When I first came across Alexander McCall Smith’s books, it was not the African mysteries which I fell for, but the Isabel Dalhousie Philosophy Club books, and the Scotland Street series. In part I loved them because they put me in mind of the style of writing I had been aiming for when I wrote my Grace de Savira novels in the 1990′s, stories of an elderly astrologer intent on sorting out peoples’ problems. I’m not sure whether I hit the same style, but I finished two of them and duly – after a number of years of keeping them in a cupboard, put them up on to Amazon’s Kindle. Slowly people are beginning to read them, and I’m quite pleased about that because I loved writing them. Then I discovered writing for children, in the early 2000′s and had my Dreamstealers trilogy published, and following that I fell in love with history and have had two historical novels published : A Court in Splendour and The Bardic Monk. Much as I enjoyed the process of research and writing history, nothing quite matched my experience of writing about Grace and the characters in those early books. So I got out the third unfinished one recently, and began to work on it. Unfortunately I had lost the pace, the style, and was stuck in the twelfth century, floundering. Then I remembered Scotland Street and how it had been an inspiration to my style. So I listened to Scotland Street in the car, then read Love over Scotland and the World According to Bertie and loved them all over again, and the amazing thing is that the detail of them is so rich I found new things as well as all the bits I remembered and have laughed and sighed my way through them. He is a total genius. So I also read all the Dalhousies again (and the new one) and even Von Inglefeld and his many uses for Olive Oil, what a clown…so thanks to Alexander McCall Smith and his brilliant life-enhancing dramas, for getting me back in the mood to write my Welsh Astrologer stories. Reading and writing do, after all, go together like peaches and cream, salt and pepper or rock n roll! And am I on a roll….
You may think you have seen a review of this book in the Tivyside, written by myself. You may have done, but if you read this one you will see the extent to which ‘editing’ goes on in the areas of arts reviews of any kind. Not just the Tivyside does this, but all newspapers, so some of the best bits of writing, the nicest compliments etc never see the light of day. So here is the full review as written by me, before the subs got their hands on it..ha ha.
Lucknow Ransom, the new book by Glen Peters is the second outing for the charming heroine Mrs Joan D’Silva, and unlike the first book in which it is Mrs D’Silva’s detective instincts which lead us through the story, this one is less a single detective’s whodunnit, more a crime mystery which is ultimately solved by an ensemble of characters. As the story runs, each one of them adds a distinct, vibrant thread to a multi-coloured tapestry portraying India during the 1960’s.
This is a novel with the recognisable flavour and visual sense of a Bollywood Movie; full of passions, pleasures, dastardly deeds, wicked anti-heroes and of course, a final romantic rescue for the heroine. The most exhilarating aspect of a really excellent Bollywood Movie is of course the fact that however serious the plot, or however many wicked deeds are planned and executed, it can all be set aside for at least a short while, in order to allow for some fun, some loving and some music and dancing. This is accurately depicted here, in a tale of ransoms, murder and poisoning, where every so often there are moments of relief from the dark side of life, with generous descriptions of delicious food, romantic flirtations and gorgeous attire. And all of the detail at every point in the story reassures the reader that the author knows well the place and the mores of those who live there.
The filmic quality of the book continues as the story of the ransom at Lucknow, where Ms D’Silva finds herself with her small son Errol seeking refuge and a new life, is written from a multi-viewpoint perspective. This takes the reader from experiencing scenes as viewed merely through the eyes of the main character, and adds an immediacy to the whole thing , just as in a movie, we look through the eyes of each of the characters on to the happenings, and see them differently. The single viewpoint, which is often used in detective novels would not necessarily offer this lively, exploratory format, and though at moments the wonderful cavalcade of characters involved in the finding of the guilty party can be confusing, the life and colour in the writing keep one gripped, and the bonus is that we are taking a journey to a time and place unknown to most of us, that of post-colonial India in the 1960’s and the lives of the Anglo-Indian community.
The insights into the position of this shrinking group, the ‘A1’ members of a society, as they see themselves, in times of unsettling political and social changes are fascinating. The language, is wonderful, redolent of England in the fifties and sixties but with its own idiosyncratic usage, and in the midst of upheaval somehow these strong characters manage to hold on for a while to a way of life which they have enjoyed during their lifetimes. This elite circle has its own rules, and a formality in its image, that brings for them the valued respect and even admiration, of others.
Keeping up that front of respectability is hard for Mrs D’Silva, who is a thoroughly modern heroine, forward-thinking, independent and despite a lack of money with a desire to achieve things for her son. She moves with beauty and good humour through almost everything, wisely listens to her own dreams, has a care for the underdog, is a good loving mother, and does not stand for bullying or dishonesty in others. The reader is moved to like her spontaneously because she acts from her own beliefs, so when she suspects things are going wrong they usually are doing so and, when she falls in love with a man who is not what he seems, just like in Bollywood, there is plenty of song and dance before the final twist in the tale.
