Book Review: Where Roses Never Die

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Where Roses Never Die, by Gunner Staalsen (translated by Don Bartlett), is set three years after the first of the Varg Veum series to be translated into English, We Shall Inherit the Wind, which I review here.

At the start of the story Private Investigator Veum is in a bad way. He gets through each day by drinking and has been funding his habit by taking on the cases he would prefer to shun. The arrival in his office of Maja Misvaer, whose three year old daughter, Mette, disappeared from outside their home almost twenty-five years ago, offers him a chink of light in a life that has been overcome by the darkness of memory and loss.

The book opens with a robbery in a jewellery store during which an apparently random passer by is shot and subsequently dies. The robbers make their getaway by boat and, three months later, with no leads to follow, the police have all but given up on solving the crime. Veum followed the case in the papers but pays it little attention until he discovers that the murdered man had lived in the same housing complex as the little girl, whose wherabouts he has been commissioned to find, at the time she disappeared.

Veum interviews the police officers who investigated the initial disappearance as well as all those who lived in the five houses built around the courtyard where Mette was last seen playing. He discovers that these families were close in an unexpected way. With dogged determination he circumvents their reluctance to talk and digs into their pasts, unearthing secrets they had held close for decades.

The writing makes much use of narrative alongside Veum’s musings on the case. The voice I was hearing in my head brought to mind TV cops from the 70s with the use of similes and Veum’s moralistic stance, somewhat hypocritical given his own past behaviour. The feminist in me bristled at some of the attitudes but they realistically evoke the time and place. Norway, with its dark weather and uncompromising landscape, reflect the protagonist.

The plot twists and turns around each new revelation offering the reader much to ponder. The events leading up to the denouement had me dreading what was to be revealed. Despite my apprehension I could not look away.

A tense, starkly captivating read this is a must for fans of Nordic Noir. Highly recommended to all who look for depth and tenebrosity in their crime fiction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival

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Words and ideas come to life in two days of author events, discussions and creative workshops on the banks of the River Thames, hosted by the University of Greenwich in the historic buildings and grounds of the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum.

Yesterday was a day of firsts. My first time travelling the DLR through London’s docklands, my first visit to beautiful Greenwich, and my first ever book festival. The setting was wondrous and the weather couldn’t have been better. The event itself had a friendly, buzzing vibe with students of the university ensuring all attendees knew where to find the sessions they wished to attend. The grass outside was filled with picnicing families and excited children meeting characters from their favourite books. I was able to observe many of the bookish folk whose twitter feeds I enjoy.

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I had booked myself into four of the many talks and workshops on offer. The first of these was a panel discussion with Stefan Tobler from And Other Stories Publishing, Sam Jordison from Galley Beggar Press and Jen Hamilton-Emery from Salt Publishing, on the pros, cons, and growing importance of independent publishing in an increasingly commercial climate.

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They discussed the advantages of being both small and independent. These included low overheads (two of the three work out of their homes); no need to live in London, with the cost savings this provides; and the ability to publish only books they truly love and wish to read themselves. The disadvantages included the cost risk of big print runs when books sell well, particularly when they are included on literary prize shortlists (something they all desire but which presents logistical challenges), and the sheer volume of books that they need to find somewhere to store!

The demise of the net book agreement removed the level playing field for booksellers, something exacerbated by the rise of Amazon. There was agreement that the decision to set up a small press was made with a mixture of idealism and ignorance, but the consensus remained that it was worth doing. Any in the audience who have read books from these publishers would certainly agree with that.

For my second booked session, Inside the Mind of an Outsider, I was joined by my daughter who had been exploring the impressive grounds of the Old Naval College and visiting the Maritime Museum. She is a medical student with a particular interest in neurology so I had given her Alex Pheby’s Playthings to read. Alex was joined by Andrew Hankinson (author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Roaul Moat)), and Anakana Schofield (author of Martin John) to discuss art and the idea of madness. The event was skillfully chaired by Guardian writer Susanna Rustin.

