Book Review: My Europe

My Europe is an anthology of stories, poems, drama and essays exploring Britain’s relationship with Europe in the wake of the contentious referendum result that could lead to Britain leaving the European Union in a process commonly referred to as Brexit. The publisher writes:

“The anthology is about Europe, not just the EU, but in the interests of fairness we tried to include more pieces in favour of Brexit. Alas, it proved difficult”

In trying to present the facts around such a complex and emotive subject, certain of the short essays are a tad dry to read. Nevertheless, they succeed in offering up information that is too often drowned out in hectoring rhetoric by supporters on both sides, and in the click-bait seeking media. The dismay felt by so many at the unleashing of previously suppressed xenophobic hatred has led Remainers to consider the prospect of Brexit an unmitigated disaster. What is rarely now mentioned, but is acknowledged within these pages, is that the behemothic bureaucracy of the EU is far from ideal.

“In truth, Brussels is a democracy-free zone. From the EU’s inception in 1950, Brussels became the seat of a bureaucracy administering a heavy industry cartel, vested with unprecedented law-making capacities. Even though the EU has evolved a great deal since, and acquired many of the trappings of a confederacy, it remains in the nature of the beast to treat the will of electorates as a nuisance that must be, somehow, negated.”

In the first essay, Suzy Adderley writes:

“For many Tories, the neoliberal stance of the EU is not problematic, but free movement of labour and loss of sovereignty are anathema, while for left-wing socialists, the neoliberal structures are highly problematic whilst they would support the free movement of labour and regulatory structures. So it seems to me unrealistic to expect either main party, as presently constituted, to as a whole or entirely support or reject Brexit.”

Throughout this book there is clear headed recognition of why the referendum vote went as it did (hindsight being a wonderful thing). There are also attempts at increasing understanding of the cost of Brexit should it go ahead. This does not just explore the social cost, although the allegorical stories and poems cover this effectively. Several essays try to measure the economic impact, especially on those already so badly affected by recent government policies promoting austerity. Long term membership of the EU has created legally binding agreements as well as financial obligations that cannot easily be unpicked. Lawyers are being kept busy.

As I read each contribution I noted that the authors had travelled to countries in Europe and experienced their different cultures, something that many people will not have had the means or opportunity to do. The authors’ desires for wider European assimilation suggests that when they have been fortunate enough to travel abroad they have not been ring fenced with like minded tourists in coastal resorts but rather have explored and interacted widely. There is no acknowledgement of the ability and privilege this reflects.

There is mention of the problems of anger and nostalgia, a sepia tinted nationalism that has little basis in reality. With the country names and borders of the world in constant flux this is not a purely British phenomenon.

Several of the essays that purport to understand the Leavers’ point of view concentrate on the economic penalty Brexit would bring. There are mentions of important issues such as protection of workers rights, cross border health care agreements, research projects that pool resources and funding in order to share results across universities. Whilst not wishing to discount these potential problems, I thought it a shame that presentations for the Leavers side of the argument focused entirely on the negative aspects. Likewise, those authors waxing lyrical on the benefits of remaining in the EU concentrated on the social and cultural benefits of an open Europe, largely neglecting to mention the costs and frustrations of continuing EU membership.

In his essay, The Levellers and the Diggers, Giles Fraser writes:

“the bastard conqueror isn’t the European Union – we freely gave the powers away. But the EU has meekly become his servant. The bastard conqueror is international finance that ignores borders, locates itself offshore to pay no tax, and has the EU in its pocket. Look at how the EU dealt with Greece, imposing crippling austerity on its people. Look at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the massive trade deal that the EU has been negotiating – mostly in secret – with the US. Under the terms of this deal, large companies will be able to sue nation states if they introduce policies that curb its profits. I’d vote against TTIP if I could. But because of the way the EU is negotiating the deal, I have no say in the matter. And nor do you. The EU has become a neoliberal club, and I will not worship the God they serve.”

