Book Review: Once Upon a Time in Chinatown

Once upon a time in Chinatown, by Robert Ronsson, is an engaging and not too demanding story inspired by a film – Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, released 1974 – that I haven’t seen. The writing has a noir quality and beat, featuring an apparently benign narrator who can never quite be trusted. Within the tale various characters are drawn to a grand but unfinished building in Malaysia – Kellie’s Castle – which actually exists and has the general history used by the author to fine effect. He is a self declared film enthusiast and this shines through in the writing style and references.

The story opens on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London in 1996. This introduces the reader to the protagonist, Steven Cross, and plants a seed that he may have been involved in nefarious activities. He vaguely refers to events of the previous six years, pondering how the past is always open to interpretation.

“Yesterday can be changed in its recollection and retelling, particularly if you have something to hide.”

The timeline then moves back to 1990, with the rest of the book offering Steven’s version of how his life changed radically following the death of his mother, Stella, in the late summer of that year. She was a foundling who raised her son alone after his father died before they could marry. These facts resulted in Steven having no known wider family. After Stella’s death, her middle aged and financially stable son cleared their shared house of her belongings. In doing so he came across the name of his father for the first time, and a photograph. Clues to the identity of an enigmatic but never discussed figure from his past set Steven on a road that would eventually lead him to similarly aged cousins who help him piece together their family history. Their forebears’ ambitions and love stories started in Scotland but took them to Malaysia, Lisbon, and to Steven’s locale in London.

The history and culture of Malaysia in the twentieth century has a key role to play but the focus of the story is one of family and expected loyalties. Steven states many times how much he values now being a part of a known and shared ancestry. In light of his actions, the reader may not be quite so convinced of his motives in becoming involved in his cousins’ lives.

Aspects of plot development, particularly those set in Lisbon, at times dragged a little. Nancy’s beauty and the effect this had on men appeared clichéd. Nevertheless, there are enough interlinked threads made plausible and necessary for added depth and progression. Film quotes fitted without feeling shoe-horned in.

The tale is told as a straightforward narration yet there are blurred lines in admitted asides. Steven’s claim to be offering a truthful account are tantalisingly believable – for what constitutes truth when certain facts can always be omitted?

In these strange times I was looking for a story that offered effortless escapism. There is enough of interest in this deliciously equivocal tale to more than meet this criteria.

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

Book Review: Dancing Naked in Front of Dogs

Dancing Naked in Front of Dogs, by Michael Maul, was offered to me by my contact at Fly on the Wall Poetry Press. It does not, however, appear to be one of their books (my assumption – no such claims were made). Does this matter? Probably not, although I am wary of taking any book that has been self-published. I read this one not realising it had been so no preconceptions leaked in. On discovering afterwards I was not surprised. It is a mixed collection in terms of quality of writing.

The poems were written over a six year period and are divided into four chapters. There are many that muse on aging and death. The author is a white American in his seventies who has stated he writes of the emotional toll of everyday life with the aim of offering poetry that is accessible. I found the poems reflecting on wider issues, featuring characters from a variety of walks of life, the most rewarding.

The collection opens with a punch to the gut. Anniversary Poem is a powerful reflection on the day the narrator’s brother disappeared.

“I stood on the sidewalk
by my parents
when my brother set off
on his first ride solo around the block
and never came back

For fifty years some of me has waited there”

This is followed by Chasing the Ex – a regret tinged remembrance of a short lived marriage and the person the narrator could have been.

“That what I thought I was, but then became
were not really both the same,
old enough now to see
no lights from days up ahead
shining even half as bright
as those I saw in her
and she saw, once, in me.”

Wedding Bouquet offers a picture perfect wedding moment that is then rejected and restaged when the ‘wrong’ person catches the titular bouquet. The cruelty of the mother of the bride is breathtaking, the other guests complicit.

Body Heat captures a simple moment between lovers, when one slips out of bed to take a shower and the other relishes the heat lingering on the sheets on a bitter winter’s day. Many of the poems try to capture such everyday snapshots, with mixed success.

Back to School deals with a parenting milestone, when a child first runs into school without thinking to say goodbye.

“Among parents still hugging their kids
I pretend to wave goodbye
to a boy
not only out of sight
but already gone.”

