Book Review: The Screaming Sky

screaming sky

“In the Neolithic we started carving up the world. We built walls across it to separate things that had once been part of a whole. Behind some of the walls we penned the animals we had previously seen as our ensouled cousins, and behind some of the walls we penned ourselves. In some of these Neolithic walls – which were really symptoms of a disastrous mania for control that has dominated and blighted us ever since – lived common swifts. If you choose to make your home in the manifestation of a disease, it’s probably not going to go well with you in the long term.”

The Screaming Sky, by Charles Foster (illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy), is the latest in the always fascinating and beautifully produced Little Toller Monograph series. Its subject is swifts, particularly the common swift (Apus apus), a species that arrives in Europe each summer to breed. The author describes his interest in this bird as an obsession – something borne out in what he shares within these pages. Although not considering himself a scientific expert, he credits the swift with teaching him how to be ‘a father, a friend and a human.’

The book is divided into the months of a calendar year. Swifts live in perpetual summer. In January they are hurtling through the skies above Africa. They mostly live on the wing, travelling awe inspiring distances at high speed. The birds are also long lived, many reaching their third decade. They feast on insects, snatching them out of the air yet choosing what they take and leave with a fastidiousness it is hard to fathom given the velocity at which they exist. They bathe in clouds and stay within sociable colonies. Once they mate they are monogamous.

“In the zoological world the tendency to monogamy is generally correlated with relative brain weight – and hence with cognitive ability. Promiscuous animals, by and large, have smaller brains, for relationship demands a good deal of neurological processing power”

The author lives in Oxford, in a house chosen by a breeding pair of swifts as their nest site thanks to an available hole under the eaves. He cautions against considering these birds his, or indeed referring to them as British just because they breed on this isle. Evidence suggests that proto-swifts were travelling the air roads over 50 million years ago. Plate tectonics have since changed continents and climate markedly. Swifts may be creatures of habit but the distances they travel mean huge swathes of Earth may be considered home to them.  

“Most of the birds that will breed in western Europe, after milling with all the world’s swifts over the Congo basin, move to Liberia which, after the mid-April rains, sees one of the greatest wildlife gatherings on the planet.”

Much of what we now know about swifts has been discovered because, in recent years, some of the poor creatures were fitted with tags and harnesses to enable monitoring. Much, however, remains unknown, such as how they navigate. What is clear is that man’s desire for tidiness in his surroundings along with the increase in factory farming and industrial agricultural practices has damaged the quantity and quality of insects on which swifts rely for food. 

Apart from the weeks spent raising their young each year, swifts avoid terra firma. Where they gather is mostly dependent on weather events and may involve regular journeys of thousands of miles. Although long lived, unexpected weather can prove catastrophic to large numbers of birds. 

“the architecture of the sky is as complex as that of the sea”

The author writes of the swifts’ history and geography as well as their physics and biology. This is not, however, an essay on science but rather a sharing of the wonder of a lifelong interest. Foster’s obsession is clear in the effect the swifts have on his mood and behaviour. He travels abroad in the hope that when he looks up the birds will be there. He is scathing of men who do not appreciate what may be learned from nature. His occasional views on politicians inject dry humour.

“sociopathy, vanity and talentlessness are emphatic disqualifications for leadership, rather than, as for us, essential elements of the CV.”

As with each of the Little Toller Monographs I gained a deeper appreciation of the subject while picking up nuggets of wider interest along the way. The author writes with passion and remains engaging. He feels anger and sadness when humans don’t notice what is happening around them, imploring the reader to look up and take time to enjoy these wondrous visitors. He cautions against the recent habit of arguing the societal or economic value to humans of any species.

 “The presumption that swifts need to justify themselves in terms that mean something to us is malignant and highly metastatic. Who are we to demand that the wild world pleads for its life in language that we can understand?”

An enjoyable and thought-provoking monograph that soars alongside these avian marvels while offering up broader considerations man would do well to attend to. A reminder of the perils inherent when we damage what is also our life support system. 

Book Review: The Heeding

the heeding

The Heeding is a poignant and powerful poetry collection written by Rob Cowen and stunningly illustrated by Nick Hayes. It reflects on the year following the first COVID19 lockdown and will serve in the time to come as a reminder of when the world changed profoundly – how we lived lives altered in previously unimaginable ways. The poems capture the concerns and frustrations of families required to deal with the challenges of: house arrest, homeschooling, a ban on visiting their cared for elderly. It provides an evocative reminder that nobody will live forever.

