Review: Daemon Voices

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, master storyteller, attracted my attention because it is  collection of essays on storytelling.  I thought is might include some tips from an expert.  The book, when it arrived from Amazon turned out to be a hard cover edition of 460 velum pages.  The essays are mostly presentations given at various literary events, and compiled by Simon Mason, who writes for adults and children and his fictional works have won and been shortlisted for literary prizes.

Wikipedia says this about Philip Pullman: “Philip Pullman, CBE, and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (born 19 October 1946) is an English novelist. He is the author of several best-selling books, including the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials and a fictionalised biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In 2008, The Times named Pullman one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945”.  In a 2004 poll for the BBC, Pullman was named the eleventh most influential person in British culture.

Philip Pullman

“The first book of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, won the 1995 Carnegie Medal from the Library Assocaiation, recognising the year’s outstanding English-language children’s book. For the 70th anniversary of the Medal it was named one of the top ten winning works by a panel, composing the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite. It won the public vote from that shortlist and was thus named the all-time”Carnegie of Carnegies” in June 2007. It was adapted as a film under its US title, The Golden Compass.”

Daemon Voices contains 32 essays covering a wide range of topics: childrens’ literature, education, religion, science, folk tales, fairy tales, Pullman’s books, other writers, culture, the writer, and on the practice of writing.  Since most of the essays are oral presentations, they come across as informal, but learned and interesting.

There are many detailed references to particular stories, some of which is valuable and unique, but much I found myself skimming as it did not assuage my interest in technique.  What was of particular value to me were his remarks about stories in the present vs, the past.  (He prefers the past as it is less limiting, while I prefer the present as conveying a sense of immediacy).  He reveals specific instances of stories in a mix of past and present tense.  Also valuable were his thoughts on the use of various narrators, including devices where a character becomes a narrator.  Much of this is contained in his essay The Writing of Stories.

I took particular exception to his drum beating for atheism, particularly his essay, The Republic of Heaven: God is Dead, Long Live the Republic.  As I understand it, his atheism is based on there being no proof of God’s existence, and scorn for the evil deeds committed in the name of religion.  What this fails to recognize is that God can exist for a host of reasons without any proof of his existence, and that evil deeds committed in the name of religion (of which there are many, many) are actually committed by human beings, there being no necessary relationship between the evil acts and the existence, or not, of God.  It also fails to consider the enormous number of human beings (two of three billion?) who believe in God, and each of whom has a personal experience which accounts for their belief.

Daemon Voices is of particular interest to those who are fans of Philip Pullman.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago.  At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

Lemn Sissay

Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966.  He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967.  The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies.  She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled.  Social services ignored this.

Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood.  They were very strict parents, but kind in their way.  When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage.  The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused.  When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson?  Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos.  His life history was contained in those files.  He was given only two documents.  One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay.  The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.

He continued to request his files.  In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.

In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.

At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry .  He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally.  He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.

In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years.  In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”

Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”

During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:

  • Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory.  Without family we are amnesiac.
  • Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
  • “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
  • “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”

 

Ten Steps to an Unputdownable Book

A group of seven bookworms called New Novel offers three packages to help fledgling novelists with the novel-writing process.  Their packages involve the use of the Internet, email, and, in the case of their best package, telephone.  Their aim is to provide both direction and motivation.  I have no experience of their packages, but I thought their Ten Steps make sense.  I have inserted my comments after each step, and I have quoted Now Novel where indicated.

Step 1: Promise revelation in your story premise.

This one is important. It involves presenting the theme of the novel on the first page in a way that is implied by the opening action.  It’s not necessary to say: “This book is about . . .”  Rather, what happens on the first page tells the reader what to expect, captures her attention and motivates her to keep on reading.

Step 2: Make each chapter beginning and ending tantalizing.

Like the first page, the beginning of each chapter should tantalize the reader to continue.  At the end of the chapter, there should be a situation in suspense to keep the reader’s interest.

Step 3: Master novel writing basics: narration and description.

I would add ‘and dialogue’.

Step 4: Make your characters great company.

Even if some of your characters aren’t people you’d want to spend time with, they should be interesting enough to arouse our curiosity.