In committing itself to a timescale for leaving the EU without a clear idea of what must be achieved, the current British government has set itself up to either fail or wander blind into unchartered territory. The EU will not make it easy for Britain because otherwise other countries may follow suit.

In the publisher’s conclusion she states:

“There might possibly be eventual benefits in leaving the EU, but it could take a generation. […] The true tragedy is that Brexit is a distraction from far more important problems needing to be addressed”

The Brexit issue has become so polarised it is difficult to debate. I applaud this attempt at presenting both sides in what is an informative and engaging anthology with a variety of writing styles and a mix of contributors. It would be a step forward if readers from both sides could allow their strong opinions to be rationally questioned. While such an outcome appears elusive, books such as this provide necessary insight.

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


Book Review: Black Sugar

Black Sugar, by Miguel Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Boyce), is a story of pirates, buried treasure and rum. Set in the forests of Venezuela it charts the country’s development through the twentieth century alongside that of residents of a remote sugar plantation. The elegant, often humorous prose is fable like. There is desire, intrigue, greed and the unstoppable rhythms of life.

The story opens with a shipwreck. Marooned inland, surrounded by swampy forest, Captain Henry Morgan is dying atop his lifetime’s hoard of treasure. As the weeks go by his marooned ship and valuable supplies rot, or are consumed by the land and his hungry crew. There follows a storm, a mutiny, and the captain and his treasure disappear.

Three centuries later the land has been drained and cultivated. A village has been built, the tale of an English pirate and his lost hoard become legend. On the Otero family farm, Ezequiel and his wife Candelaria live modestly with their late born daughter, Serena. The child has developed an interest in botany, observing her surroundings whilst dreaming of new horizons.

Their quiet life is enlivened by the arrival of a stranger. Severo Bracamonte, a young man in his twenties, has purchased documents from a travelling merchant purporting to reveal the location of the English captain’s buried treasure. He asks for permission to stay on the farm while he conducts a meticulous and methodical search. In exchange he offers a share of the booty he is convinced he will find.

Serena is unimpressed by this slight, pale faced man. As the weeks go by with no success she becomes annoyed at her parents’ tolerance of Severo’s continued presence. All this changes when he finally brings back an artifact. Serena’s reaction causes him to rethink his ambitions.

With Severo’s help the farm grows in size and wealth. He branches out, creating a mill and distillery. Serena works alongside him, keeping the farm books but yearning for a child. The arrival of another stranger, an Andalusian treasure seeker, changes their prospects once again.

Treasure comes in many forms, what use it is put to determining its value. Each of the characters achieves, but not necessarily what they thought they desired. Greed is shown to be a disease, wealth an entanglement. This is a deft and gratifying evocation of the cycle of life in an ever evolving land.

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

Book Review: The Future Can’t Wait

The Future Can’t Wait, by Angelena Boden, is a story about a mother who cannot bring herself to grant her grown-up daughter independence. When the young woman, having completed her university finals, decides to cut contact with her family and move away, the mother falls apart. Her life, it seems, had been entirely predicated on ensuring her child developed into the person the mother desired as a friend and companion.

The story opens a few weeks before the daughter’s final exams. Rani is an intelligent young woman studying astro-physics and expected to achieve a first. Against her much older brother’s advice – Adam is now a doctor practicing in America – she attended her local university and continued to live in the family home under her mother’s watchful eye. Rani is of mixed race, her Iranian father having left to return to his homeland when she was young. Her British mother, Kendra, remarried David who was a highly regarded if somewhat eccentric professor. David is now retired, pursuing hobbies in his garden workshops. He has always appeared to get on well with his step-children.

When Rani starts to rebel against the many restrictions her mother has imposed, Kendra puts it down to the pressure of upcoming exams. Having been berated by her mother in the past for wearing dresses deemed unsuitable as too revealing, Rani decides to purchase loose fitting clothes and wear a headscarf. Unbeknown to her mother she is a member of the Persian Society at university where she is learning more about her heritage and has made new friends. Her mother firmly believes Rani has no interest in religion or politics and struggles to accept a side to her daughter she has not approved.