“They are staring into a child’s eyes, wondering at the storm that’s coming.
How they might put themselves between what they love and everything”

The author is father to young children and his worries centre on them. He reflects on his own childhood and the lessons learned and valued from his parents and grandparents – often appreciated only in hindsight. He was taught to heed what was around him, particularly in nature. He now wishes to pass this valuable skill on to the next generation.

The poems have a depth that belies the ease with which they may be read. Incidents recounted are often everyday yet have an impact, a value, in the connections they engender.

Solidarity on a Saturday Night is a short poem about neighbours lighting up their backyards and somehow feeling together without the need to meet. This Allotment reflects on a humanity that is possible when people are accepting of difference in looks or creed – willing to offer practical advice and their labour along with excess produce.

“When heart-sore, I often wonder if this place is
secretly a model for what should be; how things could be,
were we not so preoccupied with property”

Last Breaths took my breath away, moving me to tears. It is a heartfelt account of a man in a nursing home, dying alone of this terrible plague. He remembers aspects of his life: war, a beloved wife outlived, a daughter who died in childhood, another now banned from seeing him – to keep him safe! The illustration that goes with this poem is perfect, as are so many here. The words brought home to me, perhaps for the first time, how my own father passed away last year – hand held by a nurse in PPE.

Another particularly poignant poem is Dennis, a man taunted relentlessly by local children whose casual cruelty makes their older selves squirm. The reason for his odd tics and behaviour is heartrending.

There are poems that describe encounters with birds and other creatures along with the Yorkshire landscape where the author lives. Nature is depicted as savage as well as beautiful, teeming with life but also death. There are reflections on more human concerns – failing businesses, history, politics, fearful unease.

“These cancelled birthdays.
These bans on being together.
These redundancies, uncertainties,
limits on impulse and joy,
on movement and autonomy.”

Black Ant highlights how we may try to save a tiny creature in difficulties, but will not tolerate those that threaten the structure or safety of our dwelling and family.

Pharmacy Cake brings home the loneliness of lockdown life for the elderly it was sold as designed to protect.

“This braving of sleet and virus;
this coddling of staff, is a way to treat a pain
more mangling, more unbelievably sore
than any of us are collecting prescriptions for.”

Viking Gold is a wonderfully evocative remembrance of a stern grandmother who, in the end, offered the author a window into all she had kept in check throughout her life, just before ‘her mind unspooled towards infancy.’

“Born of bleak moor and indoctrinated patriarchy;
the dark, meagre modesties of mill town terraces.
Be grateful for the least. Repent, repress
the sin of boastful joy; let your worries be endless
lest God give you, with a clout,
something proper to worry about.”

Lockdown, with all the mental baggage it has created, has certainly given the author much to worry about. He is scathing in his opinion of those who do not take the vaccine, especially those who spread fear about side-effects, branding them murderers. I pondered how many were living with such concerns and if this will change how they interact once guidelines are lifted.

Whatever views one ascribes to on this, the collection offers much to consider along with an appreciation of the natural world that continues to turn through the seasons however man is living within. I found this thought uplifting, that we too may choose to go on, perhaps still at risk but not allowing this to rob us of the joys to be found both in our back yards and beyond.

“Be kind. Forgive. Attend and heed.
Be strong, but lead with love not power.
Look for the universe inside the seed”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Yesterday

yesterday

Yesterday, by Juan Emar (translated by Megan McDowell), tells the story of a day in the narrator’s life – the one before the day on which he is writing down what happened. It opens with the man and his wife rising at dawn that they may attend the beheading of Malleco, condemned by the church for spreading details of the secret of love – for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Tickets to Malleco’s execution are hard to come by, the macabre spectacle proving popular. Much of this first chapter is about how Malleco came to be sentenced to removal of his head. The remainder of the book focuses more keenly on the narrator’s activities and musings.

After Malleco’s gory death, the man and his wife visit the local zoo. This is one of the more surreal chapters. Monkeys sing and the couple join in; observed from the top of a tree, an ostrich swallows a lioness. If there are metaphors to be gleaned they remained opaque to this reader on first perusal.

