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My Top Ten Books of 2018: Grown-ups

am an owl, am an owl... Top Ten Books 2018

It’s getting to that time again when we like to think back over what we’ve done in the past year. Or, in the case of us bibliophiles, what we’ve read. So, once again here’s my Top Ten Books for Grown-ups that I’ve read in 2018, each a perfect gift for the Yuletide season!

The Top Ten for Children and Young Adults will be along shortly…

Troubles, J.G. Farrell

Troubles is probably my favourite book that I’ve read this year. It’s about a traumatised British soldier (‘The Major’) who goes to Ireland to meet his apparent fiance, and ends up staying in her father’s hotel for… well, for a very long time. Like the fantastic Siege of Krishnapur, the real subject of Troubles is the decline of the British Empire. But J.G. Farrell’s supreme success is rendering this through exquisite detail and through his wonderful, vivid, and occasionally comic, characters.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Another historical novel, this is an absorbing tale of two men who create a Comic empire in war-time New York. One of them is a Jewish migrant, striving to be a real-life hero to save members of his family left behind in Nazi Germany.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

An astonishing book, giving an overview of the major phases of our evolution. It’s often grim in its rendering of our collective fictions, but it’s also balanced with glimmers of hope, such as the relative peacefulness of recent times, improvements in medicine, and reductions in global poverty. Most unnerving is the ending, which touches on the huge pressures we face to undertake more bioengineering, and where that might lead. Nonfiction such as a Moment on the Earth and fiction such as Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, address some of these issues. But this book wakes you up to the prospect that, in the long view, our turbulent history might just be a staging post in the evolution of intelligent design.

Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore

The final book of poetry by the talented and versatile Helen Dunmore. I read several of her dark and atmospheric novels when I was younger, including Zennor in Darkness and A Spell of Winter. She also wrote some mermaid-inspired Young Adult novels which I’ve yet to read. But she stands out as a poet. She wrote Inside the Wave when she was terminally ill, and the writing has a clear, transcendent beauty.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

A brilliant, creepy book that really gets inside the mind and disturbing habits of its teenage narrator – who is definitively unreliable.

The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler

It’s taken me a long time to read this classic title. I love A.M. Homes, and Anne Tyler writes in a similar vein. Both give us stories of Americans whose lives have been fractured by trauma but who retain – or recover – a sense of perspective and transcendence. And who still have a surprising decision or two in them.

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

I struggled at first to buy into this segmented novel that revisits a wealthy British family throughout the last century. But as it went on I grew to love the way it built a textured picture of the ebb and flow of legacy – particularly that of one man, a war poet. I occasionally find myself slowing down as novels progress, getting a little less interested in the set up and characters. But in The Stranger’s Child, I found my appetite and interest increasing all the time.

Dark Entries, Rober Aickman

The second horror entry in my top ten. These morbid, unresolved tales by Robert Aickman are as usual masterfully told. A poet of the tomb, he plants a dark seed in your mind and let’s you grow it however you will. Check out my review of The Wine-Dark Sea here.

Solstice, Joyce Carol Oates

I’d been meaning to read some Joyce Carol Oates for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed with this, a dark and gripping tale of a claustrophobic friendship between a charismatic artist and a dowdy lecturer.

Ten Poems about Birds: Top Ten Books 2018

Ten Poems about Birds, intro Jenni Murray

A beautifully produced present given to me by my wife on our tenth wedding anniversary. Only when I put together my first poetry book, Up in the Air, did I realise quite how obsessed I am by birds and flight. So this was a truly magical present. The poems are wondrous and fragile, perfect little songs. I especially liked Skylark, which I had never read before, and Owl, which I had, but had forgotten.

Am an owl, am an owl…

Want to know more about what I’ve been reading? Check out my favourite books in 2017 and 2016!

Up in the Air – new poetry book out soon!

Up in the Air poetry book cover

My new poetry book, Up in the Air, will be out later this month. I am sooo excited!

