When Vanity Publishing Turns Dangerous

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I know that it seems progressively harder to get published, as more and more books seem to become yet another commodity, and fabulous advance bidding wars are fought over the rights of (sometimes mediocre) books which are snapped up for megas because someone sees FILM RIGHTS or MERCHANDISING.

Meanwhile, the role of the carefully crafting book editor, nurturing a talent, working with a writer over decades, seems to be in decline

Inevitably the ‘well I can publish this myself on digi’ beckons, and clearly some writers find this hits the sweet spot – 50 Shades the classic example.

Now I’m sure there are wonderfully written books out there which failed to get publication the normal route, and the authors of them are desperate to get reviewers to try their free downloads to see if genuine enthusiasm can get the work read, as it absolutely deserves to be.

But it is also true that some stuff of abysmal quality is being self-pub’d, and I guess many of us have sneaked ‘look insides’ at what we were getting requests to read, and finding jaw-dropped moments of disbelief at how bad some of this was, and, in the end, we decided to draw a line and state, firmly ‘no self-published works will be read’. Which is horribly hard for the writers of the stuff we might have absolutely been blown away by, but unfortunately finding the pearl means wading through dozens and dozens of stuff which is badly written, – or completely outside the reviewer’s interest.

So – I had definitely become a ‘no self-pub’, clearly explained, on my Amazon profile. But still the requests keep coming, several daily. Delete, delete, delete.

Except – one arrived which was right within my area of expertise – a specific modality of the complementary health field. So, I thought I ought to read it, as I do keep up with what is newly being written on the subject. Though I had some reservations, as the title of the publication did rather suggest that the author was jumping onto a cash-cow bandwagon – self-help books, and that possibly, probably, her expertise might not be that high.

I started my read expecting to find only that the eBook on free download when offered would probably be no more than the usual same old same old fluffy repetitions, cuts and pastes. It’s an overcrowded, but lucrative market, particularly when the writer does a mass-mailout, offering a free download in the hope of garnering the 5 stars, pushing the book up the listings, before charging a very modest sum, and watching the modest sums stack up.

What I found, instead, was outrageously dangerous. The writer clearly had no more knowledge of the subject than I have of how to perform open-heart surgery. And yet her marketing found her managing to garner 5 star reviews from people who clearly were either patsies, or people who knew nothing whatsoever about the subject either, and thought that what was written was advice which could be safely followed

However if any misguided person actually does follow the given instructions they might – suffer severe skin burns from using essential oils in the bath in the manner suggested, suffer severe burns to the mouth, throat, oesophagus from ingesting essential oils diluted in water and suffer burns (both giver and receiver) attempting to massage someone with essential oils dissolved in water.

Essential oils are primarily hydrophobic – the majority of the individual components in each essential oil either do not dissolve in water at all, or are only marginally hydrophilic.

The worst which can result from reading a painfully bad work of fiction is irritation, boredom and the like.

But when ignorant writers turn their hands to writing ‘health advice’ on subjects they clearly know nothing about, the results can be serious, for the reader who takes that advice.

I  wrote a blistering, detailed, scathing and far too long 1 star review of the ill-advised book, on the Amazons, quoting from the book, and explaining many of its erroneous and dangerous mistakes, in the hope that possible readers who have no knowledge of the field might at least think ‘I wonder why there is a one star review’, and be deterred from following suspect advice, and perhaps seeking out one of the books written for lay-readers, but published by a reputable publishing house who specialises in the field of good quality books on health care and self-help.

Inevitably, some negative voting has happened on my review to drive it out of sight, on the USA site. But it’s telling, that so far, none of the negative voters has challenged that what I quoted from the text itself are not true quotes

Hawking quote

Curiously, this distresses me even more – if I had put out advice into the public arena which was dangerous, but perhaps I was blithely unaware of the danger, and it was pointed out precisely why this was dangerous advice, personally I’d rather people were protected from danger, rather than want my dangerous information to be utilised.

Having read this particular self-pub it reinforces, for me, the importance of making sure that any books I read on complementary health matters which involve advice on supplements, homoeopathy, herbs, essential oils, manipulative bodywork and the like are published by one of the publishing houses which specialises in the area, and ensures that ‘advice’ for self-help is given by people who know what they are talking about.

Sometimes, the fact that a publisher might be held liable for dangerous advice and that the threats of lawsuits make publishers cautious, even over-cautious, is a good thing.

