Just published: The Quest for Home

Stories of early humans have always fascinated me. I love history. I’ve also struggled with measuring time in thousands of years, rather than hundreds. How easy understanding the past must be for believers in ‘intelligent design’.

I’ve fantasized about what the lives of our early ancestors might have been like. The junior-school history books with their simple stone-age-man summaries and pictures only tantalized. So often early human’s were summed up by the words, primitive, or caveman.

Jacqui Murray’s Crossroads trilogy, set 850,000 years ago, challenges those concepts. The characters in, The Quest for Home, the second of her three novels, are tribal, but they’re far from primitive. They don’t merely hunt and gather, they must adapt to changes in their circumstances, as they’re displaced from their homeland.

There’s some intriguing background about the research that went into building an authentic world, in the foreword. However, if that kind of thing is not for you, don’t worry. This is primarily, a well-written story driven by a set of strong central characters. The historical notes are supplemental, rather than essential. I only read them afterwards.

It is Jacqui’s choices of a few key details that make the world she’s created feel authentic.

He stepped close enough she could smell his sweat, the pond plants stuck in his hair, and the sourness telling her he hadn’t eaten in a while.

From the beginning, we are reminded of the skills early tribes would have needed. Jacqui’s background notes tell us that:

Homo erectus, the star of Crossroads, is a highly intelligent prehistoric hunter-gatherer who outlasted every other species of man and was the first to spread throughout the Old World of Europe and Asia.

Xhosa, the female leader of ‘our’ tribe, is a new kind of woman. Not only has she trained to become a skilled fighter, she is also quick-witted and resourceful.

When her father died, both Xhosa and Nightshade stood ready to accept the responsibilities of Leader and engaged in a series of contests that tested their cunning, strength, planning, and battle skills. If Nightshade had won, he would now be Leader, she content to serve as his Lead Warrior…

Nightshade is a ferocious fighter. But:

In the fullness of the challenge, Nightshade’s brilliance as a warrior failed to defeat Xhosa’s cunning but if strength were the deciding factor, it would be Nightshade.

So, Nightshade, Xhosa’s childhood friend, becomes her Lead Warrior. As the story opens the group have been washed up on an unknown shore. Many are missing, but the rest gather together. They mourn their losses and prepare to go in search of a homebase, a safe place that only Seeker knows the route to.

It only takes a little extra stress on the group dynamics to raise opposition, overt and covert. The tribe must cross unknown territories, owned by foreign tribes. Luckily, Xhosa has loyal supporters in the group gathering round her. These are the ingredients that give this story a fine pace.

Key characters are a mentor, a girl with the ability to foresee big events, and a boy called Seeker.

What made Seeker especially valuable, and why Xhosa didn’t want to lose him, was that he assured her he could find their new homebase. How he would do that had something to do with the movement of the stars. That made no sense to Xhosa but it had guided Seeker, Zvi, and Spirit for more than two handfuls of Moons.

This, then, is a story of refugees. Xhosa’s people are pushed on not just by Seeker’s ability to read the stars, but also by the inhabitants of the lands they cross. The arguments about boundaries and economics have echoes in our own times.

Although The Quest for Home is book two of a trilogy, you don’t need to have read book one, Survival of the Fittest, to follow and enjoy this stage of the story. You might though, find that the temptation to back-track to part one is pretty strong. That’s where I’m going next, anyway.

Available at: Kindle US   Kindle UK   Kindle CA   Kindle AU

Author bio:

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for  NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, In the Footsteps of Giants, Winter 2020, the final chapter in the Crossroads Trilogy.

Amazon Author Page:  https://www.amazon.com/Jacqui-Murray/e/B002E78CQQ/ Blog: https://worddreams.wordpress.com Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jacquimurraywriter/ LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/jacquimurray Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/askatechteacher Twitter: http://twitter.com/worddreams Website:  https://jacquimurray.net

Advertisements

Have I said enough? I aimed to be brief…

This week, while checking back through an old diary, I found a quote I’d like to share. It comes from the Scottish poet, Liz Lochhead, and seems as valuable and applicable to prose as poetry.