This book brings together 50 poems I’ve written over the past 25 years. I got into poetry properly in my twenties when studying an MSc in Environmental Management at Stirling University in Scotland.

I love the big outdoors, and it wasn’t long before I began climbing some of the legendary Scottish mountains. Ben Lomond was the first, done in thick snow and cloud after a late night out on the tiles. It was a struggle, but I remember an amazing moment near the summit when the fog lifted and there was half of Loch Lomond on dazzling display. I’d studied Wordsworth before – but it was in the Highlands that I really became inspired by his poetry:

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!

From there, it was a short step to writing my own poems. My first publication was in a regional anthology. It was really a clever piece of vanity publishing – everyone’s family and friends bought copies – but it boosted my confidence as a writer. Next, I had two poems accepted by a much more high profile magazine, Orbis International. One (Old Man) was inspired by a walk on the Old Man of Coniston, a mountain in the English Lake District.

After that, I began to write poems on nature, love, and all the other things that inspired me.  Many got accepted in literary magazines, such as Poetry Ireland, The Rialto and The New Welsh Review. I did readings in places such as The Troubadour in Old Compton Street, London (in the cellar where Bob Dylan once performed!)

I always thought one day I would get them published – but along came work and other things. I stopped writing for a while, and when I came back to it I was bursting with ideas for my adventure series, The Secret of the Tirthas. Whilst I continued to write the odd poem, I focused on that for the next decade.

When I finished The Secret of the Tirthas this summer, I realised it was the ideal moment to get the poetry into shape for a collection. So now, after many hours of work, sifting through dozens of poems, whittling down the best, sorting everything into themes, designing a cover (always there in my mind’s eye, with the title decided upon years ago), I am finally there.

It was a revelation choosing the themes, as it showed me how almost unconsciously I kept returning to certain subjects. Birds and flight are a major inspiration, as are paintings, love, and water (particularly ice).

I hope you will consider buying and reading my first poetry collection. And remember, a poetry book makes a fantastic Christmas present for family and friends!

Happy reading!

 

It’s National Poetry Day! To celebrate, here’s a poem…

Bird Garden, Hong Kong

A big pastime for old men in Hong Kong is keeping songbirds. There’s a large garden in Kowloon, where many go to feed birds in return for songs. I wrote this poem about that garden when I visited it in 2001.

Old man and songbird

The poem was first published in Poetry File by the Belmont Arts Centre, for teaching in Secondary Schools in Shropshire. It will feature in my forthcoming poetry book, Up in the Air (out later this month). I’m posting it today because it’s National Poetry Day.

Isn’t it great we have a day to celebrate poetry!?

 

New-look Newsletter

Just a quick post to say I’ve updated the format of my newsletter. It’s got a lot more information about what I’ve been up to, including what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to – and especially more on what I’ve been writing.

Don’t miss out – use the form on the side of the page to sign up now if you haven’t already!

Happy reading…

Steve Griffin newsletter

Autumn Writing Update

People have been asking what I’m up to now that I’ve finished writing The Secret of the Tirthas. So here’s my Autumn Update….

I’ve taken the summer off from writing! After spending the last 4 summers writing and publishing novels (albeit with short hols thrown in), this year I decided to have a break. What did I do? I went here with my family:

Niagara Falls

That’s Niagara Falls by the way, for those who don’t recognise it. Wow. I mean, wow

Now I’m back, I’m compiling a book of poetry that I’ve written over the last [mumble…mumble] years. This includes collecting some of the poems that I’ve had published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland, The New Welsh Review, and Poetry Scotland.

It’s fun getting all this together – but it’s not doing much flexing of my imagination muscles. So I’m also thinking about my next book. I’ve got a few ideas swirling around – speculative fiction for young adults and / or grown-ups; another fantasy series for middle grade / teens; something more ‘literary’. Some of these ideas have been around for years, some are entirely new. But what I’m waiting for (or maybe working my subconscious on) is the writer’s eureka moment. That moment every author knows, when they feel that pure excitement and know this is the story they are going to tell because… well, because they have to tell it. It’s too exciting to let it go.

