Writing is fun!


Goodreads and Me (4)

Books I Didn’t Review:

A Game of Thrones

by George R.R. Martin


When I began reading A Game of Thrones a couple of years or so back, I had already watched the first TV series on DVD. I loved it! It’s a great story, a kind of blend of historical fiction and fantasy that really appealed to my taste buds. How my interest in the saga waxed and waned over the following months illustrates just about everything I have to say about series fiction, and why I dislike it.

It frustrates me! Good or bad, well-written or not, and regardless of genre, it frustrates me beyond all endurance. I like my fiction wrapped up in a neat package. I don’t mind really whether the ending is ‘happy-ever-after’, ‘happy-for-now’, open, or gut-wrenchingly tragic. It just has to end.

Which means I can read sequels, and I can read trilogies. I can even read quintilogies (if there is such a thing). But I have to know the ending is in sight. And that’s the problem with A Song of Ice and Fire and other epics of the same kind. They seem to go on forever without any prospect of a conclusion.

So to recap on the book in case you haven’t read it [hasn’t EVERYONE read it?], A Game of Thrones is set in the fantasy kingdom Westeros, ruled by a king called Robert Baratheon. Robert calls on his old friend Ned Stark to be his eyes and ears – the King’s Hand – in the capital city, King’s Landing.

Ned leaves home in the north, accompanied by his two daughters, Sansa and Arya and their rather large wolflike dogs, leaving behind his wife and three sons. Immediately he becomes embroiled in the intrigue, corruption and incest of the capital. We meet Queen Cersei, a member of the Lannister family, who is doing it with her twin brother Jaime and has produced at least two children by him. Jaime has thrown Ned’s second son Bran from the top of a tower because he knows. In fact, the twins will do just about anything to conceal their secret.

When King Robert is killed, he is succeeded by Joffrey, Cersei’s son, who is a nasty piece of work. He has Ned is arrested and eventually executed, which brings his wife Catelyn to King’s Landing. We see the beginnings of yet another struggle for power, in which  Sansa and Arya are likely to be among the sacrifices.

A Game of Thrones is narrated from the points of view of several of the larger than life characters who are, by the way, portrayed splendidly by actors in the TV drama, including Sean Bean as Ned Stark. Rather than a single plot, we have a series of subplots through which we follow and get to know these characters. They intertwine but never quite resolve:

In addition to the Stark and Lannister story, we have one following Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow who is sworn to protect the northernmost ice wall of the kingdom; another features Cersei’s dwarf brother Tyrion, despised – and underestimated – because he is different; a third involves Daenerys, ‘mother of dragons’, the true heir to Westeros – if it can be said to have one at all – who has been exiled to a distant island kingdom and has to find a way to recover her throne.

To date, I have watched three of the television series and read two and a half books. George R.R. Martin is a great fantasy writer, every bit the equal of another R.R., the master J.R.R. Tolkien himself, as a creator of imaginary worlds. However, he needs to stop worrying about the TV shows and concentrate on finishing his work! I might then read it all.

I’m afraid I can take no more until he does.



Goodreads and Me (3)

Books I Didn’t Review:

The Thinking Tank

by Jae De Wylde


It’s about three or four years since I read The Thinking Tank, which was published in 2011. This is not a book I would normally have picked up. However, I happened to meet the author in Waterstone’s bookshop at a promotion and after a chat with her took home a copy of her novel.

The Thinking Tank is told unusually in present tense. Two narratives. Two timelines. The main story is told in first person by Sarah, who is trying to cope with a disintegrating relationship with her daughter as well as a debilitating illness. The condition she suffers from, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) is painful, and Sarah needs a lot of help. The “tank” of the book’s title is a hyperbaric oxygen chamber [you can research it, for example, here https://www.hyperbaricoxygentherapy.org.uk ]

‘With the word “jealousy”, Stephen turns away with the suggestion of a shrug, but not before I catch the hint of a blush in the shaft of the day’s first light across his face. “There’s nothing to make up for. What were you to know and what were you to do back then.” ‘

If these things weren’t enough in her life, Sarah also has to sort out her relationship with Stephen and to deal with some very real family secrets in her own past. Jae de Wylde is fond of names beginning with ‘S’, you will discover. There is also Sue, a nurse, who has a critical role to play in the resolution of the plot.

