Wednesday 31 December 2014

Recommended read for any returning volunteer

The Book of Strange New Things


Michel Faber

I loved his short novella The Hundred and Ninety Nine Steps (see my review).

This is Faber’s first novel in 14 years and sadly it looks like he isn’t going to write another. I say sadly because this one had me with the first chapter – Peter and Bea are en route the Heathrow where Peter is flying to Houston and then onwards, on some evangelical religious mission, leaving Bea at home with Joshua, their cat. You know instantly how well this couple work together on emotional, social and sexual level, presumably a marriage of a reasonable length and intensity, although no kids and presumably still young enough to follow your faith into the wilds.

But the wilds you expect are not the wilds of the story. As Peter continues his travel south to Florida we realise we are in a time when “astronaut” is an old fashioned word, where a faceless global corporation USIC controls so much and has hired Peter after a series of medicals and probing questions which reminded me of VSO initial assessment interviews. Then as the nurse injects him with something he and we are relocated to “Oasis”. (Plenty of the book critics write ups indicate where this is, but I think it is way better to find this out as you read this book)

The growing rift in Peter and Bea’s understanding of each other’s changing circumstances during Peter’s period of time in oasis has the destruction of the earth and the disintegration of society as we know it as its backdrop. This book is about Peter discovering what is and isn’t the most important in his life, and for him as a religious being seeing that his god works it so that he can give up on one and find his way back to the other.

I am just amazed at how personal this book was to me as a reader. Not only did the writing about Peter’s interview remind me of my VSO initial assessment interview and its probing personal questions, but Peter’s experiences of cultural adaptation to the Oasian landscape and culture reminded me of my own cultural adaptation as a VSO volunteer. In the section where Peter describes being present at the birth  of new life, being welcomed and being part of the celebration and yet without enough local language to be more involved in it reminded me of Indian Bharat Ghara I attended and amazing experience even when only partially understood. Also one of the final scenes has Peter speaking in the local language to his parishioners, a moving moment, as he struggles for a translation for the most vital of words, forgive. I think so many aspects of and scenes in this story will ring true to anyone who has remained for any length of time in a foreign culture. This is the only thing I have ever read which truly understands what such people go through, the ties and the tugs, the things you miss from home and the things you miss from there, and how it effects you.

ashramblings verdict 5* Tremendous book. A must read one which I suspect will be with me for way long after the physical book has been returned to the Library.

Thursday 25 December 2014

Potential in miniature

The Miniaturist


Jessie Burton

The story is set in 1686’s Amsterdam, Nella, a 18-year-old country girl with good lineage and has just married wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, two decades her senior, following the death of her father who left his widow with debts and two younger children to take care of. The marriage was arranged, conducted in a simple fashion, without family from Johannes’ side. The groom leaves immediately afterwards on business, leaving the marriage unconsummated. Some time later Nella finally arrives at the Brandt house to find it occupied also by a sharp stern sister, Marin, used to being mistress of the household, involved in and knowledgeable about his business affairs, a maid, Cornelia, and an African man-servant, Otto. Her husband gives her a wedding present of a cabinet, which is in essence a dollhouse. She hires a miniaturist to make pieces for the house that reproduces in miniature every room in the Brandt home.

This is Jessie Burton’s first novel and her story maintains the readers interest even though some aspects are immediately obvious before they are exposed, such as the reason for Johannes lack of occupation of the marital bed, but others are perhaps less so, for example, Marin’s story. It is a promising read – it promises an intricate tapestry of life within a wealthy merchant household in old Amsterdam, it promises interesting parallels between the real house and the dollhouse with its miniature inhabitants, it promises a story of Nella’s adaptation to her new life and environment, it promises an exploration of gender, race, class, power within the merchant elite. However, it delivers only partially, so much is not said, so much is not explained, so much is not explored – I wanted to hear more about Cornelia’s history, more detail about Marin’s story (I am trying here not to give anything away as this is the best twist in the tale),  more about the developing depth of the conversations between Nella and Johannes, more about the how’s and why’s behind the  Miniaturist’s gift of prediction (after all that is the title of the book!). For me, these are skimmed over too quickly. It is potentially a very good story and in the hands of a great script writer and film director will I am absolutely sure make a great film, akin to The Girl with the Pearl Earring, perhaps. Having said all that, it is an enjoyable read.

ashramblings verdict 3* an enjoyable read, a promising first novel from a young author with huge potential, and a great film waiting to be made.

Monday 22 December 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Dear friends, I hope you are enjoying reading my ashramblings blog and facebook page posts throughout 2014.

Your continued acceptance of no birthday cards/presents, no postcards, no Christmas cards/presents has meant support not only for MFS (Medecins Sans Frontiers) this year (see below) but also Eritrean refugees via my friend's organisation, education for slum children in Rayagada, in Orissa, via Shakti the Indian NGO I worked with , Stephen Sutton’s tremendous fundraising for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Best wishes for 2015!





Excellent, well crafted, political satire

The Fall of the Stone City


Ismail Kadare

translated by John Hodgson


This book was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013 and Kadare won the International Man Booker Prize in 2005. A prolific author in his home country of Albania, I admit to knowing nothing about him or his work.  The Paris Review has an interview with him in their Art of Fiction series, and James Wood  has written a review  of his work for the New Yorker .

Ismail Kadaré was born in the city of Gjirokaster where this novel begins in the midst of WW2. With the fall of Italy and the advance of the German army the city remains curiously aloof or these worldly matters focussing instead on the rivalry between two doctors – German educated Big Dr Gurameto and Italian educated Little Dr Gurameto. As the German army approaches it is fired on. The Germans advance threatening to blow up the city, but a white flag is seen (or was it a white curtain blowing out through an open window?) and they advance without destruction, instead taking hostages in reprisal. The German commander, Col. Fritz von Schwabe,  traces down his old school friend Big Dr Gurameto and is invited to dinner and the Dr manages to get the hostages released, including Jakoel the Jew. This first part of the novel is told with reference to the traditional honour, pride and culture of Albania with undercurrents, visible every now and then amidst the reunion of old friends, of the violence to come.

The second part of the novel is set in 1944 – 1953, when the Enver Hoxha  regime had taken power and the old values are being replaced by the new. The new power does strange thing – digging unnecessary ditches, renaming streets. The seemingly trivial commissioning new songs and the banning old ones results in the suicide of the culture minister for nostalgic behaviour, Big Dr Gurameto and Little Dr. Gurameto have been jailed multiple times, but always released and reinstated into their medical practices,  then  finally the new state apparatus turns on the establishment fabric of the old city and the epitome of its culture, namely its ladies. I adored the comic irreverence of the story if their downfall – these well bred, delicate, closeted women are killed off by being address as Comrade!  But all these rumbles of change are but a comic interlude before the nightmare really kicks in.