The moments written of in these poems are recognisable and relatable. They are significant to the narrator for a variety of reasons.

There are some that deal with heavy issues, such as Getting Something Off Her Chest (cancer) or The Clothes of Children Claimed by Fire (an horrific bus accident), yet somehow fail to resonate.

Others are crafted with a cadence that read as too contrived. Poetry requires layers and depth more than rhyme.

I enjoyed To The Little Girl Who Kissed My Dog, despite its lack of nuance for what the mother may be going through.

“Yours will be a better life than hers
And you are right to not eat everything
she puts in front of you.
Fear, after all, is a life-long meal,
that once begun your choices are two:
you feed on it,
or it feeds on you.”

The experiences offered are most often lived by a man, perhaps of a similar age to the author. The supporting cast too often appears two-dimensional.

The author may be writing for a particular audience, those who will recognise themselves in his words. It was only in glimpses that I caught a wider empathy between these pages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis. 

Book Review: She-Clown and Other Stories

She-Clown and Other Stories, by Hannah Vincent, is a collection of sixteen short stories featuring women recognisable from ordinary social situations. Their everyday lives require that they compromise their potential in order to survive the hand chosen or dealt. They are described as feminist stories and this is accurate in a myriad of ways. Some of the women are chafing against the restrictions of marriage or motherhood. Others are pushing for their right to be themselves within a family that expects them to be something else – a facsimile or ideal. The tales are succinct, layered and fierce in their observations. They are also funny and refreshing in the spotlight shone on behaviours.

The titular story tells of an entertainer working at a child’s birthday party. The mothers congregate over wine and complaints about husbands and children. On arrival, She-Clown is introduced.

“‘You probably know half the people here,’ the mother said, turning to Charlie, and it was true that Charlie did recognise some of the faces. One of the men had sat in her car. She had given him a blowjob. She recognised his moccasin shoes. Another man, in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, had fucked her in a laundry room among mountain bikes and drying washing while his wife gave out party bags.”

Charlie goes through her routine, aware of how she is being watched by some of the men. The children accept everything offered as their due, refusing to be impressed.

Other stories tell of parents called to schools – teachers expecting them to sort out a child’s behaviour where it doesn’t fit with the expected agenda.

Single parents push against their situation, and against their lack of agency in the face of authority figures.

Working mothers juggle the satisfaction of their professional lives, trying to find balance with family needs amidst parental criticism.

One story features a young couple recently returned from travelling, who are considering going down the road of motherhood. A catching up is required of one of them if they are to remain together. Love is all very well but people change over time and have diverging desires and expectations.

Not all of the women’s lives revolve around children.

Carnival offers the reader a young women whose office life demands she dress up (never well enough) and accept her boss’s disturbing behaviour. Making a fuss is frowned upon.

I enjoyed the stories featuring older women, many of whom behave badly in the eyes of their offspring. One mother gives her grandson an inappropriate gift, watching carefully for her daughter’s reaction. The grown up daughter of a controlling mother finds a novel way to exert her will when the mother is hospitalised.

These power plays between family members are presented with insight and wit.

In The Mermaid and the Tick a young couple go on holiday abroad at the behest of the husband. The wife is compliant, submitting to his plans despite reservations. When he notices she is fitting in better than he expected and that, while his needs are met, she can enjoy herself without him, his enjoyment is not as he anticipated.

Many of the men featured do not come out well in these stories, mainly due to their habits of wanting wives to revere them while they look lasciviously elsewhere.

A few of the stories offer more surreal elements, set in a world that may be futuristic. One explores how important it actually is for experiences to be real or useful if they are enjoyed by those who partake. Another is set at a dinner party where nobody knows who invited them or the purpose of the evening. There is a hankering for the past, or a might have been present, yet women continue to behave as others expect them to – even in the face of impending chaos.

The Sparrow is set on a successful doctor’s retirement day. It has a poignancy wound around why she ended up in the profession.

“‘Couldn’t be more proud’ is an expression of a surfeit of pride, and that wasn’t David. It wasn’t Daddy’s way either. I assumed it would please my father to have me follow him into medicine, and at a time when there were far fewer women doctors than there are now, but he was more concerned with Howard and his career, for all the good that did either of them. It will be good to have more time for my brother after today.”