Following lunch at a restaurant the narrator decides to visit a painter friend, Rubén de Loa, who works only with the colour green. I enjoyed this chapter for how it presented the conceits of art appreciation. There were still plenty of oddities in what was recounted – such as repeated silences of exactly fifteen minutes after which the same nondescript phrases would be uttered. Eventually the visitors study de Loa’s work, the narrator interpreting it based on his past experiences and finding a reflection of his life and philosophies therein. Before such thoughts can cause offence, they leave.

Next stop is a waiting room in which a pot-bellied man sits. The narrator ruminates on how the world changes as one’s mind wanders and time passes. Unable to find the serenity he seeks, he looks elsewhere but is still over-stimulated by minutiae. Exhausted by the direction his thoughts take him, the couple leave.

After a dinner taken at the same restaurant as earlier in the day, they visit the man’s family. Here they become embroiled in a foolish bet set up before they arrived. This leads the man to reflect on the causes of fear and the madness it may lead to – that it’s all in your head but still powerful.

“it is one thing to say that the dead can do nothing to me, directly, personally; it’s another thing, a very different thing, to say that I can do nothing to myself at night, when I am surrounded by the dead.”

“Why not be equally afraid when faced with that chair or that hat?”

I found the ponderings in this chapter of more interest than those woven around the pot-bellied man – although this did offer somewhat depressing nuggets on an individual’s wider value to society.

On leaving the family home, the couple walk through a rain shower before seeking shelter in a tavern. Here the narrator has an epiphany while urinating.

They make their way to their flat where the man, requesting solitude, reflects repeatedly on his day to a point verging on mania.

The detailed digressions, repetitions, observations and considerations wrapped around the bones of a plot set out here reminded me at times of the writing of Simon Okotie. The abstract nature of many of the musings brought to mind a literary Picasso. The wife, a companion throughout the day, remains an undefined shadow by the narrator’s side. There are passing references to: a disgust for all things gelatinous, war and death, a past lover. These appear influential yet remain unexplained. It is a reminder that however much of a day is recorded, there is always more happening – details sidelined.

In the introduction, Alejandro Zambra writes of the author, ‘it’s almost absurd to present Emar as a forgotten writer, since he has never been, so to speak, sufficiently remembered.’ There is much in this book to chew over and I know of many readers who will likely enjoy the challenge. I found it best to read a chapter at a time before pausing to digest and colour with my own interpretation.

An interesting exploration of what constitutes a personal reality that will likely benefit from rereading.

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

Edward Explores – An Introduction

edward in brecon

By quite some margin, the most read and shared post on my blog, year after year, is one I wrote in 2014: 10 Common Misconceptions About Teddy Bears. The very fine bear featured is called Edward Gainsborough. He is a small, jointed bear handmade by the now defunct English Teddy Bear Company. I believe the business was bought by Harrods who promptly closed it down – presumably to remove competition to sales of their own brand of delightful bears. I was saddened to see it go.

I recently received a message from a reader who asked if I still had Edward. Of course I do! And he still accompanies me on all my best adventures, even if these have been somewhat curtailed over the past year. The reader asked for more teddy bear content on the blog which prompted me to consider an occasional series. For my book loving readers who have no interest in bears, these posts will be clearly titled to ensure they may be ignored if desired.

Pictured above is Edward on a rock in Brecon, on the English / Welsh border. When the sun is shining he loves to be out and about (rain plays havoc with joints so is best avoided). Along with many people, he has missed going on his regular adventures. So what has Edward been doing during this time? Read on for the update requested.

edward in window

When the first COVID lockdown began it became obvious that people who were suddenly confined to their local areas and, perhaps, worried by the ongoing media frenzy, needed something to add cheer to their days. Teddy bears are, of course, ideal for such a task. The village where Edward lives organised a bear hunt – bears placed in street facing windows to wave at passers by as they took their daily exercise. Edward joined some of his Merrythought Bear friends who understood the importance of this enterprise.

edward and doctor snuggles

Unlike humans, teddy bears do not require exercise to remain healthy. Nevertheless, given the global concerns caused by the pandemic, Edward thought it best to have his heart checked by an expert. It was no surprise to anyone when Dr Snuggles (an upcycled bear from Susie’s Button Bears) declared that Edward has enough love for everyone. Teddy bears are always available to offer comforting hugs and listen to concerns without judgement. They truly are ideal companions.

edward hibernates

With few opportunities to travel, Edward has spent much of his time in bed. Naturally, a little sustenance is required from time to time to keep him in tip top condition. He prefers cake to bread, even sourdough. Although missing his visits to tea shops, he has remained cheerfully stoic and provided much solace to his resident bearers.