The third part of the novel is set in 1953 at the time of the death of Stalin. The two Drs are prisoners in the Cave of Sanisha prison, a medieval dungeon once used by the Ottomans for torturing prisoners. Big Dr Gurameto is interrogated and tortured, accused of being part of a plot by Jewish doctors to kill world leaders including Stalin. The fateful dinner of the first part of the novel comes back into the doctors plot story and into the interrogation when it materialises that the German commander was not Col. Fritz von Schwabe who had died but an imposter.  First the Albanian inquisitor, than the East German one concluded that Gurameto is telling the truth when he says he knows nothing about the plot. But when finally a Moscow interrogator  arrives, it is truth which is the first casualty. All that is required is a confession. Each time the interrogators’ distorted expectations transform the dinner story into something more, and more grotesque until all that is left at the end is Big Dr’s corpse.

Kadare’s  story is a mixing of history and facts with myth and fairy tales. For example, he uses the old Albanian tale of a dead man who accepts an invitation to dinner, and the one about the rape of Sanisha, the sister of the Ottoman vizier Ali Pasha Tepelena, and his terrible revenge. In the middle of his writing he stops and announces that he, as narrator, is just about to tell us what actually happened, but even then what he starts to say poses more questions than answers (what did happen to Little Dr Gurameto?) . Kadare’s blend of  literary and historical worlds has Kafkaesque moments, humorous moments, and a deft political irony.

ashramblings verdict 4*  Excellent tragic comic satire of the inhuman senselessness of a tyrannical dictatorship.

Friday 19 December 2014

Fuentes does Faust



Carlos Fuentes

Can a reader truly understand a book which is so dependent upon a piece of music which she doesn’t know? I pose this question to myself early on in my reading of this novel and again at the end when I find myself none the wiser and still not being able to answer the question. I am left with a feeling that this is a better novel than I, lacking in awareness of the music piece, am able to appreciate.

The ageing European conductor Gabriel Altan-Ferrara is about to undertake his final performance of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, a piece of music that has been forever associated with him and with the love of his life, the red-headed Mexican singer, Inez Prada. They had first met in the 1940 London Blitz, then again in Mexico City in late 1940s, then in the Swinging 60s in London where they produced a dramatic production of the work. There relationship, on and off stage, was intermittent and passionate – he in control of her on stage, she in control of him in bed. Both are ambitious artists: together they create a sensation on stage, separated in life they wallow in memory and regret.

Alongside this narrative there is a parallel one retelling a creation myth of the meeting of early man and woman, neh-el and ah-nel. Fuentes makes their discovery of language into a song, into music. This primeval love affair and the modern one merge in a moment when Inez, ah-nel and Marguerite (the operatic character being sung by Inez) become one in an incredibly visual operatic scene ( which I’d love to see filmed) conducted of course by Altan-Ferrera, long black hair flowing like a handsome Faustian Lothario.

This short novel (150 pages) is an intricate exploration of love, art, beauty, death, colonisation, a reworking of the Faust story where Faust sells his soul to the devil for glory and power. It does leave me considering who exactly is portrayed by  the brother we never see except in a photograph which clearly has an impact in Inez when she first sees it and may even be the reason why she  brushes of Altan-Ferrara’s initial attentions – is this the real man, the pure one, not the one who sold his soul, the “other” European who did not colonise? I am also not at all sure about role of the child in the merging of the women and the female genital mutilation aspect to the primitive narrative. Nonetheless, I am very pleased I read this book, confirming once again my love of Latin American writers and their magical take on story telling making the reader’s imagination work to find a satisfying experience in her readership.

ashramblings verdict 3* A short, stimulating and intriguing intertwining of two love affair narratives, probably made all the better for knowing about the operatic storyline.

Friday 12 December 2014

The tongue’s blood does not run dry: Algerian stories by Assia Djebar

The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry: Algerian Stories

by Assia Djebar

Translated by Tegan Raleigh

 “When you come back to Oran, you are running; when you leave it , you are fleeing!”  Algerian proverb

This is a  collection of short stories in 2 parts: Part One: Algeria: between desire and death, Part Two between France and Algeria. Together they explore the realities of how war tears countries and families apart as they struggle for independence or with civil war and how this struggle impacts the lives of ordinary people. Pawns in the games of war, the lives of women and ultimately their bodies become the debris of the fighting and are strewn across the landscape, across meaningless geographical and political borders.

I have read that her writings are inspired by the stories of Algerian woman who had fled to Paris. Reading them today makes one think not only about the historical times which the author is writing about (All the stories were written in 1995 and 1996—a time when over 200,000 Algerians were killed in Islamist assassinations and government army reprisals) but of Syria today where we see news photographs of the fighting above ground and the old, the young and the women in their subterranean shelters trying to survive and can only imagine what it was like before such conditions became the everyday norm.

For example, “Oran, Dead Language” tells the story of an Algerian woman in France writing to her Sardinian friend Olivia to explain that she is going back home to Oran to await the death and funeral of her mother’s sister who brought her up after her parents, trade union activists who were assassinated in the lead up to the country's 1962 Independence.

The Attack”  tells the story of the relationship between a mother and her son as he continues to write opposition pieces for publication under his own name and is finally gunned down in front of her in the street

In “The Woman in Pieces”  the author interweaves a Scheherazade story from the classic 1001 Arabian Nights about a mysterious woman found cut up into pieces inside a roll of carpet with the story of a French Professor using it in her class studying the differences between the French translation and the Arabic original. She is murdered and decapitated for teaching obscene stories in front of her class.

Annie and Fatima” are mother and daughter, divorced parents, separated between France and Algeria. Annie has not seen her daughter for 9 years as she lives with her father. Taking advantage of law changes, she begins to learn Berber at night school in order to be able to talk to Fatima when she visits for the first time.

ashramblings verdict 3*: This is a challenging read – making us to contemplate a time and situation most people in the UK would know little about, whilst hoping we never have to experience any of the experiences the woman of these stories had to go through.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Unleashing the silent scream of environmental pollution

The Iron Woman


Ted Hughes

This is the sequel to his previous book The Iron Man which I read earlier.