Step 5: Mix seriousness with humour.

Good point

Step 6: Help the reader see place in your story.

Having an interesting place in the story that seems real and in which the characters live naturally makes a story both more credible and more captivating

Step 7: Write wish, wonder and surprise into your novel.

Readers tend to wish for something in a novel – for example that a heroine would get married.  Wonder is something extraordinary which occurs.  We always enjoy nice surprises.

Step 8: Keep the story moving with suspense and tension.

Amen.

Step 9: Make dialogue natural but interesting.

One way to keep it interesting is to keep it brief and a trifle ambiguous: did he really mean this or possibly that?  Remove any words which don’t convey meaning.  And keep control of the flow.

Now Novel says: “Showing characters’ personalities through the kind of language they use as well as how much or little they speak.  Writing dialogue that makes the reader feel like they’re eavesdropping. Characters should sometimes say things to each other that they wouldn’t  dream of saying in front of other people.”

Step 10: Know your audience.

Now Novel says: “Besides mastering novel writing basics such as writing good description and narration, make sure you know your audience whenever you start writing a novel. When you invent story ideas, ask:

  • Who would the typical reader of this story be?
  • What similar well-known books would they love?

Writing the book you’ve always wanted to read and writing to a specific imaginary reader whose tastes and interests you can anticipate will help you to craft an unputdownable book that ticks all of the ideal reader’s boxes.”

Judging a Book by its Cover

In the May/June issue of The Independent magazine, there is an article Converting Book Browsers to Book Buyers by Kristin Fields, Associate Editor.

Kristin Fields

The article is quite lengthy, but the part that I found particularly interesting concerned cover design.

Ms Fields says, “There are two deeply held misunderstandings about the nature and role of a book’s “cover” in trade publishing. First, that its main purpose is to be “liked,” when, in fact, its primary role is to motivate browsing. One of the “ugliest,” least liked covers Codex has ever tested was Tina Fey’s Bossypants (featuring Tina Fey with what appear to be massive, hairy, man arms), and yet it had phenomenal browsing impact and became the #2 overall bestselling book on Amazon for its publication year.

“Second, it’s essential to understand book buyers use the cover as the book’s message, relying heavily on it to tell them what the book is, why they should be interested in it, and to judge if it’s worth the effort of browsing—very similar to the role of a strong campaign slogan in politics—conveyed through word and image combined.

“Book publishers consistently make the mistake of undervaluing the cover as simply a piece of decoration, when in fact the data is very clear that it’s the combined impact of title, subtitle, reading line, author name, blurb, and design that together either move, or more often dissuade, a book consumer from browsing. We have to continually remind ourselves that book people are “word people”; they love and respond to words first and foremost. Nearly 15 years of Codex testing has consistently shown that a book’s title, subtitle, or reading line copy are in fact almost always the most important conversion factor in a book’s cover, not the art. While great cover art brings a very important added dimension, amplification, and visual recall to a book, great cover art alone rarely drives the book consumer to act, except in breakthrough examples like Bossypants.

“Here are some examples of past Codex Preview testing case studies to provide additional insight into some key findings on book conversion (buying decision):

“In a rebranding project on the For Dummies series, for example, two message options were tested: Staying Young for Dummies and Healthy Aging for Dummies. Because the Dummies brand audience skewed 55+, the “Healthy Aging” message spoke more powerfully to that audience, best fulfilled the brand’s values, and had the highest conversion.

 

“In another Preview test, when it comes to blurbs, less can be more. While one test version of the cover for The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe was plastered with over a dozen “blurbs to die for” from some of the biggest names in thriller writing, category fans were skeptical, less hype with a single quote and an emphasis on the title.

 

“Using faces on a book’s cover can also be unpredictable. The biography of Apple co-founder and inventor of the personal computer, Steve Wozniak, is a good example. Codex results confirmed that few book buyers were even familiar with the author’s name, let alone his face. One test treatment featured a photo of a young Wozniak from the 1970s, which motivated far less browsing than a text-based presentation that emphasized the message “The Inventor of the Personal Computer Speaks at Last” highlighted by Apple’s iconic rainbow stripes. Faces can be unpredictable conversion drivers because of they may be unrecognizable, distracting, or unrelateable. It’s best to pre-test before committing if you’re unsure.