A poet has to trust the readers’ intuition and intelligence…

Woman Reading a Novel, 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Trusting the reader is both important and difficult. It’s not just about avoiding over-explaining things, it’s also about ensuring we say enough to make our meaning clear. While I like to think that I’m able to make that judgement, I’m aware that, especially when I’m writing up to a deadline, I have blind spots.

There are some tried and tested solutions to this problem. One, is the thing so many writers find tricky, to put your first draft away for several weeks as soon as you think it’s finished. If you go on to write on other topics, then that theory says that by the time you return to your first piece you’ll view it through fresh eyes.

If time is shorter, and in my experience it so often is, you might try reading it aloud to yourself. Alternatively, you can give your writing to someone you trust and let them tell you what they think… what they really think. Because, the other aspect of this quote that interests me is that when she says, trust the reader’s intuition and intelligence… Liz Lochhead seems to echo a suggestion I picked up from Stephen King’s autobiography, On Writing.

In it, he talks about having a group of ideal readers who check the first drafts of his manuscripts. These people represent the readers he expects to buy his novels. He suggests that he writes with an idea not just about his story, but about the style of telling that will suit the audience he’s aiming for.

Print by Alberto Manrique

Whether we’re aware of this or not, I think we all write with a reader in mind. It may be that we can’t visualize that audience, but we surely know something about the intuition and intelligence we expect from them. I suspect they’re mostly people like us, or they’re the ‘beings’ we’d like to be.

Finding readers who understand who you are, and what you aspire to, can be tricky. l’m lucky in having two trusted readers. They’re both people I know well, and who know me well.

I don’t say I write for them, my writing is something completely selfish. But when I’ve finished, and I’m checking the draft, I do find myself thinking about how Ray or Ruth will perceive my words.

And later, if either says, ‘I don’t get why/what/how...’ then no matter how much I might want to protest, I know that I’ve got to think about making changes to my writing.

Woman Reading a Novel, painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Just published: Jean Lee’s new novella.

Night’s Tooth is a fantasy western. Everything we need to know about what this story is going to do is set up in the opening sentence.

Sumac tucks the brass buttons off the last Confederacy coat into his pocket, before tossing it into the dying fire.

Here we have a character with an interesting name. I happen to know that Sumac is a type of tree, known in Britain as Stag’s Horn. Is this relevant?

I always assume names are potentially important, and since I have the botanical reference in my head, every time Sumac is mentioned, I get a momentary memory of the tree. I also know that sumac powder can be bought for cooking with, though I’ve never used it.

But I digress. Why is Sumac keeping the buttons rather than the coats? That’s intriguing, particularly since the next sentence explains something of where he is, and where the coats have come from.

The road up from Bad Axe had been long and cold, and none of the Wanted papers mentioned anything about Slit Mick’s armed companions.

Confederacy coats confirm I’m in America, and the period is some time in, or after the 1860s. It’s winter, and Sumac has travelled a long way. He must be formidable, because in the next sentence we discover not only that he’s killed the whole gang, also that he ‘enjoyed‘ the challenge.

Sumac, then, is impressively ruthless. I won’t say admirably, since the next thing he does is to pick human flesh from between his teeth. In case we’ve misunderstood the significance of that, this section finishes with Sumac thinking about the dead men as part of the ‘food chain‘.

Here is no cosy hero, despite his appearance.

Sumac’s built like a god, a girl told him once, a god of the old country. He asked which country that was. She called it Norway.

Worrying as some of his actions and attitudes are, Sumac is the focus of our attention. The narration is third person, but we experience the world, and events, as he does. The gang, nearly blew Sumac’s ear clean off when he came for Mick, so it was only right Sumac had his fun with those worthless hunks of meat… Did you note that, ‘only right‘?

I can’t say I’m comfortable with the idea that Sumac had his fun. But I’m in the-world-of-story, and Jean is making it easy for me to accept the unacceptable. Besides, with a name like Slit Mick, the outcome was always going to be bloody. But just in case you did begin reading in the expectation of a traditional Western, that’s been rectified.

