Book Review: Ordinary People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I first came across Ordinary People at a book festival event where the author was one of the speakers on a panel. Here I learned that the story is centred in South London, near Crystal Palace, and is about two couples with children as they experience relationship crises. This didn’t sound like a book for me. Then it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction alongside several other novels I have recently read and enjoyed. I decided to set aside my preconceptions and give it a go.

It is a book in two halves. I quickly became absorbed in the lives of the lead couple, Melissa and Michael. The role of the second couple, Damian and Stephanie, is significant to the plot but plays a more supporting role. The writing brought to mind a contemporary Jane Austin and I was duly impressed. It is an engrossing story offering understated insights into the ordinary issues and frustrations of family life. These are presented unvarnished but with a degree of sympathy. There is an added dash of humour to soften any darkness explored.

We are introduced to M&M (as a friend refers to them) at a party to celebrate Obama’s election. This is hosted by two brothers who used to live in North London but moved south as they

“were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually”

Their guest list featured

“all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew […] less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality”

Melissa and Michael are also moving – from their small flat to a house south of the river. They want a garden for their children to play in. Financial constraints lead to compromises so their new abode is far from ideal. The area suffers regular knife crime. The house is old and Melissa soon begins to sense malevolence.

Before this becomes a key issue there are growing problems in the M&M relationship. Melissa feels that her essence is being suffocated by the demands of motherhood and takes out her frustrations on Michael. He in turn is saddened that his beautiful and vital young partner has turned into this disdainful and inattentive shrew who is no longer interested in him sexually, an important aspect of their affinity in his view.

Melissa misses the professional working environment – although we later learn she is harbouring rose tinted memories – and rails against the mundane requirements of the daily care of small children. She feels guilt at her boredom and at how easily she falls into the competitive conversations typical amongst groups of mothers at the places she goes to escape the confines of her home. When Michael returns from work each evening he is berated for not doing more to ease Melissa’s burden. Pointing out that he has to work to support them fuels her anger.

All this is portrayed in: bus journeys, visits to a park and soft play emporiums, meetings between friends. These friends include Damian and Stephanie who we are introduced to at their home in Dorking. Unlike Melissa, Stephanie adores motherhood and would be content were it not for her husband’s perceived obdurateness. Damian resents that they moved out of London – he misses the buzz of the city. His father died recently and this has affected him more than he realises. Added to this he harbours hidden feelings for Melissa.

There is an amusing scene when Stephanie’s parents attend one of their “monthly in-lawed roasts”. Stephanie’s father offers passive aggressive advice, making clear that Damian is not good enough for his princess. Although Stephanie defends him, Damian silently agrees.

“had he really fallen in love at all? Was it just that she had made him feel adequate and dynamic, that she was focused and forthright in her plans for her life when he was not”

At around halfway through the book I realised that the perceptive, amusing and dynamic pace had slowed and my interest was waning. When the pace picked up again the tone felt more soap opera than penetrative. There are arguments and foolish reactions. The couples splinter and reconcile. It is smoothly written but lacking the verve of the earlier portrayal.

A group holiday adds interest before the focus returns to London and Melissa’s growing fears centred on her house – the effect she is convinced it is having on her daughter. Michael is struggling to reconcile the woman Melissa has become with the woman he fell in love with.

The denouement is neatly achieved but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed. The initial potential – that elegant capturing of the nuances of modern coupledom, of parenting in the 21st century – was not sustained.

Throughout the story there are references to music that I could not appreciate as I knew few of the artists and do not listen to those whose names I recognised. I am guessing that this will appeal more to readers whose age better fits the protagonists (late thirties). The author has created a playlist for those interested.

Near the end of the narrative Michael Jackson dies. This bookending with celebration and then grief over well known people of colour fits with one of the themes explored – the differences in lived experience of the dark and light skinned British from the professional classes.

Any Cop?: I’m not going to condemn what is a well constructed and generally satisfactory read. The first half exceeded my expectations and made me glad to have picked up the book. The second half denied it the status of modern classic.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anna of Kleve

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets, by Alison Weir, is the fourth in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the tales of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did.

Anna of Kleve opens in 1530 when the young lady is fourteen years old. She has been raised by her wealthy and aristocratic family to put duty before her own desires. Anna’s upbringing has been strict but loving. Betrothed to the eldest son of the Duke of Lorraine since she was eleven, her wedding – to a boy she has yet to meet – is expected to take place later in the current year. Anna’s acceptance of the life she has been raised for is threatened when her cousin by marriage visits and she is smitten.

