REVIEW of IMPACT from Discovering Diamonds

It was good to receive this review of IMPACT, which is Book 3 of my trilogy, A Relative Invasion. The review comes from the Discovering Diamonds website. This site reviews historical fiction exclusively and awards a ‘Diamond’ to successful books.

The reviewer said,

“Impact is the third book in a trilogy about a family torn apart by World War II.

The obvious first question is: should the reader have read the first two books in the trilogy (Intrusion and Infiltration) in order to fully appreciate Impact? My answer would have to be that it is not necessary, but advisable. My enjoyment of Impact was not significantly impaired by not having read the earlier volumes, but I did feel it would have helped to have had a better understanding of what lies behind the hostility between Bill and his cousin Kenneth which is the source of the central conflict in the novel, particularly as this is a good story.

At the start of Impact, Bill and his mother arrive back at their London home as Victory in Europe has been declared. The war in the Far East is still continuing. The women and children have been evacuated to the countryside in order to escape the bombing of England’s capital city (the period covered in the earlier books). The men are serving in the forces.

The book follows Bill’s adolescence in post-war London with its bomb sites and shortages of food and clothing, as he matures from a twelve-year-old boy helping his mother and grandparents, into a teenager about to embark on National Service. But it is his relationship with his older but weaker cousin, Kenneth, that gives unwanted shape to his life, a constant source of simmering resentment.

The style of writing changes subtly as the boys age, the early chapters using language appropriate for a twelve-year-old, such as might be found in one of Enid Blyton’s juvenile mysteries featuring the Famous Five or the Secret Seven. By the time we reach part two, with both boys now in their mid-teens, the language is more mature, though still using expressions in dialogue which, whilst commonplace in that time and place, seem archaic today.

In some ways the relationship between Bill and Kenneth is reminiscent of that between Tom Brown and Flashman in Thomas Hughes’s nineteenth century classic, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Bill is the quiet, hard-working, kind and athletic, rather than intellectual, character, whilst Kenneth is the academically gifted bully. The characters are so well drawn that, as with Hughes’s novel, it is not impossible to feel some sympathy for both.

There are other parallels: Hughes’s novel is deeply revealing of Victorian attitudes to society and class; Ms Minett’s, similarly, exposes the snobbery and contempt for the labouring classes that existed among the suburban middle classes in 1940s Britain. The well drawn period details provide a believably realistic context for the development of both plot and character. Although I did spot one error regarding the radio show Round the Horn, which was in fact, first broadcast later than this novel depicts.

The story progresses steadily towards the shocking climax of Part One which drives the reader to  continue reading into Part Two in order to discover the consequence for both boys.

(It would have provided spoilers if the reviewer had said more about Part Two and I appreciate that he avoided this).

He concludes: “Impact provides a reminder for my generation (I was born in 1941) of how different life was in those distant, mid-twentieth century, days. For younger readers it offers valuable insights into the hardships and sacrifices their grandparents made in order to create the many social and educational advantages they enjoy.”

(I do think that adolescents would be shocked by what ‘austerity’ felt like in the 1940s, particularly the restricted diet!)

Promoting literary fiction on-line

Bookbub promotion: a wise investment?

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Jane Davis recently ran a Bookbub promotion. Jane is a successful indie author and member of ALLi whose first novel, Half-truths and White Lies won the Daily Mail First Novel Award in 2008. She has written six further novels, each of them in the genre of literary fiction. They have earned her a loyal fan base, especially after An Unknown Woman was named Self-Published Book of the Year 2016 by Writing Magazine and the DSJT Charitable Trust. But like all authors, she has to market and promote her books.

It is well known that Bookbub is the most effective of all promotion sites. Thousands of downloads follow the one day of a Bookbub listing, but getting a book listed is notoriously difficult. And expensive. It costs hundreds to donate a book – even free – to a potential thousands of readers. No wonder that millions of authors turn to other promotion websites. There are myriad on-line writer advice sites recommending that authors do this, with a consequent rise in websites providing promotions. Not surprisingly, with multiple sites promoting the full gamut of genres, the result is lower effectiveness and fewer sales.

