The Artist’s Jihad

Jihad. Now there’s a word that sends shivers down the spine and heats the blood. It’s a word that – here in the West – invokes vengeance, bloodshed and terror.

Linguistically, it best translates to ‘struggle’.

Jihad is also a first name. Pity the man called Jihad who happened to be boarding an American plane just as news of 9/11 broke.

A word with many meanings.
A word with many meanings.

Jihad can be used in many contexts. Through his artwork, the great 16th century painter Hieronymus Bosch waged a jihad (translate here as ‘holy war’) against the corruptions of the Catholic Church.   In my novel ‘The Infidel’s Garden’, Soheila wages a jihad against corrupt Christian and Muslim clergy. As well as a jihad with her own heart.

So jihad refers to both inner and outer struggles – a war against both the lower self and the injustices of a world warped by lies and corruptions.

Unfortunately this word affiliated with noble aspirations has been hijacked and now comes loaded with as much ideological shrapnel as a cluster bomb. And, thanks to agenda-driven journalism and echo-chambers like Facebook that have reinforced our own often distorted perspectives, 2016 has waged a jihad with truth.

So as we farewell the star and truth-swallowing black hole that was 2016, I’d like to suggest a jihad on jihad.  Because the only way to correct misrepresentation of this word is to assimilate it into our everyday language.

So let’s make 2017 the year of the inner and outer jihad. In other words, a jihad against ignorance.

Here’s more on this massively misunderstood word:

To encourage correct usage of this word and for more on personal jihads, my historical novel: ‘The ‘Infidel’s Garden’ is currently .99 cents at Amazon and free across all other platforms  until the end of January.

Happy New Year!

A Genius is Raised from the Dead

Five hundred years ago in 1516, Hieronymus Bosch – one of the world’s greatest painters – passed away, leaving behind a body of work that has beguiled, inspired and outraged his audiences. Sadly, an unknown number of his paintings were destroyed by fanatics during the wars of the reformation.

Apart from records of his marriage into a family of pharmacists and his painterly heritage, the true character of the man behind the great artist remains a mystery. So thank goodness for historical fiction, which breathes life into the past and raises beloved icons from the dead.

In ‘The Infidel’s Garden,’ Hieronymus Bosch is a quirky character – blunt, socially awkward and obsessed with his work.  As a homage to pot-stirrers, rebels and anti-authoritarians past and present, I’ve also depicted him as a subversive who, through his controversial masterpiece: ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’; foreshadowed the downfall of a Christian Church wallowing in corruption.

Oink. The nun’s robe of piety fails to disguise the pig of ecclesiastical greed.
Oink. The nun’s robe of piety fails to disguise the pig of ecclesiastical greed.

We all bring our own perspectives to the interpretation of works of art and behind Bosch’s work I glimpse a man who understood the transformative power of aesthetic and ideological diversity. So I’ve attributed some of the more exotic imagery in his work to influences from Islam and the protagonist of ‘The Infidel’s Garden’ – his exotic Muslim model Marjit. These days, with the rise of fundamentalism; which has skewed many people’s attitudes to religion, we’re not giving Islam enough credit for the extraordinary influence it has had on art, science and the progress of human civilisation.

more of paradise
Minarets, arabesques and even a sickle moon. Bosch’s detailed depictions of nature bring to mind Persian miniatures.
Persian miniatures show the same attention to detail and love of nature.
Persian miniatures show the same attention to detail and love of nature.










To honour this genius on the quincentenary of his death, The New York Review of Books has published this wonderful article on his work and life.








Christmas Greetings from an Infidel

Yes, indeed. That archaic word, which simply means someone who doesn’t’ follow the dominant religion, is loaded with dysfunctional, medieval baggage. It also means free thinker, non-conformist and dissenter. Sounds like a description of most authors and artists!

Hooray for royalty-free images from artists who’ve been dead for well over fifty years plus thanks (and apologies) to Jan van Eyck
Hooray for royalty-free images from artists who’ve been dead for well over fifty years plus thanks (and apologies) to Jan van Eyck

Christmas also means books, travel and time to read. Weightless eBooks are perfect for travelers, so here’s a chance to grab a discounted/free copy of the acclaimed The Infidel’s Garden and load it on to your device.

After all, what better time to read a page-turning story about the need for peace between the world’s different faiths and explore the gentler, more sensuous side of Islam?

Indie publishers rely heavily on reviews for sales, so if you do download The Infidel’s Garden, this author would greatly appreciate a review on Amazon or Goodreads or whatever platform you choose.  The result of this will be even more Christmas good will, karma, positive vibes and oxytocin surges. And of course, the force will also be with you.