The fallout from this encounter could have been personally devastating but, with the advice and support of her devoted nurse, events are managed and defused.

Anna’s life resumes its quiet monotony. Years pass during which her betrothal is annulled. Then, in 1538, England seeks an alliance with Kleve. King Henry requires a new bride and his Principal Secretary, Cromwell, recommends Anna.

The section of the book during which Anna is prepared for and then travels to England are fascinating. Her family value modesty and simplicity in women so the fashions and accomplishments of the English court ladies make Anna appear odd and lacking interest. She does her best to fit in but struggles to please her new husband, not understanding why.

As a foreigner, Anna had known about Henry from talk abroad of his religious reforms and controversial marriages. By the time she meets him he is already aged and temperamental. She is required to bear him a child yet he makes this impossible.

Anna and Henry’s marriage lasts a mere six months. Aged twenty-five, Anna finds herself in a position where she must carve a place for herself in England or return to the strictures of Kleve. So long as she acquiesces to his every wish, she is offered Henry’s continued patronage. Over the years factions at court vying for personal betterment put Anna in danger with their intrigues. She must act quickly and with great delicacy to diffuse situations not of her making.

Anna outlives both King Henry and Queen Mary. It is interesting to view the machinations and religious turmoil of the Tudor court through the eyes of someone with inner contacts but living apart. Anna takes risks to make her life more pleasurable but, due to her reliance on their finance, is never free of royal obligation. She suffers when gossip or rivalry threaten to tarnish her name.

The strength of this series is that it portrays the same, well known era from differing perspectives. In this book we are also offered a window into the life of a wealthy, peripatetic household and the difficulties associated with maintaining expected standards of comfortable living. Anna’s later years are spent outside of London. Although highly privileged, her autonomy is stymied by the need to preserve an unsullied reputation within an ever changing political landscape.

The writing is fluid and engaging. As well as being of historical interest it is a captivating story with subplots weaving convincingly around the known headlines. Anna is developed with sympathy but also realism. An enjoyable and refreshingly accessible read.

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

Random Musings: Who am I writing book reviews for?

Readers. I am writing reviews for readers. I hope to inform and thereby assist in their choice of books to purchase or borrow from a library.

But it’s not that simple. I review many books from small presses. Every title they publish is a financial risk. No book is going to be liked by everyone so it is vital that each book finds its appreciative audience. Reviews and the related buzz on social media matter, to get the word out that a book exists.

Then there are the authors who have poured so much of themselves into their creations. A negative review can hurt.

I don’t wish to hurt anyone.

But I am writing for readers. If I am not honest in my opinions then there seems little point in what I do.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading and then reviewing a book from a small press I do my best to support. They do sterling work and are well respected. I have read every book they have published and regularly sing the praises of many of these. I have purchased them for friends.

I was excited to receive the proof and eagerly set aside the time needed to read it. The book is big in size and scope so demanded a greater than usual commitment. The structure is unusual and it gradually became clear that the subject matter was negatively affecting my mental health. In crafting my review I took great care to be fair in my criticism and also to convey the style of writing. However depressing I personally may have found it, there will be readers who enjoy other aspects of its wide ranging ruminations.

I posted my review. I was politely requested to take it down until closer to publication, preferably after this date.

I am feeling conflicted.

In the hour the review was up I received a comment that it was ‘perfect’. This particular reader, who has pre-ordered the book, was looking forward to reading it for himself. I took from this interaction that I had in no way put him off. This is good.

I have since heard that another reader, who had shown interest in the Tweets I was posting as I worked my way through the pages, has requested a copy of the book. This is what I aim to do – to generate interest in a title.

I posted my review many weeks ahead of publication. My understanding is that pre-orders matter so this did not seem out of order. I have done it many times before.

I write for readers. What of those who may not enjoy the style of the writing? What of those who may be upset, as I was, by the clear depiction of how unremittingly awful the human race is? It is hard not to feel, although this was denied, that had my review been glowing there would not have been an issue.

Taking the review down for the time being was my choice. I remain unsure if it was the right thing to do. I understand the points made in the polite request but am concerned I feel too close to retain the detachment necessary. I fail readers if I do not provide an impartial opinion. I am wary of reviews from authors opining about books written by their friends.

Here is a short list of things publishers could clearly state to help reviewers if a proof is being sent out well ahead of publication.

  • May pictures be shared on social media?
  • May early, short impressions be voiced?
  • After what date may a full review be posted?

I have no problem adhering to the same guidelines as other reviewers. I would have a problem if I were asked to act differently depending on my opinion. This is not what potential readers are looking for.

