#147 Reading The Angel by Mark Dawson

Thrillers are not my usual preferred genre, so I probably wouldn’t have picked up a Mark Dawson book were it not for the fact that Mark Dawson is not only one of the successful self-published authors but he is also part of the popular self-publishing podcast, The Self Publishing Formula.

I have listened to a couple of hundred episodes of the podcast and it taught me most of what I learned about self-publishing in my first few years. So, when a Mark Dawson novel popped up in a 2 for 1 deal in Audible, I decided I would give it a go.

Two other books I picked up in these deals were Casino Royal by Ian Fleming, the first Bond novel, and Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis, subtitled A James Bond novel, it was the first James Bond continuation novel, written in 1968, four years after Fleming’s death. I have to say that all three novels are very similar in style which is meant to be a complement to Mark Dawson. They all have the almost pedantic attention to detail and Dawson clearly did a reasonable amount of research for his novel.

The actions of some of the characters are clearly based on the movements of the July 7 bombers who targeted commuters travelling on London’s public transport system during the morning rush hour in 2005.

The protagonist, Isabella Rose, whom the series is named after, is the fifteen-year-old daughter of Beatrix Rose, the protagonist of another Mark Dawson series. There are many references to the Beatrix books which provide the backstory to this series and a common character, Pope, is a key character in The Angel.

Like I said, thrillers are not really my genre, despite having written two suspense books myself, but I endeavour to read in a range of genres and in this case I was pleased I did.

If you like thrillers then I would highly recommend trying The Angel.

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#146 Reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen wrote Water for Elephants as part of National Novel Writing month (Nanowrimo) and that is how I wrote my first novel, Living with Saci. The aim of Nanowrimo is to write 50,000 words in November. I think I managed around 14,000 by the end of the month I participated but I just kept writing into December and January and March all the way to June and then put it aside for two months before spending the best part of the next twelve months editing it.

Water for Elephants is her third book following Riding Lessons and Flying Changes. She has two more books Ape House and At the Waters Edge.

The story of Water for Elephants is told through a series of memories by Jacob Jankowski, a man who can’t remember if he’s 90 or 93-years-old and lives in a nursing home. The old Jacob sections of the book are just as powerful if not more powerful than the sections featuring his younger self working as a vet for a circus.

I don`t think I have seen the whole of the 2011 film adaptation starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz and Hal Holbrook but I hope it devoted enough time to the older Jacob and not just focus on the young Jacob which for me was not as moving even though it deals with serious and startling issues.

The book is billed as a historical romance but for me the book is much more than romance, the details of the tough lives of those who worked on a circus during the great recession. The poverty, the violence the suffering is all brought alive by the her imagery and characterisation.

Sara Gruen was born in Canada. She started to write fiction when she was made redundant from her technical writing job. Water For Elephants was turned down by the publisher of her first two novels but thankfully she managed to find another. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller and is now available in 45 languages. She now lives in North Carolina, with her husband, three sons, and seven animals.

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#145 The First Chapter of Albert & Marie

My latest historical novel, Albert & Marie, is launched on Sunday. It is based on the true story of my Great Uncle Albert and his wives. Please enjoy this copy of the first chapter.

Chapter One – The Methodist Family

Albert stared up at the plain brown cross and he imagined the white figure of Jesus, nailed to the cross, attached to the wall. To one side, a wooden board displayed five sets of two or three-figure numbers sitting above each other in order from top to bottom.

‘Four down, one to go,’ Albert thought to himself.

He grabbed The Methodist Hymn Book from the narrow wooden ledge on the back of the pew in front and flipped through to hymn 784. It was the last number displayed on the wooden board, Abide With Me. At least it was a hymn he liked and had already learned to play on the cornet. Once they had finished the song, he could go to Boys Brigade and practise with the band.

While his mother chatted to her friends from the Mothers’ Bible Class and his younger brothers and sisters went to Sunday school, Albert would attend the St Andrews Lads Brigade where he was already a lance corporal and could practise the cornet.