Lucy is befriended by the Iron Woman who has emerged from the marshes intending to take revenge for the pollution of the waterways. Lucy hears about this and its impact on the wildlife and goes to confront the manager of the Waste Factory about it. She finds that when she she touches people they begin to hear the screams of the animals being poisoned and killed by the pollution.

Iron Woman turns all the men into various fish, newts, frogs etc. which their families have to keep alive in baths, swimming pools, ponds. The men-animals fight back by burping up black bubbles that coalesce into a giant Cloud Spider which proclaims itself to be the Spider-god of wealth "I am the Spider-god of gain. The spider-god of winning at all costs.  I catch the prize in my net." As Iron Man and Iron Woman battle the The Cloud Spider, it is eventually conquered and taken away by the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon from the first novel.

All the men are returned, but everyone of them now has white hair  - “Big, deep fright, Big, deep change” says Iron Woman – and a mysterious yellow net is found draped over every rubbish heap and every stack of poisonous chemicals. After a few nights all these waste piles disappear and the Waste Factory disposal of its materials into the water supply can cease

ashramblings review 3* Stronger in style, with more symbolism and a stronger environmental message than Iron Man, this is again a lovely gem of a children’s book.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Here, there and everyone

Here and there, now here and now

captured still, in forgotten photographs,

sepia edged mementos of days gone bye.

Dog-eared, brow-beaten, weathered yellow,

passed from pillar to post,

from hand to hand,

by family, by friends, by lovers, by strangers.

The box of photos fell to me

to unravel its mysteries

to trace my ancestry

like a child joining the dots

reveals the tree’s connections.


Here a death, there a birth,

a marriage made, a census recorded,

a migration there

and back.

Poverty, cholera and famine

drove the routes travelled,

the roots made,

till finally it was laid to rest with me.

© Sheila Ash, 2014

Friday 5 December 2014

Villain to hero: The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

The Iron Man: A Children's Story in Five Nights


Ted Hughes,

Illustrated by Tom Gauld

Browsing the library shelves for inspiration in particular some short reads to fill a gap before several books I have on order arrive, I stumbled across this little gem. I never knew Ted Hughes had written books for children, and this kid at heart was spellbound for the short time it took me to read this modern fairy tale of the metal eating giant.

I loved the way they found a way to live in harmony after their fearful and antagonist start to their sharing of the earth, and how in the second half of the story the villain of this peaceful coexistence is changed into hero for all the world. All the best elements of a good yarn -  wonder, suspense, moral stance, and victory for good.

I found on YouTube this fun animation by school kids who clearly love the story as much a I did, and this audio recording of the whole story.

ashramblings verdict 4*: simply gorgeous , I’d have loved this as a bedtime read or Christmas morning story book.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Epistrophy at its best

The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka

I came across the concept of an epistrophe recently when reading Eduardo Halfon’s novel  The Polish Boxer (see my post). Webster’s Dictionary defines epistrophe as repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect (as Lincoln's “of the people, by the people, for the people”) . This is a technique that I have seen employed effectively in a novel or short story only a few times – I think of Tim O’Brien’s story The Things They Carried in which he lists al the things carried by a foot soldier during the Vietnam War. Otsuka uses it relentlessly throughout the whole of her superb second novel. Her writing style of short concise sentences seen in her first novel When the Emperor Was Divine is maintained here, but absolutely comes into its own here creating a distinctive rhythm to the book as time marches relentless forward from the sense of expectant uncertainty of the first chapter’s arrival of the women to the penultimate chapters fearful exodus into uncertainty of whole families and generations. The chapters of the novel are entitled “Come, Japanese”, “First Night”, “Babies”, “The Children” , “Traitors”, “Last Day”, “A Disappearance” : they are landmarks in the chronology these early twentieth century mail order brides from their boat trip across the Pacific to unknown Japanese husbands waiting for them in the USA up to their disappearance from the streets and life of America after the outbreak of WW2 and the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

ashramblings verdict 5* : this is a tour de force in combining the real experiences of these Japanese immigrants in one  collective story whilst allowing the overall sense to ring true whilst maintaining the individuality of participants, their range of experiences of at each of these landmarks in their lives. 

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Judge not others by who they appear to be

When The Emperor Was Divine


Julie Otsuka

Unsentimental story of a Japanese American family from California, split up and interned during WW2. The father is taken away in his slippers, interrogated and interned in Texas: the mother, daughter and son have time to pack before being interned in a camp in the deserts of Utah.

In a matter of fact way Otsuka tells the story which must have been the same for many Japanese Americans in that time. Her style of short simple sentences, makes this short book (144pg) a rapid read, but they also convey the monotony, boredom and hardship of their lives - the mother clinging onto her house door key, trying to maintain her sanity and self respect, the children growing up in their 3+ years away, their dreams of their father’s return, the short, censored letters back and forth to him. All these things pace out their time in limbo.

Their eventual return to their old home after their time away sees it, luckily, still standing, albeit in a poor state, trashed inside and without the promised rental income from the agent in who care they had left it. Their adjustment back is just as difficult as their adjustment going. Things are not as they dreamt they would be. The house is filthy, the neighbours antagonistic or ignoring, their 25USD ( the same as a prisoner’s release money) doesn’t go far and the woman struggles to find work. Their father returns an old man and never readjusts. Powerful passages showing the various roles the Japanese Americans held before the war and the resultant subservient stance imposed on them afterwards by their experiences, treatment and survival.

ashramblings verdict 3* an incredibly sad story, all the more sad as it records the collective experience of a generation in a shameful part of the history of the USA.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Rasgar-ing the literal : The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon

The Polish Boxer


Eduardo Halfon

There is a great review of this book on the Word Without Borders website,  an interview with the author is available on YouTube and on another interview here.

I can’t actually recall ever having read as international a book, a book with so many cross cultural and cross disciplinary references within its words and storyline – from Guatemala to the USA to Serbia, from Thelonius Monk to mariachi and gypsy music, from Spanish to Serbian, from Mark Twain to Henry Miller. The book is a series of linked stories, which were translated by 5 translators yet when reading it I could not tell!

The book begins fairly realistically, telling of a teacher’s struggles to get his class interested in reading literature  - Edgar Allan Poe, Maupassant, Chekov, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor – and then about his encounters at a highly academic conference on Mark Twain where his comparisons with Cervantes fall on a silent ears except for the aging Twain professor, Joe Krupp. I liked this character with his old man's jokes and witticisms – “what's the difference between a cat and a lie? a cat only has nine lives."