‘If she could voice it, what [Sally] would say is simply this: “I am amazed that someone like Simon fancies me. If I object to what he is doing I am scared he’ll go off me, and then I’ll have missed my chance.” ‘

‘S’ s also features in the other story line. Sally is in her early teens and visits Father Christmas at her church. Santa is Simon, a young policeman, and when he kisses her, Sally is flattered and smitten. However, Simon is after only one thing and gradually seduces the innocent and naive girl  to give him what he wants.

How the two timelines converge is a crucial element of the novel, though it doesn’t turn out quite in the way the reader might expect (this reader anyway). Both protagonists have to face crises, and how they come (came) through makes a very satisfactory story, with a very twisty ending.

Set mostly in Rutland (England’s smallest county, and in my ‘backyard’ so-to-speak), The Thinking Tank is beautifully written. There is some very nice descriptive prose, and likeable – and some not so likeable – characters. Jae De Wylde does not draw back from the theme of child sexual abuse and its consequences, but she handles it with sensitivity and understanding. Though the writing style is unusual with some examples of intrusive narrator thrown into the ‘Sally’ passages, it nevertheless flows smoothly throughout.


Goodreads and Me (2)

Books I Didn’t Review:

In the Shadow of the Sword

by Tom Holland


My recollection is that I read this book around three years ago. I had to skim through it again to refresh my memory.

In the Shadow of the Sword is a serious work of history, Tom Holland being one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished writers about the ancient world. He has also published books on the Persian Empire and the Roman Republic.

‘A narrative that features the persecution of veiled Christian women in Arabia by a Jewish king is clearly one set in a world at some remove from our own.’

The book is subtitled ‘The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World’, which doesn’t quite give away the subject matter – a comprehensive study of the Abrahamic religions and in particular the rise of Islam, its development and its conquests.

Holland begins his massive task with a look at the world *** as it stood around 500CE.  Then Europe and Eurasia were dominated by two great but shrinking powers, Persia and Rome, with a frontier just to the east of present day Turkey and Syria. [Does any of this begin to sound familiar?] The people of the time usually belonged to one of three monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, with much else in common. Into this arena came the Arabs, once polytheistic but now fired by the message of a ‘new’ faith and the teaching of a ‘new’ prophet named Mohammad.

‘Identity was coming to be defined not by the kingdoms of this world  but in various conceptions of the One, the only God: by monotheism.’

However, in In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland doesn’t only chart the rise of the Arab power but also tries to explain it. What was so different about this conquest, this new empire, this new religion? He only partly succeeds in answering the question and in trying comes to an apparently obvious conclusion. Not much!

‘Caesars, Shahanshahs and Caliphs, none of them remain – but the words of the rabbis who taught in Sura, the bishops who met in Nicea and the ulama who studied in Kufa still shape the world as living things today.’

The book is not anti-religion and the author does not attack or belittle the faith of millions across the world today. Yet, whilst demonstrating the power and appeal of monotheism, this well-researched and beautifully written piece of ‘creative’ non-fiction seems to show only that what we ‘know’ about the origins of the Abrahamic faiths – their creed and much of their writing – is a human construct.


***Of course, this wasn’t the world at all but only European and West Asian perception of it.


F is for ……. friendship

Screw Friendship

by RG Manse

screwfrieI picked up this book on a recommendation from WordPress.

The main protagonist of this story, set in present-day Edinburgh, is Rosy, an eighteen-year-old student at Heriot Watt University.

Rosy has never known her biological father, Frank Friendship, but has grown up with her mum Irene and step-dad Findlay. She’s on the point of accepting a top vacation placement with a tech firm in Sweden when circumstances lead her to meet Frank for the first time. All that she has been told is that Frank raped Irene and that she left him for Findlay.