“Can’t I have a cornet to practise at home?” he used to plead with his mother.

“We can’t afford one of those, they cost over a pound,” she would dismiss him. “There’s enough racket in our house without you playing a bugle at all hours.”

He glanced along the pew to his right. Next to him sat his sister, Elizabeth, only a year older than him. Next to her was his older brother, Thomas, already 18 and taller than Albert’s mother who sat in a sandwich between her eldest son and Albert’s father who was clutching his King James bible and hanging on every word the minister spoke, probably wishing he stood up there in his place, like he often did.

To Albert’s left, and much less interested in the proceedings, sat Florence, two years younger than Albert, Bert, four years younger, Bill, still only eight, and Elsie, a mere five. Albert knew it would be his duty to take his younger sisters and brothers to Sunday school, and then he would be free to practise.

The organist struck up the opening chords of Abide With Me, and Albert imagined he was playing it himself.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!

when other helpers fail, and comforts flee,

help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Albert sang along with his family and the rest of the congregation but, in his mind he was playing the cornet.

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;

shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:

Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;

in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!

The minister and choir processed down the aisle and out the back of the church. When the hymn ended, the congregation filed out.

“Come on, let’s go,” Albert said to Florence, Bert, Bill and Elsie, wondering why his older sister wasn’t moving.

“Stop pushing,” she complained.

“Stop it, you two,” Albert’s mum chastised them both.

Albert bit his lip and waited for the slow-moving congregation to make their way out of the church so he could drag Bert, Bill and Elsie to St Andrew’s church hall and leave them there while he practised with the band.

Although it was on the way home, it was over a mile from the Methodist church to the Church of England hall where the Boys Brigade and Sunday School met. When they arrived, the Anglican service had just finished and Albert could see his friends already congregating as he handed his siblings over to the Superintendent.

Half of his friends in the boys brigade had already left school and had jobs as apprentice joiners, cabinetmakers, clerks or fitters with local companies, at the colliery or with the coke works on the site of the old ironworks which still dominated the town, Albert could see the blast furnace chimney from where he stood in the grounds of St Andrew’s church.

Now that Albert had left school he too would have to get a job, and he was not looking forward to dinner because he was sure his father would want to talk about it.

He put that out of his mind and went to see his friends who were receiving their instruments from the bandleader, Mr Smith. Albert donned his pillbox hat, checked his belt, dusted down his uniform and straightened his bag so that Mr Smith would hand him the cornet without reprimand.

Albert enjoyed practising with the Boys Brigade but he never liked the marches which other boys in the town would accompany with ribald cheers, derisive songs and occasional stone throwing. He enjoyed when the group played football or went swimming, but it was the cornet he liked the most.

“Underneath the Banner,” Mr Smith announced, once the band had assembled and ready.

Albert knew he had to practise the music they played on the marches, but during breaks, when Mr Smith wasn’t paying attention, he would practise popular tunes like Hurrah, Hurrah for England, or Work Hard, Help Yourselves, but he preferred tunes like North Country Lass, Oak and the Ash and Wine and Love Songs.

Despite his dedication to the cornet, Albert could not seem to help but get in trouble with Mr Smith. However much he tried not to, Albert always got himself in trouble. If he was paying attention, then it was a slovenly posture. At the end of the practice, Albert handed back the cornet and, once Mr Smith had dismissed the brigade, he collected Bert, Bill and Elsie from the church hall and took them home via muddy St Andrew’s lane which ran behind the old iron works site and the colliery where his dad worked.

When they got home, their mother was preparing dinner.

“Take your shoes off, I don’t want you traipsing that mud through here. Go upstairs, get changed out of those clothes before you ruin them,” their mother greeted them. “Then come here and help me with the vegetables.”

They did as they were told and, once out of their Sunday best, they went back to the kitchen to help with the vegetables. She put Elsie and Bill to work shelling peas, allowed Bert to top and tail gooseberries and blueberries and Florence to chop the mint and green vegetables while Albert and Elizabeth had to peel the potatoes.

