Sunday, 28 May 2017

Countdown Deal on Twice Born starting Friday 2nd June

Twice Born is dropping to $0.99 on Friday June 2nd on, until June 5th when it goes up to $1.99 US.
You have 1 week to buy at a discounted price until it returns to $2.99 on Friday 7th.
It's had some great reviews so it's a great chance to grab a discounted copy. I'll send out a reminder nearer the time.

This is to coincide with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Author and Artist Faire starting tomorrow on the 29th May - I'll be popping in on Friday 2nd, I'll update later in the week.

Here's the blurb -

Tom is finally back in the Other, and once reunited with King Arthur he joins the search for the missing priestess, Nimue. Their investigations suggest she is deliberately hiding, but why? Arthur is convinced that Merlin is involved, and puts them all at risk to find him, especially Tom. 
In this fast-paced race across the Other, Tom encounters strange beasts, ancient gods and dragons, and finds friends nor foes aren’t quite what they seem. As Tom’s life is threatened, will he have the courage and skill to survive?

Sunday, 21 May 2017

About a Girl - and what Chris Cornell means to me.

Reading Festival 1992

Reading Festival line-up 1992
It has been raining heavily all weekend, the sky grey and low, the grass now invisible under large pools of mud. Our clothes are wet, tents are flooded, and people have been reporting to the first aid tent with trench foot. I can smell wood smoke, cannabis, damp earth, and curry.
We stand in the heaving damp crowd, steam rising from us into the dark night, gazing in anticipation towards the illuminated stage; white light against the dense black of the heavy cloud filled sky. There are thousands of us pressed together, pushing forward, jostling for position, good natured, excited, drunk, stoned, clutching plastic pint glasses of lager, hurriedly finishing the dregs, knowing that in minutes they will be dropped and crushed underfoot, or hurled high overhead, as the surging crowd behind us will swell forward when Nirvana appear on stage. We decide to get closer and edge forward through the densely packed bodies, squeezing into non-existent gaps until we stumble into space, the stage looming large above us. Figures move across the stage and guitars emit strange squeals as they are tuned. As one we become still, we watch, we wait.

It’s a powerful feeling when you find your tribe; the sense of belonging that this manifests is all encompassing, but also grounding. You’ve found your place in the world, and it now makes a little more sense. The Reading Festival in 1992 was the sixth time I’d been, and it was a regular on the calendar, but my journey to Reading and the sense of belonging I felt to those people and the friends I went with, started years before, in the late 80’s when I walked into a club called JB’s. I was on the cusp of adulthood and I was thinking how very boring I was, how conventional, predictable, and how unless I did something my life would slide into banality and I would begin  my decline into a boring middle age, regretting lost opportunities. This probably sounds dramatic, but I remember it distinctly.

And then JB’s happened

As I pay my entrance fee and push into JB’s I get a weird rush of excitement; I’ve never been anywhere like this before. JB’s is a small squat building on a dishevelled car park behind an abandoned store called Pathfinders. Outside I could hear the muffled thump of the bass guitar and drums, but once inside the sounds become clearer and I can hear a deep voice singing.  The corridor beyond the entrance runs alongside the main room where the DJ plays and the stage is set up for bands. It’s a wide corridor which opens into alcoves for people to stand and talk, and there’s a kiosk at the end selling chips and burgers. We have to push through groups of people, and I can smell patchouli oil as I squeeze past. I’m here with my friend Jen, she follows close behind me. The bar stretches along the back of the main room and it’s crowded at the counter. There’s a band playing, the air is smokey, and I can feel my boots sticking to the floor where beer has been spilt. Although the corridor is brightly lit showing the peeling paint and patchy floor, the main room is dark, the corners lost in shadows. Everyone looks different. There are punks, hippies, and the odd rocker in the crowd, and they all look slightly unkempt. Some Goths are standing in front of the stage wearing lots of black, paisley shirts, and chelsea boots, and the women and men  have strong make-up on. They are watching the band, Fields of the Nephilim, but I watch them. Wide-eyed I look around the room at people talking and laughing as they lean against the walls, cigarettes and beers held casually in their hands. It is completely unlike any other club I’ve ever been to. I feel as if I have come home and found my future all at the same time.