So, besides lots of family time, that’s what I’m up to now. Plus I’ll be doing to a few promotional activities in the real and social media worlds – including a book signing session at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead for Christmas on 1st December.

Let me know what you’re up to in the comments section, or send me an email at stevegriffin40@outlook.com!

 

TigerFish – a gripping story of a young Vietnamese refugee

“Do you see how beautifully this hardship has shaped and formed the stretching branches and foliage, like long slender fingers pointing toward the sea?”

Hoang Chi Truong’s autobiography of her experience as a young girl fleeing the Vietnam war is fascinating on many levels: as an insight into Vietnamese culture, both before and after the war; as a harrowing tale of the upheaval and existential terror of having to flee your own country to save your life; of the nuanced and changing feelings towards the culture and people that take you in as a refugee.

I found the story gripping from start to finish. The language is precise and evocative, with moments of poetic beauty, such as the quote above. I recommend you read the story of TigerFish, not only for its own many merits, but as a stark reminder of the need for countries to be bigger and wiser and kinder towards refugees.

You can purchase a copy here:

The Artefacts of Power in The Secret of the Tirthas

In The Secret of the Tirthas, the demons and their followers are desperately seeking to capture the Artefacts of Power. These magical items have gained their power from the devotion of worshippers over the centuries.

Each Artefact in the story is based on a real life sacred object, from a different religious tradition. Here’s a list of them, with the culture or religion they came from:

Nkisi statue – a wooden figure from African shamanistic religion. People drove iron nails in to release the power of the ancestor spirit residing in it.

Nkisi statue

Nkisi statue

Hilili Kachina – a raindance doll with a snake hanging out of his mouth, from Native American culture.

Hilili Kachina doll (image: Creative Commons-BY; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 03.325.4648_threequarter_PS6.jpg)

The Holy Grail – a chalice containing the blood of Christ from the Last Supper, much pursued by medieval knights.

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, Rossetti

Easter Island statue (maoi) – over 1,000 of these mysterious statues were constructed by the inhabitants of a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. All the statues look inland, away from the sea. It is thought they represented ancestors, guarding over the islanders.

Maoi sculptures

Easter Island sculptures from the original Garden of Rooms in Herefordshire

Venus – the statue is based on the famous Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Germany and believed to be 40,000 years old. She was carved from mammoth tusk.

Venus of Hohle Fels

Venus of Hohle Fels (Image: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Green Man – a figure from Western paganism, symbolising the regenerative, mysterious powers of Nature.

Green Man

Green Man from a Herefordshire church

Other Artefacts in The Secret of the Tirthas:

Yingarna – a goddess of creation, who carried children from different Aboriginal tribes in her many bags.

Shiva Lingam – a holy symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, carved from stone.

Buddha’s Tooth – there are several teeth relics of the Buddha, including a very famous one in Sri Lanka.

 

The Unknown Realms – Taster

Venice

The Unknown Realms is the fifth and final volume in The Secret of the Tirthas. In it, Lizzie faces her most perilous challenges yet as she seeks to stop the demons and their followers from corrupting the power of the tirthas for their own treacherous ends. And worst of all, she must face them alone, as she has lost all hope of reuniting with her friends.

Here’s a short excerpt from the second chapter, The Cannaregio Shrine:

Alessandro’s grandfather, Nazario, told him that the shrine of the Madonna in Cannaregio was the oldest in Venice. When Nazario suffered a stroke that left him bedbound and dumb, Alessandro used his pocket money to buy a tealight each day from Severina’s shop which he would take to the shrine in the wall, light with a match, and pop through the grill. He could just reach through to the bottom ledge if he stood on tiptoes. He would say a prayer to the ivy-shrouded statue of Our Lady, wishing his beloved grandfather would return speedily to good health, so they could laugh again and enjoy a sweet zaleti together in the morning sunshine.

