ridd describes are authentic, from singeing night-caps to learning to swim in the Lowman River.

Oare village, where the Ridds farmed is still tiny, and a long way down from the coast road. While my photo gives an idea of the scale of the landscape, it is unlikely that Blackmore would recognise the large fields, or the extent that they now stretch to. Much of Exmoor was cleared, and ‘improved’ from the mid nineteenth century on.

The debate about which of the village buildings might have been the model for Plovers Barrow, the farm of the Ridds, has been going on since soon after the novel was published. Many readers refused to accept that Blackmore imaginatively ‘rearranged’ the geography to suit his story.

We stayed near a farm that claimed to be the original. However, it had recently been taken apart and completely re-built. Lovely as it is, it didn’t seem to resemble the farm Blackmore describes.

Oare church, however, did seem identical. It is just visible in my photo of the village, above. The white painted porch is to the left side of the main clump of buildings.

Here’s the interior, with its box pews, and stone font.

Robber Bridge is mentioned several times in the story. The long narrow road leading to it had a timeless feel, despite the tarmac, and occasional car or tractor.

Tarr Steps, was worth a visit. Although, it’s only mentioned in passing, as being near the cave where Mother Melldrum had her summer home. My photo fails to convey just how huge these steps are, or how atmospheric this river is,

Mother Melldrum’s winter home, which John visits, is in the Valley of the Rocks, near Linton.

Finally, there’s Dunster. It’s another passing mention in the novel, but I couldn’t miss the timber-framed Yarn Market. It was rebuilt in 1647, and despite all of the twenty-first century trimmings surrounding it, standing under that roof felt close to stepping back through time.

I haven’t mentioned the countryside itself, because in the uncleared parts, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since Blackmore published the novel. If you want to know how it felt, looked or sounded as we lingered in the lane by Robbers Bridge, read some of John Ridd’s lyrical descriptions. Thomas Hardy said that those passages showed him something of what was possible in writing about ‘place’.

Blackmore’s novel is not an easy read. His style leans towards archaic, and has some interesting sentence structures. What impressed me, was the way he shaped his material, and how John Ridd’s narration works.

Lorna Doone will be going back on my shelf, and I think I might have to return to Exmoor for a longer visit, soon.

Six degrees of separation: Alice inspires a literary treasure-hunt.

It was a particularly soggy Saturday afternoon, and the heat from the wood-burner was beginning to make me drowsy. “November is such a very predictably weather-full month,” I muttered to Rusty, who had taken possession of the hearth-rug, in a somewhat Elinor Glyn style. “I can’t think of anything better to do than leap into a literary rabbit hole, can you?”

At the word ‘rabbit’, Rusty had opened one eye. He watched me for a moment, then sighed and closed it again.

When outside he’s as keen as Mr McGregor on chasing the little carrot-nibblers. Merely naming that rodent sets him in search of a scent.

Rusty’s nose is phenomenal. Certainly as discerning as Jean-Baptist Grenouille’s. Though I don’t remember Patrick Suskind mentioning its dewy nature, I wonder if that was the secret of Jean-Baptist’s dubiously employed skills.

Unlike Rusty, Jean-Baptiste was not an attractive character, even without mention of a wet nose. I can still remember how I was held by his story, though, both fascinated and horrified. Rather like Ripley, now I come to think of it.

I’ve followed his journey more than once, trying to figure out not just what he is, but who, as he sheds friends and adopts new identities. In some ways, Ripley is the reverse of Jason Bourne, who is trying to remember his real identity.

Glancing across at my DVDs, I realised that the same actor played both rolls, and there was an interesting angle that ought to be pursued.

I’ve never been too good with doing what I ought to. I was already thinking about Fanny Logan, who tried pursuing love, but was frequently to be found in the airing cupboard, with her cousins, because the enormous mansion they lived in was incredibly drafty.

I’d worried over this since first reading Nancy Mitford’s novels, as a teenager. Drafty houses I understood, because we didn’t have central heating or double-glazing at that time, either. But Fanny would have needed to curl herself around the water cylinder on a narrow shelf full of folded laundry, to fit our airing cupboard.

Since then, when visiting stately homes or castles, I’ve taken special note of the airing facilities, trying to estimate how many Mitfords could comfortably gather within them. The girls have refused to materialise.

Rusty watched, without interest, as I went to check my airing cupboard. Three well-bred faces glared out from behind the heaps of sheets and pillowcases. There was a horrible silence, then in a “U” accent, one of them asked, “Are you an Hon?”

“We’re moving away from using titles,” I said.