It is interesting to consider the drivers in decision making – how women are conditioned to be pleasing. The denouement of this story is quietly moving.

Another moving story in the collection is 3 o’clock which is told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia. As she struggles with the tasks necessary to enable her to leave the house – remembering to take her smart bag and good purse, doing up the buttons on her coat – voices from the past haunt her. Each time she opens her fridge she hears ‘Close the door, it costs me money every time you go in there!‘ As she does her very best to make herself presentable she hears her mother-in-law say ‘You could wear the same outfit, Clem, and it wouldn’t look so smart.‘ Oh for more kindness within families…

I commend this collection to you for the variety of themes explored and the assiduity with which they are presented. The lightness of the writing belies the intricacy of the narrative. An entertaining and deeply satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Wed Wabbit

Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans, is a children’s story laced with humour and riddles. Its protagonist is Fidge, a young girl who is still struggling to cope with the death of her father. Grief is not an explicit plot thread but goes some way towards explaining why Fidge acts as she does. Her mother is doing her best under difficult circumstances, again not something the children reading this tale may take away. They will likely enjoy the adventure and more fantastical elements, especially when our heroes must do battle in a popular fictional world.

Ten year old Fidge is tired of reading the same storybook, night after night, to her four year old sister, Minnie. But all Minnie wants is The Wimbley Woos. These tales are set in a colour coded community of creatures shaped like dustbins with limbs, who each have different skills and use them to help the others. Fidge would far rather be packing for their upcoming outdoor activity holiday. She is trying out a high-density packing technique to minimise her required luggage. Unlike her mother and sister, Fidge is organised.

The next day there is some last minute shopping to be done. Fidge has been promised a pair of flippers but first Minnie needs sandals. As usual on these excursions there are distractions. They run out of time. Angry that she is the one who ends up carrying the plethora of toys Minnie insists on taking with her everywhere, which she then drops when something exciting catches her eye, Fidge lashes out in anger with devastating consequences.

All of this means that Fidge must go and stay with her annoying cousin, Graham, who is scared of: stairs (in case he falls down them), toast (in case he chokes on a crumb), insects (in case he catches a tropical disease) – the list goes on. His parents pander to his phobias and talk of little other than their concerns for their son. Fidge doesn’t believe Graham has anything wrong with him that couldn’t be cured with a change of attitude. Graham regards Fidge as far below his superior intellect.

Fidge is still carrying Minnie’s toy collection including her favourite bedtime companion, Wed Wabbit, which Fidge hates. The cousins argue, the toys end up at the bottom of the cellar stairs, Fidge realises Minnie will need Wed Wabbit but a massive thunderstorm cuts off power. And then, because this is what most of the story is about, the cousins end up in the land of the Wimbley Woos.

Although filled with feats of derring-do and puzzle solving, this is a gently told tale injected with a great deal of wit. Fidge needs to solve a riddle if she is to bring Wed Wabbit home. Wed Wabbit is not so sure that this is what he wants as he is angry, which puts the entire land in danger. Even with her detailed knowledge of the Wimbley Woos’ skills, Fidge struggles to get them working as a team. And then the rainbow land starts losing its colour.

There are obvious (at least to an adult) uplifting messages underlying the tale. These do not detract from the fun way the challenges being overcome are portrayed. All the characters, even the initially annoying ones, have their part to play. A great deal is learned by Fidge and Graham – without too much moralising.

Wed Wabbit is published by David Fickling Books.

My copy was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse is: a work of art, an object of beauty, a story of hope in a world that at times feels geared towards stifling any form of positivity. There is nothing saccharin in the musings. Rather, the story of the titular protagonists offers reflections on the difficulties inherent when living, and how one may try to cope when feeling lonely or anxious. The central message is about the importance of kindness, and that love exists in unexpected places if one is brave enough to let it in. Mention is made of friendship and its importance, and that good friends may be found outside the human race.

 

The story opens when a lonely boy meets a cake loving mole and they strike up a conversation. They exchange views on a variety of topics and the problems they each face.

When the fox comes along the mole is scared, but this does not stop him performing an act of kindness. The underlying feel of the book is that it is beneficial for all if we look out for others as well as ourselves. Self-care is important. In talking of love, this is where it needs to begin.