It soon becomes clear that Sumac is not human. Besides his appetites and attitudes, he is able to transform into a cougar and use natural magic. His observations about the way the world works are intriguingly alternative.

The men’s photographs are so grainy Sumac wonders why anyone bothers with that technological contraption of wood and glass to do what anyone’s done just fine with pencils and paint.

The narrative voice is also interesting. It’s third person, but so close to Sumac that it assumes the oddities of his sentence structures, a distinctive, colloquial, syntax. Look for instance, at what happens when Sumac arrives at the sheriff’s office, with Slit Mick’s body, to collect the two thousand dollar bounty.

Sumac makes no never mind about the bloody handprint he leaves on the knob.

There’s not much time to wonder, though. Slit Mick is small-fry compared to the big prize Sumac is really after, a mysterious character known as, Night’s Tooth.

“Sumac don’t dare lose him, not now, not when he’s so close Sumac can catch his canine scent riding the snow and coal dust.”

The hunt is on. We’ve yet to discover the true nature of any of the creatures roaming the town, or the full extent of what is at stake. This is an edge of the seat, full speed journey, with plenty of unexpected twists.

Once Upon a Time in the North concludes my #10booksofsummerchallenge

Yes, you have just read my title correctly, I’ve finished the summer reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 Books! Philip Pullman’s novella is the one I kept for last and I finished it in one sitting.

There are still five days to the challenge deadline. No last minute race against the clock for me, I’m calm: I’m sorted. This is unheard of. So, why is it that I don’t feel efficient?

Maybe because I was a little, just a little, disappointed in the book I’d looked forwards to.

As an object, it is delightfully bookish. A lot of thought went into the design and manufacture. For a start, it’s hand-sized. If it had followed standard dimensions, it would have been a narrow volume.

Because it’s short in height, there are more pages, and the spine is wide enough to display the author, title and publisher, comfortably. It looks attractive on the shelf. If I were into interior design, I could imagine wanting a row of them, in matching and contrasting colours.

I wanted to read it. I’ve been savouring the moment of beginning since several months before this challenge started.

The inside reminded me of expensive notebooks, the paper is just that quality that demands such neat perfection I would worry about making the first mark. This is not just a book to own, or to treasure, it’s an artefact that might have come from the parallel universe it describes.

The lovely woodcut illustrations, by John Lawrence are part of the other-wordly charm. The larger ones are footnotes to the action, the thumbnails are story divisions. There are no numbered, or named, chapters. It’s a book that demonstrates how the combination of paper, ink and content can enhance a reading experience.

After the story ends, there is an appendix. Newspaper clippings, letters, year-book extracts, rules for a game and an academic certificate are included. While this book is a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy for the readers in this universe, in the universe it describes, What we’ve read is an historical document.

It wasn’t only the quality of the paper that kept me turning the pages. The story was nicely paced, right from the opening line.

The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong north-west wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve.

It’s a pretty spectacular entrance for Lee Scoresby and his daemon, Hester. They’re drifters, in the best American western tradition. Having won his balloon in a poker game, Lee is ‘blown by the winds of chance‘ into Novy Odense, in the Arctic, a place that ‘looked like a place where there was work to be done.’

The first thing he establishes on landing is that the work he’s looking for is not about striking it rich in the expected manner. He’s not there because of the ‘oil rush‘, even if he does look to the locals like ‘a roughneck‘. The question at the opening of the book, then, is what does Lee Scoresby want?

The journey to finding that out includes a few false starts, and blind alleys. Tension builds, shifts and rebuilds. There is a neatly plotted rise in tension.

There is a ‘but’, for me, though.

His Dark Materials were also books of ideas. Soon after they were published discussion began on what was happening below the surface of the action. The story included, if the reader chose to look, additional layers to interpret. It was perfectly acceptable to race through the adventure without recognising anything else happening, of course. But for some of us, the icing on this cake was recognising references, and identifying how they worked.

