Book Review: Above the Fat

Above the Fat, by Thomas Chadwick, is a collection of eleven short stories, a few of which are just a page or two in length. They tell of people inhabiting places where they do not feel satisfied or comfortable. They offer snapshots of lives that have not panned out as once envisaged.

The opening story, A train passes through the Ruhr region in the early morning, recounts a journey as a list of items or places viewed along the way. There is little commentary, although what there is had me laughing out loud by the end.

This segues effortlessly into Birch which tells the story of Stuart who is managing a timber yard in the late 1990s. Having inherited the well established business from his father, Stuart gradually instigates changes. There is a whisper of tension running throughout as the reader awaits his downfall. Not everything happens as expected.

And the Glass Cold Against His Face plays out over five minutes during which a window cleaner clings to a ledge eighty floors up from street level. Discovering he is not alone precipitates several awkward exchanges. It is a scenario that is unlikely to end well.

Purchase presents the difficulties inherent in finding clothes or food that meet expectations. Customers accept such disappointments, complaining to each other later. The couple involved cannot seem to navigate seemingly simple decisions yet readers will recognise what is depicted.

Stan, Standing is the story of a man preparing to attend his brother’s wedding. He does not appear to be looking forward to the event and, as excerpts from the family history are revealed, the reasons become clear.

Death Valley Junction is set in an American diner where a hungry traveller is waiting to be fed.

“Five people, four burgers. This one must be his. He stared out the window across the flat sand that shuddered in the midday heat. Breathed. Waited.”

A Sense of Agency and Red Sky at Night both deal with climate change. The former portrays a flooded London and a man still in denial, despite the water lapping at his feet. The latter has its protagonist allowing any pleasure in life to be drained by his determination to partake in some form of penance.

Bill Mathers is a list detailing a novelist, critic and angler’s views on fish, family and famous writers. Little is flattering.

Above the Fat is the story of a chef who returns to his childhood home after years spent acquiring fashionable skills around the world. He takes a job at a local hostelry and attempts to introduce clientele to the joys of good food. In the time it takes him to fry the perfect egg he contemplates the reasons he has ended up in a place where the locals eschew his flavoursome dishes, demanding simple burgers cooked to their tastes.

The collection closes with a half page description of The Beach at Oostende on a December evening. It is evocative and lingering.

The writing throughout has a haunting undercurrent. There is pathos in characters abandonment of their younger selves. Shadowed situations engender empathy and recognition. In both the ordinary and the more surreal, simple actions lead to disturbance. Much is contained and elicited within each sentence; years of experience captured within fleeting reactions.

This entirely enjoyable collection offers depth and emotive complexity. It is an original and satisfying read.

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


Book Review: The Fire Starters

“This is a power worth believing in. I’m not at all sad for Ella Penney. I’m sad for her parents who do not understand what they’ve been given. Who may well miss the most glorious part of her.”

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring. Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community. There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor. It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.

Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie. Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.

Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship. The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television. The time spent with Sophie’s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.

Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny. He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, more drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.

Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children. Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs. When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community’s July bonfires – citing health and safety – there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks. Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.

Growing ever more despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan. Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly. Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues. They do not fit within what society is willing to accept. Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case. He advises Sammy to act for the wider good. The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.

The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity. Jonathan’s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight. His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed. Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves. Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.

There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast – the experience and legacy of The Troubles. Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city. The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East – from the narrow inner city terraces to the more affluent Castlereagh Hills. The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.

A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit. Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.

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

Book Review: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab, is the first in a new fantasy fiction series aimed at middle grade readers. For those in the UK this is the younger end of YA fiction – not that I like to pigeon hole any book for particular readers. As an adult I enjoyed the story for what it is –  a tale of ghosts and eerie happenings set in a city alive with atmospheric history. Edinburgh is the perfect setting for the tale of a young girl who can step between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The protagonist is twelve year old Cassidy Blake who suffered a near death experience when she fell into a frozen river a year before the story begins. Somehow she was rescued by Jacob, a ghost who subsequently becomes her best friend. Since that fateful day, Cass has been able to travel beyond what she has named the Veil and observe other ghosts in the space they inhabited at the moment of their death. She attempts to photograph them on her vintage camera but remains unobserved by all other than Jacob.

When Cass’s parents, who write books about ghosts and paranormal happenings, are offered a TV show, the family travel to Edinburgh to shoot the first episode. Here Cass meets a girl who can also step through the Veil – she describes herself as an in-betweener. Intrigued that there are other people like her, Cass is dismayed to learn that they have a mission. Before she can process what this means she must face a dangerous ghost who wishes to harvest power from the living as well as the dead.