Despite Jane’s existing success, it took several attempts before Bookbub accepted Funeral for an Owl for promotion. Often book promotions are for genre fiction. Would Bookbub work well for literary fiction? This was Jane’s question. Her partial answer she generously shared with fellow ALLi members: the results of her Bookbub promotion: costs and benefits.  (One of the advantages of membership of ALLi is the access to this inside information.)

JaneDavis       Jane’s results are particularly useful because:

  • many website posts that quote results are averaging outcomes from several genres among which literary fiction may well be the least represented.
  • Those ‘sold a million after promotion’ success stories often relate to self-help books (often about self-publishing!);
  • FREE e-books are now expected, encouraging myriads of downloads that are never read. Jane’s data inlcuded the number of reviews that followed: i.e. proof that the book had been read.

Once or twice I have looked up the ratings for books cited by promoters as examples of phenomenal sales after exposure on their site. Once the sales day is over, the rating has slumped to very low.  This does not seem to be so severe a case with Bookbub, probably because the audience is already targeted to its preferred genre. For instance, two weeks or more after the promo on Amazon.co.uk Funeral for an Owl’s best rating was as follows:

Yes, it would be nice to be at number 1, but it is sales that matter and these are by no means all that Amazon use to decide on ranking. One of Jane’s goals was to increase the number of people on her mailing-list, people who would be interested in buying her books. This goal was achieved as result of the Bookbub promotion.

It seems to me that literary fiction is the last to benefit from on-line promotions. This may be because its readers are those most likely to prefer a physical book and most likely to keep it, re-read it, lend it, pass it on. Jane has her books in print too . . .

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey and is the author of six novels. The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section.

You can find her at:

 Website: www.jane-davis.co.uk

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage   Paperback-iphone-FB-AD

Twitter: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor

Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/

 Or get an eBook of her novel, I Stopped Time, by signing up to her mailing list at www.jane-davis.co.uk/newsletter

 

 

 

Translated fiction. Peru: a little-known aspect.

Review of Malambo by Lucía Charún-Illescas,

published by Swan Isle Press

rinconPeru

The Rimac river, Peru.

It is always a pleasure to hold a book with an artistic dustcover, printed on quality paper. Further, there has been insufficient translation of Latin American works into English and I admire the initiative of non-profit presses such as Swan Isle Press.

I was eager to read ‘Malambo’ because of the unusual setting of Peru in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. The author, an historian,  has written her first novel about a little-known theme, the way of life of those affected by the slavery, rife at that time.

Peru was central to the Spanish Inquisition. Slaves from Africa, the mainland and indigenous minority groups suffered horrific treatment. Those who survived the brutality of their treatment were priced according to their health and strength. Those ‘freed’ often found themselves in a worse position. This novel shows how slaves might save up earnings or win favours from owners to buy their freedom or that of their kin, creating families with both enslaved and free, skilled and unskilled, rural and urban folk.

slaves_opt

  Within the social hierarchy of the slave stratum, the black artisans had the highest rank due to their skills. They worked as carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, swordsmiths and silversmiths. This group enjoyed more freedom than their fellows who worked at large haciendas or in private households. Spanish small-business keepers would dispatch servant-artisans to carry out a job independently and then return to their owner.  Skilled black artisans sometimes took a role of a low-ranking employee for their trades were a major avenue of social progress.

Illescas’ novel is populated with characters from different walks of life, but the main focus is upon those of African descent. An atmospheric opening reveals the significance of the river Rimac, both as a character in its own right, and in the way it divided rich from poor residences in the area. The opening introduces the best drawn character, Tomason, an ancient painter of high repute who has escaped his master yet is still bound to him at a distance. Initially he is found jut finising a work with inadequate tools to keep the master satisfied.

Thereupon, the first half of the novel’s number of characters and frequent changes of tense make for a taxing read. It is as though the people and events wash up against each other in waves, like flotsam in the river when it rises.  Early on, a missing father is found dead in it. He has briefly left his daughter, Pancha, with Tomason but when he is lost, Tomason uncomplainingly rears the girl like an honorary grandfather.