Click on the wings for a trip to Amazon to purchase the book.

star with wings


The Editing Angel

Never underestimate the power of a good editor.
Never underestimate the power of a good editor.

Much as I would like to keep her all to myself, I also want to help all you emerging writers out there to do your best. As I learned, no matter how wonderful you think your story is, there’s always room for improvement. Massive improvement.  I have my fantastic editor KJ Eyre to thank for helping craft The Infidel’s Garden into a publishable novel worthy of all those wonderful reviews. KJ’s editing helped my story scale new and unknown heights. She’ll be able I’m sure, to do the same for you.

Click on the wings for the link to her blog:

star with wings

Inside the Heads of Strangers

I’ve just read a fabulous article on point of view in fiction.  First person and/or present tense, is a new trend in historical fiction which I know irks some readers. After all events happened in the past so shouldn’t they therefore be written in past tense?

I very willfully disagree. First of all, in this world of unlimited eBooks and limited attention spans we authors need to keep our readers turning the pages. I predict we will see more and more of this form of writing in the future.

Second, I can’ resist quoting Hilary Mantel’s beautiful words on how the present tense seems natural for capturing:

the jitter and flux of events, the texture of them and their ungraspable speed. It is humble and realistic – the author is not claiming superior knowledge – she is inside or very close by her character, and sharing their focus, their limited perceptions. It doesn’t suit authors who want to boss the reader around and like being God.

Bosch's 'Removing the Stones of Folly' ( with amendments).
Bosch’s ‘Removing the Stones of Folly’ (with amendments).

Indeed. Truth is complex and nuanced. The omniscient point of view (different from tense but no less potent) can lend a level of detachment to a story, which some people prefer. Yet a novel written in first person present tense pulls readers more intimately into the protagonist’s head and subjective story world. And unless this protagonist is a supremely annoying individual (well, even that can make for good reading) it can engage the reader and help the story come alive.  It’s the literary equivalent of mind-reading. It helps us understand the motivations of people we might never encounter in our daily lives.

This is, of course, all academic. Brilliant books have been written in all tenses and from all points of view.

As a writer, I found first person present tense helped me understand ‘The Infidel’s Garden’ protagonist Marjit on a far deeper level.

As I reader, I enjoy the form for the same reason. Click on the link demon to  read this terrific article:

bosch demon 1 flipped with shadow




Celebrating a Rave Review

A million thanks to The Historical Novel Society’s A.K. Bell for this wonderful review of The Infidel’s Garden.

Time to Celebrate
Time to Celebrate

I am not a fan of first person narratives in present tense. In my experience, few authors can deliver the richness of character required to lift such narratives, so it was with some hesitation I approached Ms Banwell’s novel. It took two pages – at most – for me to realise that here was a character so complex, so enigmatic, I did not care about narrative person – or tense.

…here was a character so complex, so enigmatic, I did not care about narrative person – or tense.

The Infidel’s Garden is the story of Soheila, born in Andalucía in the late 15th century. Soheila is a bastard, born of a Moorish mother and an itinerant Christian father. Soheila is raised as a Muslim, but when she is ten, calamity strikes. Everything she took for granted in her life is trampled to dust, and instead she ends up in a Dutch convent, there to be raised as a good Christian, and baptised Marjit. But in her heart, Soheila remains always a Muslim. Always.

The convent, the little Dutch town Hertogenbosch, the interiors of the houses – Ms Banwell presents us with a vivid depiction that teems with as much life as a Brueghels painting. Things smell, there is noise and texture, elaborate meals and a certain Archdeacon Solin, expounding repeatedly on the evil of infidels such as Marjit, now serving as a maid in a wealthy household.

Marjit walks on eggshells, navigating a society replete with bigoted Catholics, the somewhat disturbed Hieronymus Bosch, jealous women – and Pieter. For the first time in her life, Marjit lusts for a man – unfortunately, Pieter is not only the master of the household, he is also a devout Christian.

Things are further complicated when young women turn up murdered. Marjit has reasons to suspect the Archdeacon, but such accusations are dangerous to make –  especially if you’re a potential infidel. Marjit’s life takes a turn for the worse – one harrowing experience after the other follows, and as things unravel I am left holding my breath, captivated by Ms Banwell’s complex plotting as much as by her writing.

…I am left holding my breath, captivated by Ms Banwell’s complex plotting as much as by her writing.

A very enjoyable read, from the very first to the last page!

e-edition reviewed

Click on the vase to link  to the genuine article:vase whole with shadow

Free Will: Is it Real?

Every few days on the blackboard outside my neighborhood café, Sandy, the owner, posts a new gem of wisdom.