Kendra teaches GCSE psychology and has a particular interest in the development of the teenage brain. She offers her friend, Sheila, sensible advice in dealing with her children but cannot seem to accept such wisdom herself. When Rani moves to London to take up an internship the young woman ensures that her family do not have her new address. A few weeks later she deletes her email account. Unable to contact her daughter, Kendra descends into a state similar to grief. When Rani sends a letter informing her family that she is fine, doing what she wants with her life but will no longer keep in touch, Kendra becomes further unhinged.

David and Adam advise Kendra to grant Rani the time and space she needs, assuring the frantic mother that her daughter will return when she is ready. Kendra cannot accept this. She reads horoscopes, contacts psychics, purchases tarot cards, and phones premium phone lines that promise help in finding missing persons. She runs up debts in her quest to find a reason for her daughter’s defection other than her own dominating behaviour.

David bears the brunt of his wife’s spiral into cognitive dissonance and addiction. In losing control of her daughter she also loses control of herself. She has the support of David, Sheila and Adam but resents the truths they tell her. Sheila cannot understand why the previously sensible Kendra has become so obsessed by charlatans and woo woo practitioners:

“What do you want them to do? Tell you where Rani is so you can drag her home by the hair?”

David is upset at the large amounts of money Kendra is wasting, unable to comprehend how she can believe these people can help when it is her behaviour that drove Rani away:

“I’ve watched how you’ve over involved yourself in her life. Telling her what to wear, organising her study times even at university, vetting her friends.”

The loving mother who coddled and smothered her daughter now starts to neglect her other child. Adam is making his own enquiries into his sister’s possible whereabouts but questions how much he can share with his mother who has become increasingly unstable. Kendra risks her job with her behaviour and turns to a stranger for comfort (why does she comply when a restaurant he takes her to demands that she hand over her phone?). Even when David becomes ill she berates him for not doing more to act in a way he has never done because now this would suit her.

In a country-wide climate of growing fear over terrorism Kendra is concerned that her daughter may have become radicalised. When the police suggest the same she rages against the accusation. Despite being desperate to find her daughter she ignores a photograph that could be of Rani and therefore offer a potential lead – she is concerned that the police are making racist assumptions. When Sheila suggests that she turn to social media to see if Rani’s friend network can help, Kendra rejects this sensible suggestion as she does not consider it to be her thing. When a couple of Rani’s friends approach Kendra in town she frightens them away with her erratic behaviour.

I read this book wanting to shake some sense into Kendra. We do not own our children and a mother’s job is to prepare their offspring for survival away from the nest. Kendra’s idea of love appeared to be focused on being loved herself.

The study of addiction, grief and denial were interesting facets in what is an intense and emotional tale. The synopsis of the book describes it as a ‘gripping story of a mother’s love for her daughter’ and in reviewing it I recognise how harsh I have been. As a mother I cannot imagine the pain of having one of my children sever all contact. Kendra’s story may well resonate with those whose children are more like rebellious Rani than the ever supportive Adam. I did wonder at the ongoing relationship Kendra would have with Adam’s partner given her apparent need to influence offspring’s behaviour.

My lack of sympathy doubtless stems from my own parental relationships – we bring to each book we read our personal experiences. This is a powerfully written and engaging story that could feed much interesting discussion. I applaud the author’s ability to generate strong feelings in her readers.

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

Book Review: Rainbow People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Rainbow People is the third and final book in the late author’s Metamorphosis Trilogy. The title alludes to the term ‘rainbow children’, described in the introduction as:

“a species of children who are different enough to make them distinct from normality by virtue of the intensity of their curiosity for how things work, or should work, in the world around them, combined with a gentleness and even ‘sweetness’ of disposition to others.”

