Book Review: Not Thomas

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin, is told from the point of view of five year old Tomos, who lives with Mammy and Brick in Wales. Mammy and Tomos used to live with Nanno and Dat, and Tomos misses them a lot. Nanno fed him good food and wrote him letters. Dat made him a train table that he still plays with even though the trains have been taken away. Nanno and Dat’s house was filled with stories and songs; now Tomos spends much of his time alone. He knows he mustn’t open the door when Mammy isn’t there so when the lady comes knocking, or the man with the web tattoo, he hides behind the big chair and waits for them to go away.

Tomos likes his teacher at the school he attends since the move. Miss is kind and smells nice, unlike the people who frequent his home. Miss shares her lunch with Tomos when her husband has made her too much, telling him that he is being helpful. The other children tell him he is stinky. Mammy calls him Stupid Boy.

Sometimes Tomos has fish fingers for tea but often all he can find in the cupboards are crisps. He likes the food at school and takes seconds when offered. His new friend, Wes, tells him school dinners are yucky and he should bring a packed lunch. Wes also tells Tomos about the DVDs his uncle watches. He enjoys putting thoughts into Tomos’s head that give him nightmares, and then running away.

The reader experiences Tomos’s life through his eyes whilst understanding the aspects that a five year old child cannot comprehend. The hunger, cold and neglect he suffers are harsh enough but the more immediate dangers he is subjected to when Brick’s associates visit make this a tense read. Tomos is known by social services to be at risk. Their stretched resources and need for proof before intervening are starkly portrayed.

Set in a small community where residents have grown up together, sometimes in equally challenging circumstances, there are memories of how people were before the drugs and alcohol took hold. Loyalties and a desire to protect their own lead to difficult choices, with outcomes that may be causing more damage than good. Old at nineteen, Mammy has already made accusations to get what she wants, using her son as leverage. Trying to help Tomos risks reputations as well as hard won careers.

The author has captured the inner voice of the child whilst retaining the flow of an adult story. Although incidents of extreme violence are graphically depicted there is no sensationalism.

The possibility of other life choices in a neighbourhood rife with hardship is touched upon, effectively lifting a narrative that could have become overwhelmingly bleak. The author writes with compassion and empathy but also practicality. There is nothing mawkish about this tale.

This is the human face of contemporary child poverty where the kindness of others, the refusal to look away, can make the difference between life and death. A difficult subject woven into a darkly engaging story. A recommended read.

 

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

 

Not Thomas has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Guest Book Review: Hollow City

As part of their #SummerReads promotion, Quirk Books sent me the second and third instalments in Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children trilogy (I review the first one here). These books are aimed primarily at young adults and, within a day of their arrival, one of my resident young adults, Robyn, had them read. As my reading and reviewing schedules are currently somewhat packed I decided to ask Robyn to provide me with her thoughts. I plan on reviewing both books myself later in the year but, for now, I hope you enjoy reading this, the first guest review I have hosted.

 

The second novel of Ransom Riggs’ ‘Peculiar Children’ trilogy, ‘Hollow City’ picks up immediately where the first book left off. It chronicles the children’s quest to find a cure for their ymbryne and guardian, Miss Peregrine, who has become trapped in the form of a bird. Their adventure takes them through multiple locations and time zones, and the children make both new allies and new enemies along the way. There are also some fascinating revelations about the various children’s histories. The book delves much deeper into the world of the peculiar, and contains an interesting twist towards the end to set things up for the final novel of the trilogy.

The concepts in the ‘Peculiar Children’ books are not particularly original. Children with powers who must go on a quest from their school-type environment is probably the single most common young adult plot in history, notably done in the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series’. However, the way this is presented in ‘Peculiar Children’ comes across as new and refreshing. Ransom Riggs succeeds, as in the first book, in writing something that stands out from other books in the genre. The inclusion of peculiar animals as well as humans did come across as a little juvenile – but this could be more to do with the association of talking animals and children’s books than the writing itself.