IMG_20210120_143909318

To help pass the time, Edward has also been reading. He enjoys discussing stories with his friends, even those that do not involve his exploits. This book is a particular favourite – one of three written by Mawson, an author bear who lives in Australia. As well as providing unconditional love, teddy bears often share wise thoughts if listened to carefully.

edward and bok bok

In troubled times it is important to look for the positives. Celebrations may have been muted due to imposed restrictions but special occasions have still been enjoyed at home. Edward has joined his friends and adopted family to mark Christmas, birthdays and Easter. A teddy bear’s presence is always an asset, bringing as they do smiles and appreciation of the many simple pleasures available to all when looked for.

edward celebrates

Edward is hopeful that travel will again be permitted from later this month that he may venture further and, once again, explore our beautiful world with his bearers. He raises a glass to your good health and hopes you will return to read about wherever he goes next.

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason

Everything Happens

This book all but broke me with its mix of lonely sorrow and dippy behaviour. It tells the story of Rachel, a mother whose much wanted son, Luke, died in the womb at full term. Structured as a series of emails, Rachel writes to her dead child about her daily routine – people she encounters, how she is thinking and feeling. Mostly set over a five month period, it opens just a couple of weeks after Luke’s stillbirth. Rachel is on maternity leave and grieving deeply. What comes to the fore is how difficult it is to say anything appropriate to those suffering such a devastating experience. Rachel is upset by well meaning friends who use words she finds empty, yet there is no hint as to how one may do better – other than to never say the death of a child happened for a reason.

Rachel lives in London close to both her parents and her in-laws. She is married to Ed and they are comfortably off materially. The marriage appears to be a happy one although the loss of their child has, obviously, taken its toll on both of them. Ed is doing his best to support his wife but she is not sharing with him her coping mechanisms.

On the day Rachel discovered she was pregnant, while travelling by tube to meet Ed and give him the news they had both longed for, she prevented a potential suicide. Although she had no further contact with the young man involved, she now gets it into her head that Luke died because, due to her actions, he lived. She sets out to track the man down and in doing so meets Lola, an underground worker, and her feisty seven year old daughter, Josephine.

In what must be a breach of protocol, Lola provides Rachel with the details recorded about the young man on the day of the incident, when he tried to jump in front of a train. Internet searches enable Rachel to track him down remarkably easily. Her behaviour towards him – Ben – although well meant verge on stalking and harassment. Somewhat surprisingly, he mostly puts up with this.

Lola also allows Rachel into her life, entrusting her with Josephine after just a short acquaintanceship. Rachel turns to these strangers rather than her family, who have proved themselves painfully tone deaf to her current needs. She dreams up schemes to ‘help’ give Ben a better life, as a mother might her grown child. Rachel treats him as her mother treats her – overpowering with good intentions without taking in and adjusting for negative reactions.

The author suffered the heartbreak of a stillbirth so could write aspects of this work of fiction from personal experience. Knowing this undoubtedly coloured how I read the tale – why I tried to accept that certain responses might realistically occur. Rachel’s grief is palpable which makes it hard to condemn her inappropriate behaviour. Nevertheless, how she forces her plans and needs on Ben made me squirm.

Structuring the story as emails maintains pace, providing pithy updates on Rachel’s day to day plans and activities. The writing throughout is focused and heartfelt. Rachel’s dealings with her wider family provide lessons in how not to treat the recently bereaved. However, certain plot developments felt contrived, particularly in setting up for the denouement. It was not this that I found almost too difficult to read. I came close to abandoning the book several times because of how vexed it made me feel.

Rachel undoubtedly deserves much sympathy but I still found her character irritating – particularly how she used her wealth, and treated Ed. The depiction of her in-laws came across as two-dimensionally stereotyped – insular, instagrammable, yummy mummy and self-entitled granny – the oft depicted privileged and blinkered London set. Ed was developed better, highlighting how lonely grief can be even within a loving relationship. Lola’s reaction to Rachel, given their differing circumstances and the fact that she too had family close and willing to help, was hard to give credence to – I was curious about how Rachel made her feel with the over the top gifts to Josephine. Also, this is possibly the only story I have ever read where a dog died and I just couldn’t care.