The story explores reactions to the recent migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe as seen through the eyes of a man, Richard, a woman, Jenny, and a child, Sophie or Sophocles, who observe and discuss the crisis. The narrative structure is detached in style. Conversations are recounted, written down as he said/she said, along with the thoughts of those conversing – their remembrances of previous discussions.

Sparse background details are provided but these are fluid – the child, for example, is at times a boy and then a girl. An older man, Cyril, who is making a film on a beach, could be an acquaintance or Richard’s father. These details are unimportant in the message being relayed.

The first part of the tale is set on the Mediterranean coast near the border between Greece and Macedonia. The man, woman and child are walking towards a film crew. A group of actors are on the beach playing the part of refugees. The child takes off into the sea and is rescued, the performance filmed. The personal reactions of the observers are detailed alongside conversations about the crisis unfolding nearby.

“it may seem customary for people in trouble to be helped […] people who have been categorised as fugitives suddenly become those heading over a rainbow to a new existence – to one that is of a new nature – one which is reached by a recognition that sunlight and raindrops need not be opposites, but can together make something beautiful and the same.”

The reasons for human migration are discussed along with speculation on the preparations made by the migrants, their chances of success and acceptance by those already living in Europe.

The actors have not been fed that they may understand hunger, yet this is regarded as unnecessary, ridiculous, as are many actions surrounding the refugees.

“Even now, we seem to have learnt something of how ridiculous war is. But we are imbued with the idea that something should be done rapidly about a situation in which we find ourselves. And so we bomb people who we think must be causing the troubles”

There is talk of beauty, art and trust, of a need for tenderness as embodied in the actors’ reactions to the child.

The setting shifts to England where the man and woman plan a visit to the camp near Calais known as The Jungle. Richard muses that in a jungle the creatures have found ways to coexist, some living high up in the trees, some at ground level, all finding shelter. Their adaptation to the environment is achieved through instinct, without such planning and discussions as people in positions of power demand.

“the world’s large-scale problems, which were in almost everyone’s interests to solve, were brought to nothing by the strange obsession of humans that all this had to be explicable and validated by words”

Once in The Jungle, the trio observe the packed cars and vans in a traffic jam, all hoping to get to England. The child asks about sex and why her parents wanted children. Her mother answers:

“We wanted to change the world. And we got you.”

The child observes the people in the vehicles looking out their windows and wants to help.

“’What’s wrong with looking out of windows?’ Jenny said, ‘That’s all we do anyway.’ The child said, ‘You mean our eyes are windows.’ Richard said, ‘Or mirrors.’ The child said, ‘I don’t even know what I look like. ‘Jenny said, ‘No. Other people do.’”

As a story I found this a strange little tale although it does offer a window into the reasons behind the refugee crisis and the foolish behaviour of governments.

The book concludes with a postscript, by Shiva Rahbaran, in which she writes of meeting the author and their subsequent discussions. She asks:

“Can humans learn from their mistakes, and evolve into higher beings that can ‘become a rope over the Abyss […] a bridge and not a goal’ and thus save themselves from extinction? This question has been at the heart of Nicholas Mosley’s literary experiment for the past twenty-five years.”

Any Cop?: At around eighty pages in length this is a short work that offers much to consider. The philosophical debates were of interest although the author took as a given the need to save mankind as a species, despite his environmental negligence. In a book seeking to create bridges, to hope that those who come after will evolve into something better, perhaps this is fitting.


Jackie Law

Book Review: The Darkness that Divides Us

The Darkness that Divides Us, by Renate Dorrestein (translated by Hester Velmans), is a story of lives blighted by secrets surrounding a murder. Told from the points of view of the children most affected, it highlights the misunderstandings and frustrations that arise when adults charged with caring for young people forget that children speak a different language to them.

The book is set in and around a new housing estate in the Netherlands, a prototype that the government promised would allow families to grow amongst like minded people, detached from the problems and fears of inner city living. Young couples moved into these sterile and remote dwellings, and soon began procreating. As fathers had to travel longer distances to work, the mothers would get together to air their grievances. Thus their children got to know each other from the cradle.