But then comes the major change in the writing, there is a pivot point at the chapter entitled Epistrophy (*), after the Monk composition , in which the narrator meets Rakic a wandering pianist. Rakic sends him a series of postcards from his travels and finally the narrator tries to trace him and his roots down in the smoky, seedy depths of post communist Belgrade. Throughout the novel there are repeated references to the narrator’s Jewish grandfather and his survival from Auschwitz thanks to the wise words of the Polish boxer of the book’s title. There becomes a real mix of real and pseudo real impressions, interpretations and illusions leaving the reader questioning the reliability of the narrator, how much his search for Rakic is in truth a search for his own roots.

The teacher in the first chapter describes the difference between a writer and a great writer as "the ability to be saying one thing when in reality you were expressing another, the ability to use language as a means of accessing a sublime, ephemeral metalanguage. I think this is exactly what Halfon himself achieves. This is a book about identity, about the reality of literature, and the transitory nature of these . He asks himself near the end of the book “how is it possible for literature to rasgar (**) reality, to break or tear it. As though reality were a piece of cloth? As though reality were a car window? As though reality were a sheet of paper?”  How much of Rakicthe half Serbian, half Gypsy, itinerant, almost ethereal, musician actually Halfon, the English speaking, Spanish writing, with mixed Jewish and Arabic ancestry, born in Guatemala but living in the USA, and how much is Haflon the book’s narrator? As the narrator says “A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion. And that illusion only works if we trust in it.” I clearly did and I was enthralled by this book . It  is thought provoking and deeply philosophical. I do hope more of his novels and short stories are translated soon into English. For now 3 more of his short stories can be found on his Words Without Borders webpage.

(* ) Note: Webster’s Dictionary defines epistrophe as repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect (as Lincoln's “of the people, by the people, for the people”) .

(**) Spanish to tear, to rip, but also to strum a guitar.

ashramblings verdict: 4* probably the best first novel I have ever read. (I’m keeping the 5* rating in hope his other books are even more incredibly credible!)

Monday 17 November 2014

Tiger, tiger

The hunter’s trophies

hung on walls

floored in halls

glorified guardians

of a time gone by,

an age before

when tails and silk dresses danced and chattered.


Dust havens now

locking in the ghosts

of animals and men long dead,

long silenced,


and museumed into heritage.


© Sheila Ash, 2014


Awaiting the arrival of sleep

the toys are boxed away.

Eyelids heavy in their droop and fall

caressing the pillow

lulling the duvet soft cocoon to peace.

Breathing in

Breathing out




The patter of rain pits the glass

The gust of wind the curtain flaps

An owl hoots, heralding

the grey tentacles of night

that stretch out like an old man’s fingers

wizened and wrinkled

spindly and spotted

they crawl along the wall

across the floor

to reach

to linger

on the bed

just long enough

to make him stir

and scream.

© Sheila Ash, 2014

Sunday 2 November 2014

Las esculturas de bronce de Alejandro Colunga en Guadalajara, México

The magician spreads his cape to work his magic

transmuting metal into gold

the alchemy of old

made manifest in a sculptor’s hands.

Giacometti like

they stand tall

in public view

for one

for all

to sit upon

to feast upon

the works of a man

and marvel at the works of men

of gods

of times past, present and yet to come

where one and all may come

to recreate the magic of old

of souls departed

of worlds long gone

a mystic river linking all to one for all time

rising as smiles on the faces of one

of all

as they each rise and fall

from chair to chair

transformed faces young and old

what fun we have one and all

behold the alchemy!


© Sheila Ash, 2014

Saturday 1 November 2014

The Immolation of Quetzalcoatl


Quetzalcoatl -

bringer of corn

cultivator of the arts

orator of life.

Feathered serpent

bearded man

betrayed brother.


Condemned to wander the divine water

on his boat of snakes

the priest king of Tula vowed to redress

the degradation of humanity.


On his sacrificial pyre he stood proud

to birth the morning star

to rule the winds and whirlpools

to reunite, each day, the rain and rivers

in the glory of life.


In Guadalajara the bronze ribbon snakes heavenward from the plaza

as smaller serpents writhe amongst the fountain’s rhythmic surges

recalling the cycle of death and resurrection

calling to all of Mexico to not forget

the Immolation of Quetzalcoatl.


Thursday 30 October 2014

Still Life

The diary lies open and empty

A clock strikes the next hour again

Family photos loose colour and yellow

Raffle tickets bring hope to the pain.


One cup stands by the teapot

One plate, one knife and one fork

One pair of boots by the door for the winter

Two red roses tied in a knot.


Silent, the doorbell is waiting

for fingers that never come

Dust covers mementos in mourning

the stillness of a life well done.


© Sheila Ash, 2014

Tuesday 21 October 2014

An assessment of development trends and their implications for capacity development

One of the report outputs from my time in Nigeria with MSA has been published   -  An assessment of development Trends and their implications for capacity development.

"I just finished reading this solid publication. It treats in a very clear way a set of complex but important issues that the development practice community in Africa must frontally engage with if sustainable development is to be realized across the continent" Babatunde Ahonsi, United Nations Population Fund, Accra, Ghana

Friday 17 October 2014

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room


Simon Mawer

The house in The Glass Room was designed as a futurist, modern work of art by its visionary architect when it is initially conceived and constructed in pre-WW2 Czechoslovakia . Surviving all its occupants, all the political upheavals and chaos the world flings at it, the house outlasts its various functions – home, laboratory, remedial hospital etc. Into its space, the present, that space betwixt the past and the future, various people enter and pass through. Their stories are told with all the coincidences, foibles, and loose ends of real life. The power of any work of art is to impact anyone who comes into contact with it. In this book importance is placed not so much on the book’s human characters as on their occupancy and connection with this particular space i.e. the building in a particular present time as it continues to be over time.

ashramblings verdict 3* A easy read. A good book club read, especially if a close reading of some passages is undertaken and the book is viewed past its initial story and traditional character based point of view.