Frank is not at all what Rosy expects. He manages a café owned by a woman called Phyllis and there is something very odd about him. He’s obsessed with germs; he is rude to his customers and tells them what to order; occasionally, he throws a customer out! At first, Rosy supposes he is simple minded but as she gets to know him better she realises there is a great deal more to him than his reputation suggests. Frank is certainly ill-mannered and stubborn but he has many hidden and unexpected talents. Rosy also begins to suspect that the rape story may not be true. But what did happen that day, when she was conceived? And what’s the story behind the gruesome object her grandmother keeps in a biscuit tin?

Given the job by Phyllis of turning the café’s fortunes around, Rosy faces an uphill struggle to bring Frank on board with her ideas. She works on him gradually, all the while fighting not only his stubbornness but her own strange and disturbing emotions. Will she act on them? She also has to contend with other personal issues, her relationship with her boyfriend, with Findlay and with the Swede who wants to give her a job.

I didn’t know what to make of Screw Friendship  when I started reading. Rosy’s boyfriend is called Boog and for some reason, the setting being Edinburgh an all that, the name triggered a memory. Inexplicably, the shadow of Trainspotting fell over my Kindle. [I absolutely hated that!] However, as I persevered, the shadow fell away and I began to like the characters – well some of them anyway.

Screw Friendship is not a bit like Trainspotting – thank goodness! The novel has a very well conceived and executed plot with many hidden corners. It is at once romance and mystery and, although in places there are dark undertones, the overall tone is comedic. The antics of Boog – in spite of his friends – to gain, and regain, Rosy’s affection sparkle with good humour. He isn’t at all a Jane Austen/Mr Darcy type of hero yet, though I didn’t exactly like him, I began to warm towards him by the end. I can just about remember what it was like being a student! And Frank is a wonderful creation -one suspects at once he’s autistic, yet there are so many mysteries to be revealed about him.

Will I read another book in the series? Maybe. I’m not really into series no matter how good they are. However, Screw Friendship works as a standalone novel, so anyone who feels as I do can pick it up, enjoy it and feel satisfied at the end.


Goodreads and Me

I just don’t know what to do with my bookshelf?

(with apologies to the late Dusty Springfield)

A few days ago I mentioned [https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/novel-priorities/]that Amazon had transferred some of my ‘data’ from an old platform to Goodreads. I’ve been having a look at what they’ve done:

It’s a bit of a jungle. Every entry has the same date, April 11, 2016 so I really can’t be sure now when – or why – I added some of the books to my bookshelf list. There are a few of my reviews there, most of them already posted on WordPress in one form or another. Just as many books were not even marked as read (my fault  I guess) and as many again read but not reviewed.

So, what is to be done? I haven’t decided between deleting everything and forgetting I was ever there or, being thorough by going through the list and bringing it up to date. Meantime, I thought I would post today about two books on that Goodreads list (from 2011/2012) that I DO remember reading and enjoying:

Margaret Atwood – In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination


This is what I said about it at the time –

‘Like Margaret Atwood, I have been fond of science fiction since I was a child – though, unlike her, I have not written any (yet). Her latest book is a romp through the genre, a nostalgic review of the work she has most enjoyed and a perspective on her own SF work. The various chapters are actually essays so there is some repetition. But that does not really matter. This book brought back to me memories of many happy days in my childhood and teens reading about superhuman action heroes and mysterious lands that time forgot.’

I gave this book four stars. Having read it again since then, I would probably (though I actually dislike assessing books in this way) give it five.

Doris Lessing – The Grass Is Singing


This is what I said about it at the time –

My mother was born and spent her childhood in South Africa so I was immediately drawn in to the descriptions of landscape and climate. At first, I empathised with Mary, wondering if my grandmother’s experience as a stranger in a new land was in any way similar to that of the book’s main character. As the story progressed, however, I began to lose my affection for her as the tragedy of her situation became clearer. This was Southern Rhodesia -Zimbabwe before independence – and the harsh realities of the isolation of ‘white’ Europeans and the horrors of the ‘colour bar’ are wonderfully evoked as the narrative moves to its inevitable climax. Sometimes, the long descriptive passages do not sit well with the modern reader but the novel is short enough for this not to matter too much.’