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Each of the authors gave a reading from their book and talked of how they had created their story. They discussed what is meant by reality and truth, how culturally significant our understanding of these things are. They agreed that fiction enables greater verity as there is less demand for perceived accuaracy. Fiction is not a social science.

There was mention of risk in publishing books that may be regarded as difficult. They mused that Sales and Marketing people tend to like genres, that celebrity authors sell. I gained the impression that amongst this audience, literary quality and depth matters more than a name.

Time ran out with many in the audience still eager to join the discussion. My daughter was itching to talk to Alex but we were booked into another session so moved on.

This third event was such a joy any lingering disappointment at an opportunity missed was soon dispelled. Chris Cleave (author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven) was interviewed by Hannah Beckerman and the rapport between them created an intimate and utterly engaging hour of thought provoking and inspirational discussion.

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Chris talked of how history is related, that it is as much a commentary on the time being lived now as on the past. He believes that we are currently at a perfect distance to rexamine the Second World War as it is still within living memory but not too close.

The research he undertook for his book took him to Malta where he visited military graves, each the final resting place of half a dozen men. The soldiers were too hungry and exhausted to dig individual graves for their many fallen. Such details would neither be known nor understood had he not been there to ask pertinent questions.

Chris mused on how the young people at the time (many who signed up were still in their teens) became principled enough to take a stand and united enough to act. He did not believe that soldiers merely carried out orders but that they acted to protect those they loved, comrades as well as family.

He talked of bravery, how it may be learned and then grow. He also spoke of the importance of forgiveness, how nobody will have a morally clean war, dubious choices will be made. He speculated that modern warfare never truly ends as there is no victory or coming to terms with defeat as in the Second World War. This makes moving on a greater challenge.

As well as the many strands of research, experience and musings Chris talked of the importance of humour, and of a jar of jam that became a talisman. We now understood why refreshments offered for this talk included delicious jam sandwiches.

Having sat through three hours straight of fascinating talks I now needed air and a drink. Declining the offered tickets for additional talks we retired to the river bank for a break.

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Refreshed we returned for our final session titled Reality Skewed: Inside characters who see things differently. Paul Ewen (aka Francis Plug) and Adam Biles (whose book, Feeding Time, is to be published by Galley Beggar Press in August) talked to Sam Jordison about what their wayward characters can tell us about ourselves. Literature doesn’t always just allow us to see the world with new eyes; it allows us to access an entirely different conception of reality.

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As a Galley Buddy I will get a copy of Adam’s book hot off the press so it was interesting to hear more about it. Set in an old people’s home, with a protagonist who believes he is a prisoner of war, the reading Adam gave us left me intrigued. I have yet to read a Galley Beggar book that I have not enjoyed so am looking forward to receiving my black cover edition.

I have read Paul’s book (my review is here) but had not, perhaps, fully appreciated all of the deadpan humour it contains. He read out part of a speech he gave at Dulwich Bookshop on behalf of Francis, who has somehow become quite real, and had us in stitches. The apparently inebriated lady who subsequently asked him questions added to the slightly surreal quality of this highly entertaining event.

There was more to come at the festival but my daughter and I had to head home, her to halls for yet more exam revision, and me to make my way out to Wiltshire before the day ended and my promised pick up retired to bed. With the knowledge that my husband would huff at yet more book purchases I confined myself to buying just the one book that both my daughter and I were now eager to read. It was a fabulous day.

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The Greenwich Book Festival is part of the Royal Greenwich Festivals; a programme of events and activities delivered in venues, parks and open spaces across the Royal Borough.

Book Review: Her Father’s Daughter

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Her Father’s Daughter, by Marie Sizun (translated by Adriana Hunter), is the second in a series from the publisher titled Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Peirene Press publishes these series of contemporary novellas, each consisting of three books chosen from across the world connected by a single theme. TLS described them as “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”

This story is set in Paris at the close of the Second World War. It centres around a child, not yet old enough to attend school, who lives in a small apartment with her beautiful mother. It is told from the girl’s perspective but with the clarity of an adult’s mind. It is memory, those fragments of a life that stay with us when others are lost to the passing of time. The events related will change the child’s life forever, in ways that she could not then comprehend.