As a reference to magical thinking and the whispering myths from the culture of origin, the river gives gossip, it is listened to for information.

The many characters are used to display the fusion of races and cultures in Lima: Jews,  Christians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Creoles, negroes, mestizos and mulattoes. If a character has need there is the possibility of  ‘disappearing’ amongst negroes in Lima, who were equal in number to Peruvians. We are shown those individuals who prosper, often illegitimately, as well as those who suffer. The interchanges between individuals reflect the daily experience of servitude, abuse, diligence and deviance.

The elderly painter lives in squalor and hardship, yet retains his power and dignity.  A religious painting is awaited from him. He makes his master wait. More eagerly, he decorates the walls of his cave-like home in coal, a medium he knows will fade with time, like himself. We see that his illustrations record events, experiences, beliefs, truths. As time goes on, the painter becomes increasingly focussed on the dust in the air, how it lies around him, how the sun shines through it.

In the novel’s second half, there is more flow and pace.  The events show the difficulties, brutalities and social spirit that mark the characters’ lives.  A four poster bed is one character’s heritage, her only possession. Its removal by officers is on the basis that it is forbidden for a negro to sleep on a bed. The bed travels around town its resting place dependent upon the fortunes of its owner, its ‘acceptance’.

The reader is shown the branding sheds and methods of torture, the horrendous way in which slaves are transported and kept. A skilled negro silversmith is mistakenly believed to be a thief and is murdered in the most brutal manner.  The perpetrator is subsequently told, calmly,  that he did a bad thing.  He recognises this without apparent upset. An innocent traveller, seeking only to record the places and peoples he finds, is drugged and branded on the face. He refuses to blame the perpetrators, victims of slavery and the awful branding sheds. The female married slave forced to regularly sleep with her master is beaten into disability to appease the master’s wife, but continues to work and sleep as required. Illescu relates all such very violent events unemotionally. It is as though such acts were so commonplace that they are passively accepted if not condoned. And so the negroes submitted to their fate.

When the innocent traveller is lost, he is told the land lies between the river on one side and the mountain on the other.  Malambo is that place, between two potential powers, conveniently near to Lima but far enough for secrets to be held there. Power lies on one side of the Rincon, hardship on the other.

Along the river’s path, Pancha seeks the truth of her father’s death.  Her first foray from Malambo is described like a coming of age. Tomason wonders if the travelling bed will find acceptance. Pancha’s ‘finding her path home’ after her search is also used symbolically, and will end in marriage.

There are passages that have beauty and spark associations in the reader’s mind, such as the intrusion of myth, mostly Yorumba, the main character’s homeland.

As for criticism, I found the dialogue jerky and no guide to characterisation. One character spoke much like another, giving background and essential information in an artificial manner. The dialogue did not convince or lift the narrative. The manner of changing tense within the same paragraph did disconcert me and I was conscious of a struggle between my reading of the author’s intent and the translation of it. The reader needs to know if s/he is ‘in the moment’ or looking back upon it.

It is always important to hold separate the skill of the writer from that of the translator. I believe that when a novel is translated, it should represent the strength of the description such that the reader’s ignorance of the original language is not a problem. I was not sure that the translator managed this task. There were several instances of inelegance: a discrete/discreet confusion, ‘wind’ as a verb and as a noun in the same sentence obliterating the meaning, and occasional sentence construction that did not reflect naturalistic English.

In conclusion, I would recommend this novel because of its insight into a world little-known and the importance of recognising the African heritage within Peru. However, Illescas is more a historian than a novelist. If this story had been told from the point of view of Tomason, or even alternating between him and Altagracia, the injured woman, the reader would have had more emotional investment in the tale. As it stands, the work is of more historical than literary importance, but an interesting read for all that.