‘Hollow City’ reads like the typical middle novel of a trilogy. It is well-written, with intriguing new characters and revelations, but it doesn’t stand alone as a strong book in the same way as the first. ‘Hollow City’ would not make much sense without having read its predecessor. As much as the plot is engaging, the feeling persists that the primary aim of the novel is to take the reader from A to B so that everything is ready for the ‘grand finale’ in the last book. It follows a linear journey rather than a traditional story arc. This is especially evident with the ending – the book never really comes to a conclusion, merely hitting another climax then leaving things to be continued in the next novel.

Overall, ‘Hollow City’ is an enjoyable book that approaches the young adult fantasy genre from a slightly different angle. Anyone who enjoyed ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ will likely enjoy this, but they will probably find it a bit weaker.

 

Robyn Law.

Book Review: How to Be a Kosovan Bride

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill, follows the trajectory of two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other becomes a Returned Girl, rejected when her husband accuses her of lying about her virginity.

The Returned Girl determines that she will not accept a marriage to a lesser man just for the sake of form. Instead she will pick up her studies and, despite the skewed entry system, try for university. Her family support her efforts, ignoring the looks and comments from their local community.

The Kosovan Wife quickly falls pregnant, much to the delight of her husband and his parents with whom they live. They regard her as a good girl, believing their son has made an excellent choice. The Kosovan Wife is grateful that, for now at least, he leaves her alone.

Interwoven with the lives of these two women are related tales of the previous generation during the Kosovo War. Many are still haunted by the cruelties inflicted by the occupying soldiers from whom they fled into the mountains, where they struggled to survive the hunger and cold. Those who returned often found that their homes had been destroyed. Although wishing to move forward, the older generation’s hopes for the future are at odds with many of the young women’s dreams of personal freedom, which traditional living precludes.

The Returned Girl is much taken by the idea of life in London. University offers her the chance to meet foreigners and secretly, scandalously, she dates boys her family do not know. She acquires an interest in politics. She starts to write down her relatives’ stories from the war.

The Kosovan Wife is also writing, as a means to escape the increasing unhappiness of her married life. She retells an old folk tale in which a good woman is wronged by a series of men. Unlike the Kosovan Wife’s experiences, these men are taken to task for their behaviour and thereby gain understanding.

The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. Whatever path taken, the glimpsed alternatives bring into question choices made. Tradition and poverty prove as constricting to women as closed borders.

This subtle exploration of the complexities of life in newly liberated Kosovo is presented in nuanced, engaging prose. A modern history told through its people. An intelligent, rewarding story.

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

Random Musings: Reader Fatigue

To be clear…

If you wish to read a book, any book, then you should read it. If you enjoy reading a certain genre – and genre is simply a means of classification – then you should read it. No reader should be shamed for their choices. Sometimes it is good to switch off from life’s stresses by indulging in easy entertainment.

As for me…

I like to read an eclectic mix of books. As a book blogger I am fortunate in being sent a generous quantity of books to review. Other than romance, which I am unlikely to enjoy, I accept most genres.

Over the past few years this has resulted in me reading a large number of crime and thriller novels. Recently I have become aware of them merging. The means by which they grab my attention, maintain the tension, throw out a few red herrings, offer a twist at the denouement, has appeared uniform. I believe I am suffering reader fatigue with these popular genres.

There are, of course, exceptions. Authors such as Sarah Hilary, Mick Herron, AA Dhand, Adam Hamdy, Paul E. Hardisty and Ragnar Jónasson have produced books in the last year that have sufficient depth and character development to stand out – and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What I have become aware of though is that I am seeking out more literary fiction. I crave the variety of structure, the experimentation, the lyricism. Beautifully crafted prose delights me more than clever plot twists. I seek characters who challenge my preconceptions.

 

I find the books I currently enjoy reading bubbling up from the small presses. It is not that I wish to fall off the radar of the bigger publishing houses who still produce much fine work – Gather the Daughters and Tin Man come to mind as recent reads I would not have wanted to miss.

Still though, the market feels crowded and I am not simply after the next big thing. For me, a standout read must do more than mimic. Rather than the next, I seek the original.

 

 

Stories from Paris – Guest Post by Alex Christofi

Today I am delighted to welcome Alex Christofi to my blog. Alex’s first novel, Glass (which I review here), was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize. His follow up, Let Us Be True, was published this week (my review is here). In this guest post he shares his thoughts on five real places from the book, and the stories from them that he had to include.