Complete freedom to write and self-publish whatever you like, as long as it isn’t an incitement to criminality, terrorism, racism and the like, does not mean that work which falls outside these obvious cavils, is necessarily writing which is without danger.

Caveat emptor – and perhaps, even more, Caveat free-downloader!

Tom Hunt – The Natural Cook: Eating The Seasons From Root To Fruit

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Eat well, eat local, eat in good time

the_natural_cookI’m not really quite sure why I failed to post this wonderful book on this blog,  given my enthusiastic review of it (after receiving it on Amazon Vine UK) on Amazon. I think I was a little restrictive in ‘what is this blog about’. As I fairly often review cookery books, why not? It was probably thinking I’d have to create another category, and the hard work that entails. My inner sloth protesteth! But this is too good a book to give way to that sloth………

Tom Hunt’s The Natural Cook is rather more than just another book of visual food porn, tempting you into your kitchen to try (and fail) to produce stunning results after a lot of time, heavy duty shopping and sourcing of rare ingredients shipped by rocket from Mars. Or at least air freight from across the world.

Hunt’s mission is to help us save our money, save our time, delight our eyes, taste-buds and tums, at a price which doesn’t cost the earth for future generations.

Although this is not a vegetarian cookbook (which will probably delight many) the star performers here are players from the vegetable, rather than animal, kingdom.

Divided initially into four quarters, to mark the four seasons, Hunt picks a few plant ‘stars’ typical of the season, and then gives a good 8 to 10 recipes with that star player as main ingredient. He offers 2 methods of preparation for each, and then sundry recipes involving that method. Advice is also given on the storage of left-overs from each recipe and indeed where it would be advisable to make extra in order to have freezer food for later.

A full list of the ‘players’ available in their right season is also given

His aim is to reduce food waste to a minimum, so ways of using left-overs are also included, making them part of other dishes.

This is all high end, easy prep (for the most part) gourmet, healthy, delicious and stylish food – designed to make the cook and the diner feel equally good and delighted, without sacrificing hedonic pleasure to dutiful , healthy, but rather dull eating.

As mentioned earlier, it is not a vegetarian cookbook, I guess a good quarter of the recipes involve inexpensive cuts of meat or fish, but certainly some of the meaty or fishy numbers could I think be adapted by the vegetarian cook, using tofu or pulses, as for the most part the flesh food is more Eastern and Mediterranean in quantity – if a recipe includes meat it is in smaller amounts, not groaning trenchers of severed limbs and the like – hence the possibility of replacing, for example, a recipe of asparagus and mackerel sashimi with pickled ginger, orange and soy dressing with smoked tofu in place of the fish.

Because I AM vegetarian, I’ve found a flesh free video of Tom demonstrating how to make a dish – there are some one’s I hid behind a couch, rather than watched, sobbing plaintively.

In a sense, though undoubtedly delivered with style and panache, Hunt’s recipes invitingly call out to the home cook to adapt and experiment with what you have to hand in YOUR cupboard – it is easy to see these are recipes designed to release your creativity in the kitchen, not stifle it into nervous following of rigid instruction.

I particularly like Hunt’s using up everything possible from the cooking process in interesting ways – a lovely example, from our current ‘apricot season’ is, having poached your fresh apricots, perhaps for an apricot melba, reserve the poaching liquid to add to white rum, lime juice and sugar and, hey presto, a daiquiri!

This is a cookery book with a lot of heart, joy, compassion and passion, as well as stuff to make the diner drool with anticipatory pleasure, and the cook happy in that fine dining can be produced without spending a life-time turning a lettuce leaf into something to be submitted for the Turner prize

Natural Cook

The look inside lets you see some recipes, so its easy to try ‘is this my kind of food; do the recipes work; are they do-able or just faff’ etc, and the index also gives a fair idea of the recipes.

Hunt, as I think is explained in the look inside section, has based his cooking on excellence in home and traditional dishes – ‘regional cooking’ where the regions take in other countries as well, but this is not about cooking as art form or cooking using fashionably rare and highly exotic ingredients, and you won’t need to purchase arcane equipment in order to achieve fabulous results. No foams, no jus, no blowtorches.