I had found what was to become over the course of the next 10 years, my JB’s family, a term that all of us use for that particular special time in our lives.  I was 18 or 19 at this time, and my sister’s boyfriend - who I knew from school - was forming a new band, and he asked me if I wanted to sing, a sort of backing singer, in a sort of punk band. Had I ever wanted to be in a band and sing? No. However I saw this as something I would regret not doing, so I said yes. Soon it seemed that everyone I knew was either in a band or knew someone who was, and I was surrounded by music. One of the first gigs we played was in JB’s.  After 2 years, numerous gigs, and a double-life of work and touring,  I felt disillusioned. We weren’t playing the type of music I wanted to, and it seems they were disillusioned with me. I left the band, feeling more liberated out of it, able to immerse myself in Grunge.

Grunge – defined by Wikipedia as a sub-genre of alternative rock which is characterized by a sludgy guitar sound, and in which the performers and fans wore second hand clothing and looked generally unkempt - had an energy that was incredible, the antithesis of other things happening at that time; birthed out of the eighties, the big shoulder pads, eighties hair, glossy make-up, Dynasty, Dallas, and all that seemed false and unnatural. In 1987 a band called Green River broke up and former members went on to form Mudhoney, and Soundgarden released the  Screaming Life EP. 1988 saw the release of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff EP, and 1989 saw the release of Nirvana’s first album Bleach.

I travelled on the train to London, with my mate Ferg, to see some bands we were just starting to hear about - Mudhoney was headlining, and Soundgarden was supporting (I think) - it may have been Nirvana - sometimes I lose track. And there was a third band whose name escapes me. Regardless, it was brilliant. The gig, like many others, was played in a dark, cave like venue, where the sounds of soaring guitars bounced off the walls and moved right through me, as if I were raw. I could smell the excitement; we all knew this was something big, something new and unseen before. For four years only the initiated knew about these Grunge groups, and then in 1991 Nirvana released Nevermind, Pearl Jam released Ten, Soundgarden Badmotorfinger, Mudhoney Every Good Boy deserves Fudge, and Hole Pretty on the Inside. What a year. I nearly starved because I spent all my money on gigs.

I threw myself into life, wanting to experience everything. These years are a floating mirage of images, places, and people, and they are mixed up in no particular order, layered one on top of the other -

Being awake all night and seeing the dawn rise  in shades of violet and lemon in a cloudless sky over the fields of Glastonbury Festival,  a few hundred people straggling across the landscape, as if survivors from an apocalyptic event. Black coffee sweetened with honey warming my hand in a plastic cup, a blanket draped over my shoulders for warmth, my friend Adele saying, “Where can we go now?” Finding a tent with tribal drummers sitting cross legged in the middle, their rhythms moving through my feet and into my heart. We follow the smoke rising on the hill. It drifts lazily from the fires which smoulder in front the Teepees in the Greenfields,  the air so still, so calm, I feel I am trespassing on sacred ground.
Driving through the Black Mountains of Wales to a free festival, the sky full of cloud, mournful with mist, wind, and steady rain, sinking into the grey and green of the hills which rise menacingly on either side of the road. A man suddenly lurching onto the bonnet of my car, all dreadlocks, boots, and army jacket. 
Running unleashed with my friend Jen around the streets of Ludlow, a small market town, both dressed as old blind women, with wild hair and costumes, leading a pantomime donkey, drumming up trade for our small theatre group of 9, all money raised going towards camping and beer.
Turning up at my parent’s house, my mother in despair.  My hair is pink, I’m wearing stripey tights, a short skirt, very large jack boots and a fake leopard skin coat. She rages, “I haven’t brought you up in a lovely house and fed you and sent you to school to have you looking as if you had been dragged up on the streets. What will people think?!” I yell, “I don’t care what anybody else thinks, and neither should you!” 
Me dancing wildly on several dance floors in many clubs, shaking my hair, my limbs, my beads and bangles, and feeling unfettered. 

I marvel at my energy levels, I certainly don’t have them now, because for years I never stopped going out. I survived on sometimes three hours sleep a night, napped in the afternoon, and settled into a weird circadian rhythm in which I would sleep for a day and half every 10 days. I did so much I’ve lost track of what I did when. The only thread of normality was my job as a nurse, around which everything else fitted. My aim was to live life to the fullest, as it is meant to be lived; to be grabbed, embraced, and celebrated. Grunge was our source. We dived in and kept swimming to the energy filled vortex at the centre, and like a dark star it kept us there, entranced, for years.