I picked up this book after reading The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab – the first published work from this author, written while she was still at university. Although not entirely impressed I recognised potential. City of Ghosts justified my decision to read more of Schwab’s books. It is much more tightly plotted with well balanced tension and a smattering of humour alongside the spooky adventure.

The differences in American and British expectations and experiences is just one facet that adds interest, viewing an accepted culture through fresh eyes. Being familiar with the key locations in Edinburgh added to my enjoyment. Mostly though this is a story of a young girl who does not feel she fits in amongst her peers and whose parents support but do not understand. It is a universal theme granted a satisfying twist involving peril and bravery. A story in which Cass has power but is still learning how this should be used.

An action adventure involving the lingering dead who, like the living, may be benign, hostile or seriously dangerous. For those who enjoy fantasy fiction, such as the Harry Potter books, this is a recommended read.

City of Ghosts is published by Scholastic. 

Book Review: Casanova and the Faceless Woman

“However scientific our cast of mind, it always comes down to this, does it not? […] How to get rich and remain forever young. The universal dream of mankind.”

Casanova and the Faceless Woman, by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), is crime fiction set in and around Paris and the Palace of Versailles a few decades before the French Revolution. Its protagonist is Volnay, a serious young man living in frivolous, dangerous times. Granted the title, Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, after he saved the life of King Louis XV, the local police chief does not appreciate Volnay’s incursion into what he regards as his territory.

Volnay works with a disgraced monk who has an interest in and keen knowledge of the latest scientific thinking. He examines the bodies of the dead in an attempt to uncover clues as to how they met their end. This is the age of enlightenment, although there is wider interest in associated gossip, along with wild exaggeration, than in deduction and proof.

The story opens with the discovery of a body – a mutilated young woman. The skin on her face, palms and fingertips has been removed. When Volnay arrives at the crime scene he is dismayed to find it was the renowned philanderer, Casanova, who first came across the victim. Casanova watches as Volnay removes a letter from the woman’s clothing and is then intrigued when the policeman claims it fell from his sleeve.

This letter proves key to the investigation. Influential and shadowy figures are eager to read what it contains as it affects the dissolute and capricious King. His Majesty’s detractors are seeking ways to bring down the monarchy. Others advise caution until those who would grasp power after such a revolution may be put in place.

Casanova regards his involvement in the investigation as another entertainment, especially when a beautiful young aristocrat, Chiara, shows an interest. Volnay is also drawn to the girl and this unlikely trio find they must share secrets if the case is to be solved and the reason the letter is so sought after understood.

Then another young woman is found dead, with her face removed, this time outside a property used by the King to meet with the young girls he favours. Despite the similarities in the victims’ demises, Volnay is perplexed by the differences. With his life endangered from multiple sources, he discovers that trusting Chiara may have been a mistake.

Although this is crime fiction it will appeal to those who enjoy vividly depicted historical fiction. There are sumptuous descriptions of dress and setting, of food consumed and the decadent lifestyles of those who found favour within the Palace of Versailles at this time. Their wealth and privilege may be contrasted with the dangers lurking in the dark and dirty streets of Paris where penury is widespread. Small coins are earned by whatever means necessary to survive, with little loyalty. Death is common and rarely investigated. Punishments are brutal, meted out to those who would not assist powerful figures whose spies are everywhere.

Volnay is an interesting character although I regarded the romantic element of his story an unnecessary distraction. Casanova’s role is well developed – the reasoning behind his behaviour credible even if his performance abilities are overplayed. As I have little interest in dress and lavish furnishings I found the pace unduly slow due to the many details. It also disheartened me to consider the risks people take with their health in order to achieve what is widely accepted as beauty.

“Nothing of all this was real, or true. It was all a carefully maintained illusion.”

Although well written and structured there were too many elements within the story that personally irritated. I grew tired of the lily white skin, rustling silk and gleam of gilt furnishings. I was curious about the science until the unlikely denouement – again, this flight of imagination felt unnecessary (authors are, of course, free to write as they choose).

For those with an interest in the lifestyles of the wealthy the tale offers a colourful portrayal. Centuries later plutocrats are still seeking personal advantage over the greater good of scientific discovery. Aging is rarely regarded as a privilege with outward beauty highly valued. I may well be taking an entertainment too seriously, but I found this tale depressing.