Although the Dark Materials trilogy was sold in the children’s section, most reviews claim it was written without a specific audience in mind. If I’d checked some other reviews before starting this novella, I would have realised that despite the film references, Once Upon a Time in The North is a book for children. It wasn’t a disappointment, this is beautifully written and paced.

But I probably won’t be tempted by any more of the spin-offs, despite the tactile design.

Prisoners, escapades and histories: my #10booksofsummer.

This week I’ve finished three more books from the ten I chose for the reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 books, Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I’ve little to say about Coraline. It’s a competent novel, but I don’t think it would have appealed to me as a child. There were nice moments, and it wasn’t a struggle. Other reviewers have been positive and Henry Selick made it into a film, in 2009. I just didn’t feel any magic.

Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, grabbed me by the heart and pulled me into his story. I wished I’d read it when I was young. Though I probably would have missed some of the humour.

That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mostly.

I loved every moment until Tom Sawyer came back in and took over. Why, of why did Twain do that? Oh, I know it made commercial sense, and that he thought of Huck as a spin off from the highly successful Tom Sawyer, but I so much preferred honest Huck. As, I’m sure, the long suffering Jim must have, too.

I’ve passed Huckleberry to my fourteen year-old nephew, to while-away the hours of a long journey. I’m looking forward to finding out if it works for him, too.

It’s a good job Tom Sawyer is not part of this challenge. I’m not sure I can face him, yet.

I first heard about Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart on the BBC Radio 4 book show, A Good Read, in 2013. I bought a copy, but it stayed on my TBR shelf.

Then last year, it won the Cheltenham Booker 1958 debate. As Claire and I drove home, I said, ‘I’ve got to read that novel, now.’ But somehow, the time has never been right.

When I gathered books for this challenge, Things Fall Apart was the first I decided on. So I was sorry when I couldn’t engage with Okonkwo, the main character. It’s what I expect to do when the opening paragraph seems to offer a hero.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten…

There’s a lovely description of the wrestling match. But, as soon as Okonkwo has won the story jumps forwards, ‘That was many years ago, twenty or more...’ Now, Okonkwo has a ‘severe look‘, and he walks ‘as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.‘ In case, like me, you thought that sounded a little playful, the next aspect of this character portrait reverses that:

He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men.

There are no parallel descriptions of how he behaves when happy. Instead, it is clear that Okonkwo is a repressed and repressive character, who doesn’t allow even his family to get close. If they couldn’t, then why should I be allowed to do so?

The narrator did his best, providing me with influences and events that could explain Okonkwo. ‘Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.‘ Respect, then is his goal, and we’ve already been shown that to earn that, he must be, ‘a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father...’

I could understand, but I struggled to empathise. ‘Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.‘ My sympathies were with them, fleeting though the glimpses of individuals were.

Yet, I read on. I began to think about why that was.

Every detail counts. It feeds the story. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, reclines ‘on a mud bed in his hut playing on his flute.’ He’s a lazy man, ‘a failure‘ with huge debts. Okonkwo, on the other hand, ‘stretched himself on his bamboo bed‘. It’s night-time when he goes to rest.

Domestic detail is threaded through the dialogue and action without explanation. Gourds were filled with palm-wine when Unoka ‘made merry‘; a kola nut disc was broken and shared by two men beginning a discussion; prayers were said and the talk was of yam growing, or the threat of heavy rain. Wives kept to their own huts in the compound, cooking meals and raising their children. I was not a stranger being shown something unusual, I was taking part in something ordinary.

I became involved in the domestic, social and spiritual realities of Okonkwo’s community. I had a place in the village. I shared the struggles and dangers, the everyday routines and expectations.

That’s clever. Achebe has taken the advice to ‘show, not tell’ to another level.This is a fine and powerful story. It cut through what I thought I knew about history and civilisation.

I’m not in a physical prison, but the tribute from Nelson Mandela, quoted on the cover, made me think about how complacent-thinking can fence us in. He said, ‘The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.

A lot of ‘things‘ have been shaken, for me. I don’t say anything will ‘fall apart‘, but it’s good to be able to turn a story round and think again about the values of what has been lost.