“How too awful,” replied the one I thought might be Linda. She exchanged glances with the other two, then smiled sweetly and added, “I say, would you be a perfect darling and shut the door?”

“Look here,” said another voice, as I was beginning to comply. “You won’t believe what I’ve found at the back. Isn’t it too frightful?” She was waving a dusty pyjama top that I hadn’t seen for years.

There was a burst of sneering laughter.

“Barely a rag,” cried Lynda.

“Counter-Hon, without a doubt.”

“I just knew it.”

I threw the door open. “That’s an old favourite, if you don’t mind,” I said, making a grab for the brushed-cotton.

“Don’t snatch,” admonished Lynda.

Then came a loud, “Halloo,” and a bunched-up hand-towel was launched at my head.

A duster followed.

Someone yelled, “Death to the horrible Counter-Hon.” In moments, the contents of my shelves were raining down on me. If it hadn’t been for Rusty, arriving with his lead, who knows what might have happened then…

I struggled out from under the heap and noted that the world beyond the window looked a little less grey and cold than it had earlier.

“Good idea,” I said to Rusty, “I think we both need some fresh air. As for you three…” The Mitfords hung their heads, and began to look like any other teenage delinquents. “I expect that laundry to be just the way you found it, by the time we get back.”

Thanks to Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and I hope she doesn’t mind my taking liberties with her excellent six-degrees-of-separation meme. Alice was a temptation I couldn’t resist.

Novel revision advice from Damyanti Biswas.

As we move rapidly towards NaNoWriMo sign-up time again, I’ve noticed many of us are preparing schedules and/or plans to write for 30 days. Judging by previous years, this will result in lots of lovely new manuscripts. Experienced writers will know exactly what their next steps (after December 1st) should be, but many of us will be wondering…

Wonder no more. Last week I reviewed the novel, You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas. This week, I bring you Damyanti’s five suggestions for getting your manuscript to publishable standard:

When you finish that first draft of a novel, it feels like reaching the top of a mountain, and it is. The first draft is a huge achievement, especially if it is of your first ever novel!

As anyone who writes on a professional level will tell you though, this is just reaching base camp–many other peaks loom ahead before a book goes to press. To get the story working right, we need revisions, rewrites, and several drafts.

Here’s how to revise your way to a novel that holds your reader’s attention:

1. Done with the first draft? What is your story about?

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, a first draft gives you a sense of what you really want to say–who the story is about and what is the arc. To get an objective perspective, let the draft lie for a while as you relax and celebrate (or, if you’re like me, dive into short fiction for a while). After a break, when you look at the novel, you’ll find things that need fixing to give your story its shape. I sometimes use Index cards to plot my first draft. Before moving on to the second draft, I change the index cards that I feel make for a cleaner story, and follow the beats of the novel. This is useful to rewrite/ replace scenes that were not working in the first draft.

2. Make various passes: I learned this the hard way, but trying to revise your novel at one go is a hard, unproductive process (It might work for you–if it does, stick with your process!) What do I do instead? The first thing I check is the character arcs–whether they make sense—and whether the character transforms through the story in a plausible way. Then the plot arc–how does the character motivations affect what happens? If the character and the plot arcs mesh well, the story makes organic sense.

To complicate things, there’s point of view, and sometimes the plot does not work because I’m using the wrong point of view. This leads to a bit of heartbreak, but then POV is my Achilles heel and it might not be yours.

Once all of these are fixed, I go scene by scene, questioning if each scene contributes to the arc. I cannot remember the number of times I have thrown out scenes in You Beneath Your Skin–some of the last scenes to be thrown out got tossed 4 years after I first started writing. It is important to learn the three-act and five-act plot structures, and check your manuscript against them. I use Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to evaluate the plot at this point.

3. Get beta readers–Once I’m reasonably convinced the story structure and the characters and the POV are what I want then to be, I send the book to beta readers. I start with one of two very trusted readers, then move on to try to get in as wide a spectrum as I can, so I have a good idea of how the story appears to others. While I wait for feedback, I again cool my heels or work on another manuscript or short fiction.

4. Check on the feedback, work on it, get an editor: No matter how many stories I’ve written, the feedback still takes time to sink in. I go through every point that has been raised, resolve them depending on whether they chime in with what I want to do with the story. then, an editor.

I’ve been trad published by Simon & Schuster, so my agent was my first editor, followed by my publisher’s editor. If I self-publish, I’ll be sure to hire one, because I think they’re essential to the process. At what stage you decide to get one is completely up to you, but no book should go to press without a professional edit.