Small World and the Rhod Show
A talk at the Small World Theatre last Friday evening created a brilliant introduction to this year’s week long celebration of art by the Rhod Collective at Melin Glonc, Drefelin, Drefach Felindre.
Speaking at Small World were Sara Rees, curator of this year’s show, and also Maria Rebecca Ballestra the Artist in Residence for the duration of the show, who talked about the work she has been bringing together from around the globe with an ecological significance. All of it having influenced her planned contribution to this year’s Rhod.
The speakers introduced the theme for the show; Future NatureCulture which is the title and the subject matter of the work being assembled by a number of international and local artists. By Sunday, when the event opened there was an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the site of the show, many having been drawn to the event by the talk at Small World.
Within the grounds of the mill were some wonderfully imaginative installations and sculptural pieces, Johana Hartwig’s Catapult Tree, with its colourful and eye-catching reach, brought a small round of applause from several people seen admiring it; Pascal-Michel Dubois’ Nowhere to Hide your Horsepower’ where the interior of the car with its black and white freesian style seats sat beside the river, was both witty and interesting and Stefhan Caddick’s Mothmusic which lit up with noises at night, was quite beautiful. The installation by Rebecca Ballestra, the artist in residence, was an important addition to the international work she has been constructing and compiling during her travels round the world and her Gold Bullion and Art Sowing were thought-provoking and imaginative. In an exciting departure from the material world into the virtual one, local film and animation artists Sean Vicary and Steve Knight created a virtual sculpture which for the exhibition was embedded in the landscape, visible only via the app on screen, and a fabulous surprise to see such a futuristic piece of work in place. There was more, much more, artists like Jo Lathwood, Rawley Clay, Helen Clifford, Fern Thomas and Matthew Smith, all contributed so much to what was a remarkable array of excellent work, and in spite of the weather promising less than fair, spirits were high, and the general atmosphere was one of appreciation that such a strong showing of artists from both Urban and Rural environments should once again feel drawn to display their work at Rhod this year.
I must say that I do not often read a thriller – and I had no idea whether I would enjoy this one when my editor passed the info about it to me. When the book arrived and I began to read it was a surprise to find myself immersed in it very quickly. This is the review I wrote for the Tivyside – it’s a great read for a lazy week-end, one of those where you want to do nothing else, but sit around reading. Maybe it’s only me that does that….is it? Can’t be surely.
A Gripping Tale
Anyone who reads ‘Roadrage’ the thrilling first novel by M J Johnson, will never see the cosy rurality of a holiday cottage in Llangranog, in quite the same light again. Just released from Odd Dog Press, this is a truly gripping tale which, even from the earliest pages creates a shiver of fear, so strange and unsettling are the opening shots with their promise of the incomprehensible terrors to come.
The first stirrings of what lies ahead occur in a late night journey on the motorway, when everyman Gil Harper, is driving home from spending Christmas with the family of his dead wife. It’s a dark night with driving rain, he is dwelling on his solitary state and memories of his lost love, and becomes aware that his is the only car on the road. His feelings of loneliness are exaggerated by this, and it is almost a relief to see another pair of headlights coming up behind him. The fact that his dog Spike suddenly offers a growling warning of something unpleasant to come is initially ignored by Gil. But then things start to happen which are very far from normal or comfortable. The behaviour of the second car as it tries a number of tactics which threaten to drive him off the road, or give him heart failure, at first induces panic, the thought of a drunk out of hand, but soon escalates to something infinitely more threatening and ultimately terrifying.
Though Gil somehow manages to get away, believing he has escaped the threat, it is actually far from over as the reader recognises when offered an insight into the mind of the perpetrator. The interesting combination of observing the thoughts of both tormentor and tormented is a clever device and continues throughout the story as things get worse and worse.
Though the reader is privy to the voice of the criminal mind, they cannot identify him any more than Gil himself can. Despite that they are taken into the planning of the mysterious and unpleasant happenings, and even murder, the motivation which drives it all remains in deep shadow, and this is the most terrifying aspect of the story. Who is he and why is he doing these things? While Gil struggles to explain what is happening to the police, things simply deteriorate around him with no clue as to what he has done to be targeted with such venom. In his private life he is making efforts to begin a new life, with a new relationship, but consistent terrifying attacks on those closest to him, and on his property continue, as does his bewilderment about why.
This is a really well-written thriller, with a tight scary plot, that carries some genuinely original ideas, and cleverly builds terror and tension, finally bringing a real ‘edge of the seat’ denouement and dramatic conclusion on the cliff top at Llangranog.