Chris Cornell
And for thirty years those musicians have stayed with me; we have grown together. Our rough edges have perhaps smoothed, and that raw energy has ebbed a little, but still the sentiment remains. This brings me to Chris Cornell. Lead singer of Soundgarden, Audioslave, and solo artist. I’ve seen him play with Soundgarden a few times, and also perform his acoustic shows. Hearing Jesus Christ Pose for the first time was electrifying. I had goosebumps. I clearly remember thinking, this is what music is supposed to be. Mudhoney’s Touch Me I’m Sick had that same grab-you-by-the-throat energy. While other band’s popularity (for me), have ebbed and flowed, Chris Cornell has been a constant. His quality, sincerity, vulnerability, and that incredible voice, have stepped doggedly along beside me, so to hear of his suicide the other day was devastating.

I have always known what a privileged youth I had. The luck of being in the right time, at the right place, that enabled me to have these fantastic experiences. This weekend has been one of introspection, reflection, celebration, and sadness. RIP Chris Cornell, missing you already xxx.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Who was King Arthur?

Well that's quite the loaded question. That, and did King Arthur exist at all?

The Fictional History
King Arthur's tale is fantastical, its origins lost in time. A very brief summary is that King Arthur ruled in the 5th and/or 6th centuries in Britain, when he defended Britain against the Saxons, as the Romans had all but left Britain. He united the different leaders, and led Britain into peace. He also had a a wizard, Merlin, who advised him, a powerful sword called Excalibur that protected him, a beautiful wife called Guinevere, a castle called Camelot, and many knights who supported him. King Arthur and his knights fought battles, quested the Holy Grail, and were engaged in many other adventures, many of which involved magic, dragons and the fey.

How did the story begin?
Arthur first entered the popular imagination when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of the Kings of Britain in 1136, many years after his supposed existence. It's fair to say that it's a pseudo-history, and that as well as describing Arthur as a King, he also suggests that Britain was founded by a descendant of the Trojans. It is Geoffrey who describes Arthur as being the son of Uther Pendragon, and who writes of Merlin and his prophesies. He also writes that when Arthur is mortally wounded at the battle of Camlan, he is taken to Avalon for the healing of wounds. But, Geoffrey's story was essentially political. He gave Britain a classical origin, set against the decline of the Roman Empire. Arthur stepped forward to rescue Britain from the Saxons, and was a symbol of power, which appeased the Norman rulers of Britain and gave them an origin myth.

Image by Aubrey Beardsley
Geoffrey's story was only the start. It caught the imagination, and was the basis for all of the other tales that followed. In 1165 Chretien De Troyes, a Frenchman, further embellishes the story by introducing Lancelot and Camelot, and then in 1180 he introduces the Holy Grail. In 1225 the Vulgate Cycle expands the story of Arthur and the Holy Grail, but in 1470 Malory writes Le Morte d'Arthur, combining the French and Latin stories, and turns it into one cohesive whole. He has the sword in the stone, the Lady of the Lake, Excalibur, and Avalon. And what was happening when Mallory's story was released? Henry VII, the Tudor king, was ascending the throne, and it was useful to claim a link to King Arthur through blood, to try and justify his power grab after defeating the Plantagenets, Richard III. He even named his first son King Arthur, but he unfortunately died at the age of 15.

When Caxton prints Malory's text in 1485, the story became standardised. The edition on the left has the gorgeous artwork of Aubrey Beardsley. And so the stories continue, rising in popularity, and resurging at certain points in history, now in film as well as print.

What did Geoffrey base his stories on? 
The character Arthur is mentioned in two earlier histories by William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. And there are snippets of tales that mention Arthur in the Black Book of Camarthen, The Book of Taliesin, and the Mabinogion, (and others), and no doubt these would have been recorded from oral tales. But surely the Arthur of the dark ages was far from the Arthur described in the medieval romances.

