Book Review: Yesterday

Yesterday, by Felicia Yap, is set in an alternative, contemporary world where memory is limited to the previous day (monos) or the day before that (duos). In order to function adults are required to keep diaries where they write down significant thoughts and events. If not written down and subsequently learnt, there can be no recollection of actions or feelings.

Duos consider themselves superior and hold the majority of the powerful and lucrative positions. Intermarriage between monos and duos is rare and frowned upon. As well as the perceived intellectual superiority, few duos are willing to risk creating a mono child.

Mark and Claire Evans defied this popular prejudice resulting in Mark, a duo from a wealthy family, being disinherited. Now a successful author and aspiring politician, he is risking his twenty year marriage to his mono wife by indulging in an affair. When his mistress is found dead in a nearby river he becomes a suspect in a potential murder investigation. The police must gather evidence quickly before ‘live’ memories are lost. People choose what they write in their diaries so the records will always be skewed and incomplete.

Chapters narrate events from a variety of points of view. Sophia has recently been released from a mental asylum after seventeen years and now seeks revenge on those she blames for her incarceration. Claire suffers from depression, is appalled by her husband’s behaviour, but does not believe he is a killer. Mark is fighting to salvage the career of his dreams but has much to hide, especially from his wife. Hans, the detective investigating the murder, has access to the dead woman’s diary but struggles to accept that what he is reading could be true.

To enjoy this story it is necessary to suspend belief, as is of course the case for many fictional tales. There have been a number of thrillers written recently which deal with the memory loss of a protagonist who then suffers manipulation from supposed loved ones. This story involves an entire population of amnesiacs. Readers must accept that the likes of doctors have somehow found a way to qualify and do their jobs in this environment, that it is possible to make certain facts integral to being.

Aspects of the plot brought to mind The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Fay Weldon). I also enjoyed the occasional news report or excerpt from official guidelines which helped to put into context this society’s habitual limitations.

The tight prose skips along apace. The issue of memory is fundamental – how each person curates their experiences and subsequently presents them, how identity is shaped. Initially I found the characters lacking in depth in a way that reminded me of my first impressions of Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). As the story progressed this was shown to be fitting. The population are forced to rely on the veracity of their own written words to work out who and what they are. I pondered if this is so very different to more common forms of memory curation.

Although it took me some time to fully engage, the story developed into a thought provoking tale. Issues explored would make it an ideal choice for a book group. This was an enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: School of Velocity

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin, is a story of music, love, and the abiding impact of close childhood friends. Told in the first person by fictional pianist Jan de Vries, it opens at a concert where he is struggling to hear the music he needs to play above the cacophony that pounds inside his head. Back in his apartment he packs a bag, not intending to return.

The reader is taken back to when Jan starts at his first arts school near his parents’ home in the Netherlands. Here he meets Dirk who proceeds to woo Jan’s girlfriend. Dirk is wild and dangerous, in thought and deed. The quiet and diligent young musician is lured inside the outrageous and confident boy’s web, and finds himself smitten.

Jan and Dirk become best friends, meeting after school and spending weekends together. As the school years pass they experiment with the pastimes many teenage boys brag of – alcohol, porn, drugs and sex. When they graduate they believe that glittering futures beckon. Although they will now continue their training in different countries, Jan is confident their closeness will endure.

Jan fills the gap created by Dirk’s absence with music, determined to fulfil his potential. Abroad Dirk becomes something of an enigma. When they meet again the balance of power has shifted, although Jan is unaware to what extent.

The writing is finely tuned and lyrical, presenting life with all its self-absorption and contradictions. Jan regards Dirk only in relation to himself, never considering the impact others have had along the way.

Jan’s development as a pianist is beautifully portrayed offering appreciation of the emotional depths music can provide for both player and listener. This depth is also present in the subtlety and insights of the prose. The story is captivating, affecting, a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: Glass

Glass, by Alex Christofi, is a gentle, intelligent tale that, in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, could have slipped down the cracks of more typical, cheap humour. It is the story of one young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. The protagonist is propositioned by older women, observes what teenage boys get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms, worries about losing his virginity and then his subsequent performance; yet his musings never descend into the bawdy or salacious. They retain a subtlety that enables empathy; canny observations succinctly expressed.

Günter Glass is twenty-three years old when his mother dies, leaving him to cope alone with a brother who he mainly argues with and a father who has turned to drink. Günter has lost his job as a milkman and spends his days studying Wikipedia in an attempt to further his education. It is here that he reads about a businessman who received an OBE for services to the Queen as her appointed window cleaner. He decides that this could be the career for him.

Günter’s grief following his mother’s death takes him to Salisbury Cathedral where he meets Dean Angela Winterbottom, a lady in need of a worker with a head for heights. It is she who is telling Günter’s story, following his death. Alongside the narrative are occasional footnotes which add a further layer of droll quirkiness to the tale.

Günter’s adventures as a window cleaner lead him into a number of regrettable, sometimes dangerous, situations. After being featured in the local newspaper he is offered a job in London where he shares a flat with an eccentric aspiring writer. Their conversations are sometimes bizarre but also piquant. Günter is aware of his lack of social skills and is trying to teach himself to fit in. His interactions make for amusing if somewhat poignant reading.

The story is told with wit and wisdom. Günter is overweight and regarded by many, including his father, as lacking basic intelligence. He may struggle to empathise with those he interacts with but he recognises the contradictions by which they live.

“It was so hard to act in the world without indirectly harming someone else, or contributing to the net misery brought about wherever humanity flourished. One couldn’t buy from fast-food shops, because they were cruel to chickens, exploited their workers and deforested the Amazon to farm cows, which in turn contributed to global warming with their imperfect digestion. One couldn’t buy cheap clothes because they would have been made in a sweatshop, but expensive clothes played into the hands of the fashion world, which peddled insecurity as their stock in trade. Besides, cotton was too often grown and wasted on T-shirts that were never bought, and fair trade only served to elevate a few lucky landowners. And if you were rich enough to be buying everything fair trade, you probably had one of those jobs that creates inequality in the first place.”

Günter mulls the workings of the world as he wades through each day. He may appear fat, foolish and difficult yet his thoughts demonstrate an acute if blinkered awareness. The Dean adds her own nuggets of wisdom.

“There is a story in the bible (Judges 12:6) in which two tribes are at war. In one tribe, people pronounce a word ‘shibboleth’; in the other ‘sibbolet’. They use this to identify the enemy, and to kill them, little realising the real tragedy that this is the sum total of their difference.”

Günter knows that he should eat fewer delicious waffles, a food his mother offered him, and partake in more frequent exercise. He decides to cycle to work and to visit his lady friend, pondering why people choose to go out running when they have nowhere to be. The Dean’s comment on this thought is typically pithy.

“Sisyphus was a (non-Biblical) king who tried to cheat death and was punished by being made to exercise constantly; truly, a modern parable.”

Although entertaining and engaging the joy of reading this tale was the understated depth and intelligent humour in the telling. Günter is a man derided, largely ignored and misunderstood, who does his own share of misunderstanding even those close to him.

The denouement is fitting, despite its poignancy. An impressive debut and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Don’t Cry

This post was written for and originally published on Bookmunch

Don’t Cry is a collection of ten short stories that explore the complexity of human interactions and the concerns these cause. It took me some time to connect with the voices of the narrators. The serrated edge of the prose in the first three tales grated as the subject of sex was granted seemingly unnecessary importance within the context of each plot. Although character driven I struggled to empathise with the varied casts being created. Their predicaments evoked desolation and lacked the percipience to draw me in.

By the fourth story, ‘The Agonized Face’, the prose began to resonate. A reread was required to fully appreciate but I could now enjoy the warp and weft of the author’s words. I had found that important reader connection with her style. ‘Mirrorball’ impressed for its experimental approach to the differing impacts of a one night stand on a boy and a girl. The souls taken and discarded neatly encapsulate the nuance of sexual encounters and their lasting significance, however casually approached. ‘Today I’m Yours’ explores the relationship between an author and an editor over many years as they move in and out of each other’s lives. Early in her career the author ‘fantasized about the social identity that might be mine if the book were to succeed’. The story follows the creation and maintenance of this identity, and how it changes the private person underneath.

“Sometimes it seemed to me an empty life, but that wasn’t really true. It wasn’t empty; it was more that the people and events in it were difficult to put together in any way that felt whole.”

‘The Little Boy’ looks at family and their loss of connection over time. It opens with an elderly mother returning from a visit to her grown up daughter. She thinks through her changing relationship with each of her children, feeling sanguine about where they are with each other now despite obvious irritations. In an airport waiting room she observes a young mother’s negative reaction to her child’s lively behaviour and attempts to offer understanding. She has experience of lasting resentments growing from such minutiae.

The stories present the underlying loneliness of never being fully understood alongside both sympathetic and caustic internal reactions to others. War veterans recognise the difficulties faced by fellow survivors yet judge harshly their observed behaviours. Prejudices remain despite understanding the personal cost of conflict of all kinds

The final story, ‘Don’t Cry’, is set in Ethiopia where two middle aged American women wish to adopt a child. Themes of privilege, guilt and grief run alongside the violence of poverty. Moments of hopelessness are transformed into anecdotal entertainment when subsequently recounted. There is an expectation that pain will be internalised, that to cry is to make a fuss when always someone else is worse off.

Any Cop?: Despite my initial antipathy, these stories were enjoyed for their varied and succinct insights. The author offers a jagged understanding of life powerfully presented within contexts that affirm the stoicism of survival.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: We that are young

We that are young, by Preti Taneja, is a fabulous reworking of King Lear. Having enjoyed a number of adaptations of this Shakespearean tragedy on stage I was familiar with the direction the arc of the story was likely to take. This did not in any way detract from my enjoyment. The book is big in size, scope and depth. The action is set in modern India and offers a masterclass in the country, its people, and the stubborness and hurt inherent in wider family feuds.

The tale opens with the return of a son, Jivan, banished to America with his mother when he was thirteen years old. Prior to this he had been one of five young playmates, although as the child of his father’s mistress had never been permitted full integration into the privileged lives of his friends. His half brother, Jeet, and he grew up alongside the three daughters of a hugely wealthy businessman, Devraj, who is also Jeet’s godfather. The girls – clever Gargi, beautiful Radha, and baby Sita – have in the intervening years grown into outwardly dutiful and obedient women.

Jivan returns on the cusp of change. The oppulent farm where the family now live is being prepared for Sita’s engagement celebrations. As Jivan is shown around, a lunch is taking place that will be the catalyst to Devraj’s ruination.

Economic growth has enabled India to consider itself a world player and with this has come a clash of cultures. Despite the quality and beauty of local products there is a hankering after western labels. Colour and vibrancy are being toned down, flesh exposed in imported attire. Women desire more freedom and opportunity than tradition permits.

Devraj demands that his daughters regularly demonstrate love and respect for him, in word and deed. When Sita unexpectedly refuses to conform he attempts to punish her by passing on the share of the business he had selected for her, his favourite, to her sisters. Gargi and Radha watch as he reacts to their little sister’s rebellion, envious of her courage but afraid of its effects. They fear their father may be going mad and determine to save the business for themselves.

The story is told from the points of view of each of the five former playmates, with occasional chapters in Devraj’s voice. Their’s is a life of excess, abuse and thwarted desire. When Jeet chooses to leave the farm the reader is offered a snapshot of the lives of India’s untouchables, a contrast that is shocking and telling. Those who grow up in comfort will struggle to understand the psychological effects of poverty, the cost of survival.

Devraj strives for a new India yet fights any attempt by his daughters to embrace change, to relinquish stifling traditions. This generational divide is all too familiar. Elders are eager to force the rules of their upbringing on their children, unappreciative of the differing challenges they must face in an evolving world.

The writing is stunning, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of the region, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the corruption and striving for a better way of life at all levels. Turns of phrase deserve to be savoured, imagery basked in. The story is labyrinthian and should not be rushed.

Although a literary feast this is also a highly readable story. It remains engaging, tense and compelling throughout, despite knowing how it must end. I wanted to applaud that last line, the author deserves all the commendations. Recommended without reservation.

 

If you wish to purchase the cool black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The same words, bound in orange, are also available from discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.

 

 

Book Review: Flesh of the Peach

“If I owned a horse, I feel like I would ride it until it dropped from exhaustian under me,’ Maud said […] ‘I wouldn’t stop until it had given me everything and taken me far further than it could.”

Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory, is a story of grief, selfishness, and the lasting damage caused by damaged people. The protagonist is Sarah Browne, a twenty-seven year old aspiring artist who, when the story opens, has been rejected by her married lover on the day she discovers her estranged mother has finally died. Raised in a chaotic household of women, where attention was rare and often caustic, she escaped to London as a teenager and then on to New York, a city she now chooses to leave.

Sarah decides to use her newly acquired inheritance to start again, to move to a cabin in New Mexico where she hopes to find the space to consider what she can now be. She takes with her just a few possessions, including a new yellow sundress, but also decades of emotional baggage that she has worked to suppress.

“She placed the newly purchased dress so that it lay across the bed in a pool like sunshine. […] She was going to dress from now on for a beautiful life. Keep saying those words to yourself. It sounds naive but that is one way to choose to exist. As a polished stone skipped across the harshness of things.”

Sarah’s wish is that she be the best possible version of herself, which is the most that any can aspire to be.

There follows a roadtrip in a Greyhound bus, a stay in a soulless motel, and then a drive to her late mother’s cabin retreat in the Southern Rockies. Here she meets a neighbour, Theo, and they embark on an ill-fated affair.

There are flashbacks to Sarah’s childhood in Cornwall. The isolation of the cabin unsettles her equilibrium. Theo falls in love with this young woman whose pressure cooked emotions demand release.

Despite the foreboding atmosphere the writing remains lyrical, the imagery painting both sensation and location. Sarah is delicate and fierce, owning her needs without apology, a female willing to reject societal expectation.

The final quarter of the book lost some of the coherancy which had held together preceding chapters. Nevertheless, the quality of the prose ensured engagement was retained. The denouement was unexpected yet once read could be regarded as inevitable. Disquieting but pure pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

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