Frustrations of a book buyer in New Zealand

Kaikoura

Stunning scenery in The South Island, New Zealand. But where oh where are the books????

As I headed for my long holiday through New Zealand and Australia, the burning question was not how many pairs of shorts to pack, but how many books I could reasonably take with me.

The tight baggage allowances for some of my shorter flights was one consideration. The other was the knowledge I’d have lug all these books around for weeks.

Friends who have travelled extensively in the region assured me I’d have no problem buying new books en route. Although the prices tend to be a lot higher than in the UK, second hand bookshops are plentiful and many coffee shops have used books on sale they said.

Reassured I wouldn’t be left high and dry, and viewing this holiday as a chance to expand my horizons and discover new authors, I decided to limit my bookish companions to just three physical books:

Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga

Bookman, Anna Burns Booker prize winning novel

Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Myerling

In the event my trek around Australia never materialised (but that’s another story).

The promised paradise of book supplies never materialised either.

Our first stopping point was the popular coastal resort of Whitianga. No bookstore in sight. The nearest we got was this display of used books – they’d obviously been in the sun for many weeks.  Even I wasn’t that desperate (they had nothing to appeal anyway).

books for saleJPG

Two stops later, we reached Lake Taupo, another popular location for tourists. Things started to look up when the owner of the motel we stayed in mentioned he had shelves full of books other guests had left behind. He almost begged me to take them.

Unfortunately they were rather a sad collection of discarded travel guides (a few years out of date), light romances and crime. Every blockbuster crime writer was in evidence.  Clearly this is what travellers like to read …

Despite drinking more flat whites than I’ve drunk in my life, I never did find a coffee shop with a bookshelf of used books for sale.

By the time we got to what proved to be our final destination, the large town of Nelson in the South Island, I was down to my last paperback (Sixteen Trees of the Somme). I still had plenty of options on the e-reader but I really wanted the feeling of turning pages.

Nelson did have three bookshops: two chains and one independent. I headed to them in great excitement, equipped with a list of New Zealand authors I picked up at the local library.

What a disappointment to find hardly any of these authors on sale. Most of the books being promoted were by authors from outside the southern hemisphere in fact (crime fiction was once again much in evidence. )

It was a shock to find that books in New Zealand are very expensive –  a good 30% higher than prices in the UK.  As an example, I bought my copy of Milkman in the UK for £7.99 (about 17 New Zealand dollars). In New Zealand, it was on sale for 30 New Zealand dollars. Most novels in fact were in that price range and even higher. They were not hardback editions, they were what I call ‘airport edition’ size – so a soft cover but a larger format.  I’m not surprised to find that book sales are falling in New Zealand.

Volume Bookshop New Zealand

Volume: independent bookstore in Nelson, New Zealand

I got into an interesting conversation on the pricing issue with Thomas, one of the co-owners of Volume, a delightful independent bookshop in what’s called the city’s Bohemian Quarter. Prices are apparently high because the market in New Zealand is small (the whole country has a population only just over four million) so print runs are low, and thus publishers don’t get the benefits of economies of scale. Many books are printed outside the country, so prices have to include transport costs. Plus, books in New Zealand (unlike those in the UK ) are not exempt from the sales tax.

I heard a different side to this issue from Lisa at ANZLitlovers – the real issue in Lisa’s view is that New Zealand publishers don’t aggressively market their wares outside of the country. Not even to their near neighbours, Australia (population 25million). What a missed opportunity…

This helps explain why I struggled to think of any New Zealand authors ahead of my trip; if they don’t get promoted to potential readers on their near doorstep, they’re hardly going to be making an effort to get them known in the UK.

I know what you’re wondering …. did I buy anything?

The New ShipsWell yes I did, but I was restrained. I bought just one book: The New Ships by Kate Duigan. It’s been shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards 2019. It’s a layered family history narrated by Peter Collie, a partner in a prestigious  law firm. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, it moves to London, Europe and the Indian subcontinent as Collie tries to make sense of his past.

I was tempted by another of the award contenders: The Cage by Lloyd Jones but I had already read one of his novels previously, Mr Pip which was published in 2006 whereas reading Duigan  would be a new experience. Anyway it seems I can get The Cage for a reasonable price in the UK so may well end up buying that at some point.