Footnote: Read about the actual house which inspired this book

Sunday 12 October 2014

Uncle John

One side of the flacking, blue painted, panelled wood door stands slightly ajar on rusty hinges on this bright Spring day. I peep round, squeezing in daringly. No one is there. High above my head level on the walls of the cavernous, hillside excavated, potting shed, the garden tools hang from nails hammered into granite walls – spades, trowels, forks, suspended still in the safety of their lair. The great oak, old hall, table sits squarely mid-way in. It holds the soft compost I like to play with, but its crumbling textures lie out of reach today. As does the light switch, so I dare not venture further into the far black rear of the shed fearing it hosts the “ghaists and houlets” of my father’s stories, like the terrifying giant spiders which creep and crawl along the pipes and walls of the outside toilet. This is the underworld beneath our home, a place I have never seen my mum enter. This is his realm, very different to her warm kitchen with its smells of scones baking, jam making and Fairy laundry soap. Only a 2 year old ventures underground, embolden by the innocence of love.

A creak signals the sun’s rays streaming in as the heavy door is opened gently, and I see him as a shadow against their glow. As our eyes adjust, I see, what years later I would know, the locked in face, seeing but not seeing the world, feeling but not feeling life, that intensity of aloneness, the missing years, the lost youth, the shell shock. The man before me stands tall, his pure white curly hair escapes beneath his cap, his roma nose angular and pointed like his tight jaw line. Then he sees me, and the face softens, the eyes sparkle and the hugest of smiles brightens all my world. My Uncle John scoops me up and sits me atop the table and begins to show me how to plant up dahlias.

© Sheila Ash, 2014

Saturday 4 October 2014

The Watch

My Creative Writing Tutor set us homework . We had to imagine an item of jewellery, and using our term’s theme of light and dark, write a piece about the impact the object has. This is what I wrote.


Contained now within a small box

the remains of all her hopes and dreams

for what might have been, but now will not.

She reads again “To Rupert with all my love Florence”

and the tears roll down her face

dashing asunder her classless decorum.


The crack that cuts across the glass

a wound bleeding time till time ceased

Life on hold amidst the unseen unimagined horrors

unleashed by endless bombings by the Hun.


Amidst those squelching, mud sodden, rat ridden tunnels

the sudden smell of new mown hay

across fields yet to bloom their blood red poppies of remembrance

the colourless phosgene green clouds

seeping silently like water into paper

soaking into every nook and cranny, every pleat and fold

finding every uncovered nose and mouth.


The acid scars and blisters skin

the lungs gasp and rasp

till finally the heart stops

just like his watch

at 11.15.



© Sheila Ash, 2014.

Sunday 28 September 2014


Dank misty morn

swaddling shroud

giant gossamer cobwebs

desiccate into unobserved obscurity.


Dew drops

line up along the window ledge

each upturned meniscus

taut with expectation of dawning liquidity.


Daydreaming disrupted

by perimeter movements

Fall-yellow ticker tape

flows down the breeze.


Deserted suburbs

disturbed rustling

the battalion of the leaf apocalypse

scurries after me along the road

chasing me home.


© Sheila Ash, 2014

Saturday 27 September 2014

Only 3 more to go

It's the final stretch - Only 3 more donations to go before its ends on September 30, 2014 until 23:59 hrs EDT. Please support the Indian NGO I was with for 2 years when I wrote so much of this ashramblings blog.

Friday 26 September 2014


Our theme for this term’s Creative Writing Group is Light and Dark. Last week our tutor read the following line from The Prophet by Kahil Gibran.

“The owl whose night bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light”

Then he asked us to write no more than 14 lines inspired by this. I wrote


Unheard, unfelt

apparitions flit

from cavernous recesses

dark and deep.

Wonders unbeknown

star burst horizons,

confusing coronas

blast our rods and cons

exploding myths

as Tam O’Shanter tales

run riot in a chemical deception.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Ashburton Cookery School

I spent 5 days this month at Ashburton Cookery School attending their Intermediate Course.  A real treat to myself after the house moves, building work etc of the past months since returning home.  I picked this school because it wasn’t fronted by some big name chef but came well recommended in various blog posts I read and had won accolades as such Best Cookery School in 2012 and 2013. I was not disappointed. We spent one day on poultry, one on pork, one on lamb, one on beef and one on fish. All the staff were enthusiastic and friendly from reception staff to the caretaker, from the chef tutor’s to kitchen helpers. The kitchen we used for the 10 people on the course was fitted with an overhead mirror situated above the tutors stove top and work surface. Here Rob, our chef tutor for the first 3 days, and Tom, our chef tutor for the final 2 days, demoed various skills and techniques before we went to our workstations and begun cooking ourselves and in pairs. Everything we made we ate. The ratio between theory, demo and doing was great with us doing about 90% of the dishes.  Other than the skills and recipes it was the little titbits of tips that were brilliant to get from the experts. The tutors were great, Tom was particularly good re explaining the science of food, Tom was quite simply one of the best tutors for any subject I have ever encountered or worked with.  In summary I am really glad I went and would consider doing another course, perhaps their 2 day Thai Plus or Fish & Seafood Plus course. If you know an enthusiastic home cook who needs a treat of a present this is a good idea.

Created with flickr slideshow.




that stillness of perpetual motion.

Sensuous curves slumber on

the clearest blue pillows

snuggling amidst a richly textured, glorious orange and red duvet.


Heat sapped

dolefully resting listlessly

as my see-saw rock-rock motion monotonously paces forwards.

An illusory lack of smells, of sounds

encompasses my insignificant speck of fusty sweat,

saddle creak and breeze bronzed face.


Beauty and toil compete relentlessly for my mind

as the madness of the journey invades my solitude

and my ship of the desert strides ever onwards across the vastness.

Forgotten Writings (2): Homage to Homs

Homage to Homs

The city walls will not forget

the long fought, weary, fighters as they left

Who’d stood so Homs would never fall

through bombs and blasting one and all

Till surrounded, starved, deprived of aid

their exit finally was made.

Forgotten writings (1) The Border’s Gate

I forget to post two pieces of writing I did early this summer, here’s the first.


The Border’s Gate

False boundaries put in place

by faceless men with pen and ink.

Straight lines dividing this and that

where in reality grey shades the white and black.


Families separated, torn apart,

Religion ravishing a lover’s heart.

Hold sway the multitude of hate

that beckons at the border’s gate.


The enemy beyond, unheard

sows seeds of fear in every bed/head

The outside world looks on reviled

by every killing of another child.


Step by step revenge is paired

One man here, another there.

Endless cycles of martyr making

The fragile peace once more is shaking.