There are many books trying to identify who Arthur really was, and where the stories take place. There seems to be general belief that Arthur was not a King, but a warlord, and a powerful leader of men. There's an argument for Wales as the original place where Arthur lived, but of course many argue for Cornwall and Glastonbury, places which also capture the glamour of the tales - Tintagel and Glastonbury Tor. The Welsh arguments however are very persuasive, and as anyone who has been to Wales knows, the landscape is fantastic.
King Arthur statue at Tintagel.

And now?
What can't be doubted is the hold that King Arthur has on the English imagination. Even now there are hundreds of books still written about him, mine included, and a new film is coming out this year. And this week in the news, is the statue that has been erected in Tintagel. I love it!

It is interesting to note that he also has a hold on the British monarchy too. England's current heirs to the throne, Prince Charles and Prince William, both have Arthur as a middle name.

Non-Fiction Book Reviews - The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, and Bali Daze by Cat Wheeler

The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag

Years ago, when I was studying for my English O'Level, we studied My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, and it was hilarious. It was that book which made me aware of Lawrence Durrell and his writing, so that when I saw Monsieur, the first book of the Avignon Quintet out in bookstores I snapped it up, and as you know, that set off my life long love affair with Lawrence Durrell.

Anyway, this book takes you behind the scenes of the time the family spent on Corfu. It starts with an overall view of the family and what happened before Corfu, and at the end follows up what happened to them afterwards. I already knew a lot of what's in this book, but that's because I've done lots of reading around Larry, but there were some interesting facts that were illuminating. For example, money wasn't the main reason the family moved to Corfu, it was concern over Mother's drinking - she often took to gin when she was depressed and lonely. As Larry and his wife Nancy had already decided to go to Corfu, it seems they felt it important to keep an eye on her!

For those who haven't read much background on the family, you'll find it interesting, and also a little disturbing to find out just how much is fictionalised in a supposed non-fiction account of the family on Corfu. Recommended!

Here's the Amazon US link -

Bali Daze by Cat Wheeler

During my week in Ubud, Bali, I popped into the Ganesha Bookshop on Jalan Raya - Ubud's main road. It's a great little bookshop with a good selection of books, postcards, and prints, and it was there that I picked up Bali Daze. The book's about Cat Wheeler's decision to live in Ubud - a pretty brave move after 10 years living in Singapore.

The book is made up of lots of short vignettes about Cat's experiences on the island, originally written for the Bali Advertiser, and since compiled into this book. The stories are mostly personal, but also cover ecological, educational and health issues. They all offer a fascinating insight into living in Bali, and the mindset of the Balinese. It's also very funny! Cat writes in an engaging and warm manner about her Bali experiences, and it's clear she loves her life on the island. It was lovely to read about places I recognised.

If you fancy an island armchair escape, I highly recommend this book. Here's the link to Amazon.

Monday, 8 May 2017

The Galungan Festival in Bali

Penjor lining the Jalan Kajeng
When we arrived in Bali last week, I noticed something that I had never seen before. There were long, beautiful bamboo streamers decorating all of the roads across Bali. Our driver, Gede, told us they were called 'penjor', and they were erected to celebrate Galungan.

Galungan happens twice a year, in April and November, and celebrates the triumph of good over evil. This year the festival started on the 4th and finished on the 6th April. It is celebrated by raising the penjor outside every household, by slaughtering pigs for communal feasts, and by baking traditional rice cakes.

The shrine, and dragon's head.
Gede informed us that the the penjor represents a dragon. The long curving bamboo streamers represent the tail of the dragon, while the shrine at the bottom represents its head. The shrine is filled with offerings of food, flowers and incense. The dragons conquer evil and keep it from arriving in Bali, the tail linking the mountains on the interior of the island, to the head on the beaches.

Kuningan marks the end of the festival 10 days later. We were lucky enough to see the penjor, because they remain up for a month and one week (if I remember Gede correctly). They were due to be removed just after we left.

The tail of the penjor

The legend goes that Galungan commemorates the Balinese victory of the Hindu God of thunder, rain and lightning, Indra, over the Balinese king, known as Mayadenawa, who denied his subjects the worship of Hinduism. He was so powerful, no-one could defeat him, and it took all of Indra's power and his magic arrow to finally kill him. The  site where he bled to death became a freshwater spring, the current-day site of the Tirta Empul Temple - the Holy Spring Water Temple, which is very beautiful; we visited it a few years ago. The penjor therefore also represents Hinduism and wisdom.