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


Book Review: Music, Love, Drugs, War

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“one day, you turn your head and see that some people have been lost along the way. The truth of the matter is, some of you never did move forward. Some of you stopped and turned off in completely different directions. They didn’t think to say that the hurt was different for them, that they couldn’t move past it. And what you thought was forever, you now know was built on very little”

Liz, Sinéad and Orla are best friends. They hang out at a dive bar, The Cave, with Liz’s brother Paddy and his mates, Christy and Noel. Liz is dating a slightly older guy, Kevin. Orla gets together with Peter. The group drink their pints, smoke too much weed and debate the merits of popular music. Other than Noel, who has his own tatty place, they still live with their parents. Liz and Christy are preparing to sit A’ levels. With few employment opportunities, the others are mostly on the dole.

Opening on St Patrick’s Day 1981 this could be any group of working class young people at the time. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives. But this is Derry, a tinderbox of sectarian violence with the added fuel of the Maze prison hunger strikers. The British army man the checkpoints and barricades. They stalk the streets with their guns and blackened faces. Their armoured vehicles rumble through the housing estates while military helicopters buzz overhead, watchful and threatening.

Drink, drugs, music and making out distract from the reality of living in a city at war. The violence rendered is physical and emotional but also the only life these teenagers have known. The English are despised yet an escape to England is considered a pathway to a better way of living. The future beckons but choices made in the present will inexorably shape its direction.

Rioting intensifies as the hunger strikers start to die, martyrs to a cause in which these young people show little interest. Then some of the group, intoxicated by the collective fear and excitement on the streets, start to join in. One of them is killed setting off a chain reaction that will mark each of them forever.

The story plays out over an intense six month period during which friendship and loyalties are tested to their limits. Actions reverberate through wider family circles. Granting favours can be dangerous.

The author has captured the voice, the time and the place, telling a tale that explains why certain young men joined the IRA. For those of us who lived through these times the memories kindled are as much of the fashions, music and close friendships that later melted away as of the terrible events and experiences that formed the backdrop to adolescent dreams.

Any Cop?: This is a masterful coming of age story but also a depiction of the impact of the Troubles on the generation who were born and raised during the years of conflict. As nostalgic as it is powerful, the story serves as a timely reminder of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. It is also a damn fine read.


Jackie Law

Book Review: The Choke

The Choke, by Sofie Laguna, is a piercing and at times shocking coming of age tale. Set in small town Australia, its protagonist is Justine Lee who is ten years old when the story begins. She is playing a rough game with her two half brothers, Kirk and Steve, in woodland near her remote and neglected home. The family is fractured and often violent. Each has been shaped by cruelties inflicted by those from whom they might have expected affection.

Justine’s mother, Donna, left her daughter when she was three years old and hasn’t been heard from since. Justine’s father, Ray, is rarely there. The girl has been raised by her grandfather, Pop, on his three acre patch of land by the Murray River. They exist side by side talking more to their hens than to each other.

Kirk and Steve live with their mother, Relle, who Ray left for Donna. All three children seek Ray’s attention on the rare occasions when he returns. Ray is a callous father who amuses himself by baiting those in his vicinity. He has told Justine it is her fault her mother left. The boys idolise him but he pays them little attention.

Pop looks after Justine because nobody else would. Damaged by the war he has his own history of violence and regret. The one person who appears to be relatively happy is Pop’s daughter, Rita. She has made choices her father disapproves of leading to lengthy periods of estrangement.

Justine lives much of her life in her imagination. She cannot read or write so struggles at school. When she is forced to sit by a disabled pupil, Michael, her supposed friends expect her to mock him as they do. Instead, Justine learns to understand Michael’s mannerisms and utterances and he becomes her first and only true friend.

Growing up Justine had played with a neighbouring family, the Worlleys. Then Pop got into a fight and told Justine to stay away from them. Later, one of the older boys assaults her. Justine shuts down the part of her that understands why. She struggles to deal with the many violences, mental and physical, that she has suffered in her short life.

On one of his visits Ray favours Justine over his sons, ignoring her suggestion that he should be including Kirk. Later Ray tests her loyalty, having used her to gain access to a former girlfriend. Justine copes by suppressing thoughts of the damage he inflicts.

The friendship with Michael adds light to Justine’s grim existence but their shared pleasures are short lived. Left only with the memories of the different way of living she briefly glimpsed, they become something else she tries to forget in order to survive what is left.

The story jumps forward to when Justine is thirteen years old and starting high school. She is ill equipped to face the challenges this brings. Craving some form of affection she attracts attention as her body changes. With no one to notice or offer support, she suffers the consequences of being her father’s daughter.