They come from north and east and west

They come from the south to do their best

to styme the tide and halt the push

as at the border gate they push.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Return to Creative Writing Group

This week saw the restart of our Creative Writing Group. The tutor had us each write down on a slip of paper 5 characteristics of ourselves, excluding physical and other obviously identifiable ones. Shuffling the papers around we each then ended up with a set of characteristics which were not our own. We were then asked to write something using all 5 aspects: this was not to be about our fellow writer. The characteristics I received were Weird, Happy, Sad, Loyal, Intense. From these I wrote the following


The spidery finger stretches forth

across the firmament.

First contact

Wonder fill the boy’s eyes and heart

Friendship visualised.


Tears of sadness, tears of joy

Thoughts of homes far apart

The secret sour taste of parting

The ultimate sacrifice of letting go

a friend never forgotten.

© Sheila Ash, 2014


And in case you wonder what these words made me think of…..


Tuesday 16 September 2014

Update: Sept 30th deadline for educational appeal by Shakti Organisation, the Indian NGO where I did my VSO placement

This project, from the NGO I worked with in India, has to raise $5,000 from 40 donors by September 30, 11:59 PM EDT to earn a permanent spot on GlobalGiving. So far it has 9 donors and has raised $3713: only $1287 to go for their first attempt at raising money in this way . Please support if you can even by a little, and share onto others who may be interested and appreciate their work.

You can read more about the school from a blog post I wrote while I was there

Monday 8 September 2014

Support the NGO I was with in India

The NGO I was with in India are looking to raise funding to continue their excellent education program for slum children. It would be marvellous if some of you could donate to this hardworking NGO and support their worthwhile project with these kids. Thank you.

Monday 28 July 2014

Storm clouds

Thunder roars

Lightning veins the sky

Eyes peer out in awe and wonder at nature’s power.

But still we dash from homes to cars, from cars to shops

Scurrying under newspaper hats to their dryness

while dancing drops rebound like ping pong ball on the sidewalk.

We are dry, we are safe.


Siren roars

Plumes streak the sky

Eyes close in fear of man’s awesome power

They dash from homes to shelters

Scurrying in shadows avoiding the snipers’ sights

while rockets hit the strip squeezing it metre by metre nearer to the sea of oblivion

They are dry but never safe.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Winds of change

Harmattan by Gavin Weston

Winds of change storm over 12 year old Haoua living in the western part of Niger making her transition from childhood to womanhood abrupt, painful and life changing. After loosing her mother to AIDS, her caring elder brother to violence, she finds herself married of by her father to a cousin as his third wife.

Weston shows the tough, yet loving existence of her youth, her mother’s love, her participation in an education programme and the normal fun things of childhood. He build the tension slowly towards the novel’s finale, interjects patches of humour and sadness, before exposing the violent underlay of society and it’s impact on this child.

ashramblings verdict 3* a fast read, disturbing themes of violence and early marriage surfacing towards the fateful end

Saturday 12 July 2014

Orange flares and slimey waters

Oil on Water


Helon Habila

Set in Nigeria’s Delta amidst the swamps and mangroves lit up by the orange flares from the oil exploration which has devastated the countryside, killed birds, fish and other wildlife, polluted the water courses and change for the worse the lives of many. This is the story of Rufus, a young Nigerian journalist, and his quest for the “great story” as he is goes to meet the kidnappers of the wife of an European oil executive on whose behalf he has been hired to establish that she is alive. Rufus finds his search is as murky as the maze of waterways and islands that make up the Delta .

Habila weaves the tragedies of lost lives, lost loves and the lost way of life into the oppressive tropical heat and stifling oil saturated fumes of the fight between military and militants, oil corporations and local people.

Inevitably there will be readers who compare this to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, especially in the parts where we see power corrupting, the distortion of human relationships and the madness of those struggling against the tide. It is all there but the pace of his writing keeps it from overwhelming the reader whilst remaining at the heart of this novel.

ashramblings verdict 3*  good story line, providing good insight into the situation in the Nigerian Delta

Monday 7 July 2014

Tom’s garden

The old broom head

like an elongated hedgehog

stoppers open the rickety driftwood gate.


The shingle path

winds its way through

the tumbled garden to the river’s edge.


The tree house

bereft of children’s play

majestically awaits the next generation.


Elderflower cordial

sweetens the stillness of suspended time.

Monday 30 June 2014

A better place to be

Irish Immigrant-crop

From despair, a longing for a better place to be.

He stares hopefully, counting his future in his past pennies.

They left in thousands, just as now.

In bigger boats, most found new lives,

the Coffin Ships took the rest. Like on the Med

where today  another 100 souls were put to bed

suffocated in the hold

transported like the slaves of old

as fat cats lick the cream from their passage

to a better place to be.



a better place to be

Coffin Ships

Mediterranean deaths

Monday 23 June 2014

Very short stories

Ernest Hemingway supposedly wrote a very short story for a bet. It was: ‘For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.’

So the challenge was to write similar shorties of 5-10 words– warning, this can become addictive.

Tell me which one you like the best and why. 


Emptied bottle. Emptied stomach. Failure.

Earthquake. Tsunami. Idyll shattered.

Doorbell rings, Dog paws. Hands chatter.

Whisky finished. Head aches.

Empty purse. Empty cupboards. Empty stomach.

Lamb slaughtered. Door painted. Exile granted.

Engagement ring still in its box.

Divorce papers and pen lie still on the table.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

At last week’s Creative Writing Class we were challenged to first feel an object without seeing it with our eyes and to think about what it might be and what our touch was saying to us.

On its reveal, it was a sculptured clay head of a young man, fairly roughly strewn together, no smooth surfaces, with very prominent eyes, a slightly open mouth making him somewhat gawked and gormless. The face was not in any way that of a classic beauty and did not possess anything that could be described as fine or statuesque features.

Our tutor challenged us to write exactly 100 words. I have to say it took me some time to get started and as usual I have little or no idea where this came from.


Bulbous boils of pus scar his face

swollen, red and painful

ravaged by seeping spots and welts

discarded by family

shunned by society

the leper creeps along.

The shadow of the man he was

skirts the crowd

to get a better view

to hear the Word.


The Other glides with consummate ease

amongst the following masses

Serenity shines with his every step

a wave of peace calms the rabble

who , in awe, stretch out their hands

to be blessed.

His remain covered, hidden

but are unexpectedly touched.

In shock, the crowd pulls back

Love everlasting, life eternal,

Pain relieved

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Then and Now

Inspired by the Billie Holliday classic, Strange Fruit, and for the two young Indian women recently raped and murdered.

"Strange Fruit" By Bille Halliday


Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees


Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh


Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop


Then and Now


Bright golden sarees

a Holi melange of colour

the epitomy of elegance

even amidst the sand and cement of building works.