Readers from outside the UK may well of course find that the availability of product, and the time of the year it is locallyTom Hunt available won’t dovetail to perfection the way it does in the UK, and that you may wish to adapt recipes from UK local produce, with your own local produce. As stated earlier, Hunt really encourages that sort of creative, adaptive approach. he is a wonderfully relaxed, confidence inspiring cook, rather than one of those who will leave you sobbing because you followed the recipe to the nth degree and ended up with something looking like a dog’s dinner, and tasting so hideous that even the dog walked away from it. Recipes, I imagine, invented by star hissy fit prima donna chefs whose aim is to humiliate the home cook!

Tom Hunt’s lovely, enthusiastic and welcoming sharing of his food beliefs and scrummy recipes are further available on his blog tomsfeast.com which I for one will be bookmarking

The Natural Cook: Eating The Seasons From Root To Fruit Amazon UK
The Natural Cook: Eating The Seasons From Root To Fruit Amazon USA

Neil Gaiman (author) + Eddie Campbell (illustrator) – The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

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Fireside dark storytelling rendered even more magical

I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her head fiery-red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things

Fabulous weaver of weird and wonderful stories for adults and children Neil Gaiman wrote this short story/novella The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, which was published in a collection of creepy dark stories: Stories: All New Tales, by Headline, back in 2010.

Then this story by Gaiman developed another life, when he was invited to read his story aloud, and with projected artwork by Eddie Campbell, with a musical underscore by FourPlay String Quartet at the Graphic Festival at Sydney Opera House.

Neil Gaiman reading, Eddie Campbell’s images, and underscoring by FourPlay, Sydney Opera House 2010 excerpt starts at 2.44 and runs to 4.10

Now Headline have reduced the experience back down to the individual reading experience – a book, a story on the page, that artwork, condensed into a wonderful weaving of seductive and dark words, sensuous and sometimes scary images, and the tactile experience of silky, glossy pages, hardcover, slightly textured titling. The book as craft, art, and beautiful object as well as wondrous words and a story like some well-honed myth, handed down through generations.

The Truth Is A Cave

This is a journey through the Highlands, a journey made by two stern men, both with hidden secrets. The un-named narrator is a small fierce man. His companion, Calum MacInnes, is a tall, gaunt one. And there appears to be distrust of the other, from both sides, as they set out to find hidden gold which may be cursed

Artist Eddie Campbell’s artworks are gorgeous, and varied in style, ranging from graphic, solid broad-brush stroked figures which are almost cartoon in simplicity, to some lovely part-shaded, part outline, suggestions of shapes, which appear to flicker out from misty, pastel backgrounds. I particularly like the fact that the textured background Campbell must originally have used is visible, a wash across all pages, so that the use of colour is subtle and varied.

This is really not a book to get on ereader – the subtlety of texture, the vibrancy of colour and shape need to be appreciated in the larger size of a book’s pages.

I was extremely fortunate to be offered this by Headline, as a review copy.

My only regret is that I missed knowing about this book till a few days after Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell and Foursquare repeated the performed event of the story. Seeing these illustrations stage sized, having the author read his tale aloud and with the underscore, sitting rapt with others whilst this played out, must have been a magnificent occasion

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains Amazon UK
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains Amazon USA

And, of course, I must once again give hearty thanks to fellow blogger, friend,and fellow Amazon reviewer Fiction Fan, who is also at times my crossed books at dawn duelling partner, when one of us fervently recommends a book to the other which makes the other react with the sort of enthusiasm normally reserved for a festering swarm of fruit flies on a rotting pineapple. (I’ve resisted the urge to use media here, and will leave it to your fertile imaginations)

However she absolutely came up trumps for me with this one, urgently contacting me to tell me that I would yearn and lust for this, and that ARCS were available She was SO right – and you should also check out her magnificent review, chock full of those marvellous illustrations, and other quotes Fiction Fan’s review of this

Kayhan Kalhor + Ali Bahrami Fard – I Will Not Stand Alone

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Iranian Heart, Iranian Soul

I Will Not Stand AloneKayhan Kalhor, the Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player, is as consummate a musician and artist as one could dream of. He combines astonishing virtuosity and passionate immersion in his music, with playing which is charismatic, stellar – and, yet, curiously without ‘look at me ego’ or hogging centre stage, muscling out his ‘supporting musicians’ Kalhor doesn’t really do ‘supporting musicians’. He works peer to peer with other musicians

What he does do is to work with a range of other musicians, sometimes from his own culture’s musical traditions, sometimes cross culturally, as in his work with Ghazal, marrying the Iranian kamancheh with instruments from India’s classical musical tradition – sitar, tabla, vocals. And sometimes he works with musicians better known in the European classical music traditions, most notably with Yo Yo Ma, playing a wealth of Asian music in the Silk Road series of albums.