If anyone is interested, the New Zealand authors whose names were given to me by a helpful librarian were:

  • Eleanor Catton (winner of the Booker Prize with The Luminaries)
  • Keri Hulme (winner of the Booker Prize with The Bone People)
  • Lloyd George (author of Mr Pip)
  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Janet Frame
  • Witi Tame Ihimaera
  • Maurice Gee
  • Elizabeth Knox
  • Patricia Grace

If you know any of these writers and have a recommendation, do let me know. I’ll try and get them from a UK supplier (the chances of my library stocking them are very slim).

 

 

 

 

WWWednesday 20 March, 2019

I’m writing my latest WWWednesday post  in a fog generated by the jet lag from my lengthy trip down under. So if it doesn’t make sense, you know why….

 

What are you currently reading? The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola

 

 

I’m long overdue a return to the world of the Rougon-Macquart families as depicted in Émile Zola’s 20-volume  series. April 1 sees the start of  an annual event of reading all works related to Émile Zola – which has given me the impetus to pick up The Kill. This is the second novel in the series and deals with the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau Riche in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, laying bare their lust for power and money.  Zola describes this period as

… a time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds,, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and money.

It’s got off to a terrific start with some lengthy descriptive passages showing the excesses of the Second Empire (middle of the nineteenth century).

What did you recently finish reading? Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

 

I’ve seen a number of comments in the blogosphere that Setterfield’s book is rather slow and overly long. That wasn’t my reaction at all. Even though it contained some mythical elements, which usually are a turn off, I thought this was a terrific story.  Review to follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

Dignity

I have an advance copy of the latest novel by Alys Conran that I’d like to read soon (it’s published on April 4). I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her new novel Dignity is a story of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse.

Also vying for attention are two works of non fiction, both of which were Christmas presents: Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming  and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a memoir of a couple who lose their farm and home when the husband gets a diagnosis of a terminal illness. With nothing left, they make an impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

None So Blind (The Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries) by Alis Hawkins #writingWales

Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of  Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

Rebecca riots

Artist’s illustration of the Rebecca Rioters. Source: Wikipedia

In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.

The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers –  often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.

They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’

The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame. 

The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.

It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.

Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.

none so blind

Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”. 

We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation,  making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.

…  I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…

It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.

The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .

It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind  that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause.  Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:

… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.

None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of  mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a  lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.

This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.


About the Author

Author Pic Alis HawkinsAlis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.

Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.

About the Book 

None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.

Revisiting the king of legal thrillers

John Grisham

John Grisham: past his best?

With no reading material before a long flight I picked up a John Grisham potboiler in the San Francisco airport without much enthusiasm. It was the mid 1990s, the book was The Pelican Brief and, to my surprise – because Grisham was being hyped all over the place then– I thoroughly enjoyed it, while being aware that possessing such a novel would cause several noses to be looked down.

As with wine and antiques’ circles, there are many snobs around in the book-reading world, though they would perhaps say they are simply more discerning readers. Each to his or her own; there’s no cause to sneer at Mills and Boon fans, for example – at least they’re reading.

And weren’t the majority of contemporary readers of Austen, Dickens, Doyle and Hardy simply popular fiction readers who liked a good tale well told? 

After I devoured The Pelican Brief, I proceeded to gobble up all of JG’s wordy legal thrillers. The Painted House ended the run; I hadn’t read the jacket notes. It was a rambling sentimental tale of bygone Americana. Where were the hotshot lawyers? Where were the big showcase trials?

Something changed with Grisham at that point. Maybe his publishers urged him to go in other directions, maybe he urged himself. 

Leaving the legal world behind – his specialist area – may have won a few fans but must have lost many more. And then even his courtroom-based output began to take a twee moralistic tone with humble downhome country folk fighting those ugly, hard-hearted corporations. I bailed out.

King of TortsBut a recent unexpected hospital stay in New Zealand brought me back. I had nothing but a dull Maigret novel with me when the mobile hospital library (a trolley loaded with about 80 books, about half by Dick Francis) made a welcome visit.