Close to these new homes is an old rectory. Here lives Lucy, her bohemian mother and their two lodgers, Ludo and Duco. Lucy’s mother illustrates children’s story books. She reads Tarot cards for the other mothers. She doesn’t fuss if clothes are dirty or juice is spilt. The children love to visit her house and Lucy, always ready to suggest a daring and imaginative game, becomes the de facto leader of the preschool group.

When a new boy, Thomas, moves into a house on the estate Lucy chooses him as her special friend, deciding that they will become engaged. A party is held at her house to celebrate the occasion which turns inexplicably grim when Lucy’s mother discovers Thomas’s origins. She decides that her family can no longer live in the rectory, that they must move far from these people. Appalled, Lucy decides to run away.

On a stormy night Lucy sneaks out of the house, overhearing an argument between her mother and their two lodgers as she leaves. The next morning Thomas’s father is found dead.

The children are six years old and have only just started school. Their escapades and reasoning appear precocious, a reminder that adults struggle to empathise with young people at their level. Parents will think they know best and try to protect. Children observe the fickleness of adult friendships, the interesting facts they refuse to share, how their opinions are swayed by gossip and speculation.

Events of that stormy night change Lucy forever. The other children are frustrated by her sudden restraint and try to force her to react by tormenting her, desiring the return of their exuberant leader. Unbeknownst to them Lucy has been tasked with keeping a dark secret that over time she locks away in the recesses of her mind. She accepts years of vicious bullying believing it is her due.

Lucy’s mother goes to prison and her child is cared for by Ludo and Duco. The men are largely unaware of the torments Lucy suffers at the behest of her erstwhile friends. When her mother is released it becomes clear that their situation has become untenable. The four decide to move away.

The first part of the book is told from the point of view of one of the bullies, a child living in a supposedly ideal family unit. The second part, set on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, is narrated by Lucy. Here she must learn a new language and find a way to fit in with local children raised on the remote island. Although still only twelve years old, the damage caused by her childhood reverberates.

Ludo and Duco continue to offer Lucy their unconditional if somewhat gauche support. Lucy and her mother struggle to cope with what the other has become. Lucy is trying to move forwards, unsure of the truth of her memories from the pivotal night, unwilling to think too deeply about what happened and her role in events.

“The story that lay pressed between the covers of our mutual silence had best remain what it was; a closed book.”

The damage caused by her mother’s attempts to protect Lucy lead to her dealing with the island children’s taunts in a shocking way. She is terrified of once again becoming the victim of unrelenting bullying. She longs for the company of younger children who have not yet learned to torture those they perceive as not fitting in.

By the denouement Lucy has turned eighteen and is facing her future. Out in the world, away from the support of Ludo and Duco, she is forced to confront the way she has allowed the secrets of her past to shape how she thinks. The adults who cared for her may have had her best interests at heart but each person, child and adult, were affected in ways the others proved unable to comprehend.

This tale is in many ways chilling, not least because of the uncomfortable truths it lays bare. As adults it is too easy to think we know better than the children we interact with. We cannot control the events they will remember, the conversations and silences they will translate in unforeseen ways. The voices of the narrators are a reminder that, whatever our age, it is only possible to live inside one’s own head, unable to fully appreciate other’s perceptions, feeling at the moment and dwelling on whatever causes pain.

A complex and unusual story that, whilst heart-rending, is never sentimental. It is tense in places, thought provoking and engaging. A recommended read.

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

Book Review: Lord of the Dead

Lord of the Dead, by Richard Rippon, is a dark crime novel set in the North East of England. Its protagonist is Dr Jon Atherton, a university lecturer and psychologist who freelances for the local police force providing profiles of perpetrators from crime scenes. The story opens when he is called to a particularly gruesome murder. The body of a young woman has been found by a dog walker, carved into bits and left in a field.