Reading Akunin and Pratchett for the #10BooksofSummer challenge.

Putting Boris Akunin with Terry Pratchett feels like the clue to a cryptic crossword, or perhaps a literary riddle. They’re novels five and six from my Ten-Books-of-Summer challenge and, on first sight, an unlikely pairing. Not that I read them together, but the second did follow close-on-the-heels of the first. Given the way the month is slipping by, I felt I needed to make more effort with my reading schedule.

Let me start by being shallow. What drew me to Pelagia and The White Bulldog was the cover. I liked the colours, and the firm lines, as well as the details. It suggested setting and period. I’ve been caught out before by inaccurate book covers, but in this case, my instinct was true. Every detail is relevant, though I didn’t understand quite how cleverly D. Rink had interpreted the story until I’d finished the novel.

As an aside, here’s a hint for any publishers who might stumble across this post: there’s more than one advantage in employing an artist rather than trawling through out-of-copyright images for something that’s vaguely appropriate.

The story opens in medias res (that’s the technical term for ‘in the midst of things’) with a long sentence. I know there’s a lot of valuable advice out there about brevity and simplicity. I agree with it. I’ll go further – I try to abide by it, especially on my blog.

But occasionally, I stumble across a piece of writing that demonstrates how to break that rule. I didn’t itch to un-cap my red-correction pen when I read this opening sentence:

…But I should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by a genuine plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you can never do it, what with all that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging way down low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling there only just above the tops of the bell-towers, for all the world like one of our renowned ‘smetna’ variety apples, the ones that the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to the shows in Europe.

I hadn’t even realised just how long it was, until I started copying it out.

To have interrupted this flow with stronger punctuation would have broken the lyrical dream I was entering. The world presented is a different continent and historical period to mine, but the delivery draws me in.

The narrator is close beside us, ‘I should tell you...’ It’s confidential. He trusts us to understand and share his view. ‘You‘, he says, again and again. I do feel that this is a male voice, though I’m not sure why. A male author doesn’t have to signify a male narrator.

There are references to Sherlock Holmes and, apparently, Akunin was influenced by Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose. This novel, however, feels like magical realism, though the set-up is quirky rather than fantastical. Sister Pelagia, a nun, is sent by His Grace Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhie, to discover who is trying to ‘murder’ his aunt’s valuable white bulldogs. As she investigates this crime, Pelagia stumbles across a whole host of additional situations.

This is a book that deserves careful reading. What can seem like inconsequential rambles into back-story will be key to the resolution. At its heart, this is a traditionally styled crime novel, with neatly deployed smoke and mirrors.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents also uses a range of clever miss-directions. Maurice, a talking cat with questionable moral values, leads a clan of talking rats and a ‘stupid looking kid‘ who plays the flute. They’re travelling from town to town pulling a tremendous Pied Piper scam.

But, the rats, who used to live on the rubbish heap at the back of the University for Wizards, have begun to struggle with their recently acquired senses of individual identity. In doing so, they force Maurice, and us, to share their examination of actions and attitudes, and enter into philosophical and ethical avenues of debate.

The older clan member, Hamnpork, would rather ‘the Change‘ hadn’t happened. He thinks that ‘setting fire to a candle is a waste of perfectly good food.’

Dangerous Beans, though, was born after ‘the Change‘ happened. He is clear about why candles should be burned rather than eaten.

‘We have to be able to control the fire, sir,’ said Dangerous Beans calmly. ‘With the flame we make a statement to the darkness. We say: we are separate. We say: we are not just rats. We say: we are The Clan.’

It’s a pacey, character driven story. For those who care to look, it’s threaded through with satirical observations. Cultural myths about plague and rats are central. In the Author’s Note, at the end of the novel, Pratchett says:

I have read, in the past few months, more about rats than is good for me. Most of the true stuff… is so unbelievable that I didn’t include it in case readers thought I’d made it up.

There’s more than biological detail, though. He visits the Pied Piper, Dick Wittington, Puss-in-boots, Alice in Wonderland, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, plus Beatrix Potter and the legion of anthropomorphic story-writers who followed her.