Blogs are not magazines or newspapers. I have no predecessor or editor to advise me or check my content. On one occasion I expressed an opinion in a review in a way that a journalist acquaintance contacted me to warn, in as friendly a manner as possible, could be problematic. I appreciated this voice of experience and changed my wording. It did not compromise the gist of the review.

The growth of blogs and shrinking of newspaper sales has changed the way readers seek out information. I work hard to provide useful content.

It is thanks to authors writing and publishers producing books that we readers have the vast choice and variety of literature to enjoy. I am grateful for every book I am sent.

I will not enjoy them all. Negative reviews can be useful if written with care.

My blog is my space to write and I feel fortunate that readers regularly seek out my musings. I value my autonomy.

I am writing for readers.

Book Review: Flotsam

Flotsam, by Meike Ziervogel, tells the story of a mother and her daughter, both of whose lives have been shaped by loneliness and loss. They live in a remote cottage close to mud flats on the German North Sea coast where dykes enable human habitation. The mother, Anna, is an artist processing grief by collecting debris washed up by each tide. Her daughter, Trine, plays on a shipwreck on the shore but is reaching an age when such games must be left behind.

The story opens in the early 1950s with an accident. Trine is climbing down from the broken and stranded ship to reach the body of her brother, Carl. He has just fallen from the rope ladder and she knows that he is dead but is afraid of the fuss her mother will make when she finds out. Trine remembers the wailing and crockery throwing that followed her father’s death and burial. She wishes to give Carl a pirate’s send-off, burning his body to ensure he cannot wake up in a box underground.

Trine has recently befriended two of the popular girls at her school and does not wish to lose this unexpected chance to fit in socially. Unlike them, Trine’s body has yet to form the curves that the boys who hang around with them admire. When one of the boys appears to notice her, Trine determines to outmanoeuvre the competition, whatever that may take.

The second half of the book focuses on Anna. She rescues a drowning man from the waves, taking him home to nurse him better despite the stones she found in his pockets. Anna rarely sees strangers. She has grown used to a life of solitude, endured since she moved to the coast at the outbreak of the war. Anna’s husband, Otto, owned the cottage and moved her there from Berlin to keep her and their young son safe from aerial bombardment. Otto was supportive of Anna’s art but did not offer the passion and excitement she had expected when they married.

As the war progresses, Anna seeks her own adventures. Meanwhile, her son grows, eager to fight for his country alongside the peers who are now regarded as heroes, for the victory they have been taught is assured.

The writing has a dark and haunting quality yet there is much beauty in its concise construction. The story ebbs and flows with the ghosts of the past and the effects of the isolated location. Both Trine and Anna show a resolve that can be unsettling, beguiling – perhaps because young women are not expected to behave as they do.

An astute and arresting tale that brought to mind the disturbance caused on reading Wyl Menmuir’s The ManyThe denouement is poignant yet fitting, an affecting reaction to untold grief.

“She used to wonder what kind of art she might have been able to make if grief hadn’t cornered her, deprived her of images, of thoughts, of language, of visions. And all that she had left to do was to roam the mudflats, collecting flotsam and jetsam. Waiting.”

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

Book Review: Constellations

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. There are musings on wider attitudes to ownership and behaviour. The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. As a woman growing up in Ireland she has shouldered a burden of expectation against which she quietly rebels.

Alongside periods of incapacitation, the aloneness of illness, are many joyous moments of freedom and adventure. The author writes of: music, dancing, travel, relationships. There is an underlying generosity in her attitude to the world she inhabits, “making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

She expresses a wish that her children, especially her daughter, may live their lives to the full and not be curtailed by

 “Those who go out of their way to avoid your good news,
who flash facsimile smiles when the world smiles on you,
The people who are too afraid to try to do
what you will one day do.”

The essay titled ‘Hair’ explores society’s attitude to women who choose to grow or shave off their tresses:

“Every time I’ve shaved my head, or sported a suedehead of regrowth, there is always a response, especially from men. They are mostly horrified or bemused; some declared it attractive: but I was always asked to justify myself.”

These unasked for responses to changed looks, or to actions deemed unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, are recounted in many of the essays. Too many people appear to believe that women require guidance, that they cannot be expected to know what is best for them.

In 60,000 Miles of Blood’, the author explores attitudes to this vital liquid when it leaves a host’s body. A soldier shedding their blood in battle is regarded as heroic. A woman’s monthly menstruation is shameful. An artist using blood in their work is berated. There are always opinions on what may be done with the one’s own body and its constituents.