Justine has no knowledge or experience of the words that could express the emotions she has been conditioned to suppress. This silencing, the years when her voice has been ignored, leads her to blindly accept a path until she finally realises she can no longer live this way.

Ray may be a monster but the author offers mitigating circumstances. Pop’s prejudices are damaging but he too is suffering the fallout of horrific experience. These are not excuses – Rita had the same upbringing – but they add depth.

The themes explored have been covered many times before in a plethora of stories but The Choke is still something special. It has a raw and compelling heart that lays bare the contrast between a child’s acceptance of the only life they know and their need for even some small measure of affection. It is emotive but never sentimental.

The land and the people are vividly portrayed as is the poverty and repetition of mistakes across generations. Although bloody and upsetting the denouement is fitting. This was a powerful and rare read.

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

Book Review: A Chill in the Air

Iris Origo is perhaps best known as the author of her previous diary, War in Val d’Orcia, which she published to acclaim in 1947. It was praised for the positive effect it had on Anglo-Italian relations as it detailed the risks taken in the German occupied region of southern Italy, where Origo lived with her husband and daughter, to assist partisans, fugitives and refugees. A Chill in the Air is another of Origo’s diaries covering the years 1939/40, when Italy was looking to Mussolini to keep them out of a war slowly spreading across Europe. It details the rumours and propaganda of the time – the struggle to sift truth from a variety of news sources and the debates these sparked.

Origo was born to wealth and privilege. She had high placed connections in the arts as well as diplomatic circles. In 1924, aged twenty-two, she married Antonio Origo and they purchased an estate in southern Tuscany. Despite having a child (who died, aged 7) she continued to travel abroad periodically, indulging in occasional love affairs. She would return to her husband who was taking advantage of Mussolini’s ‘Battle of the Wheat’ to turn their arid land into productive farms worked by peasants.

The book offers a first hand account of a strange time written by a woman largely raised in Italy but not fully belonging due to her British and American parentage. As well as providing insight into the thinking of her peers and the local population, it offers thoughts on wider attitudes to the growing threat of conflict. Early on Origo recognises that governments must manipulate popular opinion by whatever means necessary if they are to get their way.

“It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e. the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion.”

There is resentment from wives and mothers as their husbands and sons are conscripted. They question the point of raising boys, of working hard for a better life, if the men they nurture can simply be taken away.

There are predictable prejudices and blind spots recounted, depending on who the author is talking to. Despite differences of opinion, few have any appetite for the coming war.

“A still, lovely summer’s evening; the grapes ripening, the oxen ploughing. Only man is mad.”

Nevertheless, as Hitler continues his expansion this mood must be changed – governments control through fear and suppression of resistance.

“Day after day, year after year, every paper gives us the same news, preaches the same doctrine. Plenty of people say, ‘We don’t believe what’s in the papers: it’s all a pack of lies!’ But all the same, something sinks in.”

Horrific tales of atrocities abroad are discussed. The German army, high on cocaine to retain energy, are reported as baiting and killing the ordinary Polish people they come into contact with. Businessmen make money from stolen property and commerce.

“The capitulation of Holland is announced with considerable Schadenfreude. On the same day a grocer in Florence receives a letter from a German firm – already offering him Dutch cheeses!”

More countries fall to Hitler’s occupying forces and freedoms are curtailed. News from abroad becomes harder to obtain. Attention focuses on what Italy’s future role will be.

“we hardly pay any attention to the news that Russia is occupying Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Japan is menacing Indo China. Banditry spreads fast.”

When Italy joins the war there is a feeling of inevitability. Within the new order, power is shifting.

“the contempt of the new world for the old, of the self-made man for those who have attained with ease what he has achieved with effort.”

It is interesting to read this Italian view of other nations, especially of England – regarded as corrupt and sterile – and of Churchill whose speeches are considered:

“vain boasts, based on no foundation of fact – a cynical last attempt to bolster up the English people to meet their inevitable destruction.”

The diaries cease abruptly when Origo goes into labour – her pregnancy had not been mentioned until she travelled to Rome for the birth.

In an Afterword, written by her granddaughter, we are offered a glimpse of the author’s later years.

These diaries offer a first person account reported with immediacy rather than hindsight. I did not find the entries entirely compelling but they challenged the history taught to me in school. For this I am glad to have read the book even if my interest did at times wane. The politics and loyalties of Italy under Mussolini are portrayed in an alternative and therefore thought provoking light.

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