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Thursday 27 April 2017

Book review - The Japanese Girl

Winston Graham is one of my many favourite authors. I first encountered him with the paperback Marnie (1961), and then discovered his Poldark novels (the first published in 1945). Side by side with these, I read a number of his suspense and historical novels, too. The Japanese Girl (1971) seems to be his only collection of short stories; their publication dates range from 1947 to 1971, though there is no indication when each individual tale was published.  

It’s a mixed bag, and not all of the fourteen were successful for me; yet it’s definitely a worthwhile read. According to Graham, ‘The Japanese Girl’ stemmed from a chance meeting with a Japanese girl in a train to Brighton. The story indeed begins in this manner, with Jack the narrator smitten by her: ‘You couldn’t call her good-looking but just something about her appealed to me and made me feel queer, and God knows I’m no womaniser…’ (p8)  He is married, though the relationship has gone sour; his wife Hettie ‘was like a may-fly or something, beautiful for a day.’ (p10)

The narrator works as an assistant cashier for a big London dock firm. Boring job, a boring life, really. He engineered another chance meeting with the Japanese girl and invited her to join him for a drink in a ‘quite nice pub… She didn’t say no, and that’s how it all began’ (p12) He embarked on an affair with Yodi, the Japanese girl. As time went on, they dreamed of running away together, travelling abroad. But for that they needed plenty of money. He decided to rob the firm, small sums each week, to build up a nest-egg. She agrees to help him. Inevitably, it doesn’t quite work out.

‘The Medici Ear-ring’ is another first-person story, with the narrator being an impecunious painter. One of his models was Lucille, who ‘had the colouring I like: autumn-tinted hair and short-sighted sleepy eyes with umber depths to them.’ Lucille was the daughter of a friend, Bob who enjoyed showing off an ancient ear-ring his family had acquired. Then, one night, during a card game of chance where money was lost, the ear-ring goes missing. The mystery tried the friendship of all those present. A twist ending; possibly an early foray into the realm of the unreliable narrator concept.

‘Cotty’s Cove’ is set in Cornwall, possibly in the Poldark period. Lavinia Cotty was a 35-year-old spinster. When she could get away from caring for her ailing father, she’d spend time in the quite cove and dream of poetry and a little fiction – until she discovered a man washed up on the shingle. An atmospheric tale about unrequited love. The cove can be found on any large-scale map of Perranporth beach, just south of Wheal Vlow adit.

Graham has the pleasant knack of putting the reader in the scene, whether it’s that cove or elsewhere: ‘… the frost has come down like thin icing sugar on branch and brick and flag, and the pools in the dented road are glazing over like the eyes of a man dying.’ (p80) Or this: ‘The bay windows spread wide like an alderman’s waistcoat.’ (p76)  I particularly liked this: ‘Then with sweat crawling all over him like a nest of worms, he jerked ahead.’ (p86)

‘At the Chalet Lartrec’ comes of ‘being benighted on the Bernina Pass in the first snow of winter’, Graham says. The narrator, Major Vane, a British officer attached to UNESCO found himself caught in a snow-storm. ‘The clouds were lowering all around like elephants’ bellies…’ (p99) He had to get out often so he could clear the windscreen: ‘The snow was soft in my face, like walking into a flight of cold wet moths…’ (p100) He creates eeriness with few words: ‘There was no one about, and the wind whistled through the slit between the houses like an errand boy with bad teeth.’ (p100) He obtains shelter at the chalet Lartrec, where he learns of his host’s recent past in the uprising of Hungary in 1956. Another fine twist in this tale, too.

‘The Cornish Farm’ is about a property the narrator and his wife purchase. There is talk of a violent history in the farm’s recent past. This too has plenty of atmosphere, as well as humour: ‘… it depressed me to discover the squalor in which so many people live. Or perhaps it is only people who want to sell their houses who live that way. It also depressed me to discover the wickedness of estate agents. After a time one gets tired of being shown into the “well-equipped” kitchen to find it dominated by an enormous stove installed about the year of Gladstone’s wedding and smoking from every crack; then, coughing heartily and with eyes smarting, to be led through a broken glass door into the “conservatory” which in fact is a lean-to shed with a little stove of its own where all the real cooking is done…’ (p125) A tale of mystery and perhaps madness; the reader must decide.