Whatever Kalhor does, he brings devotion to his work. Whatever brilliance, finesse and mastery he brings to his playing everything is designed to shine the brilliance of the music itself. There is surrender to the music, surrender to the joint practice of playing music with others, and, if you are fortunate enough to experience a live concert with Kalhor, as I recently was, surrender to the experience of unfolding and revealing music in a shared experience for the active listener to enter into this space.

This particular CD, with music which arose out of Kalhor’s own experience of his country’s recent political dark places, is a meditation on music as expression of suffering, as well as music as a shared, collective experience to provide some ease from that dark night of isolation, and existential aloneness

Here, in accompaniment with Ali Bahrami Fard, we have two musicians playing adapted versions of traditional Iranian instruments. Fard is playing the santour, a shimmering, percussive dulcimer instrument – but it is a bass santour, much larger, with a wider musical range, 96 strings, 24 bridges instead of the traditional 72 and 18

Meanwhile Kalhor is playing a new instrument, developed especially for him by the instrument maker Peter Biffen, the shah Kaman, with different stringing, and using a lighter sounding board made of wood rather than skin, with, again, the possibility of richer lower notes.

At the live concert, which this CD is a version of, the two musicians were electrifying, playing for well over an hour, a continuous piece of music (here, on the CD briefly broken into movements with track names, rather than stand alone tracks).

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The music ranges from dark anguish, quiet reflection, a maelstrom of passion and energy, anger, despair, resilience, shared commitment. At times so frenetic and wild is the music that it seems impossible to sit with it, the wild expression of dance is an insistent call. Restrained by the initial hearing of the music in a concert hall, I found a subtler response, listening to the dynamic movement of the music from within physical stillness, letting the music shape itself and move within, rather than cause external movement. It deepened my appreciation of this wonderful music, and the absolute focus brought by the inspired musicians

I Will Not Stand Alone Amazon UK
I Will Not Stand Alone Amazon USA

Michel Faber – The Book Of Strange New Things

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To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

Michel Faber’s rich, opulent novel about power and sexuality in Victorian London, The Crimson Petal and The White, was, all those years ago an strange and immersive read.

The Book Of Strange new ThingsNow, with The Book Of Strange New Things he has gone in an entirely different direction, producing something equally unusual, compelling, disturbing and memorable.

This is a genres-bending book – apocalyptic, spiritual, specifically Christian, SF, taking on board multinational corporate politics, what it means, after all, to be a human animal, a creature at all, and, what it means to be in relationship, specifically a sexual relationship. How do we connect with each other – and, how do we, how will we connect with other life forms, assuming we are not the only intelligent life forms in the universe, how will we manage to accept ‘extreme otherness’ when we can hardly manage each others’ otherness?

I found myself curiously distressed and disturbed, all shaken up, by this read. Rarely have I felt so strongly that in writing about ‘other life forms’ and our attitudes towards them, the author is not using this as a metaphor to make us think about racism, how we carry attitudes towards other groups and members of our own species – but instead, is really tapping in to some very primal potential disgusts about what ‘other’ looks like. Suppose, for example, intelligent alien life forms had an appearance close to something many of us felt an almost hardwired, visual disgust for – large maggots, bubbling goo with a rotting aroma or the like? How would that work if this were married with a progressive pan-religious idea that encompassed ‘made in the image of God’ as being something to do with soul quality rather than appearance. Faced with the challenge of recognising – let us not call it ‘humanity’ but some sort of ‘advanced and soulful creaturedom – created-dom’ – in a species which shares a lot with us, in many ways seems more emotionally, co-operatively ‘whole’ than we do – less aggressive, less egoic, wiser, more thoughtful, and yet, evokes that sense of disgust. How would we manage?

Yellow mite Tydeidae:Lorryia formosa Wiki Commons

Yellow mite Tydeidae:Lorryia formosa Wiki Commons

Set at some close future time where life is very similar, politically, geopolitically, to how it is now, with current climate and political flashpoints as they are, we have managed to jump space-time, and set up at least one community on a planet in another galaxy with an indigenous, intelligent, humanoid life-form

Peter Leigh is a British man with a damaged past, due to alcohol and drug abuse. All that is behind him though, having found sobriety, a loving and adult relationship with his wife Beatrice, a nurse, the two are evangelising Christians. Leigh is a pastor. The denizens of that other planet ‘Oasis’, named by us after a competition, are desperate for the words of Jesus (for reasons which become clear much later on) Leigh along with a small community of more obviously required professionals – thermo-engineers, experts in building, doctors, heating and air-conditioning engineers and the like, are building infrastrucutres and relationships with ‘the aliens’ on the new planet. Leigh is there to minister the word of the Lord to the aliens, at their request.