Two Grishams presented themselves – The Pelican Brief (natch) and The King of Torts. I chose Torts. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before. Having completed it, I still can’t remember.

But one thing I did learn  – after an interval of about 10 years, I’m over JG.

The King of Torts is an entertaining tale but it’s flabby and overwritten. Grisham writes well in his genre but he suffers from verbosity. Back in the 90s I was entertained by the detailed  descriptions of luxury yachts, fast cars, lavish dinners and private planes. This time round I found myself skimming bits. Millions and billions of dollars piled up in various tort actions until the figures became simply symbolic.

And those tort cases were essentially like Hitchcock’s McGuffins – devices to drive an otherwise simple story, in this case a moral tale about greed and consequences, pride before a fall – a very old theme.

Grisham has legions of loyal fans. Anything with his name on it will sell. I’ll pass for a while but maybe one day, while idling in airport bookshop, I might pick up his latest paperback and feel the magical pull once again.

Exploring the power of the mind #bookreview

healing powersI first came across the term “mindfullness” in the context of a new safety campaign at work. At the time I thought it was yet another buzz term winging its way across the Atlantic; a new trend about which we would hear endlessly for a year or so before it fizzled out like so many others.

But I kept bumping up against the term in newspapers and magazines and in radio interviews although these didn’t seem to have anything to do with safety awareness. Various ‘celebs’ seemed to be getting super excited about this mindfulness malarky  (a development which is guaranteed to get my eyes rolling). Over time certain expressions associated with this concept wormed their way into my head, the chief one of which was “being in the moment” whatever that meant. Sounded very hippy drippy to me.

It’s taken a while for me to get over that initial suspicion and I don’t claim to be anything like an expert but this year I’ve come round to thinking that there is after all more to mindfulness than I’d expected.

My ‘ah ha’ moment (conversion is far too strong a term) came during a mindfulness introductory day run by my local authority. I decided to go with an open mind. Fortunately the tutor was someone who had extensive research evidence to back up claims about the ability of the regular practice of mindfulness techniques to affect our brains, our sense of well being and our health.

Fresh with that new found insight, but wanting more, I went in search of some sitble reading material.

Oh dear. There is an awful lot of dross out there on this topic. Some books I came across contained about as much useful information as a box of detergent. Massive claims about how the practice can change your life. But little evidence about how….

But then, via NetGalley I came across a book by a man who is considered the leading expert on mindfulness, the man credited with starting the whole shabang.

Jon Kabat-ZinnJon Kabat-Zinn  has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. His work in the area of stress reduction and what became known as mindfulness, began in 1979 when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s developed the practice based on extensive research studies.

In his book, The Healing Power of Mindfulness, he shares examples from his decades of experience working with people suffering anxiety, depression and stress. He’s clear that it isn’t a cure for all situations  – he doesn’t claim it cures serious illness for example – though it can boost the immune system to make you less susceptible to certain diseases. It’s more a case that the regular practice of mindfulness techniques helps rewire the mind so we can each deal with our particular challenges and make the most of what we have, whatever that might be.

Through the book we learn about a concept called brain plasticity (the astonishing ability of the brain change and reorganise itself – as evidenced by studies  showing the effects of meditation of Buddhist monks. Now in case you were alarmed, thinking that you’d have to become a monk to reap the benefits of mindfullness, rest assured Kabat-Zinn isn’t expecting that of you. In fact, some years ago he deliberately removed the Buddhist element to his teachings so that it would have wider appeal.

Reading The Healing Power of Mindfulness, I also, finally, got to understand what that phrase “being in the moment” really means – it’s about coming to terms with things as they are, not worrying about the future or revisiting the past. But just thinking about the present moment.

Stress is cause by being here, but wanting to be there, or being in the present but wanting to be in the future. It’s a split that tears you apart inside. … It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is ….

This is not an easy book to read.  Originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book titled Coming to Our SensesThe Healing Power of Mindfulness is written often in a complex style that means I had to read passages more than once before I grasped the meaning. It wouldn’t be the book to read if you had no prior knowledge of mindfulness. But if you have some knowledge, and want to go further, this would be great resource. If your appetite is still not satisfied by the time you to the end, there is an extensive bibliography of additional material to explore.