When they had finished their chores, Bill wanted to go into the street to play football but Bert wanted to paint so Albert agreed to play with Bill.

Their street was wide and muddy and it was also on a slope, so Albert made sure Bill stood uphill from him. He had made the mistake before of letting Bill stand downhill, but sometimes Bill could not kick the ball hard enough and it would roll back towards him. On other occasions, Bill would miss the ball and it would start rolling downhill, so Albert would have to charge after it.

With Bill placed decidedly uphill, they kicked the ball backwards and forwards. Albert liked his brother but there was a six-year difference so it wasn’t the same as playing with his own friends and he felt like a babysitter. He was a bit relieved when their mother called them in to wash their hands for dinner.

“Shoes!” their mum shouted before they could step over the threshold.

As soon as Albert entered the house, in his stocking feet, he could smell the roast beef and his mouth started salivating. His mum always did the family proud, with her Sunday roast, and it looked like she would do again. He hurried to wash himself and sat at the table, set by Elizabeth and Florence.

Albert and the others sat in silence while their mum brought plates loaded with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes, peas, greens and gravy. Their dad said grace, and then they ate in silence. They knew better than to speak at the dinner table.

When they had finished the main course, their mother brought out the gooseberry and blueberry pie. They ate this too, in silence.

At the end of the meal, Albert’s father excused everyone, but he asked Albert to stay. It was the conversation he had been dreading.

“Let’s go for a walk,” his father said.

“Where are we going?” asked Albert.

“You’ll see.”

Albert’s father led him through the town and out the other side to a small lane which ended at a field in which a small brook began its journey to the River Wear.

“That lovely dinner your mum made for us, Albert. It costs money to put food on the table. Your generation is lucky, there are plenty of jobs for school leavers like you. I know you didn’t like school, Albert, but now you are going out into the big wide world…”

Albert’s dad stopped to look at the river.

“Your reputation precedes you, Albert. I spoke to Mr Brown at the pawnbrokers on the high street. Your mum has sorted out some of Thomas’s hand-me-downs you can use as work clothes. He’s expecting you there at 8 am tomorrow morning.”

Albert didn’t argue, he knew there was no point.

You can get a free sample of Albert & Marie here.

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#144 Reading Pinball 1973 Haruki Murakami

Whenever I’m not reading books to help me with research for a novel I like to get stuck into a nice piece of literary fiction, preferably involving a degree of weirdness.

On this occasion it was Haruki Murakami’s second novel and the second book in the Trilogy of the Rat series, Pinball, 1973.

When it was translated into English, Murikami wrote in the foreword that Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980) were his practice novels, his apprenticeship, the groundwork that had to be laid before he could make a true beginning. He has also said that if he had continued writing novels like these, “I would have soon hit a dead end.” Murakami is alleged to have said that he did not intend these novels to be published outside Japan.

In theory, I understand how he feels, they say you need to write a million words before you publish your first novel and I’m sure most authors would admit their writing evolves over time but I liked Pinball, 73 very much and am now tempted to read the other books in the trilogy.

The plot centers on the narrator’s brief but intense obsession with pinball, his life as a freelance translator, and his later efforts to reunite with the old pinball machine that he used to play. He describes living with a pair of identical unnamed female twins, who mysteriously appear in his apartment one morning, and disappear at the end of the book.

The first Murakami novel I read was After Dark, having already devoured four David
novels before then it was easy to see how Murukami had been an influence on his work.

My next Murukami novel was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which many rightly say is a book about running but is also a book about writing and has been as inspirational for me as On Writing by Stephen King.

Apparently, this means I haven’t yet read any of his notable works like A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–95), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and 1Q84 (2009–10). He was tipped to win last years Nobel prize for literature but in the end it went to Louise Glück. When asked about the possibility of being awarded the Nobel Prize, Murakami responded with a laugh saying “No, I don’t want prizes. That means you’re finished.”

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#143 Reading Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

I have always liked anyone called David Mitchell, whether they are a popular TV comedian or an award winning author.