Roadrage by MJ Johnson is due out on 3 June, and is available from good bookshops; on Amazon as hardback or ebook, and is available online from www.odddogpress.com price £12.99
Earlier this week I tweeted that I had enjoyed writer Lucy Gannon’s new drama ‘Frankie’ about a district nurse seen on BBC1 on Tuesday evening. Out of interest, later I had a look at the reviews in the papers and online, and realised that I was not in the majority. Almost all the reviewers were less than complimentary about the script writing, and even the acting, by the first-rate Eve Myles. The accusations included that it had been ‘over-egging’ the problems of the NHS (though how one can do that I’m not sure) and that the fiesty Frankie looked ‘deranged’ when she was dancing (don’t most of us?). Anyway I was much cheered when I went to see the response of viewers on the Radio Times website, to see that they shared my feelings and that most of them said they would like to watch the next episode, and thought it was a good start to a series. So, the professionals versus the amateur critics, strikes again in my life, and though supposedly I sit among the professionals, as a reviewing journalist of some years experience, I frequently end up on the side of the amateurs. Another case of this occurred some weeks back when my editor, Sue and I were invited to make a judgement between two plays performed for us by our local amateur dramatic company in Cardigan. The play, chosen by us, would go to the next round of a competition run by the Drama Association of Wales. It would be fair to say we were impressed by the standard of acting in the first, but blown away by the second which was the one we chose. ‘Recidivists’ is a hard-hitting, piece of writing where two prisoners face one another with violence and abusive language in a process of overcoming their suspicion of one another in order to be able to share a cell. Marc Owen and Jonathan Preese were brilliant in the parts, and in spite of the vile language, and the aggression, both myself and Sue beside me were transported; forgot where we were; and were deeply moved by it. We were surprised to be honest. The daring quality of the work, and the effort involved in attempting something so new and not relying on something ‘safe’ to take to the competition, affected and impressed us.
We looked forward to hearing that they had been the toast of the night at the Torch where they performed in the next round, but it was not to be. The professional adjudicator profoundly disagreed with our choice, saw no merit in the play whatever, and had only negative things to say about it.
Does all this mean that there can never be a totally objective review or critique, of anything? I sometimes think so. If so why do we do it, and who can we listen to? The guys and their director and producer came back genuinely puzzled and disappointed, and we their first judges felt exactly the same. But that’s the way it goes.
So, if you want to find out what you think of ‘Frankie’ and whose side you are on, the second episode is on next Tuesday. I think there’s a lot of love in it somewhere, love in the writing and in the making of it, but maybe that’s just my rose-coloured contacts. Try it.
My friend Jackie Biggs is an astonishing example to me that anyone can do anything if they really want to do it. She bravely walked out of a full-time job as a journalist and began to pick up bits and pieces of work – everything from caring for dogs at a kennels, to free-lancing, but her real intention was to do what she really wanted to do, which was to write poetry. She set about it without wasting any time at all, and she did so with such determination, and such an eagerness to find her own voice, and a willingness to learn how to do it well, that she leaves me open-mouthed with the progress she has made. She writes poetry all the time, every day is full of poetry, ideas for poems, visual triggers for poems, memories that suggest poems – she is a poet, and sends them off here and there; and good news begins to come in return, a poem in a magazine, a choice of poem of the month with a publisher, another for a collection with someone else. It is really exciting to watch. She loves what she is doing, and doing it well. You can see some of her work on her blog and believe me you will see more of it elsewhere before the year is out. She is one of the Cardigan Cellar Bards who are filmed performing on Youtube, such a treat to see, a genuinely terrific varied bunch of talented writers. I’m writing about this today because someone recently told me to ‘grow up’ when I said I thought it possible that we can all have a go at following our destiny and we don’t have to sit hugging a desk for security and getting rich is not what it is all about. There are others around me who are doing it too. Jackie is not the only one. But yesterday she had good news with one of her poems, and it should be shared!
My day has been made again today by having been stopped twice by people who have fallen in love with The Bardic Monk.
‘He is a beautiful character,’ said one of them. ‘In spite of his funny looks!’ Considering he is regarded by some of the other characters as a changeling, and the description of him by Walter Map is so unkind, I think that ‘funny looks’ is a bit of an understatement.
But I will not complain, since the compliment to the character is also one for me, and though I know it is a small book, and will probably only ever find a small readership, due to my love of obscure material, I feel immensely happy about the quality of feedback I have received about it.
The second person asked me whether I had ever spent time in a monastery of any sort, since the description of the Bardic Monk’s early life there, struck such a chord of genuine awareness of the conditions. The truth is of course, I have never spent time in a monastery. I visited Buckfast Abbey in Devon and saw round the place with a monk as guide once, a long time ago, but as for the life they live, I only know what I know from research of course.
Sometime in the next couple of days I will write about Banjo, the wonderful book of poetry by Samantha Wynne Rhydderch whose work is not only well researched but amazingly descriptive and a total joy to have beside the bed.