This is NOT a book about Christian evangelism. It is however a book about how we might keep a sense of faith, belief, integrity, humanity when all around us is heading for meltdown. Shortly after leaving for his tour of missionary duty, events back on Earth begin, rapidly, to head towards meltdown, both in terms of cosmic disasters, and the inevitable human response to apocalypse.

Leigh begins to build respectful connections with the aliens (though, in truth, as he realises, it is their planet, and it is ourselves who are aliens), with his fellow, far stranger, less humane human companions, even as his long distance relationship with Bea begins, steadily and painfully, on both sides, to fracture and crumble, as is evidenced by their ‘letters’ sent through space-time

This is a fascinating and absorbing read – one which can give rise to all sorts of challenging debates about ethics, philosophy and futurology ‘what-ifs’

I recommend it highly. I have some slight stylistic reservations about how things end for Bea and Peter, not quite michelfaberconvinced why one of them acts as they do, but this is a minor mark against what is an extremely thought provoking, well written addition to the modern SF canon.

I received this as a remarkably early ARC from the publishers, via NetGalley, as it is not due to see the general light of day till late autumn. Worth waiting for. Come October, I’ll start doing alerts and posts back to this. meanwhile, it is available to pre-order

The Book Of Strange New Things Amazon UK
The Book Of Strange New Things Amazon USA

Philip Hensher – The Emperor Waltz

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Intertwining wheels and spirals

The Emperor WaltzPhilip Hensher’s hefty 600 page novel, despite being set in 4 distinct time frames, and following 5 sets of characters (including the author himself), with a couple of recurring musical themes, one provided by a blackbird’s song, one the Strauss Waltz of the title, is actually almost a traditionally well-crafted narrative journey, with attention given to plot, character development, repeating motifs and beautifully constructed links which work like smooth dovetailed joints.

This is consummately CRAFTED writing and story-telling

There is a recurring theme of what it is to be an outsider, the glorious, lively eccentricity of humanity is celebrated, as something with soul and heart, set against the forces which are afraid of individual human messiness and personal connection, and which operate to conform and stultify.

These themes are clearly shown in the major narrative strands. The first of these is a group of artists in the Weimar Republic, including the appearance of known artists, Klee, Kandinsky, the Bauhaus school, artists and philosophers, experimenting with form, ideas, spiritual development – Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan. The importance of art in developing ‘humanity’ is set against the destructive, violent background of emerging fascism. The second major strand is the emergence of gay and lesbian liberation, and movement ‘out of the closet’ from the late 70s, following the fortunes particularly of one gay man and his circle, who opens a gay bookshop. Literature changes consciousness and is changed by it.

Paul Klee  Tempelgarten

                                          Paul Klee Tempelgarten

Both the Weimar set sections and the London early 80s have sections where there are actions of casual unthinking prejudice that in some ways are more shocking than bloody violence, as in a sense the casual events, the casual low level prejudices, unchecked, are what swell, eventually into violence.

The third strand is set in Ancient Rome, and concerns Christianity as a fledgling religion, treated violently by the state. Later, of course, Christianity will itself become an instrument, later in history, of oppression and state control.

There are two other sections, one of which I could not quite set within the structure, though I suspect there is a meaning I have missed, in this – very slightly in the future we have a small group of young London boys going through puberty, right in the middle of macho posturing, engaged in metropolitan gangsta speak, experimenting with drugs, whilst, downstairs, their sophisticated cosmopolitan parents, blissfully unaware, discuss education, economics and office etiquette. Above stairs the beloved children are getting slowly wasted. This section is very funny.

Hensher, in a section about the time he spent in A + E, and later in a medical ward of a London Hospital recently, as a result of complications linked with his diabetes, shows how the artist himself works, how literature is crafted – and also, how important connection and community is. There are outcasts in this section – those who live on the margins through poverty, mental health issues and alcohol abuse. Hensher and his supportive community of friends and family are now the golden ones.