“While publishers and designers are deeply involved in a cover’s development over weeks or months at a time, it’s important to remember that a book browser typically relies on just a split second gut reaction to make a browsing decision.”

For the indie author, whose books do not usually appear in bookstores, the issues are slightly different, because decisions are not quite so instantaneous.  But, the indie author should still be trying for a cover which says, “Here’s what I’m about” and “Read me!”

Proofreading 101

There is a post on the Reader Views blog with this same title, written by Sheri Hoyte, Managing Editor, and President Book by Book Publicity.  Ms Hoyte is also a reviewer.

Sheri Hoyte

This post caught my eye, because I’m a terrible proofreader.  In the course of writing a novel, I will re-read what I’ve written at least half a dozen times, yet once I send the manuscript to a copy editor, it will be returned with corrections on every other page.  Admittedly, some of these corrections are quite minor, and most would probably miss the attention of the average reader, there are still too many (mostly punctuation) corrections.

One thing that’s good for me about the copy editing process is that I’ve learned some of the finer rules of punctuation and grammar, which makes the editor’s job easier the next time.

Ms Hoyte says, “Proofreading is the most basic of all editing functions.  It can also be the most overlooked or neglected function in the process of getting your book published.  Taking the time to check your document for punctuation and spelling mistakes, and grammatical and formatting errors, can take your finished product from good to great.  Proofreading should not replace professional editing.  Rather, proofreading should be done before sending the manuscript to be edited.  The cleaner the manuscript, the better the chances the editor will catch everything else through their special lens.  More importantly, the cost of editing a well finished manuscript will be less than a messy one for sure!.”

She then offers these specific tips:

  • Don’t depend on the spell checker and grammar checker built into your word processing program.  Spelling and grammar checkers are a great place to start, but they don’t catch everything and shouldn’t be considered the final word.
  • Patience.  Proofreading is about as monotonous as it gets, but rest assured that it does get easier with practice.  Set yourself up for success by creating a distraction-free zone; put the phone away and turn off the music.  Steer clear of anything that may cause your concentration to stray.
  • Don’t try to proofread something you’ve just spent hours writing.  Your brain and your eyes need a break.  It’s too easy to overlook errors when you are tired and have been working on the same thing for too long.
  • Proofread from a hard copy.  Online writing software is great, and I love technology – almost always; but there is something to be said for spreading your document out on the table and getting down to business with your red pen.  It’s easier to gloss over errors on a screen that oftentimes jump out at you on paper.
  • Read slowly and read everything.  Read every single word.  Slowly.  Again.  Get the picture? Oh, and don’t skim past the obvious places errors like to hide, such as chapter numbers and titles, page numbers, character names, addresses, capitalization, etc.
  • Have someone else read your work.  Often a fresh set of eyes may be just what you need to put the finishing touches on your masterpiece.  

Ms Hoyte is right about the spell and grammar checker.  I have found that the grammar checking function is nowhere near sophisticated enough and that the spell checker can be wrong.  If I re-read slowly and carefully – every word – assuming that there are errors buried here, I find I do a better job.  If I re-read just after I’ve finished writing, I’ll catch the glaringly obvious mistakes; the less obvious ones get caught months after writing in a hard copy review.  There’s something foreign about the hard copy which makes me unconsciously suspicious of its content.  Then, there’s my wife, who’ll say, “Are sure this is right?” and “This isn’t working for me.”

Can Reading Make You Happier?