Atherton suffers from cerebral palsy which affects his mobility. He is married with a daughter but is in counselling following an affair with a colleague he worked alongside on a previous case. His wife is unhappy when he is once again asked to team up with the woman, DS Kate Prejean.

Prejean and Atherton start their investigations by visiting the scene of a previous murder in which another young woman was found in pieces. Their fear is that they may now be dealing with a serial killer, and as time passes this proves to be the case. To find him (apparently it is always a him) they need to work out the motive and how victims are selected. Other than their similar looks the dead woman appear to have nothing to link them.

The police team must deal with the modern trials of crime fighting: an invasive press;  social media sharing; a PR department whose budget is the only one not to suffer recent cuts to funding. Added to this it becomes clear that an insider is leaking sensitive information. As further bodies are discovered a need for results leads to an ill advised and disastrous attempt at an arrest.

There are elements typical of the genre: Atherton drinks heavily and struggles to be a decent husband; Prejean is conventionally beautiful and emotionally defensive; there are sexual undercurrents and objectification, a lack of detached professionalism; a woman of colour is underrated. The plot arc, however, is strong enough to belie any accusation of being overly formulaic. Tension is retained without feeling overdone and the prose remains engaging.

I found the forensics lead, Sue Cresswell, a more interesting character than Prejean. Even Atherton’s wife, despite her depression, appeared stronger than this supposedly capable senior investigator. Amongst the men DC Rogers felt somewhat underplayed. Given the large cast I wondered if some were introduced with a view to development in potential sequels.

This is a competently written crime novel, British noir with some intriguing reasoning. A strong addition to a popular genre. For fans of crime fiction it is well worth reading.

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

Book Review: You Have Me To Love

You Have Me To Love, by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty), is a tale of grief and loneliness set on a small, unnamed island in a remote region. The protagonist is a boy named Mikael who, at nine years old, watches as his father is lost to the sea. The boy blames himself for what happened, as does his mother, Dora. Guilt and recriminations fester as they skirt around each other, unable to provide the particular support each craves.

Also living on the island is Karl, a fisherman. There is a third house which lies empty following the death of an elderly lady, Miss Augusta, who was raised there by her parents. Mikail used to visit with his father who would sort any repairs or maintenance at Miss Augusta’s request. After her death the remaining residents help themselves to the contents of her home as it slowly decays.

Each fortnight groceries are delivered to the island by a boatman, Brigitta. Other than the policemen who come to investigate his father’s disappearance, and one trip several years ago to the nearest town on what they call the mainland, these are the only people Mikael has ever seen.

The story opens on the day Mikael watches as his father is taken by the sea. Afraid of being punished, he does not tell his mother immediately. Even when her husband was alive Dora had been volatile. In her grief at his loss she lashes out at her son creating a painful distance between them that will remain.

Mikael had been home schooled by his father, a task his mother cannot deal with. Thus his schooling ceases and another contact with the outside world is severed.

By the time he is fifteen Mikael is helping Karl, although Dora does what she can to prevent the boy leaving the island even for short fishing trips. She grows jealous when he chats to Brigitta’s son. She resents when he escapes her moods by spending time alone in Miss Augusta’s house. Dora is growing ever more unhinged, her plans for Mikael more than the boy knows how to deal with.

Life on the island is portrayed as one of contrasts. There is a harsh beauty alongside the dirt and decrepitude; a freedom from rules within the confines of the surrounding sea; a loneliness that demands self-reliance. Dora may be jealous of any person or thing that draws her son’s attention away from her, but Mikail is also intent on keeping his mother’s attention for himself.

There is an undercurrent of foreboding, a tension as the reader realises the grotesque direction Dora’s mind is taking. A powerful, parallel plot line with a searing relevance, revealed at the denouement, injects a moment of empathy for the woman whose maternal instincts have appeared so lacking.

A somewhat bleak but evocative portrayal of a life removed from the oft maligned compass of society. Although engaging throughout, the power of the story is the impact it leaves beyond the final page.

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