‘The Basket Chair’ is a ghost story – or is it? Julian Whiteleaf had his first coronary when he was staying with his niece Agnes and her husband Roy Paynter. He was careful with his money, despite having been bequeathed a vast sum by one of his psychic society’s patrons. Now, he agreed the couple could look after him and he would pay £5 per week towards his keep. Over time, he noticed strange sounds in the house. The basket chair in his bedroom seemed to move of its own volition and creak ever so slightly; he was convinced he was finally witnessing a psychic event… A clever tale in the Roald Dahl tradition.

‘Jacka’s Fight’ concerns Jacka Fawle who moved from Helston in Cornwall to find his fortune in America; when he had done so, he would send for his wife and children. He was a godly man and scrimped and saved to this end. One day in the early 1890s he made friends with a number of Cornishmen who were promoting a fellow in the boxing ring. Temptation is offered, to make a killing… The culmination of the story is the five pages of the big fight: the upstart contender Fitz against the champion Corbett. The telling is as bruising as the fight itself, full of tension: ‘In the fifth round it appears as if Fitz is done. His lips are swollen, the eye half closed, his nose bleeding, his body crimson all over, part with the blows it has received, part from the blood on Corbett’s gloves…’ (p203) An excellent pugilistic tale.

Finally, there’s ‘But for the Grace of God’, a tale of the Christ just before and after the crucifixion, movingly told by the irreverent yet finally enlightened Jesus Bar-Abbas.

At the book’s publication, the Sunday Times said, ‘Real versatility in setting and background.’ That sums up this collection. If you appreciate short story writing, you should enjoy many of these examples. 

[Coincidence: my birthday is the same as his; he was born forty years earlier. He died in 2003, aged 95].

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Book review - Little House on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic autobiographical children's novel (1935) has been in print since its first publication and it’s not difficult to see why. It is a simply told enchanting depiction of a time lost as seen through the eyes of a child, though revealed in the third person some sixty-odd years after the events depicted.

Note: I've read a number of reviewers who feel uncomfortable with some of the material in this book, even declaring it racist. I would suggest that if they bring their present-day consciences (and prejudices) to bear on a book written of its time, either leave their political correctness at the front cover or don't bother to read any 19th and early twentieth century literature.

Ma (Caroline) and Pa (Charles) Ingalls and their three children, Mary, baby Carrie and Laura are leaving behind the Big Woods of Wisconsin, intent on settling in Indian country. The family travels in a single wagon, accompanied by their dog, Jack. They come close to losing everything while crossing a high-water creek, but they survive and camp out on the prairie. All alone on the prairie. While the events of the true story took place about 1869-1870, this story can be taken as a microcosm of the mass migration of settlers moving West in the 1830s-1850s. Their bravery and steadfastness is taken for granted. It must have been a daunting undertaking. And at times the man of the family had to leave them to their own devices while he went hunting for food: ‘He went away. For a little while they could see the upper part of him above the tall grasses, going away and growing smaller. Then he went out of sight and the prairie was empty.’ (p27)

Eventually, they find a spot near Verdigris River where Pa will build their house on the prairie, using logs from the creek bottoms. They unloaded the wagon then dismantled it, using the wagon cover to protect their belongings; all that was left were the four wheels and the parts that connected them: ‘It was strange and frightening to be left without the wagon on the High Prairie. The land and the sky seemed too large, and Laura felt small. She wanted to hide and be still in the tall grass, like a little prairie chicken. But she didn’t. She helped Ma, while Mary sat on the grass and minded Baby Carrie.’(p34)

Once the house was built, the wagon was reconstructed. The wagon canvas served as a temporary roof; eventually, a wooden roof and floor would be installed. It would be needed to obtain supplies from the town of Independence some forty miles away. Pa also constructed a barn to protect their horses, for wolves roamed about: ‘There in the moonlight sat half a circle of wolves. They sat on their haunches and looked at Laura in the window, and she looked at them. She had never seen such big wolves…’ (p56)

Throughout we get atmospheric glimpses of nature: ‘Everything was silent, listening to the nightingale’s song. The bird sang on and on. The cool wind moved over the prairie and the song was round and clear above the grasses’ whispering. The sky was like a bowl of light overturned on the flat black land.’ (p41)