5. Get into the nitty-gritties: The final pass is the hardest. I’m convinced You Beneath Your Skin was breeding typos like mosquitoes in a tropical water-clogged pool. I was so blind to the text after many years of editing and revisions, that the only way to read it as it really was on the page was to go at it back to front, and read aloud All of it.

Like with everything else with writing, I’d recommend each of us follow what works for us. In the past, I’ve read about the revision process of other authors, and some of the above is cobbled together after listening to advice picking what works for me.

What works for you during revisions? What is the hardest revision challenge you have faced? Do you agree or disagree with the points above?

Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and works with Delhi’s underprivileged children as part of Project Why, a charity that promotes education and social enhancement in underprivileged communities. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog and twitter.

All the author proceeds will go to Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.  

Book links:        Outside India: https://buff.ly/2LSv3vw

India: https://buff.ly/2KMXlXN

Social media and site links:

  1. Project WHY: https://projectwhy.org/
  2. Chhanv Foundation: https://www.chhanv.org/  (Their social media name is StopAcidAttacks)
  3. Author website: https://www.damyantiwrites.com/

Many thanks, Damyanti, for this useful list.

Recent release: You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas.

This week, thanks to Damyanti’s new novel, I’ve visited Delhi. Unlike the average tourist trip, this one included glimpses of family life, walks through some of the seamier areas, plus a ghetto.

I’ve had several guides. First was Anjali Morgan, an American born psychiatrist who has lived in the city with her autistic son, Nikhil, for twelve years, and is about to help investigate a horrific crime.

The story opens with a crisis. Nikhil has jumped out of Anjali’s car, as they were driving away from the shopping mal, because he was not allowed to buy an extra toy.

A worried mother, trapped in a queue of moving traffic and confronted by guards who do not understand the significance of Nikhil’s condition and vulnerability, is a strong story hook. It also allows a great deal of information to be conveyed, economically.

We have setting, colour and context, in the dialogue:

Madamji.‘ A short Nepali guard in a beige uniform hurried up the slope towards her, his whistle shrieking. ‘Yahan parking allowed yihin hai.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Anjali tried to remember the Hindi words, but they’d fled, along with her composure. ‘My son has run away.’

She speaks Hindi as a second language, but as the opening makes clear, to the guard and his supervisor, she is an outsider.

The sight of a light skinned, blond-haired woman, taller and broader than him…

Partial-outsiders, in stories, make excellent guides for a reader trying to settle themselves in unfamiliar territory. They move through the everyday details comfortably, but include things that locals might take for granted. There are, however, some things that an outsider will miss completely, or could be expected to drift off into long explanations.

Damyanti provides us with Several ‘insider’ perspectives. There is an official, and male, view of the action from Jatin Bhatt, Special Commissioner of Crime with the Delhi Police. His side of the story opens in a meeting with his father-in-law, Commissioner Mehra.

Jatin stared at the badge on Mehra’s shoulder… that marked Delhi’s Chief of Police. He wanted it when Mehra retired next year.

A female perspective is presented by his sister, Maya. She’s both traditional and modern. Her role as private detective brings into contrast the modes and methods of the official police-force. Her friendship with Anjali and Nikhil is a key component to the action and outcome of the story.

But there are several other voices too, all providing fresh perspectives on a variety of issues around the crime and the society of Delhi. It’s been an interesting trip, raising lots of questions, even as it resolved the criminal case.

All the proceeds from this novel go to project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. To find out more, check in with Damyantiwrites.com

First impressions

One of the benefits of researching for my creative-reading groups is finding new authors, and mostly that only means new to me. Recently, for instance, while googling for background information on Lorna Doone, the tome I’m sharing with five groups this autumn, I wandered off route.

I was looking for a concise summary of the reigns of Charles II and James II. Maybe I accidentally miss-typed the date, because I found myself reading about their distant relatives, who took over the British throne two steps on down the line. I’d wanted Stuarts, but found Hanoverians (that’s the kings, Georges I to IV, and William IV).

The problem with having so many Georges at once is that they tend to become blurred and to be known vaguely as the four Georges, or any old man in a wig. How to tell the Georges apart is something of a problem.

This, I thought, is the kind of history teacher I would have appreciated at school. Despite it being of no use what-so-ever for my Lorna Doone research, I read to the end of the extract.

George the first was the one who couldn’t speak English, and didn’t try. …He was brought over by the commercial interests and reigned until 1727 without the least notion of what anyone was talking about.

During this time there was no Queen of England. George the first kept his wife in prison because he believed that she was no better than he was.

What I like, when I’m trawling around for quotes to throw to my students, is something succinct, and challenging. This writer, I thought, would surely have something interesting to say about Charles II or James II. So I checked the title. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy. It was first published in 1950, but – oh joy! – there was a copy in one of our local libraries. I put a request in.