Until the very end of the book, I thought my review was to be 4 star, but there is a very satisfying tying up of threads, Philip-Hensherrepetition of images, symbols, artefacts, so that the tapestry of the book as a whole, works, and there is the sense of a good journey completed

4 ½ rounded up to five. I received this as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK.

The Emperor Waltz Amazon UK
The Emperor Waltz Amazon USA

John Wyndham – The Seeds Of Time

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The rich world of literary SciFi short stories

The Seeds Of TimeJohn Wyndham’s short story collection The Seeds of Time is a masterclass in how unformulaic any genre might be in the hands of someone who is a crafted, imaginative literary writer who happens to write in the Sci-Fi genre, as opposed to someone who is a Sci-Fi writer. Yes, I know my prejudices are showing, but I do believe it must be the writing, the craft itself which comes first, and the mastery (or not) of that, rather than the field in which someone chooses to write.

Here, Wyndham has laid out something of a smorgasbord of different genres of writing, with a theme which might loosely be described as SF – so, if you like, he is sewing together genres, so that we get SF Romance, SF Humour, SF philiosophy, an examination of racism through the lens or disguise of SF, etc.

The short story structure itself is something which demands precision and craft to be successful. Often, short story collections rather disappoint, because the reader may very quickly realise the writer’s particular tricks and tics, especially if the short story writer is basically writing in a very fixed groove – fairly recently I read an example of this, where had I just read one such story, perhaps, published as it was in a magazine, it would have been a superb example of the craft. Unfortunately gathering dozens and dozens of such stories, published over many years, individually, together, was just too much same old.

But that is definitely not the case here, because of Wyndham’s splendid variety.

Inevitably, there cannot but be variations in excellence, and I can only concur with a fellow reviewer, – Fiction Fan – see her review, with added jolly media enjoyment, in picking out the particularly stellar 3. It is not that the others are poor, only that these are superb

Perseid meteor shower 2007 Wiki Commons

Perseid meteor shower 2007 Wiki Commons

Meteor is a short and telling story which shows what might happen when the inevitable supposition of what intelligent life from another planetary system might look like, remains viewed through the lens of human size as well as shape. This was horrid, poignant and funny, all at once

Survival is a shocking and absolutely plausible story which, written in the 50s, shows the danger of underestimating women. A proto-feminist SciFi fable

Pillar To Post is an extremely clever story involving a couple of protagonists fighting through time and space for possession of the same body.

I also thought Dumb Martian, which examines racist and sexist attitudes under the guise of Sci Fi, was particularly fine, John_Wyndham Wikipediaand Opposite Number, which looks at ‘alternate realities’ the intriguing idea of a kind of bifurcating universe where the choices an individual didn’t make, are playing out – and then what happens if a couple of these bifurcations collide. It’s the story of ‘What If………I had done this rather than that’

10 short stories – not one is poor

The Seeds Of Time Amazon UK
The Seeds Of Time Amazon UK

John Fowles – The Magus

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We shall not cease from exploration……………

John Fowles’ The Magus has come at me again, demanding to be re-read, from several directions.

A while ago I was asked to guest write something for another blog about literature and place. The Magus came immediately to mind as the book with such a powerful setting that it prevented me from visiting Greece, specifically island Greece, for decades, because it had set up such a vision that I was afraid reality could not possibly deliver the transcendent quality of light and landscape promised:

When that ultimate Mediterranean light fell on the world around me, I could see it was extremely beautiful; but when it touched me, I felt it was hostile. It seemed to corrode, not cleanse. It was like being at the beginning of an interrogation under arc-lights; already I could see the table with straps through the open doorway, already my old self began to know that it wouldn’t be able to hold out. It was partly the terror, the stripping-to-essentials, of love; because I fell head over heels, totally and for ever in love with the Greek landscape from the moment I arrived……..this sinister-fascinating, this Circe-like quality of Greece…..in Greece landscape and light are so beautiful, so all-present, so intense, so wild, that the relationship is immediately love-hatred, one of passion.

The Magus - John FowlesSo wrote Nicholas Urfe, the first-person narrator of Fowles’ god-game, roman-a-clef mysteriously powerful, iconic second novel.

I had been primed for Greece, since childhood; Greek (not Roman) mythology, the Greek Pantheon had obsessed me from the age of seven. Mary Renault’s books about Ancient Greeks, which I read in my early teens, continued a sense of longing for a land I had never seen, but one with a mysterious, awe-inspiring, curious combination of powerful light which revealed and yet mistily, dreamily, hid, at one and the same time. My teens also exposed me to Alain Fournier’s melancholy, lost-Eden, elusive Le Grand Meaulnes. And somehow these all had a connection with each other. The mist of the Fournier, the lost domaine, somehow linked to the light of Greece.