“Art is about interpreting our own experience. Upon entering hospitals, or haematology wards, our identity changes. We move from artist or parent or sibling to patient, one of the sick. We hand over the liquid in our veins to have it microscoped and pipetted. Beneš used his art as tenancy. If hospital tubes could house his blood, so could his own work. Beneš knew that if his blood had to be anywhere other than in his veins, he might as well use it as an aesthetic agenda; a declaration of possession.”

Moving on to the subject of parenthood, the author writes of how this has brought with it both joy and pain. As children grow they travel ever further away, carrying their parents’ intense love for them lightly.

There is a thread on feminism running through many of the essays. A woman’s pain is not always taken seriously by medical professionals. A mother is expected to put her children’s needs before her own. ‘Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy’ looks at abortion in Ireland and the 2018 referendum on the issue. It wonders at the mindsets of those who oppose a woman’s right to choose a termination.

“Ireland is scornful of its girl children. The state can and does oppose what a family/a woman/a pregnant person believes is in their best interest. A born girl has no more rights than an unborn foetal one.”

“A writer friend overhears a group of twenty-something men talking on a train. One, full of swagger, says he doesn’t ‘want to give them that’, insinuating that women are uppity and asking for too much wanting to control their bodies.”

‘Second Mother’ tells of a beloved aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s and how the family could only watch as the person they had known and valued faded away, mind before body.

‘Our Mutual Friend’ is a reminder of the precariousness of life and the pain of grief. It is an intensely moving tribute to a young man whose life ended unexpectedly.

The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion. Although important and at times emotive, vital issues are presented with grace.

Any Cop?: Every entry in this collection was a pleasure to read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Feebleminded

Feebleminded, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff), is a disturbing depiction of an intense mother and daughter relationship. The younger woman is around thirty years of age and consumed by the affair she is having with a married man who lives many miles away. The older woman wants to know all the details, having once been sexually decadent and adventurous herself. Told from the point of view of the daughter, the reader is offered a stream of consciousness and ongoing reactions alongside flashbacks to a childhood that was is some ways ordinary but coloured by the mother’s similar distractions and needs.

The pair live in a remote, rural home that also housed the grandmother until her death. The picture painted is of women who seek release through alcohol and men but do not sustain conventional relationships. There is both lethargy and anger, the beauty of location fogged by fluctuations in mood and introspection.

The story is written in three parts. The first dives deep into the daughter’s thoughts and agitations as she satisfies her body’s cravings between assignations. Her lover does not contact her as often as she needs. There is desperation, a feeling of suffocation in the inanities of the everyday. The mother and daughter drink together, suffer hangovers and berate the sexual choices each has made. Happy moments from their past, those that started with innocence and childish pleasure in memory, were rarely sustained. The mother rushed her adolescent daughter into a womanhood that they could share, taking delight in knowing the details of burgeoning sexual activity. Now she watches as her daughter sinks into a lassitude of frustration over a man who lives with and loves another.

The second part sees the daughter lose her job due to her preoccupation with this man. Her mother fears destitution and blames her daughter for granting too much importance and attention to the affair. The pair argue, yet there remains mutual concern.

“I’m not a fucking ATM. Mum pulls a sorrowful face and I imagine stroking it. They always find a way to get you, these women with long, straight, clean-smelling, usually honey-coloured hair. They can say the most horrendous things, behave like utter despots, but afterwards you still want to run your fingers through the strands. How much is left, how long can we survive?”

The third part of the book sees the daughter leave their home but then discover that the man will not forsake his wife as she is pregnant, despite how he had spoken of their relations. The mother and daughter plot a terrible revenge.

The writing is dark and intense yet in places, somehow, also poetic. It is shocking in its rarely voiced, searing authenticity. The imagery is violent in its beauty, grotesque in its imaginings, yet provides sunbeams in momentary descriptions. There is care and a shared lust for life amidst the discord and blame.

Described as the second part in an ‘involuntary’ trilogy that opened with the critically acclaimed Die, My Love, this book will appeal especially to those who enjoyed the former work. It is impressively potent and tightly tempestuous. A memorable if not always comfortable read.

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

Book Review: The Book of Tehran

On their website Comma Press write about why they publish short story anthologies.