Ceridwen Dovey
In her article, Ms Dovey says she was “given a gift of a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence.”  She was sent a questionnaire that asked about her reading habits and her personal concerns by the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthold.  There followed an exchange of emails with suggested readings.  For those who are interested, there are a number of particular novels recommended in the article for specific reasons.
Ms Dovey says: “In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few
remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between
the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but
at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of
readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading
consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union”
with another mind.
“Berthoud and her colleague, Elderkin, trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during
psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning
home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. ‘Librarians in the
States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice
story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the
same time in the U.K.,’ Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used
in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by
psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.
“For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire
lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health
and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming
clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery,
in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when
we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone
else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in
the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of
participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display
stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that
experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading
stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
“Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people
who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the
researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic
tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published
in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary
nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception
and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with
accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans
only start to develop around the age of four.
“Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.  ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,’ the author Jeanette Winterson has written. ‘What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’
“Elderkin says the number of books in the world is one of the most common woes of modern readers, and that it remains a major motivation for her and Berthoud’s work as bibliotherapists. ‘We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” And the best way to do that? See a bibliotherapist, as soon as you can, and take them up on their invitation, to borrow some lines from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: ‘Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow…'”
Thank you, Sue.

Review: The Kurdish Bike

I bought this book for two reasons: it won the gold medal for the best regional fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, 2017 (I like to know what other indie authors are doing well); at because its setting in Kurdistan (which is part of Iraq, Iran and Turkey) interested me.

The author is Alesa Lightbourne, who, according to the biography included in her book “has been an English professor and teacher in six countries, lived on a sailboat, dined with Bedouins, and written for Fortune 50 companies.  She lives close to Monterey Bay in California where she loves to boogie board and ride a bicycle.”

Alesa Lightbourne

The Kurdish Bike is the fictional story of Theresa Turner’s experiences as a freelance English teacher working at a remote, but somewhat prestigious school on a hill top in a remote part of Kurdistan.  The school has strict regulation of teachers and students, very tight security – wealthy people’s children attend – and some odd characters teaching and working there.  Theresa obtains a bicycle, as her only means of exploration of the external world; in a nearby village, she meets Bezma a single woman of about 30 and her mother Ara, who is both wise and sour.  Bezma falls in love with Hevar, an egotistical, testosterone-fueled hunk of a man.  There is much to-ing and fro’-ing about the marriage, which eventually does take place.  Meanwhile, Theresa’s stateside finances fall apart owing to the existence of a spend-thrift ex-husband.  The schools manager, Madame, tempts Teresa to stay on for another year, in spite of some emotionally-disturbed management and teaching staff.  The students are, by and large, the only truly likable characters.  There are issues with FGM, which apparently runs at 95% in Kurdistan.  There are two suicides and one murder: plenty of stuff happens.

The Kurdish Bike gives a startlingly real picture of life, culture and the settings of Kurdistan: generally not a place to visit willingly, but the local characters, while extremely drawn in some cases are nonetheless real and captivating.  The story is generally well written.

My main concern is the last couple of chapters of the novel: they seem hurriedly written without supporting events.  One gets the feeling ‘there! everything’s sorted!’  Whereas, there are several crises building up in parallel, and are only resolved in the author’s afterword.  For example, Theresa seems to be thrown a lifeline by the Kurdish government when her contract with the school is cancelled.  This seems implausible since there was little groundwork laid for it.

The tone in the novel, written in the first person, shifts considerably from beginning to end.  It starts out being tentative and defensively emotional.  Toward the end, it becomes cocky, hip and aggressively emotional.  This is more an observation than a criticism; one wonders whether it was consciously intentional, because, to some extent, it is a natural transition for the main character.

One final comment about characters: none of them, with the notable exceptions of Pat, a fellow teacher, and Seema, a female student, are without major flaws, such that you wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them.  The male characters are irredeemable idiots, a reflection, perhaps of Theresa’s attitude towards men, given the choice she made in a husband.

I think that The Kurdish Bike is a good read, and it’s hard to put down.  It is certainly thought-provoking about a very foreign culture.

The Nobel Delay

Amanda Craig has written an article in The Daily Telegraph on May 5 about the one-year delay in awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her website says: “Amanda Craig is a British novelist, short-story writer and critic. Born in South Africa in 1959, she grew up in Italy, where her parents worked for the UN, and was educated at Bedales School and Clare College Cambridge”.  She has worked in advertising and PR before becoming a journalist and a novelist – currently working on her eighth novel.  Her last novel, Hearts And Minds, was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.