In a foreword to a revised version of The Magus, which Fowles wrote some years later, he explained how influenced he had been by the Fournier. The feeling I had had, all along, of the French book behind the Greek set one, though so very different, was real.

So…….to Greece, or not, we must go (or not go)

In the end, I did, though not to Spetses, the island which was the springboard for The Magus’ setting, Phraxos.

And MY island, another one of the many which is the visiting place for rich Athenians with second homes and within-Greece holidays, remains un-named here, my secret place, to be returned to I hope one day. Suffice it to say it is one of the many small islands which is by all accounts sacred to Aphrodite, and has history going back thousands of years, though it had not (when I was there) become a developed tourist destination.

The transformational power of the light and ancient potency of Greek Islands is not, however, the only profound engagement with landscape within this book. Another, central section involves a darker engagement with a transforming experience of ‘the living god’ (whatever that might mean) in the isolation and darkness of Norwegian forest

Fjord, Tromso, Wiki Commons

Fjord, Tromso, Wiki Commons

The Magus is undoubtedly a book which is going to be most potent for a reader who embarks on its journey when young and unformed, when the sense of the possibility of not only choices to be made in the HOW you will live your life, but WHO you are to live your life, are potent. And it is (possibly) a book of even more resonance for a young man than it is for a young woman, as the selfish, cynical, faux-existentialist decadent central character, the narrator, is male.

But (I think this is probably the fourth or maybe fifth time I have returned to the book) it is one which still has the power to allure, to puzzle, and to bear re-reading again.

In brief, the well written story concerns the disaffected Urfe, a man with a wayward and careless, though unrealistically Romantic attitude to women – locked in an idea of The Woman, so that he cannot stay within what a relationship with a real woman might mean, what loving, as opposed to in love, might mean. Urfe is a product of the stultified 50s British class system. An Oxbridge graduate, a teacher at minor public schools, he takes a post teaching English at a school on ‘Phraxos’, an isolated Greek island.

Botticelli - Birth of Venus

Botticelli – Birth of Venus

There he encounters a mysterious Greek, an older man, urbane, wealthy, steeped in the arts, philosophy, a degree of learning which is more ancient than Renaissance. A man who fulfils the roles of guru, trickster, enchanter, and through whose mind-games Urfe learns. It is almost impossible to explain the power – cerebrally, emotionally, viscerally of this book. The reader, over and over, like Urfe, is stretched, deceived, seduced, puzzled – and within this story Fowles is also creating transformations for reader as well as his central character.

He (Fowles) either displays a certain arrogance towards his reader (no spoon-feeder he), or he expects reading to BE something to work to transform, not merely to entertain, and instead RESPECTS the reader’s capacity to make that journey. Untranslated passages of Latin, French, Italian, Greek, are casually strewn through the text, not to mention many allusions to artistic, musical and literary classical pieces. Reading Fowles in a Google world is fairly easy, with the ability to search for, and translate, the quotes, the references, but, at the time of writing, if you did not have that wide learning more work needed to be done in order to better understand.

Kali by Piyal Kundu. Wiki Commons

Kali by Piyal Kundu. Wiki Commons

In its time it was unlike anything I had read. Now, the novelist as trickster, the novelist who twists and turns the reader, making them work, whilst they unfold their fabulous immersion, is using devices we are more used to. But in the unfolding story in The Magus, time and again the reader is NOT given answers, any more than Urfe is, all is ambiguity – and even when Urfe does unravel answers, he will say ( for example) in the solving of a crossword clue how someone felt/reacted to the solving of the clue – but the reader is not given the solution, and left to work it out. These various little stings are devices to make the reader participate in what they are reading.

The Hanged Man

Perhaps nowhere does Fowles throw the refusal to ‘black and white’ to ‘wrap’ to tie up and produce a fixed narration John_Fowlesmore, than in the deliberate ambiguity of the end.

Many anguished letters to Fowles via his publisher, many student dissertations, over the years, were produced, arguing and debating the ‘what happened’

Fowles deliberately left this open. ‘Life’, unlike Hollywood, does not have wraps

Despite the fact there are always an infinite number of new must-read books, this is STILL one I will return to again, even though this last re-read has broken the back of my paperback, replete with its many, many underlinings, each added to on subsequent re-reads. Judicious use of sellotape will be needed for the NEXT read through. And, NO this is never one for the Kindle, since there is something so potent in the measure of each of my reading journeys, viewable by changing pens in underline

Despite (of course) some of the flaws due to the ‘of its time’ this remains an unusually potent, astonishing reading experience.