I gave the book four stars and have no reason to change my opinion. – (see however comment above)

The following are the books from my Goodreads list I will be looking at again over the next few days –

Tom Holland – In the Shadow of the Sword

Jae De Wylde – The Thinking Tank

George RR Martin – A Game of Thrones







Of Elves and Men

The Children of Hurin

by JRR Tolkein


‘ “You say it,” said Morgoth. “I am the Elder King …. The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it slowly and surely to my will.” ‘

The story of Hurin’s children dates from around 1920 – or earlier – long before Tolkein conceived the plot of Lord of the Rings. It was one of three novel-length stories that were part of his unfinished Book of Lost Tales. Whilst predating his master work by three or four decades, it is set within the scheme of the Tolkein mythology many thousands of years before Frodo Baggins set out on his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power.

If you are a fan of LOTR, you will recall that Elrond speaks of the Elder Days and about the first alliance of elves and men. Elves, even if not quite immortal, live for a very long time indeed and Elrond has apparently personal memories of another great war – before Sauron and before the Ring.

Well, Hurin of the present story happens to be the brother of Elrond’s (human) great-grandfather. He goes to war against Morgoth, the great enemy of the time, and is captured and imprisoned. Morgoth curses all those whom Hurin loves and predicts they ‘will die without hope, cursing both life and death’. So you’ll see this Morgoth, like Sauron after him, is not a very nice creature.

‘As the time lengthened the heart of Morwen grew darker for her son Turin …. for she could see no hope for him better than to become a slave of the Easterling men …’

Most of the book concerns Hurin’s son, Turin. When their land is devastated by Morgoth’s orcs after Hurin’s capture, Morwen, Hurin’s wife sends her small child to live with the elves. He grows up elf-like in stature and courage but because the shadow of Morgoth’s curse hangs over him he ignores wise counsel and goes his own way. Hiding his true identity behind a series of other names, none of which protect him from his destiny, Turin travels among outlaws, dwarves and elves, seeking his lost father. In inflicting no more than minor hurt to the servants of the Dark Lord, he spurns and deals death even to his friends.

After many years, Morwen sets out with her daughter Nienor to look for Turin. But the dragon Glaurung comes, bringing the hatred, spite and twisted words of his evil master. It casts a spell on Nienor. In the end, Turin too has to face the dragon, whom he defeats, but at terrible cost. We know The Children of Hurin will not end happily but, even so, the tragic conclusion takes us by surprise.

‘Then Glaurung, feeling his death-pang, gave forth a scream, whereat all the woods were shaken … and the watchtowers were aghast.’

If you’re looking for a stylish, well-rounded and well-plotted epic like LOTR, or even fairy tale adventure like The Hobbit, The Children of Hurin is not for you. But if you are fascinated by Tolkein the writer and the man, read it. Both background and themes will be familiar, and it has all of Tolkein’s poetic language.

Like LOTR, The Children of Hurin comes with family trees, a map and appendices explaining how the story came to be written and edited. Oh, and it’s beautifully illustrated!


The Tale of Sakuntala


by Kalidasa (c. 400 CE, trans. Michael Coulson 1981)



by Abanindranath Tagore (1895, trans.William Radice 1992)



The story of Sakuntala and King Dushyanta (variously Dushmanta or Duhshanta) is an ancient tale, its origins going back thousands of years to the myths of India. The first known written version appears in a Sanskrit epic poem, the Mahabharata, which dates from around the (Western) year 400. It has since been retold in many forms and many languages, prose, poetry, play, film, music and art.

Sakuntala is a simple tale, the prototype of countless (so it seems to me) novels in which the themes are love, loss and reunion. It has a bit of magic and a bit of sex, though not too much of either, and a fair amount of philosophic introspection. The versions considered here, the first a seven act play, the second a short story for children, preserve both the themes and the simplicity.

Sakuntala is a demi-mortal, daughter of the nymph Menaka and a powerful royal sage, abandoned by her mother shortly after birth. She grows up in a hermitage, a community of ascetics led by Kanva, who live at one with nature and the animals of the forest. Readers of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon will immediately think of Shangri-La.