“an anthology of short stories has certain advantages over a novel: it is better equipped, for example, to give readers access and insights into new cultures, because it is able to embrace difference and diversity within any one culture”

In the introduction to this latest collection from Comma’s ‘Read the City’ series, Orkideh Behrouzan asks the reader to set aside the

“over-simplified accounts of Tehran […] in Western media: from click-bait cliches about veiled women to images of a youth in revolt”

What these ten stories offer is a window into ordinary life in the Iranian capital. Most are written from the points of view of young people – male and female. Their outlooks on life are, obviously, coloured by their upbringing. While some feelings expressed are universal, and the cultural restrictions are generally accepted, it was hard to read these tales as requested – without judgement. The men and women appear to regard each other as almost different species. The girls aspire to marriage despite the fact many of the older, married couples speak of their partners with disdain. Women are routinely locked in rooms overnight. A young female character is told

“a girl’s virginity is her most prized asset”

In one of the notes sections that accompany some of the stories it is explained that the term ‘girlfriend’ is regarded as an insult.

“Since the use of this word was and still is a taboo in Muslim cultures, it has derogatory overtones. Used by men of lower classes”

The book was therefore read with a chasm between the morality policed outlooks of the characters depicted and this liberal, feminist reader. Gaining a better understanding of why such differences in attitude are accepted in different countries is one reason why the series is so worthwhile.

“Great fiction doesn’t disguise: in revealing contradictory emotions and contrasting worlds, it urges us to imagine and to challenge what we assume to know about a people.”

The collection opens with Wake It Up in which a young man is looking forward to the heartbreak he expects to feel when his partner emigrates, and how he hopes this will ignite his writing. Finding that he simply sleeps better after she leaves, he moves apartments and comes to the attention of a small boy. There is much humour in the tale alongside a touch of pathos.

The Other Side of the Wall tells of a young girl from a wealthy family who is required to take piano lessons despite showing no musical aptitude. Each week she must wait for her lessons in the apartment of distant relatives. She observes the neighbours, so different from the affluent adults her parents socialise with. She is especially drawn to one lady of ill repute. Despite dreading her lessons, the girl wishes to please her family.

“what they do and where they stand is predictable and fixed, and we, the younger generation, will inherit this ‘fixed place’. That is a comfort to us”

Sharing her short life to date with the successful and respected, she is then shocked when hypocrisy is revealed.

Mohsen Half-Tenor offers a picture of addiction and greed based around ancient antiquities. As in several of the stories, certain characters regard women with contempt. It is not stated but I wondered if this was based on class or behaviour. There appears to be little social mixing between the sexes, except within families or what are regarded as the lower orders.

My favourite story in the collection was In the Light being Cast from the Kitchen. A man wakes in the night and observes a smartly dressed stranger sitting on the sofa in an adjacent room. He is afraid of what will happen if he confronts the unexpected and uninvited man, yet also fears for his sleeping wife’s safety believing it is his duty to protect her. He starts to feel guilty at his reactions and to dissociate.

Sunshine focuses on a man’s obsession with a woman’s looks. She is having fun, experimenting with hair colour and other changes. He grows annoyed that she will not settle to his ideal. Wrapped around their encounters are dealings the man has with guards who warn him about possessing a photograph showing a woman’s body.

Domestic Monsters is a tale of families and their resentments which are passed across generations. Written in the form of a letter from a niece to her aunt it describes how the young women’s eyes have been opened to the older woman’s manipulations over many years. This was one of the stories that made me question why marriage was seen as desirable. Could the life of a single woman in Iran be even worse?

There are tales of potential poisonings, of wanting to impress a neighbour, of an intended punishment that goes awry when a man refuses to be controlled by a woman.

The collection finishes with The Last Night – a tale of four young college students who are together in their dorm for the last time. These women are educated yet long for marriage, worrying it will not happen for them. They talk of being brides rather than dreaming of future careers. One of the women plans to emigrate suggesting this is the only way to attain any sort of personal freedom.

These portrayals of life in Tehran were well written and interesting but so far removed from my own experiences as to throw up many further questions. Few of the characters, male or female, talk of how they earn a living – several of the men seem to sleep a great deal, even in the day. Morality plays a significant role in life choices, as do family expectations. I pondered, is their culture a choice or an imposition? What role does the acquisition of wealth play in acquiring status as happens in the west?

The stories offer a taster and I would be keen to learn more about how those living in Tehran, particularly the women, view the lifestyle they are required to adhere to. As the introduction states

“To solely read Tehran’s stories through the lens of politics and censorship, therefore, would be to overlook the tenacity of the life that pulsates through them.”

Readers are invited to immerse themselves

“in the deep and complicated currents of these stories.”

I struggled to empathise with many of the characters’ attitudes and wondered how they would view my supposedly liberal perspectives.

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