Another impression: ‘All along the road the wild larkspur was blossoming pink and blue and white, birds balanced on yellow plumes of goldenrod, and butterflies were fluttering. Starry daisies lighted the shadows under trees, squirrels chattered on branches overhead, white-tailed rabbits hopped along the road, and snakes wriggled quickly across it when they heard the wagon coming.’ (p66) ‘… and the ox-eyed daisies’ yellow petals hung down from the crown centres.’ (p102)

Life was simpler. They didn’t think of themselves as poor. They felt blessed, because they were a family, and loved. At Christmas, the girls were overjoyed to get from Santa a glittering new cup each, and sticks of candy, and heart-shaped cakes, and a bright new penny. ‘There never had been such a Christmas.’ (p143) ‘The ground was hot under their bare feet. The sunshine pierced through their faded dresses and tingled on their arms and backs. The air was really as hot as the air in an oven, and it smelled faintly like baking bread. Pa said the smell came from all the grass seeds parching in the heat.’ (p102)

Their first encounter with Indians is tense, during one of Pa’s hunting absences, but the incident was harmless enough, though a couple of these visitors stole Ma’s cornbread and Pa’s tobacco pouch. They almost took the bundle of furs (which were to be traded for seeds and a plough), but refrained. It did raise the thorny issue of settling in Indian country: ‘The government is going to move these Indians father west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?’ Laura said, ‘Yes, Pa. But, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians made to have to…?’ Pa said, ‘No more questions, Laura. Go to sleep.’ (p136)

Their stay in the log cabin only amounted to about a year. Pa had wanderlust, and had heard that the army was intent on moving settlers east, over the territory border, since they’d mistakenly settled in Osage reservation land. So Pa upped sticks, left behind all that hard work, and lit out in the wagon with his family to Minnesota.

A poignant tale, possibly idealised, but well told.

The ‘Little House’ series consists of:
Little House in the Big Woods (1932)
Farmer Boy (1933)
Little House on the Prairie (1935)
On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937)
By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939)
The Long Winter (1940)
Little Town on the Prairie (1941)
These Happy Golden Years (1943)

Other authors have added to the series.

The TV series starring Michael Landon (1936-1991) ran from 1974 to 1982.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Book review - More to Life

The fictionalised travel memoir More to Life (2017),  'based on real events', is by Maureen Moss, an inveterate globetrotter. It is at turns illuminating, poignant and amusing.

Approaching her fiftieth year, suffering the trauma of divorce, loss of job and sale of house, Rachael Green decides to ‘find herself’ by travelling to the Far East. Small snag: she has three children, two of them teenagers. It’s agreed she’ll take Conrad and Sara, leaving the youngest Sophie with her ex. Sophie can join them at the tail-end of their jaunt in Australia. Simple, really. Brave. Or possibly foolhardy. These events take place in 1997; it might be riskier attempting this kind of journey these days.

First stop, the Indian subcontinent. We’re treated to the sights, smells, the poverty, and the wonderful tigers. Travelling on a shoe-string budget meant that their accommodation wasn’t quite what they were used to. ‘In our dark, damp, dingy, smelly rooms cockroaches scurried up the walls, across the ceiling and down the opposite side. Sitting on the toilet in the one-metre-square shower room required keeping your feet above the floor level to avoid the creatures scrambling over your toes.’ (p117)

From time to time, Rachael sends a letter to Sophie, possibly to sooth her angst over leaving her daughter. And her thoughts dwelled on her decision: ‘I was hauling them around places where dead bodies lay unnoticed, where extreme poverty and physical deformities were commonplace, and where parents had to sell their children.’ (p118)

There are plenty of amusing interludes to lighten the mood, such as travelling in a railway compartment designed for six people yet accommodating fifteen, some of whom used the luggage racks as extra seating.

Then it’s on to south-east Asia, starting in Singapore, then to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They’re joined by Rachael’s sister-in-law Louise who has left home, and Gecko, a friend of Conrad’s, and Michael, the boyfriend of Sara. These additional mouths to feed strain the budget further, but provide more conflict, amusement and distractions: penalty for removing pebbles from the beach, five to ten years’ imprisonment. Rachael says she reads a lot on the journey – though doesn’t explain what; was this before the e-reader? Then there’s Sara’s scream, when a huge cricket jumped in between her boobs! (p165) and Michael’s worry about safety when they’re floating in the river in a boat made from a B52 bomber fuel tank – during a lightning storm! (p166)

I don’t know why Rachael should feel she needs to atone for being part of the human race, for being one of a species capable of the appalling slaughter and inhumanity of the Pol Pot regime. You can be appalled without feeling misplaced guilt, surely? (p182)

From the tragic to the frivolous. There’s a joke that Rachael makes about the Mekong Delta, referring to the emperor from the Flash Gordon adventures. Unfortunately, the Mekon was a Dan Dare villain; Emperor Ming was the Flash Gordon villain! As Sara observed, ‘You’re funny, Ma – not.’

The book is teeming with vivid description, such as: ‘Images flashed past, of baskets suspended from shoulder poles, water buffalo gently swishing their tails in muddy rivers, field workers in conical hats bent low as they toiled. In the villages barefoot skinny children played in rubbish-strewn streets… monkeys approached lopsidedly to steal bananas…’ (p192)

Of all the places she visited Rachael seemed most affected by Vietnam and its stoic gentle people. (p237)

Did Rachael ‘find herself’? You’ll need to read this always entertaining, colourful and thought-provoking book to find out. At the very least she proved that there’s more to life than feeling sorry for yourself. Highly recommended.

A shorter version of this review will appear on Amazon.

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Lesley Ann Sharrock – R.I.P.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the unexpected and sudden death of Lesley on April 17.

She has been a virtual friend since 2011 when I accepted her first novel The Seventh Magpie for Solstice (a US publisher). It was an excellent debut. Later, after I left Solstice, she retrieved the rights and revised and republished the book in 2015. It is still available and is definitely worth reading. This is my review from 2012:

This is an intriguing novel that should appeal to many, especially expats.

The basic question raised is: Can one woman – genetically linked to a time of witch burnings and religious persecution – prevent a devastating global war between conflicting ideologies in the near future?

The answer isn’t simple, however. Three women hold the key.

In the year 1624, in Wales, Mair Griffiths is executed for witchcraft.

While in 2060, Jeena H Roberts commands a top-secret mission using experimental technology. This is an attempt to capture the perpetrators of the outrage that acted as a catalyst for a war that has thrust the world into flames.

And in 1986 the adopted Helen Ross travels to Wales in search of her birth family. But what she discovers in the ancient stones of that land of magic and melancholy is far more ominous than she could have ever imagined… And on her journey, we travel to her family’s past in the post-war years, the 1950s and 1977, poignantly recalled with insight and heart.

The three parallel narratives will interlink in time. And over all seems to hover a pall of inevitable doom – perhaps exemplified by the mysterious magpie…

This is one of those books that will linger in your memory long after you’ve finished it. And I feel that the depth of story and character will also reward you so that, by the time you turn that last page, you will have lived much of the life of Helen Ross.

Spookily, Helen Ross was one of my pen-names for articles and short fiction! There are autobiographical elements in The Seventh Magpie. Lesley was an adopted child and I could empathise with her since my wife and I were also adopted. She says she was inspired to write this novel in response to her own journey of discovery. These parts of the book are particularly poignant. She was born in Strawberry Field children’s home in Liverpool; it no longer exists. She was raised in Kirkby and subsequently lived there for twenty years before moving to London. She studied English and drama and worked as a freelance writer, her articles appearing in Cosmopolitan, Marie Clare, Red, Bite, Forum, and Time Out among others before she established Moondance Media, a magazine publishing company. Her dark and compelling short story Mrs Webster’s Obsession was turned into a film. Eventually, she moved to J├ávea in Spain: all these places figured in her first novel.

Latterly, Lesley was gaining recognition with her crime novels, writing as Lesley Welsh. Her first crime thriller Truth Lies Buried was published in June 2016 by Thomas & Mercer and has been nominated for the CWA Golden Dagger Award as the best crime novel of 2016. My review of this is here

Her second crime novel The Serial Killer’s Daughter will be published in June 2017 by Bookouture. She had completed a third and was doing a final edit.

Recently, she adopted a stray cat that had been trapped down a hole for some time. She named him Ace, after the Kirk Douglas film Ace in the Hole, and kept her FB friends apprised of his health and amused by his antics.

Lesley was a strong character with lashings of humour and her passing has left a hole in many lives.

R.I.P. Lesley.


Sunday 16 April 2017

Sale - Free e-books from Crooked Cat TODAY

 A great selection of Crooked Cat books on Amazon going for FREE or vastly reduced price!