The Magus Amazon UK
The Magus Amazon USA

Marcus Sedgwick – The Foreshadowing

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Beautiful weaving of myth and history

The ForeshadowingMarcus Sedgwick is a wonderful and layered writer, mainly for children and young adults, though he recently wrote a book very much for adults, with an interesting, unformulaic take on the vampire archetype, nothing at all like the rash of same old same old clonal dreary teeth and jugular inevitability A Love Like Blood

Much of Sedgwick’s writing inhabits a territory which is a kind of marriage between historical event, transposed into fiction, and the connection to myth and fairy tale. He opens out the enduring nature of archetype.

This story of the First World War, and the journey of a young woman who becomes a VAD, and then goes to the front to search for her brother, is a remarkably clear handling of political viewpoints as they changed throughout the war; most particularly the split between a ‘patriotic’ population at home, who thought the war a good thing, and how the reality of the carnage affected the soldiers. Sedgwick beautifully gets under the skin of his intelligent and likeable central character, and the beginning of change for a generation of young women who were beginning to see their lives might be more than marriage and motherhood.

Sedgwick gives his account extra depth and resonance through linking the protagonist with Cassandra – hence the title of the book, as Cassandra possessed the ability to perceive tragic events, but her vision was a curse to her, as no-one believed her, and she was spurned and outcast for her abilities. Sasha, Sedgwick’s central character, also has these ‘gifts’ and like Cassandra, they are visions of a time of war and conflict. The connection reminds us of how deeply wars are ingrained in our psyche.

Sedgwick ostensibly is writing for ‘young adults’; his writing is deep and true enough to satisfy old adults as well. He Sony | Sedgwickreminds me so much of Alan Garner, another writer as mythic and satisfying for not yet adults and adults who have not forgotten their connection to childhood – whatever their age!

This particular book of Sedgwick’s was written some years ago – it’s not a ‘cash-in’ on the 100 year since the start of the First War, but I remembered reading this book some 6 years ago, and the 100 year since…reminded me to go back to it

The Foreshadowing Amazon UK
The Foreshadowing Amazon USA

Philip Glass – The Hours

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An excellent introduction to the Glass World

Glass_HoursThis CD stands alone in its own right, as well as a beautifully apt score to a movie. Most of the Glass hallmarks are there, the repetitions, the slow building of change, the shimmering dissonance, the beautiful, yearning melodic musicality, but packaged in more bite sized morsels, piece on piece, to fit the demands of a film score. And moreover a film which perfectly is attuned to the reflective, interior, plangent and yearning landscape which Glass often inhabits.

The more I steep myself in Glass’s music (and I’m pretty steeped in it!) the more I find myself questioning the use of the term minimalist or minimalism to describe his music. I find him an intensely romantic musician, and this music in particular is romantic in the way that Rachmaninov’s music is romantic – lyrical, melodic, with the arc of a musical line very clear, and with a blue, often minor key unresolved longing built into it.

The Hours is particularly fine in hinting at subtexts below the sometimes busy dynamics of a piece – listen to ‘I’m Going To Make A Cake’ for an example, where there are phrases of turbulence and activity, quite unsettling, and simultaneously something deep, slow, sorrowful and painful in the theme. Very apt for acting as counterpoint to the women’s lives (in the film/book) where there is actually huge drama and intensity going on, but its driven by interior landscape.

I like the video someone made of this, which rather captures something large, beautiful, mysterious – but also terrifying going on – like a meaning which can’t be grasped, caught on the edge of potential annihilation, but, maybe something new, some wondrous creation about to arise. I find myself on the edge of drowning in despair and expanding into promise with this particular piece – an ‘on the edge’, can go either way, piece of music, which potently illustrated the interior of the character in the movie, in a heartbreaking, heart making, scene

This is Glass for when I need a Glassfix but don’t have the time to listen to a 20 minute piece, as each track here has is Glass Hoursown completion, as well as being part of a whole. Except that, as always with his music, I end up wanting more, so arrive late at my destination…………

Philip Glass – The Hours Amazon UK
Philip Glass – The Hours Amazon USA

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