 

More is said in the illustrations than in the words. They are deliberately messy in places. Imperfections are a part of everything in nature, including ourselves, and beauty can still be found and appreciated. There is no shying away from difficulty in these pages. Accepting that life can be hard but all things pass is a recurrent theme.

In his introduction the author states that he wants readers to be able to dip in and out of the book. It is not necessary to read it in any order, or indeed to read it all – although I suspect readers will, at least first time through. The characters accept each other as they are. They are seeking a home and find it after what feels like a long journey.

 

Just as the book is mostly about the art, so I have tried to give a flavour of what it offers with these pictorial examples rather than in words. There is so much more than I have included here. The story will resonate in a visceral way for those who find their innermost concerns reflected. Its power is in the simplicity with which it represents complex issues.

 

For the lonely, the anxious, the sad and those who feel out of place;
for the worried who look at our world and despair of the careless cruelty and wanton waste;
for those whose worries feel overwhelming, for whom the future looks bleak;
this is a warm hug of a book that I urge you to read.

   

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse is published by Ebury Press.

Book Review: You Never Told Me

You Never Told Me, by Sarah Jasmon, is a story of the pulls and disconnects inherent within families. Parents work hard to provide what they believe is best for their offspring without comprehending the blinkered lens through which they regard an ever-changing world. Decisions made reverberate across decades leading to schisms where appreciation was expected. Children struggle to regard parents as individuals rather than providers of support, in whatever form necessary. They resent criticism or any attempt to take control of decisions. Siblings grow jealous when caught in a net of duty when another appears to have achieved freedom and, perhaps worse, greater admiration.

The story opens on a Thai ferry where a hungover Charlie is returning from a disappointing party weekend at an island getaway with colleagues from the language school where she has secured temporary work. Charlie is on a sort of gap year, despite being a decade older than most who partake of this indulgence. She ran away from the prospect of the life she was expected to lead: marriage to her loving, long term boyfriend; paying off the mortgage on the house they bought together; caring for their dog. She is coming to realise that her current hand to mouth existence in this hot and sticky place is not the answer to her restlessness, and that maybe it is time to return to England.

Any potential for her usual prevarication is removed when she receives a message from her sister that their mother has been hospitalised. Charlie’s contingency planning for a need to pay for an emergency flight is non-existent. She appears to be living her life in the moment with no sense of what to do should her trajectory change. Not for the only time in the story, a kindly stranger steps in to help. She arrives back in Sheffield safely, albeit with minimal luggage and no money. By the time she walks to the hospital, her mother has died.

Charlie’s sister, Eleanor, is capable of taking charge – this despite, or perhaps because of, also having to deal with her father, husband and two young children. She cooks meals for Charlie who has installed herself in her childhood bedroom and borrowed clothes left by their mother. Charlie goes through the motions of each day without making plans. When it is announced that the family home is to be sold and that their father will move in with Eleanor, Charlie understands she must move forward but appears to have no idea how. Once again, her predicament is resolved thanks to the actions of others. Unbeknown to her daughters, their mother had purchased a canal boat. Charlie moves to this until she can work out what she now wants.

The mother, Britta, is portrayed as a bland and submissive character so her secrets – especially the uncharacteristic purchase of a boat – intrigue her daughters. Charlie resolves to dig further using the few clues uncovered. Eleanor is obviously struggling to spin all the plates she has been handed. Whilst supportive of her sister there is still resentment at the way Charlie upped and left for Thailand.

And then there is Max, the jilted fiancé, living in the joint owned house that he was left paying for, along with their dog who was left in his care. Charlie now wants her share of the house. And she wants the dog. All readers will get behind the dog’s right to her best life.

The main plot involves the slow uncovering of Britta’s background. This is well presented and structured. There are a few coincidences that help in Charlie’s investigations along the way, but also sufficient within the threads to maintain reader engagement. Depth is added through character development, especially around the familial relationships.

The story is told from Charlie’s point of view but in such a way as to offer balance. I became irritated by her constantly jangling nerves leading to loss of concentration, having to remind myself she was grieving. I wanted to tell her that headaches and inability to focus could be due to her apparent inability to feed herself, and then wondered how many people in her life had felt compelled to try to voice such unasked for advice. As usual I did not enjoy the sex scene but concede that it added another aspect to her backstory.