 

 

Thorne Moore visits Cwtch Corner #Waleswrites

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

It’s time to welcome Thorne Moore to Cwtch Corner. I read Thorne’s debut novel A Time for Silence a few years ago. She’s gone on to publish five more books, including a collection of short stories. As she joined me in Cwtch Corner the subject naturally turned to her latest novel…..

Thorne MooreQ. Thorne, imagine you’re in a lift with some potential readers. You have less than a minute to persuade them to read your latest book. What’s your pitch?

Knowing me, I’d probably still be lost for words when the lift stopped, but assuming I do manage to talk fast…I’d say that Covenant is a prequel to my first novel, A Time For Silence, but it also stands alone.  1883, Thomas Owen is convinced God has given him the tiny farm of Cwmderwen and he impresses this belief on his children, but only his daughter Leah has the strength to hang onto it, until she realises that the price has always been too high. It’s about faith, family, possession – and women.”

Q. On your website you say that “Settings, especially houses, are a major inspiration for me”. What is it that attracts you to this kind of setting?

Unless we’re really insensitive or unobservant, the places where we live do become a part of us, influencing how we see things, whether we want to stay put or flee. And place remains when we are gone, retaining the mark of when we were there, for good or ill.

Houses, particularly, retain something of everyone who’s lived in them, and everything that’s happened there, even if it’s hidden under seven layers of wallpaper. Houses that belonged to notorious murderers often get knocked down because somehow the murder is still there, haunting the community.

Though I write about crime, especially murder, I am primarily interested in all that led up to the deed, and the consequences long after. Houses embody that expanse of time. They have witnessed it all and they don’t forget.”

Q. How much of your own experience makes an appearance in your work?

A lot, of course, but seldom in an overt and straightforward manner. I weave in bits and pieces.  I have studied and taught genealogy and I milk that quite often (and I make good use of a host of family names).

The nearest to autobiographical I get is in The Unravelling, where, with a bit of tweaking and shuffling, I have used the estate where I grew up and my memories of childhood there in the 60s. But none of the people and events are real, just the games and childish worries and playground politics.”

Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?

lordof the ringsIn my teens I was fanatical about Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings. I do still admire his mastery of perfect fantasy – which is perfect rather than pure because it’s grounded, interwoven with the everyday normality of our lives; dragons and elves mixed up with the need for pocket handkerchiefs and a good mushroom fry-up. But I don’t read him any more.

I began to find it all a bit distasteful, as I did with C.S Lewis’s Narnia books. Poor Susan, denied heaven because she grew up.

Q. Your home is on fire… Which book will you choose to save

This is one of those impossible questions. Seriously, I’d be far too busy calling 999, screaming at everyone to get out, helping my very elderly mother to safety, rescuing the cats, grabbing my laptop, disconnecting the gas tanks, to think about books. But supposing all that was done and I still had time, am I allowed to say my Kindle, or is that cheating? Other than that, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’d need something spiritually enchanting while I watched my home burn to the ground.”

Q. You lived much of your life outside of Wales. Has that ‘outsider’ experience shaped how you write about Wales?

“Undoubtedly.

I grew up in Luton but my mother was Welsh, which gave me a sense of exile from the start. Once I moved to Wales, the reverse happened. I became English in exile in Wales. I am perverse!

But I am deeply aware of differences. Not the difference between my home town of Luton and my mother’s, Cardiff, because a town is a town is a town. But I am very conscious of the contrast between the suburban home counties – with fast raucous towns where today is all that matters and a countryside that’s a playground for the cities and a home for the well-heeled – and the very ancient, very slow, very isolated, semi-wild woods and hills and valleys of West Wales, where even the language is different, and the past is ever-present. The countryside is littered with the human touch of millennia, from prehistoric hut circles to abandoned cottages and derelict mansions. I find it very easy to write a sense of mystery and history into my books set here.


Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, about 30 miles from London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne is a member of the Crime Writers Association and Crime Cymru, and is co-organiser of the Narberth Book Fair. She is published by Honno Press.  