As for James Herbert – remember his horror story about a pack of mutant rats that threaten human life? Pratchett turns that upsides-down. His rat-Clan have eaten the discarded ‘dribbly candle ends‘ and ‘green bubbly stuff‘ that are thrown so carelessly on the tip the rats knew as both ‘home‘ and ‘lunch‘. The result is the evolution of an heroic Clan, as keen as Sister Pelagia to think carefully about doing the right thing.

Improbable or not, the pairing of these two novels began to seem like a happy accident, with a lot of valuable writing practice in common.

Six degrees of Separation – The Wild Card – leads me to book four of my 10 books of summer.

Ah, card games. Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, might have had me in mind when she titled this months six degrees as a Wild Card. I love cards so much I’ve uninstalled the virtual games from my phone and laptop.

As a teenager, my favourite game was cheat. I don’t remember much about the rules. It was fun, and required devious strategies.

The six degrees wild-card starts a chain from the title we finished with last month. Since I chose to follow short stories then, I’m continuing that format, beginning with Slog’s Dad, by David Almond.

Davie, the worldly-wise friend of Slog, describes what happens one spring day, six months after Slog’s dad died.

We were crossing the square to Myers pork shop. Slog stopped dead in his tracks.

“What’s up?” I said.

He nodded across the square.

“Look,” he said.

“Look at what?”

“It’s me dad,” he whispered.

“Your dad?”

“Aye.”

I just looked at him.

“That bloke there,” he said.

“What bloke where?”

“Him on the bench. Him with the cap on. Him with the stick.”

Davie’s not falling for that. The ‘bloke‘ is scruffy, ‘like he was poor, or like he’s been on a very long journey.’

“He looks a bit different,” said Slog. “But that’s just cos he’s been…”

“Transfigured,” said the bloke.

“Aye,” said Slog. “Transfigured.

It’s a 2,550 word story. It doesn’t take long to read, but my goodness it lingers.

Ghosts, is a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that also deals with attitudes and ideas about death, love and beliefs. Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, is the fourth of my 10 books of summer challenge.

Ghosts, is set in Nigeria, where a retired mathematics professor meets a man he believed had been killed in the Biafran war of 1967.

Perhaps I should have bent down, grabbed a handful of sand, and thrown it at him, in the way my people do to make sure a person is not a ghost.

From the first page, I was reminded of, No One Writes to The Colonel, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not just because both stories feature professional men who have spent years waiting for their pensions, these are both so much more than that. They’re immersive experiences. There are unpredictable revelations, shifts in emotions, life-details, cultural references and examinations of loss and love.

For my fourth link, I’m thinking about letters. I return to Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. The title story is a second-person narration, in which ‘you‘ are unable to write home about your experiences in America, because it falls so far below the expectations of ‘your’ family.

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.

I may not be American, but I imagine a similar story written from the perspective of someone coming to live in Britain and feel goosebumps. It’s challenging, even frightening, to see how a stranger views our every-day lives.

An American pushes friendship on ‘you‘, the Nigerian waitress at a small cafe.

He came in the third day and began talking before he ordered, about how he had visited Bombay and now wanted to visit Lagos, to see how real people lived, like in the shantytowns, because he never did any of the silly tourist stuff when he was abroad.

Issues of connection and belonging and exploitation are explored in most of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories. In, Jumping Monkey Hill, Ujunwa is at an African Writers Workshop, outside Cape Town.

…the resort had the complacence of the well-fed about it, the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa.

The account of her week includes fragments of the story Ujunwa writes, and summaries of some of the stories the other writers produce. The actions and comments of the workshop leader, and his wife, draw attention to ideas not only about what truth is, but who has the right to demand it, or decide what it is.

The next day at breakfast, Isabel…said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had come from Nigerian royal stock. The first thing that came to Ujunwa’s mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London. She did not ask that but instead said – because she could not resist – that she was indeed a princess…

I loved the way the role of story and story-teller was examined.

My last link is another story about telling stories from the same collection. The Headstrong Historian, highlights the way political and economic decisions impact on the individual.