Today, as he was coming down the canal-side street to the corner where the steps led up to the shrine, Alessandro was thinking about his cat, Tito. He was wondering why Tito never ate all of his food, even when it was fish, when he heard an unusual creaking sound ahead. It was followed by a dull thud, and then a cough, a human cough, echoing through the twilit street. He was sure someone must be up by the shrine, perhaps a straggling tourist.

Alessandro cried out in surprise as he turned the corner and came face to face with the person who must have made the noise.

‘Madonna!’ he gasped, seeing the bedraggled, greasy hair, the bony, wrinkled forehead, and above all the large, desolate eyes, eyes full of a sorrow that would haunt him for the rest of his life. ‘Chi sei?’ was all he could think to say, who are you? Although at the same time he was thinking what are you might make more sense.

The awful crone didn’t reply. After holding his gaze for a moment and filling him with a wretched chill that he felt right down to his heels, she barged past him, clutching something tightly against her side. She hurried off in between the tall buildings, alongside the still, green-dark canal.

Alessandro stood still, feeling sad, in need of his mother, in need of God, but most of all just confused. After a moment, he realised the sharp edge of metal that his thumb was flicking in his pocket was today’s tealight. Before running back home, he would at least light that, to remember his grandfather’s health, and the hope and mystery of the Madonna.

He turned the corner and began to climb the small, white-washed steps to the shrine, which was set a couple of metres up in the wall and covered in a fine ivy that was turning red with the autumn.

Then he stopped again, and watched something happen that simply did not make sense.

Dropping from the shrine, from its opened grate, was a person – a girl with a pony tail, older than him – with the Madonna statue clutched in one hand. No sooner had the girl landed on the pavement than she was followed by another, much larger, figure – a woman, no, a man, thought Alessandro, and then he thought, no, un mostro, a monster!

The second figure was huge, only just able to squeeze out through the small opening in the wall, clad in black, with the most terrible features, a giant, reddish face, teeth like a bear’s, a brutal, snubby snout, and thick dark hair.

Diavolo!’ gasped Alessandro, as the creature straightened and placed a hand on the shoulder of the girl, who was looking down the steps at him with a clear, steadfast gaze.

And then his eight-year-old imagination kicked in, a clear connection was made, and he realised what he must be seeing. A woman wearing a mask, of course! But then he thought: why, when it wasn’t carnival season?

The girl said something to him then. She spoke in a language he didn’t understand, but her eyes were kind and her voice reassuring, so he felt the fear in him subside. Then she looked up at her strange companion and said something to her. The masked woman replied, in an urgent voice that sounded to Alessandro like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Was something wrong with her? he wondered. The woman stepped aside and, standing on tiptoes, the girl quickly replaced the statue of Mary in the shrine and pushed the protective grill back into place.

Next moment, the woman with the demonic mask was striding down the steps towards Alessandro, pulling the girl along behind her.

‘Togliti di mezzo!’ the woman said to him, and he stepped sideways to pin himself to the wall as they came past, clearly in a hurry.

There were many things Alessandro would never forget from that night – the crone, the foul, factory-like smell of the devil-masked woman, the deathly, unbearable wail that shook Venice a short while later and made everyone think their decadent city had finally reached the End of Days.

But the one thing he would remember above all were the eyes of the girl as she came past him on the steps.

The eyes of a girl who understood more than any other girl. A gaze that held so much, and that made him think one day, years later when he was an apprentice glass maker in Murano, that this must be what the gaze of a saint would be like.

A gaze full of compassion and understanding.

And trapped by Fate.

The Unknown Realms will be out in June.

Where do you belong?

Kenilworth castle

Last week I had a short break with my family in Kenilworth, a small town in Warwickshire. I was born in Eastbourne but moved to the Midlands when I was very young, and spent most of my childhood there. Despite not having lived in Kenilworth for 20 years, I was surprised at the deep connection I still felt with the place.