Yesterday as I rushed past with my takeaway chai latte, I glimpsed these words: ‘The body is the servant of the mind.’ Which got me thinking: what if the mind is, in turn, the servant of the soul? Now before you think I’m about to get all mystical on you, I’m going to refer to a study on consciousness conducted by the psychologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. His experiment revealed that seconds before his subjects had a conscious intention to move a finger, there was a signal in the brain. His results, which have been hotly debated ever since, imply there is a driver behind our conscious thoughts – be it our subconscious or some external force.

Thirty-five years later, when it comes to our own brains, we’re still fumbling about in the dark.

Are we merely avatars of a celestial consciousness? Creations of an artist or novelist in a higher dimension? Or travelers on some preordained journey?
Are we merely avatars of a celestial consciousness? Creations of an artist or novelist in a higher dimension? Or travelers on some preordained journey?

Most of us believe we are masters of our own destiny. So does a belief in our own agency make us behave more morally? If at some point in the future, science proves that we don’t have free will, how might this change the way we treat others?

What an exquisite paradox! The deeper we go down this rabbit hole the more complex it becomes. What do we really mean by free will anyway? Are we just fiddling with semantics?   After all, like all life on this planet, we are constrained by our own biology and, in the case of humans, by our cultural indoctrination.

If we do eventually learn we don’t have free will, we may also discover the source of that force that drives us – be it some transcendent self, a collective unconscious or something we don’t even have a name for yet. And when we unravel this mystery, it will turn many religions on their heads and be as life-changing as discovering earth is not the centre of the universe, or communicating with sentient life on other planets.

However, if history is anything to go by, the person or people who discover the true source or impetus behind consciousness may well be ridiculed or professionally/physically assassinated for spreading unrest and corruption. My guess is it’ll take a few hundred years for their ideas to be absorbed into the human mindset.

I doubt however, these epiphanies will come in my lifetime. In the meantime, harbouring the illusion that I do have free will, I’ll continue to post these blogs and buy the best chai lattes in Sydney from Sandy’s café. All while enjoying her complimentary morsels of wisdom.



Drunken Monks and Brain-dead Bots

Out in the physical world, most people respect those ‘no advertising circulars’ signs many of us have on our doors or letterboxes. Sadly, the same doesn’t apply to the world of digital real estate.

Despite having a polite sign on my contact page saying: No advertisers. Please. I’ve had messages from entities with convincingly human-sounding names like Brad and Susan trying to sell me marijuana bongs, advertising spaces, weight loss products and ab builders.

In addition, I’ve had personal emails from people/ bots offering services that will increase my hits. I think the word for what we all feel when we encounter this kind of spam is IRRITATION.

With regard to the latter, may I just add here, that the last person I’m going to want to do business with is someone (or something) who disregards or can’t read a simple request sitting right in front of them.

There. I feel better now I’ve got that off my chest.

Speaking of persistent sales people, hustling for business is, of course, as old as civilisation.

Back in the Middle Ages, people not only sold merchandise but blessings from God. It was one of the reasons the reformation was inevitable. Particularly when the sales people were intoxicated; which rendered them about as sensitive as bots.

Ad offer 1

Here, Marjit encounters one damned persistent sales person:

I nearly jump out of my mist-shrouded shoes. I swivel to see a shabby monk wobble from the shadows of an alley piled with firewood next to the Church. Hairs sticking out from his poorly groomed tonsure, red-nosed and rheumy-eyed, he regards me with a beaming smile in possession of three rotting teeth. He belches as he places the tankard of ale he’s holding onto a chopping block. “Praish the Lord,” he says, crossing himself. “I can help you find shuccour.” He nods towards the Church. “No need to go inshide. Shtay out here. I can give you a dishcount.”

I open my mouth to decline, but he interrupts. “You look like a woman in need of confesshion,” he slurs. The mist clears for a moment, revealing the tattered hem of his robes, worn sandals, cankered feet and filthy toenails. I blink and rub the tears and drizzle from my cheeks.

“Ah. Shoulfil mishery,” the monk says, his eyes briefly crossing, “I’ve sheen it before. Confesshion and benedickshins will put you right.”

He raises his woolly eyebrows. “I’m cheap,” he adds. He points to alley. “The confesshional of the fallen,” he slurs, “available for those whose shins prevent them from shtepping inshide a church.”

He steps closer and buzzes around me, as persistent as a blow fly. “Confesshion will unburden you,” he insists.

I regard him with increasing discomfort. He smells awful. Again, I think of the clean mosque I would rather enter. I shake my head. “No. Thank you. I will only be tempted to, in turn, deliver a cheap confession.”