If you haven't tried their crime, romance, paranormal, mainstream, mystery and horror titles, now is the time to indulge yourself!

Among them are my 6 titles all FREE with Kindle Unlimited:


Monday 10 April 2017

Book reviews - Dumarest Saga #16 & #17

Reading E.C. Tubb’s long-running science fiction saga, I have reached the halfway point with volumes 16 and 17 in the 33-book series.

While each story is a self-contained adventure, these two books are continuous in theme, characters and environment, so I read them back-to-back.

The Dumarest novels are set in a far future galactic culture that spread to many worlds. Earl Dumarest was born on Earth, but had stowed away on a spaceship when he was a young boy and was discovered. Although a stowaway apprehended on a spaceship was typically ejected into space, the captain took pity on the lad and allowed him to work his passage on the ship. By the time of the first volume, The Winds of Gath, Dumarest has traveled so long and so far that he does not know how to return to his home planet; and in fact nobody has ever heard of it, except as a myth or a legend. It’s clear to him that someone or something has deliberately concealed Earth's location. The Cyclan, an organization of humans (cybers surgically altered to be emotionless, who on occasion can link with the brains of previously living Cyclans, in the manner of a hive mind process, seem determined to prevent him finding Earth. The cybers can call on the ability to calculate the outcome of an event and accurately predict results.

An additional incentive for the Cyclan to capture Dumarest is that he possesses a potent scientific discovery, stolen from them and passed to him by a dying thief, which would inordinately amplify their already considerable power and enable them to dominate the human species. Also appearing in the books is the humanitarian Church of Universal Brotherhood, whose monks roam many worlds, notably every planet where there is war.

All these books reveal imaginative situations, fantastic colourful civilisations and a vast array of characters. 

Haven of Darkness (#16)(1977) introduces us to the planet of Zakym, where the spectres of the dead appear at the time of delusia, when the twin suns attain close proximity in the heavens. On Zakym the beautiful Lavinia is not only haunted by ghosts, she is being courted by an unsavoury power-crazed noble, Gydapen. Into this world arrives Dumarest, cleverly escaping capture by a Cyclan agent. Here, he learns that the human inhabitants stay indoors at night; a curfew is enforced. Anyone caught outside at night falls prey to the Sungari, the original seemingly mythical yet deadly inhabitants of the world.

When Dumarest suffers the kickback traces of an earlier treatment, he is privy to certain knowledge: ‘A man lived every second of every hour since the time of his birth and each of those seconds held all that had happened to and around him. A vastness of experience. An inexhaustible supply of terror and pain and hopeless yearning. An infinity of doubt and indecision, of ignorance known and forcibly accepted, of frustration and hate and cruelty and fear. A morass in which glowed the fitful gleams of transient joy. Each man, within his skull, carried a living hell.’ (p151)

Dumarest earns the love of Lavinia to the chagrin of her suitor and, to avoid a civil war, he has to face Gydapen in a tension-filled showdown.

(At this juncture, the publisher (Arrow) changed the cover artist.]

Prison of Night (#17)(1977) begins with the mysterious death of a monk of the Universal Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the story continues with Dumarest living with Lavinia on Zakym. Dumarest wondered about the delusia effects, a planetary insanity which he now shared. Possibly, ‘wild radiation from the twin suns merging as they closed, blasting space with energies which distorted the microcurrents of the brain and giving rise to hallucinations. Figments of memory made apparently real, words spoken but heard only by the once concerned…’ (p20)

Despite his help in saving Lavinia, her ruling council still considered Dumarest a stranger. ‘Xenophobia, incredible in this age, was not dead.’ (p36)

Time and again, Tubb throws in tantalising glimpses of other worlds, other cultures. ‘There were words, ceremonies deliberately kept devoid of mysticism, the throb of bells. Always there were bells, deep, musical notes captured on recorders, now filling the air with the melody gained on Hope where tremendous castings of bronze, silver and brass throbbed and droned with a solemn pulse, which touched the wells of life itself.’ (p44)

A greater threat to Zakym and Lavinia has emerged, and it is only through Dumarest’s bravery and insight that the danger can be averted. It would also mean confrontation with a powerful manipulative cyber. A tense, fast-paced finale.

After seventeen books, Tubb has remained consistently entertaining. I will surely continue with the saga.