 

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of
landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – the Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against the curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – the Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

This post is a stop on the Let Us Be True Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Let Us Be True is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Let Us Be True

“When he was six years old, he had been taught that compassion was the only quality of any consequence, and tonight he had tied a knot along the smooth train of his life, and it would trail behind him, snagging over rough ground, staring back at him when he stopped to look, no matter how far he tried to pay it out.”

Let Us Be True, by Alex Christofi, is a love story – not a romance but rather a story of survival and its toll. The protagonist is Ralf who meets the beautiful Elsa in a run-down Parisian bar and embarks on an affair.

Ralf was born in Hamburg, the son of Emil – an academic who researched eugenics. Ralf and his mother fled to London as Hitler rose to power.

Elsa, a child of loyal Nazi sympathisers living in Berlin, carved out a life for herself in the aftermath of the conflict. She now seeks excitement but is loath to risk all she has achieved, even for love.

“They had all been prepared to suffer and be ruthless in service of a grand vision of the future, without seeing that all one is left with, in the end, is the past.”

The couple’s backstories provide insight into the life of ordinary Germans between the world wars. Given current events this makes for sobering reading. Emil’s story in particular moved me – a man who produced scientific evidence that nobody was willing to hear.

After serving with the British in the war, Ralf stayed in Paris rather than return to his mother in London. She wished for him to find a wife and raise a family, not appreciating how displaced he felt. In Paris he befriended Fouad, an Algerian Muslim suffering discrimination that the war should have proved indefensible. Fouad’s story is just one tragedy of many told here.

“We may struggle one way but we are all being dragged another by our heritage, by history.”

Ralf falls passionately in love with Elsa but she tells him little of her history or circumstances. When he surreptitiously follows her and discovers the truth it comes at a cost. He descends into a destructive spiral, becoming involved in student agitation, eventually emerging to return to London following the death of his mother.

The writing is poetic in its stark beauty, the phraseology adept and poignant, evoking a past that has been lived, futures lost. The denouement rises from a settling tenebrosity whilst avoiding compromising the preceding character development. Life goes on.

An affecting narrative of studied elegance that seduces the reader despite its dark core. This, his second book, places the author amongst those whose trajectory I will now closely follow. Literature lovers, you want to read this book.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

Book Review: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief, by Augustus Rose, is a fast moving thriller involving a teenage protagonist and a shadowy, ruthless organisation. It takes the works of artist Marcel Duchamp and imbues them with meaning. The puzzle to be solved involves artefacts, experimental drugs, and the nefarious profits to be made from hedonism.

Lee considers herself to be invisible. Her dad walked out on his wife and daughter when Lee was seven years old and she reacted by starting to shoplift. This activity developes into a lucrative sideline and gains her the attention of Edie, one of the cool kids in her class at high school. Their friendship makes Lee feel that she belongs.

The girls dream of college but Lee’s stepfather points out the costs, unaware that Lee could now fund herself. Her ill-gained money comes to light when she is unfairly blamed for drug dealing. With her future in tatters she eventually ends up on the streets where she encounters The Station Master. His operations are a part of something bigger and Lee determines to help those whose well-being he sacrifices, for motives she cannot yet fathom.

There is a link with a rave scene that girls like Edie regard as the epitome of cool. As Lee delves deeper she is discomfited to discover that she has been watched for many years. She has something that the organisation wants, and it is more than her latest light fingered acquisition.

Contemporary resources are used to good effect with hackers, the dark web and mass surveillance enabling both sides to hide and search. It was refreshing to have a young female lead able to think and act for herself.

The taut and slick writing encourages the reader to keep turning the pages but my interest in the plot waned when I began to understand what the organisation was seeking – it has been done so many times before. There were false flags that fell by the wayside, threads left to dangle. I wonder if this is to be the start of a series.

Although easy to read I felt dissatisfaction with the tale. It started well, but I struggled to maintain interest in yet another secret society operating from within hidden rooms, beyond the law, for age old ends.

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