The Henna’d hands of painted brides

tinge the pure white turbans of immaculate grooms

in joyous hues of blushing unions.


The smell like roasted pig jars the morning air

the rope, tarred and strong, anchors

two strangely shaped aubergines in the forest trees

Blackened charcoal fired with a remnant of red silk.




Monday 9 June 2014

Handle Me Gently

Handle gently

but do not crush my heart, my friend

broken and abandoned

its sharp barbs confine a tender core

from which a bounteous ocean tumults.


Hold close

but do not smother my soul, my friend

shrunken and cowering

its nervousness protects love’s delicate garden

from which serenity’s stems can grow anew.


Caress and nurture

then let me go, my friend

to rise renewed, revitalised and refreshed

above the turmoil of life’s eternal rollercoaster.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Transition lenses


A sliver of shining Abalone

Pearl of the South Seas

returning memories.


Light upon the antediluvian lustre

reflects a changed reality now

in all its iridescent glory.


Beyond the thin opalescent veil

viewing forward

future fun.


A gift of light

A gift of life

A gift of time immemorial.

Friday 30 May 2014

Some amazing young writers…

Totally inspired by these youngsters and what they have produced in their 500 word stories. Imagine being 9 and not only winning a prize but have it read by a famous actor. Wow! And its a good one. I loved the humour in the under 9’s Silver Medal Winner’s story, and the heartfelt sadness in the Bronze Medal Winner’s. You can listen to all the winners in both the Under 9’s and the 10-13 category here

Sunday 25 May 2014

The Cock Fight


In the dark, a tense circle of counting

numbers multiplied

odds spiralling.

In the centre, two sets of hands

each holding fast their prize

tenderly controlling.

The raucous rabble of expectation

the boisterous buzz of excitation

fast frenzied fury unabated

accelerated climax -


An abomination of feathers.

Acknowledgment to Steve Hammond8569881918_53a13794c3_o
Acknowledgement to David Boté Estrada

Saturday 24 May 2014

Edison, New Jersey by Junot Diaz

Short Story Title: Edison, New Jersey
Author Junot Diaz
Where to find it full text online and
Oxford Book of American Short Stories
Brief summary a slice of blue collar worker life in the USA, the main characters are two delivery men who transport everything from card tables to one end of the socio-economic spectrum to full sized pool tables to the other.
ashramblings opinion well written, has a few potentially unfamiliar slang and Spanish words but their meanings can be inferred and they can all be found in online dictionaries

Friday 23 May 2014

Short Story Quickie


I do occasionally read short stories, usually with my online book group. When I was a child the only reading done in my father reading the newspaper and my mum who read The People’s Friend which I am astounded to find still exists today. It was and is a magazine aimed at women, and in those days aimed at housewives, and packed full of craft and cooking articles side by side with short stories. I don’t think I picked up another short story until I was in my 40s, in the days before ipads, tablets and mp3 players, when I would do long car, train or plane journeys for work and especially with car journeys could end up sitting outside a client site for 30 minutes or so having arrived too early for my appointment. Poetry and short stories were a great gap filler.

Now as I say I read them mainly with my online reading buddies, but whereas I review and log my other reading here I never say anything about the short stories I read. So I am going to rectify this immediately with the tag “Short Story Quickie”. I will give a very brief comment on the story, (purely my opinion on first reading), the usual link to more from the author and, if I can find one, a link to where you can read the story.

I reckon as a rule of thumb short stories take anything between 10 and 60 minutes to read – so great for when you are sitting down with a good cup of tea. They are also a great way to test out an author you haven’t read before. Please post back if you follow up on one to read.

Look for the first posting under this new tag in the next couple of days.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

The right to a life

Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell

Looking for JJ (Jennifer Jones, #1)

Finding Jennifer Jones (Jennifer Jones, #2)

Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell

by Gitta Sereny

Looking for JJ
by Anne Cassidy

Finding Jennifer Jones

by Anne Cassidy

My in person book group has been reading a pairing of books, Cries Unheard and Looking for JJ, to which I added in its sequel Finding Jennifer Jones. Cries Unheard is Gita Sereny’s account of her conversations with child killer Mary Bell while Anne Cassidy has written a fictional account of a child killer trying to establish an independent adult life after release.

I found the Sereny book quite disjointed to read which surprised me for a serious writer on the serious topic. It was repetitive and uncoordinated and although this in part may reflect Bell’s own recollections and outpourings to Sereny, her account and professional analyses of these meetings and conversations  could have been presented in a much more concise fashion to support her argument against the way our justice system treats such children.

Cassidy’s novel is fiction; and let’s be clear, it is not a fictionalised account of the same people or incident. However, she does touch on many of the same issues and themes as one reads about in Sereny’s book  including the socially marginalised home environments of the children and the endless intrusion of the paparazzi of the gossip press. Whilst Sereny’s book also covers the period of Bell’s incarceration in children’s facilities and subsequently in mainstream adult prisons, Cassidy’s story  largely bypasses that part, telling of what led up to the incident and concentrating on the period following the killer’s release into the community and her attempt to establish a normal life. Whilst I did not particularly like the optimistic ending to the sequel, thinking it too forced, I understood why Cassidy would want to give hope to her character.

Together these books raise questions about society’s responsibility for children who find themselves at breaking point and, not knowing how to manage their situations, end up with behaviour which has life changing consequences. The tabloid press would have us believe that these children are innately evil, that they have no place in the ordinary world and no right to life haven taken one. Sereny does not believe this and neither, I suspect, does Cassidy. I was struck by how Cassidy wrote her killer’s surviving childhood companion, Lucy, who as an young adult has put the incident behind her and almost dismisses it out of hand with a ‘we were just children’.

The reader can see where society has failed these children prior to the killing, afterwards during their trial and incarceration and after they are released back into the community. Most readers will be appalled by the fact that Bell received little or no psychiatric care or help during her period of detention. As Sereny points out it is no one’s responsibility to find out why something happened – the police are only concerned with finding the killer, the courts with convicting or acquitting the person, the jail system with keeping them inside to serve their sentence.  Equally many readers will know of the extraordinary and commendable lengths Bell has gone to in order to protect her daughter from press intrusion. As Cassidy’s novel shows, Jennifer’s past is but a recognition away – be it from a freelance journalist, or someone connected with the original incident who seeks the opportunity to make some money out of it.

ashramblings verdict Sereny 2* Cassidy 3* but together I think they are greater than the sum of their parts and would recommend them as a trio.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

The cutting edge

For this week’s exercise for my Creative Writing class our tutor came with a selection of scientific photographs. He used only the more abstract ones from his vast collection. I did recognise some – the surface of a plant, a fungal spore – so picked one I did not know.