Last Man in Tower by Arvind Adiga #bookreview

Mumbai skyline

Within a few minutes of arriving at Mumbai airport, passengers get their first experience of the gulf between poverty and wealth in this city. Right on the fringes of gleaming business districts and five star hotels lie some of the Mumbai’s largest slum settlements.

The contradictions of the new India – and particularly its sprawling metropolis of Mumbai – form the background to Aravind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower.

Amid the slums of the Vakola district sits Tower A, a block of apartments that is a relic from the Vishram Society, a co-operative housing society established in the 1950s. Its residents pride themselves on their respectability and their spirit of comradeship. Though it’s not much to look at with its “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey’ facade and the tenants regularly complain about the unreliable water supply, they still consider Tower a model of a middle class abode. It’s a ‘pucca’ place to live in their eyes.

Not that they wouldn’t just as happily change it for an even swankier dwelling if the price was right.

When Dharmen Shah, an ambitious property developer, offers to buy each flat for a sum of money beyond the tenant’s wildest dreams, the residents immediately plan how they could use this new found wealth. Mr and Mrs Pinto will send some of the money to their children in America, Mrs Puri will get a better home in which to care for her 18 year son who was born with Down’s syndrome; social worker Georgina Rego, sees a way to “trump” her well-to-do sister while the Vishram Society secretary Kothari realises he can once again live in sight of the flamingos of his youth, obliterating  “all the wasted decades in between.”

Just one problem lies in their way.

Or rather one man.

Long-standing tenant, retired schoolteacher known as “Masterji”, decides that no matter how much money Shah offers him, he will not sell his apartment. It holds too many memories of the daughter killed in a railway accident and his, now dead, beloved wife.  Masterji quickly becomes the linchpin of opposition to Shah’s plans, persuading a few of his closest friends in the tower to reject the offer. Unless all of them sign, the deal will fall through.

The battle ground is drawn. Shah deploys his “left-hand man” Shanmugham to ‘persuade’ the tenants to turn on Masterji and get  him to cave in. Will Shah’s strong arm tactics prevail or will Masterji stick to his principles? Which will prove the strongest driving force:  sentimentality or material desire?

last man in the towerLast Man in Tower warmed on me ever so gradually. Initially I found the slightly comic tone used to introduce the characters rather irritating. They felt more like stereotypes than real people. That does however change as the novel gets fully into its stride. 

There were some touches of humour that worked well, particularly the scenes where the residents gather on plastic chairs to meet as a “Parliament”, the seriousness of this event undermined by the necessity for each parliamentarian to lift their feet clear of one tenant’s dirty laundry water.

But about half way through the novel became far more interesting as Adiga ratchets up the tension and forces us to switch our allegiances, not once but several times. Masterji is initially presented as  a sympathetic character who spends his afternoons breathing in the scent of his wife’s clothing but then doubts crept in about whether his highly principled stance is in fact selfish. He is denying his neighbours a brighter future. 

And yet these neighbours are not exactly squeaky clean people themselves. As the money looks to be slipping from their grasp, their behaviour deteriorates. Their frustrations are understandable. Mumbai is a city where everything is already for sale:

In the continuous market that runs right through southern Mumbai, under banyan trees, on pavements, beneath the arcades of the Gothic buildings, in which food, pirated books, perfumes, wristwatches, meditations beads, and software are sold, one question is repeated, to tourists and locals, in Hindi or in English: What do you want?

Shah’s offer simply means another opportunity for a trade is opened up. This is in a city being transformed into a landscape of silvery skyscrapers at dizzying speed. The residents just  want a piece of the action. If they don’t grasp Shah’s offer now they could lose out forever.

What Adiga shows is how their desire for a better future quickly becomes greed that drives them to behave more and more maliciously.  Gossip and mutterings are set aside in favour of ostracising the teacher. When that doesn’t work, they resort to some particularly vicious actions.

In essence this is a novel about the nature of personal corruption and what it takes to turn perfectly decent law abiding citizens into nasty, monstrous creatures. Along the way Adiga takes a pop at some of the flaws within his native India: the corruption that allows people with ambition and money the ability to thrive for example, and the ineffectiveness of the police,  legal system and the media to step in and aid people like Masterji. 