‘It sounds wonderful,’ said the librarian. ‘I might borrow it after you.’

This week I picked up my copy. A handy little paperback, with attractive illustrations on the cover. It looked promising.

Imagine my disappointment on finding not a chronological history book, but a random dipping-in approach to history.

Let me qualify that. The essays were delightful. Witty, concise pen portraits that gave me a glimpse of characters and times drawn in absurdist style. But neither Charles II nor James II featured.

…Menes, King of Upper Egypt… in 3400 BC… is said to have been devoured by a hippopotamus, a rather unlikely story, since this animal is graminivorous and has never been known to eat anybody else. Modern scholars, therefore, were inclined to regard Menes as a myth until recently, when it was pointed out that a slight error in feeding habits of the hippopotamus does not necessarily prove that Menes never existed.

Cuppy’s subject choices are varied and intriguing. I enjoyed them all, and feel that I might now manage to sound quite knowledgeable, in an irreverent sense, about Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Lady Godiva, Lucrezia Borgia and Philip the Sap, amongst others.

To say the least, I now know that graminivorous means an animal that eats grass and/or grass seeds. Which seems so much more precise than using herbivore.

As for Lorna, and the last of the Stuart kings, I’m consulting elsewhere.

Seven ‘Bookish’ deadly sins

Having boasted of my ‘bookish’ virtues last week – I do love an oxymoron – this week I thought I ought to even up the scales.

I’ve tracked back through a few blogs to see if I should be crediting this tag to someone, but it seems that the originator has either been lost in the mist, or they decided to remain anonymous. Given how much we reveal in answering these seven questions, to ourselves, as much as anyone else, maybe they wisely preferred to disappear.

So, deep breath, and before I change my mind.

GREED
What is the most expensive book you own? Which is the least expensive?

I’ve just treated myself to The Writer’s Map, which cost nearly thirty pounds, and think myself very extravagant.

The least expensive? There have been so many bargain books, and the ones I didn’t value haven’t stayed with me… Recently, I bought The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, for fifty pence, in a charity shop. Whether you measure that in pages or weight, that’s a lot of book for the money.

GLUTTONY
What book or books have you shamelessly devoured many times?

Where do I begin? Probably with my earliest memories, ‘See Jane, Spot, see Jane run.’ Those were The Happy Venture Readers books. I was still returning to them after becoming hooked on the Famous Five, Secret Seven and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse. Was it for the sake of the illustrations, I wonder?

I’ve just looked them up on a bookseller site, and if only I hadn’t read mine into bits, I might have used it for my GREED answer.

Lets fast-forward to adult reading, and some of the ones that I turn to most often. The short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, oh, and Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then, there’s Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, The Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, any Jane Austen novel… all the writings of Angela Carter – yes everything, because all of her writing feels fearless and exciting.

LUST
What attributes do you find most attractive in your characters?

Curiosity.

ENVY
What books would you most like to receive as a gift?

Something that is one or more of the following: witty, challenging, thought-provoking, beautiful, exotic, poetic, prosaic, magical, exciting, shocking, hard-hitting, atmospheric, minimalist, heartfelt, hilarious, relevant, life-affirming, emotive, complicated, surprising, relaxing, warming…

Have I missed something? That’s the book I really want.

PRIDE
What book or books do you bring up when you want to sound like an intellectual reader?

How honest must I be? I want to claim that I don’t try to sound like an intellectual reader, but I used to boast about how many books I’d read. Luckily, no one ever challenged that, or they’d soon have discovered that most of my list was light or pulp fiction.

SLOTH
What book or series have you neglected out of sheer laziness?

I started The Odyssey around a year ago, and do want to finish it, but somehow I keep picking up other books instead. Maybe it’s because I already know the outcomes.

WRATH
What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

I’m trying to think of a writer I find offensive, and yet read. I can’t. I stopped wasting valuable reading time on fiction that didn’t work for me years ago, once I’d realised reading wasn’t a test of endurance or a competitive sport, and that I’d completely missed the true meaning of ‘being well-read’.

But, an author I have mixed feelings about is DH Lawrence. I love most of his short stories and poems. Through them, he covers many on the list of wishes I made under the ENVY heading above. His short writing is often layered, complex and surprising.

His novels, on the other hand, leave me mostly cold. I’ve tried, and tried again, to see them as something other than interesting examples of techniques. I always fail.

You may have noticed I’ve not been tagged. I’ve done that thing my dad advises me is best avoided, I volunteered.

If you’d like to see where the idea came from, you might start with Re-enchantment of the World, or Calmgrove, and work back.