In December 2013 the Huffington Post presented an article about the inequalities in obtaining clean water in Peru. It seems that your fate and fortune is determined by the side of the river you come from.

s-PERU-RIMAC-RIVER-large

Local residents of the shantytown (characterised as Malambo in the novel) pay 3.22 dollars per cubic metre of water, compared to just 45 cents paid by those a few blocks away in Rinconada del Lago, one of Lima’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

Review of Intrusion

41v76HCQIAL._AA160_0.99 promotion for 3 days.

Isn’t it reinforcing when you get a positive and thorough review?

Praise on its own doesn’t inform what was liked and why. I think readers or potential readers prefer a review that gives a sense of how they might feel when reading the book in question. Which character will they sympathise with, which will make their hackles rise?

Here’s one for Intrusion from last July that I quote because of the reviewer’s reaction to Billy’s manipulative cousin, Kenneth. I’m afraid I’m just writing some more examples of his irritating behaviour for Book 3. In many ways we should sympathise with him, but there comes a point when he just goes a bit too far. . .

patience

 

Meantime, Intrusion, is on offer for 3 days at 0.99

Charmaine
Jun 17, 2015  5*

Charmaine rated it really liked it · review of another edition
Shelves: historical-fiction, kindle
“Rosalind Minett does an excellent job portraying the early stages of World War II through the eyes of a child. I liked seeing events through Billy’s viewpoint. We never quite get the full picture of the events of the war because Billy’s understanding is limited, but at the start of each chapter Minett lists the date and an important WWII event that is associated with that date, which keeps the reader grounded. Billy’s experiences with the air raid and the evacuation gave a sense of realism to the story.

Besides the historical accuracy, I liked how the author made me feel certain emotions about the characters. I really disliked Kenneth. I also felt annoyance with most of the adults who did not understand Billy, including his own parents. I sympathized with Billy and cheered for him all the way. Billy underwent some character development and I look forward to seeing his growth throughout the series.

(The author gave me a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review)”

A Talent for Short Stories

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GOODBYE CROCODILE  –  Conor Patrick

  published by The London Magazine

The London Magazine has a long-standing reputation for selecting and presenting work of a high literary quality, poetry and prose. They produced this collection of short stories in 2013. It does them credit as well as its author. I reviewed it then, but recently saw that it had not received a great deal of attention, so I flag it up again.

I always enjoy Irish writing.  What is it about Ireland – the oral tradition? – that it produces writers who so understand pain. People suffer elsewhere, after all.  Yet Irish writers are so skilled in capturing the image that strikes at the heart.

Conor Patrick is one of these. His writing displays both the velvet of his Irish genes and the sharpness of his past American environment. In this collection, he gives twelve stories that grasp that time of change or realisation and exposes it. Many of his characters are on the verge of adulthood and perhaps that is why they are lightly drawn. They are fawns not stags, often coping with raw or threatening circumstances. The settings show a wide variety of rough and ready America with characters who are struggling to survive physically or psychologically.

These are literary pieces, rich in description. The boy in the cathedral absorbs the effigies and images ‘lifting heavenwards their stained glass faces.’ In my favourite story, ‘Be Still the River’, perhaps the most beautifully written, there is an image of the ‘carapace’ of a pram. This image poignantly highlights the death of the mother and of a bereaved younger sister’s childhood. The girl does not have the large fish she had worked so hard to land only this remainder of a pram. She is used to pulling fish from the water as the one means of sustenance.

Patrick masters that task of suggesting half a world in the one paragraph – sign of the excellent short story writer. I highly recommended this collection to the serious reader.

GAZA. Sadly, not fiction.

REVIEW OF THE DRONE EATS WITH ME
Diaries from a city under fire
Atef-Abu Saif

israel-uav-butterfly
Israel-uav-butterfly

Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.

Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.

During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.

A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in flight during a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise at Fallon Naval Air Station (NAS), Nevada (NV), during exercise DESERT RESCUE XI. The Hunter is an Israeli multi-role short-range UAV system in service with the US Army (USA). The exercise is a joint service Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise hosted by the Naval Strike and Warfare Center, designed to simulate downed aircrews, enabling CSAR related missions to experiment with new techniques in realistic scenarios.
A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.

“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)

How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.

If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.

The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.

Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.

Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”.  Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.

Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity.  gazangameIt takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.

If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise.  Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.

Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Difficult_Lesson_(1884)
The Difficult Lesson, William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.

To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.

Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.

(c) 2015 All of these blog posts are the copyright of Rosalind Minett. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission, or without crediting me as the original author and providing a link to the original article on this website.

Bulgarian fiction

Bulgariaborder

In Bulgaria, the short story is not a lesser literary form as it is in the UK. Quite the reverse, it is highly valued. There are some fine Bulgarian writers of short stories and this post concerns just one.

Miroslav Penkov‘s short story collection, East of the West, is the most powerful of reads. We are taken into the heart and bowels of Bulgaria through the voices and situations of the various characters. This is very fine writing, and not just the name story. That won the BBC short story award of 2012 (by unanimous vote of the judges).

The story is full of symbolism. A village is divided by river and that river is used as a boundary between west and east at the end of World War II.  There is jealousy caused between the villagers because those on the west bank have access to western materialism. The eastern bank villagers long for jeans and Nike trainers, however worn-out.

The villagers are allowed to meet once a year, but they try to keep contact other times by shouting across at its narrowest point, or, in the case of young lovers, by swimming to the centre and risking shots from the armed guards. The villagers once tried to maintain their identity by diverting the river so that it kept the village undivided. The result was a flooding, the church being completely drowned. The protagonist is encouraged by his loving, but aggressive cousin, to meet her at the submerged cross of this church.

His sister makes a similar swim to meet her fiancé, to show the ‘diamonds’ for her wedding the next day. Both are shot by guards. They are dressed in their finest, dead, for two funerals, each on its own  bank of the river.

Somehow, in the face of his own love and career disappointments, the protagonist must move on, a metaphor for Bulgaria.

EastpfWest

 

 

It seems opportune, at the very time that the number of Bulgarian immigrants (amongst others) is being agonised over, that the harsh lifestyle Bulgarians suffer is brought to the consciousness of other nations. It may be that it takes someone raised in the culture, but career-boosted outside of it, to write about Bulgaria with that telescope of understanding.

Penkov studied so hard that his English was excellent by the time he reached the US to further his studies. Therefore, his stories have the advantage of being written in English, not translated. Each of these stories is entirely absorbing and thought-provoking. The choice of words often holds a significance that points to larger issues. It was sobering to find that several stories were written when the author was very young. No-one, we would think in the West, should have inside knowledge or direct experience of such dark matters: the hanging of dissidents, the enforced changing of names, the lack of medical aid to severely ill people, the poverty and hunger, the lack of corporate compassion for the young or needy.

Penkov manages to get within the head of young and old Bulgarians, male and female. Filtered through the narrative is the history of a once-strong country beleaguered by political discord and powerful nations. The consequent poverty and desperation that cause alienation and anarchism come through these stories in a way that is fresh and bleeding.

The stories are both warm and dark, some so dark that it is difficult to read on. Why turn to fantasy and horror when more real events are offered here?  For instance, the dead (accidentally killed?) child being lifted into position for a family photograph. Or the almost dead vagrant on the church plinth being readied, or is it desecrated, for eternity? An adolescent with his sidekick, running loose, alienated, anarchic and yet retaining some humanity, ends up in the church tower pissing down on his compatriots who are literally jumping to political command – a darkly humorous message.

The tragic and emotionally neglected young girl, her head shaved so that she can be like her dead brother, is trained to make bagpipes, their soft section the nearest to a comforting breast her world provides.  When her father is arrested, she is left to care for her terminally ill mother and ultimately is left alone with her bagpipe. The reader can almost hear its plaintive sound.

A young man goes against home politics by being in America, wars with his grandfather who is eventually proved to be in the more enviable (Bulgarian) position. The Bulgarian desire to receive good education, career opportunity, a decent lifestyle, conflicts with all those values and close family ties that make life worthwhile.

The yan that drives and threatens to destroy the individual has a meaning beyond mere envy. It almost has a personality of its own, defining the Bulgarian and almost, his culture.