He may be drunk but he’s alert to my trepidation. He puckers his flabby lips. “A cheap confesshion is better than no confesshion,” he replies. “Shpeaking of your illsh, releashing them from the devil’sh grip will eash your pain,” he slurs, “and bring you closher to our Lord.” He punctuates this last exhortation with another loud belch.

Free Summer and Winter Reading

To celebrate several five star reviews and the launch of its very own blog, The Infidel’s Garden is FREE for the whole of July. Click on the ‘buy the book’ link to Smashwords, Kobo and Barnes and Noble to download a free copy.

Some free summer and winter reading.
Some free summer and winter reading.

Alas, Kindle Direct Publishing won’t let me offer it free;  but if you would like a copy, please email me and let me know your preferred format on

Oh yes – one other thing. If you loved the story and feel inclined to shout from the rooftops about it, a review (on Goodreads or your preferred reading platform)  would be much appreciated!

I’ve just changed the setting to FREE on  Smashwords (11.35 am July 1st Sydney time)  however,  I suspect it may take a while to seed across other platforms. If, like me you are patience-challenged, email me and I’ll send you a copy in your preferred format.

Happy reading!

When God and Common Sense Part Company

The other day I heard back from an enthusiastic reader of historical fiction whom I had asked to review The Infidel’s Garden. After taking a closer look at my material (blog, trailer, prologue etc.) she explained that, as a devout Christian, she didn’t feel comfortable reading my story.

More than anything I was saddened by her reluctance. As The Infidel’s Garden is about love overcoming religious differences, I felt someone with a spiritual perspective might have appreciated the overarching message of the story.

Our relationship to the divine is something deeply personal, but it got me thinking: why do the deeply religious often close their minds to the teachings of other faiths?

And, while I believe it’s important to respect others who have a different point of view, at what point do God and common sense part company?

Australia (my home country) is at present deciding whether to make gay marriage legal. On top of this, an impassioned debate has erupted as to whether people of faith should be able to practice religious freedom by refusing to provide products and services to those they regard as breaking divine law. In other words they wish to use their beliefs to discriminate.

We all know the ugly outcomes of any kind of discrimination, be it religious, racial, gender-based or economic. All we need do is open a history book or today’s newspaper.

Yes, I know what the Qu’ran and Bible say on the topic of physical love between members of the same sex.  But let’s face it – holy books – when literally interpreted – say many things we find offensive or downright stupid today: like women are worth less than men. Slavery is OK. The world is flat and the centre of the universe.

At its very best, religion instills compassion and cooperation; its rituals give people comfort and, through its beliefs in the transcendent, engender lives with meaning and purpose. I’m guessing, although I’m not an anthropologist or theologian, that religion came along to make us smarter not dumber, and kinder not crueler.

Unfortunately some people use faith as an excuse to not only discriminate but oppress. In this excerpt from The Infidel’s Garden Marjit, already offended by many of Christianity’s practices, places herself at risk as she challenges some of the mandates of her own Muslim faith.

“But I was baptised a Christian,” I point out.

Faizan sighs. “A tragedy and mistake for which we have excused you.” Again, he shakes his head and gives me a worried look. “You are family, Soheila. These men are foreigners. Members of an inferior religion,” he repeats.

He inhales, his eyes as tired as an old sheep. “If we refuse to honour the words of our prophet, our whole way of life will vanish,” he says sadly. He gives me a hurt look that makes my heart bend. “Is that what you wish? To betray your tribe and family? Destroy our way of life?”

I glance back at Rutger and Pieter who understand none of this and watch in uneasy silence. “I wish for our way of life to be enhanced through tolerance and understanding,” I reply in Spanish so Pieter and Rutger can understand.

“They are idol worshippers!” says Atiq in our village dialect. “Heretics who they think they can buy Allah’s grace!”

Trying to ignore that raving fool, I turn to Faizan. “If I were a man, I could marry a Christian,” I protest in Spanish.

“Man is superior to woman! And Islam is superior to Christianity!” says Atiq.

Religion came along to make us smarter, not dumber.
Religion came along to make us smarter, not dumber.

Over millions of years, humans have evolved into beings able to communicate and control our environments more masterfully than any other creature on the planet. Evolution has endowed us with hairlessness, bipedalism and longer fingers for playing musical instruments and pressing delete buttons.  And, as our brains become larger and more capable of abstract thought, does it make sense that ideas or memes should follow the same trajectory as genes?

As we evolve towards what we hope will be a higher state of existence, are some religious doctrines as redundant as tails, walking on all fours or swinging from trees?

It’s an issue I’ve explored in The Infidel’s Garden. But I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If we devoutly follow the mandates of ancient religious texts, (which are often deeply metaphorical and all tangled up with the social laws of the time), are we ignoring cultural evolution, turning back the clocks, and regressing into a state of mental primate-hood?