We rented a small cottage near the ruined but impressive Kenilworth castle. The castle was owned in its prime by Robert Dudley, the probable love interest of Queen Elizabeth I. They had been friends ever since they met as prisoners in the Tower of London. We spent a day in the castle, stomping up rickety, often rotten-looking stairways, taking in the magnificent views from the keep and the stately wing that Dudley built for the queen.

We spent a long time at the nearby flooded ford. With a small crowd, we cheered those cars that went for it and booed those that didn’t. (At least until our youngest, ignoring pleas to step back from the railings, was soaked by an SUV.)

We visited Leamington Spa, where the highlight for the boys was not the lovely Georgian Parade but a new rotor-blade swing in Victoria Park. We spent a sunny day in Stratford-on-Avon where the river had flooded its banks. Finally we visited splendid Warwick Castle, which unlike Kenilworth survived the ravages of the English Civil War.

Warwick castle

I was excited to be back in the area I grew up. But I hadn’t expected the depth of connection I felt, run through by the precious seams of so many good – and some not-so-good – memories. I realised that, despite the length of time away, this still felt like my place. I love where I am now, and I’ve loved being in Scotland and London. But these small, Warwickshire towns, and especially Kenilworth, are where I was formed.

They are the places where I will always, to some degree, belong. Where do you belong?

 

Land of Mine: life as a Prisoner of War

I’ve just watched the harrowing Danish / German war film, Land of Mine. It’s about a group of German Prisoners of War who, contrary to the Geneva Convention, are made to find and defuse 45,000 land mines along a short stretch of brilliant white coastline. That’s 45,000 out of the 2.2 million mines that were laid along the Danish coast, more than the rest of Europe altogether. This is where the Fuhrer thought the invasion would come.

The film is heart-wrenching. The soldiers are all in their teens, clearly out of their depth, carrying all the burden of a situation that was not of their making. They are harassed and abused by their guards. It’s understandable, but hard to watch when they are crying and having to loudly deny that they are missing their homes, or their family, or even crying in the first place. This is grim. It is only a matter of time before, starving and sick from eating stolen animal meal, the expected happens.

My grandfather was a German Prisoner of War, which was one of the reasons I watched the film. I wanted to try to get some insight into what he must have experienced, being little more than a boy during this period of seismic upheaval. He died when I was 10, but I still remember sitting at his feet and pestering him for war stories whilst he sat in his favourite armchair in his Eastbourne semi, smoking Golden Virginia rollies. He didn’t like talking about the war, but over the years I got several stories from him.

He told me how he was at the launch of one of the first V2 rockets, which went straight up in the sky and came straight back down on the launch site, leaving the soldiers scrambling for cover. He told me how he was captured at the Battle of Caen, aiming a Panzerfaust at a British tank and being spotted by the tank commander who fired his machine gun at him. My grandfather’s stick grenade was hit and exploded, wounding him from head to foot on one side and blowing to pieces his friend who was loading behind him. My grandfather was saved by the Red Cross, sent to Canada – ‘the bears used to raid the bins every night’ – then to Scotland, and finally to Eastbourne, which is where he met my grandmother.

His experience of growing up is incomparable to mine; that’s why I was interested in seeing Land of Mine. In those young, proud, frightened German boys I was able to imagine some of the barely suppressed, frequently overt hatred he must have experienced from those who saw him as no more than a representative of the evil that had taken away their loved ones in the war.

Being one-quarter German, I am painfully aware that both my great-grandparents and my grandparents effectively tried to kill each other in two of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. My parents and my generation have been spared – thanks in no small part to the European Union, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, which has helped forge the longest period of peace in Europe since Roman times. But the lesson of history is never to become complacent. We must do all we can to keep our children’s generation free from such ruin.

German grandfather (former Prisoner of War) and English grandmotherMy German grandfather, Egon Korn, and English grandmother, Pamela (nee Guy)