Today I’m talking about the latter, whose eighth novel tells the story of the fictional 1960s British rock band Utopia Avenue.

Unlike many of his readers, it wasn’t Cloud Atlas that first attracted me to David Mitchell. I started with his first novel, Ghostwritten which set the scene for the books which were to follow which all have a similar theme of intersecting lives. Another influential aspect of Ghostwritten for me was the plethora of references to good music, especially the Jazz and it inspired me to include plenty of musical references in my own books and one day I hope to set up a Spotify playlist for each one, as soon as I get round to it.

His work has inspired me to make connections between my own novels even if my connections might be a bit more conventional than his. In Utopia Avenue, The band’s first single “Darkroom” is played on the radio by Bat Segundo, a DJ who appears in Ghostwritten. Jasper mentions a disembodied entity called ‘the Mongolian’ in his list of people he’s met who understand and accept him, presumably the spirit from the Mongolia section of Ghostwritten. Jasper’s friend from school, Heinz Formaggio, goes on to become the physicist mentioned in Ghostwritten

His second novel, Number9dream, has a similar feel and was shortlisted for a Booker. It still has music running through its core and is even named after a sing by John Lennon. One thing I didn’t realise was that a section of the book was adapted into an Oscar nominated short film called The Voorman Problem starring Martin Freeman

Next came Cloud Atlas which was also short listed for a Booker and was, of course, made into a feature film starring Tom Hanks. In a way, I think the book was less confusing than the film because of the way it was structured. In Utopia Avenue, one of the main characters, Jasper de Zoet, listens to a recording of The Cloud Atlas Sextet composed by Robert Frobisher, a character and work described in Cloud Atlas. Also another band member, Elf Holloway, has a relationship with Luisa Rey, who appears in Cloud Atlas.

His next novel, Black Swan Green was semi-autobiographical, I guess in a similar way to my own The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David: Part One which has many events inspired by my own experiences. It was longlisted for the Booker and, perhaps more importantly, it was nominated for a bad sex award, an accolade the I myself am striving for with Living with Saci and Living with the Headless Mule.

Next came The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which has close links to Utopia Avenue in that Jasper is a descendent of Jacob. It is a historical novel set during the Dutch trading concession with Japan in the late 18th century, during the period of Japanese history known as Sakoku. The Japanese theme which runs through many of Mitchell’s novels is not surprising given that he lived in Hiroshima for eight years teaching English to technical students.

The Bone Clocks was also longlisted for a Booker and was described as one of the year’s best novels by Stephen King. In Utopia Avenue, the band play at the pub in Gravesend owned by the Sykes family who appear in The Bone Clocks, Levon Frankland, the band’s manager, appears in The Bone Clocks at a literary event in the year 2015, at a party in London the band meet Crispin Hershey, the author from The Bone Clocks, as a child and Horologist Esther Little also appears in both novels.

The character of Marinus and the group known as Horologists are present in Utopia Avenue and in several of Mitchell’s novels.

He has also written From Me Flows What You Call Time is a 90-page novella completed in 2016 which will not be published until 2114. It is part of a series by artist Katie Paterson called Future Library project calling for contributions from popular writers for novels to be published in 2114.

Other writing projects of his have included screenwriting for Sense8 and Matrix 4.

One of my favourite parts of Utopia Avenue for me is that the drummer, Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin, is, like me, from Hull in East Yorkshire. Apart from that, I liked his description of a world which surrounded Denmark Street, a part of London that has changed dramatically and irrevocably.

If you like music of the late sixties then I would highly recommend the book which name drops all the famous artists and personalities of the time and if you are like me, someone who reads every novel Mitchell publishes, then you won’t be disappointed.

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#142 Arguments against black lives matter

Last week I had a big argument with my Father-in-law about the incident at the Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League group game with Istanbul Basaksehir which was abandoned following an alleged racist incident.