… Ayaju told a story of two people who took a land case to the white men’s court; the first man was lying but could speak the white men’s language, while the second man, the rightful owner of the land, could not, and so he lost his case, was beaten and locked up and ordered to give up his land.

It’s another story that kept me guessing. Is the Headstrong Historian of the title Nwamgba, who chooses her own husband, then schemes to ensure that her only son will survive and thrive? Maybe it is her granddaughter, Afamefuna.

Nwamgba… was thrilled by the child’s solemn interest in her poetry and her stories…

Alternately, does the title refer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. After all, she’s led me to question not just what I know of the history of Nigeria and Nigerians, but also of the shape and history of western democracy. That’s something it’s all too easy to view complacently, from the comfortable inside.

The aim of the card game, Cheat, was to shed as many cards as possible, without anyone noticing you were giving more than you claimed. My chain of short stories only uses three authors, but includes the fourth of my 10 books of summer reviews. Maybe that breaks the six-degrees rules. I hope not. I’m thinking of this as multi-tasking…

Card Sharp, by 1636-1638 by Georges de La Tour,

Pastors and Masters, & The Guest Cat – two from my #10booksofsummer list

In case my title has you saying, ‘hashtag what?’ I’ll quickly remind you that back at the beginning of June, I volunteered to join the summer reading challenge set by 746 Books.

Still lost? Here’s the recap: I listed 10 books I intended to read, and review, before September 3rd. So far, I’ve completed one.

I know, I’m woefully behind. I’ve got six more Mondays between now and the end of the challenge, and next week I’m planning to do the Six Degrees one, instead. So even my dodgy maths confirms I’ve got to do some doubling-up, if I’m going to fit nine books into five posts.

Hence, this week, Ivy Compton-Burnett gets paired with Takashi Hiraide. The combination results in a title that seems to me suitable for an intriguing leap into magical realism. Perhaps I could have read alternated chapters from each. It’s a fleeting thought, probably indicative of hysteria. I have come through the other side of the combined 238 pages feeling a little disorientated.

I began in the suburb’s of Tokyo, in the late 1980s. My unnamed narrator led me quietly around the home he and his wife rented, explaining in great detail what it looked and felt like, and how they came to live there. I learn a lot about them and their lives, even before Chibi, the cat of the title, appeared.

This is a gently paced, reflective tale. When I checked up on the author, I was not surprised to find that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. The shaping of the story, the attention to detail, the presentation of key images seemed to lead me into areas of quiet contemplation. Even the opening, a description of a window in their kitchen, intrigued.

The small window in the corner of our kitchen bordered on a tall wooden fence, so close a person could barely pass by. From inside the house, its frosted glass looked like a dim movie screen. There was a small knothole in the wooden fence and the green of the bamboo hedge – which was about ten feet wide, to the north of the alley – was always projected on to the crude screen. Whenever someone walked by in the narrow alleyway, a figure formed, filling the entire window. Viewed from the dark interior of the house, sunny days seemed ever more vivid, and working perhaps on the same principle as a camera obscura, the figures of people walking past were turned upside down.

That window, it seemed to me, was the key to the way the narrator presented his world. There were backstories, digressions, contemplations and forward movement. It was one of the most relaxing and yet entertaining reads I’ve ever had. I read slowly, savouring the scenes.

What slowed me up with Pastors and Masters, on the other hand, was the need to concentrate. With hardly any description at all, and no scene-setting hints, I had to pick up my clues from a series of sharply observed dialogues between a challengingly large cast of characters for a small book.

It opens with a tirade that sets a pace, tone and style that never relents.

‘Well, this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire…I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it…’

The school remains unnamed, and so does the English university town. I finally pinned the period down during the dinner party that concludes the novel.

‘Well, we were certainly classed by the state with paupers and idiots and children, before we had the vote,’ said Miss Basden. ‘I mean we women were.’

Women in England who were householders, and over the age of 30, got the vote in 1918. But I got closer than that when a little later Miss Basden says:

‘I think these changes in the divorce laws will do a great deal towards equalising the position of women’…

I looked that one up and found The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923. The novel was published in 1925.