Referred to by all she knows as ‘the child’, or ‘my darling’, she was given the name France at the dictate of a father she has never met. He is a prisoner of war, taken early in the conflict. The war is now coming to an end and he is to return.

France’s days revolve around her mother. She has been allowed to act as she pleases, drawing on walls and in books, eating only the food she enjoys, her unruly existence indulged. France resents any who distract her mother: neighbours, acquaintances, and most especially her maternal grandmother who berates her daughter for the child’s behaviour. France likes best to stay home, to have her mother to herself. Although they go to the park or to shops, she has only once left Paris. This was to stay in a house in Normandy, with a garden, but memories of that time are hazy and she is forbidden to mention them.

When France is told that her father is to return she understands that the life she has enjoyed is about to change. She cannot imagine having a man in their home; this is beyond her experience.

“What is a father? […] Father’s, these days, are pretty thin on the ground”

When her father moves into the apartment the dynamics of the little family must adapt. He is still suffering the effects of his incarceration, is appalled at France’s behaviour and the way his wife has kept house. France observes how her parents behave when together and how her mother has been altered, shrunk. France desires nothing more now than to win her father’s affection for herself.

What the reader is offered is a view of the strange world of adults through the eyes of a child, the hurts and resentments harboured when ignored or reprimanded, the promises made and then forgotten. France attempts to draw her father closer by sharing her innermost secrets. In doing so she emits a seismic blow to the fragile peace so carefully constructed from her father’s return.

The writing is subtle and exquisite, a literary ballet offering a poignancy and depth beneath the delicacy of presentation. Each short episode leaves the reader eager for the next. I couldn’t put this book down.

A stunning, beautiful read that is everything a story should be. I cannot recomend this book enough.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: City of Jackals

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City of Jackals, by Parker Bilal, is the fifth book in the author’s Makana Investigation series, the third of which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award. I had not read any of the earlier instalments but this lack did not impact my understanding. The story can be enjoyed standalone.

Set in modern day Cairo, where Private Investigator Makana lives on a rickety houseboat having been exiled from his native Sudan, the corruption, sexism and racial tensions of the area are in contrast to the inherent decency of the protagonist and many of his associates. The plot centres around the plight of refugees seeking asylum, and the potential for exploitation when the law is unequally invoked.

After a prologue describing two desperate people locked in a room and attempting to escape, the reader finds Makana on his houseboat smoking an early morning cigarette and ruminating on his latest assignment. A student at the local university has vanished and his concerned parents have engaged the investigator to find their son.

Makana’s musings are interrupted by his landlady’s daughter calling him to attend a situation on the riverbank. A fisherman has snagged a sack containing a severed head with markings that suggest it belonged to a man originally from Sudan. Cairo has a growing problem with refugees from the south and there are tensions as the local population resent their presence. Given the pressures on the law enforcement agencies, this victim’s demise is unlikely to be regarded as worthy of police resources. Makana is offered assistance from their pathologist, Doctora Siham, should he wish to look further into what has happened himself.

The search for the missing student leads Makana to a Christian church close to a makeshift refugee camp. Here he is introduced to a brother and sister who are offering a select few teenagers the opportunity to start a new life in the USA. The necessary health screening is supported by a private clinic which offers holistic treatments to the wealthy, many of whom come over specially from abroad.

When a road traffic accident reveals the body of another young man from South Sudan the various threads in Makana’s investigations begin to coalesce. He has his suspicions about the perpetrators of the crimes but their motive remains unclear. A breakthrough comes when another student makes a grotesque find in one of the many once oppulent but now abandoned buildings in the city. Makana realises that others are in danger and time is running out.

The denouement includes a chilling speech that vocalises a view that is worryingly widespread if rarely acknowledged.

“Think of it as something like an extension of natural selection. […] In a world of diminishing resources we live on because we can afford to do so. […] Do you really believe that nameless, forgotten refugees, people without a home, or a family, at the bottom of the food chain, as it were, that they really deserve a better fate?”