Amanda Craig

In the Telegraph article she says:The world of literary prizes is such a vexed and vexatious one, and having rarely been listed for one myself, I may have a jaundiced view of their value.  The Nobel is, due to its sheer pecuniary value, supposedly the Big One, the Everest of achievement and the Moby Dick that has certain Booker winners checking their mobiles every year to see if they have won.

“Does any reader pick a novel because its author has won the prize?  The old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee so often comes to mind that those of us who love reading are often grateful to awards for making clear what or who is largely tedious and unreadable.  Let us not forget that the Swedish Academy rewarded Bob Dylan, who, though a revered singer-songwriter, is literature only to the wilder followers of Professor Christopher Ricks.

“What this absurd scandal – involving not a judge but the husband of a judge – obscures is that, although there are outstanding novelists, from Margaret Atwood to Philip Pullman, there is no great genius of literature currently writing in English.  Not one.  I remember the gloom that would descend of the board of the Society of Authors when, every year, we had to put forward a British author for consideration and could only come up with Harold Pinter.

“The trouble with all big prizes is that they lack definition.  What does ‘best’ mean?  Does it mean, as Jane Austin wrote in Northanger Abbey, a novel ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest definition of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’?

“Or does it mean a novel which is all about fine prose, but which dispenses with character, plot or even deep insight into the human condition?  Or, perhaps, indeed, a book in which wit and humour are wholly absent?

“All of us have encountered prize-winning novels like these, and all too often.”

As for me, I have, on several occasions, selected a novel by a Nobel winner, just to see what was special about it, and I have been disappointed.  I certainly agree with Ms Craig, and I have said so myself, that the remits of the major prizes need to be clarified, so that not everyone is trying to find that obscure and sometimes cranky, ‘best’  I rather like Jane Austin’s definition, though I would substitute ‘broadest’ for ‘happiest’.

My earliest suspicion that Ms Craig does, indeed, have a jaundiced view of the situation was confirmed by her penultimate sentence: “Usually, what the Nobel Prize seems to award above all is the possession of a penis.”

Review: Seeking Father Khaliq

Pat Kennedy has posted this review of Seeking Father Khaliq on the IndieReader website:

“William Peace begins his modern allegory on a common allegorical premise – the quest. Professor al-Busiri is approached by an unannounced visitor and asked to meet Princess Basheera. When they meet, she has one request of him, to find Father Khaliq which she believes can be accomplished if the professor takes the Hajj. With only the advice to trust her and to use his wisdom and intuition, the professor is to take the religious pilgrimage in search of the mysterious Father Khaliq without a physical description of the man.

“What follows is a wonderful discussion of philosophy, religion, and individual motivation. Peace, having done extensive travel in the world, has a great understanding of how the major religions work and how various sects interpret their religious documents. The conflicts within Islam are discussed through various situations and conversation between Professor al-Busiri and fellow travelers as he undertakes his religious pilgrimage. As the professor travels along his path facing dangers and prejudices and encountering different sects and sometimes radical organizations, the reader gets a better understanding of the motives and problems of the middle east.

“Not only does Peace offer insight into Muslim philosophy and thought, through Professor al-Busiri’s memories and thoughts about his dead Christian wife, we’re given insight into the Christian faith in Egypt. Peace is skillful in incorporating the three major world religions into this allegorical writing and unlocking key ideas and thoughts as they are related to the modern Middle East and philosophical thought. The professors two sons represent two extremes of modern Middle Eastern life, with one joining the army and other the Muslim Brotherhood. Everywhere in the Professor’s world he finds conflict and opposing viewpoints. With his unfruitful search for Father Khaliq becoming an obsession, he continues to search for the answers he seeks.

“As the book is an allegory, it would have been beneficial to have included a glossary of terms and meanings. Peace does give a few clues within the text, for example, the surname of Princess Basheera is Chagma, meaning “wisdom,” and all major meanings are defined, but an inclusion of other meanings of names and terms would be an interesting addition. That doesn’t take away from the novel’s overall impact. As allegories do, SEEKING FATHER KHALIQ leads us to question own beliefs, asking if we have sought the right answers. A fascinating look into a world that affects us all.”