Charlie connects with her elder niece, Martha, who she recognises as needing a friend. I thought it a shame that even the little that was asked for – and promised – went largely undelivered. I understood the wider reasoning for inclusion within the plot but there is still a desire for children to be listened to and treated fairly; perhaps we all harbour scars from being ignored by adults with their skewed priorities.

One important thread that shines through is the portrayal of life on the canal. Despite her apparent flakiness (the escape to Thailand must have appeared like a bolt from the blue to her family), Charlie manages to pick up quickly how to manage a boat, largely thanks to the generosity of other canal people. Living on the water, by a public towpath, takes some getting used to. Charlie’s appreciation of her surroundings – its disconnect from life on land despite their proximity – is beautifully rendered. Wider attitudes to crusty canal folk is touched upon lightly.

The writing and pace are fluent and well balanced (although I did wonder from time to time what had been cut during editing). The nuances of family life are presented in a multitude of forms and from several points of view. The denouement neatens the weave of threads without offering solutions that are too machine perfect. This book was a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: In Lieu of a Memoir

“This is a work of the author’s imagination […] Even the author is a figment of the author’s imagination.”

Tadhg Muller may or may not exist. In this collection of short stories his narrator shares episodes from his life – autofiction – that remain riddled with inconsistencies. The effect is destabilising as foundations are created and then shifted. At times the experiences related are quite base and graphic, which would normally put me off reading. However, there is so much wit and humour within these pages I remained entertained.

Interspersed with the stories are notes, written as if by the Editor, who also writes the introduction. In this he explains that the tales cover a period in the author’s life when he was living in London. They represent an existence fraught with financial worries – meagre food, housing, and a succession of energy sapping jobs offering little reward. Tadhg claimed to have arrived in the city after a hasty exit from the Islamic Republic. The collection opens with a dream recounting his escape.

That the author is writing stories is occasionally mentioned (meta, but go with it). The Editor recalls an encounter at a bookshop in Bethnal Green that Tadhg nearly missed, despite being down to give a reading.

“I was so overwhelmed by the mass of people outside the bookshop when I arrived, I paused to consider my next move, thought about cutting and running,” he confessed with tight-eyed gravity, “then a double-decker came, and the footpath cleared.”

One of the stories sets out an attempt to join a writers’ group in London. The group has guidelines as to who it is aimed at, those it will welcome.

“They declared they were “a friendly group of writers.” I then read that not everyone could become a member.”

In retaliation, the narrator attempts to set up a rival group. This trundles along ineffectively until he loses his job at a bakery after insulting his boss, a fellow writer, who is “working hard to meet the deadline imposed by insatiable penguins.”

“Still working on this crap? I said.
She sat back obviously stunned, obviously wounded, but mostly just aware of the truth of my statement.
You’re fired, Tadhg.
I nodded and thanked her and so walked out, past the Tartar who offered me one last smile, then closed the door on that world, a world that was a far greater lie than all the fictions I’d concocted.”

The author regularly pokes fun at the pretensions of self-appointed elites. An artist who has achieved preeminence is observed to have been granted “deification amongst the London cultural establishment”. Staff in a coffee shop who serve this artist are “sunned by his eccentricity”. The narrator is determined not to fall victim to such behaviour.

“He paused, and turned his head to take a better look at me, opened his eyes wide, very wide, wider than usual. He’d realised I’d anticipated his behaviour. He realised he’d been anticipated.”

There are stories during which the narrator seeks shelter with a friend. At times he is trying to support a wife and child. In others he is alone. Jobs change but the struggle to make a living continues. He writes of encounters with a variety of characters, some struggling and others whose supposed success he despises.

“Mr M took us – us being the main players – to a cafe for a debrief. There he settled into his allocated role, shifted to instruction, and authority, his sense of isolation in the world and amongst others only broken by the execution of authority, I imagined his folk had done it for a thousand years or more.”

What is offered in this collection is a picture of life in the city through the piercing eyes of a narrator who is trying to find a way of fitting in without compromising what he is. Or maybe he would have been willing to compromise had a break been offered. The reader cannot know because of the shifting nature of the writing. What in lesser hands may be pure pathos becomes humorous without losing the bite of the difficulties faced. It is a cleverly constructed and rewarding read.

In Lieu of a Memoir is published by Open Pen.