With the current refugee crisis in Europe this story is timely. It is also good to read something written from a Muslim perspective, and to be reminded that those raised in whatever religion may be disinterested in following its tenets and rituals. The challenge moderates face when living in a country teetering on the brink of civil collapse, being plundered by the privileged and threatened by radicals, was well evoked.

A taut and pacy work with an original voice this provided an enjoyable read even if, as a woman, I did feel some frustration with many of the characters’ attitudes. Life in Cairo is not presented in a positive light but it made for a fascinating backdrop. A worthy addition to the books I consider quality crime fiction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury.

Book Review: The Foreign Passion

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The Foreign Passion, by Cristian Aliaga (translated by Ben Bollig), is a collection of prose poems that deliver a devastating critique of the cultural blindness on which contemporary capitalism relies. Unlike much of the author’s previous works, which were written from and of his home country, Argentina, this collection emerged from an eight month long European residency when he was a visiting professor at the University of Leeds, England.

Each of the poems offers a moment of encounter at a precise location visited during this time. These may be sites of conflict, rundown cities or bucolic landscapes. Also included are “centres of ‘Western’ culture that those from the edge of the world are told to admire.” The reader is offered a different perspective, the experience of place presented in concentrated phrases that culminate in a sense of what has been lost.

The book opens with an introduction by the translator. In this he talks of why we travel and what we seek, musing that the tourist goes in search of authentic experiences which are no longer there, often due to tourists. Few go to view everyday existence.

“Their culture is of no interest to the international traveller in search of untouched nature or examples of aboriginal cultures, in both cases very often (re)constructions specifically designed for the tourist market.”

He discusses the impact of globalisation and what this means.

“the exportation of work practices now unacceptable in developed countries either to distant countries or to less visible zones in the country itself”

“These regions dispensible yet indispensible for the functioning of the global capitalist system.”

“Aliga’s poetry focuses precisely on that which is left over or remains”

The poems are presented in both Spanish and English. None is longer than a page yet each packs a powerful, poignant punch.

I was particularly taken by ‘natural life’ in which the author is on the M62, Leeds-Manchester. He passes fields, “natural life in the midst of the profit civilisation”. He views plot after plot containing lifestock and closed up houses where:

“the inhabitants do their work, alien to the dozens of vehicles that fly by each minute. Inside each machine that passes this oval of land at a modern-day speed, the members of the family last a second, like figures from an old movie, and disappear for ever.”

The prose style of this collection made for straightforward perusal allowing concentration to focus on content. There is much to consider.

“We travel to come back different, to lose on the journey our reason and the ingrained habits of the mind. We return, full or empty, to mend the holes in our words”

What Aliaga seeks is an investigation of culture, a “resistance against the erasure of lives and histories excluded by neoliberal capitalist narratives and policies.” The paradox of his work is that he is aware his target audience is unlikely to be reached.

“For he who sings while
his children burn alive, because he doesn’t know, he doesn’t
notice the smell.
[…]
For them I write, those who
won’t stop to read.”

Contemporary capitalism relies on societal collusion. These poems provide a succinct and important reminder of the cost.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon, by Kit de Waal, is a poignant, honest, deeply moving tale of a child in care told from his point of view. Leon is a mixed race nine year old who enjoys playing with his action men, watching ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ and riding his bike. He lives with his mum, Carol, but is often left with their neighbour, Tina. Carol is twenty-five years old and suffers from depression.

The book opens with the birth of Leon’s little brother, Jake, who is blonde haired, blue eyed and pale skinned like their mum. Leon adores his little brother but sometimes gets angry when Carol expects him to care for the baby while she goes out or takes to her bed. Things come to a head when Jake is four months old and Tina reports their situation to social services. Leon and Jake are put in emergency foster care with an older lady, Maureen, who been fostering kids for years.

At Maureen’s Leon and Jake are kept clean and clothed, fed well and given toys. Leon wants to return to his beloved mum, or have her come live here, but she has disappeared. A decision is made to put Jake up for adoption. A white baby is desirable; an older, coloured boy is not.