His argument, which I believe is a commonly held view, is that why shouldn’t the fourth official refer to a big black man, surrounded by whites, as a big black man, after all, isn’t it just a form of identification? My argument was that the protest was illustrating the fact that we identify black people via their race in situations where we wouldn’t necessary identify white people in the same way, for example, that big white guy and that the very fact that the protest resulted in us having a conversation about these issues (in fact it was a heated argument) can only be a good thing..

In Brazil, it is common to identify individuals by race, a Brazilian with pale skin would be called Alemão (German), an asian looking Brazilian will be called Japones (Japonese) despite the fact they are Brazilian and even if their ancestry is not Japonese. Any American or European born foreigner, like myself, will be called Gringo lumping all immigrants in a general group. Do I like being called a Gringo? No, I do not. It is a pejorative term that lumps me in a group of people with whom I probably have very little in common but it plays to the stereotypical prejudices held by the Brazilian general public.

The basic problem with these monikers is that they satisfy a need of the individual to pidgeon-hole other people into groups to which they can then safely apply their prejudices. It removes the need to find out about the individual personally, including their name, origin, family background, situation. It de-personalises society and means that we can deal with people as objects that are part of a group rather than individuals who have the same complex needs and experiences as we do.

The same argument is used by Brazilians to complain about why they shouldn’t be allowed to use the pejorative term viado (fag) for gay people.

My Father-in-law did not accept that blacks had a justifiable argument to be treated more fairly than they have been for the last 500 years, since their ancestors were traded as slaves, a travesty from which their communities have still to recover. He described them as being mimado (which translates as spoiled), a common view amongst right-wing Brazilians, and the right wing world wide, I would suspect.

I argued that the darker your skin in Brazil, the fewer opportunities you are likely to receive. As evidence for my argument I used the international, fee paying, school in which I work where the majority of students, teaching staff and leadership are white while the majority of maintenance, cleaning, kitchen staff and security are black or darker skinned.

More evidence for this is the demographic of the favelas (Brazilian slums), if black people receive the same opportunities in Brazil then why isn’t the ethnic make up of these communities the same as the ethnic make up of the nation overall? After tabulating 2010 census data from Brazil’s federal statistics agency, the most recent available, Hugo Nicolau Barbosa de Gusmão created a series of maps of Rio using free open-source software.

“The Zona Sul [South Zone] of Rio is about 80 percent white — 80 percent!” Barbosa said. “I knew it would be high, but I didn’t think it would be that stark.”

According to Barbosa’s research, one neighborhood, Lagoas, was almost 90 percent white. Nationwide, the share of Brazilians who identified as white in the census was only 48 percent. The figure of whites in the Brazilian population is probably, in reality, less because people used to identify as white, even though they weren’t and the black lives matter campaign is reversing this trend.

“I wanted these maps to be available because here in Brazil there’s a lot of talk about how there isn’t any racism,” Barbosa said. “That’s wrong, and I think these maps are a good visualization of that.”

According to DataFavela, a study conducted by the Data Popular institute in partnership with Celso Athayde, former head of the Central Única de Favelas (CUFA), and based on a projection that crossed IBGE and national census (PNAD) data, The self-reported ethnicity remains predominantly black, but showing an increase from 61% to 67% of the total favela population. The percentage of blacks in communities on the urban periphery is higher than in the general population: 67% versus the 52% national average.

Citizens born in these poor communities tend to be darker skinned, they go to schools that tend to be a poorer standard, they tend not to be able to get jobs that provide sufficient disposable income to attend university or better their living standards enough to move to a more affluent area where the educational opportunities and therefore the job opportunities are better and, as a result, the cycle is perpetuated.

Then comes the argument that there are white people living in these poor communities, doesn’t that prove that it is not an issue of race, as if for racism to exist 100% of the slums would need to occupied by blacks and 100% of the affluent areas occupied by whites. It is this black and white thinking that individuals fall back on to justify the status quo, they worry that, in order to right the injustices, their world will have to be turned upside down. The fact is that the world does have to be turned upside down but that doesn’t mean that the political correctness police are going to come and steal the contents of their fridge. It doesn’t even mean that they have to stop being racist, it just means that the state should ensure that all citizens should receive the same opportunities in life, regardless of their ethnicity and regardless of the views of the racist citizens in the community.

This fear of left-wing liberals bursting into homes to steal their property was highlighted in the recent mayoral elections in Sao Paulo between Bruno Covas of the central Social Democratic party (PSDB) and Guilherme Boulos of the left wing Socialist and Liberty party (PSOL). Boulos is a member of the National Coordination of Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) which struggles to reduce Brazil’s housing deficit by staging squatters’ occupations in abandoned government buildings in Brazilian cities.

In an interview in 2015 with The Nation Boulos said: “Quotas that gave blacks and the poor access to college were a shock to the privileged too. Even these small changes were enough to generate discontent for a very conservative urban upper middle class.”

“It’s a bad thing” “Either he will lock you in your house” “Or he will invade your house”

On social media, the right-wing portrayed the mayoral choice as being between a centre candidate who wanted to lock you in your house because of a pandemic that many believed was a fiction created by the Chinese for economic reasons or a left-wing candidate who would invade your home to give it to homeless people.

Incidentally, there are many who want to refuse to take the vaccine here in Brazil because it is made in China. Even the president, Jair Bolsonaro, said it would turn you into a crocodile.

In November, João Alberto Silveira Freitas, a 40-year-old black man, was beaten to death by security guards at a Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre in the South of Brazil on the day before Brazil’s black consciousness day. Violence erupted and the Brazilian Vice President, Hamilton Mourao, said: “Racism doesn’t exist in Brazil. That is something they want to import here. I lived in the United States. There is racism there.”

Black and mixed-race people account for about 57% of Brazil’s population but are 74% of victims of lethal violence, and 79% of those killed by police, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, a nongovernmental organization.

In response to the death of João Alberto, the President’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro tweeted: “They managed to get their George Floyd, under the pretext of fighting racism, in an organized way [they will] destroy everything until maybe they [manage to] get a new constituent”.

He went on to tweet: “Those who believe that anything goes for power will adhere to acts of vandalism conveniently calling their actors “demonstrators”” and then posted two quotes in Portuguese, attributed to Edmund Burke which translate as: “For evil to triumph it is enough for the good to sit idly by” and “people who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it.”

This seems strange in a country that, having only escaped from military dictatorship 35 years ago, seems so keen to return to it.

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#141 The Top Ten Posts of 2020

I know it is still only the middle of December but I thought it was a good time to share with you the top posts on the blog this year.

10. Reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Faulks novel made excellent background reading for my forthcoming novel Albert & Maria with the protagonists of both our novels finding themselves in tunnels during the First World War. Read more…

9 Living with Lockdown

When I wrote this post at the end of March, I don’t think any of us realised quite how long our isolation was going to last. While matters returned almost to normal for a brief period in Europe, here in Brazil, the first wave merged almost straight into the current wave. Read more…

8. Watching Sao Paulo flood

While Covid was beginning to spread from Asia, Sao Paulo had already experienced a bad start to 2020, with flooding and, of course, the wild fires in the Amazon and then later the Pantanal. Read more…

7. Reading The Man in the High Castle

A friend of mine told me he had started watch the Amazon Prime series The Man in the High Castle, so I thought I would give it a go. I was already a couple of episodes in before I realised I had picked up a copy of the Philip K Dick novel from a backpackers hostel while on a stag weekend in Rio de Janeiro. This was my review. Read more…

6. Worrying about the Coronavirus

This was posted at the end of February when the face case was identified in Brazil. At that time there had been less than 3,000 deaths and the European Football Championships were still going ahead. Read more…

5. What if the UK monarchy was abolished?

Scandals involving Prince Andrew and Prince Harry had put the future of the monarchy in the spotlight again. In my current work in progress, a prequel to my dystopian novel, WHEN THE WELL RUNS DRY, an increasingly authoritarian government takes the death of the King as an opportunity to transfer the monarch’s powers to the Prime Minister who becomes defacto president. The move follows a decades long political slide to right but is not unimaginable. Read more…