I only had my mobile phone with me so the resultant photograph is not too good, reflecting the library overhead lights, but hopefully good enough that you get the gist.

The brief for our writing was to think differently, almost like a Martian would. I didn’t take the visitor from outer space theme too literally but here is my effort.

At the bottom of the post I will tell you what it actually is and post a better picture.

Cutting edge


The cutting edge

This is a strange place. Directionally confused, every which  way I look it is the same. The madness of regularity, row after row, pattern repeat after pattern repeat, 2 this way, 2 that, 2 up, 2 down, packed tight pointed roofs, a log pile of stacked boxes. Moving over them I slip down onto their crevasses and am grazed by their edges. I loose my footing and end up looking upward like a Kaffir on a bed of nails. Held fast. The walls encroach at a slow, steady, unrelenting pace. They nudge onwards, ever closer the advancing army of swords pointed towards me, their prey. The double edge serrations bite deeper, shredding my soul. The machine annihilates all in its path. I am but dust.


In reality the picture is of an Anechoic Chamber - An anechoic chamber (an-echoic meaning non-reflective, non-echoing or echo-free) is a room designed to completely absorb reflections of either sound or electromagnetic waves. They are also insulated from exterior sources of noise. The combination of both aspects means they simulate a quiet open-space of infinite dimension, which is useful when exterior influences would otherwise give false results. You can see lots of better examples here

Monday 19 May 2014

Cliff House

Last week my Writing Group took a trip to Cliff House Holiday Park near Dunwich where one can purchase residential log cabin style lodge holiday homes . It is set amidst woodland atop the cliffs which lead down to the single beach. This is my output from the day.


Fellen sleepers slumber deep

Rotten carcasses half asleep

Eroded shorelines cry and weep


Sea kale mounds reclaim the stones

Lost and found some old grey bones

Blackbirds sing as waves roar

12 church bells peel no more


Woodland paths aside the seas

Smiling happy families

Fitted kitchens, garden sheds

I bet there’s even Goodnight beds


No rustic lodges frontier life

But edges planed off with a knife

Wild flowers mix with daffodils

Pretty lawns and floral sills


Fine dining and welly boots

Needless men arrive in suits

Playing footie unawares

Of penetrating kitchen stares

Saturday 10 May 2014

Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy

Looking for JJ (Jennifer Jones, #1)

This is a book, aimed at Young Adults, won the Booktrust Teenage Prize in 2004. The potentially difficult subject, a child who murders another child, is deftly handled by the author who in this first of two books tells the story of Alice Tully, aka Jenifer Jones. At 17 years of age she has been released from prison after having killed her best friend when they were 10.

The reader is placed in a situation where she is sympathetic towards the young woman because the author makes the story around the topic of an ineffective parent, discovery by the tabloids, sympathetic social workers, and shows Alice doing the normal teenage things like having a boyfriend, working and planning for university.

In the end the tabloids are hot on her heels, unwilling to let a story lie and to believe that someone can change and have the right to life a live just like anyone else.

ashramblings verdict 3* A difficult topic well handled.


Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy

Tuesday 6 May 2014

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan

An Evil Cradling

What can one say about this book but that it is an incredible record of an incredible achievement, namely that of remaining a sane human through an insanely inhumane experience. His insight into the mind of hostage and hostage taker, torturer and tortured is phenomenal. Yes, it is a hard read, extremely emotional in places but it provides an incredible insight into the depths of the human mind. It provides a well written account of his journey into self, his friendship and joking camaraderie with fellow hostage John McCarthy as they moved from place to place in Lebanon. He conveys an acute understanding of the pitiable, sexually repressed young men who guard them. Weaned on violence, nurtured on religious dogma, exhibiting unbelievably cruelty one moment and who want to learn to dance with their wife for their wedding the next, they are as much caught up in the situation as Keenan was. Throughout his four and half years in captivity, initially alone, Keenan never gave up and never gave in – stubborn – yes, resilient – yes, survivor – yes. One can but be in awe and admiration.

ashramblings verdict 5*  - a tour de force from a remarkable man.

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan

Friday 2 May 2014

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Every so often I stumble across a new author whom I feel I should have known about. Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 for "for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland" and his books have been translated into English by author and TV presenter Magnus Magnusson.

Alfgrimur, an orphan, grows up in Reykjavik, Iceland at the turn of the 20th century with a couple he calls grandfather and grandmother but who are not.  This is a classic bildungsroman type novel about an artist finding his own voice at a time when the old world was on the brink of the modern era. As he grows up Alfgrimur find his once safe and secure small child’s world is changing, just as Iceland is undergoing change, just as fishing is changing from subsistence fishing into mass trawling. The diverse community of people who board with his grandparents represent all strands of a society with a strong oral tradition. Uneducated in the formal tradition, poor in economic terms they nonetheless provide the boy with his education, life skills and moral stance. The book is a gem. It tells a great story deft touches of ironic humour especially made manifest in the character of Gardur Holme the supposedly world renowned, Icelandic opera singer and irony and raises real questions about worth, value, globalisation, greed, self worth and self respect.

ashramblings 4* A little gem of a find , I’ve already ordered another of Halldór Laxness’s books, Paradise Reclaimed from the library.

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness, Translated by Magnus Magnusson

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi

When I read Persepolis The story of a Childhood, I hadn't realised there was a second volume. Volume 1 left me wondering just what it was like for Marjane after she left Iran. Since then I found out that some editions are one volume, some two and others split the story into 4 parts. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return follows on immediately after Marjane leaves Iran for Austria and follows her through her teenage there, her struggle to fit in and to survive on a low allowance, through her return to Iran, her student years and her readjustment to the repressive society she finds back home. She paints a relationship with her parents and grandmother which most youngsters would crave for and although portrayed idyllically they were clearly a huge influence on her personal development.

When my local library indicated the book had arrived for me I rushed out at 3PM to collect it and had finished it by 5PM. I can't recall ever having awaited a second volume with such enthusiasm.

ashramblings verdict 4* A great depiction of the normal struggles of growing up, compounded by the not so normal struggles of first living alone in a foreign country, and then coping with returning as a stranger in your own homeland.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
by Marjane Satrapi