‘I cannot tear my thoughts from Sakuntala. My body moves onward, but my unsteady mind runs back like the silk of a banner carried into the wind.’ (Kalidasa)

One day, into this paradise charges King Dushyanta with his army, huntsmen and elephants. When he recognises the hermitage as a place he is sworn to protect, he sends his followers away. Sakuntala is walking in a grove with her friends. Dushyanta sees her and immediately falls in love with her, and she with him. The sensuality is implicit in the language. It is muted, but it is there. In the space of a page or so, Sakuntala and Dushyanta undergo some form of ritual marriage, he gives her a ruby ring, she becomes pregnant and he leaves to return to the palace.


Sakuntala, caught up in her daydreams, inadvertently offends Durvasas, another powerful sage, who curses her. The man she loves will forget and repudiate her. Durvasas regrets his action but cannot wholly remove the curse. Instead he mitigates its effect with a charm put on the ring, that Dushyanta when he lays eyes on it will remember.

‘She merrily let her sari spread out over the water; the shimmering sari blended . . . . moulding itself to the waves. Because of Durbasa’s curse, the king’s ring slipped from the corner of Sakuntala’s sari of shining silk, and fell into the bottomless water . . . ‘ (Tagore)

When her husband does not come for her, Sakuntala sets out for the palace but unfortunately loses the ring in a river. The sage’s prediction comes to pass. Dushyanta does not recognise Sakuntala and sends her away. Menaka, observing the scene from above, has a sudden fit of remorse and spirits her daughter away to a mountain retreat where she gives birth to Bharata.

[The various versions deviate slightly at this point but the main facts are the same. The Mahabharata for one thing is more explicit in sexual terms.]

The gods take pity on the couple. The ring is recovered by a fisherman. Sakuntala and Dushyanta are reunited. The king recognises Bharata as his son and heir and, as in all good fairy tales, they all live happily ever after.

‘At the touch of his son, the king was overjoyed and, with proper sense of justice, he recalled his wife and gave her due honour.’ (the Mahabharata)

There is no high drama in Sakuntala, no gratuitous violence, no monsters, no unsolvable mystery. However, it is a splendid introduction to the literature of the Indian subcontinent. Its simple message was one to inspire, among others, Beethoven, Schubert and the  great Wolfgang Goethe himself, who wrote:

‘ . . . Will ich den Himmel, die Erde mit einem Namen begreifen; Nenn ich Sakontala dich und so ist alles gesagt.’

[Should I wish to grasp heaven and earth in a single name, I will name you Sakontala and all is said.]


Harry Potter and the Flexible Title

The Deathly Hallows

by JK Rowling


Whilst I read most of the Harry Potter novels shortly after they were published – my daughter had a collection – I didn’t get round to reading the final volume until a few weeks ago. I knew the story of course, having seen both the movies. However, so often, movies take away rather than add to a novel, and I knew I just had to read The Deathly Hallows for the bigger picture.

I’m not going to bore you with a detailed summary of the plot; it’s too well known for that. Briefly, Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron are searching for Horcruxes, pieces of Voldermort’s soul concealed in diaries, necklaces etc and in one very scary snake. The one possibility they have overlooked, and which leads to the nail-biting climax, is that part of He Who Must Not Be Named is hidden in Harry himself. So one of them has to die! The climac is an epic battle at Hogwarts where good faces evil for the grand prize – Immortality.

Needless to say, for the benefit of anyone who has been living alone in the jungle (and eating magic mushrooms) for the past twenty years, it is Harry who, by a clever literary twist, survives and goes on to have a happy wizard family.

Instead of all that, I’m turning to something else.

From the very first volume, what fascinated me about the series were the titles of the novels. Published in Great Britain as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the North America edition of this story substituted the word Sorcerer for Philosopher. I wondered why; after all, The Philosopher’s Stone is a well-known historical and scientific concept.

So I did some research and came up with this:(sourced from http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/harry-potter/articles/4309/title/difference-between-american-british-versions-harry-potter-series)

. . . [the] decision should not have been made [and] the reasons are –
1) J.K. Rowling said so, therefore it must be true. She says that if she was in a better position, she would have disagreed at the time.
2) It belittles Americans, making it seem as if they do not understand what the word “philosopher” means. Americans are smarter than that.
3) Sorcerer is unspecific. The stone could have belonged to anybody with magical powers in the book. But the British name defines who the stone belongs to and gives the name an entirely different meaning. Sorcerer is a very different word to philosopher.
4) The stone is referred to as the “Philosopher’s Stone” throughout J.K. Rowling’s original version, never the “Sorcerer’s Stone”, so why should the most central object of the book be labelled something completely different in the book title, even if its just being published in a different place?
5) How is the word “philosopher” in Britain different from the word “sorcerer” in America?
6) Philosopher’s Stone is actually a historical object that people used to search for, while the Sorcerer’s Stone has no factual background in real life.