Maureen is doing her best to support Leon but then she too becomes ill and he is sent to live with her sister, Sylvie. Everything Leon loves is being taken from him and he is angry. The adults put on their pretend faces and talk down to him but he is adept at eavesdropping and overhears snippets of what he believes to be the truth. He determines to take matters into his own hands.

The story is set in early 1980s England with its backdrop of racism, riots and a royal wedding. Each of the characters have their flaws and prejudices, but also compassion. They are presented rounded and real.

My heart hurt for Leon, for the changes forced on him through no fault of his own. Those charged with his care were doing their best but, seen through his eyes, this could never make things right. They had taken him from his mum and then given away his little brother. He felt alone and abandoned, unable to articulate the betrayal felt at the decisions being made.

Although dealing with difficult issues this is not a bleak book. Leon’s days are made better by chocolate biscuits, curly wurlies, by playing imaginative games and learning to grow vegetables at a local allotment. Here he meets Tufty, a coloured man who writes radical poetry and listens to reggae. He also meets Mr Devlin who isn’t what he seems.

The writing is succinct and candid, captivating and moving; in places it had me in tears. I loved this book and especially Leon. He is a fine boy in a flawed world, grieving and angry but coping as best he can. Ultimately that is all any of us can do.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.

Book Review: Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago

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Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, by Douglas Cowie, reimagines the love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. Their relationship spanned two decades although their mutual passion burnt out much more quickly. Each was looking for something the other could not offer leaving both dissatisfied. It is an interesting exploration of why couples get together, and why they fall apart.

Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer and intellectual. She was the long term partner of Jean-Paul Sartre and made her name writing the feminist text, The Second Sex. She and Sartre had what has been described as an open relationship. Although only touched on briefly in this book, Simone scandalised society by taking lovers of both sexes, some of them underage.

Simone and Sartre were core members of an intimate circle of Parisian philosophers and friends who held a high opinion of themselves, regarding their work as of vital importance. They welcomed the diversions offered by others but retained the belief that they themselves were superior.

Nelson Algren was an American writer, considered ‘a bard of the down-and-outer’. He met Simone when she telephoned him to ask for a tour of the ‘real Chicago’ on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance. Their affair started immediately and was characterised by short periods of passionate intensity followed by long months apart during which they both, although Simone more especially, poured out their desires in frequent and lengthy correspondence.

Nelson resented the continued presence of Sartre in Simone’s life. He wished her to move to America which she would not countenance, believing that Sartre needed her and that their work was too important to set aside. Simone believed that Nelson should appreciate this and make the most of the limited time she offered him. She became upset when he allowed her intransigence to colour his behaviour.

When Nelson realised that he could not get Simone to behave as he wanted he took other lovers before sinking into depression. He had always mixed with gamblers, drunks and drug addicts; now he became one of them with disasterous results. Simone wished to rekindle their romance but remained unwilling to either give up her life in Paris or to have him join her long term.

Early on it is clear that the lovers are not satisfied with even the little details of each other’s lives. For example, they criticise the other’s attire. Simone deals with this by buying clothes she approves of for Nelson and throwing away what he has chosen. She is unable to see that she would not accept such behaviour from him.

When they travel they take pride in not being tourists, never noticing that locals mock and take advantage of their obvious inclusion in this set. Simone and her friends sneer at the bourgeoise with all the pompous contempt of intellectuals convinced of their own superiority. They laugh at Nelson when he offers to punch a man who verbally assaults Simone. Although seemingly accepted he comes to realise how he is regarded:

“a silly American man bewildered at everything she showed him […] eager for her pats on the head, a pleasent enough sideshow, and useful proof of her shabby and shitty theory that she and Sartre were better than everybody else.”

The prose is taut, pacy and compelling. The tension between Nelson and Simone is presented in their actions, their conceits and pretensions showing how deluded they were. Their love was for an ideal that the other was unable or unwilling to fulfil.

I did not warm to the characters but this is a fascinating study of how people see themselves, how they believe they deserve to be treated by others, and how hard done by they can feel when this does not occur. The observations of the human psyche are sharp and concise.

Not always a comfortable read as it shines a light on conceits and delusions with which many live. A fascinating account of a group of writers whose work may be admired more than its creators.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Myriad.