Other reviewers have written about how much they enjoyed this tale. Some found humour amidst the poignancy. I wanted more depth and less ditzy behaviour from a protagonist supposedly successful career-wise – even if knocked sideways by tragedy. This story simply wasn’t for me.

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

Book Review: Whereabouts

whereabouts

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a multi-award winning author who had somehow passed under my radar. I am pleased to have now rectified this. Another reviewer described her writing style perfectly: “Lahiri spins gold out of the straw of ordinary lives”.

The narrator of the story is an accomplished and independent woman. Due to a mix of life choices made and circumstance, she lives alone in her Italian city flat. Her day to day existence is ordered and materially comfortable. The routines she has developed keep her grounded, although at times she mulls possibilities missed through roads avoided.

“Is there any place we’re not moving through?”

Structured in short chapters, the reader is taken on a journey through the woman’s daily habits and wider experiences. She shares observations on: her surroundings, her thoughts on those encountered, herself and how she reacts. There is an underlying melancholy to many of the musings. Insights shared are succinct and candid, raising issues of interest alongside personal history.

The narrator’s childhood generated an abiding dislike of her parents. She still visits her mother but derives little pleasure from the older woman’s company.

“In spite of how she’s clung to me over the years, my point of view doesn’t interest her, and this gulf between us has taught me what solitude really means.”

There are regular catch-ups with a variety of acquaintances, although the narrator can be scathing about those they introduce her to. On meeting a childhood friend’s husband for the first time, when the couple visit the city with their child, she writes of his pomposity, considering him ill-mannered.

“He mentions that his father was a diplomat and that he was raised all over the world. […] The city doesn’t enchant him, after just two days he’s complaining about our haphazard way of life. […] And I wonder, what exactly did he learn about the world after living in all those different countries?”

Mentions of past lovers attempt to normalise that some were married. There is a brief temptation to take a platonic relationship with the husband of a friend further. Mostly she accepts her solitude and the freedom it brings to live as she chooses. Her life is notably one of comfort and privilege, as are the lives of those she mixes with.

One chapter describes a vacation at an empty country house, offered by the owner as a pick-me-up when the woman goes through an unexplained hard patch. There is a visceral description of her reaction to a decapitated mouse – how the mind can induce absurd terror from unexpected minor upsets. Such insights are presented with consummate clarity.

The honesty in the writing at times includes negative traits. These are dissected with the same candour as all other thoughts and feelings shared. The narrator exhibits a selfishness she is free to nurture as she lives alone and may choose who to spend time with – and when.

Despite her attainments, the woman lacks confidence in certain areas.

“I’ve always felt in someone’s shadow, even though I don’t have to compare myself to brothers who are smarter, or to sisters who are prettier.”

Unlike most of the writing in this tale, the gender divide inherent in this thought grated.

The woman describes herself as disoriented, bewildered and uprooted yet she comes across as solidly able – capable of thinking through experiences and expressing herself clearly. This begs the question what has been omitted – what aspects she has chosen not to share.

The final chapter provides an excellent metaphor for the sadness of the ingrained detachment she has cultivated – of moments missed through her unwillingness to step outside the comfort zone created. The narrator is aware of this shortcoming, and that the bricks on which a life is built often crumble. She ponders the possibility of change.

The short vignettes provide a window into the woman’s world but are far from a complete back-story or description of her current situation. This adds to the story’s skilful pacing and how strands are woven together.

Any Cop?: A spare yet evocative study of a chosen existence presented with impressive lucidity. A reminder that lives move forward, ripples intersecting, ramifications rarely predictable.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Owl Unbound

owl unbound

“In death
they shall inherit the earth.
Until this time
they have been living
on borrowed land.”

Owl Unbound, by Zoe Brooks, is a poetry collection that explores big issues man often ruminates over – life, death, disappointment, expectations. The author winds her thoughts around the wonder that is nature, where such things happen but are accepted as a cycle. Modern living demands control and sanitisation. There is a disconnect with wider existence – oft ignored interconnections that affect wellbeing.

Where love is mentioned it is as a search for something personally fulfilling, or as a loss.

“Our love is without sap,
like the flayed ash”

There is a loneliness in relationships referenced.