Rijpe_mispels

Like the medlars prevalent in the countryside of Bulgaria, these tales are bitter but necessary to assuage (literary) hunger. We can understand why Bulgarians, despite loving their country, need to emigrate to gain the basic necessities of life.

I feel the richer for reading these stories, and their content will stay with me.Penkov is due to publish a novel shortly. It is something to look forward to.

REVIEW: Dark Silence – Volpi

We don’t see enough of Latin American writers in the UK. I am glad to review this literary novel by Jorge Volpi (Mexico) published by Swan Isle Press and seamlessly translated by Olivia Maciel.

Dark Silence

When you know a novel has suicide as a central focus, you wait to find the right – the strongest – frame of mind before reading it. This was true of me, and so it is some months since I received this impressive work for independent review from Swan Isle Press. Fresh from reading the captivating ‘To the Beautiful North’ with its irrepressible characters (by Luis Alberto Urrea, another Mexican), I took up this well-presented volume with its haunting, probably haunted, portrait on its dust cover.

It is a hard read: hard in the sense that it is intellectually challenging; hard emotionally; hard in tone and use of language as opposed to soft and fluid; hard in its relentless move towards facing death.

The author, Jorge Volpi, is one of the originators of the Crack movement in Mexico, ‘crack’ or fracture – a break from what is trivial or superficial, and from the established magical realism of authors such as Marquez, well loved in the UK. Perhaps ‘crack’ is apposite with regard to Volpi’s novel since it centres upon the cracking up of an esteemed poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta, and ultimately of the narrator. We use ‘cracked’ or ‘crackers’ to denigrate people who have become mentally ill. Cuesta’s ‘crack’ connects with his ambivalent sexual identity. His attempt at a fusion between the male/female ended with self-emasculation. But more than that, he was obsessed with catching the moment to the point of defeating time, perhaps finding a crack through which he could pass in order to do so.  “Time doesn’t stop, but passes.”

volpi
Jorge Volpi

If magical realists such as Marquez write about incidents, characters, and settings that could not occur within the physical world as we know it, Volpi straddles a world in which the reader is witness of what seems to be occurring but is in fact fiction, and is informed of a parallel set of events that are factual. Boundaries are deliberately blurred. The narrator is Jorge, like the author, like the poet.  His friend, Eloy, has the same name as the author’s father and Cuesta’s colleague.

Jorge, a poorly paid writer, overhears mention of Cuesta’s name and suicide following self-mutilation. He tells us at least twice that sharing the christian name hurts his life twice. It seems to place him under a responsibility to tell Cuesta’s tale.

The novel begins as Jorge visualizes in great detail the last agonizing days of Cuesta’s life. He gives an unnervingly empathetic account.

Jorge Cuesta is not really known in UK.  His achievements in two professions were remarkable, yet the acme of his inventions appears to have coincided with his mental deterioration.  The wisdom and despair of his poetry seep through the novel as Jorge searches out the poet’s point of view. “I’m searching for Cuesta’s not my own.”

While immersing himself in researching Cuesta’s life, Jorge listlessly follows his own. He is in an unrewarding relationship, unrewarding for his partner as well as for himself. Volpi’s unpicking of this relationship is masterly. He shows us the selfishness of both partners and their unwillingness, not inability, to engage in the other’s raison d’etre and preoccupations. It is a hostile dependency that fails to improve or to end.

Jorge amasses all the information he can about Cuesta, studies the poetry, takes note of the inventions, imagines the extent to which Cuesta loved, believed and understood. His scholarly and increasingly emotional investigation includes tracking down the two important women in Cuesta’s life, his lover and his wife. Increasingly, the reader notes the parallels between the two Jorges’ existences, and despairs in his obsessive moves towards repeating the pattern.

In the process of his research, Jorge’s own life becomes increasingly deranged.  He believes that if he could fuse male with female he could preserve the moment of ecstasy, could break through the force-field of time. Volpi skilfully shows the intricacies of his thought pattern.  The reader becomes concerned for Jorge’s self-destructive behaviour, his immersion in dark thoughts.

He visits the hospital where Cuesta lived his last days before hanging himself. The current patients are circling around a central flower bed. He asks a nurse why they do this. She answers, ‘Perhaps they want to exit time.’

Jorge’s work to reveal Cuesta’s ‘meaning’ culminate in scholarly articles. These are met with ridicule and condemnation by his intellectual colleagues and the academic community. This is devastating not only to his self-esteem, but to the chance of conveying the central concept via Cuesta’s biography. Volpi, in the voice of the narrator, sees Cuesta as one of the “fugitive poets that favoured a clandestine existence rather than submit themselves to the absurd rules of time.”

Meanwhile, Jorge’s refusal to commit to an emotional and supportive involvement with his partner causes her to leave him. She has been no better able to provide an emotional investment in Jorge. She goes away with her former lover despite her sudden realization that she loves Jorge.

Left on his own, the last vestiges of normality leave him or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his last hold on himself as a unique individual drifts away. He is in despair.

A major strength of this novel is the economic and skilful delineation of the process of thought and the coming apart of a tortured mind.

Lovecraftdespair1
 Lovecraft – ‘Despair”

Cuesta waited to end his life until he had written his poem, Song to a Mineral God.  Early in the novel, this is discussed by Jorge and his friend, Eloy. With premonition, Jorge states “I’m going to write an essay -”  In his last moments he does so. It is an account of his feelings. He is fully aware of the irony that this comes too late to save his love relationship. He writes his essay before repeating the act and manner of Cuesta’s death.

The suicide of  Cuesta, poet and chemist, was a great tragedy.  Without academic recognition, Jorge’s struggle to understand Cuesta and convey to the world the significance of the ‘moment within the moment’, the implacability of time, now has no hope of standing the test of time. He is defeated by it and faces death in spite of its dark silence.

Scottish Showcase: Review of The Grind

Today’s post is a review I wrote for ShortStops, a literary online site that celebrates the short story.

The Grind is an online journal showcasing creative work from across Scotland had its first issue recently. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this as can be seen from the following:

THE GRIND – A NEW CREATIVE JOURNAL

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It was enlivening to read the first issue of The Grind, an online magazine showcasing short fiction and visual art from across Scotland. The Grind will give new artists and writers the opportunity to have their work seen by an interested audience. Always ahead in the field of Education, Scotland has its own voice and personality, perhaps insufficiently seen internationally.

Some of the contributors will be completely unknown, others have already won acclaim for their work. I enjoyed all the contributions but can only mention a few in a brief review.

The first issue is certainly as diverse as the parts of that country. Dramatic treescapes from Jamie McFarlane open the magazine. This is followed by some poetic gems. I particularly liked Dreamscape by Seonaid Francis, short but lyrical, and delicately to the point.

The tone is very different for the arresting architectural and life-style statements by Declan Malone. These photographs both appealed to the eye while depressing the spirit, and as spatial configurations, they somehow sum up a visual experience for a significant proportion of the population.

Also memorable, are the very disturbing psychological portraits by Bryan M Ferguson. Somewhat filmically, he portrays what is happening and has happened to his subjects whom he allows to speak for themselves. His use of black/white contrast add to the effect upon us.

There is flash fiction in this issue, as well as poetry. I would pick out the haunting set of mini ghost stories by David Flood. These are less fantasy than a representation of the living loss for the ordinary person of those departed. The short pieces held together well as a set.

In the same vein, I loved the haunting shadowy photographs of TV Eye, like flickers of memory. Some photographs please as a work of art, some as technique. These appeared to strike some new ground, touching on half formed thoughts or minimally perceived movements.

In strong contrast, the impressive and central work NMDA by CD Shade is an intellectual presentation. It uses text, rhythm and diagram to present a visual representation of the glutamate receptor and its functions. This work really needed larger pages for readers to appreciate the scientific, cognitive, language and life implications it draws attention to. I enlarged each section in order to read it properly. NMDA is in essence a scientific poem, unique in its style. I am sure it will receive the attention it deserves .

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This is a stimulating and exciting magazine. I did wonder if a different title would benefit it; a hydrophonics magazine has been using it for some time. Otherwise, only one criticism – the layout sometimes made it difficult to determine whose work I was seeing, so that I had to return to the Contents page. The author’s name, often written very small, hovered between pages. One artist framed his work, and this made for much easier viewing, especially on a tablet.

The talented writers and artists present a range of themes and genres in this first issue of The Grind. If there are to be changes in the later issues, I hope there will be a chosen theme each time. It will be exciting to see how the different individuals respond to this within their own medium and style.

I shall be looking out for Issue 2.

First published on www.ShortStops

Chinese short stories reviewed

Chinese short stories: Shi Cheng -Short Stories from Urban China– edited by Liu Ding, Yinghua Lu and Ra Page.

 It was purely coincidental that just as I finished reading the last story in this collection, the government announced a relaxation of visa restrictions to Chinese nationals with the rejoinder that British attitudes towards the Chinese might be altered. Notwithstanding the human rights issues, I certainly didn’t expect them to characterize the national psyche. Never having visited China I had little knowledge.

What struck me in reading these several stories was a sense of familiarity with the humour and irony of the authors.

 

Chinese seniors playing cards
card playing prevails

This collection gives a rare flavour of China and the Introduction is just as important. How the collection came about is fascinating and gives some insight into Chinese life. Each author in this collection is already highly rated in China if unknown in the UK. Each story comes from a different city in China, with its own climate and atmosphere. The characters range from those on the far fringe of respectability to those who have enjoyed an excellent education.

To do the book justice, each story really deserves an individual reviewed, but here are my favourites:

Wittily, Jie Chen writes about a girl `rushing’ to prevent a murder. Her sense of urgency is constantly hampered by her make-up, double-checking of door locks, street sales of passport/ diary/dagger while simultaneously she mentally constructs scenarios for her friend’s crisis. This very amusing ‘literary chick-lit’ reveals some of the inconveniences and hazards in Chengdu. Josh Sternberg needs congratulating for his translation: he captures ditziness in an way immediately recognizable in the UK.

He does an equally good job on Zhang Zhihua’s story, a clever association between the agonizing wisdom tooth which should be removed and the state of the owner’s marriage. Sternberg manages to make clear the play on a Chinese word which means either `childish’ or `wisdom’ without spoiling the narrative style of the tale.

Hang Dong’s beautifully written story, `This Moron is Dead’ is the ultimate in bleak irony, social comment and literary style. I loved his use of cherry blossom as a symbol on several levels. It only exists on one street in the city; it only blossoms very briefly – a reference to past Japanese intrusion?

The Chinese sense of humour is best shown by Diaou Dou’s `Squatting’, which had me laughing out loud – inappropriately, as I was in the dentist’s waiting room. The earnest educated group aims to benefit their community by polite approaches to those in power. The description of their efforts and the authoritarian outcomes reveals the flavour of frustrating everyday life in Shenyang. Perhaps all our wars could be solved by the use of ridicule. Diaou Dou’s writing reminded me of Jonathan Swift.

In Xu Zechen’s `Wheels are Round’, the poverty and life-style of labourers on the fringe of Beijing is told with a hilarity just short of bitterness. The mechanics look towards the, for them, unattainable city where largesse falls from the sky and fortunes lie awaiting to be picked up from the pavement. With months of ingenuity the main character pieces together a car, the zenith of his ambition, using scrap from the garage where he works, and is consistently defrauded. The car’s fortune is shown with the irony that characterizes these writers.

Altogether, it was this irony and irrepressible humour that lent such a warm feeling of kindred spirit.

Most readers will surely enjoy these urban tales by masterful Chinese writers as much as I did. There aren’t enough short story collections on the bookshelves of libraries and bookshops. Comma Press is benefiting the reading public by seeking to remedy this situation.

The paperback is available from Amazon, or better still, ordered from your local independent bookseller. I bought it from Mr B’s Emporium in Bath:

  • Publisher: +Comma Press (30 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 190558346X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905583461