Fascinating, no?

The second book provides us with an equally interesting substitution. The German edition (translation) gives us Harry Potter und der Kammer des Schreckens. Now, to English speakers, Kammer des Schreckens is Chamber of Horror/Terror. Though conceding that Chamber of Secrets might not translate too well into German, and that a book with terror might sell more copies [QED?], here one ought to apply the same kind of argument as to Volume One, viz

‘J.K. Rowling said so, therefore it must be true.’

Anyway to the British, especially those living around London, the Chamber of Horrors – in the plural – has (like the Philosopher’s Stone) a very specific meaning.


With The Deathly Hallows, we encounter the same dilemma. I can’t imagine trying to translate deathly hallows into German; I’m not even sure what that combination of words means except in the context of Ms Rowling’s novel. But here, I think her German publisher, Carlsen Verlag, got it absolutely right. Harry Potter und die Heiligtümer des Todes (as I would translate it) conveys so much more of the darkness of the book.

The Relics of Death seems to cover not only the Elder Wand, the Cloak of Invisibility and the Stone of Recall but the Horcruxes themselves !



Novel Priorities

The Plot Thickens

I haven’t written much on WordPress over the last couple of weeks, certainly not reviews. The truth is, I haven’t read much either (except for research).

Having reached a pivotal stage of my current novel, I’ve been in a fever of plotting, writing, sorting out timelines and all the other things that go with the novel-creation process.

I’m responding to a challenge: to write a modern romance. There’s no deadline, so I can take it easy. However, it’s not so easy to slow down once you get an idea into your head and just have to get it down on paper (or, in my case, a computer file double saved in back-up). Moreover, what makes this particular challenge more demanding is that I have to write the story from a female point of view.

Let’s talk about girls and boys for a minute! There are many life experiences in which, it seems to me, gender is irrelevant, experiences where male and female have much the same attitudes, feelings and abilities. For example, either may like/dislike ice cream, cats, dogs, jazz music or Italian pasta. But when it comes to relationships between men and women – emotions and sexuality – we are, to borrow a sporting term and cliché, in a whole new ball game.

And that’s the difficult part that shortens my days to other activities. Not only does the task require a lot of research – and that means serious reading – but also a lot of help, the sort of help I won’t find in Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. I’m reliant on wife, writers’ group and female friends for advice on those big issues that make the feminine POV so different from the masculine. These are matters that have to be approached with tact, sensitivity and humble enquiry. That too takes time.

I don’t know when my novel is going to see the light of day (assuming it ever will). However, the challenge remains, and I’m going to get on with it.

Apology over, I’ve taking a break from romance and will sit down shortly to write reviews on a couple of books I read some time ago.


Postscriptum: I see from my emails this morning that several of my book reviews have now been published to Goodreads (transferred from Amazon’s old Shelfari platform where I set up a bookshelf ages ago). When I get an opportunity, I’ll have a look and edit in or out. Now I must get on with these new reviews!


Don’t Follow Me or Anybody Else

There’s a lot of very sensible advice here!

J.M. Rosenberger


I’ve noticed lately that a lot of writers out there are looking for other people to tell them what to do. Especially when it comes to building their “platform” and getting their name out there.

Taking advice from other people who have gone before you or achieved the success you want to achieve is great. But let’s be frank…

If you’re just blogging or building an email list or making a Facebook page because somebody somewhere on the internet told you that’s what you’re supposed to do, then you’re wasting your time. Valuable time you could be spending writing a book.

Of course, I’m not saying that any of that stuff is bad. In fact, I think building a platform as a writer is one of the smartest things you could do. Building an email list is also important. But if you’re just doing those things to check off the…

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