“I stole the moon for you,
but you did not even notice”

Many of the topics explored are presented with a degree of bitterness, but there is also humour in the musings.

As well as nature, history features. Fossils are found on a beach and a young boy wants to believe they are from dinosaurs, not simple sea creatures. The ghosts to be sensed in old buildings are ignored by those uninterested in a past that inexorably shaped people and place, concerned as they are only by current experiences.

Punch is a powerful series of poems that use the traditional puppet to portray cause and effect of attitudes and actions – resentments felt by some men and where this leads.

There’s Nothing To See is a clever play on aspects of ageing, including the increasing invisibility of the elderly as they move through society.

“I have taken off my body
and hung it on the wardrobe door.
It has become too much for me.
I am tired of pulling it on
each morning rumpled by sleep.

I have worn it so long
it has lost its shape.”

There are observations on living in a female body, within and without – menstruation, pregnancy, the souring of friendships, disappointing love affairs, watching a parent die.

The writing is penetrating in the insights shared although with an undercurrent of despondency. What comes through is the importance of surroundings – noticing and appreciating small details that offer perspective on personal problems that must be dealt with.

I took from my reading of this collection how man puts himself at the pinnacle of existence despite the short time each spends amongst the living.  The poems reflect how much better life can be with less naval gazing and more quiet reflection on the wider views to be found all around. Carefully written and offering much to consider, this was a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Intimacies

intimacies

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Intimacies is a collection of eleven short stories that delve, with exquisite and piercing insight, into the lives of young Irish women at home and away. Many of the protagonists in these tales have chosen to leave the isle but retain the shadows of their upbringing. Motherhood features strongly – the impact of having, wanting or not wanting children.

The opening story, ‘Like This’, is a stomach twisting freefall evocation of the fear a mother feels when she realises her child may have been abducted by a stranger. The everyday problems encountered when taking both a toddler and baby out, in an attempt to entertain them, are laid bare. The taut prose is all the more powerful for how viscerally the unfolding situation is conveyed. It is a masterwork in the art of succinct storytelling.

After such a strong beginning the reader may wonder how momentum may be maintained. Have no concerns. Each of the following stories offers depth and erudition, weaving important topics that colour women’s lives and relationships into their everyday experiences. Alongside the mothers exhausted by the demands of beloved children are women suffering miscarriage, and those seeking abortion in a country where this is still illegal. The author ably demonstrates that shock tactics are unnecessary when traumas in regular life have been normalised, admitting to them made shameful.

‘People Tell You Everything’ is set in a contemporary Shoreditch workplace. It explores misunderstandings – the humiliation that can be experienced when love is unrequited. The characters view each other through a lens in which their personal desires are reflected. When reality bites the hurt can become hard to live with.

Marriage is portrayed with poignancy but also humour.

“It was Friday night so we were having a glass of wine while we looked at our phones.”

Men may be secondary characters but they are permitted to be good people.

‘Words for Things’ is quite brilliant. Two young mothers – long time friends – are discussing Monica Lewinsky, how as teenagers they judged this twenty-two year old employee caught in the web of a lecherous American president. The story offers a perspective on how people change as their understanding deepens.

“Tonya Harding, Amy Winehouse, Shannon Doherty, Britney Spears. Because the thing was, it wasn’t just Monica Lewinsky. It was all the other women too, who used to be sort-of laughing stocks, and who – you suddenly realised – turned out to be something else entirely.”

Religion, of course, warrants a mention. ‘Jars of Clay’ is set around the Irish vote to legalise abortion under certain circumstances. An earnest if blinkered church group from America have travelled to Dublin to try to persuade people to vote against this proposed change. Their arguments are well rehearsed but even the eager young believer in their midst cannot entirely tamp down her doubts about their mission when confronted by the reality of lived experience.

The Children’ is a powerful tale of the bond between mothers and their children told with reference to Caroline Norton – a 19th century activist – whose callous husband used his legal powers of ownership to ensure severance when she left him after a series of life affecting beatings.

“Cut off from her children after an acrimonious split, she went about changing the law for wives and mothers.”

In the contemporary timeline the narrator is concerned for the viability of her own pregnancy. Each of these stories offers up multiple, entwined issues for consideration.

‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ is set during a flight from Toronto to London. A young mother struggling with her baby is assisted by an older man sitting next to her. There are many layers to peel back in what is a story of marriage and parenthood.

The collection ends with ‘Devotions’ – a reminder of the intensity of love for a child at each stage of their growth, and how quickly the emotional detail of moments that felt so precious fade as lives move inexorably forward.

Several of the characters in these stories muse that their young children will not even remember the events that cost their mothers so much effort and anguish, that what children do remember is often that which caused them pain rather than pleasure.

The writing is seriously impressive – incisive, heartfelt, and always engaging. At times while reading it had me in pieces as I recalled my own experiences as a young woman and mother, but it provides so much more than relatability.

Any Cop?: A mighty collection in which each and every story deserves to be savoured. If you have not yet discovered Lucy Caldwell’s fiction, start here.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Ever Rest

ever rest

Ever Rest, by Roz Morris, tells the story of a popular rock music duo whose fame was immortalised when the lead singer fell to his death on Mount Everest. Twenty years later, those who were close to the pair at the height of their fame are still living with the issues this created.

It is common to read of badly behaved celebrities – of the drugs and casual sex that allegedly go hand in hand with the rock and roll lifestyle, and these do get a mention here. What comes across more clearly in this tale is the way successful artists are manipulated by those wishing to claim a slice of the pie for themselves. Fans, media and those operating in the wider industry feel a sense of ownership, forgetting that the stars are not just a product but also people with agency.

The musical duo called themselves the Ashbirds – a play on their names. They met as teenagers through their parents, who ran businesses in the small Shropshire town of Bonnet. Both left for London as soon as they felt able. Although friends of sorts, there was little love lost between the pair. Nevertheless, together they released songs that touched listeners at a visceral level.

Hugo was the creative talent but Ashten had the drive and charisma. When their albums started making waves and gaining airplay they acquired a team who took care of organisation and security. In the months before their attempt to climb Everest, Ashten took up with a new girlfriend, a dancer named Elza. Also in the mix was Robert, a session musician with aspirations that soared above his abilities.

Hugo was with Ashten when the latter perished on the mountain. As a result he gave up music, instead training to assist those in Nepal – climbing in an attempt to escape his demons. Elza became an artist, taking on commissions from businesses. Robert married Gina and made his living writing advertising jingles.

Over the years, as the bodies of men were discovered in the ice around Everest following thaws or avalanche, Hugo would be called to check if it was Ashten. These events pulled the survivors of Ashbirds closer together again. The old team would be brought in to provide protection from continued media interest. The fanbase would hold vigils, eager to claim a part of the musical legacy they felt belonged to them.

When Ari Markson, manager of Ashbirds, contacts Robert with the news that a backer has offered to fund a fourth album from the band, the musician is faced with a dilemma. He has over-egged his creative potential, claiming to have songs ready that he must now submit for consideration. All he has are those written decades ago with Ashten and subsequently rejected. When Hugo gets wind of what is going on, he steps in to ensure the Ashbirds name will not be tarnished by substandard output. Robert sways between the fear he is being treated as unfairly as twenty years ago and his wish to be involved in Hugo’s now much vaunted return.

Elza, meanwhile, has a new partner, Elliot, who prefers opera to pop music. Alongside the star struck fans who stoke the fires of artistic egos and those who support them, Elliot provides a reminder of how ridiculous and potentially damaging the worship of celebrity is.

There is a notable lack of trust between the characters, even the cohabiters. Those involved in creating the songs seek control, that they may reap the plaudits for themselves. It is about money but also admiration and the reflected glow of association. It is an indictment of the wider musical industry – creators and consumers.

I have detailed a few elements of plot above and always worry about spoiling a readers enjoyment turning the pages. I won’t remove anything, however, as the pleasure to be found in this book is the author’s style of storytelling. She writes with a light touch that belies the inherent skill, care and acuity. The writing flows at a comfortable pace. Tension builds to maintain engagement interspersed with well crafted character development. The human element is insightfully rendered, especially the misinterpretations of actions and intentions. The denouement provides a satisfying tying together of threads.