Is this a fair portrayal of Mumbai? All I can really go on to answer that is some newspaper reports I saw while visiting the city a few times in recent years. Every time I arrived, it was to see yet more apartment blocks and business districts. Yet the slums were just as much in evidence.

About the author

Aravind Adiga was born in 1974 in what is now called Chennai, and grew up in the south of India. He was educated at Columbia University in New York and Magdalen College, Oxford. His debut novel, The White Tiger, (the link is to my review) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008.  Last Man in the Tower, is his second novel, published in 2011.

Six degrees from catastrophe

Another month when I have been wrestling to make any headway with #6Degrees. It never seems to get any easier!

This month’s starter book is Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist published in 2018,  which I’ve not heard about let alone read. Some basic research tells me it’s about a horrendous episode of bush fires in Western Australia in 2009. They were among the country’s worst fires and caused the deaths of more than 100 people.

Five_Days_at_Memorial

Four years earlier, a natural disaster caused the loss of some 1800 people in Florida and Louisiana. They were victims of Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest hurricane since 1928. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is an investigative account of how some of those people died – they were all patients at the Memorial Hospital in New Orleans. Suspicion fell on a few of the medical staff who were accused of unlawfully hastening the deaths of some of those patients.

mosquito coast

Harrison Ford as Allie Fox in the film adaptation of Mosquito Coast

In Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, it is to avoid catastrophe that Allie Fox takes link his family away from their comfortable home in Massachusetts to a new settlement in Honduras. He has  become increasingly critical of American consumerism, education and culture and is convinced that a world war is imminent,

While in Honduras he builds a huge ice-making machine called ‘Fat Boy’ powered by hydrogen and ammonia, and transports the ice it produces farther up the river to isolated tribesmen, only to find to his disgust that missionaries have already reached them and ‘corrupted’ them to the ways of the West.

Poisonwood bible.jpg

Barbara Kingsolver’s best selling novel The Poisonwood Bible features one of those missionary families: the Prices of Georgia. They move to the Belgian Congo where each of the four daughters develop differently as they adapt to African village life and the political turmoil that overtakes the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.

Heart of darkness

The setting of the Congo gives me the link to my next book: Joseph Conrad’s best known novella: The Heart of Darkness.  It’s a tale within a tale of a steamboat journey to trading posts alongside the Congo river and one man’s obsession with an ivory trader called Kurtz whose methods and interactions with native inhabitants are morally ambiguous.

treasure-island

Heart of Darkness raises questions about imperialism and racism and sees little difference between so-called civilised people and those described as savages. Similar questions appear in the next book in my chain: R. L Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Although this was essentially an adventure story written for young boys, it poses some interesting questions about moral integrity. Some of the characters who are  meant to be upstanding figures of authority – the Squire and the Doctor – are shown to be just as avaricious as the recognisably evil pirates.

It’s a good reminder that fiction written for an audience of young readers can seem simple but is often quite complex when examined more closely. Which takes me to the next and final book in my chain this month. Well actually its just the first book in a very large series.

Harry-Potter

You might just have heard of Harry Potter…. J K Rowling’s tales of a boy wizard are  considered to have done more to encourage young people (especially boys) to read than any number worthy government inspired initiatives. They can be viewed as little more than a spiced up version of the tried and tested boarding school yarn, albeit  with a bit of magic sprinkled about.  But look more closely and you’ll find a lot more going on: questions about loyalty, dishonesty and the nature of true friendship, for example. Of course, being aimed at children, the presiding morality is that evil (in the form of Voldemort) must be destroyed whatever the cost and good must triumph. The question however is whether the way evil is destroyed is appropriate. Does Harry always come out of his encounters with Voldermort with his integrity intact?

And on that question I will bring the chain to an end. We’ve moved from a book about fire and a deliberate act of damage, to clashes between cultures and good and evil. I had no idea when I started this chain that I would end up talking about Harry Potter!

Crime fiction authors unite to fight for Wales

Welsh DragonFirst came Tartan Noir – a gritty form of crime fiction said to be particular to Scotland and Scottish writers but which borrows from American crime writes of the second half the twentieth century. Then Nordic Noir was born, taking us into bleak landscapes, dark moods and moral complexity with authors like  Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson and Arnaldur Indriðason. There’s even Irish Noir which covers a broad range of crime writing by Irish authors, from historical crime fiction set in Belfast to modern procedurals engaging with first world problems and psychological thrillers. 

Even if you subscribe to the view held by a number of authors and critics that these terms are meaningless and little more than marketing gimmicks, the reality is that they sell books. And in doing so they’ve helped raise the profile of many authors.  

But so far there’s no sign of Welsh noir. In fact about Welsh crime writing in general there’s been hardly a peep. 

And yet there’s a growing number of crime fiction authors based in Wales or who choose to set their work in the country. 

Why haven’t you heard of them? 

Partly I suspect because many of these authors have associations with small, independent publishers who don’t have as much sway with the purchasing teams in large bookstore chains. Nor do they have the kinds of budgets necessary for national ( UK-wide) promotion. Even trying to get attention within Wales is tough when the so called national newspaper of Wales The Western Mail, pays scant attention to arts coverage and still less to book reviews. 

But there is a group of writers resolved to change how Welsh crime fiction and non fiction is perceived. 

Crime Cymru was formed in 2017 to promote Welsh crime fiction with a mission to challenge the perceived belief that  that ‘nobody who wants to be read sets their books in Wales’. 

Crime Cymru started with just three members: Alis Hawkins, Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. But it’s grown to become a consortium of more than 25 authors. Some were born in Wales. Others have chosen to settle here. Some members live in the UK or further afield in North America but chose to set their work in Wales. What unites them is their feeling that Welsh crime fiction has a unique dimension that deserves more attention. 

Author Pic Alis Hawkins

Alis Hawkins, a founding member of Crime Cymru

“We believe that Wales is under sold: by publishers, by booksellers, even by authors and readers,” said Alis. “And we’re determined to change that. Crime Cymru authors are proud to set our fiction in Wales. We don’t feel the need to move our characters to London, or to make up fictitious cities to police.”

In support of their objective of promoting Wales and Welsh crime writing, Crime Cymru members have carried their message direct to readers via appearances at a number of literary festivals and a Coffee and Crime Weekend partnership with the county library service in the capital city of Cardiff. They’ve even taken the battle across the border, to Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s premier crime fiction festival. 

Future plans include the establishment of a crime writing competition in line with another of the group’s other objectives – to help nurture new writing talent. 

“You could argue that until now we’ve been our own worst enemies: falling into a trap of assuming that anything coming from Wales is somehow less noteworthy than the output from England or Scotland,” said Alis.  “It’s time we changed this attitude. We’re determined that Crime Cymru will play a real and tangible part, alongside higher education and cultural bodies, in raising the profile of Welsh writing in general and crime fiction in particular. “

Alis herself is suiting her actions to Crime Cymru’s words this May. To celebrate National Crime Reading Month and to publicise both Crime Cymru and the publication of the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series, Alis – supported by local Crime Cymru members – will be visiting every independent bookshop in Wales – 32 at the last count. 

The Crime Cymru authors cover a wide variety of styles and interests. They range from Cathy Ace whose Cait Morgan Mysteries  feature a globetrotting sleuth who is a professor of criminal psychology to Philip Gwynne Jones who writes thrillers from his home in Venice. I’ve read a few of the group’s members although I wasn’t aware that Crime Cymru’s existence at the time.

My reviews are via these links:

Dylan H Jones: Doll Face and Anglesey Blue

Thorne Moore: A Time for Silence

Following shortly will be my review of None So Blind, the first book in Alis Hawkins’ series featuring a coroner in nineteenth century Wales.

Learn more about Crime Cymru and its authors via their website http://crime.cymru. You can also follow  on Twitter @CRIMECYMRU 

WWWednesday 27 February, 2019

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words . It’s intended as a weekly meme but I get around to only once a month. This month’s post comes from New Zealand which is part one of  the longest holiday I’ve ever taken in my life. My reading material was chosen weeks ago and as always I wonder if I made the right choices…

What are you currently reading? 

 

 

This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.

What did you recently finish reading? The Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga

 

I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way.  Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Given the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland IslandsMy plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK. So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops  I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.

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