4. The Economic impacts of Covid-19 in Brazil

Written in May, only 55 days into the pandemic, the situation in Brazil has not really changed with the exception that cases are now on the rise again and the right wing are trying to debunk the vaccine. Read more…

3. Interview with Sam Fires, author of Dog Meat

My interview in June with dystopian fiction author, Sam Fires proved very popular. Read more…

2. Reading Space Team by Barry Hutchison

The second most popular post this year has been another review, this time of Barry Hutchison’s hilarious Space Team. Read more…

  1. Trying to get a Brazilian Driving license

The most popular post of the year so far, by a long way, has been how to get a Brazilian driving license. I posted some images of the tests on Pinterest and it seems to have become a source of reference. Read more…

If you have any suggestions for topics I should cover in 2021 then please let me know

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#140 Reading How Democracies Die

I downloaded this book as part of my research for my forthcoming Collapse series. Book one, Hatred, is all about the rise of an authoritarian regime, book two, Collapse, is the moment when society collapses due to resource depletion and book three, Insurgency, I previously published as When the Well Runs Dry, explores the post-collapse world.

How Democracies Die is a 2018 book by Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt about how elected leaders can gradually subvert the democratic process to increase their power.

The book warns against the breakdown of “mutual toleration” and respect for the political legitimacy of the opposition. This tolerance involves accepting the results of a free and fair election (sound familiar?) where the opposition has won, in contrast with advocacy for overthrow or spurious complaints about the election mechanism (hmm). The authors also assert the importance of respecting the opinions of those who come to legitimately different political opinions, in contrast to attacking the patriotism of any who disagree, or warning that if they come to power they will destroy the country.

The authors point out that the various branches of government in a system with separation of powers have actions available to them that could completely undermine the other branches or the opposition. The authors warn against ramming through a political agenda or accumulating power by playing “constitutional hardball” with tactics like court packing (look at the US Supreme Court), stonewalling nominations, or abusing the power of the purse, and recommend “forbearance” and some degree of cooperation to keep government functioning in a balanced fashion. Other threats to democratic stability cited by the authors include economic inequality and segregation of the political parties by race, religion, and geography.

The authors dedicate many chapters to the study of the United States, President Donald Trump, and the 2016 presidential election, but also apply their theory to Latin America and European countries, especially Venezuela and Russia. According to them, the United States has, until 2016, resisted the attempts to undermine democracy thanks to two norms: mutual toleration and forbearance, the latter defined as the intentional restraint of one’s power in order to respect the spirit of the law if not its letters. They finally predicted three potential scenarios for the post-Trump United States.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard professors, study the prospect of the democratic system in an holistic approach, and take a critical stand of the Trump presidency. They describe their work as a study of how democracies die. The main subjects are drawn in the introduction: the authors argue that in our time, democracies still die but by different means, “less at the hand of men with guns and more by elected leaders”. The methodology used is mainly based on the “comparative method” and it is a book that tries to “reveal about our future” based on history, more specifically on historical comparisons (finding similar dynamics, presenting models of “gatekeeping” and the “rhymes” of history). The object of the study is the president Trump as an “autocrat in becoming” and, a comparison with state failures and autocrats. The study assesses the risk of his presidency and try to identify the pattern of autocratic tendencies.

Levitsky and Ziblatt accept the fear of the Trump presidency as legitimate and pledge for the protection of the democracy. Particularly the last chapter saving democracy, put emphasis on political recommendations to save democracy in a pledge. It was written before the recent presidential election but the content is still relevant

And they make recommendations for the Republicans. They must build a more diverse electoral constituency and they must find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism, the sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery. They realize that the president could inflict real damage on our institutions in the long term.

Although the Democratic party has not been the principal driver of America deepening polarization it could play a role in reducing it. Democrats could consider more comprehensive labor market policies and it is imperative that Democrats address the issue of inequality.