An enjoyable read that offers a fresh perspective on fame and those who make money from it. A reminder that a quiet life may bring more happiness than perceived success.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Monthly Roundup – May 2021

May has been mostly cold and dreich but with occasional bright spells – in life as well as weather. With the gradual removal of certain lockdown restrictions I welcomed the prospect of increased freedom for people to choose how they go about their daily business. It has been cheering to see our local pubs and cafés busy again, albeit with masked waiters. I am even tentatively optimistic that husband and I may be able to travel to Belfast over the summer to scatter my parents’ ashes, sixteen months after their deaths. This will be dependent on the lifting of certain rules such as wearing those litter-generating masks. I need to feel welcome in any hotel or restaurant booked. We won’t arrange anything until we know it will be allowed to happen – so no last minute health test requirements for travel on the car ferry. The invasive and costly nature of complex and ever changing guidelines may yet keep us home for another season.

Husband has been left idling this month following a ransomware attack on the client he had been working with. Given current limitations there were few options for filling the free time unexpectedly available. Thankfully he has now agreed an alternative contract starting after the bank holiday. This one comes with the added bonus that, initially at least, it will be office based. He is looking forward to mixing with colleagues again.

Daughter returned to London for her final few weeks working wards before starting her permanent position in July. She will move out of her London flat next month, without husband and I having seen it other than in pictures. This past year has denied us so many pleasurable memories. We have missed out on treating her, our boys and ourselves while visiting the capital and other places of interest. Putting life on hold feels such a waste at my age.

Before daughter left we celebrated elder son’s birthday at home together. He chose a Nepalese takeaway and we were able to source him presents he seemed pleased with. It can be hard to buy many items with supply and demand knocked out of kilter. Of course, I recognise we are fortunate to be able to afford useful gifts.

Younger son is currently sitting stress inducing exams. A year of on-line learning has taken its toll and he is considering his options for next year. With only a year of his course left to complete it is sad he is in this position. Like so many students, university has not been the experience he hoped for. Our young people have been badly let down by the various responses to the pandemic.

I continue to: visit the gym for strength training, run around our local lanes, cycle loops from home that take in Wiltshire’s pretty towns and villages. I got in a car for the first time in many months to deliver sacks of books and other items to a charity shop last week. I can’t say I have missed this mode of transport with the dangers it brings from drivers frustrated by others using ‘their’ space. Many roads now feel as busy as they have ever been – a factor I consider when choosing routes to cycle. Lockdown did bring some benefits.

I reviewed twelve books in May, mostly new releases and all of them worth reading. I also posted a guest review written by Peter Wild, head honcho at Bookmunch. Robyn added a further twelve reviews from her TBR pile and NetGalley. It is now a year since she joined me on the blog. I do hope our readers have enjoyed her input.

As ever in these monthly posts, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

hashtag good guy  bitterhall
Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun by Jeff Chon, published by Sagging Meniscus
Bitterhall by Helen McClory, published by Polygon

atomics  netanyahus
The Atomics by Paul Maunder, published by Lightning Books
The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

the high house  emmet-and-me
The High House by Jessie Greengrass, published by Swift Press – guest review by Peter Wild
Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin, published by Honno

panenka  what willow says
Panenka by Rónán Hession, published by Bluemoose
What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle, published by époque press

Translated Fiction

the others
The Others by Raül Garrigasait (translated by Tiago Miller), published by Fum D’Estampa Press

Short Stories

stay-alive-till-75-  3-x-1
Stay Alive Till ’75 by Adelle Stripe, published by Ration Books
3″x 1″ by Bill Drummond, published by Ration Books

Poetry

we are all somebody  well-meat-again
We Are All Somebody compiled by Samantha Richards, published by Fly on the Wall Press
We’ll Meat Again by Benjamin Myers, published by Ration Books

Robyn Reviews

1leig  1john
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, published by Orion Children’s
The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne, published by Orbit

1tbo  1gene
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, published by Jo Fletcher Books
The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec, published by Titan Books

1eliz  1heat
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal, published by Picador
The Forest of Stars by Heather Kassner, published by Titan Books

1kace  amstr
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, published by Faber Children’s
In the Ravenous Dark by A. M. Strickland, published by Hodder & Stoughton

1mina  1nico
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, published by Harper Collins
The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis, published by Titan Books

1andy  1ashl
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, published by Del Rey
A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth, published by Hodder & Stoughton

Sourcing the books

As mentioned, Robyn is on NetGalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased and was gifted a number of enticing titles.

robyn received may 21

I received a fine selection of book post that I hope to read soon.

Jackie received May 21

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is much appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx