Book Review: This Is the Afterlife

thie is the afterlife

“I always tell myself the past only seems simpler because I’ve had time to process it. The only thing I can do right now is react”

This Is the Afterlife, by Jeff Chon, is a collection of fourteen short stories with thematic links around the effects of living in America, especially as someone who looks Asian. It provides an excellent evocation of place and of those who inhabit each space portrayed. Certain characters appear in several of the tales although this is understated, only noticeable to those paying attention. There are undercurrents of sadness such as the inevitability of once close childhood friendships fizzling away into distant acquaintance. The lasting effects of school bullying are explored through aging and reunion.

Racism and bigotry raise their ugly heads as does the manner in which these are typically dealt with – few wishing to make a fuss within a neighbourhood they must continue to live within. The American fetish with those who have fought for their country – ‘thank you for your service’ – appears in a number of entries, along with the reality of how war can ruin participants psychologically.

Many of the young people who feature grow into an adulthood they feel diminishes former expectations. There is a great deal of drug taking, perhaps as an escape or to fit in with peers.

Other recurring themes include difficulties in understanding across generations. They Belong Here Now is a particularly shattering tale of adopted children who wish to reconnect with their place of birth. Two Korean born young adults who have experienced racism growing up in America try to make new lives for themselves back in their home country. They take on names they feel better fit what they were born to be. Their loving parents naturally feel rejected, but as much because they truly believe they were offering something better, unable to see their white saviour actions as anything negative.

The opening story, P.A.L.A.D.I.N., mocks a small town religious community as they try to save their young people from the evils of popular music. Subsequent stories explore what becomes of such young people as they escape to college or the world of work. These are typically quite bleak depictions. Life continues to throw curve balls as they age. Parents are perplexed and disappointed by how their grown children behave despite advice and best efforts.

The dead feature but perhaps the book title is more a reference to how life must continue beyond milestones that were supposed to lead to more ease or fulfilment. There is no happy ever after. People are let down, although mostly by themselves.

The stories may be bleak but they are interesting to read, offering food for thought on attitudes and prejudices. The writing flows and the characters are well formed and developed. A serious take down of the supposed land of the free but one that provides sufficient entertainment to keep the casual reader engaged.

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


Book Review: Night-time Stories

Night time stories

Night-time Stories is The Emma Press’ first short story anthology. The ten stories included were chosen by the editor, Yen-Yen Lu, from submissions exploring the theme of Night. The tales are eclectic in style and scope but all are worth reading. As always I have my favourites but this should not detract from the quality of the writing throughout.

Following an introduction from the editor, the anthology draws the reader in with The Girls are Pretty Crocodiles Now by Angela Readman. A young boy, Jonah, tells his peers he has caught the tooth fairy.

“Jonah was the sort of kid whose face looked so gleeful breaking bad news, no one could care about him for long.”

What happens next is chilling yet told with understated simplicity – a masterful flight of the author’s imagination.

Sleeping in Shifts by Winifred Monk tells of a couple, both filmmakers, who work from their home on the same projects, one by day and the other through the night.

“This is the life of those who work at home, or live at work.”

They each regard the world differently, although most of what they see is the narrative taking shape on their screen.

Whose Lounge by Leanne Radojkovich is a gloriously rational response to a young child’s question asked of their tired, single mother.

“What happens when no-one is in the lounge?”

It turns out that most humans rarely consider life that does not involve them.

Obon by Miyuki Tatsuma explores how dancing can offer an escape from the mundane, even for those who may only enjoy the pursuit when no one is watching. There is much to unpack in the truth behind what may be regarded on the surface as a happy and supportive family.

Dream Boats by Jane Roberts is less than a page in length yet paints a vivid picture of a cityscape at night, a scene that is rarely static.

(hippocampus paradoxus) by Valentine Carter is a tale I would not have expected to enjoy, anchored as it is to a sexual act. What lifts it is its current relevance, offering many layers to peel back around gender and consent. Although it is clear what is happening, the author avoids any hint of voyeurism. A surprisingly thought provoking story.

Daylight Saving Time by Rebecca Rouillard explores time travel. I enjoyed the depictions of how the mind works at night when a suggestion of possibility has been planted beforehand.

Kikimora by Sofija Ana Zovko is a story that bends reality. In this tale the narrator is dealing with grief. It may not have resonated so much with me but was still well told.

dream lovers by John Kitchen is a short, quirky love story, in which a couple get together when they realise they each dream about the same thing each night. I particularly enjoyed how it ended.

Even This Helps by Zoë Wells completes the anthology with a story of a late night shopping trip. The night sky is beautifully evoked, as is our place beneath it.

I could have flown through these stories had I not deliberately slowed down to consider how each affected me. With the variety of approaches to the subject of Night on offer there was more to chew over than may be expected in such a compact work.

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

Book Review: The Sound of It

Sound of It

“It was just that during one of the many moments when he was worrying about money, he started wondering if he could come up with a new entrepreneurial idea, something that was bound to work this time. Nothing came to mind, even though he spent a whole cup of tea thinking about it.”

The Sound of It, by Alison Jean Lester, tells a story of the complexity of relationships within a blended family. It is a love story involving two adults but complicated by their attitudes towards each other’s young children from previous marriages. Difficulties surface despite best intentions.

Jeremy is the widowed father of seven year old Ned and thirteen year old Tom. He dislikes the staidness of his name, wishing those he met, perhaps down the pub, could spontaneously start referring to him as Jez, or perhaps Jezza. Thanks to money he inherited from his late mother he has been able to dabble in various business ideas over the years, none of which have met with the success he desires.

Su is the divorced mother of sixteen year old Caoimhe (pronounced Kwee-vah). Su is a sound designer, mostly working with those who produce advertising jingles and need audio clips to represent a product or feeling. She meets Jeremy when they both go to have their old turntables repaired. When she learns he dislikes his name she starts referring to him as Jay, just one of the things he adores about her. He likes how she makes him feel about himself.

The book opens four months into their burgeoning relationship. The couple wish to move in together but neither’s house is big enough to comfortably accommodate their three children. They have therefore decided to build a new house in a field outside the city, designed by Jay and funded by his investments along with the money raised from the sales of their respective houses. Su will support them all while he manages the project. His plans are ambitious.

A month or so before this, the couple had met each other’s children. All had gone as well as could be hoped for. Su and Caoimhe were particularly drawn to young Ned and he soon accepted them as integral members of his family. The teenagers were more wary but did not cause undue issues for their parents.

Jeremy retains a long held aversion towards his father, Sandy, who lives close by and gets on well with Tom. Jeremy longs for Sandy’s admiration, something he believes his disabled brother, Richard, enjoyed before his life was irrevocably altered in a vicious attack. Sandy now cares for Richard and wishes to also be involved in Jeremy’s life.

Each of the key characters is introduced and developed skilfully. Alarm bells ring early over some of Jeremy’s thought processes but these remain equivocal for some time. Su is in love and happy to place her trust in him. Initially they share the details on all aspects of the house they are building. When Jeremy comes to realise that the budget available will not cover all the luxuries he has promised himself, he starts to keep secrets and tries to come up with a way to manage the growing debt himself.

Perhaps partly due to his experiences in childhood, Jeremy does not come across as an empathetic parent although he clearly cares for his boys. Su plugs a gap in the family when the children have problems that need resolving. She does not recognise that Jay is as much a child in need of guidance as his sons. Her implicit trust in him – in his attitude and abilities – makes what happens harder for her to bear.

Structured in three parts, the story unfolds across a mostly linear timeline. The family: meet, move into a rented house together, move into the new house. They grow closer and get used to each other’s proximity. Jeremy does his best to be Jay but cannot fully suppress his true nature.

The crisis, when it comes, is written with painful authenticity. There is no veering from the characters that have been so carefully crafted. Tension builds as the reader learns why certain threads were introduced along the way. Poignancy is tempered by the realism depicted, especially in how the adults truly feel for the children and how time can alter this. The youngsters have long been affected by actions over which they have no agency, adding disappointment and anger to the challenges they must deal with day to day.

Pacing is taut throughout but also well balanced. The story delves into difficult territory but never loses integrity. Each of the children add a new dimension to a tale, offering much to consider. The grandparents’ roles provide additional depth.

An engaging drama that explores parenting from a variety of angles, and how the true nature of individuals can be hidden but not excised. A reminder of the fragility of trust and the problems caused by selfishness and ego. A lingering read that I highly recommend.

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

Book Review: Ruth


“Are women born or are they made in the process of living as women?”

As a topic, gender transitioning can be a hot potato. Add to this my personal antipathy towards reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity and Ruth, by Guillem Viladot (translated by P. Louise Johnson), may not have been my first choice of book. When it arrived through my door I set it aside, considering whether I wished to risk reading a story I may not enjoy. In the end two things appealed: it is published by a press I respect for putting out works that differ from the cookie cutter mainstream; it is epistolary, a format which, when done well, can be eminently engaging.

The correspondence through which the tale is told is entirely one sided. A short prelude details how the writer met the recipient. There is no indication if the letters that follow are welcomed.

The eponymous Ruth was baptised Raül, the second child of parents wealthy enough to support her through art college and beyond, when she worked as a sculptor. From a young age Ruth preferred the company of girls to boys. She wished to dress like them, something that appalled her mother.

“Because mother’s carry and give birth to their children, they seem to think they have the right to treat them as their property”

In order to become physically what Ruth believes she has always been, medical intervention is desired. When examined she is declared intersex – she has an underdeveloped penis but the smooth, hairless skin of a female. It is her wish to undergo surgery to remove the unwanted appendage and attain a vagina. She takes medication that causes her breasts to grow and seeks out sex as the female she presents as.

“my whole raison d’être is reduced to coitus”

The letters detail her encounters with men and women, describing explicitly their kisses, caresses and penetrations. There is a great deal of sex leading to multiple orgasms. Given the subject being explored this offered a degree of exploration into what it means to be a man or a woman. There is also the emotional difficulty of living in a body that does not fully reflect one’s identity.

Although Ruth’s mother is brutally callous in her reaction to her child’s gender transition, the sister is supportive, as are various friends including lovers. One of these, a young man Ruth enjoys her first sexual relations with, warns her when she falls in love with another.

“your emotional attachment is likely to be more complex because your femininity originates in the rejection of your male nature rather than in the affirmation of a natural femaleness”

Ruth proves quick to anger when challenged yet appears to avoid many of the more hurtful encounters that may, sadly, be expected. When her penis is discovered by potential lovers it is mostly regarded with fascination. The medical professionals who treat her are supportive and admiring of her superficial beauty. Ruth writes in vivid detail of her complex thoughts and experiences, exhibiting and describing body parts that are more often kept private. Her looks and those of others appear to matter to her more than less facile attributes.

A fascinating work of fiction offering much to consider on an issue currently garnering heated debate. Not always a pleasant read given its sexually graphic content but one it would be good to discuss with someone more directly knowledgeable. Whatever one’s views may be this is a poignantly challenging and lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa

Book Review: Malarkoi


This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is a sign of a progressive society that dissent is allowable – anything else is a form of homogeneity such as the inferior herd-minded and cattle-headed peoples are likely to accept”

Malarkoi is the second instalment in a proposed fantasy trilogy that began with Mordew. Although complex and detailed, the world Pheby built in the earlier book was presented at a surface level, the characters and their relationships to each other key. Now the author takes the reader deeper into the workings of the cities focusing on the powerful and what they hope to gain from manipulating underlings and the places they traverse.

Many characters return. The Master remains at Mordew, necessary as his power is largely derived from God’s corpse, which is still stored in the catacombs beneath the city. The Mistress is more fluid. Nathan’s mother plays a role of greater significance than before, although in offering further explanation as to how the world operates the reader will come to understand why she raised her son in the slums – and why her husband contracted lung worm. Nathan’s gang friends and those who pull their strings divide into groups, each granted their own quest.

The plot of Malarkoi brought to mind The Lord of the Rings. There is much journeying in which travellers face perils amidst beautiful surroundings that have been despoiled as those wielding power attempt to gain the upper hand. The death count is high. Few of the characters prove likable, other than the dogs.

“Loneliness is like a vacuum – it is an absence that draws anything and everything into it”

There are huge swathes of exposition as the author attempts to make clear the workings of the weft and those who manipulate it. The writing is more existential than previously, understandable for those familiar with Pheby’s body of work but not, perhaps, always so noticeable in fantasy. While I never felt lectured at, there was a definite message being conveyed.

The weft is centre stage and an interesting concept. Time is meaningless here. It passes, as time must, but it is possible for those with the power to move around in time and space, although this comes at a cost.

Events from Mordew are expanded and explained, given back story and then progressed. The reader is learning more details about this world and those who reside therein.

Then there is death. It happens, regularly, but what comes next may be better given the lives so many have no choice but to live. This message – obvious propaganda – enables the powerful to obtain willing sacrifices, necessary for their magic.

“Recognition is only the beginning of knowledge and is no substitute for comprehension”

How the Master controls his realm is also complex. Details provided are lengthy and still not entirely clear on first reading. Having said that, the story is meticulously plotted. Character development takes more of a back stage. The reader comes to understand why they act as they do but it is more challenging to empathise given choices made.

The details and intrigues make for somewhat slow reading in places as each thread is progressed separately. As is so often the case in fantasy, a being in possession of magical power is depicted as awe inspiring, able to overcome all obstacles, only for something to happen that appears to defeat or negate abilities.

Within these pages there are: mystical creatures, murder, resurrection, joyful interludes, unexpected dangers, friendship, and treachery.

Pheby depicts power in a depressingly realistic way. It may be used to hurt enemies. When enemies also have power the fallout on lesser beings is devoid of compassion, regarded as collateral damage. Bellow’s brother, Adam, tells a bedtime story that gets to the heart of this – how the general population can be lead so easily.

The dogs make a welcome return and play key roles. The epilogue on Sirius was more moving than what had gone before, and why this should be is explored. Appendices offer further detail on episodes gone before, intriguingly on an Assembly, mentioned briefly and perhaps a subject of the next instalment.

Mordew introduced Nathan Treeves, a boy with power the unleashing of which caused mighty change, not least to himself. Malarkoi makes Mordew look parochial in the wider world, although still relevant due to its storage of God’s corpse. The ‘religions’ described see heavens turn into hells. We learn why the Master and Mistress wish to defeat each other and how they plan to do so. There are several gods but it is the weftlings who take centre stage here.

“the past is always gone, and one must find happiness where one may”

With one more instalment still to go, not all questions are answered. It is clear that there will be outside forces to contend with, but the roles given to the weft population – few of whom seem to entirely disappear even when killed – will be of interest.

Any Cop?: This sort of deep diving fantasy fiction offers more on each perusal, drawing in readers eager to discuss the layers and conspiracies. I suspect that in future years, when Cities of the Weft has become the classic it deserves to be, there will be plenty of aficionados with views and theories the author himself may not have considered apposite.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Disobedient Women

disobedient women

“Just because the party you support is not in power doesn’t mean democracy is failing”

Disobedient Women, by Sangeeta Mulay, is set in contemporary India. In many ways it is an uncomfortable read, focusing as it does on how women are treated in what is still a staunchly patriarchal society. Although now working in London, the author was born in Pune where the novel is set. This gives her uncompromising writing style authenticity.

The story opens in a hospital where a middle aged woman, Aparna, is undergoing a forensic medical examination following her rape. The timeline then shifts back four months. Aparna is in a police station attempting to register a complaint against a Hindu Godman accused of sexually harassing a young woman.

“He promised to change the gender of her foetus using black magic,” Aparna said in a tight voice. “In return for sexual favours.”

The policemen fear the Godman’s supernatural powers and refuse to take down the details. The women are regarded as trouble makers because they will not quietly accept the domestic lives men wish them to live, demanding rights for themselves. By making a fuss, complaining about how they are being treated, any trouble they suffer is blamed on their behaviour.

Aparna is married to Manish and they have a teenage daughter, Naseem. Although concerned about the attention she draws for her outspoken campaigning against religious bigotry and superstition, Aparna’s family mostly support what is obviously important to her. The recent change in government – from secular to Hindu – is causing increasing difficulties. Aparna’s promotion of rationality and atheism through the blog and periodical she writes for leads to attempts to silence her and her supporters through the courts – and by more violent means.

The second part of the book introduces a family who wish the country to return to more traditional, Hindu values. Vijay raises his son, Hari, to believe the increasing westernisation of India goes against their culture and should be suppressed. Hari takes much of what he is taught on board, although remains hypocritical when it comes to satisfying his sexual desires. He accepts the marriage arranged for him but has little interest in his wife, Lata, other than as someone who serves his needs and makes homelife comfortable for him.

“The marriage was consummated on the first night itself. By now, Hari had become adept in deriving sexual gratification from a woman. The thought that the woman deserved some did not even cross his mind.”

Lata and Hari soon have a baby, a daughter they name Kashi. Hari remains indifferent to the child, believing his role is to protect her until he eventually hands her over to a husband. As the grows, Kashi observes how her mother is treated. When she learns there are other ways of thinking, other ways in which women may live, she turns against her upbringing. To solve this problem her parents plan to arrange her marriage as soon as is legally permitted.

Hari becomes aware of Aparna’s campaigning and sets out to silence her. Manish fears for his wife’s safety. His friends and wider family blame her for not being more compliant. The law may claim to offer protection but society still expects women to submissively accept the role they have long been assigned.

In refusing to remain quietly at home, Aparna is made to feel guilty for the shame she is accused of bringing down on her family. Naseem in particular struggles with her mother’s refusal to stay silent about her rape. Manish tries to support his wife but then turns elsewhere, encouraged by friends who find Aparna too strident and uncompromising.

“My views are clear as always. I don’t have a problem with those who quietly practise their faith. My problem is with the misuse of faith. The minute your belief tramples on the human rights of others, it’s a no from me.”

This is a disturbing window into life in India and the damage wrought by religious intolerance and patriarchal thinking. It is hard to see how life for women will be improved while any who demand change face the opprobrium of society and law makers rather than protection from violent extremists.

A tense and fascinating debut from a strong, new voice in fiction. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

Book Review: The Sandstone City

Sandstone City

When The Sandstone City, by Elaine Canning, was offered to me for review I expected it to be just the sort of story I enjoy. The author lived and was educated in Belfast, as I was, before moving away to pursue a life and career elsewhere. This background led me to believe she would understand her subject matter, that she would appreciate and be capable of articulating the guilt instilled by an Irish family on those who dare to flee the nest. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how disturbing I would find the supernatural elements of her debut. The family featured are capable of physically following their offspring from beyond the grave.

The story opens in an inner city estate house in contemporary Belfast. Eighty-eight year old Michael Doherty has recently died and his family are preparing to bury him. In the scenario imagined, the dead man can hear what is being said about him as his body lies in the open coffin, family and neighbours passing through to pay their respects. He is particularly concerned about his youngest grandchild, Sarah, who is using the religious period of Lent as an excuse to starve herself in an attempt to ward of guilt. She has not shared with anyone the source of her pain, although the reader is made aware it is to do with a young man in Spain who may or may not be dead, something for which she blames herself.

Sarah had moved to Spain for study and work. She was based in Salamanca, a city that held memories for her grandfather, ones he has never shared with his family. His wife, Annie, was aware that before they met he had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Michael had struggled to settle during their early years of marriage, eventually leaving her with their young children to work away from home. When he eventually returned she accepted his past with few questions, although did banish him to a separate bedroom.

Despite this, the family are portrayed as close – to each other and to their neighbours in the estate. When Sarah moves away she is expected to ring home regularly as well as returning for visits. She seems to accept this, telling small lies in her updates when she wishes to keep aspects of her new life private. Despite being dead, Michael sees that she is now hurting and wants to help. He is granted permission to call up ghosts from his past and haunt her into investigating the secrets he kept, something he believes will encourage her to confront whatever it is she is avoiding.

The unfolding story sees Sarah first frightened and confused by the messengers but then curious about what is being revealed about her grandfather. Despite this curiosity, she appears reluctant to learn anything about his past that could change her perception of an old man she was close to. This reluctance slows the pace. Michael, observing her reactions, worries about what he is sharing. Still, he remains sure it is necessary if he is to help her.

Other than getting Sarah to travel back to Spain, and therefore deal with what she ran away from, I wasn’t convinced by her grandfather’s machinations. Of course, from a storytelling perspective they provided an interesting strand, but the structure chosen was strange and at times irritating. The way in which the dead were brought back was troubling as was the influence they were capable of exerting. Irish family ties may be powerful but patronising from beyond the grave takes this to a whole new level.

I mentioned that I found the pacing slow. This wasn’t helped by the need to work out without initial explanation the relevance of the various ghosts in Michael’s past life, and the reluctance of his family to acknowledge any history or behaviours that may not fit their carefully maintained narrative. The family may be loving and supportive, but members were required to behave in certain ways and not ask potentially awkward questions. Conformity mattered.

I was also confused by the character, Tommy – initially a McBride, then someone closer. Perhaps I missed something but, if so, using the same name didn’t help. Michael’s occasional interjections – his determination yet reluctance to open a past he had kept hidden – didn’t convince in terms of helping Sarah.

Michael’s experiences in Spain as well as Sarah’s are eventually revealed. I was left wondering why the big secrets could not be shared. For all the family is presented as an important anchor in their lives, if they cannot talk to each other about personal matters then such value is questionable. Certain threads remained unanswered, particularly why Michael left his young family and what he did during those years. Annie remained loyal, as a religious woman would, but at what cost?

Sadly this was a story that simply didn’t work for me. It happens, and I hope the book finds many more appreciative readers. Perhaps what I expected to appeal – the author’s background making me anticipate more shared attitudes towards family and upbringing – shadowed a story I struggled to engage with. That the dead could remain in the land of the living as anything other than memory, continuing to judge and exert influence, I find seriously unsettling.

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

Book Review: The Peckham Experiment

peckham experiment

“What had she imagined we would write, out there amidst the pigs and the peasants?”

The Peckham Experiment, by Guy Ware, tells the story of identical twin brothers, JJ and Charlie. Born in 1932 to parents who considered themselves communists, the boys were orphaned during the war. Their older sister took them in when they returned from their countryside evacuation, encouraging them to continue with their education. JJ became an architect, working for the local council to provide housing for the working classes. Charlie was a quantity surveyor at a company contracted to build these homes, replacing overcrowded inner city slum dwellings condemned as unfit for human habitation.

When the tale opens, eighty-five year old Charlie is trying to put together a eulogy for JJ whose funeral is the next day. As he reminisces about their long lives the reader learns of their political inclinations, how these weren’t enough to prevent their exemplary aims ending in failure. They wanted to provide decent accommodation for everyone as a right, alongside the post war years’ free education and health care. The modern tower blocks commissioned suffered structural defects and people died as a result.

Despite his apparent socialism, Charlie was something of a snob. When required to work on projects outside of London, he was disparaging of the regions. Even in the city he was wed to the particular area in the south-east where he grew up. JJ opts to live in one of the tower blocks he was responsible for having built, continuing to do so for as long as he was able, perhaps as a way of assuaging his guilt for signing off a design that proved flawed. The brothers were successful professionally but remained aware that some of the lucrative deals they accepted came with questionable backhanders.

What we have here then is a story of two brothers that mirrors the birth and death of the ideals of the welfare state. Conceived to provide for everyone, when everyone was pale skinned and recognisably local, it envisaged a future utopia for the ‘right sort’ of working class family. When the political landscape changed neither Charlie nor JJ could avoid facing the compromises they had accepted, and what these had cost. The vast increase in social housing stock was followed by right to buy, gentrification, and then privatisation. JJ reacted by withdrawing. For a time, he and Charlie lost touch.

“Life goes on. It isn’t heroism, isn’t even stoicism. Or commitment. It’s just brute fact.”

The writing style captures the voice of an elderly man whose body may be failing him but who is not yet ready to join his dead brother. They may have been identical twins but were also individuals. In telling their story the reader is reminded that socialism in Britain has always been multifaceted. The interweaving of countrywide and family politics is masterfully done.

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

Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain

lost rainforests

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“In England, trees grow where people have not prevented them”

Britain was once a rainforest nation. Large swathes of the western edges – up to one fifth of the total land mass – used to be covered in temperate rainforest. Small pockets still remain but even these are under threat. Industrial farming practices, invasive species such as rhododendron, and man’s thoughtless squandering of his life support system for short-term pleasure or gain all wreak destruction on habitats that have value beyond financial considerations. Sadly, few pay attention.

“this great forgetting that we once had rainforests is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves. It points to a phenomenon that ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: society’s ability to grow accustomed to environmental losses.”

In 2020 Guy Shrubsole moved from London to Devon. Here he discovered that Dartmoor, his new local area, still contained fragments of an important ecosystem he had previously been unaware existed. This book documents the investigation he undertook to find and attempt to map Britain’s lost rainforests, and to work out what would need to be done to bring at least some of them back again.

“The biblical story of the Fall – that we once lived in paradise, but lost it due to our sins – remains a powerful narrative”

The opening chapter introduces the reader to what a temperate rainforest is. Here, and throughout the book, a great deal of detail is included about the unusual plant species supported when they are left alone to flourish. This naming and explaining slowed the unfolding narrative but proved necessary if the extensive value of this habitat is to be understood. Man too quickly considers value as monetary when it is becoming increasingly clear that nature offers more important health benefits, both physical and mental.

“A visit to a rainforest feels to me like going into a cathedral. Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of translucent leaves, picking out the arches of tree trunks with their halos of moss. They’re places that at once teem with life, and yet have a sepulchral stillness to them.”

As the quest progresses there is mention of the cultural significance of these ancient forests – the myths passed down through history and the inspiration provided for more modern writers. Both Conan Doyle and Tolkien wove the awe and mystery of the rainforest environment into their most famous stories.

The medicinal properties to be derived from certain plants therein are, somewhat worryingly, being recognised by those whose interest may not be entirely wholesome.

“The old-man’s beard lichen contains usnic acid, which is considered more effective than penicillin against some bacteria. We’ve only just touched on the capacity of these organisms. One recent review of the pharmaceutical properties of lichens concluded they represent ‘an untapped source of biological activities of industrial importance”

If rainforests are to be protected and allowed to regenerate, the public need to be made aware of them. This raises the potential problem of increasing visitor numbers to small and fragile woodlands. Support is needed but also protection. It is, after all, possible to love a fabulous place to death.

As well as exploring Dartmoor, the author visits fragments of rainforests in the Lake District, across Wales and then Scotland. These areas suffer similar problems. Vast tracts of former rainforest have been ‘sheepwrecked’. Scotland especially is plagued by increasing numbers of deer introduced by wealthy landowners who regard shooting the creatures as a fun activity. In trying to curb numbers of these damaging grazers, advocates of rewilding – often incomers – have clashed with the local community, especially farmers. For rainforests to flourish there needs to be both funding and collaboration.

“The truth is that there is more than enough space in Wales, as there is in the rest of Britain, both for farming to continue and for more rainforests to flourish. But it needs to be a different type of farming: fewer sheep, a shift to cattle and swine, and more space for nature to thrive on the least productive land.”

The unfolding chapters set out how land use constantly changes over time, offering hope that nature can heal if shielded from potential damage and then left to do so. There is also a degree of despair that man too often looks out only for personal gain in the short term. Wider issues are so rarely understood or listened to.

Dormant rainforest returns if conditions are conducive. This means minimal management, not the mass tree planting that introduces nursery raised, non native woodland prone to diseases. Allowing plants to return is only a part of the story. Successful rewilding also requires birdlife and mammals, including predators. Although controversial in certain circles, a compelling case for this is included.

“what we fail to perceive, we often fail to protect”

It is fascinating to consider that Britain could support an ecosystem as important as the Amazon – if the will were there to do at home what many have campaigned for in Brazil. Shrubsole makes a compelling case for how this may be achieved, although points out it would require long term thinking along with legal protections and landowner support. He writes with passion, providing detailed endnotes listing sources and references to scientific studies – a clarion call not to repeat mistakes made in the past.

Any Cop?: A timely and important reminder that intervention is required to protect and restore ecosystems necessary to support all life on earth. Rainforests may be just one piece of this puzzle, but the abundance of their benefits is made clear in this engagingly informative work.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Dislocations


“I find myself speaking in a void: there is no longer a home, no longer a before. Only an echo chamber.”

Dislocations, by Sylvia Molloy (translated by Jennifer Croft) is structured in short chapters, many less than a page in length. It documents moments, thoughts on interactions, between two long time friends. On most days the narrator, Molloy, will phone or visit M.L., who is living with dementia. In observing how a mind deteriorates their shared life becomes historical anecdotes that M.L. rarely remembers.

The period covered makes no mention of physical failings that can result from this condition. Neither is there violence or cruelty as sometimes manifests when social filters are lost. M.L. may not always recognise her visitor but retains decorum. The narrator questions why she sometimes attempts to get her friend to acknowledge a person or event – musing if this is for her benefit as she attempts to retain the person she has known for so long. There are still occasional flashes of comprehension but mostly the past is a lacuna to M.L.

There is poignancy in what is being documented but mostly Molloy is examining her personal reaction to this loss of shared memories, the loss of what her friend once was. M.L. is rarely portrayed as being upset by her condition. She functions within this new reality.

“I’m not writing to patch up holes and make people (or myself) think that there’s nothing to see here, but rather to bear witness to unintelligibilities and breaches and silences.”

A story of shared memory of lives lived, and the impact of its loss. Written with precision but also empathy, it offers another window into dementia and how it affects all who harbour affection for the patient.

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