The New York Times called the book an essential guide to what can happen in the United States. The Washington Post said the book offers a sober look at the current state of affairs. The Wall Street Journal called it an unintentional clarifying lesson. In the United Kingdom, The Guardian called it provocative but also unsatisfying. The magazine Foreign Affairs concluded it is an important study. Fair Observer called it an original contribution valuable to researchers, policy makers, and citizens. Columbia University historian Adam Tooze described the book as the “most thought-provoking book comparing democratic crises in different nations.”

I think the authors have identified accurately the factors that lead democracies to backslide into autocracies and their theories provide good source material for my own stories.

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#139 Reading The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is the Booker Prize winning sequel to the Booker Prize finalist The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The novel is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. It is narrated by Aunt Lydia, a character from the previous novel; Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead; and Daisy, a young woman living in Canada.

The public had to wait 34 years for this sequel which was not only well-received but encouraged the Booker Prize jury to split the prize between two authors for the first time in its history, the other winner being Bernardine Evaristo, the first black female winner and the first black British winner for her novel Girl, Woman, Other.

Canadian, Atwood has published 18 books of poetry, 18 novels, 11 books of non-fiction, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and two graphic novels, as well as a number of small press editions of both poetry and fiction. She had won the Booker Prize previously with her 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin.

While writing The Testaments she coordinated the plot with the ongoing television adaptation of The Handmade`s Tale so that none of the characters would impact on the characters in the series.

For fans of The Handmade`s Tale, The Testaments is essential reading, expending the universe and revealing backstory and sub-plots. The plot is revealed slowly and while some of the developments might be guessed at the execution is worth the wait.

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#138 Reading Regeneration by Pat Barker

Seeing as though my work in progress, ALBERT & MARIE is largely set in the First World War it makes sense to read or listen to the most renowned novels about the period.

Having read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to learn more about the pre-war period and Birdsong because of its links with the tunnellers of the trenches, Regeneration seemed the obvious next step.

Like ALBERT & MARIE, Regeneration is based on a true story, the story of war poet Seigfried Sassoon who was decorated for bravery on the western front. He wrote a ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ in 1917 as a protest against the war which resulted in him being admitted to a military psychiatric hospital where he met another war poet, Wilfred Owen, who was greatly influenced by Sassoon’s work.

First published in 1991, Regeneration was nominated for the Booker Prize and is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland where psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Rivers pioneered treatments of posttraumatic stress disorder during and after World War I and the novel’s title refers to research into “nerve regeneration”.

Barker draws extensively on the writings of First World War poets and W.H.R. Rivers for the book and the main characters are based on historical figures, such as Robert Graves, Alice and Hettie Roper (pseudonyms for Alice Wheeldon and her daughter Hettie).

The book was adapted into a film in 1997.

She went on to write two more books in what is now known as the Regeneration Trilogy – The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995). The latter won the Booker Prize in 1995.

Barker was born to a working-class family in Thornaby-on-Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England. According to The Times, her mother became pregnant “after a drunken night out while in the Wrens.” In a social climate where illegitimacy was regarded with shame, she told people that the resulting child was her sister, rather than her daughter. They lived with Barker’s grandmother Alice and step-grandfather William, until her mother married and moved out when Barker was seven. Her grandparents ran a fish and chip shop which failed and the family was, she told The Times in 2007, “poor as church mice; we were living on National Assistance – ‘on the pancrack’, as my grandmother called it.”

Her first three novels were never published and, she told The Guardian in 2003, “didn’t deserve to be: I was being a sensitive lady novelist, which is not what I am. There’s an earthiness and bawdiness in my voice.”

Her first published novel was Union Street (1982), which consisted of seven interlinked stories about English working class women whose lives are circumscribed by poverty and violence. It was rejected by publishers for ten years until she sent it to Virago.

Regeneration is an excellent exploration of the trauma of war and its effects. It is very difficult to express the horror of the western front but Barker manages to evoke the unimaginable. She also does an expert job of taking historical records and bringing them alive by mixing historical figures with fictional characters.

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