I enjoyed the repartee, though after getting lost twice in the first chapter, I wrote myself a character list. I was still using it at the end of the book for the dinner party.

How glad I was only to be an observer at that feast. It was littered with snide asides, direct and indirect personal verbal attacks. Whoever repeats that old saying about sticks and stones should check out the interplay between these characters. Part of the power of their exchanges is created by the absence of authorial comment or explanation.

Compton-Burnett has been described as dangerous. She’s been compared to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Pinter. I’m inclined to agree. Maybe I’ll track down another of her novels and see how they compare. But when I do, I’ll set myself a gap from any other kind of reading.

Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.

Daphne du Maurier: truth and fiction.

I picked up Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier looking for a little background on My Cousin Rachel, nothing more. I quickly discovered that you can’t just drop into the middle of Daphne’s life and then walk away. Or rather, when you look up 1949 you’re faced with a lot of statements that imply a mass of missed backstory.

Ellen was rightly worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward. But what saved her friend was what had always saved and rescued her: the very work she saw as fatal to her human relationships. In Florence, Daphne had felt the first faint stirrings of a novel about a woman, a widow like Ellen, who would have many of Ellen’s characteristics and even look like her: the point of the novel would be that this woman was the source of great torment to others.

I’m nosy. I found the simple answers I’d hoped for, but they carried with them a lot more questions. Who was Ellen? What kind of torment was she to du Maurier? What did ‘distorted view‘ mean?

Here was a writer who’d been on my shelves since my young teenage. I can still remember being gripped by, The Loving Spirit. She’d rarely let me down. I particularly liked the strand of Gothic that threaded it’s way through so much of her long and short fiction.

Some of her books carried her photo. It was a rather lovely, kindly, face, I thought. Other publicity, of her sailing with her husband, or playing with her children, left me with an impression of a sun-lit, sea-bound, model family. For years, if I imagined her life at all, it was one of endless summers.

I know, how impossible is that? Still, it didn’t necessarily follow that the alternative would be anything significant, or ground shaking, did it?

How wrong I was. The story of du Maurier, according to Forster, is a very modern one. It includes a dominant father, a strong but distant mother, and questions about gender identity and sexual freedom. All of this is played out in the early years of the twentieth century, largely in London.

A biography written by a novelist might be expected to explore character, to look for the motivations and inciting incidents that lead to a career as a successful and prolific writer. I found myself caring about Daphne in the same way I cared about Rachel and Philip in, My Cousin Rachel.

There were moments when I pulled back from the biography and reminded myself that du Maurier was a real woman. Then I began to ask myself questions about her right to privacy.

Like any other narrator, Forster had chosen which scenes we would see, which fragment of diary or letter to share. If I was questioning the narrator in My Cousin Rachel, shouldn’t I also question Forster?

When I look again at my first quote, I have a perfect example of where my discomfort comes from. It’s the occasional inclusion of a word, like ‘rightly‘. Take it away and I feel less pushed.

Ellen was worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward.

I probably seem niggly. This kind of direction is so slight, it’s questionable whether there is an intention to direct. But then there’s:

It was as though she…

Or even:

The whole tone of her letters was one of outraged distress…

As in any biography, there are gaps in the evidence. Sometimes because du Maurier had written about the same event in contrasting ways, to different people, at others because nothing had been written at all, and yet other people had supplied details of actions.

This is the point at which hypothesis has to take over, however unsatisfactory…

I wish Forster had trusted me to draw my own conclusions. Worse, were the times when Forster insisted on summing up a situation after she’d presented the evidence.

If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.

My favourite moment? It’s from a letter written by the senior editor to Victor Gollancz, about the manuscript of her novel, Rebecca.

…brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense… I don’t know another author who imagines so hard all the time. …the spelling is quite incredible.

I take heart any time I find an author who has struggled with spelling, aside from the typos, mine seems to get worse and werse.

*Photo on header, of Fowey, Cornwall, by Alan Hearn