This is a very kind review.  I have to confess, that it is not my ‘extensive travels’ – though I have been to Egypt and Saudi Arabia – that have lead to the ‘great understanding’; it is many hours of internet research, including watching videos of the Hajj and Arba’een.  In fact, I spent more time on research for this book than I did on writing it.  This is probably an unusual ratio of research to writing for a novel, but may be quite typical of non-fiction.

I find it interesting that no mention is made of the focus of the book: one man’s search for God.  (Professor al-Busiri is a secular Muslim – an agnostic – ‘Khaliq’ is one of the more obscure 99 names for Allah.)  Maybe it’s out of fashion for reviewers to do God anymore.

“Publishers Live in Marble Palaces”

That is the title of an interview in The Daily Telegraph of James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones by Jake Kerridge, journalist and art critic.

James Daunt

Kerridge writes: “When HMV sold the Waterstones book chain to the Russian businessman Alexander Mamut in 2011, the company was hurtling towards the knacker’s yard. But Mamut made an inspired decision when he appointed Daunt as his managing director. The 54-year-old, the founder of the small but much-admired independent chain Daunt Books, has transformed the company, brought it back into the black, and defied predictions that the mighty Amazon was going to stomp bricks-and-mortar bookshops into oblivion.

“Now, though, the much-loved book chain faces another threat to its existence – from a ruthless hedge fund. Elliot Management, owned by the controversial New York billionaire Paul Singer, announced at the end of last month that it was buying the company from Mamut, sparking fears of asset stripping. Anne Stevens, CEO of British engineering firm GKN (in which Elliott has a stake) has complained that Elliott does not “give a crap” about long-term outcomes, and Singer himself was once described as a “financial terrorist” by the president of Argentina for his ruthless pursuit of debts.

Kerridge asks Daunt what he thinks about the prophesies of doom that blossomed at the acquisition by Elliott.  Daunt says: ‘We’re opening more shops than we’re closing. Some people have this notion that we’re always about to close shops – if we close one we must be going to close a hundred – which I simply don’t understand.’

When asked about future plans from Elliott, Daunt says, “I obviously have asked them why they’re buying us and what they expect, and the answer has been: ‘Carry on as you’re doing. We think that you can grow, and if you do grow, we’ll sell you for a profit’.”

“What Daunt has been doing has certainly been successful.  At the beginning of this year, Waterstones announced an 80 per cent jump in its annual profits.  The stores have become nicer places to visit, with more flowers and comfy furniture. He insists that staff make their own decisions about how their branches are run; every shop has a different customer demographic, so all key decisions – what books to stock, pricing structure, layout – have been left to branch managers. At the same time, readers have fallen back in love with physical books, something Daunt believes has to do with the power of the book as a decorative item.

“I ask him if he is bothered by reports of a crisis in “literary” fiction, with sales reportedly plummeting.  , ‘I’ve been nearly 30 years a bookseller,’ Daunt says, ‘and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything different. We sell astonishing numbers of whatever the latest literary bestseller is, and our bestselling book almost every year is a novel, and a literary novel at that. Publishers wring their hands and say woe is us and the end of the world is nigh. Nonetheless, when I started as a bookseller they were all in small buildings with rickety staircases. Now they’re in marble palaces along the Thames. I shouldn’t mock, but they really aren’t doing badly.”

“He is sanguine about the threat to reading posed by competing forms of entertainment, be it Netflix or social media. ‘Any parent, of which I’m one, who watches their children flick between a million things, thinks: are they going to sit down and read? But then I just think back to my childhood, and my parents were convinced that television was going to be the end of reading. I’m not so worried because books do provide astonishingly good entertainment.’

“After talking to him I have a quick look around and end up so beguiled I spend too much money and am late for my next appointment. Millions of people have the same experience in Waterstones’ branches across the country.”

I think it’s a welcome relief to hear that a major bookseller is growing and making money.  A retail, brick and mortar, bookstore can give us an up close and personal experience of books that no internet site can match.  And it’s nice to hear that publishers aren’t suffering as much as they would have us believe!